Utah’s mountain lions could vanish in three years, lawsuit claims

State lawmakers approved a last-minute change to allow nearly unrestricted cougar trapping and hunting. Now conservation groups have sued.

Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune A 4-year-old female mountain lion slowly shakes off the effects of a sedative after researchers from Utah State University and the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources replaced her radio-collar afer being captured in the Oquirrh Mountains in 2011.

A controversial law allowing year-round mountain lion hunting and snaring in Utah now faces a challenge in court.

The Legislature added a provision to HB 469 at the eleventh hour of this year’s general session that strips most of the Division of Wildlife Resources’ ability to manage cougar hunts. Lawmakers had little explanation for the provision, which was tacked onto a bill mostly meant to fund wildlife habitat preservation. The change went into effect in May. Studies have found overhunting mountain lions can lead to increased conflicts with humans.

California-based Mountain Lion Foundation and Salt Lake City-based Western Wildlife Conservancy filed a complaint in Utah’s 3rd District Court Wednesday looking to overturn the legislation. The new cougar policy means DWR can no longer manage the animals for the public good, the lawsuit argues, a violation of the state’s constitution.

Unfettered hunting of the cats could lead to their extinction in Utah in as little as three years, the plaintiffs claim.

“Many Utahns were rightly appalled by this move and believe mountain lions should be awarded more protection, not less,” said Kirk Robinson, executive director of Western Wildlife Conservancy, in a news release. “Our lawsuit is a step toward that.”

The group claims it felt “blind-sided” by HB 469, which was amended with the cougar hunting provisions on the 43rd day of a 45-day session.

“The Conservancy is especially concerned,” it writes in the complaint, “that HB 469 permits the use of snares, an unethical, cruel form of killing that not only destroys the target species but countless non-target species as well.”

Mountain lions once occupied territories across North and South America. Alternatively called “pumas,” “cougars,” “catamounts” and “panthers” depending on the region, the animals have lost much of their natural habitat in the U.S. and now only exist in 15 Western states and parts of Florida.

Hunters tend to target larger, established trophy males, research has found, which causes more unruly teenage cats to vie for their territory, encroach on neighborhoods and prey on livestock.

The complaint names DWR, the Department of Natural Resources and the Utah Wildlife Board as defendants. In a statement, a DWR spokesperson said the state still classifies mountain lions as protected wildlife that require a license to hunt.

“Our biologists are monitoring harvest rates under the new regulations to determine the effects of this new hunting strategy,” the spokesperson wrote. “If it is determined that additional regulations are needed, those recommendations would be proposed and would be open to public comment.”

The division could not provide any additional comment on the litigation, the spokesperson added.

The lawsuit leans on the public’s “right to hunt and fish,” outlined in Article I, Section 30 of the Utah Constitution, in making its legal case for overturning HB 469.

“This provision has never been the subject of litigation before,” Jessica L. Blome, an attorney with Greenfire Law, said in the news release, “but the plain language is clear: preservation, regulation and conservation are intrinsically intertwined with the right to hunt.”