Cougar Kittens, photo by Anne Marie Kalus

By Mary Katherine Ray, Rio Grande Chapter Wildlife chair

Last summer, the New Mexico Game Commission adopted new rules for cougar hunting that allow cougar trapping for sport on private and state trust land. The decision makes New Mexico one of only two states in the nation that allows any kind of trapping for mountain lions.

Our colleagues at Animal Protection of New Mexico along with the Humane Society of the United States filed suit to stop the cougar-trapping rule. As part of that process, the Game Commission was asked to stay its decision until a court could rule on the case. The commission listened to arguments about why it should do that at its public meeting in Silver City on May 12.

The main arguments for the appeal were that cougar hunters may not legally shoot spotted cougar kittens or their mothers, but traps cannot tell the difference. Thus traps set for cougars will capture, injure and result in the deaths of animals that the law forbids hunters to kill. Kittens can be injured by being trapped outright but also when they are orphaned by the loss of their mother when they are too young to fend for themselves. In essence, the cougar-trapping rule is inconsistent and at odds with the cougar-hunting rule.

In addition, the trapping rule allows traps for cougars to be set where there may be endangered Mexican wolves or endangered jaguars, potentially causing harm to these animals in violation of the Endangered Species Act. (But keep reading to learn how much the Game Commission is concerned with the fate of wolves.) One of the Game commissioners asked how the cougar quota could be met without trapping since hunters alone are not killing enough to meet the quota. The answer from the attorney is that the quota is the wrong number. Even by the department’s own admission, the justification for wanting to kill so many cougars based on population estimates is very flimsy. We don’t know how many cougars there are in New Mexico, and the assumptions being made by the Department are not defensible.

But unsurprisingly, after deliberations that centered mostly on technicalities and included reluctance on the part of commissioners to change the rule outside of the regularly scheduled rulemaking — which won’t happen for another three years — and the question of whether commissioners could stay just the trapping portion of the rule and not the whole rule, they voted unanimously to deny any delay to the start of cougar trapping. The next stop is a real courtroom. But as of press time, cougar-trapping, along with the trapping of all other “furbearers” like bobcats, foxes and badgers, will begin as scheduled on Nov. 1.

Setbacks for wolves

Last year, the same Game Commission denied permits to both the Ladder Ranch and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to import captive wolves into our state for the purpose of releasing them into the wild. But Secretary of Interior Sally Jewell gave the go-ahead to the Fish and Wildlife Service to introduce wolves into the wild without a state permit in order to uphold the federal Endangered Species Act.

The Fish and Wildlife Service acted accordingly. In carefully choreographed operations in May, three pairs of genetically valuable pups, born in captivity and so young their eyes were still closed, were transported into the wild and placed into dens with pups the same age. Two of the packs that received extra pups are in Arizona — the Elkhorn and Panther Creek packs. The other pack, called the SBP pack, is in New Mexico. The new pups were rolled in den material and with their new siblings to make them smell like they belonged. All three transplants appeared to have been accepted.

Later in May, the state of New Mexico filed a lawsuit to stop the federal government from releasing the wolves and asked a judge to stay any more releases and remove those that were cross-fostered. Unfortunately, a federal district judge has agreed with the state and put a halt to any additional wolf releases. But it could have been worse: The judge did decide that the cross-fostered pups could stay in the wild. Had he required their removal, they would have been orphans condemned to forever live in captivity.

The wild wolf population needs more genetic diversity that the captive population can provide. At least another two years will pass before pups born this year can breed. The release of adult wolves would have sped up that time frame. The latest wolf updates 6 weeks after placing the captive pups into wild wolf dens indicate that two of the packs are still showing denning behavior. But the SBP pack in New Mexico is ranging away from their den location, which could mean that there may be no surviving pups and that their foster pups have been lost.

Vote for Wildlife

The Game Commission and New Mexico Department of Game and Fish have said they want the federal government to get a permit from the state to proceed with more wolf releases. But they have refused to issue the permit until a new recovery plan is produced by the Fish and Wildlife Service.

The old recovery plan dates from the mid-1980s but is still in effect. The FWS says a new plan will be ready by late 2017. Even so, by their actions, the Game Commission and NMG&F have made their opposition to wolves on general principle known.

The Game Commission hires the director of NMG&F, and all the commissioners are appointed by the governor. A different commission more in tune with the needs of conservation and less beholden to livestock and trophy-hunting interests would make a big difference for our beleaguered carnivores. It all comes back to the ballot box and the crucial need for the larger public that wants New Mexico to have vibrant wildlife populations of all species to vote. Nature does not put elk or deer in a hierarchy as being more worthy than other animals of existing. Neither should the officials who are supposed to represent the public trust.

Featured image by Anne Marie Kalus

Cougars, wolves wind up in court