Protecting the American Cecil, the Cougar

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By Sharon St Joan

Given the worldwide outcry over the sad death of Cecil the lion, it may be worth a reminder that there are countless deaths of Cecils right here in the U.S. The American lion is a cougar and they are hunted in Utah and in many states.

On August 27, 2015, at 9 am, the Utah Wildlife Board will meet to discuss the draft Utah cougar management plan, at the Department of Natural Resources Auditorium, 1594 W. North Temple, Salt Lake City, Utah. The meeting is open to the public.

Cougars are extensively hunted in Utah, with the objective of increasing the mule deer population to provide more mule deer for hunters to hunt.

In a letter written by Wendy Keefover, Native Carnivore Protection Manager, The Humane Society of the United States, and by Sundays Hunt, Utah State Director, The Humane Society of the United States, they cite many scientific studies that demonstrate that killing cougars does not in fact increase the population of mule deer. (Please see the link to the letter below.) This is because the nutrition available to mule deer is a determinative factor in terms of their population growth.

Where there is not enough food for mule deer, their population declines. Factors that can hinder the availability of adequate food are, among other causes, loss of habitat and oil or gas development. In other words, human activity, rather than predation by cougars (or coyotes), causes a decline in the mule deer population. So if one wishes to increase the population of mule deer, it would be more logical to address the human causes of decline in mule deer population, rather than killing the cougars.

Even if the cougars were causing a decline in the mule deer population, the premise that the mule deer population should be increased to allow for there to be more deer for hunters to hunt is not a goal that everyone supports. Since only a minority of Utahns are hunters, it is unclear why cougars should be killed so that there will be enough mule deer for hunters to kill.

Even if a majority of Utahns were hunters, which they are not, this does not automatically confer on human beings the right to disrupt the eco-system, by systematically killing one species or another of wildlife.

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The HSUS letter points out that, in Utah, regulations prohibit rehabilitating cougar kittens who have been orphaned because of trophy hunting, leaving them to suffer a painful death from starvation and dehydration. This is inhumane.

Cougar kittens may be dependent on their mothers for food until they are nine months old. Some biologists have found that they cannot catch their own prey until they are one year old.

The Division of Wildlife Resources’s Plan states that most cougar populations can sustain a level of 20-30% of the population being killed by hunters. No studies are cited to back this up. The HSUS letter cites scientific studies that suggest that a much lower rate, 11-14%, is sustainable.

Hunting disrupts the cougar’s social structure and causes suffering and mortality. A Washington State study found that increasing the numbers of cougars hunted also caused an increase, rather than a decrease, in predation on livestock; this is because a disruption of their population led to a higher percentage of young male cougars, who tended to kill more livestock. Animals in stable, older populations were far less likely to harm livestock.

Increased hunting of cougars leads directly to increased human and livestock conflicts.

In a study done in Zion National Park, in 2006, researchers found that the presence of cougars caused herds of deer to keep on the move, rather than spending time grazing near rivers and streams. This allowed the riparian systems to regenerate. It led to a re-growth of native plants, the return of native animals, and a much healthier eco-system, replete with cattails, wildflowers, butterflies, and birds. The presence of cougars enabled the native environment to re-establish itself and become healthy again.

Despite their benefical effects on the environment, top carnivores throughout the world are in significant danger of extinction.

The HSUS letter recommends restricting trophy hunting of cougars and creating protected areas where they are not hunted, with interconnecting corridors, allowing them to move freely among refuges.

The letter further states that Utah has an obligation to manage cougars in a way that benefits all Utahns, not just trophy hunters, who are a minority of the population.

The USFWS has reported that wildlife watchers outnumber hunters by fourfold. Killing wildlife is harmful to the interests of wildlife watchers – this is without even considering the wellbeing of the animals themselves and their right to lead a free natural life in the wild, as nature intended.

Thank you to HSUS for compiling this excellent and informative letter sent to Gregory Sheehan, Utah Division of Wildlife Resources. The letter cities numerous scientific studies, and makes a compelling case for protecting cougars, rather than persecuting them.

To read the HSUS letter, on the Ogden Standard Examiner website, click here.

Top photo:  K. Fink / Wikimedia Commons / “This image or media file contains material based on a work of a National Park Service employee, created as part of that person’s official duties. As a work of the U.S. federal government, such work is in the public domain. See the NPS website and NPS copyright policy for more information.” / A cougar in Yellowstone National Park.

Second photo: WL Miller / Wikimedia Commons / “This image or media file contains material based on a work of a National Park Service employee, created as part of that person’s official duties. As a work of the U.S. federal government, such work is in the public domain. See the NPS website and NPS copyright policy for more information.”

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