In a victory for science-based wildlife management, permits for harvesting Utah cougars will increase in spite of opposition by animal rights groups.
Last month the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources (DWR) board held a public meeting on the seasonal harvest numbers for Utah cougars. State biologists and scientists recommended an increase in the number of harvest tags, and the board unanimously accepted their proposal, though not without opposition by animal rights groups and others.
The harvest quota increased by 30 permits for 2016 (from 492 in 2015 to 522 in 2016). In 2014, the permit number was 462.
The population of Utah cougars does seem to be growing: last year saw around 75% of the permits filled, with 371 cougars killed.
DWR biologists, with the help of a Cougar Advisory Board, indicated that the state's mountain lion population was very healthy. They held several meetings and came up with a plan to, hopefully, decrease the number of cougar predations on livestock while maintaining a healthy overall population.
Leslie McFarlane, DWR Mammals Coordinator, indicated that livestock predations by cougars have nearly doubled since last year.
"Incidents went from 34 to 60," she said. "It almost doubled. So, that indicates to us that in some areas of the state, we have a little bit more population growth."
Last year, the DWR paid out $148,000 for livestock depredation, of which $68,000 were paid for cougar kills (the other half were for bears). That $68K amount was $20,000 more than the previous year.
"This indicates to us that we've got a lot of animals surviving to the next year," said McFarlane. "We've got a really strong adult population statewide."
McFarlane also indicated that the increase in cougars in the state does not necessarily represent across-the-board growth. The Cougar Advisory Board made their recommendation on the condition that specified regions increase or decrease their harvest.
The board also took into consideration the ratio of female to male mountain lions. The goal is to maintain a female harvest quota of 40% or lower, which they have been able to do without trouble since 2008.
In spite of the science-based recommendation by the Cougar Advisory Board, some in the audience were dismissive. Sunday Hunt of the Humane Society unabashedly declared, "The division recommendations are not informed by the best available science."
"The constant chaos from trophy hunting not only disrupts breeding, but it also leaves orphaned kittens to die from starvation, dehydration or exposure," said Hunt, playing both the trophy hunting and the kitten cards. "These recommendations allow an unmitigated slaughter of a slow-to-reproduce-top-level native carnivore."
"Unmitigated slaughter" was a passionate phrase to describe what hunting cougars is like, spoken by a passionate person. "Biologists repeatedly warn that the state permits far too much hunting," said Hunt. That would seem to be at odds with what the current state biologists are saying.
On the other side, Bill Christensen, Utah's Regional Director for the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, said he has never seen such great diversity in the wildlife in the state. According to Christensen, predators, like all other wildlife species, need to be managed for healthy, sustainable populations. He also expressed his and the RMEF's appreciation and support for the science that the DWR used in making their recommendation:
In the 30 years I've been involved in wildlife, I've never seen such diversity and education. Congratulations to each and everyone one of you, you have provided a space so we can stand here and argue about whether to kill two more lions or three or more less.
"The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation of course supports the North American Wildlife Management Model," said Christensen.
Opponents to science-based wildlife management presented the board with over 90,000 petition signatures from citizens of Utah as well as countries overseas. How much animal rights advocates from other countries actually know about Utah cougars is up for debate.
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