Bob Nicholson: Cougar trapping law is a black eye for Utah

Until now, Utah had tried to manage cougar populations in a humane and scientific manner.

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

A few days ago, Gov. Spencer Cox signed into law a bill with barbaric provisions for trapping cougars (plus other animals) with leg-hold traps and/or wire snares.

When I heard that the Legislature had passed the new law (HB469) which, among some good provisions, allows for cougar hunting and trapping with steel-jawed leghold traps and/or neck wire snares 365 days a year, I thought it had to be a mistake.

This trashes efforts by the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources to manage cougars in a humane and scientific manner. I thought that Utah, with its relatively enlightened populace, would not stand for this inhumane measure becoming law.

As I researched how this happened, I learned that the original bill was sound and had none of the repugnant trapping provisions. Near the very end of the session, when things in the Legislature are extremely busy and often chaotic, a representative from Tremonton slipped in the cougar-trapping provisions, which received no legislative hearing, no public input and was possibly passed by legislators not realizing that these provisions had been added.

It’s contrary to the DWR management program, opposed by many groups including hunters, conservationists and many animal welfare groups that believe in humane treatment of animals. I thought Cox would surely veto this bill, but he didn’t.

A couple of questions come to mind. Do cougars, or any other animal, deserve this type of cruel treatment? The DWR estimates that approximately 1% of livestock losses are due to cougars, a rather low number that should be an acceptable level of predation.

The cougar population is not increasing and, under prior state cougar management, the population of approximately 2,000 to 2,500 experiences an annual hunting mortality of about 33%. Those regulations were certainly containing the cougar population.

Besides the issue of predation, as citizens we should demand that hunting methods remain civilized. We sometimes think that Utah is a shining light on a hill, but reality sometimes says otherwise. While many other countries and most states have banned leg-hold traps, Utah has now endorsed its use. This means a caught animal, cougar or other animal, will die a slow and very painful death -- a death brought on by not being able to eat or drink, perhaps infection or otherwise. Cubs may die because their mother can’t free herself from the trap. In panic some animals attempt to chew off their trapped limbs.

I’ve heard it said that the true character of a people can be known by how they treat children and animals, if this law remains in place then it puts Utah in a very bad light. There are some possible solutions to this problem.

• A voter initiative (referendum) to place this issue on the public ballot. It is time- and labor-intensive to obtain the necessary signatures to get on the ballot. But if enough groups come together to organize a recall petition then it should be possible, as I understand.

• The Legislature repeals the trapping provisions in an upcoming session. However, politicians are probably the least likely people to admit a mistake.

• Wait for more enlightened state leaders to assume responsibility and repeal the repugnant provisions. This seems likely in the long-run, but it may take years and, in the meantime, much unnecessary suffering will occur on our watch.

An enlightened populace supports a humane coexistence with wildlife. In fact, one of the great things about Utah is our wildlife heritage. Let’s hope there are enough caring people to demand that wildlife management be done in a proper and humane way.

Bob Nicholson

Bob Nicholson has lived in Utah for 72 years, the last 38 of them in St George.