Sunday, April 15, 2007

Cougar hunts may be part of Ariz. bighorn sheep plan

Leah Duran
Cronkite News Service
Apr. 13, 2007 11:57 AM

The Legislature has approved a memorial calling for Congress to recognize the state Game and Fish Department as having the authority to manage the declining desert bighorn sheep herd in the Kofa National Wildlife Refuge in southwestern Arizona.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has the final authority in the refuge, though the Arizona Game and Fish Department, which is charged with managing the state's wildlife, works with the agency, said Paul Cornes, manager of the Kofa range.

The memorial's sponsor, Rep. Jerry Weiers, R-Glendale, said Game and Fish officials need to respond quickly to threats facing bighorns, including predators such as mountain lions. advertisement

"It's a simple request to allow Game and Fish to do the things necessary to make certain we don't lose our extremely important herd of bighorn sheep," said Weiers, a member of the Arizona Desert Bighorn Sheep Society.

Weiers said a response to the decline could include a mountain lion hunt. The Fish and Wildlife Service has temporarily shelved a proposal for a mountain lion hunt on the Kofa range, Cornes said.

The Senate approved HCM 2008 on Thursday on a 19-9 vote. The House approved it last month on a 37-20 vote.

The secretary of state will transmit the memorial to the state's congressmen, among others.

The memorial won't change the working relationship between the Fish and Wildlife Service and Game and Fish, Cornes said.

"We're not in an adversarial position," Cornes said. "We have a good working relationship with Game and Fish in Yuma. Our biologists are addressing the overall decline of the bighorn sheep population together."

The driving force behind the creation of the Kofa Refuge in 1939 was protecting bighorn sheep. About 400 live in the refuge, which covers 665,000 acres east of U.S. 95 between Yuma and Quartzsite.

Studies conducted by the Fish and Wildlife Service and Game and Fish found a 51.9 percent decrease in the Kofa bighorn sheep population between 2000 and 2006. Cornes cited disease, drought and predators such as the mountain lion as possible reasons for the decline.

For 50 years, more than 550 bighorns have been taken from the Kofa range and transplanted around the Southwest to establish new herds or supplement existing ones, Cornes said. Such relocations can't continue with the current bighorn population, Cornes said.

Mike Golightly, chairman of the Arizona Game and Fish Commission, said he is worried that mountain lions are contributing to shrinking bighorn sheep numbers.

"There has been a noticeable increase of mountain lion sightings in the area," Golightly said. "If we determine that lion predation is the cause of the loss of bighorn sheep, the appropriate action would be to reduce the lion population. Something needs to start happening in terms of studies and management actions sooner rather than later."

There is no evidence to support the claim that mountain lions are to blame for the decline in bighorn sheep, said Sandy Bahr, conservation outreach director for the Grand Canyon Chapter of the Sierra Club.

"This is a way for Game and Fish to try and supersede the suspended hunt of mountain lions," Bahr said. "They are seeking to put more politics in an area where we should be looking at the science."

Mountain lions might now be living on Kofa instead of just passing through, which has been the norm, said Terry Allison, a hunter education instructor and former president of the Arizona State Rifle & Pistol Association.

"This isn't about killing lions out of bloodlust," Allison said. "Without proper game management, we could lose the lions and bighorn sheep." 0413cns-kofa13-ON.html

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