NM approves cougar hunt changes, ID course
Mountain lion management in New Mexico is changing and wildlife advocates say it's for the better, with new protections for female cats and their kittens and the end of a cougar-snaring program.
But the changes aren't sitting well with ranchers and others in southeastern New Mexico.
The state Game Commission, at its meeting last week, approved a voluntary hunter education course to teach hunters the difference between male and female cats to ensure that more breeding females are left in the wild.
Commissioners also voted in favor of setting a limit on how many cougars can be harvested around the state and how many of those can be female cats. If the number of female kills comes within 10 percent of the limit in a given hunting unit, conservation officers can shut down hunting in that particular area.
"New Mexicans and the Game Commission understand that cougars are icons of majesty and wildness. These hunting reforms not only enhance conservation of the species, but reduce the ethical dilemma associated with orphaned cougar kittens," said Wendy Keefover-Ring of WildEarth Guardians.
The commission also approved a department recommendation to end the preventative cougar control program in southeastern New Mexico, which was aimed at reducing depredation of livestock.
Environmentalists criticized the program, saying the state was spending tens of thousands of dollars a year to benefit a few livestock owners.
But Debbie Hughes, whose family ranches along the Guadalupe Mountains in southeastern New Mexico and holds the contract to snare the cougars, argued that the program has helped ranchers maintain their livelihoods and it has led to an increase in the area's once-declining deer population.
"To get this program nearly 24 years ago, we had to suffer extreme economic losses," Hughes said. "We went to hundreds of meetings and took hundreds of pictures and wrote hundreds of letters to prove and document all of these losses. And it was like none of that mattered, they just threw it all out the window."
Hughes said she fears depredation of livestock and deer will increase without the control program. She noted that the Guadalupe Mountains National Park and Carlsbad Caverns National Monument do not allow hunting and that cougars often fan out from the parks to the nearby ranches.
Hughes, who also serves as executive director of the New Mexico Association of Conservation Districts, said safety is another concern.
"We have had in this state three human attacks by mountain lions in the past six months," Hughes said, referring to cases near Albuquerque, Taos and Silver City. "That right there tells the whole story. The mountain lion population is totally out of control."
Wildlife activists, however, couldn't disagree more.
WildEarth Guardians and Animal Protection of New Mexico contend that the number of cougars killed on private land has more than doubled in recent years and too many female cats are being killed during hunting season, resulting in abandoned kittens and lost breeding opportunities for the species.
The groups also dispute the idea that cougar control programs would increase safety. Keefover-Ring said several studies have found no evidence that hunting or snaring reduces human attacks.
Game Commission chairman Tom Arvas acknowledged that ranchers are concerned about the cougar management changes, but said he believes the game department is doing a good job at managing the species' population.
"I think in some of the public's eye, we're still not doing enough," Arvas said. "We try to make everyone happy."