At Wildlands Network, we work to protect and restore all species, with a particular focus on imperiled carnivores, including wolves, grizzly bears, wolverines, jaguars, and cougars, among others. Carnivores are critically important keystone species whose presence in large enough numbers stabilizes the health of entire ecosystems. In Utah, however, one such carnivore—the awe-inspiring cougar—is in mortal danger.
For decades, Utah has consistently and unsustainably imperiled the state’s cougar populations. The state already ranks fourth highest in the U.S. for cougar (aka mountain lion) hunting mortality. Between 2007 and 2016, trophy hunters killed more than 3,200 of Utah’s mountain lions, including more than 370 cougars in 2016 alone. These native, intelligent, ecologically essential carnivores struggle to survive in the face of excessive, unsustainable trophy hunting and predator control regimes.
Utah currently allows hunting cougars based on a limited understanding of how that activity affects lion populations. Utah’s Cougar Plan, citing no supporting research, states that “most cougar populations can sustain harvest rates of 20 to 30 percent of the adult population depending on the age and sex composition of the harvest.”
Rather than evaluate the impact of these unacceptably high, controversial mortality levels as scientists urge and reduce hunting quotas, the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources (UDWR) proposes an increase in the 2018-2019 cougar hunting permits from 581 to 653—not including those permits for the state’s four unlimited hunting units.
Based on UDWR’s own mountain lion population estimate, this “quota” would allow the killing of 25 to 39 percent of Utah’s adult and subadult cougars, substantially exceeding the Plan’s already inflated rate of sustainable mortality and further jeopardizing the state’s already stressed lion population.
The Imperative to Utilize the Best Available Science
Cougars are strongly interactive, or keystone, species. In other words, cougars are a species whose absence in sufficient numbers to be “ecologically effective” leads to significant, generally adverse changes within the ecosystem. Scientists describe how the loss of apex mammalian predators, such as cougars, can precipitate ecological chain reactions that lead to profound degradation and species loss, including alterations or simplifications in ecological structure, function, or composition.
These scientists convincingly argue that populations of these essential animals must not fall below thresholds for ecological effectiveness, and that the geographic ranges of such species should be as large as possible. Not incidentally, carnivore scientists generally believe that strongly interactive species, if not harassed, often achieve ecologically effective densities with minimal human intervention.
It seems obvious and prudent that wildlife managers, state or federal, should apply new, credible biological knowledge based on the “best conservation practices based on the best science” if the evidence warrants it. Implicit is the agencies’ adoption of an ecological view that ensures the persistence of strongly interactive species at sufficient numbers within areas of adequate size. Throughout most of Utah’s wildlands, the cougar remains the best focal species for ensuring that wildlife conservation plans will conserve enough habitat.
As with any somewhat controversial species, especially one so crucial to ecological integrity, it is also critical that the best available science is used in conservation decisions. Central to implementing this “best science” ideal is the requirement to establish an independent scientific advisory group consisting of experts in wildlife—including carnivore science—to assure the public that the best available science is foundational to agency decisions affecting wildlife. Unfortunately, UDWR, like many other state wildlife agencies, offers no such assurances.
Hunting Cougars: Not So Popular Anymore
Most mountain lions are killed either with the aid of hounds in a practice called hounding, or by trapping with cruel, steel-jawed leg-hold traps and wire neck or leg snares. Neither practice conforms to the “fair chase” tenants espoused by ethical hunting groups. Fair chase hunting is predicated upon giving the animal an equal opportunity to escape from the hunter.
Hounding involves chasing by packs of trailing dogs until the mountain lion retreats into a tree or rock ledge, enabling the “sportsman” to leisurely shoot the cat at close range. Not incidentally, hounding poses significant risk to the hounds as well as to young wildlife, including dependent kittens, who may be attacked and killed by hounds.
While general hunting remains a legal and important pastime for approximately six percent of U.S. residents, changes in attitudes toward wildlife have led to a decline in hunting and an increase in activities such as wildlife viewing. Whether it is from compassion for Bambi or association with Elmer Fudd, fewer Americans shoot animals for fun. In the 1950s, approximately 25 percent of men were hunters. In 2006, ten percent of men and one percent of women participated in hunting.
Other statistics show that the average age of hunters is steadily creeping upward as approval of hunting among people under 24 declines. Not surprisingly, younger professionals employed by state departments of wildlife have lower levels of support for ‘‘consumptive’’ uses, i.e., killing wildlife, than their older colleagues.
A new study indicates that Americans highly value wildlife, including top carnivores such as cougars, and are concerned about their welfare and conservation. Additional surveys also show the majority of Americans do not support “trophy” hunting, where the primary motivation is to display animal parts for bragging rights but not subsistence. Barring starvation scenarios, humans kill cougars, wolves and grizzly bears for reasons other than consumption.
Trophy hunting typically involves collecting body parts such as heads, hides or furs, and even the whole animal, and it is by far the most pervasive threat facing mountain lions and wolves lacking protection under the Endangered Species Act. Each year, trophy hunters kill thousands of mountain lions, especially by hounding, and in some states through the use of traps and wire snares. From 1984-2014, trophy hunters killed more than 78,000 mountain lions in the U.S. As pointed out above, between 2007 and 2016, hunters killed more than 3,200 of Utah’s mountain lions.
Trophy hunting is controversial because it often goes against the public’s interest in wildlife conservation. The large majority of U.S. residents are not hunters and even fewer are trophy hunters. A U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service survey found that approximately 13.7 million (approximately six percent) U.S. residents at least 16 years old hunted in 2011, with 11.6 million pursuing big game animals. However, the majority of these hunters sought deer, wild turkey, elk, and moose, while only three percent of big game hunters pursued “other” big game, such as mountain lions.
An additional study in Alaska found that, while the majority (87 percent) of Alaskans support hunting for meat, the same study found that 46 percent of Alaskan hunters were opposed to trophy hunting. Another example of public disdain occurred when an international firestorm erupted after Cecil the African lion was lured out of a national park in Zimbabwe and killed with an arrow shot by an American dentist. More recently, Wyoming’s decision to allow trophy hunting of the recently delisted grizzly bear prompted reactions ranging from serious concern from the scientific community to general public outrage.
Adverse Effects of Trophy Hunting
Humans generally kill the very individuals that nature would have selected to propagate the species—big males and females—raising concerns of undesirable evolutionary consequences from trophy hunting. In other words, selected killing of these individuals has an adverse evolutionary impact on the exploited population, which could eventually affect the ability of a population to even survive, least of all sustain hunting pressure.
Not the least of our concerns is the immense, unconscionable suffering that hunting causes these animals.
Another concern is how the relentless persecution of mountain lions and other large carnivores threatens the big cats’ social structure, their ability to recruit members to their population, and even population viability due to lack of gene flow. Some of the most significant effects of trophy hunting and predator control include:
- Disrupting the social structure of a population when a resident male is killed.
- Subadult male influx into a population, which causes intraspecific strife on mothers and can result in infanticide on the kittens from the previous sire.
- Indirectly killing multiple kittens and, at times, their mothers, leaving dependent kittens to die of starvation, predation or exposure.
Not the least of our concerns is the immense, unconscionable suffering that hunting causes these animals.
People Care: Re-envisioning Wildlife Advisory Groups
Americans care about wildlife welfare and conservation. Utahans and Americans have signaled to Utah decision makers that cougar hounding and trophy hunting should end. So, why is the state’s wildlife board considering, and will most likely pass, rules that exacerbate threats to this native, intelligent, ecologically essential carnivore?
Good question, one whose resolution requires some fundamental shift in Utah’s wildlife governance.
In order to adapt to a changing environment, both societal and ecological, the state’s wildlife management body needs substantial reform. Two proposals include providing Utah’s wildlife decision makers and the public with the best available science regarding wildlife, and facilitating democratic representation on state citizen wildlife advisory groups. Both proposals demand significant changes regarding the state’s wildlife advisory groups.
1. Establish an independent scientific advisory group consisting of experts in wildlife, including carnivore science.
There remains an urgent need to regain scientific credibility in Utah’s wildlife management. The state needs to establish a scientific advisory group consisting of independent wildlife scientists with relevant expertise who are able to evaluate and synthesize the available science, and adhere to standards of peer-review and full conflict-of-interest disclosure.
2. Ensure citizens’ stakeholders advisory groups reflect the state’s diversity of wildlife interests.
Hunting and agricultural interests with strong anti-carnivore bias currently dominate Utah’s Wildlife Board and the wildlife Regional Advisory Council. Both advisory groups are composed—at best—of only token representation from conservation groups and independent scientists, with a long history of opposing carnivore protections.
In addition, research shows the great interest of Americans in wildlife-related and non-hunting recreation on western lands, and the importance of including them in decision-making processes. Scientists, as well as other conservationists, urge management to reflect the full array of human values and input from all stakeholders.
Obviously, restructuring Utah’s wildlife advisory groups is crucial. Research on the state’s recreationists reports that 43 percent of the state’s population (714,000) engage in hiking, backpacking, rock climbing and trail running. Thirty-two percent enjoy bird and other wildlife watching. Only ten percent of Utahans hunt. Clearly, reorganizing Utah citizens’ wildlife advisory groups to reflect the state’s diversity of wildlife interests, including concern for carnivores, should become a priority issue for UDWR.
Cougars Are Critical to Maintaining Healthy Ecosystems
Cougars play an essential role in the evolutionary environment throughout the Western Hemisphere. As our esteemed colleague and eminent wildlife scientist Paul Beier points out, “perhaps more important than any of these reasons, however, is the cultural reason: human life is enriched wherever big predators are part of the landscape.”
In one of his many eloquent essays, Dust: A Movie, Edward Abbey imagines a film taken within a desert ghost town, “in the sunlight…today, tomorrow, or a thousand years ago.” The cast includes a rising moon, “silver and enormous,” the song of a coyote, a man and a women and the quiet talk of lovers, a desert flood, all within the timeless continuum of life and death. The story ends as a mountain lion watches the movement of deer below:
Slowly, deliberately, the lion turns its head and stares with burning yellow eyes directly into the camera. The camera zooms in close, the eyes fill the screen, and we see in their golden depths the reflection of the sunrise, the soaring birds, the cliffs, the clouds, the sky, the earth, the human mind, the world beyond this world we love and hardly know at all…. dissolve. This film goes on, it has no end… dissolve…dissolve…. dissolve…
We will relentlessly insist that the “film” goes on.
How You Can Help
UDWR is accepting comments on the proposal to increase cougar hunting permits. Submit yours today by following the steps below.
- Tell the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources NOT to implement the 2018-2019 increase in cougar hunting permits. There is no credible scientific support for this proposal, and there is significant public, state and national, opposition to trophy hunting of carnivores in general.
- Point out the necessity of establishing an independent scientific advisory group consisting of experts in wildlife, including carnivore science.
- Emphasize the importance of ensuring the Wildlife Board, Resource Advisory Council, and other citizens’ advisory groups reflect the state’s diversity of wildlife interests.
Send email comments with subject line “Re: Utah Cougar Recommendations and Rule Amendments for 2018-2019” to:
Kirk Woodward, Chair of the Utah Wildlife Board at email@example.com
Copy Staci Coons, Board Liaison Staci at Coons@utah.gov
The deadline for comments is Wednesday, August 29.