BY JAMES GILBERT, SUN STAFF WRITER
July 8, 2007 - 12:37AM
A national conservation organization is upset over the recent killing of a mountain lion north of the Kofa National Wildlife Refuge. State officials have said the killing was necessary to prevent the further decline of the desert bighorn sheep population, which has reached a historic low.
Arizona Game and Fish Department officials killed the mountain lion last month in the Plomosa-New Water Mountains north of the refuge on June 30.
According to Gary Hovatter, thee information and program manager for the Yuma office, the agency has determined that lions that take more than two sheep in a six-month period are a "significant threat" to the "already seriously declining bighorn sheep herd."
The young male lion was found with two freshly killed bighorn sheep and one freshly killed mule deer. It had been preying on desert bighorn sheep in the Kofa Mountains and other surrounding mountain ranges for several months, Hovatter said.
Daniel Patterson, southwest director and ecologist for Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, called the killing unethical and criticized the state agencies for their management practices on the refuge.
"We are opposed to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Arizona Game and Fish's management of the Kofa Wildlife Refuge as a bighorn sheep farm rather than a natural landscape," Patterson said. "Persecuting the few mountain lions that exist out there is single species management in a place where there should be holistic management."
"Wildlife refuges," Patterson added, "are there to benefit all wildlife, including predators, not one species."
The Kofa sheep herd was once one of the most robust herds in the nation and has been a critically important source of sheep for repopulating Arizona and other southwestern mountain ranges for 50 years.
Hovatter said there is not a more important herd for this subspecies of bighorn sheep anywhere else in the country.
Hovatter went on to say the agency had been tracking the lion through the use of satellite telemetry since February as part of efforts to restore the Kofa herd and was able to track it down due to a global position collar the animal wore.
"That collar was basically a death sentence for that mountain lion," Patterson said. "Hunting down the animal that way was dishonest and unethical."
Hovatter said the killing of the mountain lion was not a hunt - instead that it was an administrative act to remove an animal that was having a negative impact on the prey species.
Wildlife officials announced in November that the triennial survey of the Kofa bighorn sheep herd indicated the herd had fallen to a historic low estimate of 390 animals, representing a severe decline from the estimated 812 animals found during the 2000 survey.
Hovatter said at the time the lion was killed, it was one of at least five lions that were spending enough time on the refuge to be considered "resident" lions and that five different lions have, in fact, been recorded by remote cameras at water catchments on the refuge.
This represents a significant change from the transient lion population that has been the historic norm for this part of Arizona, Hovatter added.
Hovatter also added that, based on what they know about lions, the cats will eat about 260 sheep a year, while the herd will only produce about 40 yearlings a year.
There are an estimated 2,500 mountain lions in the state of Arizona, according to Game and Fish.
As a result, transplants from the Kofa National Wildlife Refuge were suspended this year due to the severe population decline. As announced last November, wildlife experts attribute the decline to a variety of factors including drought, predation, disease and human disturbance.
Patterson said he would like the research on the mountain lions to continue, but he can no longer support having any more of the animals collared if the device is going to be used to kill them.
"I can't support this until there is a better ethic," Patterson said.
Patterson added that he considers the killing of the mountain lion after it had been collared a waste of money and research information.
"We are going to continue to be involved to make sure it doesn't happen again," he said.
Hovatter added that a second mountain lion was collared the day after the first mountain lion was killed and the animal is being closely watched as well.
"A decision has been made to study the animal's preying habit," Hovatter said. "And if they show a propensity to prey on bighorn sheep, it will have to be removed."
Patterson, who says he is a hunter himself, added that a better approach to protecting the big horn sheep's population would be to reduce the number of hunting permits that are issued each year or suspended hunting until the population figures are on the rise again.
To that, Hovatter said the agency has reduced the numbers of permits it is issuing this year by one. He said that the 12 permits issued this year is the lowest number issued since 1981.
He added that the herd, despite its low numbers, has enough rams to meet the herd's reproductive needs.
James Gilbert can be reached at email@example.com or 539-6854.