Utah wildlife board to vote on increased cougar hunt quotas

Wednesday , August 31, 2016 - 2:02 PM2 comments

LEIA LARSEN, Standard-Examiner Staff

The Utah Wildlife Board is looking at upping the amount of cougar hunt permits, causing more rumble among conservationists. 

The Utah Division of Wildlife Resources is looking to bump the number of cougar permits to 522, an increase of 30 compared to last year and an increase of 60 compared to the year before. State wildlife officials say the cats are doing well in Utah. They also say an increase is necessary to help reduce livestock incidents, mostly in central parts of the state. Wildlife conservationists, however, say the state’s approach is misguided. 

“These recommendations allow an irresponsibly high number of hunting that threatens the survival of the species in our state,” said Sundays Hunt, Utah director of the Humane Society of the United States.

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What’s more, hunting cougars can actually cause more problems with livestock in the state, Hunt said.

“It increases livestock losses because it disrupts cougars’ social structure,” she said. “Stable adults are replaced with young males that are typically inexperienced hunters and more likely to go after unprotected kill, like livestock.”

This past season, ranchers reported 60 attacks from cougars on their animals. That’s 26 more incidents than the season before, but still around 50 fewer incidents compared to the 2003 peak. 

Also during this past season, hunters took 317 cougars — 41 more cats than last season. But Leslie McFarlane, game mammals coordinator for Utah DWR, said looking at cougar hunting from a statewide perspective distorts the picture.  

Wildlife officials divide Utah into five regions. Each region has around 10 to 15 units. Hunting permits are issued by unit. 

“You have to look at each unit individually,” McFarlane said.  “Some of (the cougar harvest increase) is in response to having several more cougars harvested in Southern Utah.”

That increase largely came from the weather. The south saw more snow this past season, and snow makes cougars easier to track.

On the other hand, much of the livestock conflicts came from units in Central Utah, near Manti, she said. Wildlife officials often work to specifically catch those problematic cats instead of just relying on hunters to knock down numbers.

“We go in and try to remove that animal that’s causing that specific depredation,” McFarlane said. “But if we’ve got what we feel is a bigger population of cougars, we can try to decrease the population in an area so you’re less likely to have an incident. There are two ways to look at it.”

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Predator issues can be expensive for the division, too. The state paid out $148,000 to ranchers for predator kills of sheep, cattle and goats. Over $68,000 went to cougar incidents compared to the $44,000 doled out for cougars last year. The rest of this year’s funds went to bear incidents.

Still, wildlife advocates argue cougar hunting is cruel and harmful to the population over the long term.

“These much valued, iconic cats are trophy hunted for sport, and then their bodies are displayed as decorations or symbols of the trophy hunter’s power,” Hunt said in an email to the Standard-Examiner. “Trophy hunters often seek the fittest animals, impoverishing the gene pool when these animals are removed.”

Beyond that, hunting can also leave kitten vulnerable to starvation and dehydration, Hunt said.

“Rare in their last remaining wild landscapes, mountain lions suffer from fluctuations in wild prey populations and competition from other wild native carnivores for limited prey,” she said. “Their lives are precarious already, even without the significant added element of trophy hunting pressures.”

Models estimate there are between 1,900 and 4,000 cougars in Utah, although wildlife officials have no way of honing down those numbers. Instead, division staff rely on hunters’ harvest data to get a grasp on how cougar populations are faring. The percentage of females taken must be 40 percent or less. At least 12 percent of the cougars must be over five years old.

“What we see right now, in the current statistics, is the total female take was only 30 percent, which is way below where you affect or impact cougar populations,” McFarlane said.

The Utah Division of Wildlife oversees two types of mountain lion hunts in the state. For limited entry, hunters enter a lottery for permits. Harvest objective permits are issued over the counter to anyone with a hunting license, but the hunt closes after a certain amount of cats is harvested.

To further break down the recommendations for the upcoming season, the division is looking to increase the harvest objective permits from 249 to 299. Limited entry permits would drop from 246 to 223. Three hunting units in Utah also have unlimited quotas in areas with populations of bighorn sheep. The division is looking at adding a fourth unlimited unit, in the San Juan area.

Permits cost $58 for Utah residents and $258 for non-residents.

The wildlife board will vote on the cougar recommendations during their Thursday, Sept. 1 meeting. It starts at 9 a.m. at the Department of Natural Resources building at 1594 W. North Temple in Salt Lake City.

Responding to the criticism that her division panders to hunters above other interests, McFarlane said they’re often the group wildlife officials hear from most.

“They’re very vocal and very good in coming to meetings and participating in the process. So yes, they do get a voice,” she said. “They provide a lot of the funding the agency uses. So of course, we have to listen to one of our main constituents.”

Contact Reporter Leia Larsen at 801-625-4289 or llarsen@standard.net. Follow her on Facebook.com/leiaoutside or on Twitter @LeiaLarsen.

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