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Black Bear, Cougar Kill Limit Raised

By Rene Romo
Journal Southern Bureau
          MESCALERO — Despite a wave of opposition, the state Game Commission on Thursday voted to sharply increase the number of black bears and cougars that can be killed annually in New Mexico.
        But the statewide hikes were lower than originally proposed:
        • The kill limit for black bears will jump from 406 this year to about 680 next year. Game and Fish Department staff originally proposed increasing the black bear kill limit to 733, later revising the number 686.
        • The limit on the number of cougars that can be killed each year was raised from 490 this year to 742 next year. Staff originally proposed raising the cougar kill limit to 996.
        The commission slightly reduced the Game and Fish Department's proposed harvest goals for bears in the Sandia and Manzano mountains, slicing the number of bears that can be killed to 10 percent of the estimated local population of between 149 and 184 — or between 14 and 19. That's a decrease of staff's proposal of 15 percent.
        Even so, said Jim Lane, Game and Fish wildlife management chief, it is unlikely any bears will be killed by hunters in that area. That's because the state this year removed 30 nuisance bears from the Sandias and Manzanos, or 18 more than the current kill limit of 12.
        The kill limit includes animals that are relocated as well as those that are killed, whether by hunters, vehicles or Game and Fish.
        Commissioner Gary Fornay acknowledged that the proposal to increase kill limits was divisive, and several commissioners said they had received thousands of letters, phone calls and e-mail in the months since the proposals were made public. The vast majority of correspondence, two said, were opposed to raising the kill limits.
        "We aren't going to make everybody happy," Fornay said. "We listen to other people, but we do have a lot of faith in our staff."
        Charlotte Salazar, founder of New Mexicans for Proactive Wildlife Predator Management, said she was concerned that by not adopting more aggressive goals in the Sandias, "All the problems we had this summer, it's only going to continue."
        The increases in kill limits were proposed, according to Game and Fish staff, in an attempt to align bear populations with good habitat, to reduce conflicts between bears and humans, and to provide additional hunting opportunities.
        The state says through the end of September, about 100 problem bears were relocated, and 85 were killed. The animals get into trash, menace pets, and in June and July, there were three incidents in which bears injured people — a woman who was bitten while in her camping tent in the Sandias; a Boy Scout at Philmont Scout Ranch whose head was cut when a bear jumped on his tent and scratched him; and a tourist was attacked in his tent in the Manzanos. None of the injuries were life-threatening.
        Game Commission Chairman Jim McClintic said in light of public opposition to the sharp increase in the cougar kill limit, he asked staff to produce an alternate proposal that was based on sound biological goals.
        "I'm really trying to get a fair balance without going against our biology and our science," McClintic said.
        McClintic said that he didn't believe a single hunter opposed the increases in kill limits. "They pay our bills," he said.
        Frederic Winslow, a large carnivore biologist with the Game and Fish Department, stressed that the kill limits are simply that, and that hunters, in the case of cougars, are not likely to reach the maximum.
        Despite the expansion of the cougar kill limit, the number of the cats killed each year by hunters, state officials or vehicles has averaged about 200.
        "And we don't actually see that (number) going up," Winslow said. Of the kill limits, he said, "These are not goals, these are not quotas. These are sustainable levels of harvest."
        "I personally would have preferred to see a more conservative approach to the numbers statewide, but I was a minority," said Commissioner Sandy Buffett, who supported a failed attempt by fellow Commissioner Kent Salazar to maintain the current cougar kill limits.
        The proposals were supported by hunters, outfitters and ranchers. Caren Cowan, executive director of the New Mexico Cattle Growers' Association, said, "We don't think it goes far enough, but we think it's a good start."
        Several conservationists have criticized the increases to the black bear kill limit, arguing that if a lack of rainfall has driven bears to populated areas in search of food, killing the animals will not stop the problem. They also say the increase in conflicts with humans is a byproduct of people failing to take proper precautions to deter the bears or the encroachment of development into bear habitat.
        A coalition of three organizations, WildEarth Guardians, Animal Protection of New Mexico, and the Sierra Club, also said that Game and Fish staff have overestimated the density of the state's cougar population, in part by using a one-year study that was not peer reviewed.
        "When you're starting out from a flawed population assumption, your numbers are completely arbitrary," said Phil Carter, wildlife programs manager with Animal Protection of New Mexico.
        The game commissioners said they would review the kill limits in a year and consider changes if they are deemed warranted.
        "Nothing's cast in stone," McClintic said. "We'll continue to monitor and work on this."
       



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