SALT LAKE CITY — Utah wildlife officials will allow more cougars to be hunted this year due to an increase in attacks on farm animals and indications the animals’ population is doing well in the state.
The decision last week by the Utah Wildlife Board to increase the number of cougars that can be hunted to 522 — up by about 5 percent from last year — triggered backlash from the Humane Society, which argues the increase is unnecessary and nothing more than a way to appease trophy hunters.
The yearly cougar hunting quota ebbs and flows by year based on research about the animal’s population and data about livestock killed, said Leslie McFarland, mammals program coordinator for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources.
The number of sheep and cattle killed by cougars nearly doubled last year, she said. Most of the regions where the increases were approved are in the areas where the attacks occurred, she said.
In some areas of the state, hunters can get cougar permits over the counter until quotas are reached. In other areas, hunters have to apply through a drawing to get permission.
The cougar hunting program not only promotes unethical trophy hunting, it puts at risk a population of an animal people love, said Sundays Hunt, the Humane Society of the United States’ Utah state director.
Hunting cougars doesn’t necessarily protect sheep and cattle, she said, because it just emboldens young cougars to be aggressive. Every adult male cougar killed leads to chaos in the animals’ social structure by depriving mothers and kittens of fathers and inviting young male cougars to come fight each other for the territory, she said.
“It’s just complete havoc,” Hunt said.
Wendy Keefover, of the Humane Society’s wildlife department in Utah, said the state is ignoring decades of research that shows the Utah cougar population is vulnerable.
“Cougar biologists say there’s too much hunting going on and it’s an amount that is unsustainable,” Keefover said. “It robs other people of the ability to see a large cougar in the wild.”
McFarland scoffs at the notion they aren’t using proper science to make decisions. She said research from last year’s hunt shows most of the cougars killed were older than 5-years-old, an indication the animal is doing well since there are so many animals reaching adulthood.
The state, however, doesn’t have an estimate on the total number of cougars living in the state, she said. That’s because cougars are elusive animals, making it difficult to do an aerial survey or other observations to gauge the population, she said.
McFarland said the Humane Society simply doesn’t want any cougar hunting anywhere, defending the premise of the hunting program.
“It’s a way we can manage populations so we don’t get to where we have too many nuance problems with cougars coming into town,” McFarland said. “It’s also a way we can provide opportunity for sportsmen within the state.”