In hopes of reversing population declines in mule deer, Utah’s marquee wildlife species for hunting, some lawmakers are pushing legislation that would require the state to step up the targeting of black bears and mountain lions.

Sponsored by Rep. Carl Albrecht, R-Richfield, HB125 mandates the Division of Wildlife Resources to “take immediate action” to reduce those large predators, as well as automatically increase permits to hunt them, in any of Utah’s 30 wildlife management units where populations of big game species fall below desired levels.

Critics deride the measure as a counterproductive escalation of Utah’s war on predators. But many big game hunters fear the state’s treasured deer and elk herds are struggling in the face of three tough winters in a row; removing predators would allow more fawns to survive to adulthood and expand the pool of trophy bucks.

Bear and lion harvest numbers usually are reset in three-year cycles, but some Utah Wildlife Board members maintain that prevents DWR from taking swift action to address excessive numbers of predators or dwindling deer and elk herds.

Earlier this month, the board dispensed with DWR’s three-year bear plan and voted to increase annual permits by 12.5%, to 1,099, emphasizing four hunting units where deer are struggling the most: Book Cliffs, Boulder, Beaver and Chalk Creek.

The board was discussing changes in rules for pursuing bears when member Wade Heaton steered the subject to dwindling deer numbers.

While predation isn’t the sole reason for low deer numbers, Heaton and others believe it is playing a substantial role and DWR needs to act now. Despite incremental boosts in bear and cougar tags, populations of those species tripled in the past decade, Heaton said at that Jan. 7 Wildlife Board meeting.

About two-thirds of the deer born in the Book Cliffs last year died in the mouths of bears, lions and smaller predators, agency biologists told the board.

“If we are losing 70% of our fawns, which is our deer herd going forward, we are in trouble,” said chairman Byron Bateman, a past president of the Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife.

“The units with emergency permit changes have exhibited deer population declines of 15% or greater and have either already filled their harvest objective for cougar or are expected to, based upon previous harvest success,” DWR game mammals coordinator Darren DeBloois said. “Reductions in cougar populations on these units and at these levels can facilitate mule deer herd recovery while providing sustainable management of both predator and prey populations.”

Coyotes are already the subject of unrestricted hunting in a campaign in which the state pays a $50 bounty for each carcass turned in. About 10,000 coyotes are killed under that program, put in place under a 2012 law called the Mule Deer Protection Act, yet deer herds have not rebounded in many places.

That’s likely because the loss of winter habitat is the main factor driving deer numbers, said Kirk Robinson, executive director of the Western Wildlife Conservancy.

If HB125 becomes law, DWR would continue boosting bear and cougar tags for particular management units as long as the numbers of deer, elk and other wild ungulates remain below targets.

Such a move is unnecessary and diminishes — if not eliminates — the role of science and the voice of the public in managing wildlife, elevating a narrow special interest over everyone else, according to Robinson.

“This legislation would put big game management and predator management entirely in the hands of sportsmen’s and hunting groups,” he warned, “to the detriment of both ungulate species and individual predatory animals; to the detriment of healthy land and ecosystem processes; to the total disenfranchisement of the approximately 90% of citizens who do not hunt; and will be contrary to the public trust duty of the state.”

Bears and mountain lions play an important role in maintaining ecological balance. Removing them without a scientific justification could result in unintended consequences, he said, such as the spread of chronic wasting disease that has been cropping up among mule deer in eastern Utah.

Scientists suspect predators can remove sick animals from herds, thereby reducing the chances of transmission of communicable diseases through big game herds. Proponents of killing predators dismiss such assertions as unproven conjecture, but Robinson argues deer hunters should take the possibility seriously.

“Everything we know about evolution and biology indicates lions and wolves are going to key into animals that are easier and safer to kill,” he said, “that they will select [deer and elk afflicted with] chronic wasting disease.”

Forming an unexpected alliance with Robinson’s group and other conservation organizations in opposing HB125 and the Wildlife Board’s enthusiasm for increasing predator harvests are hunters who use dogs to pursue black bears and mountain lions. Although they enjoy stalking predators, these hunters don’t want to see bear and lion harvest quotas raised without reference to maintaining healthy populations of these apex predators, according to Tyler Farr, president of the Utah Houndsmen Association.

He worries that HB125 would replace science in predator management with arbitrary triggers connected with prey populations.

“The political people will have all the say and it doesn’t matter what the science says. They are throwing the three-year plans out the window,” Farr said. “If an area does need to have more tags, we are able to do that. This bill takes the public’s voice out and silences the biologists whose job it is to manage predators.”

He contends big game hunters enjoy undue deference in wildlife management because of the money they bring to DWR, which has already increased predator harvest objectives to their highest levels in recent years.

“They are going to wipe out lions and bears because of a problem with deer,” Farr said. “Lions and bears are not the problem. There is more to it.”

Correction: Feb. 3, 9:45 a.m. • The legislative measure in this story is HB125. An earlier version gave an incorrect bill number.