A bill that recently passed the Utah legislature would remove all bag limits for mountain lion hunting and extend the current season from seven months to year-round. House Bill 469, which has passed both the Utah Senate and the House of Representatives, would also lessen the permit requirements for cougar hunting by allowing anyone with a base hunting license to pursue the big cats through methods that include hounding, trapping, and spot-and-stalk hunting.
Since passing in the legislature, the bill has garnered a fair amount of opposition from people inside the hunting and trapping community. Corey Huntsman, President of the Utah Houndsmen Association opposes the bill. He told Field & Stream he’s more concerned with the lifting of lion quotas than the extension of the season from seven months to a full year.
“We have not had a change this radical in the wildlife management of any species in Utah in 56 years,” Huntsman said. “And this was done with zero public input. The legislators did not seek out Utah Division of Wildlife biologist experts for opinion or cause and effects. They didn’t reach out to our universities that are doing studies on deer and lions. This was all legislators managing wildlife by slipping an amendment into an unrelated bill at the last hour.”
UDWR mammals programs coordinator Darren DeBlois said that his agency wasn’t consulted by legislators while they were crafting HB469. “We did know that the legislature has been concerned in recent years about mule deer numbers,” DeBlois told Field & Stream. “With this really heavy winter that we had this year, the legislature thought that we needed to be as liberal as possible with opportunities for cougar hunting.”
In 2019, the UDWR estimated Utah’s cougar numbers at around 2,000 individual animals. According to the department, 667 cougars were harvested in 2021, while only 491 of the big cats were taken during the 2022 hunting season. UDWR spokesperson Faith Heaton Jolly told the Deseret News that the drop in harvest from 2021 to 2022 wasn’t an indicator of a decline in cougar numbers, but more likely a reflection of just how hard the big cats are to successfully hunt.
Huntsman, who says he spends roughly 150 days a year on the mountain chasing cougars behind his hounds, disagrees. “Wouldn’t that be an indicator that we’re decreasing the population?” he asked. “We’ve had the best snow year we’ve ever had this year. The snow is so good that you can go out and track them without a dog. She’s saying that the drop in numbers is because they’re so hard to hunt, but I could go out and catch one with a Labrador right now. We’re decreasing the population. There is data to support that.”
DeBlois has a different point of view. “All of our data indicates that the cougar population has been growing for the last 20 years or so,” he said. “I think a lot of the changes to cougar hunting brought on by this legislation are going to be more social than biological. We’re already pretty liberal with our cougar harvest in most of our units.”
Utah Governor Spencer Cox has until March 23 to either sign or veto the bill. If signed, the new regulations would be folded into the Utah Division of Wildlife’s (UDWR) hunting regulations on May 23, 2023.