Cougars (also known as mountain lions, pumas, catamounts, and panthers) are rarely seen but are ever-present carnivores in mountainous regions from Canada to South America. Shy and solitary, these golden cats once roamed across the entirety of the United States, forming the basis of much folklore of Native Americans. Throughout the 19th and 20th Centuries, however, cougars were erroneously considered a threat to humans and were eradicated until only small populations remained in the mountainous West.
Over the past two decades, Animal Protection of New Mexico has tirelessly worked to reverse the outmoded view that cougars are nuisance animals that should be eradicated. Countering these prejudices with a biocentric approach, APNM has collaborated with state officials to produce progressive change in New Mexico cougar management, including:
- Cougar population estimates based on habitat mapping.
- NM Department of Game & Fish (NMDGF) procedure to evaluate the age and sex of cougars killed in the state as one way to attempt to estimate the health of the state’s cougar population.
- Female sub-limits to be implemented by game management unit.
- Elimination of the “sport harvest limit” and replacement with a “sustainable total mortality limit” to account for all cougar mortality.
- An online education program to teach about cougars and their ecology.
- Mandatory hunter education program prior to issuance of licenses to ensure hunters can distinguish between males and females, in an effort to protect females and their dependent kittens.
- The Cougar Smart educational program to teach adults and youth about how to stay safe in cougar country.
These new regulations are positive steps in scientific and ethical cougar management, for which NMDGF and the New Mexico Game Commission deserve commendation.
However, cougar management in New Mexico continues to fall short of truly scientific and responsible stewardship in two key realms, for which APNM continues to advocate:
- NMDGF persists in maintaining two separate cougar kill quotas: one for hunting and one for cougars killed for depredation, on private land, and in areas such as bighorn sheep units. The department does not keep separate quotas for any other species. Other cougar biologists do not recommend this approach and, to our knowledge, no other state manages cougars or any other species this way. These quotas must be combined into the “sustainable total mortality limit”.
- Bighorn sheep populations must be discounted as a factor in cougar management. Artificially inserting bighorn sheep in cougar country is not a sustainable activity, but it persists because of the financial incentive from bighorn sheep licenses to the department.
2010 Brings Setbacks for Cougars
Despite much progress over the past several years, in July 2010, the New Mexico Department of Game & Fish (NMDGF) proposed a reckless 140% increase (490 to 1,190) in annual cougar mortality for the years 2011-15. The overall increase was based on new cougar population assumptions derived, shockingly, from an unpublished, one-year Master’s Thesis study. The New Mexico-based Hornocker study, widely considered to be the premier cougar population survey, was essentially ignored in NMDGF proposals. The agency also proposed to wildly increase female cougar mortality rates by 250% despite ample evidence that breeding females are key to cougar population stability.
Through late summer and into fall, APNM and other wildlife organizations mobilized public outcry over the unjustifiable quota increases. As a result, NMDGF reduced its proposals for annual cougar mortality to 745 just two days before the final vote was scheduled. A slightly revised quota of 742 cougars was approved by the Game Commission on Oct 28. This increase still represents an unsustainable quota that cannot be biologically justified.
Though this new cougar quota is unlikely to be met by hunters (actual cougar mortality by year rarely surpasses 300), NMDGF’s indefensible proposals that were adopted by the Game Commission demonstrate that cougars remain misunderstood and persecuted in the 21st Century. Advocates for these majestic cats must remain vigilant, learn about cougar ecology and pass along those findings to friends and neighbors so the public can hold its New Mexico wildlife agency accountable in the future.