State sees slight increase in cougar hunting permits
Officials say population is healthy, growing
As an avid outdoorsman and self-described animal lover, John Ziegler has considered himself an observer of wildlife management practices in the state.
Ziegler, who is a Park City resident, said he began paying attention to how the state’s wildlife is regulated about a decade ago, adding “I understand the challenges of wildlife management completely and that you can’t please everyone.”
However, Ziegler said he was extremely disappointed with the Utah Wildlife Board’s recent decision to again increase the number of cougars hunter can take during the upcoming season — which runs Nov. 16 to March 1.
Last month, Ziegler attended a meeting of the Utah Wildlife Board to participate in the discussion about the state’s cougar management plan. The board, comprised of seven members appointed by Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, approved an increase in cougar-hunting permits.
“I understand the culture and thrill of hunting that a significant amount of our state’s population endorses. But, the flip side of all that is that clearly there is a disconnect when it comes to certain management programs in the United States,” Ziegler said. “Having watched our program over the years, the idea of increasing the permits for the cougar hunt seems like such a profoundly bad idea.”
Hunters are allowed to take up to 581 cougars, which is an increase of 50 from the 2016-2017 season. However, the number of cougars taken will likely be lower than 581, according to a press release from the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources.
“This wasn’t a request to insist that they ban hunting or outlaw trophy hunting in the state of Utah,” Ziegler said. “It’s an appeal to the DWR (Division of Wildlife Resources) to approach this with an open mind and with a desire to make management decisions based on the best possible information available and, unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to be the case.”
Darren DeBloois, who is the Division of Wildlife Resources mammals’ program coordinator, said the board’s decision to increase cougar permits is based on statewide and unit-by-unit criteria. He said the information is helpful in managing the population.
“The first thing we look at is the number of females in the previous year’s harvest,” said DeBloois. “The second thing we look at are the number of animals killed that were five years old or older.”
Utah’s Cougar Management Plan provides guidelines to help ensure the state has a healthy and stable cougar population. The plan state no more than 40 percent of the cougars hunters take be female and at least 15 percent of the cougars must be five years of age or older, DeBloois said.
“We feel like if we meet those targets we should see a stable and growing mountain lion population,” he said. “The population has been growing about three percent a year for the last 10 years.”
However, DeBloois admitted the Division of Wildlife Resources needs a better method for tracking the state’s cougar population.
“We are actually looking at trying to find better methods to figure out a better estimate of how many lions we actually have,” he said. “Based on our growth rate the amount you can calculate from the number you took what that percentage ought to be, but we are always open to the latest literature and we try and look at that to compare that to studies that have been done in the past.”
DeBloois said the Division of Wildlife Resources hast to “walk a fine line” with its management policies. He acknowledged some constituents simply don’t agree with hunting, while others consider it a traditional activity.
“My concern as a manager is that I want to be conservative and I want as much information as I can get,” he said. “I feel like we are in a good place with our population, but that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t like to have more information.”
That lack of information is why Allison Jones, director of the Wild Utah Project, said the agency is acting rashly in its decision to increase permits. Wild Aware Utah’s mission is to provide science-based strategies for wildlife management and policy.
“I wish the decision would have incorporated the precautionary principal, which basically means not acting in the faith of not having enough knowledge, information or data to act,” Jones said. “I feel the position the state is in with cougars is that we really don’t know how many we have.
“If I were on the board and had a vote, then we would hit the pause button and make no changes,” she said. “I know it’s too late, but if it were up to me I would say, ‘Let’s hold steady and let’s look into this further to see if we can conduct more studies.”
The cougar hunting rules the board approved will be available in the 2017 – 2018 Utah Cougar Guidebook. The guidebook should be available at http://www.wildlife.utah.gov/guidebooks by Sept. 15.