The Utah Division of Wildlife Resources Board will consider a new cougar management plan next week, but it’s not sitting well with some big-cat advocates.
With the new plan, state officials will start taking populations of mule deer and bighorn sheep into account when they decide how many cougars hunters can harvest. It’s part of the Utah DWR’s efforts to take a holistic approach in wildlife management. But the new method flies in the face of the best wildlife science, according to the Humane Society of the U.S.
“There’s this mythology that if you hammer part of the predator population, you’ll get more prey populations, but that’s not the case,” said Wendy Keefover, the Denver-based native carnivore protection manager for the Humane Society. “The most important thing for deer populations is to have access to adequate nutrition.”
Climate change, invasive species, human development, habitat fragmentation and competition with livestock herds have become the key factors in dipping deer numbers. It means ungulates can’t find enough to forage. And while hunting remains popular in Utah, the Humane Society wants to raise awareness about the need to protect all animals in the wild.
“I think a lot of people are really upset about Cecil the African lion that was baited and lured out of a park by a trophy hunter. But the same thing happens in Utah. There are a lot of Cecil the lions in Utah,” she said. “People don’t kill mountain lions to eat them, it’s to display their body parts. I think we need to really take a look at how we’re managing these very rare, precious animals on our landscape.”
Flushing out the best science
The science on cougar behavior has flourished over the past 17 years, and Keefover pointed to numerous studies showing cougars have little to no affect on some deer populations’ ability to rebound.
The draft management plan even cites a New Mexico study conducted in 1996, noting “that cougar predation was the major cause of mortality in mule deer but that habitat quality was the critical limiting factor.”
The study found that even when deer populations were low but habitat was good, “cougar predation did not prevent the deer population from increasing.”
But Leslie McFarlane, game mammals coordinator for Utah DWR, explained that with managing mountain lions, her division must consider a plethora of interests. The plan is designed with an ecosystem-wide approach. It considers many species, including humans.
Piecing together the ’ecosystem picture’
“The overall goal of the plan is to make sure we have a sustainable population of cougars in balance with human uses and concerns, livestock uses and concerns, prey populations and other species of wildlife,” she said, “and also to protect the sport of hunting.”
In certain management units, where deer populations aren’t rebounding or the state wants to protect bighorn sheep, McFarlane said Utah DWR would consider increasing the number of mountain lion permits issued to hunters. But predators are only one aspect of the plan.
“We’re also doing habitat restoration and all these other things,” she said. “We’re not punishing a predator, it’s a piece of the puzzle in the whole ecosystem picture.”
Keefover countered that eliminating cougars disrupts ecosystems, too. Hunters tend to seek out big male cats, she said, and eliminating dominant males throws off the animals’ social structure.
“You get an influx of sub-adult males who eat the kittens from the previous male, and sometimes they kill the females, too,” she said. “So there’s lots of indirect mortality that comes as a result of sport-hunting cougars.”
Those younger males moving in tend to be more impulsive and less experienced hunters. They’re more likely to target livestock herds.
“Older, more stable populations are far less likely to get into conflicts,” Keefover said. “A lot of this is not intuitive, and cougars are hard to study because they’re so cryptic, but radio-collar technology has really changed everything.”
Finding a well-balanced big-cat approach
David Stoner is a Utah State University researcher who’s heavily involved in mountain lion studies in the state. He served as a scientific adviser for the cougar management plan.
“The Humane Society had some reasonable criticisms, but the management plan is meant to guide cougar management in a holistic sense,” he said. “Cougars are not simply animals, there’s a cost to having them in our wildlife communities.”
He said studies have shown that removing predators has “highly variable” effects on game populations.
“In other words, the deer herd or prey population can increase with fewer predators, assuming predation is the limiting factor,” he said. “But conversely, if habitat is the limiting factor and the habitat is saturated, predator control is not likely to have a strong effect.”
Cougars are elusive, so it’s hard for the state to estimate the total mountain lion population and what they’re doing. But Utah DWR biologists collect data on animals’ age and sex from hunter harvests and combine it with radio-collar information to monitor the species.
Stoner said there’s not necessarily a reason to be concerned about cougar populations in Utah.
“Concern is in the eye of the beholder, like so many things,” he said. “Population varies from year to year, but the total distribution has been constant.”
Concerned about cougars?
The Utah Wildlife Board will discuss the draft Utah Cougar Management Plan at its meeting starting at 9 a.m. Aug. 27, 2015 at the the Department of Natural Resources Auditorium, 1594 W. North Temple, Salt Lake City, Utah. Meetings are open to the public.
The cougar population and range has even expanded over the past 100 years because of the state’s efforts to manage the cats. Until 1967, cougar hunts were unlimited and unmanaged.
“We had a lot of concerns over what it does to our cougar population … if it’s unregulated,” McFarlane said. “So we started selling licenses and permits to protect them.”
Since 1979, the state has funded several research projects to ensure mountain lion numbers stay viable statewide. McFarlane said the Humane Society’s claim that Utah DWR didn’t consider the best science in the cougar management plan is unfounded.
“A lot of the science has been done here in Utah,” she said. “We have over 30 years of managing species, and we’ve maintained viable and sustainable populations, so I can’t agree with that statement at all.”
Both McFarlane and Stoner said Utah DWR consulted a range of interests when drafting the new plan, including “non-consumptive,” non-hunting interests such as conservation groups.
“There is a democracy in wildlife management, and wildlife management is not purely based on just a scientific criterion, like anything in our society,” Stoner said. “The plan is ultimately a compromise among different stakeholder groups.”
With incidents like Cecil the African lion’s death, international attention has turned to the place of wildlife in a modern world dominated by humans. And as human attitudes about wildlife shift, Stoner said he’s not surprised to hear more objections to plans targeting predators.
“Wildlife management has historically been focused on agricultural and hunting interests, but those interests are diminishing,” he said. “American society is becoming more urban and less rural, so the value systems are changing.”