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DWR STUDYING COUGAR POPULATION

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They are sleek. They are fast. And they are prolific killers, as many ranchers will attest.

But while most Utahns will never see the bashful cougar in the wild, Utah wildlife officials estimate there are perhaps as many as 1,100 cougars scattered from one end of the state to the other."We've got a good cougar population here," said Bill Bates, biologist with the Division of Wildlife Resources. "Some areas of the state are far better than others, but overall we can't complain."

The DWR is in the midst of a long-range study of cougars that, among other things, will help conservation officers better determine if cougars and livestock can co-exist, and how to better manage the existing cougar population.

Ranchers, however, complain that Utah's cougar population is already too high, that it is taking a bloody toll on sheep and young cattle and inflicting heavy financial losses on ranchers.

DWR officers find themselves in the uncomfortable position of trying to placate ranchers, while still protecting and nourishing the state's cougar population. The DWR has been studying cougars to determine migration patterns, feeding habits and reproduction cycles.

Those studies are revealing surprising data. According to one just-released study of 72 radio-collared cougars on the Boulder Mountain, the hunting of cougars may actually increase depredation by cougars.

About 200 cougars, also referred to as mountain lions, are harvested every year in Utah. But the Boulder Mountain study indicates that hunting removes the "resident" males and females, who are then replaced by younger, transient cougars that compete for the vacated territory.

The problem, said Bates, is the transient animals are unfamiliar with the territory and frequently resort to killing livestock to subsist. The resident animals, who may have stayed in the same territory for years, subsisted almost exclusively on wild game.

"We've got a situation where hunting of lions may actually increase depredation of livestock," Bates said.

Bates said the study also indicates that cougars do not overpopulate. Rather they build up to a certain point and stay at that level, each cougar remaining in his or her own established territory.

The study also looked at cougar habitat and whether cougars could co-exist with livestock. "We found you can't put livestock in timbered areas without seeing some depredation," Bates said. "The livestock in the open meadows have a lot less problems (with cougars)."

While sheep of all sizes are easy prey for cougars, the study also indicated that calves under about two months are also easy targets. Calves over two months, as well as adult cows, rarely have problems with cougars.

The DWR says it is taking the depredation problem seriously, and that hunting will be focused on those cougar populations feeding on livestock. The DWR last year instituted a limited entry hunt for cougars, meaning that hunters must first draw a permit. Prior to that, there was no limit to the number of permits.

"We have a set number of permits in each area," Bates said, "and we can direct hunters into those areas that have a cougar depredation problem and away from those areas where the cougar population might be struggling. It is better management for both sides."

The Utah Woolgrowers Association and the Utah Cattlemen's Association were initially opposed to the idea of limited entry hunts, believing there should be more hunting of cougars, not less. But Bates said some ranchers like the idea once they realize how it is focused on larger cougar populations causing the problems.

The DWR intends to keep the annual harvest of cougars at about 200 animals, and the number of permits issued will be altered annually to achieve that harvest.

"There will be no decrease in the harvest," Bates said, "but the harvest will be better managed."