April Reese, Land Letter Southwest reporter
SANTA FE, N.M. — Cougar hunting has been a part of life in the West for decades. But some wildlife advocates contend state management efforts are often overly aggressive, killing an increasing number of the animals for no clear benefit to public safety.
Rich Hopkins of the Cougar Fund, a conservation organization based in Jackson, Wyo., said cougar management policies often involve hunting quotas that are based more on guesswork than science. That means in some cases, too many cougars may be under the gun, he said.
“Cougars can be overharvested,” said Hopkins, speaking at a carnivore conservation conference held here in mid-November.
Like other carnivores in the West, cougars — also known as mountain lions or pumas — were long seen as competition for game and a threat to livestock and were aggressively hunted for almost two centuries.
“Basically, when we settled the West, we essentially tried to kill every large carnivore there was, because they competed with us,” said Rick Winslow, a wildlife biologist with the New Mexico Department of Fish and Game. “So we’ve spent the past couple hundred years trying to kill them off.”
The cougar has the greatest natural distribution of any mammal in the Western Hemisphere except for man. Photo courtesy of the Bureau of Land Management.
Today, for the most part, the big cat is no longer found east of the Rocky Mountains. But the species has made something of a comeback in the West, where viable populations persist in 12 states. Of those, 11 states have adopted sport hunting programs, and most states kill cougars that are determined to be a direct threat to the public or livestock.
But few states have been able to gather hard data on mountain lion numbers, relying instead on estimates based on the amount of suitable habitat, extrapolated from one or two site-specific studies or reported cougar sightings — information critics say is insufficient to determine hunting quotas. Sighting reports are unreliable and often false, and it is impossible to estimate cougar numbers based on sightings alone, Hopkins said, warning that management policies based on such reports are “doomed to failure.”
“There’s no evidence that increased sightings translates into increased risk” to the public, he said.
Furthermore, few studies have been done to test what effect hunting programs have on cougar populations, Hopkins added. “Harvest levels have been pushed to all-time highs based on little or no empirical evidence,” he said.
Setting the quota
Wendy Keefover-Ring, director of carnivore protection for Sinapu, a wildlife advocacy group based in Boulder, Colo., pointed to New Mexico’s harvest program as an example of overzealous cougar management.
A 1995 study recommended that New Mexico establish sustainable hunting zones and “refugia,” areas where hunting is off-limits. Instead, “they’ve increased the quota to the highest it’s been in 20 years” — from 110 in the 1980s to 230 today, she said.
But Winslow said state wildlife officials have set appropriate hunting quotas by using the results of that study, which looked at a cougar population in the San Andreas Mountains, to estimate cougar populations in other parts of the state.
Yet he acknowledged that drawing statewide conclusions from one study is not ideal. “It’s hard to say if the population is stable or expanding,” he said. “But I would say at this point it’s fairly stable. Virtually everywhere in New Mexico that we have habitat, we have cougars.”
State wildlife officials say they use the best available science to determine reasonable harvest levels, and use caution in setting limits in areas where data are lacking. They acknowledge that gathering more precise numbers on cougar populations would allow for better-informed management decisions, but note that population studies are expensive and difficult because of the cat’s elusive nature and expansive territories.
“Getting absolute numbers on how many there are is a very expensive and tricky proposition,” said Tice Supplee, game program chief for the Arizona Department of Game and Fish.
About 2,500 cougars are thought to roam the state, although those estimates are imprecise, she said.
Echoing a common regret among state wildlife managers, Supplee said limited resources prevent Arizona from getting a better scientific grip on cougar populations in the state. Even so, wildlife biologists are able to make fairly good decisions about cougar management, she said.
“Those interested in [cougar protection] like the idea of more hands-on work with those animals, yet that may not be warranted,” she said. “The other approach is to adopt conservative harvest programs, which I believe most of the states have done.”
In low desert areas, where the drought has taken a particularly heavy toll on prey, Arizona has set the harvest limit at one cougar per year, and some areas are off-limits to cougar hunting altogether, Supplee said. Harvest limits, which average about 250 animals per year, have been set for areas where hunting is permitted.
Arizona hunters killed 218 cougars last year, the lowest number in the past five years. The state’s harvest numbers have been stable for several years, and “it would appear that the harvest is having a low effect on the population of cougars in the state,” Supplee said.
A study in central Arizona and another in New Mexico found that even high harvest levels had little long-term effect on the population, because cougars from the surrounding area filled the void within a year or two, she added.
But some states are moving toward a more cautious approach to cougar management. In Colorado, the state wildlife commission voted in mid-November to lower the mountain lion hunting quota for 2005, from 790 animals to 567. It also plans to launch a $2 million long-term study using radio collars to track the state’s cougar population, which is currently estimated at about 3,400 animals.
“This is a big step,” said Keefover-Ring, whose organization pushed for a lower quota. “Colorado is one state that is definitely on the path to responsible cougar management.”
Bonnie Kline, executive director of the Colorado Wool Growers Association, said her organization does not have a problem with the newly lowered quota because it is within the range of historic harvest levels. But she is concerned that wildlife advocates will try to further reduce the quotas.
“If there’s increased depredation, we’ll try to get the quota raised,” she said.
“Managing mountain lion populations can certainly benefit the livestock industry [by preventing depredation],” she added. “All the information on the ground from hunters and ranchers suggests that everybody’s seeing more lions.”
The only Western state that does not allow mountain lion hunting is California. In 1990, residents voted in favor of Proposition 17, which banned sport hunting of cougars in the state. Animals that are determined to be a public safety risk or prey on livestock are killed, however.
While the department receives hundreds of reports of mountain lion sightings each year, fewer than 3 percent are found to be public safety threats requiring the killing of the animal, department officials note. This year, just nine mountain lions were killed for public safety reasons.
According to what the California Department of Fish and Game describes as a “crude” estimate, between 4,000 and 6,000 mountain lions live in California. About half of the fast-growing state is prime habitat for the species.
While there have been only 15 verified mountain lion attacks in California since 1890, 13 of those attacks have occurred since 1986 — an increase that some suspect could be due to the increasing human presence in cougar habitat.
“We’ve definitely seen that,” said Steve Martarano, a spokesman for the California Department of Fish and Game. “Lions are ending up in places that are sort of rare, like neighborhoods.” One cougar was recently spotted in a tree in Palo Alto, he said.
Highly publicized attacks on two mountain bikers on a trail in Southern California’s Orange County last winter that left one person dead triggered a call among some area residents for re-instating a cougar hunt, but much of the public remains supportive of the ban. Under the terms of the ballot initiative, a majority of the state Legislature would have to vote in favor of resuming the hunt — a “highly unlikely” prospect, Martarano said.