On Friday, the New Mexico House Agriculture, Water, and Wildlife Committee advanced a bill that would effectively treat the state’s mountain lions as nuisance animals. According to The New Mexican, the bill would overturn a regulations that currently that protect females and cubs from being hunted, as well as removing the requirement of a hunting license in order to harvest a cougar. This would effectively start an open season on the cats in which they could be hunted or trapped at any time without harvest limits. If the bill passes, the state’s Department of Game and Fish (NMDGF) will also no longer regulate mountain lions as a game animal or manage their population.
Conservation groups were outraged by the bill, calling it a blatant move to wrest authority away from the Department of Game and Fish. Despite offering many new hunting opportunities, some sportsmen and women also say they oppose the bill.
“The NMDGF needs to retain the authority to track and manage cougar numbers statewide—as a game animal—using sound science. This is imperative for the sake of bighorn and mule deer restoration projects to say the least. The department simply cannot do this if lions become a non-game animal,” stated the New Mexico Wildlife Federation, a nonprofit organization of sportsmen and women focused on the conservation of the state’s wildlife.
Wildlife officials estimate there are between 3,000 to 4,500 cougars in New Mexico. Every year, 2,000 hunting licenses are issued and a maximum of 700 cats can be harvested, although hunters usually only bring in a little over 200. According to Representative Zach Cook (R-Ruidoso), that number is far too low to adequately control the mountain lion population. Cook is supported by many ranchers who say that mountain lions have been killing livestock, which in addition to an ongoing drought, is causing an untenable situation.
Critics of the bill say that there is little evidence that cougar predation is having a large effect on livestock, and that the bill will threaten an already struggling species.
The NMDGF is among the organizations opposing the legislation, stating that if the bill passes, they will not be able monitor the species or take care of problem animals.
“We wish the sport harvest was a little more successful,” NMDGF Director Alexa Sandoval told the Albuquerque Journal. “Once they become an unprotected species, we have no legal authority over that animal.”
The legislation is now headed for additional committee approval before it can be voted on in the state House.
Image courtesy National Park Service