#122 Show Notes | Into the Headlines: Utah’s Mountain Lions & The Willow Project

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#122 | Into the Headlines: Utah’s Mountain Lions & The Willow Project

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It’s been a hot second since I’ve done an Into the Headlines episode because of all of the amazing people I’ve sat down with recently, but two major events happened in the past week and I decided to rearrange the podcast’s episode release schedule to talk about what’s occurred. 

Utah’s Mountain Lions

First, let’s discuss Utah’s mountain lions. This issue happened so quickly that you might not have heard about it. To get the full scoop, I sat down with Denise Peterson, the Executive Director of Utah Mountain Lion Conservation. I recorded a short interview with her, which I’ll play for you now, and then give you an update afterward.


[Brooke]: Hi, Denise. Okay, my online feed has been blowing up with Utah’s Mountain Lions. Could you maybe explain the situation to me? I know a little bit, but I don’t know near as much as I could. And then maybe for someone who might not have any idea what’s going on with Utah’s mountain lions. So, what’s the situation? Can you just bring us up to speed?

[Denise]: Yeah, absolutely. A few weeks back we had our legislative session and two representatives, Senator Snyder and Senator Sandal, introduced at the very last minute, and I’m talking a couple hours before the actual bill was voted on, regulation to open mountain lions up to year-round hunting and trapping.

And so to clarify, right now, trapping is not allowed whatsoever, mountain Lions in Utah.

So, they introduced this a couple of hours before the bill was voted on, and a number of the folks who actually voted on this bill weren’t even aware that it had been introduced. So, the public didn’t have an opportunity to comment on it. Representatives that don’t support hunting lions voted for it.

There’s been a lot of controversy with it because it’s very deceptive to introduce something like this at the last possible minute with almost nobody knowing and having the chance to comment on it in such a way that it would pretty much overhaul the management of cougars in Utah. And the problem with the language being the way that it is, is that it essentially removes power from the Division of Wildlife Resources, biologists, researchers, scientists, people who know the animals and understand the animals. It takes the power to manage them away from the Division of Wildlife Resources.

So, essentially at the end of the day, if this is signed into law, what’ll happen is mountain lions will no longer be a big game species here in Utah.

It was interesting, I was talking to one of my colleagues, and the status of mountain lions will be more closely to say a skunk, essentially. So yeah, they won’t have protections like they do now, and all you’ll need is a license and you’ll be able to go out and kill lions. And again, this is year-round.

So, there are a lot of problems with it. It doesn’t take into account all of the research that’s been done in the past and currently going on here in Utah about lions and their impact on mule deer and predation rates and, you know, not even thinking about their role in the healthy functioning and resilient ecosystem.

So essentially it’s, I don’t wanna say waging war on lions, but it’s very similar, too, because you’re taking the science out of management and just saying, okay, we’re just gonna go out and kill as many lions as we can using all methods possible, which includes now hunting and trapping. So it’s pretty bad.

[Brooke]: So, was this like a rider to a bill? Did they just kind of sneak it in on the backside to something else that was going on, especially if the people in power didn’t even know that this was coming? And so what was that? What was it tied to? Like you said, people that wouldn’t normally support this, they voted on it. So, I’m assuming it was attached as a rider to some bigger issue. Do you by chance know what that was and how it got tied into it?

[Denise]: Yeah. So, as to how they tied it into it, exactly, I can’t say. But the bill itself was amendments to wildlife regulations, and it most specifically addressed camera trapping regulations, more than anything.

There were some other regulations about CWMUs and whatnot. But they slipped these regulations in a little bit lower down, like lines 260, 270, somewhere around there, and basically slipped it in. And it’s just a few lines that redefine them from a big game species to not being a big game species anymore. And then it opens them up to trapping in the language.

[Brooke]: So who, who did this? Who inserted this line into the bill? Like who’s at fault?

[Denise]: Who’s at fault? That’s a complicated question. There’s a lot more to it, but the very Readers Digest version is it was Senator Scott Sandal and Senator Casey Snyder. And there’s a lot of interesting things going on right now too with these representatives, particularly Representative Snyder.

It just came to my attention this morning that there’s a lawsuit right now involving Senator Snyder up in Summit County because he tried to do this same, where he tried to slide in another piece of legislation on something completely unrelated. So, it’s not the first time he’s done something like this and they have interest in ranching.

There’s a lot more to it than that obviously. But these are the two representatives that did slip this in at the very last moment.

[Brooke]: Do they have certain reasons? Are they, I guess maybe from a biological standpoint, is there something wrong going on with the mountain lions? Like why would they want the population to be completely decimated? What do you feel is probably their motivation for wanting to do this?

[Denise]: Good question. So, the thing that we hear most often is that the reason that they want to reduce the lion population here is so they can boost the mule deer population. They’re concerned that there’s an ever-increasing population of lions across Utah.

And while that was true, I’d say for the last 20 years or so in the last three, since HB 125 passed in 2020, harvest has increased substantially across the state. So we’re actually seeing a decline in mountain lion numbers. And if you want, I can get you the exact numbers on them later in terms of harvested whatnot.

So they’ve already been trying pretty intensively for the last three years to knock lion numbers down so that they can try and increase mule deer numbers, and in all but one unit, it did not help. So, in only one unit did they see any kind of evidence that there might be an increase in mule deer numbers, but in the rest of them it didn’t help whatsoever.

It’s typically all other drivers, like harsh winters, habitat loss, drought, things like that, that are causing the mule deer decline. But the approach continues to be kill more lions. We’ll get more deer. It’s not supported by the science, it’s not supported by the research, but that is something that you’ll often hear touted and likely that has a significant part to play in this.

[Brooke]: It’s amazing how much more complicated ecosystem and ecosystem management actually is, especially when you take out a key apex predator. So, obviously, this isn’t good for any of that. No matter how we feel about lions, or mule deer, or government or anything, we have systems in place for a reason.

We have wildlife biologists in place for a reason. We have departments in place for a reason. And just to see that someone would have the power to overstep what we have set up as our government just infuriates me. And I don’t like to get infuriated often, but these kinds of things really make me mad.

For me and anyone listening, is there anything that we can do, not being in Utah, that we can say? Or can we call a representative or something like that? Send comments in. What can we do as non-Utahans or people from Utah? Can we help in this situation at all?

[Denise]: Yes. Good question. So, I’m sure you’ve got listeners and viewers in Utah, so those people right away need to call Governor Cox or email him at his online portal and ask him to veto House Bill 469. That is literally our last chance to kill this bill before it either passes into law or is signed into law, which is interesting because Governor Cox, I’ve heard is thinking about not signing it, but letting it pass into law anyway, instead of redoing it.

But we need people to reach out to him ASAP and say that we do not support this. We want you to veto this bill and we have to keep the pressure up. And that’s for folks in Utah.

For folks who aren’t in Utah, it doesn’t hurt to call or email. More often than not, when it comes to Utah in particular, and typically other states are similar, they may or may not factor that in as much into their decision, which is why we’re really trying to get Utahans to really reach out and contact the governor and really make their voices heard.

But for folks outside of Utah, I would spread the word because you don’t know if a friend of a friend has family or friends in Utah that can call and reach out. So we’re asking everybody to just spread the word, get the message out there that this is going on here in Utah and we have a very short window.

Frankly, the governor could sign this any day if he wanted to. Otherwise, he has until March 23rd when it will automatically signed into law. So time is of the essence, and we just really need to get people out there calling the governor, getting their friends to call the governor, getting their family to call the governor, getting everyone they know to call the governor or write the governor and say, this is not something we want as Utahans that we want.

Management to stay with the experts and the people who understand the animals, understand the biology, understand the impacts of their role in the ecosystem, everything. This is honestly a deciding moment in mountain lion management in Utah, and we can’t afford to not take action at this point.

[Brooke]: Totally agree.

And coming on and sharing your wisdom is all part of it. So again, thank you, Denise, for sitting down with me for a little slice of time to really shed light on this big issue and what we can do as people in Utah or anywhere else, how we can help with our big kitties in the area. So thank you so much.

[Denise] Yeah, not a problem. Thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate the time.


In the short time since Denise and I sat down, Governor Cox signed the bill into law, allowing the unfettered killing of mountain lions. I hope you all have gathered that I do my best to stay neutral on most conservation issues, but damn. This one hurt my heart. I’m a predator biologist and particularly fond of large carnivores, but I always keep my passion in perspective and understand that living with predators is not easy. This surpasses coexistence problems, however. Everyone is upset about this ruling: biologists, houndsmen, trophy hunters, and nature enthusiasts. 

Because this news is so fresh, I don’t have any additional information to share with you all. I will have Denise as a guest for a future episode so that you all can meet her and hear her story. I’ll be sure to keep you all posted on this story as it develops.

The Willow Project

Next, I want to chat about the Willow Project.

What is the Willow project?

I’ll give you a quick rundown in case you haven’t heard about this project. 

On March 13th, the Biden Administration approved ConocoPhillips’ Willow Project, which will extract just under 600 million barrels of oil over the next three decades from the North Slope of Alaska in the US’ National Petroleum Reserve. The project is estimated to produce over 2,500 temporary jobs, 300 permanent positions, and generate an estimated $8 billion in revenue.

Okay, time to unpack this thing.

Obviously, my first reaction was “WHAT THE F*CK!” in all caps, since Biden has been touted as the US’ first climate president and set crazy ambitious climate goals, like 30 by 30, which I covered in Episode 109 if you’d like to hear more about that initiative.

My newsfeed was filled with headlines that called Willow a “climate bomb”, “climate disaster”, contradictory to all of Biden’s previous actions, and on and on. 

So, in true researcher fashion, I asked, what’s the story behind this project?

Timeline of the Willow Project

First, the 23-million-acre National Petroleum Reserve was set aside by President Harding in 1923 for the US Navy as an emergency oil supply should the United States need to rely on its own resources and not the world economy. In 1976, through the Naval Petroleum Reserves Production Act, regulation of the land was transferred to the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and given the name NPR-A. Through this same Act, oil and gas leases were authorized and big oil companies began drilling operations in the area.

ConocoPhillips is the largest oil producer in Alaska. In 1999, the company was granted its first oil leases in the Willow project area, and in 2017, ConocoPhillips announced the Willow Project to the public. In 2018, the BLM began analyzing the impact of the project and writing an Environmental Impact Statement. Since then, the project has been revised, sent out for public comment, commented on by local communities, hastily pushed through by the Trump administration, halted in Alaskan courts, revised in 2022, and then officially signed and approved a week ago by Biden.

Originally, the project included five drilling sites, but the Biden Administration forced the plan to be reduced by 40% for a total of three drilling sites. Additionally, ConocoPhillips must relinquish 68,000 acres of other oil leases. In total, the project will develop 431 miles of ice roads, 30 miles of gravel roads, and 268 miles of pipelines.

Effects on Climate Change

Here’s where things get interesting. I wanted to understand why major news outlets were calling this project a “climate bomb”. It turns out that in order to create stable ground to build their operations, ConocoPhillips must refreeze the melting permafrost, in addition to the staggering amount of emissions burning the extracted oil will produce.

This one project will negate all of the carbon emission reductions from renewable energy resources that Biden has put into place. In other words, the Willow Project will generate over twice as many greenhouse gases as will be reduced through renewable energy by 2030.

 I’ll let that settle in for a second.

To “balance” the impact of Willow, Biden has announced proposals to limit future development in the NPR-A by indefinitely prohibiting drilling in 13 million acres of the reserve to protect critical wildlife habitat, plus ban drilling in an additional 2.5 million acres of the Arctic Ocean just north of the region. 

Countless organizations and individuals online are saying that these efforts aren’t enough to offset or justify the “carbon bomb” that the Willow Project will subsequently release. The consequences are too great like accelerated permafrost melting, destroying critical habitat for endangered species like polar bears and nesting birds, disrupting the region’s caribou migration, and contributing to even higher increases in global warming.

What are local Alaskans saying?

I could clearly decipher what environmentalists think about the issue, but what about local Alaskans? Surprisingly, or unsurprisingly depending which side you’re on, most Alaskans fully support the Willow Project because of the amount of opportunity it will bring to local economies and the state. The Alaskan House of Representatives voted unanimously in support for the project, 36-0.

From everything I read, Alaskan Indigenous groups are more torn on the project. Some support Willow and say it’ll bring vital support to their villages, while others say it’ll significantly affect the wildlife and land that they depend on. It seems like the latter group is smaller than the former, and that Alaskans truly want Willow to proceed. 

This is where I’m personally torn. I was raised in a blue-collar region of the Appalachians, and trust me, no green businesses are investing in the area. If Alaskans want to improve their quality of life and a company presents an appealing offer that will bring noticeable wealth to their economy, can you blame them for wanting to accept it, no matter the cost to a remote region of the state?

I’m a big-picture person, and just like with Utah’s mountain lions, it seems that these decision-makers are not willing or able to see the long-term effects these decisions will have on the natural spaces that we depend on. I can’t even begin with what-ifs right now, but it seems like this project is highly likely to proceed. (This is why I work in conservation tourism, everyone. If we want to keep land intact, then we need to make it pay for itself and this is a perfect example of that.)

Back to the project.

Willow is Political

Immediately upon approval, several environmental groups came forward and sued the government to try to get this project stopped. We shall see if they have any success. 

Going back to the big picture, I had to ask myself, “Why is this project being approved of now?”, and just as I suspected, the war in Ukraine and subsequent oil sanctions on Russia are mentioned in several articles. 

Project Willow is political. It has very little to do with conservation, climate change mitigation, or environmental stewardship. While I’m glad the scope of the project was reduced, I don’t foresee this thing going away unless there are major shifts in global politics, the Alaskan government creates more sustainable opportunities for its citizens, or if environmental groups are able to put a case together so strong that the courts have to overturn the project approval. I could be wrong and I hope I am. I like to consider myself a cautious optimist  – always hoping for the best, but not surprised when the worst comes to be.

I’ll be sure to keep you all posted on how this develops and if there are any positive changes to report.


Alright, I think that’s enough for today on this episode of governments causing havoc for conservation. If you have a question or comment about today’s episode, please submit your question in the Rewildologist Facebook group or leave your thoughts in the comment section below.

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