SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4) — Wildlife conservation groups are challenging a controversial Utah law that removed hunting bag limits on mountain lions, arguing that it could lead to the eradication of the big cats in the Beehive State in a matter of years.

The Salt Lake City-based nonprofit Western Wildlife Conservancy and the California-based Mountain Lion Foundation brought the lawsuit this week, urging the Third Judicial District Court to declare HB 469 unconstitutional for failing to preserve mountain lions under the “right to fish and hunt” in the state’s constitution.

The Utah Legislature passed House Bill 469 on the last day of the 2022 legislative session. The Western Wildlife Conservancy said it was “blind sided” by the move, as the law not only removed the bag limit for mountain lions, it also extended the hunting season from seven months to year-round, allowed the use of snares for trapping, and lessened the permit required to hunt the elusive cats.

The law went into effect in May.

“With this hastily written and ill-conceived law in place, it opens up the door for every mountain lion in Utah to be killed,” said R. Brent Lyles, executive director of the Mountain Lion Foundation, in a news release Wednesday.

Without more robust hunting regulations in place, the lawsuit argues, Utah’s mountain lion population could whither under the effects of HB 469, shrinking the number of big cats to “near extirpation” in as little as three years.

Faith Heaton Jolley, a spokesperson for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, which is listed as a defendant in the lawsuit along with the Utah Department of Natural Resources, said that under HB 469 mountain lions are still classified as protected wildlife and require a hunting or combined license to hunt.

“Any harvested cougars are required to be checked in to a DWR office or to a DWR employee within 48 hours of harvest,” she said in a statement.

“Our biologists are monitoring harvest rates under the new regulations to determine the effects of this new hunting strategy,” she added. “If it is determined that additional regulations are needed, those recommendations would be proposed and would be open to public comment.”

Because of the ongoing litigation, Jolley said, the DWR could not provide any additional comment.

When HB 469 passed in the legislature last year, some hunters spoke out against it. One such outdoorsman was Corey Huntsman, president of the Utah Houndsmen Association.

“We have not had a change this radical in the wildlife management of any species in Utah in 56 years,” he told Field & Stream in March, adding that he believes the current data show that the number of cougars are already declining in Utah.

The most recent mountain lion hunt report in Utah shows that 667 cats were harvested in the state between 2020-2021, before hunting restrictions were loosened.

According to the lawsuit, that yearly harvest figure was roughly a third of Utah’s total mountain lion population, which the plaintiffs say is estimated to be around 2,000 cats.