Santa Fe New Mexican | Aug 9, 2019 Updated Aug 9, 2019

Wildlife advocates are cautiously optimistic about proposed rule changes by the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish that could decrease the number of cougars legally killed in a season and would ban trapping and snaring for sport.

The proposal marks a change from 2015, the last time the department revised its hunting rules for cougars and bears.

Game and Fish, which held the first of four public hearings to gather input on the issue earlier this week in Raton, also is considering changes to bear management zone boundaries, though it has not proposed changes to the number of bear kills allowed. Three additional hearings will be held around the state next week.

Jessica Johnson, chief legislative officer for Animal Protection of New Mexico, said the agency’s proposed rule changes are step in the right direction. “The department’s new proposal that we’re thrilled to hear is the suggestion to lower the annual kill limit, based on data that the state has overestimated the number of cougars in New Mexico,” she said.

The organization also is pleased to see a proposed rollback on foot traps and snares, Johnson said, calling the devices inhumane and indiscriminate because they create the possibility of harming other animals.

However, she said, Animal Protection would like to see a complete ban on the practice.

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Animal Protection and the Humane Society of the U.S. filed two lawsuits against the state in 2016 — one in federal court and the other in state District Court — after the New Mexico Game Commission voted to loosen trapping restrictions and increase kill limits for bears and cougars.

The department has not yet set a proposed new limit on cougar kills. The limit will be based on a new study on population numbers expected to be released in September or October, agency spokesman James Pitman said.

Currently, the maximum number of cougars that can be killed in a year is 740. In 2018-19, cougar kills totaled 409. Of those, 344 were killed for sport, 25 were killed in response to the cats preying on livestock or causing other concerns and 40 were killed by car accidents or the department’s control efforts, Pitman said.

Rules for hunting and fishing in the state are reviewed every four years and have to go through a public process. Over the next two months, Pitman said, the department will gather public input, present new data on the cougar population and issue a final ruling in October. The Game Commission is scheduled to vote on the rule changes Nov. 21, and any approved changes would take effect April 1.

“What’s important,” Johnson said, “is how the department chooses to apply the data coming out later this month. We’ve yet to see whether the new proposed kill limit will be scientifically appropriate.”

In 2015, she said, Game and Fish greatly overestimated the number of cougars by “using an unpublished master’s thesis” suggesting an increased harvest limit that allowed “the decimation of the population.”

Methods of deciding on kill limits for cougars in New Mexico have created controversy for more than a decade.

But the Game and Fish Department and Animal Protection of New Mexico agree that cougar numbers are difficult to determine. Johnson and Tristanna Bickford, a spokeswoman for Game and Fish, also agree that getting an accurate count is vital for ensuring genetic diversity and a stable population.

Bruce Wagman, a lawyer for Animal Protection and the Humane Society in the 2015 lawsuits against the agency, said the cases will continue unless new rules for hunting and trapping cougars takes effect during the 2019-20 hunting season.

Bickford said she could not comment on the lawsuit, citing department policy.

Under the department’s proposal, Pitman said, private landowners would still be allowed to use traps and snares to kill cougars on their property if they obtain a permit due to concerns over livestock deaths or other attacks.

According to Game and Fish data, trapping accounts for very few cougar deaths each year. In 2016-17, four cougars were trapped. And out of 292 killed in 2017-18, 20 were caught by trapping. Just 13 cougars were trapped in 2018-19 out of the 409 killed.

Still, Animal Protection isn’t alone in opposing traps and snares. Groups such as the American Veterinary Medical Association, the American Animal Hospital Association, the World Veterinary Association and the National Animal Control Association have condemned leg-hold traps as inhumane and recommend they not be used. Such devices often ensnare dogs and other animals, prompting an outcry from the public.

If you go

Three more public hearings to gather input on rule changes for hunting and trapping cougars will be held throughout the state next week. All hearings are set for 6 to 7:30 p.m.

  • Albuquerque: Tuesday, Department of Game and Fish office, 7816 Alamo Road NW.
  • Las Cruces: Thursday, Department of Game and Fish office, 2715 Northrise Drive.
  • Roswell: Friday, Department of Game and Fish office, 1615 West College Blvd.