Thursday, July 26, 2007

State raises hunting pressure on Wyo. cats

Cougar Fund says Teton County hunting quotas are not based on science.

By Rebecca Huntington
July 25, 2007

The Wyoming Game and Fish Commission voted Friday to allow hunters to kill more mountain lions in many hunt areas across the state while maintaining the status quo in Teton County.

Cougar Fund Co-Founder Tom Mangelsen called the decision disappointing, saying that it didn't reflect the intent of a new statewide mountain lion management plan designed to inject more science into the process.

"We were very hopeful that the mountain lion management plan would bring some more science and some sanity to the cougar management in Wyoming," Mangelsen said Monday.

Game and Fish Assistant Division Chief for Wildlife Bill Rudd defended the higher quotas, saying a statewide analysis showed Wyoming has a healthy cougar population that could sustain higher hunting quotas.

"We're producing lots of excess cats," Rudd told the commission, which adopted the department's recommendations during a meeting Friday in Pinedale. Rudd said after the meeting that many regional managers acted conservatively and even reduced the quota in at least one hunt area where managers felt the lion population was not in good shape. The quotas are in effect for three years.

But Mangelsen said the new quotas increased almost across the board, showing a bias for killing predators – not better science. As for Teton County, the Cougar Fund had requested a moratorium on sport hunting of cougars in Hunt Area 2 because field research has indicated a lack of reproducing females in the area.

"They ignored that science," Mangelsen said.

Game and Fish Commissioner Clark Allan, who represents Teton County on the commission, disagreed, saying science did play a role in the decision.

The area's missing females

The science in question is data collected by the Teton Cougar Project run by Craighead Beringia South, a Kelly-based nonprofit. The Cougar Project has been studying cats around Jackson Hole for the past seven years.

The project's study area overlaps with Hunt Area 2, which includes the Buffalo Valley. Project Director Howard Quigley said that researchers noticed a natural loss of adult females beginning in 2004 in the Buffalo Valley.

Although losing adult females over time isn't a surprise, researchers saw a "red flag" when those females were not replaced. Since 2004, five home ranges formerly occupied by reproducing females have become vacant after three females died and two moved out of the area, he said. Field studies from other areas show that when females disappear from a home range, they're typically replaced within a year to a year and a half, he said.

"We're not getting that," Quigley said Tuesday. "Right now, as far as we can tell, those five home ranges are vacant."

Moreover, the study shows no "recruitment," which means kittens successfully growing up and remaining in the area to produce young of their own.

"We're getting reproduction, we're just not getting anybody who sticks around and reproduces themselves despite the vacant territories," Quigley said.

The only radio-collared cougar born in the area that stayed in the study area to produce young died of natural causes, he said. State lab tests show the cougar had the plague, which may have been a factor in the death.

Wyoming's field study

Under the state lion management plan, Hunt Area 2 is deemed a "source" area, which means it's producing "excess" cats, according to state officials.

The Cougar Fund, an advocacy group for cougars, points out that the Teton Cougar Project is the only field study of cougars underway in the state. In areas where the state increased hunting quotas, wildlife managers had no field studies to support those decisions, the Cougar Fund argues. Yet in Teton County, where a field study provides evidence of vacant home ranges and a lack of recruitment, the state responded by making no change to the quota.

Rudd and Commissioner Allan defended the decision saying the state acted conservatively by not increasing quotas in Teton County. The state mountain lion management plan indicates Hunt Area 2 could support a quota of 14, or double the current quota, Allan said. Allan voted in favor of keeping the quota at seven, however.

"We're at half of the quota we could be [at]," he said Tuesday. "I'm happy that we're at half. I just want people to understand that we're being conservative in Area 2."

Allan also said that researchers are not detecting all of the cougars in the area because the cats are secretive and hard to find.

"Despite my concerns about that study, that study is a factor that played into the fact that our quotas are so low in Area 2," Allan said.

Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife, a hunting group that advocates killing predators to enhance game herds, said it was backing the quotas but would have preferred higher quotas in some areas.

"We are compromising on this plan," said Bob Wharff, executive director of Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife. He said that he hoped hunting seasons could be made more liberal in the future. Also, the group's Teton County Chapter representative Robert Richards said not everyone in Teton County wanted lower hunting quotas for cougars.

Richards and Allan also spoke in favor of removing female sub-quotas for mountain lions even though Allan ultimately voted to maintain the female sub-quotas, which discourage hunters from taking females. They both said that the sub-quotas skew the hunter-kill data that Game and Fish uses to track mountain lion population trends.

But Mangelsen countered that protecting females, the reproductive segment of the population, should outweigh data collection desires. Moreover, he said hunter biases also skew the population data – not just the subquotas.

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