By DEBORAH BAKER
Cougars are one of the most elusive predators and the hardest-to-hunt predators on the planet
SANTA FE, N.M. – When snow finally fell recently on the 292,000-acre Bell Ranch in northeastern New Mexico, Bert Ancell went looking for a cougar.
He found the big cat’s tracks, let the dogs out, then followed them perhaps five miles until they lost the scent up a canyon.
”They thought they had him treed… but they could never find him,” recalled Ancell, the cattle ranch’s assistant manager. ”Cougars are one of the most elusive predators and the hardest-to-hunt predators on the planet.”
If Ancell has his way, cougars — also known as mountain lions — could be shot on sight by New Mexicans who happen to encounter them. A proposal pending in the state Legislature would do away with the cougar’s 34-year-old protection as a big-game animal whose hunting is regulated.
Supporters say that would help boost the flagging number of mule deer — a staple of the lions’ diet — as well as aid livestock growers who lose cattle, sheep and horses to the cats’ urge to snack.
And they contend that the difficulty of finding cougars ensures that they wouldn’t die out even if hunting were unlimited.
”If you saw one, you’d have the chance to kind of cut down on the population a little bit,” said Rep. Brian Moore, R-Clayton, the bill’s sponsor, whose huge eastside district borders Colorado, Oklahoma and Texas.
Wildlife advocates are horrified by the proposal, which would give cougars the status of coyotes or skunks. It would make New Mexico the only state other than Texas that treats them as varmints.
Lisa Jennings, executive director of Animal Protection of New Mexico, calls it a return to ”19th century policies and practices regarding wildlife management.” It’s barely a cut above the $5 bounty on cougars that the Territorial Legislature of New Mexico enacted in 1867, she said.
Mountain lions are found in every Western state, and their hunting is regulated by state agencies — except in California, where no sport hunting is allowed.
”Because they are so cryptic and so shy and because they avoid each other… their density across the West is very low,” said Wendy Keefover-Ring, director of carnivore protection for Sinapu, a Boulder, Colo.-based wildlife advocacy group.
A large tom can have a range of 100 square miles, she said.
Over the two decades ending in 2002, the number of mountain lions killed by sport hunters in 10 Western states each year roughly tripled, to 3,500, according to Keefover-Ring.
”I am very concerned that… they may be imperiled,” she said. Instead of the ”wrongheaded” approach of the New Mexico legislation, states ought to be studying the density of the large predators, she said.
In Colorado — where population estimates range from 3,000 to 7,000 — the Wildlife Commission has launched a 10-year study to determine the number of mountain lions, its habitat requirements and the number of prey.
The commission also decided to reduce the number of cougars that can be killed this year, from 790 to 567.
In New Mexico, the Game and Fish Department’s best guess — based on a decade-old study — is that there are between 2,000 and 2,500 of the cats.
The number of mountain lions that can be killed by sport hunters during New Mexico’s six-month season varies by zone, but is capped this year at 233 statewide.
Ranchers and their employees can kill cougars year-round on private lands, but they’re limited to one cougar apiece a year. Those kills don’t count against the statewide harvest limit.
© 2005 Monterey County Herald and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.