NM Game and Fish recommends cougar hunting changes
Conservationists who have been seeking changes in the way New Mexico wildlife officials manage cougar hunts are throwing their support behind agency recommendations that they say will help maintain the big cats' population.
The state Game and Fish Department is recommending that the agency provide information on its Web site to teach hunters the difference between male and female cats to ensure that more breeding females are left in the wild and kittens are not orphaned.
The department is also recommending that a cougar control program aimed at reducing depredation of livestock in the southeastern part of the state come to an end.
Those recommendations and others dealing with New Mexico's big game hunting rules for the 2009 and 2010 seasons will be taken up by the state Game Commission at its Oct. 2 meeting.
"We try to present what we think are valid recommendations, whatever the species is," said Marty Frentzel, a department spokesman.
Wendy Keefover-Ring, director of carnivore protection for WildEarth Guardians, said she could not be more pleased with the department's proposals.
"I think this takes New Mexico out of the dark ages of mountain lion management and puts it up into the front in terms of adopting the best available science," she said.
WildEarth Guardians and Animal Protection of New Mexico had requested that the department require hunters to take an online cougar education and identification course prior to obtaining a hunting license.
Keefover-Ring said she hopes the Game Commission approves the course. Colorado is currently the only state with a mandatory cougar ID program, and she said it took several years to make that happen.
If approved, Frentzel said it would be up to the commission to decide whether the course is voluntary or mandatory.
While New Mexico game officials have said the state's cougar population is healthy, WildEarth Guardians and Animal Protection of New Mexico contend that too many female cats are being killed during hunting season.
The groups say more than two-fifths of all cougars killed in New Mexico since 1999 have been females. They say mother cats play an important role in protecting, feeding and teaching their kittens survival skills.
As part of its recommendations, Game and Fish suggests that only a quarter of cougar harvests in each hunting zone be females. If the number of female kills comes within 10 percent of that limit, the department could shut down hunting in that area.
Keefover-Ring called that "a huge step forward toward protecting females," but she said the department should consider dropping the percentage of female kills even lower.
The groups also wanted the department to stop spending tens of thousands of dollars each year on snaring mountain lions in southeastern New Mexico to benefit livestock owners.
Keefover-Ring called the depredation prevention program "expensive and stupid," saying sheep grazing in the area has declined tremendously in just a few years and that ranchers have other non-lethal means of ensuring that their livestock do not become prey.
Frentzel said the current contract to trap cougars in the southeast will expire in January. While the department recommends ending the program, he said it will be up to the Game Commission to decide whether that happens in January or the trapper is given 30 days' notice.
The department is still receiving comments on other aspects of mountain lion hunting—for example, whether year-round hunting on private land should be allowed. Frentzel said the commission will have to make that decision after hearing from the public.