Apr. 24, 2009 12:00 AM
TUCSON - The Arizona Game and Fish Commission has extended a moratorium on killing mountain lions on the Kofa National Wildlife Refuge until July 31, but conservationists said Thursday that they aren't satisfied.
Federal and state officials put the ban in place a year ago, after state officials killed two of the cats because they were feeding on bighorn sheep in the refuge outside Yuma.
Conservationists objected, and wildlife officials said they would study whether the mountain lions were responsible for declines in sheep herds. The moratorium expired last Friday, but a day later, the state commission that directs the Arizona Game and Fish Department voted to extend it.
"It's a national wildlife refuge, not a state game farm, and it needs to be run as an ecosystem, and that includes protecting these lions," said Daniel Patterson, a spokesman for Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, known as PEER.
The cats, which are also called cougars or pumas, are rare in low-desert, low-elevation environments like the Kofa refuge. But neither they nor the desert bighorn sheep population found on the Kofa are listed as endangered.
The mountain lions were targeted after the refuge's once-robust sheep population plunged by more than half, from a high mark estimated at 812 in 2000 to 390 in a 2006 survey, Game and Fish spokesman Doug Burt said.
The die-off was attributed to factors that included drought, readily available food and predation.
The refuge population was estimated at 438 as of last fall's survey, Burt said.
By law, Game and Fish manages the state's wildlife, including on national refuges, unless a species becomes threatened or endangered, Burt said.
"While sheep are not endangered, they are at a very low number," he said.
"Our goal is to repopulate the sheep in those areas where they once were. . . .
"They're an iconic animal and they're very important to us and they're very important to the Southwest."
The Kofa herd is one of the strongest available for repopulating other areas, he said.
PEER threatened court action last year to stop the killings. It said Thursday that neither the study nor an environmental assessment for a refuge mountain-lion management plan has been completed.
"We believe there would be a serious legal problem if the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service continues to permit Arizona Game and Fish to continue to go after these lions if they don't have this environmental assessment done.
"That's why we're concerned about the short extension," said Patterson, an ecologist and Southwest director for PEER, which is representing some concerned Fish and Wildlife employees on the issue.
Fish and Wildlife regional spokesman Jose Viramontes in Albuquerque said the agency has been working closely with state officials.
He said that the assessment might not be completed by July 31 but that the service intends "to move forward as quickly as possible on completing" it.
Patterson also said environmental organizations are concerned about what he called a loophole for Game and Fish that might allow a lion on the 665,000-acre refuge to be killed if it kills a sheep and it leaves the refuge.
The worry is that if the area's mountain-lion population is wiped out, it will be difficult to get the animal re-established.
Patterson said a solution can be reached but would require recognition that there is a national interest and responsibility at the refuge and that Game and Fish must recognize that there is room for lions to exist on it.
Learn more about big cats and Big Cat Rescue at http://www.bigcatrescue.org