Gov. Spencer Cox on Friday signed a wide-ranging wildlife bill that includes controversial provisions that open a year-round hunting season on cougars in Utah and allow the use of traps to kill the stealthy predator.
The cougar provisions were never part of HB469, sponsored by Rep. Casey Snider, R-Paradise, but were added on the legislative session’s 43rd day with no discussion or explanation other than the claim that cougar populations are rising despite significant increases in cougar deaths in recent years.
The amended bill drew rebukes from both hunting and wildlife groups, who see it as a repudiation of science and sound wildlife management to appease narrow political interests. The law makes Utah an outlier among Western states when it comes to cougar hunting.
“I wish Gov. Cox understood that killing more mountain lions will lead to more cougar problems, not less,” said R. Brent Lyles, executive director of the Mountain Lion Foundation. “HB469 is bad for ranchers, and it’s bad for public safety. And that’s on top of it being bad for Utah’s wild lands and natural resources.”
Cox had many other things to consider when he was deciding to sign the bill.
More importantly, from Snider’s perspective, his bill sets aside $1 million a year to acquire land to preserve it for wildlife habitat and hunter access under the direction of the Division of Wildlife Resources, or DWR. It creates the Wildlife Land and Water Acquisition Program, which will leverage federal grants to buy properties.
“For every dollar the state puts in, it is matched with three federal dollars,” Snider told colleagues while explaining the bill in committee. The federal money comes from the Pittman-Robertson tax imposed on ammunition.
He assured the Legislature that safeguards are already in place to ensure DWR gets the approval of county leaders and legislators before making a land acquisition. Nor is it allowed to pay above market value.
The land acquisition aspect of the bill garnered intense opposition from several conservative Republicans who don’t want to see a net loss of private land in Utah, especially land that supports agriculture.
“Why do we need to purchase more land with tax dollars for wildlife with 75% of Utah being public land already,” Beaver County Commissioner Brandon Yardley told lawmakers. “The land purchase would most likely be grazing land. We should be protecting that land, not purchasing and taking it away.”
Snider responded his bill does protect agricultural lands.
“The worst thing you can ever do if you want ag or grazing is create an opportunity for the last crop planted to be houses,” Snider said. “The parcels that we [acquire] through this program allow grazing to continue.”
The bill also bans the use of trail cameras on public lands from July 31 to Dec. 31, a window timed with hunting season. The purpose is to keep hunters from using the motion-triggered cameras to help bag big game, a practice viewed as cheating by many.
However, there are plenty of Utahs who use this equipment to enjoy wildlife without killing it. The new law would make it illegal for people to use trail camera on public land after July 31, with exceptions related to education, research and security.
HB469 also establishes rules for using air rifles in hunting and requires convictions for wildlife violations by guides and outfitters to be reported to the Division of Occupational and Professional Licensing, which could then take action against their licenses.
Other parts of the bill govern hunting seasons on private land participating in the state’s Cooperative Wildlife Management Unit (CWMU) program.
But it was the 11th-hour cougar-hunting provision, added on the Senate floor by Sen. Scott Sandall, R-Tremonton, that the bill will be remembered for. Starting May 3, according to the new law, any licensed hunter may shoot or trap cougars any day of the year, subject to regulations by the Utah Wildlife Board, upsetting a long-standing DWR’s program that establishes harvest quotas tailored to specific units.