The New Mexico Game Commission unanimously approved new limits on how many bears and cougars can be killed by hunters during a meeting Friday in Farmington.
During the public comment period leading up to the vote, the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish received more than 2,800 comments regarding bear and cougar hunting. Of those, approximately 1,700 supported the limits in the new rule and another approximately 1,000 people opposed them. Most comments came in the form of nonspecific form letters that advocacy groups ask members to sign.
Wildlife advocacy groups say that the limits in the new rule are too high, placing New Mexico’s native carnivores at risk.
This is particularly the case for cougars, advocates say. For the most part, the cap on the numbers of cougars that hunters can kill will remain similar to previous years. But the advocates say those numbers are based on population estimates that are higher than the actual number of cougars.
The advocates also argued that the limits do not take into account bears and cougars dying of other causes such as being hit by vehicles or killed by poachers or even dying of natural causes.
New Mexico Department of Game and Fish Wildlife Management Division Chief Stewart Liley attempted to address those concerns in his presentation to the commission on Friday.
Bears and cougars are managed in zones and each zone has its own cap on how many bears and courses hunters can kill. The commission further limits the numbers of females that can be killed.
It is illegal to kill a female bear with cubs or a female cougar with spotted kittens.
In terms of bears, the new rule approved this week that will go into effect in April, limits the number of bears that can be killed to 8 percent to 12 percent of the estimated population in each bear management zone. Zones near urban areas such as the Sandia Mountains tend to have limits of 8 percent to take into account the number of bears killed by vehicles on roads, Liley said.
The total number of animals killed is usually much lower than the maximum the agency allows hunters to kill.
For example, in recent years, up to 804 bears could be killed annually by hunters. The actual number killed each year averaged 525 bears.
When it comes to cougars, the methods for estimating populations have changed in recent years. But the department has only been able to apply those new methods to a couple of cougar management zones. That resulted in decreases in the number of courses that can be killed in those zones. Advocates say that is evidence that the actual population of cougars is much lower than population estimates in 16 management zones.
Kenneth Logan spent 40 years studying courses as a wildlife biologist. He asked the commission if the goal is to reduce the number of cougars. Logan said the 17 percent to 24 percent of the estimated population of cougars in a management zone will lead to decreases and recommended a lower limit of 14 percent in areas where the objective is not to decrease populations.
Meanwhile groups like the Rio Grande Chapter of the Sierra Club and Animal Protection New Mexico called for cutting the cap on the number of bears or cougars that can be killed in half.
Many opponents say that the killing of carnivores is unnecessary and that the hunting of predators have artificially suppressed the number of bears and cougars that would naturally occur.
“Bears and cougars are native to New Mexico,” Charles Fox said during public comment. “They belong on this landscape in ecologically significant numbers and they do not deserve to be killed for human entertainment. Uncertainties in the state’s bear and cougar population estimates make this a risky proposal.”
He called the department’s population estimates guesswork and said that “it is time for New Mexico to get out of the trophy hunting business.”
The vast majority of Americans oppose trophy hunting but Jesse Deubel, executive director of New Mexico Wildlife Federation, said that most of the bear and cougar hunting in New Mexico is not done solely for a trophy, or decoration to put on their wall.
The New Mexico Wildlife Federation is an advocacy group that represents the interests of hunters in the state.
Deubel describes himself as an “amateur wild game chef” and said he uses mountain lion, or cougar meat, in foods like posole instead of pork.
“Bear meat and cougar meat is one of the highest quality, wild sustainable proteins available anywhere,” he said.
He said he opposes trophy hunting in which the meat is not harvested and has, in the past, attempted to change state statutes to require hunters to remove usable meat from bears, cougars and javelinas that are killed.
Deubel said that the majority of hunters in New Mexico who get permits to kill cougars or bears harvest the meat and use it or donate it.
The wildlife federation supports the bear and cougar rule that the commission adopted on Friday, though Deubel said he appreciates that not everyone supports killing native carnivores.
“It shows me that those individuals commenting very much care about the lives of bears and cougars in New Mexico,” he said, adding that he shares that sentiment and enjoys photographing and observing bears and cougars.
But hunting of bears and cougars can also lead to increased conflict between the predators and humans, including livestock predation, Nina Eydelman with Animal Protection New Mexico said. She said hunters often target larger, more established individuals. That leaves those territories open for younger animals that are more likely to cause conflict.
“There’s many studies showing that the hunting…of cougars is not something that is going to reduce conflict with humans because it kills random cougars,” she said. “Just plain indiscriminately reducing cougar populations in an area is not going to reduce conflict with humans.”
Eydelman said it is better to target individual animals that are known to create conflict and she said nonlethal methods can be used.
The killing of random cougars, she said, “disrupts the social structure of the cougars in that area and creates more social chaos.”
This story originally appeared in the New Mexico Political Report, a non-profit newsroom covering state government and politics. It is reprinted here, with permission, as a part of our commitment to bringing readers the best in local independent news.