More cougars can be harvested this year, despite strong opposition

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SALT LAKE CITY, Utah (ABC4 News) – The Board of the Division of Wildlife Resources unanimously approved a proposal to increase the number of cougar hunting permits Thursday afternoon, but the debate was met with strong opposition.

The DWR says the big cat is doing very well in the state of Utah but those who oppose the increase say it is cruel and harmful to the species.

“The division recommendations are not informed by the best available science,” said Sundays Hunt with the Humane Society. 

While another speaker said, “most Utahns do not approve of cougar hunting.”

Those, among several other reasons against the proposal, were brought up by over 20 speakers at a meeting Thursday morning in the Department of Natural Resources headquarters.

The DWR proposed increasing the number of permits for cougar hunting this coming year to 522, 30 more than last year and 60 more than the year before.  

They say last years harvest was 371 cougars with 45% of permits being filled.  They said the harvest total was 394 cougars last year compared to 372 cougars in 2015.  

The division said their recommendation was science based.  Their metrics and data based on data collected of cougars in the state, and with the help of a Cougar Advisory Board that held several meetings to come up with a cougar plan.

One important thing the division says they track is the proportion of females to males.  If too many females are harvested it can affect the reproduction of the population and because of that their plan is to maintain less than 40% of the harvest being female.  They say since 2008, they have remained below the 40% mark.

They also track the age structure of the animal.  They saw 40% of the harvest last year being 5 years or older indicating to them that the cougar had a strong adult population statewide.  It showed that a lot of the animals were making it to the next year.

The division also tracks boundary changes and livestock depredation.  They say the increase in permits could help decrease the number of livestock killed which nearly doubled in the last year.

“Incidents went from 34 to 60. It almost doubled indicating to us that we have a little bit more population growth in the areas,” says  Division of Wildlife Resources Mammals Coordinator Leslie McFarlane.

She warns however, that the increase should not be seen as an increase across the board but a culmination where some areas have seen more of an increase, particularly in areas where there happens to be more livestock.  An example would be in the southern and central parts of the state.  The recommendations take that into account and increase or decrease based on the region.  

Those incidents can get expensive for the division.  Last year they paid out $148,000 for livestock depredation.  $68,000 of which were due to cougar attacks, the other half due to bears.  The amount paid last year for cougar attacks was up by $20,000 from the previous year.  

Opponents say killing more cougars isn’t a solution as it disrupts the animals social structure and survival.

“The constant chaos from trophy hunting not only disrupts breeding but it also affects the kittens who are prone to starvation, dehydration and exposure,” says Hunt. 

They believe there are other areas the board can focus their efforts on than killing more cougars such as looking at habitat loss and disease.

Hunt adds, “These recommendations allow an unmitigated slaughter of a slow-to-reproduce-top-level native carnivore.”

Opponents say trophy hunting serves no purpose and create chaos among the animal.  The more adults that are killed the more younger cougars are left in charge of the herd.  They say that can spell disaster that jeopardizes not only cougars, but people, and livestock.

“They’re typically inexperienced hunters and more likely to go after an easy kill like unprotected livestock,” says Hunt.

 Those opposed also say the recommendations  aren’t  backed by the most the latest science or research and would like to see more studies done on population size before the Board decide on the proposal. 

“Biologist repeatedly warn that the state permits far too much hunting,” says Hunt. 

“There’s a belief that the population estimates are too high,” said Cameron Carpenter a Utahn who was in favor of fair representation.   “Leslile said there’s a really healthy adult population statewide but is there science to back that up?  Is that opinion or is there fact or science or actual data? And if there is, is that data available to the public?”

McFarlane says the cougars are reclusive and secretive animals and is difficult to get an accurate number for population size.  She says cougars can’t be surveyed or monitored as well like other animals.  That is why, she says,  they look at the harvest — as stated above — to get a good prediction of the current population.

The group also presented the Board with over 90,000 petitions from the US and around the world in strong opposition of the proposal.  

But not everyone in the room was opposed – although they made up a greater portion of the people who spoke up.

Regional Director for the Elk Foundation of Utah, Bill Christensen, said he has never seen such great diversity in the wildlife in our state.  He says he appreciated the science and research the DWR has used in making their recommendation and says that predators like all other wildlife species need to be managed.

“In the 30 years I’ve been involved in wildlife I’ve never seen such diversity and education. Congratulations to each and everyone one of you, you have provide a space so we can stand here and argue about whether to kill two more lions or three or more less.”

He says he recalls a time as a boy where there were no rules or regulations and cougars could be shot on the spot.  He says he appreciated the recommendation and said the Elk Foundation strongly supported the proposal as well.

After over 2 hours of discussion, commentary and questions the Board unanimously voted to pass the proposal to increase the number of permits for next year.

To learn more about the rule changes click here.

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