SALT LAKE CITY — Utah Department of Wildlife Resources recently updated hunting restrictions for cougars in the state. In an effort to protect vulnerable big game populations, there is no longer a quota for hunting cougars in some areas of Utah.
Cougars become unlimited hunting game in Utah
The Wildlife Board approved a plan to increase quotas in many hunting areas and lift quotas on cougars altogether in others. Additionally, officials are making cougars year-round game in hopes of increasing numbers of mule deer and bighorn sheep.
DWR required to take action
The push to increase cougar harvests originated with the Utah Legislature and not Utah wildlife agencies. In 2020, lawmakers passed HB125, which mandates DWR to reduce predator populations in hunting areas where big game populations do not meet population targets.
Game Mammals Program Coordinator for DWR, Darren DeBloois, explained due to legislative changes the state requires action from UDWR in predator control. “[The Utah State Legislative changes] requires the division director to take immediate action to reduce predators when two things happen,” DeBloois said in the 2021-2022 cougar recommendations video.
“When big game populations are below management plan objectives and when they can determine predators are contributing to big game populations declining,” DeBloois said.
The board sought out more information in their meeting as to why cougar hunting should be a year-round sport. To which DeBloois said, “Our goal is to maintain a healthy cougar population within the current distribution of the species across Utah, while also considering human safety, damages to livestock producers and declines in populations of big game species that cougars prey on.”
One attendee, Kirk Robinson, the founder and director of Western Wildlife Conservancy, argued there is little to no scientific evidence of this being true.
“Perpetual war on cougars”
“I never hear anybody offer any science that justifies killing so many cougars,” Robinson told the board. “Carnivore numbers will track the numbers of the ungulates prey base if you let them do it. Sure, there’s going to be a bit of a lag, but it can be done. Instead, it looks like we’re in for a perpetual war on cougars.”
Robinson claimed the evidence the board had received from DeBloois is not factual evidence. “Don’t tell me it’s all science-based when you can’t cite any peer-reviewed, published studies to support any of this stuff,” Robinson said.
Several speakers at the meeting noted that declining big game populations are due to more than just cougars alone. Adrian Brown cited a study, published by Dr. John Laundré and Dr. Christopher M. Papouchis in 2020, stating, “Deer populations in the state where cougars are not hunted show no significant differences in density and abundance compared to deer populations in the state that allow cougar hunting.”
“Instead of targeting cougars and other predators to boost big game species, we need to address climate issues such as droughts, wildfires and habitat loss caused by urban expansion,” Brown said.
However, for people like Garrett Call, representing the Utah Farm Bureau, cougars can be damaging to their livestock. “These cougars can be very damaging to our livestock industry, particularly the sheep industry,” Call said.
Sierra Nelson, representing the Utah Wool Growers Association, agreed with the recommendation that cougars need to be managed in Utah. “When it comes down to it if there is a depredating cougar it needs to be removed.”
“For every time that you’ve majestically seen a lion running through a field, you’ve never watched them sit there and rip something apart. Not just an animal but your livelihood,” Nelson concluded.
Wildlife Board votes to increase and lift quotas on cougars
DeBloois explained in his cougar recommendations video, the cougar hunting program has guardrails to ensure the animals aren’t being killed pointlessly.
“Predation has to be a key factor keeping the prey populations from growing. Second, deer populations have to have abundant quality habitat, something biologists refer to as carrying capacity,” DeBloois said. “Third, control efforts to reduce predator populations have to be sufficient to yield results, so they need to be aggressive and we need to remove a significant number of predators in the area in order to see results. Those efforts need to be focused in geographical areas.”
The Wildlife Board decided predator management plans are needed in 33 of Utah’s 53 hunting areas. Within these hunting areas, there is no limit on the number of cougars that can be killed and the season is year-round. However, individual hunters are allowed a maximum of two cougar kills a year.
The Wildlife Board voted unanimously to approve this motion.
This article by Madeleine Porter was first published by KSL News Radio on 7 September 2021. Lead Image: Canva Images.
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