Life in cougar country: How Southern Utahns can coexist with a top predator

ST. GEORGE — Permitless, year-round cougar hunting and trapping will take effect Wednesday, May 3, as the change’s impacts remain unclear. With conservationists warning that more frequent mountain lion encounters may be on the horizon as a result, some Southern Utahns may wonder: How can humans coexist safely with these apex predators?

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

In March, Gov. Spencer Cox signed HB 469 into law, allowing those with a hunting license to hunt and trap cougars year-round — no permit required. While some restrictions will remain in place, it is unclear how the change will impact the state’s mountain lions, St. George News reported in a previous article.

Some conservationists say the change could increase human-puma conflicts. For instance, one 2013 study found that while depredation in Washington State was positively associated with human, livestock and cougar population sizes, “complaints and depredations were most strongly associated with cougars harvested the previous year,” increasing between 36-240%.

This could be due to increased young male immigration and cats experiencing social disruption, among other factors, according to the study.

When dominant males are killed, “things go haywire in the cougar population,” Western Wildlife Conservancy Executive Director Kirk Robinson said.

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

“As a result, you have more very young cougars that are not mature, that have no fixed home range and are not skilled hunters, and they don’t know what to do,” he said. “So, they’re out there wandering around, and quite often, they’re hungry — even starving.”

Inexperienced, motherless cats are especially likely to prey on easier targets, like raccoons, rabbits, livestock or pets, said Paige Munson, a state policy associate and field biologist at the Mountain Lion Foundation.

Currently, regulations disallowing the taking of mother cougars or their kittens are still in effect and the law’s impacts are being reviewed, Utah Division of Wildlife Resources Public Information Officer Faith Jolley told St. George News in March.

Living in cougar country 

In this file photo, a cougar hides among tree branches, date and location unspecified | Photo courtesy of the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, St. George News.

Mountain lion attacks are rare — a person is likelier to be struck by lightning. Robinson said mountain lions are shy, so cats following humans are likely curious, not hunting.

“If you’re being stalked by a cougar, you’ll never see it coming,” he said. “If a deer could see a cougar stalking it, then cougars would never be able to kill a deer.”

Denise Peterson, the Utah Mountain Lion Conservation founder, said there is “nothing scary about these animals.”

“It’s kind of like flying,” she said. “So we know that flying is safer, but it’s scarier because when something happens, it’s usually eye-catching — same with lions.”

With the proliferation of doorbell and security cameras, people are more likely to see mountain lions crossing through their properties, Peterson said.

While it’s not uncommon for cats to travel near neighborhoods, Peterson said it’s better if they don’t stay. To encourage cougars to move on, residents should bring pets inside at night, avoid feeding wildlife that could attract predators and install barriers over crawl spaces. Children and pets should be monitored outside, particularly at dawn and dusk.

Additionally, installing deterrents, like motion-activated lights or sprinklers, can spook pumas and discourage lingering, according to the Mountain Lion Foundation.

This file photo shows a mountain lion that invaded the window well of a Green Spring home in Washington, Utah, April 25, 2016 | Submitted image, St. George News

While living with predators can result in some losses, farmers and ranchers can utilize various strategies to limit their impact. Munson said that best practices in agricultural communities include installing fox lights and building night shelters for small livestock.

Ranchers and farmers can also utilize guardian dogs. Because cougars are cautious, they will avoid confronting a large canine, so the guardian’s presence, bark and appearance can reduce losses. According to the foundation, cats may remain in the area but are less likely to attack a guarded flock.

“A landscape where predators are allowed to persist and pursue their natural prey can have many benefits to agriculture producers, from reducing competition for forage to improving watershed retention by preventing the overgrazing of streams by deer and elk,” the nonprofit states. “Unlike shooting, trapping and poisoning, guardian dogs allow producers to benefit from a landscape occupied by predators while minimizing depredations.”

People are more likely to encounter mountain lions at dawn or dusk, and in areas frequented by mule deer, according to the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources. To prevent conflicts with cougars while recreating, individuals should avoid hiking or jogging alone, leave areas where dead animals are found, make noise to alert predators to their presence and be aware of their surroundings. When traveling in groups, everyone should stay together, including children and pets.

A cougar wanders through red desert, date and location unspecified | Photo courtesy of the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, St. George News

A person that comes face-to-face with a cougar should maintain eye contact, keep children and pets close, and make themselves appear larger by raising and waving their arms or clothing above their head, the division states. Because running could trigger the cat’s chase instincts, individuals should instead back away slowly, speaking firmly and loudly.

If attacked, the division emphasizes that people should fight back while protecting their heads and necks because “if you are aggressive enough, the cougar will probably flee.”

If a puma is seen once from a distance or on camera footage, it does not need to be reported. However, individuals should contact their local DWR office if a cougar has killed a neighborhood animal, is behaving aggressively or has been captured by security cameras multiple times.

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

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