At a time when cougar hunting has made fairly constant news, a new Utah bill would make it legal for anyone with a hunting license to kill a big cat without a tag or season — 365 days a year.
Gov. Spencer Cox still needs to sign House Bill 469 for it to become law, which is opposed by both conservation and hunting groups, according to The Salt Lake Tribune.
The bill passed Utah’s House of Representatives with “virtually no debate,” the newspaper reported, after Republican Sen. Scott Sandall added the cougar hunting amendment on Wednesday.
Sandall, a rancher from Box Elder County, said Utah has seen an increase in cougars “across the state.” That reflects statements from the state’s Division of Wildlife Resources (DWR), which said that cougar populations have rebounded over the last 10 years.
However, conservation groups disagree with that assessment, arguing that cougars (also called mountain lions) need greater protections to maintain a dwindling population.
On Friday, a spokesperson for DWR said the agency was “a little surprised” by the cougar-hunting amendment.
“Typically, we will be consulted when it’s wildlife related,” said DWR spokesperson Faith Heaton Jolley. “We talked to some of these legislators a week prior, but we didn’t see the language until it was brought to the House floor.”
A State Trend Against Cougar Protections
While this week’s amendment surprised some, it’s part of an ongoing effort in Utah to increase cougar hunts.
In 2020, Utah passed House Bill 125, which authorized wildlife officials to offer more hunting permits for cougars when deer and elk populations fall below a certain amount. The 2019-2020 hunting season resulted in 690 dead mountain lions, and in 2022, the state issued 3,900 cougar hunting permits, resulting in another 491 harvested lions, Heaton Jolley said.
The state’s own estimates put the number of adult cougars at around 2,000. That means it issued nearly twice as many cougar-hunting permits in 2022 than the animal’s estimated population.
“It doesn’t mean a cougar is going to be harvested when a permit is given. They’re quite difficult to hunt,” Heaton Jolley said. “We have seen a few indicators that populations may be declining in the last 2 years, but it is too early to say for sure.”
The Mountain Lion Foundation puts Utah’s cougar population at around 1,600. Regardless, wildlife groups say the population continues to decline with increasing trophy hunts and habitat loss. A rise in poaching probably doesn’t help either. In 2022, Utah saw an uptick in illegal hunting, with 1,283 animals killed — including 14 cougars.
“This law is scientifically uninformed and ethically fraught,” Kirk Robinson of the Western Wildlife Conservancy told The Salt Lake Tribune. “It will do no demonstrable good, but will instead cause a lot of senseless death and suffering, as well as serious damage to the structure and functioning of the ecosystem. By doing so, it will undermine public confidence and show the nation and the world that Utah insists on remaining stubbornly trapped in the unenlightened worldview of the old century.”
Utah’s governor has until March 23, 2023, to sign the bill into law, according to the DWR. If that happens, it would go into effect on May 3, 2023.