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An attempt to ban mountain lion hunting thrills animal activists, troubles hunters

In last decade, Colorado hunters have killed an average of 469 cougars per year
A proposed bill that would ban mountain lion hunting has stirred opposition from the hunting and wildlife communities. (Courtesy of Colorado Parks and Wildlife, via The Colorado Sun)

When Colorado Parks and Wildlife commissioners in January 2021 allowed hunters in some areas to lure mountain lions with electronic calling devices, animal rights groups reacted with a new plan: asking lawmakers to ban hunting of Colorado’s wild cats.

“That was it for us,” said Aubyn Royall, Colorado director of the Humane Society of the U.S. that has spent the previous several years asking state wildlife officials to ban mountain lion hunting. “We have been working through the appropriate channels and not having any success so we decided we needed to work through legislation.”

Senate Bill 31, introduced last week by four Front Range lawmakers, all Democrats, would ban hunting of mountain lions, Canada lynx and bobcats.

Sen. Joann Ginal of Fort Collins pulled her name from the measure, saying not enough stakeholder work had been done. That leaves Sen. Sonya Jaquez Lewis of Boulder County, Rep. Judy Amabile of Boulder and Rep. Monica Duran of Wheat Ridge, carrying the bill. It has no Republican sponsors.

The legislation has rallied hunters and anglers across the state. An online post by Backcountry Hunters and Anglers urging members to oppose the hunting ban spurred more than 20,000 emails to Colorado lawmakers.

“That is a really strong response in just a couple days,” said Brien Webster, Colorado and Wyoming chapter coordinator for Backcountry Hunters and Anglers who penned the blog post. “I think our members see this as an overreach of the state Legislature. They want to make sure wildlife management stays in the hands of our state wildlife agency and wildlife managers who are guided by science, not sentiment.”

Mountain lion hunters in Colorado are required to take a special education course and check updated lion harvest limit reports the day before hunting in case an area reaches its limits and CPW closes it for hunting. In the last decade, Colorado hunters have killed an average of 469 mountain lions a year.

The state’s governor-appointed wildlife commission has voted unanimously over the last few years to reject calls to ban mountain lion hunting. The Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s mountain lion management plan, approved in September 2020, works to maintain a “relatively stable” mountain lion population on the Western Slope.

Between 2009 and 2014, Colorado Parks and Wildlife biologists captured, marked, radio-collared and tested more than 220 mountain lions as part of a study analyzing the effects of sport-hunting on mountain lion populations. (Courtesy of Colorado Parks and Wildlife, via The Colorado Sun)

The plan allows wildlife managers to adjust hunting limits to maintain certain thresholds. For example hunters cannot kill more than 22% of adult female lions in a region. The three-year average for all human-caused deaths of mountain lions cannot exceed 17% of the population for most regions. Colorado Parks and Wildlife estimates the state has between 3,000 and 7,000 mountain lions.

The Humane Society of the United States, which met with CPW wildlife managers during the creation of the management plan to express general opposition to hunting of mountain lions, in an April 2020 letter supported CPW’s management plan and the mortality limits. But the group, joined by five other advocacy organizations, urged CPW not to extend the season for mountain lions and to prohibit use of electronic calls. (Electronic calling can include remote speakers that play sounds that entice the predators, usually recordings of other mountain lions or animals in distress.)

“Mountain lion hunters want a trophy. They want bragging rights and they want a photo posing with a massive mountain lion,” Royall said. “They don’t hunt for sustenance and when they remove a dominant male or a mother with kittens from the landscape, you get orphaned subadults who don’t know how to take care of themselves. That creates a lot of the problems you see with interactions with humans and it disrupts the social structure.”

The last time animal advocates steered wildlife management policy away from Colorado Parks and Wildlife, voters in November 2020 narrowly approved the reintroduction of wolves on the Western Slope.

Dan Gates, the chair of Coloradans for Responsible Wildlife Management, said the statewide conversations following CPW’s work to reintroduce wolves to western Colorado by the end of next year “has opened up some eyes about wildlife management and species conservation and sustainability and habitat.”

“I think it’s providing a broad awareness and education for groups on the complex science behind wildlife management,” Gates said.

Proposed ban ‘generated a lot of emails’ to lawmakers

Gates said voters and legislatures do not follow the North American Model for Wildlife Conservation that has guided the country’s state wildlife managers for more than 70 years. Colorado wildlife biologists have decades of research and population counts that help them create limits for hunters. Those shifting hunter harvest caps help state biologists manage wildlife as a public resource.

“The CPW experts need to be able to adapt those management objectives accordingly and citizen agendas instigated from non-use, non-activity perspectives do not fall in line with those decision-making processes,” Gates said. “Their overall intent is to stop the harvest of whatever animal is on their plate for the day because it does not align with their morals, values and ethics. That’s fine. We can have differences of opinion, but those opinions are not always based on facts. Misinformed people often make misinformed decisions.”

Colorado Parks and Wildlife biologists have developed a non-invasive genetic sampling technique for gathering data on mountain lion and bobcat populations. The techniques do not harm the animal, and a long-term study is underway in Boulder, Jefferson, Gilpin and Larimer counties to help wildlife managers better understand population sizes as well as ages and diets of mountain lions and bobcats. (Courtesy of Colorado Parks and Wildlife, via The Colorado Sun)

At a recent virtual town hall with four Western Slope Democrats – Dylan Roberts from Avon, Kerry Donovan from Vail, Barbara McLaughlan from Durango and Julie McCluskie from Dillon – the lawmakers seemed somewhat surprised by the bill to ban mountain lion hunting.

Roberts said the bill has “generated a lot of emails for all of us.”

Donovan, who leads the state Senate Agricultural and Natural Resources Committee that will hear the proposed ban on mountain lion hunting, said the first time she and the others saw the bill was when it was introduced.

“I would say I still need to do work on figuring out what the intent of the bill is, chatting with the ... sponsors and trying to figure out what they’re trying to accomplish,” Donovan said. “But certainly I believe in the public trust doctrine.”

The doctrine anchors the country’s wildlife conservation efforts, holding that the government plays a critical role in protecting and managing wildlife, fish and waterways for the benefits of the resources and the public.

Donovan said there “seems to be some conflict between the public trust doctrine and how the bill would change the management of species.”

Donovan said she wants “to make sure that we’re putting science at the forefront of our big game management.” She said she’d heard from “people across the state” with concerns over the proposed hunting ban and its shift in wildlife management.

“We hear you loud and clear,” she said. “We’ll keep working on it.”

Royall said the Humane Society commissioned a survey of 1,800 Colorado voters in the summer of 2020 that showed 69% opposing recreational hunting of mountain lions. The survey defined recreational hunting as “primarily for human sport, not for food, where the trophy is the animal or part of the animal, which is often displayed to represent the success of the hunt.”

Colorado has strict rules for hunting mountain lions, including a regulation that requires hunters to field dress a killed mountain lion and prepare the animal’s edible meat for human consumption.

Lion hunting is banned in California

State laws governing mountain lion hunting vary. California lawmakers banned mountain lion hunting in 1990 and in 2020 banned rodenticides that have been linked to predator deaths.

Female mountain lion P-35 is captured on a remote wildlife camera in California’s Santa Susana Mountains, where hunting mountain lions is banned. (National Park Service, via The Colorado Sun)

Utah wildlife managers recently increased and in some cases eliminated quotas, allowing hunters to kill unlimited numbers of mountain lions year-round in regions where the populations of deer and elk – which are mountain lion prey – are declining. Washington wildlife managers prohibit hunting cougars with dogs, but allow exemptions for local, state or federal officials who are protecting livestock. That allowed a local sheriff to deputize a posse of hunters to track and kill cougars in 2019.

Webster said Backcountry Hunters and Anglers will continue to keep the pressure on state lawmakers to oppose the hunting ban.

Part of that campaign, Webster said, is sharing with lawmakers that the bill would not mean mountain lion and bobcat populations would not have to be managed.

“It just means that hunters will not be doing it,” he said. “That means there will be contracted culling hunts to manage populations. So it’s really important that this stays with CPW and not the Legislature.”

Colorado Sun staff writer Jesse Paul contributed to this report.

The Colorado Sun is a reader-supported, nonpartisan news organization dedicated to covering Colorado issues. To learn more, go to coloradosun.com.