Kirk Robinson: Bill to allow more cougar hunting is pointless and cruel

Don’t blame cougars for the fact that deer are losing habitat to humans.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) A female mountain lion after being captured by scientists in the Oquirrh Mountains in 2011.

Utah state Rep. Casey Snider and state Sen. Scott Sandall sponsored a bill this legislative session with the innocuous-sounding title “Wildlife Related Amendments.” HB469 is 20 pages long. Sneakily buried within it is a single line that turns the bill into a Trojan Horse.

Under the provisions of this bill, a resident who is 12 years or older would be able to buy a license authorizing him or her, subject to rules and regulations established by the Wildlife Board, to “hunt or trap cougar during a period beginning on January 1 and ending on December 31″

This differs from existing law by not requiring a cougar permit, by allowing trapping and by turning the entire year into cougar killing season.

Of course, it’s all subject to the rules and regulations set by the Utah Wildlife Board, which rules and regulations are subject to change every year. In this connection, it is worth noting that the seven-member Wildlife Board is manned (literally) solely by middle-aged to elderly white men who are all hunters and/or livestock producers. So it has always been.

Since the establishment of the Wildlife Board about three decades ago, all members have been white men with interests in hunting and/or livestock, save two women, one of whom was a bullet manufacturer and trophy hunter. Furthermore, membership does not require education in any branch of the biological or wildlife sciences. All it requires is “expertise or experience” without setting criteria for what qualifies as genuine expertise – which in any case isn’t strictly required. This tells you whose interests the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources serves.

Importantly, the Utah Cougar Management Plan states, “The mission of the Division of Wildlife Resources is: Serve the people of Utah as trustee and guardian of the state’s wildlife.” HB469 violates the public trust by placing the interests of a select few citizens above the interests of the vast majority who will surely disapprove of it. So much for the public trust.

Utah consistently kills more cougars each year than almost every other state. The total sport kill starting with season 2015-16 through season 21-22 steadily rose: 372, 430, 452, 532, 596, 667, 753. No state has ever reported killing more cougars than this in a single season. For example, Montana, which has more mountain lions than Utah, killed 515 in 2020. In addition, dozens more cougars die from other human-caused mortality, including those killed for allegedly preying on livestock and those killed by cars. For Utah season 2021-2 this amounted to 78 additional known human-caused mortalities for a grand total of 831 dead cougars.

If there are roughly 2,500 cougars in Utah, as estimated by DWR, this means that Utah is now killing one third of its cougar population each year. This is 2.5 times as many as recommended by the world’s top cougar researchers based on research done in Washington and Colorado. And yet, if Gov.. Spencer Cox signs HB469, the percentage is almost certain to substantially exceed this and might approach 40% or even 50%. The natural social organization of cougar populations will be completely destroyed, which research has shown tends to cause various human-cougar conflicts, not prevent them. Oh, the irony!

Additionally, because HB469 authorizes trapping as a means of taking cougars, unless the Wildlife Board says otherwise, which is not likely, many will be painfully strangled to death by neck snares. Those that escape from foothold traps might be permanently maimed. Research in Nevada has shown that this happens quite frequently. In addition, a great many kittens will be orphaned, and so will die of predation or starvation. All to no good purpose. This is pure cruelty.

Are cougars destroying Utah deer herds? Emphatically: No! Several scientific studies have been conducted on how cougars affect deer numbers and none of them demonstrate that decimation of a cougar population will result in more deer. Utah deer herds suffer from drought and loss of winter range, not from predation. And the loss of winter range is due to a growing population of humans. It is irrational to punish cougars for this. In fact, fewer deer will naturally result in fewer cougars.

In short, this bill is both scientifically uninformed and ethically fraught. It will accomplish no demonstrable good but will instead cause much pointless death and suffering to beautiful, intelligent and emotionally alive creatures, as well as do serious damage to ecosystem structure and functioning. Humans do not, cannot, and should not try to substitute for the role of cougars in ecosystems.

Finally, if this bill becomes law, it will be a brazen violation of the public trust that DWR says it has a duty to serve. In so doing, it will demonstrate to the nation and the world what the vaunted “Utah way” amounts to – Utah: proudly and defiantly adhering to a set of values and an unenlightened worldview that are a century out of date. It is hard to believe that the director of the Division of Wildlife Resources, the guardian of the Utah public trust in wildlife, would allow himself to be complicit in this.

You can contact Gov. Cox to let him know what you think: https://governor.utah.gov/contact/

Kirk Robinson.

Kirk Robinson, Ph.D., Salt Lake City, is founder and executive director of Western Wildlife Conservancy.