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Predatory mountain lion killed
State game officials killed another collared mountain lion that they say has been preying on bighorn sheep in the Kofa Mountains Complex Predation Management Area.
The lion, designated as KM04, was taken in the Eagletail Mountains about 90 miles northeast of Yuma.
According to Pat Barber, supervisor for the Arizona Game and Fish Region IV office in Yuma, the action was taken in a continuing effort to help restore the struggling Kofa bighorn sheep population, whose numbers have declined more than 50 percent from an estimated 815 in 2000 to a low of 391 in 2006.
"The decision to remove the lion was based on our predation management plan and on the lion's activity in the Kofa Mountain Complex," Barber said. "We no longer felt we would be fulfilling our wildlife management responsibilities by doing nothing."
Ecologist Daniel Patterson, who is the Southwest Director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, called the killing of the mountain lion unethical.
"The good old boys at Game & Fish have an outdated anti-carnivore bias and continue to insist a National Wildlife Refuge be run as a state bighorn game farm, said Patterson, who is also a State Representative from Tucson. "The bighorn herd at Kofa is increasing when last checked, but due to state-sponored killings, the small and rare low desert puma population on and around the Kofa is far more imperiled right now than the bighorn herd."
Patterson continued by saying, "It is simply immoral for the state to trap and collar predators in the name of research and then later repeatedly use the GPS collars to track and kill the animals. Game & Fish's collars are a death sentence for too many important carnivores and the US Fish and Wildlife Service should block the state from collaring any more Kofa pumas."
An Arizona hunter who formerly worked with BLM and has worked for over 15 years to protect and recover bighorn populations across the southwest, Patterson also said he is considering introducing legislation in 2010 to require more checks and balances and scientific oversight of Arizona Game and Fish.
The most recent survey in 2008 indicated an estimated bighorn sheep population of 436.
The mountain lion was killed in accordance with the agency’s May 2007 Kofa Mountains Complex Predation Management Plan. It monitors and limits predation during recovery efforts of what is deemed a historic and critically important bighorn sheep population.
Barber said the plan stipulates that an offending mountain lion - defined as one that kills more than one bighorn sheep within a six-month period - may be lethally removed when bighorn sheep population levels are below a certain threshold.
The lion, a male fitted with a telemetry collar, was known to have killed 15 bighorn sheep, 11 within the predation management area, since being collared in late February.
“This one lion was averaging a bighorn sheep kill every 10 days. He preyed almost exclusively on sheep in an area where we have some grave concerns on the sheep population," Barber said. “At that rate, an estimated 37 bighorn sheep would have been lost to this lion in a year.”
With a current average annual recruitment of only 44 bighorn sheep within the Kofa Mountains Complex Predation Management Area - including 39 on the Kofa National Wildlife Refuge - Barber said the impact of such heavy predation could have been devastating.
“As the agency responsible for the long-term sustainability of wildlife populations across the state, we have to use science-based data to make the best decisions possible,” said Barber. “In this case, the data made a compelling case for action. Doing nothing would have likely resulted in further reduction of an already depressed bighorn sheep population and made recovery efforts even more difficult.”
Ron Kearns, a retired Kofa wildlife biologist and game warden, said he was extremely disappointed to learn of the latest lion-killing.
"It is extremely unfair to kill an animal solely for fulfilling its ecological role. There are a lot of questions that need to be answered," Kearns said. "You have to consider not all of those sheep may have been healthy animals. Not all of them may have survived because they were likely old, injured, sick, moribund, or due to any number of problems associated with a bighorn’s stamina and awareness."
He added, "Mountain lions scavenge prey, so there is no way to tell if a sheep was scavenged or a freshly lion-killed."
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working on an environmental assessment (EA) proposing management options for limiting mountain lion predation on bighorn sheep within the 665,000-acre Kofa National Wildlife Refuge.
The draft EA for that predation plan is open for public comment until Oct. 2 and can be viewed at www.fws.gov/southwest/refuges/arizona/kofa. The EA is not required for Arizona Game and Fish to manage resident wildlife - including mountain lions and bighorn sheep - off the refuge.
While the predation plan was being developed, the Arizona Game and Fish Commission implemented a yearlong self-imposed moratorium on the shooting of offending GPS-collared mountain lions on the Kofa National Wildlife Refuge.
However, the predation plan had not been completed within a year and the moratorium lapsed in April of this year. As a result, the state game and fish department extended it another three months, until July 31.
The moratorium was imposed last year by state and federal officials, days after the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) threatened to go to court unless state agents stopped killing radio/GPS-collared mountain lions on the federal lands surrounding the refuge.
Barber said the state game and fish department has also conducted DNA research that indicates at least 11 different mountain lions have wandered onto the Kofa Mountains Complex within the past three years.
Kearns said he is surprised to learn that there have been that many mountain lions wandering into the Kofa Mountains.
He added he is also skeptical as well, because the information has not undergone a scientific review by PEER to determine the validity of its findings.
With other mountain lions remaining in the Kofa Mountains Complex Predation Management Area, Game and Fish biologists will continue to take an active role in monitoring bighorn sheep losses attributed to predation.
“The goal is not to remove all mountain lions from the management area, but to limit predation until the sheep population recovers,” said Barber. “Mountain lion populations throughout the state are healthy and they are neither rare, threatened or at risk. The same can’t be said for this bighorn sheep population.”
In 2007 and 2008, the Arizona Game and Fish Department shot two other GPS-collared lions, both of which were outside the boundaries of the refuge. They were among a population estimated to be of no more than five lions, leaving only three mountain lions, one female and two males that were spending enough time in the Kofas to be considered a resident population.
Kearns added that the three lethally removed lions had only killed a combined 26 bighorn sheep in 2-1/2 years, which is far less than officials remove from the herd on a yearly basis.
Barber said the department continues to work, in collaboration with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, on a comprehensive management approach to address the potential issues preventing recovery of the Kofa bighorn sheep population.
This approach, he said, includes health and disease assessments of the sheep herd, evaluation of water distribution and availability, evaluating the impacts of human disturbance and evaluating the impacts of mountain lion predation.
The Kofa bighorn sheep herd has played a critical role in restoring desert bighorn sheep populations into areas where they no longer exist, but once did in Arizona and throughout the Southwestern U.S.
Transplant efforts using the Kofa herd were suspended when the population began to decline earlier this decade.
Game and Fish will be conducting aerial population surveys throughout the region this October. Results are anticipated to be available in November.
“It’s going to take years for this herd to rebound,” Barber said. “But it’s important we play an active role in the recovery.”