Mountain lion management plan angers conservationists
Ecologists and conservationists are calling the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service's new mountain lion management plan a way to continue killing rare desert lions so it can manage the Kofa National Wildlife Refuge as a bighorn sheep game farm.
"It is very disappointing because it continues the status quo that has been happening," said State Rep. Daniel Patterson, who is also the southwest director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). "It is highly unlikely that a healthy mountain lion can continue to live on the Kofa under these conditions."
Ron Kearns, a retired Kofa wildlife biologist and game warden, added the management plan, the way it is currently written, is nothing more than a continuation of the practices that have been in place at the refuge and does nothing to protect mountain lions from being lethally removed.
Simply put, Kearns said the “two or more desert bighorn sheep within a six-month period” is just too low of an allowance of prey animals for each lion. Ideally Kearns said he would like to see that allowance number increased to five or six, but doesn't think it will happen.
"Any lion that is a competent hunter is going to kill at least that many sheep in a six-month period," Kearns said. "We know from the four Kofa-collared lion data that an average Kofa lion will kill 10.5 bighorn within a six-month period. That means any lion out there is going to killed in a few months."
To be more equitable to the natural predator, Kearns and Patterson say the kill allowance number should have been increased or all Kofa lions will most assuredly become offending lions under the policy and will result in virtually every lion being killed in less than 6-months time."
Another concern Kearns and Patterson have with the management plan is that it is based on bighorn sheep herd population numbers that are historical highs, and not likely to be reached again within the next decade.
Under the plan, when the herd population is above 800, a mountain lion won't need to be lethally removed if it kills two or more bighorn sheep in a six-month period.
However, when the Bighorn sheep herd population estimate is between 600-800, limited lion removals may occur based on criteria outlined in the plan. When the population is below 600, which it is now, active lethal lion removal will occur.
Mitch Ellis, refuge manager of the Southwest Arizona National Wildlife Refuge Complex, said in a previous article the mountain lion management plan is a continuing effort to help restore the struggling Kofa bighorn sheep population, whose numbers have declined significantly from a long-term average of 760 bighorn sheep to near 400 over the past 4 years.
"I doubt the herd population will ever get that high again," Kearns said. "
The USFWS announced on May 21st that it had completed its plan for managing mountain lions on the refuge complex.
The Refuge contains a major portion of the biggest contiguous habitat for desert bighorn sheep in southwestern Arizona and has served as the primary source of bighorn sheep for translocations to reestablish declining populations throughout southern Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and Colorado.
Over a 16 month period, the four lions that were known to have resided on the Kofa complex killed a combined 28 Bighorn sheep
Based on data from the 4-GPS collared lions on the Kofa refuge, the mountain lion known as KMO1 killed five bighorns in a five-month period, KMO2, which lost its GPS tracking collar, killed one bighorn in a two month period, KMO3 killed five in a five month period and KMO4 killed 16 bighorns in a six month period.
"We know for sure three of the four mountain lions are dead, we assume the other one is still alive, but we don't know for sure," Kearns said. "I realize there is a problem and that mountain lions do eat Bighorn sheep, but keeping the allowance number so low isn't fair."
Patterson and Kearns also contend that in spite of the USFWS stating that the agency considered all of the public’s comments, the agency has never wavered or compromised on the low number of bighorn sheep that mountain lions could prey upon before Arizona Game and Fish and USFWS personnel kill those lions.
"Since April 2006, the following two lion-killed bighorn number has always been their definition of an 'offending lion' and they made that determination without any public input whatsoever," Kearns said.
A comprise offered by Kearns would be to take the gender of the sheep of the bighorn taken into consideration. For example with an abundance of rams, why not increase the "two or more desert bighorn sheep within a six-month period” allowance by splitting the kills into rams and ewes — for example three or four rams along with up to two ewes before considering the lion an offending lion.
"The plan makes no distinction between mountain lions killing rams or ewes," Kearns said.
Kearns argued his point by saying historically, hunting has been a part of the management of the Kofa bighorn sheep herd for nearly 50 years, with 16 to 17 rams taken per year through the hunter harvest with no apparent impact to the population.
"If there is a population decline in the herd, why, then, are hunters still being allowed to come in a kill rams and mountain lions are being killed for it?" Kearns asked.
Patterson and Kearns also both said they would like to see the practice of putting GPS tracking collars on mountain lions.
"If it was being done solely for pure research I would be all for it, but it is not," Kearns said. "We know from past experience that 'research' means to kill them."
Kearns also stated that the collared lions could provide valuable scientific information regarding home range sizes and the importance of waterholes to lions regarding their frequency of freestanding water use, and the possibility that building artificial waterholes might allow for mountain lion range expansions.
James Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 539-6854.