Sundays Hunt: Bill to allow cougar trapping would upset natural balance

HB469 won’t just ‘manage’ cougars in Utah. It will exterminate them.

Utah has never exactly been a safe haven for cougars. In fact, hundreds of them are killed every year by trophy hunters here. But wording recently slipped into a seemingly innocuous state bill would turn Utah into a killing field for this carnivore species by allowing year-round trophy hunting and trapping of cougars by any resident or nonresident with a hunting license. Rushed through the Legislature, this bill now sits on Gov. Spencer Cox’s desk, awaiting his signature.

One would think that a bill with such dire implications would cause quite a commotion and it has — not merely from wildlife advocates but also from the hunting community.

The language expanding cougar hunting was added in an eleventh-hour amendment that was never heard before a committee and not subject to any input from the public. A seemingly innocuous bill was amended on the floor of the Senate and passed both chambers within two hours.

The recreational trapping of cougars has long been prohibited — and for good reason. Cougar trapping is inherently cruel and will undoubtedly result in the non-target captures of both wildlife and pets, including working dogs on our public lands. In fact, it’s so awful that only two other states (Texas and Nevada) permit trapping cougars. A year-round season will also harm dependent kittens, leaving them vulnerable to death from starvation, predation and exposure.

If Cox signs this legislation, HB469, cougars will be caught using strangling wire neck snares and painful steel-jawed leghold traps. Animals caught in leghold traps suffer from torn flesh, cut tendons and broken bones, among other injuries. Snares are typically designed to kill through strangulation, but the animal can suffer for days if the snare is incorrectly deployed or irregularly checked.

Hunters in Utah already kill more cougars every year than any other state. The levels of cougar hunting here have been documented by Utah’s cougar biologists as intemperate and unsustainable. In fact, were it not for new cougars coming into the state and a few refuges where hunting is not allowed, it’s likely there would be no Utah cougars at all.

In 2019, Utah’s Division of Wildlife Resources estimated the adult cougar population to be around 2,000 individuals. Yet 667 cougars were killed by trophy hunters in 2021 — a whopping 33% of the population. If trapping is added to the mix, it’s terrifying to think what impact that will have on Utah’s cougar population. HB469 won’t just “manage” cougars in Utah. It will exterminate them.

Cougars serve important ecological roles such as providing more carrion for other species than any other large carnivore, and they indirectly benefit beetles, foxes, birds and bears, thus enhancing biological diversity. A bill liberalizing the killing of this valuable species will have direct impacts on Utah’s ecosystem.

Apart from the harm this will cause to the cougar population and Utah’s ecosystems, increased killing will likely result in unintended consequences to Utah’s livestock producers, too (at least, until cougars are completely extirpated from the state). According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, only about 1% of cattle losses in Utah are from cougars. But random killing destabilizes cougars’ social structure, leading to more young and inexperienced cougars going into an area and potentially resorting to livestock as an easy meal.

Simply put, kill one resident male cougar, three inexperienced teenagers will show up to his funeral. HB469 blasts the door wide open to future conflict.

According to the Division of Wildlife Resources, “We want to pass along our wildlife heritage to future generations, and we want it to be in better shape than when it was passed to us.”

If that’s true, the division should line up with the rest of us against HB469, which not only undermines that sentiment but also the sound ethical and scientific principles that should undergird our state’s wildlife management.

Sundays Hunt | Humane Society of the United State

Sundays Hunt is the Utah state director for the Humane Society of the United States.