How will year-round hunting and trapping impact Utah’s mountain lions?

ST. GEORGE — Year-round cougar hunting and trapping in Utah takes effect in May amid conservationists’ concerns about decreased populations, increased human-puma conflicts and harmed ecosystems.

A cougar stands on a rock, date and location unspecified | Stock image, St. George News

A new law, designated as HB 469 in the 2023 Utah legislative session, includes various amendments concerning land sales, trail cameras and other wildlife-related issues. The original bill made no changes regarding cougar management, but within the last few days of the session, Sen. Scott D. Sandall introduced language that removes permit requirements for taking mountain lions.

“We’re getting an increase in our cougar numbers across the state,” Sandall said. “We have a program in place; this replaces the program for harvesting cougars and allows cougars to be taken year-round with a hunting license.”

Previously, cougar pursuit season for most areas typically opened in November and closed at the end of May. Hunters were limited to taking two mountain lions, according to the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources Cougar Guidebook, and trapping cats was not allowed.

There was no other substantive discussion of the change, and the revised bill passed both houses. Gov. Spencer Cox signed it into law March 17 amid outcry from some conservation and hunting groups. It will go into effect May 3.

A cougar stares into the camera, date and location unspecified | Photo by Tammi Mild/iStock/Getty Images Plus, St. George News

Denise Peterson, founder of the Utah Mountain Lion Conservation, told St. George News she wasn’t concerned about the original bill until the new language was added “last minute, without the opportunity for public comment or feedback in any capacity. They just slipped it in there.” And she worries that lion management will be “based in bias” rather than science.

“The concern is that this takes the ability to properly manage mountain lions according to science and research by the (Utah Division of Wildlife Resources) — it takes that completely out of their hands,” she said. ” … It’s being dictated by politics and policies from people who don’t understand the biology of the animal.”

It was estimated in 2019 that there is a minimum of 2,000 cougars aged 2 years or older in Utah, Division of Wildlife Resources Public Information Officer Faith Jolley told St. George News. This number doesn’t include younger juveniles or kittens.

“There’s a good chance that populations are actually a lot higher than that,” she said.

Pumas are secretive, Jolley said. The division has partnered with Brigham Young University and others to track the cats using GPS collars to better understand their population size and distribution in the state.

However, it’s historically been difficult to estimate population numbers accurately.

A cougar hides among tree branches, date and location unspecified | Photo courtesy of the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, St. George News.

While the population may have increased over the last few decades due to conservation efforts, Peterson said their numbers could be declining, partly because the Utah State Legislature passed 2020’s HB 125, which increased the number of mountain lion permits granted to hunters.

“We’re already addressing concerns there about increasing numbers,” she said. “But just because you have any kind of growth in populations doesn’t mean that we’re being overrun with cats.”

Additionally, Jim Lamb, a habitat restoration biologist at the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, said he would be surprised if puma numbers were increasing, as drought conditions have reduced prey populations. When less food is available, mother cougars may become pregnant less often, birth fewer kittens or produce less milk for litters.

“Predator populations, in general, follow the same trend as their prey base,” he said. “If the prey population decreases, generally, the predator population decreases, also.”

The Utah Division of Wildlife Resources is working through details of how the law will be implemented, Jolley said.

A cougar sits on a snowy rock, date and location unspecified | Photo courtesy of the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, St. George News.

They are updating current cougar hunting rules to incorporate the new law. Then the plan will be presented to the Utah Wildlife Board, which may suggest additional changes.

While there will be no bag limits, the division will still require hunters to check in cougars they’ve killed with the division, which will use the data to determine harvest rates and better understand how the law impacts the species, Jolley said. Changes may be instituted as data is collected.

Jolley emphasized the cat will maintain its protected status and that, unlike coyotes or jack rabbits, additional regulations will come into play while managing them.

When the new law takes effect, the state’s current trapping regulations will apply to cougars, which includes snare use, Jolley said. However, these rules are also being reviewed.

Because hunting mountain lions is “really hard,” some conservationists are more concerned about trapping, particularly with snares. There aren’t many studies available for this use, as it isn’t widespread, said Paige Munson, a state policy associate and field biologist at the Mountain Lion Foundation. She described the practice as “antiquated.”

“We don’t know what that will look like for the population because it’s really rare for states to allow trapping, in general,” she said.

Snare traps are wire loops that are hidden along paths frequented by animals, Western Wildlife Conservancy Executive Director Kirk Robinson said. When caught, the noose tightens as the creature pulls against it, preventing its escape. These traps can cause animals to die of strangulation.

How will Utah’s cougars fare?

Two young cougars stand on vibrant, red stone, date and location unspecified | Photo courtesy of the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, St. George News.

Mountain lions, as a keystone species, have “big, rippling effects on everything they’re a part of,” Munson said, adding that reduced populations will impact both ecosystems and people.

While the full impact of the law is unclear, Munson said scientists can “generally predict what happens when you kill too many.” With no limitations, there “will certainly be overhunting.”

Cougars were extricated from much of their historical range and are at risk of overharvesting, especially with the addition of other factors, such as development and lower habitat connectivity, she said.

Lamb said the puma population will likely decrease without the former management strategy.

“Probably a lot more of them are going to die,” he said.

Mountain lion populations begin to decline once approximately 14% are killed, even with transient cats repopulating the state via migration, Robinson said.

Cougar and kits stand on rocks in the badlands, North Dakota, date unspecified | Photo by JohnPitcher/iStock/Getty Images Plus, St. George News

During the 2020-2021 hunting season, 667 were killed — about 33% of the minimum population estimate, according to 2021’s Utah Cougar Annual Report. Of these, of the 288 females taken, 26% were adults.

Pumas stay with their mothers until they’re mature and capable of hunting larger prey, Munson said, explaining that while they may look full-grown, it takes on average a year and a half for the kittens to gain independence.

When female cats are killed, Munson estimated that there is a 3-in-4 chance that she’ll leave kittens behind. Young, spotted kittens “are almost certainly going to die” of starvation or other causes.

If they are about a year old, their chances of survival are “more of a coin toss,” as they’re more often better hunters, especially if they live near an abundance of small prey, Munson said.

If their mothers are killed, it’ll be difficult for them to hunt large animals, like deer and elk, so they’ll often rely on small prey, like rabbits or raccoons.

In some cases, mountain lions will attack livestock or pets.

A cougar stands in a tree, date and location unspecified | Photo courtesy of the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, St. George News.

“If mom dies, then the kittens are left in a developed area and they can’t hunt deer, what’s left?” Munson asked.

Researchers found a correlation between cougar hunting and increased conflicts with humans due to an increase in the number of younger cats, Munson said.

However, prior regulations not included in the law will still be in effect, Jolley said. Hunters and trappers are not allowed to trap or kill kittens, mountain lions with kittens and those wearing GPS collars.

Cougar attacks are rare. In the last century, there have been an estimated 126 attacks in North America, with 27 of those being fatal. The mortality risk of bee stings, lightning strikes and snake bites is higher.

Cougars impact on ecosystems

Cougars impact their environments in various ways, and their presence on the landscape can encourage biodiversity, Munson said. For instance, assume an area is heavily populated with deer, not allowing for other species to thrive.

A cougar shown against a red desert backdrop, date and location unspecified | Photo courtesy of the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, St. George News.

Should mountain lions be introduced to that system and begin hunting deer, not only will their numbers be reduced, but they will be encouraged to migrate more frequently, making room on the landscape for other grazers and reducing stress on native plants, Munson said.

Additionally, as highly efficient hunters, mountain lions often create food sources for other predators, Munson said. The cats store carcasses to eat over a period of time, which are fed on by beetles, birds, foxes, bears and other species.

Munson said landscapes are more resilient when cougars are present and much of their impact won’t be seen until they’re gone.

One of the stated reasons to increase puma hunting is to reduce stress on mule deer, but according to a 2019 study, doing so may not have the intended effect.

Larger cats will often hunt bigger animals, like elk. However, human hunters prefer killing older male cougars, which could skew the population younger. These animals will typically seek smaller prey, such as mule deer.

In the early 20th century, the federal government conducted an experiment in the Grand Canyon on the Kaibab Plateau, Robinson said. To encourage growth in the area’s mule deer population, hunting was banned and predators were killed.

An adult cougar walks through snow, date and location unspecified | Photo courtesy of the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, St. George News.

Initially, the deer population exploded, but the land couldn’t support their numbers, and many starved, even after hunting was reallowed. The ecosystem itself was damaged during this process, reducing its carrying capacity.

“If the cougars and wolves had been there, they would have taken a certain number of those deer and that wouldn’t have happened,” Robinson said.

While Lamb said he hopes reducing the cougar population will increase mule deer numbers, other factors, such as drought, could have a bigger impact. The higher-than-average snowfall in northern Utah may be “more detrimental than any other single thing that we could list,” due to decreased foraging opportunities.

Those with opinions on the law contact their representatives, Peterson said.

“Stay in touch with them about it, because if they don’t hear from their constituents … maybe something worse will happen in the future,” she said.

Check out all of St. George News’ coverage of the 2023 Utah Legislature here.

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2023, all rights reserved.

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