With static harvests, Utah sticks to new status quo for cougar hunting, but advocates express concerns

ST. GEORGE The Utah Division of Wildlife Resources reports little change for cougars since the new hunting rules went into effect last year, but some mountain lion advocates still have concerns.

In this file photo, a cougar leaps in the desert, location and date not specified | Photo courtesy of the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, St. George News

Last May, Sen. Scott D. Sandall introduced language to a bill, designated as HB 469 in the 2023 Utah legislative session, that removed permit requirements for hunting mountain lions.

The alteration was made late in the session in a bill that previously had no similar wording. The bill previously contained various wildlife-related amendments concerning land sales, trail cameras and others.

The law passed and went into effect last May.

Denise Peterson, the Utah Mountain Lion Conservation’s founder, told St. George News last year the last-minute addition of this language didn’t allow an “opportunity for public comment or feedback in any capacity. They just slipped it in there.”

A cougar rests in the dirt, location and date not specified | Photo courtesy of Denise Peterson/@explorewildmedia, St. George News

Before the law passed, trapping was disallowed, and cougar pursuit season for most areas typically ran from November to May, with a limit of harvesting two mountain lions per hunter, according to the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources Cougar Guidebook. The law now allows cougar trapping and hunting year-round with either a hunting or combination license.

Still, pumas are considered protected wildlife in Utah, so several limitations are in place. For instance, while the law removes bag limits, the division requires hunters to check harvested cougars into a DWR office.

The agency will use the information to determine harvest rates and better understand the species’ status and the impacts of the new hunting law, St. George News reported. Additionally, the state’s current trapping regulations will also apply to mountain lions.

Division mammals coordinator Darren DeBloois said in a news release that most cougars are hunted in the winter.

“From the data we’ve received of cougar harvest, 511 cougars were harvested from May 2023 to May 2024,” he said. “From May 2022 to May 2023 — prior to when the legislation went into effect — 512 cougars were harvested. This last year there has also been a decrease in the number of livestock preyed upon by cougars, as well as cougar incidents with people.”

A cougar rests in the shade, location and date not specified | Photo courtesy of Denise Peterson/@explorewildmedia, St. George News

The majority of cougars — 369 — were hunted with hounds, with 66 taken using traps, 65 via “spot and stalk” and 11 using unreported techniques, according to a DWR YouTube presentation.

Due to static harvest numbers, the division is not recommending any changes to cougar hunting and plans to continue monitoring harvest rates, the release states.

“The board voted to have the DWR look into a possible rule change to allow the sale of untanned hides/pelts for cougars and black bears harvested in Utah,” the division added.

In an email to St. George News, the Mountain Lion Foundation’s Executive Director R. Brent Lyles said, “It’s a relief to know that the number of lions killed hasn’t risen dramatically — yet.” The nonprofit is based in California but does cougar outreach and advocacy in various states, including Utah.

A cougar rests in the shade, location and date not specified | Photo courtesy of Denise Peterson/@explorewildmedia, St. George News

“However, these numbers hide all the changes in who is hunting, and how they’re hunting,” he added. “We’re hearing reports of long-time, ethical hunters from the state giving up because so many new hunters are coming to Utah just to trophy hunt a mountain lion. There are also serious concerns that the addition of trapping has led to needless cruelty to lions (and other animals including dogs) caught in those traps.”

Denise Peterson, the founder of the Utah Mountain Lion Conservation, said she wasn’t surprised that the DWR didn’t recommend making any changes in the first year after the law passed.

“They’re just collecting information, looking at harvest numbers and kind of seeing the direction that they’re going with,” she said. “And unfortunately, with the legislation, there’s not really too much they can do, frankly.”

In this file photo, deer walk through a juniper forest, Kanarraville, Utah, Nov. 20, 2023 | Photo by Alysha Lundgren, St. George News

Peterson said she was surprised, however, that this year’s harvest numbers were similar to last year’s.

“I think that has a lot to do with the winter that we had last year,” she added. “It wasn’t as good for hunting as the season before, just because we had less snowfall.”

However, Peterson said she also knew some houndsmen who would set out early in the day to track cats so outfitters couldn’t find them, keeping numbers lower.

“I don’t think we’re getting a full idea of the impact that the new legislation is going to have on cats, at least for this year’s harvest,” she said. “Because I don’t have confidence, unfortunately, that all mortality is being reported. Unfortunately, yes, there are requirements in place that if you kill a mountain lion, you are supposed to report it, but there’s always concern of lions being killed that haven’t been reported.”

Peterson said that 2020’s HB 125 had already begun to drive cougar numbers down. The law requires the DWR’s director to “take immediate action” to reduce predator numbers in management units where big game populations are lower than the established herd size objectives unless it’s been determined that predators aren’t a significant contributing factor.

In this file photo, two young cougars stand on vibrant, red stone, location and date not specified | Photo courtesy of the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, St. George News.

A large percentage of the state’s wildlife management units have fallen into this category, with one unit reportedly seeing an increase in mule deer numbers due to reduced cougar numbers, Peterson said.

“Killing mountain lions does not necessarily grow more deer,” she said. “So it’s a complicated situation when you get legislation that dictates how we manage wildlife because it’s not informed by science, and it really restricts what biologists and experts can do in the state who are trained and well-versed and understand these animals and their role in the ecosystem.”

“One of the things that I’d really like to see happen is I’d really like to see management be fully restored to the Division of Wildlife Resources,” Peterson continued. “At some point, you know, I’d like to just see politics come out of wildlife management as much as possible.”

DeBloois said in the YouTube video that the division found that mountain lion populations increased and decreased when mule deer populations did. However, there were further lion decreases due to management practices meant to increase the number of deer. Their estimates were based on adult cougar harvests.

Cougar kittens meow, location and date not specified | Photo courtesy of Denise Peterson/@explorewildmedia, St. George News

Trapping cats

Peterson said she’s interested in learning more about the number of incidental takes—nontarget species or animals that are killed unintentionally.

“To my knowledge, at least one mountain lion kitten has been killed in a trap set for lions,” she said. “And so in our survey areas, where we run cameras, we typically have seen very light hunting and no trapping, per se, at least that we noticed. And just since this new law was passed, we had one trapper set traps right in front of some of our cameras, and one of the cats actually stepped in the trap, and it closed on her foot.”

The puma “ripped it out” of the ground and fled with it on her foot. Peterson said she’s concerned about cats sustaining trap-related injuries.

“We have another cat in another area that I’d been following since 2019, and she lost a significant portion of her foot — right past the first two knuckles,” she recalled. “And it was a very typical trap injury like you can actually see the arc in the foot that matches what you would expect with the mouth of the trap. So we’re starting to see more injuries in places where we hadn’t previously seen them before.”

The mountain lion struggled to survive the winter, Peterson said. She sustained the injury in January, and by February, she was limping and her weight had dropped, with her ribs and vertebrae visible. She was seen again with a dependent kitten in March, looking “too thin, moving very slowly — not like a typical cat.”

A female cougar favors a foot after being injured by a trapped, location and date not specified | Photo courtesy of Denise Peterson/@explorewildmedia, St. George News

However, she ultimately pulled through. A few months ago, the nonprofit’s camera spotted her looking more fit. Peterson said there are still concerns about her well-being, as an injury to a paw can make it more difficult for a cat to grasp and subdue prey. Such injuries can also mean higher numbers of desperate pumas on the landscape.

“Now we have an injured cat in an area with a lot of people, and sometimes, these people bring dogs, and some desperate animals do dumb things. … It’s hard to hunt, so what they’re going to do is look for something that will be easier to catch, and unfortunately, sometimes that can be domestic animals, and it can bring them into places closer to people.”

Peterson said other species and nontarget cats are also at risk. For instance, the nonprofit received reports of fawns being killed by traps set for lions, which she said negates one of the state’s goals of increasing mule deer populations.

In this file photo, a cougar stands on a rocky ledge, location and date not specified | Photo courtesy of the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, St. George News

“The trouble with trapping is it’s so indiscriminate,” she said. “You set this contraption out on the mountain, and you leave it for a couple of days, and then you’re supposed to go back and check it. But a lot can happen in those couple of days.”

While Peterson said she tries to be open-minded about hunting traditions and the needs of various wildlife stakeholders, she cannot support trapping.

“The public, in general, does not support trapping,” she said, adding that she thinks trapping being introduced through legislation is a “black eye for the state.”

‘Incredible’ animals

A cougar stares into the camera in this file photo, location and date not specified | Photo by Tammi Mild/ iStock/Getty Images Plus, St. George News

Peterson said Utahns should care about “these amazing animals that we share the state with.”

“They also keep our mountains and our wild areas healthier and more resilient overall because they do help regulate mule deer and other ungulate numbers — not necessarily through killing them for food,” she said. “They keep these animals on the move so they don’t stay in one area and overgraze it.”

Peterson said she’d like the people to learn more about the species and its behaviors.

“They’re incredible,” she said. “I’ve seen 31 now in the wild, and every encounter has been amazing. I’ve been face-to-face with a mom and three kittens and it was never a situation where it’s like I feel threatened. So, I’d really like people to understand that they don’t pose a threat to us like we think they do, and I really encourage them to reach out to us or check out our page and ask us questions about cats.”

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