SANTA FE – Animal protection groups are suing the state in federal court, trying to block a major expansion of cougar trapping they say would also illegally snag endangered Mexican wolves and jaguars.
The lawsuit asks the U.S. District Court to rule that the expanded cougar trapping violates the federal Endangered Species Act and to prohibit state officials from implementing it.
Animal Protection of New Mexico, which filed the lawsuit along with the Humane Society of the United States, says that due to similarities in size, prey and habitat preference, Mexican wolves and jaguars will inevitably be caught in cougar traps.
“Littering New Mexico with leg-hold traps and snares will expose endangered Mexican wolves and jaguars to cruel and unnecessary suffering and death,” Anna Frostic, senior wildlife attorney for the Humane Society, said in a statement.
The animal protection groups – which have a similar challenge pending in state District Court – filed the federal lawsuit Monday against the Game Commission and the Department of Game and Fish.
The department said in a statement that the lawsuit “is only a distraction.”
“The rule was crafted after nearly a yearlong process of public and scientific scrutiny, including consideration of potential impacts on endangered species,” the statement said. “The department will vigorously defend the rule, which is part of a world-class effort to manage New Mexico’s wildlife.”
In August 2015, the seven-member commission, at the recommendation of the department, adopted a revision to the Bear and Cougar Rule that authorizes recreational trapping and snaring of cougars on private land and – at the request of State Land Commissioner Aubrey Dunn – on 9 million acres of state trust land.
Previously, trapping on private land required a special permit from the department, and it was not allowed elsewhere.
“While cougar trapping was almost completely prohibited in New Mexico prior to the commission’s adoption of the Cougar Rule, it is now authorized for the first time throughout large portions of the state,” according to the lawsuit.
And much of the new swath of public and private land where traps and foot snares will be allowed overlaps with key Mexican wolf and jaguar habitat, the lawsuit says.
Although the revised rule bans the use of foot snares in one particular cougar-hunting zone in Hidalgo County where there is federally designated critical habitat for endangered jaguars, it does not ban the use of leg-hold traps in the same area, according to the lawsuit.
The groups say “virtually the entire Mexican wolf population,” present and projected, would be exposed to cougar traps and snares.
The revised rule is already in effect, but trapping season for cougars doesn’t begin until Nov. 1. Only the cougar portion of the revised Bear and Cougar Rule is being challenged in court.