Sunday, May 03, 2009

Plan to protect bighorn sheep puts cougars in the cross hairs

By John Collins Rudolf - May 1, 2009

Cougars with a taste for bighorn sheep could find themselves back in the cross hairs of state wildlife management agents as early as this summer.

A plan by the Arizona Game and Fish Department would allow the "lethal removal" of radio-collared cougars (also known as mountain lions) to resume in the Kofa National Wildlife Refuge once an environmental study is done at the end of July.

Only "offending lions" would be killed by state agents, classified as a mountain lion that kills at least two bighorn sheep within a 6-month period.

Desert bighorn sheep are not endangered, but their population has dwindled badly over the past century due to habitat encroachment and hunting. An estimated 6,000 animals remain in Arizona, of about 45,000 total for the American west. At their peak, before widespread human settlement, the bighorn population may have been as high as 2 million or more.

The decision to hunt mountain lions that prey on bighorns has drawn criticism from some environmental groups. Both the Center for Biological Diversity and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility have fired back at the state's actions, which include a three-month moratorium on removing "offending lions" that would end in July.

The Center for Biological Diversity called the three-month moratorium a "very short stay of execution":

"Mountain lions and desert bighorn sheep evolved in the Sonoran Desert together, and the desert ecosystem needs both to be complete," said Michael Robinson of the Center for Biological Diversity, in the statement. "Wiping out natural carnivores from a national wildlife refuge reflects archaic and scientifically repudiated management."

Southwest PEER Director Daniel Patterson, an ecologist who helped broker last year's moratorium, also denounced the plan:

"While the short extension is welcome, Arizona Game and Fish still has a short-sighted, shoot first, plan later posture, and appears to be demanding a national wildlife refuge be run as a state game farm," said Patterson. "By our reading of the law, state gunners cannot come onto a national refuge and kill wildlife without the permission of the refuge manager – who cannot make that call until the required environmental assessments are completed."


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