Wildlife advocates converge on Taos to oppose expanded hunting of bears, cougars

Dozens of wildlife conservation advocates combined calls for more transparency with vocal opposition to proposed rules that, if approved by the State Game Commission, would open regions in the state to more bear hunting and allow private landowners to trap cougars using foot-snares and traps without a permit.

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Dozens of wildlife conservation advocates combined calls for more transparency with vocal opposition to proposed rules that, if approved by the State Game Commission, would open regions in the state to more bear hunting and allow private landowners to trap cougars using foot-snares and traps without a permit.

Advocates dominated public comment during the commission’s meeting in Taos on Saturday, the last in a series on the drafted rules before a final vote in August. Several hunters and ranchers expressed confidence in the department’s biological findings, but Phil Carter, campaign manager for Animal Protection of New Mexico, said members of his organization “find it very distressing that the bar for scientific accountability seems to be lowered even further from where it was in 2010, the last time the bear and cougar rule was up for review.”

That year, he said, the department turned to a master’s thesis that was neither published nor peer reviewed to form the basis for increasing limits on cougar kills from 490 to over 1,100, then back down to the current limit of 750. The state’s proposal to do away with permit requirements for cougar trapping on private property also would eliminate one of the only tools at its disposal for tracking the animal’s numbers, Carter said.

Peggy Nelson, vice president of the water protection group Amigos Bravos, said a healthy balance of predators and prey is essential to safeguarding the state’s water resources.

“Our riparian areas at this point are quite threatened, and to take away more large predators is really doing a disservice to entire ecosystems,” she said. “When large predators are present and ungulates are staying away, riverbanks are stabilized and more vegetation returns. Then there’s more water for the state of New Mexico.”

Commissioners themselves were largely silent, save for a few questions during the five-hour meeting, during which Department of Game and Fish staff reiterated background on the rule-making.

Stewart Liley, a big game program manager for the department, said that although proposed rules will be finalized in July in advance of the commission’s final vote Aug. 27, the most recent data gathered on the state’s bear population won’t be finalized until the end of this month.

That data are the result of a $1 million state-commissioned study of bear population densities conducted by a doctoral candidate at New Mexico State University over the course of the last three years. Its conclusions are pending final genetic analysis of thousands of bear hair samples collected to estimate population densities in several mountain ranges across the state.

Dan Williams, a spokesman for the Department of Game and Fish, told The New Mexican that the study’s conclusions will be evaluated by department biologists rather than undergoing an academic peer-review process before commissioners draw on its conclusions.

There aren’t up-to-date calculations for cougar population densities, Liley told meeting attendees, though newer studies have looked into the animal’s predatory habits using GPS collars, yielding surprising results. In areas where biologists expected to find cougars preying on deer, elk and bighorn sheep, cougars have been sustaining themselves on smaller species known as mesocarnivores, he added.

“There was one cougar in the Middle Rio Grande area that killed mainly ducks, carp and javelina,” Liley said.

Calls by wildlife advocates for state officials to base their decisions on up-to-date, publicly accessible and rigorous data weren’t limited to cougars and bears. Discussion of the state’s Wildlife Action Plan, a comprehensive conservation strategy due to be updated by October, incited similar comments, which also were echoed by hunters testifying about unclear outcomes in the state’s public lottery for big game hunting permits.

New Mexico Wildlife Federation spokesman Joel Gay said about 150 extra permits allowed by commission rule-making had been allocated by the department’s director during the last series of lottery draws. They appeared to be skewing the percentage state law mandates for in-state residents in favor of nonresidents and paid guides.

“Sportsmen in particular are hungry for good data on how tags are split up,” he told commissioners.

The New Mexican is a sister publication of The Taos News. Contact Margaret Wright at (505) 986-3011 or mwright@sfnewmexican.com.

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