The Utah Division of Wildlife Resources is again proposing more cougar permits ahead of the fall hunt, despite concerns from conservation groups.
Division staff will present their recommendations to the state wildlife board on Aug. 31. They’re suggesting 579 cougar hunting permits for the year, compared to 531 last year. The reason for the increase, state biologists say, is because cougar populations continue to grow. Wildlife advocates, however, say the state’s methods are flawed.
“We think since about 2004, (cougar populations) have probably been growing by about 3 percent per year,” said Darren DeBloois, game mammals program coordinator for DWR.
There are no firm estimates on how many mountain lions live in Utah, since the animals are elusive and hard to track. DWR models suggest numbers between 1,900 and 4,000 adult animals. Authorizing hunters to potentially take 14 percent to 30 percent of the cougar population is unconscionable, conservationists say.
“This is concerning to us as scientists,” said Allison Jones with the Wild Utah Project. “It’s concerning to wildlife lovers, cougar lovers and environmental activists.”
Still, not every hunter issued a cougar permit is successful. During the 2015-16 season, state wildlife officials report hunters took 371 cougars. Last season, they killed 400.
Wildlife biologists calculate their quotas by collecting data from the cougars hunters kill. They’re required to submit their harvested cats, and biologists collect data on the animal’s age and sex.
“There are two management criteria — the percent of females in harvest, we want that to be below 40 percent,” DeBloois said. “The other thing we look at is how many animals are five years and older. That helps to ensure we have a good adult component.”
At least 15 percent of the cougars must be over five years old. Using those numbers, state biologists figure they’ll maintain a stable to growing population in Utah, Debloois said. Last season, 28 percent of Utah’s harvested cougars were female, and 23 percent were five years or older.
Wildlife conservationists, however, argue the state uses poor mountain lion logic.
“We’re not asking for much, we’re asking the division really strive to use best science in a determining what their population of cougars is in the state — they haven’t made a good stab at a population estimate for almost 20 years,” Jones said. “Recent methods by other states based on telemetry and less on hunter data are more robust.”
The DWR’s methods are based on the Utah Cougar Management Plan, most recently updated in 2015.
Kirk Robinson of the Western Wildlife Conservancy was one of two “non-consumptive” interests on the 16-member Utah Cougar Advisory Group consulted for the plan. The rest of the advisory group was comprised of hunters and farmers, along with two federal government representatives and one Utah State University researcher.
Both Robinson and the other non-consumptive representative objected to the harvest quotas in the plan.
“I don’t know how it’s possible to change their minds about anything, they’ve never really taken any of my recommendations seriously as far as I can tell,” Robinson said.
The Utah Cougar Management Plan has been revised three times. Robinson has been part of the advisory group during each revision, advocating for cougars nearly 30 years.
“My feeling is that they are not making an effort to seriously consider some of the most recent science, that they’re killing more cougars than they should, and they’re happy to do that,” he said.
Wildlife advocates like Robinson argue state biologists need to more closely consider mountain lions’ social structure.
Targeting too many older male cats means a surplus of younger, less experienced males. Those younger cougars are more likely to be impulsive, attacking livestock and meddling with humans. In a natural scenario, Robinson said, cougar populations control themselves.
“Where cougars are not hunted, the number one source of mortality of cougars is a situation where large males kill younger ones,” he said. “They regulate their own numbers. If prey the base goes down, say because of drought, then home ranges have to become bigger for a cougar to make a living.”
Utah DWR officials take both prey numbers and livestock predation into account when they set cougar quotas. This year, they counted 65 incidents of livestock being killed by mountain lions. Most of those kills are lamb or sheep, and the state pays ranchers for predator losses.
When it comes to prey animals, Deboois agreed that mountain lion numbers will often wax and wane depending on the number of deer in their range. They mostly protect for species like bighorn sheep.
“You’ll see lions key in on those, they figure out it’s a food source and specialize on just that one animal,” he said.
In other rugged areas of the state where biologists re-introduce bighorn sheep and populations of deer are low, wildlife officials will use cougar hunting as a protective measure, sometimes allowing hunters to take an unlimited number of cats. Success rates for hunters in these areas are typically low.
Mountain lion advocates say poaching and disease from domestic sheep are a much bigger threat to bighorn sheep.
The DWR, however, argues it must walk the line among a variety of interests, including hunters.
“In general, we feel like with targets we have, there is an opportunity for people who want to hunt lions without having a detrimental effect,” Deboois said. “We aren’t trying to help prey populations in all cases.”
Cougar hunting permits cost $58 for Utah residents and $258 for non-residents. Last year, the state received $216,484 in permits and fees for cougar hunting.
Robinson said state wildlife managers put too much weight on minority interests when it comes to cougars.
“I’m not really worried about the cougar population going extinct, but there are other considerations besides that,” he said. “Most people in Utah are not in favor of cougar hunting, that has been shown by research.”
Some of the research Robinson noted comes from a 2002 study published in the Wildlife Society Bulletin. In a survey of 901 Utahns, 48 percent of rural respondents approved of cougar hunting compared to 34 percent of urban dwellers.
Both urban and rural residents were particularly opposed to using hounds to hunt mountain lions — 54 percent of rural residents and 63 percent of urban residents disapproved of the practice.
The Humane Society of Utah cites the cruelty of cougar hunts in its opposition to DWR’s recommendaitons. In a letter submitted to the Utah Wildlife Board, HSU Utah director Sundays Hunt said using radio-collared dogs to tree cougars so hunters can shoot them is “unsporting, unethical and inhumane.” She notes the practice is dangerous to both dogs and cougar kittens. The letter also includes a long list of scientific arguments against the Utah cougar plan.
Although cougars remain controversial, Deboois said he sees a place for them in Utah.
“I think there’s an intrinsic value to them. A lot of people talk about that, just the knowledge that we have an animal like that up in the mountains,” he said. “I guess the good news is we do seem to be growing the population — it’s good news depending on who you are. But from our perspective, we’re trying to manage for a healthy, stable population.”
The Utah Wildlife Board will meet in Salt Lake City on Aug. 31 to vote on the cougar hunt recommendations. The meeting is open to the public. More information is available at www.wildlife.utah.gov/public_meetings.