"This decision was not based on science, and it has angered a lot of people," says Craig Axford of the Utah Cougar Coalition. His group recently began a petition drive to convince Gov. Mike Leavitt, R, to reverse the board's decision before the hunt begins in mid-December.
Axford and some wildlife officials say the wildlife board was pressured by ranchers, hunters and rural legislators who dislike any predators and believe mountain lions are killing too many deer.
"I have to say that politics have reshaped the philosophy of where we need to be with cougar management," Division of Wildlife section supervisor Wes Shields told the Salt Lake Tribune. "We .... have bought off on the idea that because deer herds are in trouble, we might be able to assist them in recovering by harvesting more cougars."
State biologists admit they don't have a good handle on the number of lions in the state, or solid proof that lions are responsible for the slow rise in deer numbers from the severe winter of 1992-1993. Weather and habitat conditions, they say, have probably hurt the deer more than predation from lions.
"But," says Division of Wildlife spokesman Steven Phillips, "it's a lot easier to deal with mountain lions than it is to deal with multi-year weather patterns."