A proposed bill would compel the Utah DWR to remove predators when big game herd numbers dip
After last year’s deer hunting season, state Rep. Carl Albrecht, R-Richfield, heard from his constituents that they’d been out to their usual hunting spots but the deer were nowhere to be found.
“I got more calls than you can imagine that there are no deer,” Albrecht said. “Believe it or not, I got more calls on that than I did on the tax reform. It’s a big deal in rural Utah.”
After two dry years weakened herds and then a huge snow year imperiled them further, Albrecht is sponsoring a bill in the state Legislature that he says attempts to increase the deer and elk populations by controlling predator species like cougars and bears.
But some environmental groups oppose the bill, claiming that it may lead to the decimation of certain predators without clear scientific proof that it would help the big game animals it’s trying to save.
The Utah Division of Wildlife Resources has predator management plans that generally allow for more predators to be removed when prey populations do not meet the objective size set by the DWR.
Albrecht’s plan, H.B. 125, compels the DWR director to immediately attempt to remove predators from an area if its game herds are smaller than the target size.
“The director (of the DWR) shall take immediate action to reduce the number of predators within a management unit when the big game population is under the established herd size objective for that management unit,” the bill states.
Big game animals include mule deer, elk, bighorn sheep, moose, mountain goats, pronghorn and bison, while predators are listed as cougars, bears, coyotes and bobcats.
Management techniques specified in the bill include increasing hunting tags for predators until the herd size objective is met, issuing over-the-counter permits for hunting predator species or employing professional trapping services, including from helicopters.
The bill was sent to the House Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment Committee Thursday morning. Albrecht, a member of the committee, said he is confident it will pass out of committee. He is less sure whether it will be approved when it reaches the House floor, however.
Parkite John Ziegler is among those who oppose the bill. He said the bill doesn’t take into account other possible causes of herd population decline, like climate change, disease or hard winters. If a herd is struggling because of drought, killing more predators is likely not the answer to increasing herd health, Ziegler contends.
“I’m not anti-hunting. I am anti reckless, poorly conceived management plans that don’t really take into account all the information that should be taken into account,” Ziegler said. “At what point do we hit the tipping point for predator species?”
According to the latest text of the bill, the DWR would be compelled to employ predator management strategies unless it “proves that predators are not contributing to the big game population being under the herd size objective.”
That’s a point of contention for Kirk Robinson, the executive director of the Western Wildlife Conservancy, a Salt Lake City-based nonprofit that was formed to protest an increase in the number of cougar permits in the 1990s, according to its website.
“Here’s the key point — predators always contribute to the size of the deer herd and elk herd. They’re out there eating the animals,” Robinson said. “As a practical matter, you cannot prove predators do not contribute to herd size.”
Robinson said that the presence of predators is necessary for herd health, and wondered why the bill doesn’t require proof that killing predators won’t harm the ecosystem.
He also questions the ethics of the bill.
“Deer and elk and cougars and black bears are equally important. They are all significant,” Robinson said. “Is it really ethical to kill lots of predator species just to have more deer for hunters to shoot?”
Albrecht pushes back on the contention that the bill compels the DWR to take action. He said DWR officials support the bill and that it came out of a conversation with the DWR about options to deal with the lack of deer and what he describes as the prevalence of predators.
A DWR spokesperson said the agency is neutral on the bill and will be monitoring it throughout the legislative session.
“All the bill does is gives the director a tool — (it) says ‘OK, when we’ve got large amounts of predators, then I can issue more tags, more takes,” Albrecht said. “I’m not trying to wipe out the bears or the cougars, I’m just giving the director of the division a little more ability to take more predators when our deer numbers or elk numbers are down on particular units. … Once those herds come back and rebound, so do predators, because that’s their main source of food.”
Editor’s note: This article has been updated to clarify the category of the animals listed in the bill. Additionally, a statement from a DWR spokesperson has been added to the article.
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