Friday, October 3, 2008

Cougar attack recounted for game commission

Bogged down in public comment, the New Mexico State Game Commission listened to opinions about a single issue all afternoon.

The commission met in Alamogordo Thursday with the big game hunting rules for 2009-2010 and 2010-2011 seasons on the agenda. When agenda tem No. 11 came up, so did the speakers. The item was on the adoption of amendments to a bear and cougar rule.

Commissioner Leo Sims of Hobbs handed out an adjusted amendment which offered more support to area ranchers.

During the comment period Charlotte Salazar stood with her 5-year-old son Jose Salazar Jr.

"My son was attacked," Charlotte said.

As the Salazar family walked a well-used path on May 17 in the Sandia Mountains above Albuquerque, the boy ran ahead a little bit, she said.

"A mountain lion jumped out of a bush, jumped on him and started clawing his body," she said. "He was grabbed by the head and dragged 300 feet down a hillside."

The boy's father, Jose Salazar, dove after the child and lion. Damaging his ankle and breaking his thumb, Jose reached the lion and child and was able to grab the boy as the animal ran away.

"He had his scalp ripped back and puncture wounds were all over his back and neck," Charlotte said.

In response to a board member's earlier comment that it had not been proven the incident was caused by a mountain lion, Charlotte said they pulled fur from the child's clothing and saliva from his shoe. The DNA tests showed a 95 percent chance the animal actually was a mountain lion.

Charlotte said the commission should not limit year-round cougar hunting and should focus on reducing the number of animals as there are too many in the state.

A number of Guadalupe mountain area ranchers from the southeastern corner of New Mexico talked about the problems involved with increasing cougar numbers in their area.

They said it is nearly impossible to hunt mountain lions with dogs as the scent can't be easily followed and prints don't show up on rocks.

An increase in the cougar population is responsible for the reduction of sheep farmers in a land traditionally perfect for raising sheep, farmers alleged.

Also, challengers said changing the year-round hunting capability to a specific season will harm the ranchers' ability to protect their stock.

"Taking away year-round hunting would hurt the ranchers," Otero Mesa rancher Bebo Lee told the commission.

Mike Cassebonne, president of the New Mexico Federal Lands Council, said there are still quite a few ranchers who raise sheep in Guadalupe mountain area.

"The precipitation cycle is creating an increase in predators generally," Cassebonne said. "The need still exists for this predation program. I can't see the benefits in managing for an increase in lion population."

Cassebonne said when the game commission makes a decision it should be consistent with wildlife management practices.

State Sen. Tim Jennings from the southeastern corner of the state said he was once a sheep man himself.

"It was better for everybody when we had sheep," Jennings said. "We were driven out by the game department. Mountain lions were the main problem."

Jennings said rules prohibiting the animals from being trapped or snared are silly.

"I like to make my living off the land and you guys have ruined the land," he said.

Many ranchers, Jennings pointed out, raise stock on land leased from the federal government.

"What are we going to do with a law that says you can only trap on private land?" Jennings asked. "You get to sell the permits and I get to pay for it. It's not fair.

"I've watched you ruin one of the best sheep countries in the whole world."

Another part of the new game hunting rule involves killing fewer female cougars and more males.

Wendy Keefover-Ring with the WildEarth Guardians said her organization would like to see more encouragement of a program to educate hunters on how to tell male and female mountain lions apart.

She also talked about mandating a female sub-limit on hunting and said the group would like to encourage it.

Jess Gilliland of Tularosa was offended by the idea. He said his family has been hunting cougars and hasn't killed a female in 20 years.

"We don't want to kill females," he said.

One of the game commissioners said the education element is not only for those who know how to identify females but to help those new to hunting the animal.

Gilliland also said that shortening the bear season would be unfair.

In the end the game commission voted to adopt the suggested amendments to the bear and cougar rules and added adjustments to the amendments as suggested by Sims.

The meeting continued past presstime Thursday.

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