SANTA FE — The state Game Commission on Thursday unanimously approved expanded hunting of bears and cougars — including cougar trapping on 9 million acres of state lands – over the fierce objections of critics who said the decision was rooted in politics, not science.
The vote was followed by an outburst from some opponents in the packed meeting room, with cries of “Shame on you” and “You’re a disgrace” directed at commission members.
The new rules, effective in the license year beginning in April 2016, allow a 26 percent increase in the number of bears that can be killed statewide each year by hunters, from 640 to 804.
The per-hunter limit for shooting cougars in most areas of the state will double from two to four, although the statewide limit of about 750 will remain.
The requirement to obtain permits to trap cougars on private land will be lifted. And for the first time – at the request of Land Commissioner Aubrey Dunn – cougar leg-hold trapping and snaring will be allowed on the trust lands that are managed by the State Land Office.
The trapping will be allowed annually from November through March.
The Game Commission said in a statement after the voice vote that the changes are “based on sound science and research,” relying on current estimates of population densities, how much habitat is available, and other research data.
“The only thing we can truly rely on is the scientific data,” Commissioner Elizabeth Ryan said at the meeting.
Ranching, farming and livestock groups endorsed the expanded hunting as a means of predator control, and hunting guides and outfitters backed the new rules as well.
“The lion and bear populations, at least in my part of the state, are on the increase,” Ty Bays, a third-generation rancher from Silver City, told the commission.
But critics of the new rules – most of the roughly 250 people at the meeting – questioned the validity of the research data the Game Commission relied on.
And they said that even if the populations are up – for which they said there is no supportive data in the case of cougars – commissioners hadn’t provided any economic or ecological reasons to justify expanded hunting.
“We don’t know how you get from ‘We have more’ … to ‘We need to kill more,’ ” said Kevin Bixby of the Southwest Environmental Center.
Opponents said trapping is cruel and indiscriminate, with the potential of snagging unintended wildlife – including cougar kittens and nursing mothers – as well as humans and their dogs.
And they said that although the new bear research data collected by the commission indicate there are more bears than previously thought, there was a 28 percent drop in the number of bears killed by hunters last year, with no accompanying decline in licenses.
Members of the commission, who were appointed by Gov. Susana Martinez, said they were inundated with thousands of emails from supporters and opponents of the rules change.
Commissioner Bill Montoya said some critics apparently believe the Game Commission and the Department of Game and Fish want to destroy species.
“Our intent is not to eliminate any species. … Our intent is to manage, correctly manage, with all the biological information we can put together,” Montoya said.
Opponents of the new rules who rallied before the meeting, however, said the Martinez administration is anti-predator and is catering to the livestock industry while ignoring the wishes of most New Mexicans.
The commission “has chosen to blow off the conservation community,” said Dave Parsons, who coordinated the federal Mexican wolf recovery program for nine years.
“The New Mexico Game Commission is pathetically political,” Parsons added.
Commissioners on Thursday also heard an appeal by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service of the commission’s earlier denial of permits for the federal agency to release more Mexican wolves this year as part of the ongoing recovery program. The commission could vote on the appeal next month.
The department said it rejected the permit requests because the federal agency’s 1982 wolf recovery plan has not been updated.
But Joy Nicholopoulos told the commission that a revised recovery plan “is not required to continue Mexican wolf recovery efforts in any state, including New Mexico.”
The federal agency will have a new recovery plan by the end of 2017, she said. In the meantime, it’s critical for the health of the wolf population – now at least 110 in Arizona and New Mexico – that genetic diversity be increased by releasing additional wolves from the captive population, she said.
That includes a plan for “cross-fostering,” in which wolf pups less than two weeks old are taken from their captive, biological parents and placed in dens of wild wolves to be raised by wild parents.
Nicholopoulos also said that if releases are curtailed, the federal Sevilleta Wolf Management Facility – where the wolves are being held – won’t have the pen space to take in problem wolves that have to be removed from the wild.