Protests erupt after state game board OKs expanded bear, cougar hunting

The State Game Commission unanimously approved new rules Thursday that will allow hunters to kill more bears and trap more cougars, prompting opponents in a packed hearing room at the Santa Fe Community College to erupt in jeers, shouting "shame on you" to the seven commissioners.

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The State Game Commission unanimously approved new rules Thursday that will allow hunters to kill more bears and trap more cougars, prompting opponents in a packed hearing room at the Santa Fe Community College to erupt in jeers, shouting "shame on you" to the seven commissioners.

Security officers had to help bring the meeting back under control.

Many opponents to the hotly debated proposals, which establish bear and cougar hunting rules for the next four years, said they weren’t surprised by the outcome. “This was a foregone conclusion,” said Dave Parsons, a former federal wildlife biologist who attended the meeting as a member of the Sierra Club.

The commission agreed with recommendations from state Game and Fish Department biologists without making any changes to the rules, despite emotion-filled testimony during the session.

Commissioner Bill Montoya made the motion to the approve the department’s controversial recommendations, telling the crowd, “Our intent is not to eliminate any species. Our intent is to manage all species.” About an hour later, after hearing public comments both for and against the expanded hunting rules, the commission voted for approval.

Sportsmen who spoke at the event were divided on the issue. Representatives from livestock, trapping and outfitter organizations spoke in favor of the increased bear kill limits and expanded trapping. Wildlife advocates were fiercely opposed.

The commission angered the crowd early in the meeting by limiting public comments to 2 minutes per person and limiting each side of the debate to just 30 minutes. Former Santa Fe Mayor David Coss, a wildlife biologist and hunter who serves as executive committee chairman for the Rio Grande Chapter of the Sierra Club, called the last-minute limitation on public comments “unfair.”

The agenda notes comments are allowed “at the commission chair’s discretion.”

The new rules increase black bear kill limits in most areas of the state, allowing hunters to harvest about 117 more animals a year.

A new cougar hunting rule will allow trapping and foot snares on state trust lands and on private deeded land without a special permit. Trappers will still have to show the pelts to a game warden, which is one way to track the number caught. Cougar trapping will be limited to the November-to-March fur-bearer trapping season. Cougars, considered a state game animal, can’t be trapped on public land.

Licensed hunters also will be able to bag up to four cougars instead of two.

Ty Bays, a rancher in Southern New Mexico’s Silver City area, says he supports easing limits on cougar trapping. He said the bear and cougar populations are on the rise, “at least in my part of the state. The mule deer population is down due to the cougar population.”

But several people said the game department’s estimates of cougar populations are questionable. “I think the cougar science is lacking,” said Kevin Bixby, director of the Southwest Environmental Center.

Mary Katherine Ray, a wildlife chairwoman for the Rio Grande Chapter of the Sierra Club, also questioned the department’s estimates of bear numbers throughout the state. She said hunters fell “substantially” short of meeting bear kill quotas last year. “It is possible you are about to apply this new bear quota to a bear population that does not exist.”

Department biologist Stewart Liley said a new bear study and years of data and habitat modeling indicate bear populations are increasing.

Coss said that even if the department’s cougar and bear population estimates are correct, staff and the commission had failed to present a good reason “why higher populations of bears and cougars should mean we need to kill more. Is it going to help ranchers? How? You haven’t presented the data.”

Fourth-generation Southern New Mexico rancher Welda Grider stood in the middle of the predator issue. She said it isn’t unusual for a bear to snatch one of her goats, but “that is just part of the loss on a ranch.”

She and her husband only cull a predator if it starts killing more than a few head of livestock a year and tearing up things in a stock camp. She doesn’t support introducing more predators, such as wolves, but she doesn’t like trapping, either. “Really, the less we mess with nature, the more nature takes care of itself,” she said.

Parsons agreed. There is plenty of science to show predators self-regulate their populations to stay in balance with their primary prey, he said.

The New Mexican is a sister publication of The Taos News.

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