Friday, August 25, 2006

NM Game & Fish considers changes in cougar management

Dianne Stallings dstallings@ruidosonews.com
Ruidoso News

With New Mexico Game and Fish officials asking the public for input on the state's cougar management plan, a slide show and informational session on the predator set for Aug. 30 is well timed.

The event at the Ruidoso Public Library is co-sponsored by Animal Protection of New Mexico, Forest Guardians and Sinapu, said spokesman Sarah Pierpont.

"Mountain Lions in New Mexico and the West: Natural History, Conservation and Coexistence," will feature speakers Wendy Keefover-Ring of Sinapu, an organization dedicated to the preservation of large carnivores in the South-west, and Jon Schwedler of Animal Protection of New Mexico.

The program at the library next to Village Hall at the corner of Cree Meadows Drive and Kansas City Street is set for noon as part of the library's Adult Awareness Program Brown Bag Lunch.

The West's red-rock canyon country, rugged foothills, and piƱon-covered mesas provide critical habitat to mountain lions, who also are called cougars, panthers or puma. A charismatic species, mountain lions are an icon of the Southern Rockies, Pierpont said.

The large golden cats, shy and unsocial by nature, prefer rugged terrain that is suitable for ambushing their large prey, such as mule deer and elk.

Mountain lions require expansive habitats because they are an "obligate carnivore," they only eat meat and their food supply is dispersed over long distances. A male lion requires at least 100 square miles of habitat in the arid West, Schwedler said.

A female cat spends about 70 percent of her lifetime raising young. Born year-round, but with births peaking in the summer and fall months, kittens are totally dependent upon their mothers for their first nine months. They typically spend between 10 and 18 months learning survival skills from their mother, he said.

Common sense precautions, such as traveling in groups while recreating in lion country can eliminate potential human-lion conflicts.

The session Aug. 30 will cover the natural history of mountain lion, skills to successfully co-exist with the large native carnivore and how people can help ensure New Mexico's proper management of the state's cougar population improves.

Keefover-Ring, Sinapu's dir-ector of the Carnivore Protec-tion Program, and Schwedler, APNM's Cougar Campaign contact, will be touring eight New Mexico cities to present the program.

Schwedler explained that NMG&F officials are proposing increasing the harvest limit of 233 cougars across the state by 17 percent to 273.

Currently, a set number of cougars may be sport hunted and killed within each game unit, but those killed on private land in each area are not counted in the final tally.

Essentially, an unlimited number of the mountain cats could be killed on private land, he noted. "That's the way it has been for a long time. As far as I know, no other state handles cougar management that way."

To try to capture some of private land cougar kills, NMG&F officials are considering creating a separate category of management to come up with a sustainable mortality level, combining all private, road kill and sport harvest in a unit added together for a total of 446 cougars statewide.

"Our concern is that is so high, it represents more than 25 percent of the cougars in the state, by (NMG&F's) own estimates," Schwedler said.

"If you look at their numbers, the number of females being killed in the sport harvest is going up," he said. "When it goes over 25 percent, you're looking at the population not going up. It will be going down. In 2005, 48 percent of the harvest were females."

Marty Frentzel, chief of public information and outreach for NMG&F, emphasized that the proposals are just that, proposed changes and they are up for debate.

He explained Monday that the number of allowed kills is not going up in all sport hunt zones.

"Some are going down," he said. "But if you look at the overall numbers, you don't see that. Cougars do have a significant impact on other animals."

The overall number includes cougars killed by the predator control program in the state designed to protect livestock.

Frentzel emphasized that the review is the normal setting of two-year hunting regulations.

"This year, we are proposed adjusting the numbers by the zones," he said.

"It is an increase, but our management objectives probably are not the same as others. Cougars are a valuable big game species. We don't want to eliminate them, just reduce the number in certain units."

Only one sport harvest unit has no limit, he said. It's located in Hidalgo County in desert bighorn sheep country.

Rick Winslow, Large Carni-vore and Furbearer Biologist with the Wildlife Management Division of NMG&F, said the estimated adult cougar population statewide lies between 1,500 and 2,500.

The changes being contemplated are based on new habitat and range ideas for cougar in New Mexico, he said.

"Basically, we are not done trying to integrate the changes yet, so the proposed rule change available on the G&F Web site is not the final version," Winslow said. "We always accept public opinion. Two more Game Commission meetings are scheduled dealing with the current changes to the regulations for the next regulation cycle of 2007-2009."

Schwedler said the number of days it takes a hunter to kill a cougar has been going up since 1969 and the level of success is going down, which would indicate the resource is declining, better habitat is needed and the female subcategory should be modified and protected as a source of replenishing the population. When females die, they may leave orphaned cubs who also will perish without the protection and nutrition from the mother.

The animals harvested should be examined for age, condition and sex, no matter where or how they are killed, Schwedler said.

He placed the population estimate of cougars at a lower figure of about 1,400.

"With an annual sport kill number at 273 and sustainability mortality figure at 446, that's pretty scary," he said.

The groups also want to see more NMG&F outreach for residents to learn how to live with cougars in their communities.

"We don't want to wait until someone loses a pet," Schwedler said. "If you have mule deer in your backyard, don't leave pets outside overnight" The cougars will be drawn by the mule deer herd, but are opportunistic and will kill smaller prey such as cats and dogs.

The next Game Commission meeting is set for Sept. 28-29 in Tucumcari, Frentzel said. People are welcome to present oral comments.

Written comments may be submitted by Aug. 30 by e-mail to Darrelweybright@state.nm.-us or by regular mail to New Mexico Game and Fish, Attn: Darrel Weybright, Big Game Program Manager, P.O. Box 25112, Santa Fe, NM 87504.

Check for the time, date and location of other commission meetings on the department Web site at www.wildlife.state.-nm.us.

http://www.ruidosonews.com/news/ci_4222393

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