A Bureau of Land Management (BLM) employee who illegally trapped and shot a female cougar in San Juan County appeared in the 7th District Court in Monticello on June 4 with his son, who helped to skin the animal.
David G. Williams, of Moab, is a rangeland management specialist for the Bureau of Land Management.
Following an investigation, the 61-year-old told the Utah Division of Wildlife Services in January that he shot and killed a cougar after he caught it in a leg trap near the town of La Sal.
“I'm sorry I did it, uh, [it was] a last minute thing ... the cougar was in a trap, I got excited and I killed it.” David Williams told the court during his plea and sentence hearing,
Harvesting cougars in the state is legal with a valid permit, but using traps to harvest cougars in the state is illegal. Officials working on the case in San Juan County said there are only two legal forms of harvesting cougars in the state, and neither involves trapping. Permitted hunts must involve either “spot and stalk,” or the use of hunting dogs.
Kendall Laws, San Juan County prosecuting attorney, handled the case.
“If you catch a cougar in a trap, you have to actually let it go,” Laws said, specifying that all live traps, snares, foot traps and kill traps are illegal to use in harvesting cougars in the state.
The Utah Division of Wildlife Services (DWR) filed charges against Williams in San Juan County after he admitted to harvesting the cougar in a trap.
Court records show he was charged with the wanton destruction of protected wildlife, and obstructing justice, each a class A misdemeanor. The complaint was filed on February 23. On the same day, a complaint was filed against Williams’ 37-year-old son, Brandon, for aiding and assisting in the wanton destruction of protected wildlife, also a class A misdemeanor.
Father and son both answered to the charges on June 4.
In a plea and sentence agreement with the state, David Williams plead guilty to the charge of wanton destruction of protected wildlife, a class A misdemeanor, and the obstructing justice charge was dismissed. In court records, Williams wrote, “I shot and killed a cougar I trapped in a leg-hold trap intended to catch bobcats. Used (a) snare to take cougar. Cougar should have been released. Happened in San Juan County on or about January of 2018.”
His sentencing order is two years of probation, a $400 fine and a $400 restitution payment. A one year jail sentence was ordered, but suspended, by 7th District Court Judge Lyle R. Anderson. After one year, the court may move to reduce the misdemeanor charge to a class B, court documents said.
Brandon M. Williams, of Moab, plead guilty to the charge of aiding and assisting in the wanton destruction of protected wildlife. He wrote on the record, “On or about January of 2018 helped my father skin a cougar which was trapped and not let go.”
His guilty plea is held in abeyance for one year, during which time he must not be charged with any crimes that result in convictions.
Rangeland management specialists work to ensure that wild animals and their habitats stay healthy and productive on public lands in the state of Utah, according to the BLM. Williams’ job is to administer livestock grazing permits and assist with a sensitive and endangered plant species program, according to Lisa Bryant, BLM public affairs specialist.
Bryant confirmed that Williams is a BLM employee in the area, but was unwilling to provide further information about Williams and his work, citing employee privacy.
Judge Anderson asked Williams where the incident occurred.
“Over by the town of La Sal,” Williams said.
Anderson asked Williams about his employment.
“I work with the BLM,” Williams said.
“So, you could have released the mountain lion?” Anderson asked.
“Not me — I should have called the fish and game,” Williams said.
“They would have come and tranquilized it, and then you could have released it,” Anderson said.
Williams did not return phone calls for comments related to the incident.
At his residence at Grand Oasis in Moab, Williams declined to give any comments to the press on the record. He did confirm that he has been an employee with the BLM since 1981.
Adam Wallerstein, conservation officer in Grand and San Juan counties with the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, filed the charges against Williams, and his son Brandon.
In an affidavit for probable cause filed with the 7th District Court, Wallerstein wrote that Williams contacted the DWR on January 13 to report that he had harvested a mountain lion.
DWR requires people to report cougar harvests. The DWR records the information about a cougar when it is harvested.
When Williams reported the cougar harvest to the DWR, he lied to the agency, saying that he had been hiking along the road when he spotted the cougar and then fired two shots from about a 150-yard distance at the base of Lacky Basin and killed the cougar.
Wallerstein and a second officer investigated the alleged kill site, but were unable to find any signs of a kill in the area. Wallerstein went to talk to Williams, who eventually admitted that he had checked his trap and found the cougar alive in the trap and then shot it.
Williams did have a valid permit for harvesting a cougar, but “in the rules of how you can hunt cougars, the only legal ways to hunt cougars is spot and stalk, or with the aid of dogs,” Wallerstein said. “It's about what we call 'fair chase'”
He said that cougars are typically harvested in the winter, and that the La Sal unit area allows for the harvest of 15 cougars per year and then the area is closed for hunting. Wallerstein said that nearly all recently harvested cougars were hunted using dogs, and that “spot and stalk” is a much more challenging method.
Cougars (also known as mountain lions) are the largest feline species in North America and are generally secretive, solitary and nocturnal. Adult males are around 7 feet long from nose to tail tip, and females average 6 feet, with males weighing 117 to 220 lbs, and females weighing between 64 and 141 lbs.