Open Season in Utah

After Michael Joe Hutchings’ hounds treed a mountain lion, he crippled it by shooting it in two paws with a .22 caliber rifle, an “old guide trick” used to hold lions in place. Hutchings wanted his brother to see the kill the following day. “What difference does it make?” he told a Utah Division of Wildlife Resources investigator, “since I was going to kill the damn thing anyway.”

Before Utah’s mountain lion went from a bounty species to protected wildlife in 1966, such acts were the norm. “They’d rope them, put them in a barrel or a cage and feed them till the dude got there,” says the DWR’s Doug Messerly. Then they’d let them go five minutes ahead of their dogs and have another successful hunt.”

Many rural Utahns yearn for those good old days. “It shouldn’t be a felony to kill a cougar,” says legislator Tom Hatch, who along with other rural legislators in Utah’s Cowboy Caucus, blames the cougar for the decline and slow recovery of the mule deer population. At their urging, the DWR has overseen a sharp increase in hunting quotas over the last five years. In the 1996-1997 season, a record 576 lions were killed, a higher take than in any other state. Quotas for 1997-1998 are only slightly reduced.

The hunt removed nearly 35 percent of the state’s huntable mountain lion population. Of the hunter take, 49 percent were female and 40 percent were subadults. Craig Axford of the Predator Education Fund says that the high female take will have “dire consequences for the future reproductive viability of the population.” Last December, the fund filed a state court lawsuit aimed at forcing DWR to shorten the hunting season and reduce lion quotas to sustainable levels—about 300 a year. Return to Troubled Homecoming