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Bill to take cougar protections away tabled

SANTA FE – The sponsor of a proposal to take away state oversight of New Mexico’s estimated 4,000 mountain lions abruptly pulled the plug on it on Monday.

That kills the bill for this year’s 60-day legislative session, which ends March 21.

The House Regulatory and Public Affairs Committee had scheduled a hearing on the bill, but instead tabled it indefinitely at the request of sponsor Rep. Zach Cook, R-Ruidoso.

Hunting, wildlife, environmental and animal advocacy groups had pushed back against the legislation.

It would have taken cougars out from under the management of the Department of Game and Fish – effectively treating them like coyotes and skunks, with no regulation of hunting or trapping them.

Cook told the Journal he remains concerned about complaints from ranchers and farmers.

“My goal is to protect livestock and humans from predators,” he said.

But that problem can be addressed by working with the Department of Game and Fish, he added, rather than removing mountain lions from the agency’s management.

Cook also said he took into consideration the objections raised to the bill at a hearing last week, when it passed another House committee.

Opponents said that, if mountain lions were no longer in the purview of Game and Fish, there would be no way to track the population and determine how the species was doing.

And residents would no longer be able to get help from the agency in dealing with problem animals, they argued.

The cougar population in New Mexico is estimated to be between 3,000 and 4,500. Hunters are allowed to take about 700 statewide each year, but kill an average of 220.

Supporters of the legislation, including ranchers and former Game and Fish Department Director Jim Lane, said the population is healthy and wouldn’t be harmed by removing state protections and oversight.

Cook didn’t appear at Monday’s Regulatory and Public Affairs Committee meeting because he’s chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, which was meeting at the same time.

His request to kill the bill was conveyed by his Republican colleague, Rep. Jim Smith of Sandia Park, who is on the regulatory committee.

“My constituents hate the bill. I don’t like the idea of doing it, either,” Smith later told the Journal .

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