With virtually no discussion, the Utah Legislature on Wednesday passed a bill that would radically alter the rules around cougar hunting.
If Gov. Spencer Cox signs HB469 into law, it will be open season on mountain lions 365 days a year. No tags required, just a hunting license.
Critics from both hunting and predator conservation groups are calling on him to veto the bill, which mostly contains features these groups support.
“This bill is scientifically uninformed and ethically fraught,” said Kirk Robinson of the Western Wildlife Conservancy in an email. “It will accomplish no demonstrable good but will instead cause much pointless death and suffering as well as serious damage to ecosystem structure and functioning. In so doing, it will violate the public trust and will demonstrate to the nation and the world that Utah insists on remaining stubbornly trapped in an unenlightened worldview a century out of date.”
Sen. Scott Sandall, R-Tremonton, added a line about cougar hunting on the Senate floor Wednesday, along with other adjustments to the bill initially sponsored by Rep. Casey Snider, R-Paradise.
“We see that we’re getting an increase in our cougar numbers across the state,” Sandall, a Box Elder County rancher, explained during the floor debate. “We have a program in place. This replaces the program for harvesting cougars and allows Cougars to be taken year round with a hunting license.”
He offered nothing more to justify jettisoning the carefully crafted cougar management plan that has guided its permit system for years, which was created by the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources (DWR).
Other than a joke about whether anyone consulted Brigham Young University, home of the Cougars sports teams, Sandall’s Senate colleagues were silent on the proposed lion-hunting provision. But it is no laughing matter, according to Robinson.
“Utah consistently kills more of its cougars each year than almost every other state,” he said. “If this bill becomes law, it is quite certain that a great many more cougars will be killed each year.”
Utah hunters killed 667 lions in 2021.
The original bill had nothing to say about lion hunting, but rather it offered changes to wildlife-related statutes having to do with use of trail cameras, outfitters and guides who are convicted of hunting violations and, most significantly, land acquisitions to ensure public access and protect habitat.
Snider agreed Sandall’s substitute is “a big shift” in cougar policy, but he went along with it because the rest of the bill would do much to serve Utahns who enjoy the outdoors.
“All legislation is give and take,” Snider said in a text. “The most important part of the bill to me is the fund that will allow the division [of Wildlife Resources] to have a long-term viable funding source to procure parcels that all the public can enjoy for hunting and fishing.”
Only Republicans in either house voted against HB469. Some conservative lawmakers objected to the bill’s call for DWR to buy private land, especially in a state where most land is already public.
DWR has long restricted cougar hunting, issuing limited numbers of tags tailored for each of the state’s hunting units. In recent years, the agency has been increasing the cougar harvest issues in response to concerns the big cats are taking a heavy toll on mule deer.
Denise Peterson of the Utah Mountain Lion Conservation disputed Sandall’s justification for removing cougar from Utah’s class of protected wildlife that includes bears, deer, elk and turkeys.
“They don’t have an exact population estimate on lions and we’ve had some of the heaviest hunting seasons since HB125 was passed [in 2020]. [Cougar] numbers are going down,” Peterson said in a text. DWR “has literally no tangible evidence that numbers are up across the state.”
HB125 instructed DWR to increase bear and lion quotas in areas where mule deer numbers are flagging.
“Recent studies on select mule deer populations have indicated that cougars can cause deer populations to fail to meet management objectives, and increased harvest of cougars on those units has correlated with an increase in adult doe survival and growing population numbers of deer,” said DWR spokeswoman Faith Heaton Jolley.
Over the past decade, cougar numbers have increased, although they have declined in some units, she added.
Available evidence indicates cougar numbers currently going down, however, not up as Sandall claimed, according to the Utah Houndsmen Association, which represents hunters who stalk cougars and bears using dogs. The group will also seek the bill’s veto.
DWR’s current system for managing cougars is working and ensures opportunities for sportsmen to harvest a lion, according to association member Cory Huntsman, who was blindsided by the bill.
”It also creates a predator-prey balance. Lions are needed in the ecosystem. Where this is going to throw that off, it’s going to take opportunity away from sportsmen,” Huntsman said. “The big concern, though, is how legislators have circumvented the public process that’s been in place. It’s not perfect, but it’s a good process where you can have your voice heard. For a lot of these changes, there’s committees and working groups in place to discuss it with experts in each area.”
Under the bill, which takes effect May 3, cougars would remain a protected wildlife species, which would enable Utah ranchers to continue receiving compensation for livestock killed by lions.
”We are working to review the language of [HB469] to determine the impact on our rules and processes,” Jolley said. “We will work with our partners in the Legislature, our public process and the Utah Wildlife Board to update our management and rules accordingly.”
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