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Bill would end cougar protection

A bill passed Friday by a House committee would end state oversight of mountain lions, making them an unprotected species like coyotes or skunks. (Courtesy of the New Mexico Game and Fish Department)

A bill passed Friday by a House committee would end state oversight of mountain lions, making them an unprotected species like coyotes or skunks. (Courtesy of the New Mexico Game and Fish Department)

New Mexico’s 4,000 or so mountain lions are doing just fine and don’t need protection or management, a House committee was told Friday before voting to do away with state oversight.

Under House Bill 586, cougars would effectively be treated like other unprotected species such as coyotes or skunks.

The Department of Game and Fish would no longer regulate their hunting nor monitor and manage their population.

The House Agriculture, Water and Wildlife Committee passed the bill 8-2 at the urging of ranchers and former Game and Fish Department Director Jim Lane.

Lane said the change would eliminate the bureaucracy of obtaining permits to trap or kill cougars to solve livestock predation problems or to encourage mule deer populations.

“Cougar populations are going quite well,” he said, and the change wouldn’t harm them, he said.

“Lions scratch out a living in places where habitat isn’t really good,” Lane told the committee.

Opponents said the legislation was a knee-jerk reaction to predation problems, that the Game and Fish Department is doing a good job, and that the change could encourage unscrupulous hunting practices.

“Everything is under control. We probably shouldn’t mess with it,” said John Crenshaw, president of the New Mexico Wildlife Federation.

According to the Game and Fish Department, there are estimated to be between 3,000 and 4,500 cougars in the state. About 2,000 hunting licenses are issued annually, the limit allowed to be taken statewide is about 700, and hunters kill an average of 220 a year.

“We wish the sport harvest was a little more successful,” said Game and Fish Department Director Alexa Sandoval.

Opponents said once mountain lions were no longer protected there would be no way to track how the population is doing, and New Mexicans would not be able to get help from the agency with problem mountain lions.

“Once they become an unprotected species, we have no legal authority over that animal,” Sandoval said.

The legislation was endorsed by former state Sen. Tim Jennings, D-Roswell, a rancher who said mountain lions were a big reason for the decline of the sheep industry.

He also said the Game and Fish Department hadn’t done its job because “the deer are gone and the lions are up.”

The legislation would have to clear two more committees before it would be voted on by the full House.

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