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Game Commission considers proposal for cougar trapping

SANTA FE – A proposal to allow New Mexico hunters to use traps to kill mountain lions has sparked strong opposition from environmental and animal protection groups.

The Game Commission will begin studying the trapping plan – and other proposed changes to cougar and bear hunting rules – at a meeting in Farmington next week. Five public meetings around the state also will be held on the idea over the next month.

But a coalition of environmental groups is already speaking out, with eight organizations signing onto a letter sent Friday that urged game commissioners to reject the cougar trapping plan.

“Allowing traps for cougars, in addition to all the traps that are now allowed to be scattered across public land for other species, would be irresponsible,” said Mary Katherine Ray, the wildlife chairwoman for the Rio Grande Chapter of the Sierra Club.

She called trapping a “ruthless” practice, and said traps set for mountain lions could pose a danger to hikers and other types of animals, including dogs.

The Game and Fish Department, which is proposing the new hunting rules for mountain lions and bears, described the trapping proposal on its website as one of several “initial ideas” the agency is considering.

Currently, New Mexico hunters with a special cougar license can use rifles, handguns or bow and arrow to hunt mountain lions year-round. Trapping is not allowed, except on private land with permission from the Game and Fish Department.

In all, the agency allows for about 750 mountain lions to be killed in the state each year, but it says only about 30 percent of that number – roughly 225 animals – are actually shot by hunters.

The cougar population in New Mexico is estimated to be between 3,000 and 4,500.

Under the proposed rule change, traps and snares would be allowable on public land in certain cougar management zones in which the annual hunting limit has not been met, according to the Game and Fish Department.

The cougar management zone located in the state’s southwestern Bootheel – along the Mexican border – would be excluded from the rule to prevent federally protected jaguars from accidentally being caught in a trap.

Another proposed change would allow licensed deer and elk hunters to also hunt mountain lions during hunts for the other animals.

Ranchers and farmers from around the state have voiced complaints about mountain lions preying on their livestock and pushed for looser hunting rules.

A bill proposed during this year’s 60-day legislative session would have done away with state oversight of mountain lions by removing the Game and Fish Department’s management and hunting regulation duties.

Former state Sen. Tim Jennings, D-Roswell, a sheep rancher, said at the time that the Game and Fish Department has not done its job, because “the deer are gone and the lions are up.”

But that legislation was ultimately derailed after its sponsor, Rep. Zach Cook, R-Ruidoso, requested it be tabled.

Meanwhile, a separate bill would have banned trapping and poisoning animals on all public lands in New Mexico.

That measure died in a House committee.

In addition to proposed cougar trapping, the Game and Fish Department is also considering allowing more bears to be hunted in certain parts of the state.

The agency currently allows up to 640 bears to be killed per year by licensed hunters.

It’s unclear what the new limit might be; an agency spokesman could not provide that figure Friday.

The seven-member Game Commission is expected to decide whether to adopt, tweak or scrap the proposed rules later this year, according to the Game and Fish Department.

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