Omu's Journal: Cougar

“I now suspect that just as a deer herd lives in mortal fear of its wolves, so does a mountain live in mortal fear of its deer.” – Aldo Leopold, 1949.

I have seen a mountain lion in the wild exactly once. It was the biggest kitty I’ve ever seen outside of a zoo, even though it “only” looked to be a 100-pound juvenile.

Sometimes I find their tracks in mud, snow, or dust. I’m glad they are out there, but their unseen presence does keep my attention, as it should.

Long ago, our culture divided animals into the Good and the Bad. Since predators sometimes ate our livestock, they were bad, so we eliminated them. They might even eat you.

This attitude was formed who knows how long ago, perhaps in the Pleistocene when people slept around campfires while saber-toothed cats bigger than lions roared in the darkness, and giant short-faced running bears dwarfed grizzlies.

Some cultures, such as America’s original nations, became more sympathetic to predators. I never read or heard that any of those peoples thought it necessary to decimate predators.

The mainstream European-American culture started rethinking the “good animal, bad animal” idea in the 1900’s. Scientists like Aldo Leopold (who spent quite a lot of time shooting wolves, bears, and cougars) pointed out how predators are critical to the health of our forests and rangelands – and mountains. Predators help keep prey populations in check.

Most of our predator species were eventually added to the state list of valued species, managed by the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources. Coyote is the last predator that retains the honorific of “varmint” – vermin.

In the Utah hunt, these are the numbers of mountain lions killed legally, for seven years from 2015 through season 2022: 372 cougars, then 430, 452, 532, 596, 667, 753. In seven years, the state doubled the cougar kill.

Utah Division of Wildlife Resources currently estimates Utah’s cougar population at 2,500. A little quick math reveals that the last year’s known take of 753 is fully 30% of the estimated state population (this is an undercount; other cougars were killed by car collisions, and some may have been killed but not reported).

And now this year’s legislative season produced “Wildlife Related Amendments,” HB469. Any resident who is 12 years or older could buy a license to “hunt or trap cougar during a period beginning on Jan. 1 and ending on Dec. 31,″ – and no cougar permit required.

In other words, cougars will be hunted everywhere, year-round. They will become Utah’s second official varmint predator, not valued as a species, but persecuted as a “bad animal.” How can anyone consider this a sensible, scientific policy?

I’m fine with killing those individual cougars that attack livestock. I’m also okay with them being hunted, in a controlled, scientific way that maintains a healthy population. This law clearly does not do that.

Cougars play a vital role in the health of the land. Our state legislature either doesn’t understand or doesn’t believe this.

And human hunting of deer cannot replace what predators do. It is fundamentally different from the year-round, 24/7 role that cougars play in the ecosystems that support us. Over eons, cougars shaped mule deer into what they are today.

The deer herd, suffering as it does from loss of habitat to humans, will be hit hard by this winter. But that has nothing to do with mountain lions.

We are supposed to be wiser than this by now.