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COUGARS STIR DEBATE AT CAPITOL

SHARE COUGARS STIR DEBATE AT CAPITOL

From a new state fish to redesigned poaching penalties, Utah lawmakers have before them a half-dozen bills affecting fish and wildlife.

So far, the most attention goes to an action renovating the penalties for poaching a trophy animal. The bill, HB70, seeks to re-examine fines and sentences for animals such as trophy elk, deer, even the cougar. It's the latter that's buried in controversy."It's the principal of the thing," said Ann O'Connell, who lobbies the Legislature for the Audubon Society.

"It sends the wrong message," she said of a discussion to drop the penalty from $1,000 to $250 and then back up to $500. "To shoot a cougar may darn well be worth $500 to somebody."

Debate about the elusive cat again surfaced with two other bills: HB159, which would allow residents to kill predators within municipal limits; and HB106, which would increase compensation of livestock killed by cougar and bear to full-market value.

Overall, however, wildlife issues have taken a back seat this year to growth issues like water and transportation.

"This cougar issue (HB70) seems to be the focus" for wildlife advocates, O'Connell said. "There's not much going on."

Division of Wildlife Resources director Bob Valentine agreed.

"I don't think that there's much controversy up there this year as regards to wildlife and wildlife management," he said. "There seems to be the perennial concern about the cougar population, particularly in the rural areas. But I think that's being addressed."

More important to Valentine is an effort to retrofit state fish hatcheries.

"I think the most important piece of legislation up there is $1.8 million that would come from the state coffers," he said.

Together with a 2-to-1 match of some $3.6 million from the Central Utah Project's mitigation commission, the proposed appropriation for hatcheries, HB77, would result in a total $5.4 million for state hatcheries.

"That would do both the Kamas hatcheries and White Rocks hatchery," Valentine said. "I think there's support, but I'm not sure there's money."

Other fish-related legislation this session includes HB74, allowing free fishing privileges for disabled veterans; and HB16, establishing the Bonneville cutthroat trout as the official state fish.