Utah wildlife officials are once again turning up the heat on the state’s cougars, claiming that killing predators will shore up flagging numbers of mule deer and bighorn sheep.
Drawing stiff rebukes from wildlife advocates, the Wildlife Board on Thursday approved a plan to increase quotas in many hunting places and lift quotas altogether and allow cougar hunting year-round in areas where deer and sheep numbers are not meeting population targets.
“Our goal is to maintain a healthy cougar population within the current distribution of the species across Utah, while also considering human safety, damages to livestock producers and declines in populations of big game species that cougars prey on,” said Division of Wildlife Resources’ game mammals coordinator Darren DeBloois.
But there is little scientific evidence supporting this idea, according to Kirk Robinson, executive director of the Western Wildlife Conservancy.
“I never hear anybody offer any science that justifies killing so many cougars,” Robinson told the board. “Carnivore numbers will track the numbers of the ungulates prey base if you let them do it. Sure, there’s going to be a bit of a lag, but it can be done. Instead, it looks like we’re in for a perpetual war on cougars.”
He noted the number of cougars taken has sharply increased in recent years and now far exceeds the big harvests of the mid-1990s. Last year, hunters killed 650 cougars.
“This is unacceptable. This is not science [and] has nothing whatsoever to do with ethics. It does not respect the opinions of the people of Utah that you’re supposed to serve. Everything is wrong with it,” Robinson said. “Don’t tell me it’s all science-based when you can’t cite any peer-reviewed, published studies to support any of this stuff.”
Several speakers noted that mule deer populations are likely struggling from the drought, loss of habitat and collisions with vehicles. Predators belong on the landscape and play an important role in removing sick and weak deer from the gene pool, they said.
Sundays Hunt of the Humane Society offered new survey results showing strong majorities of Utah voters oppose hunting cougars for the sake of protecting big game. The results are based on surveys of 900 voters taken on Aug. 4 and 5.
DWR’s latest push to increase cougar harvests did not originate with the agency charged with managing Utah wildlife, but with the Legislature. Last year, lawmakers passed HB125, which mandated DWR to reduce predator populations in hunting units where big game numbers are not meeting population targets and predators are “playing a significant role” in declines in deer and bighorn sheep.
The program has guardrails to ensure cougars aren’t being killed pointlessly, explained DeBloois in a recently posted video.
“Predation has to be a key factor keeping the prey populations from growing. Second, deer populations have to have abundant quality habitat, something biologists refer to as carrying capacity,” DeBloois said. “Third, control efforts to reduce predator populations have to be sufficient to yield results, so they need to be aggressive and we need to remove a significant number of predators in the area in order to see results. Those efforts need to be focused in geographical areas.”
DWR concluded predator management plans are needed in 33 of the state’s 53 hunting units. In those units, there is no limit on the number of cougars that can be killed and the season is year-round. Hunters are allowed a maximum of two cougar kills a year.
Utah’s general cougar season normally runs Nov. 3 to June 30, while limited-entry season runs Nov. 3 to Feb. 20. Meanwhile, the agency has opened a “spot-and-stalk” season from Aug. 1 to Dec. 31. Those permits can be purchased for $30 over the counter.
Since 2014, Utah has pushed down its cougar population to 1,600 adults, according to DWR. Over the prior three years, hunters have taken 1,756 cougars. Forty percent were female and 17% were over the age of 5, which is exactly in line with DWR’s objectives for the cougar hunt.
Although the Wildlife Board has steadily increased cougar permits since at least 2017, Providence sheep rancher Sierra Nelson pleaded for more, claiming cougars are taking a toll on Utah livestock.
“For every time that you’ve ‘majestically seen a lion running through a field,’” Nelson said, quoting comments made by a previous speaker who enjoys seeing cougars, “you’ve never watched them rip something apart, not just an animal, but your livelihood and your being.”
One board member proposed a prohibition on shooting cougars wearing GPS tracking collars. Brigham Young and Utah State universities are conducting cougar research using these collars to track the animals’ movements. Their findings could inform DWR the extent to which cougars prey on big game and livestock, but collared cats sometimes wind up in a hunter’s crosshairs and the researchers have to recover the collar and put it on another lion.
According to DWR, collars are currently on more than 50 cougars. At least, 10 collared cats have been shot in recent years. The proposed prohibition of killing these animals drew pushback from the Utah Woolgrowers Association, which Nelson heads.
“The association is partnered in this lion study both financially, but also in the fact that we’re feeding the cougars that you’re studying, a lot,” she said. “If there is a depredating cougar, it needs to be removed at some point, whether it’s collard or not. I understand how hard it is to go up there and chase down a lion and collar it.”
Twice she has shot mountain lions suspected of messing with her sheep.
“I’m going to be honest, one of them was collared and when it fell out of the tree and had the collar on it, I almost died,” Nelson said. “But it is what it is, and the spot I took it from was right where sheep are all summer and it had been depredating on them. I’d go back and I’d do it again.”
The Wildlife Board settled on a compromise and approved a prohibition on using dogs to harvest collared cougars. That protection does not extend to lions suspected of killing sheep and cattle.