August 21, 2023

Wildlife advocates say Game and Fish allows for overhunting bears and cougars

Photo Credit: USFWS Mountain Prairie cc

Wildlife advocates say proposed rules regarding how many bears and cougars can be killed by hunters are too high and will lead to overkilling of the carnivores.

Animal Protection New Mexico and the Rio Grande Chapter of the Sierra Club are urging the public to attend the New Mexico Game Commission meeting on Aug. 25 in Raton either in person or virtually to protest the proposed bear and cougar rule.

While neither group supports hunting of apex predators like bears and cougars, both say that if the hunting occurs the numbers should be lower than they are. 

Nina Eydelman, the chief program and policy officer for wildlife with Animal Protection New Mexico, said the bears and cougars have evolved to self-regulate their populations based on the availability of food sources.

“We don’t think they need to be hunted at all,” Eydelman said.

Mary Katherine Ray, the wildlife chair of the Rio Grande Chapter of the Sierra Club, agrees with Eydelman that predators don’t need to be hunted. To support that, Ray pointed to California, where killing of cougars has been against the law since 1972. While California has prohibited killing of cougars for more than 50 years, the state continues to work on measures to boost cougar populations and conserve or restore habitat for the big cats.

“The Sierra Club would like to see vibrant populations of both bears and cougars, but after looking at the proposals and looking at the data that New Mexico Game and Fish has, I and we are not convinced that even hunting as it exists now for both of those species is sustainable,” Ray said. “They’re very hard to count. They’re apex carnivores. They don’t go around in herds. And the data that New Mexico Game and Fish has is either lacking, it’s opaque, or when they do have it, they are, I think, killing too many of both animals. So we’re extremely concerned about that.”

Eydelman said the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish relies heavily on the sale of hunting and fishing licenses for revenue that funds other programs, including conservation programs. Hunting can also bring in tourism dollars from out of state that benefits local economies. 

Eydelman said less than 7 percent of New Mexico residents have hunting licenses and, of those with licenses, about 2 percent acquire licenses for bears and cougars.

According to numbers from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, about 140,000 New Mexicans are paid hunting license holders and, this year, the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish has sold a total of approximately 345,000 permits, tags and hunting licenses to New Mexico residents and another 145,000 permits, tags and hunting licenses to people who live out of state.

During the 2021-2022 season, about 500 bears were killed and, so far this year, while hunters can kill up to 580 cougars, only 19 have been killed by hunters as of Aug. 7.

“The bear and cougar quotas only exist to satisfy a very minuscule percentage of the population,” Eydelman said. 

Ecosystem impacts of overhunting

When too many bears or cougars are killed, Ray said it can have a ripple effect through the ecosystem.

Bears, she said, help spread mushroom spores as well as plant seeds. The bears eat a mixture of plant and animal matter. Meanwhile, cougars are meat eaters.

The prey the carnivores kill can further benefit other species such as scavengers like ravens and eagles, Ray said.

“Both of them are really social animals, much more so than we ever thought,” Ray said. “Modern research is showing that they know each other, they know their neighbors, they have little friendships they share food with. And when we kill them, it’s disruptive. And what was a stable society, a stable population, suddenly, it can be thrown into political and social turmoil.”

Cougars can also help create healthier deer populations, which in turn benefits the hunters.

Ray said studies have indicated that cougars are more likely to kill deer that are sick, such as those that have chronic wasting disease. Chronic wasting disease is a neurological condition that leads to brain deterioration and is always fatal in deer.

While chronic wasting disease likely does not pose a threat to humans, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued recommendations to hunters to limit their exposure to chronic wasting disease out of precaution. For instance, meat from animals that test positive for chronic wasting disease should not be consumed and hunters are encouraged to have the animals they kill in areas with known chronic wasting disease tested.

The first case of chronic wasting disease in deer in New Mexico was detected in 2002, though it remains uncommon in the state.

Percentage of population

The New Mexico Department of Game and Fish says the annual number of bear and cougar hunting permits is based on a percentage of the estimated populations. For bears, the department allows for 8 percent to 12 percent of the population to be killed. Cougars have a higher percentage with hunting permits based on killing 17 to 24 percent of the population. 

Eydelman said, when reviewing the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish documents, Animal Protection New Mexico did not see any evidence of why the department is proposing such high numbers of cougars and bears be killed.

“They are saying that they did some recent studies and they found that some populations have increased, but they don’t have a basis for saying that because the kinds of studies they’re doing are not consistent,” she said. “For example, they’ve recently started doing some on the ground studies where they actually collect hair follicle samples to get some better estimations. But from everything we’ve seen, those kinds of studies were done only once in a given area. So they have basically a snapshot of what the population might look like in one area, but that one snapshot in time does not give them any sort of trends of where that population is going and how it’s evolving and moving affected by human intervention over time.”

She said it is hard to get accurate estimates of how many bears or cougars are living in the wild today.

Eydelman further said that when ground studies were done to estimate the population of cougars, those estimates came back with significantly smaller populations than the estimates using the models that were used for other areas of the state.

“The old habitat models that inflate populations are still being used to create hunting quotas for those (areas of the state),” she said. 

She said both bears and cougars are very sensitive to overhunting and, when older individuals like the ones preferred by trophy hunters are killed, it leaves younger, less experienced animals to fill the territory.

Impacts on reproduction

Hunters are not allowed to kill cubs or kittens or female bears with cubs or cougars with spotted kittens. But wildlife advocates say even hunters who are trying to abide by the law can kill a mother bear or cougar without realizing it. This is in part because of how the bears and cougars are hunted.

Most bear and cougar hunting in the state is done using hounds. Because hounds are used to hunt bears and cougars, Eydelman said it can be hard for hunters to guarantee they are not treeing a mother bear or cougar that has cubs or kittens. She said the cubs or kittens can get separated from the mother when being chased by hounds so the hunter would have no indication that the animal had offspring.

Cougar kittens often stay with their mothers long after the spots have vanished from their coats. The spots typically disappear from their coats by the time they are six months old, but kittens will remain with their mother for a year or two. 

That means hunting can orphan these young kittens that are still learning how to hunt.

Like cougars, bear cubs also tend to stay with their mother for more than a year. 

When cubs and kittens are orphaned, they are more likely to run into conflicts with humans and livestock. Many of them also die of starvation because they don’t know how to hunt for food, Eydelman said. 

Eydelman said in the rare instance that a cougar or bear attacks a human, it is generally a juvenile animal.

Studies have shown that cougars that are younger than two and a half years or are unhealthy are more likely to attack humans.

Ray emphasized that it is very rare for a bear or a cougar to attack a human and that humans do not need to fear the carnivores.

“We’re not really on their menu,” she said. “Sometimes they get in trouble with people in drought years, especially like this one, when food supplies are hard to come by, we might find some more conflict. But killing these animals at random for trophies, doesn’t address that conflict at all. It can make things worse.” 

Additionally, Eydelman said the percentage of the population that hunters are allowed to kill is too high and population estimates are inaccurate.

She said scientific evidence indicates that, in the case of cougars, no more than 14 percent of the population should be killed.

When high numbers are killed, it disrupts the social system and can lead to more conflicts with livestock and humans.

While bears can live 20 to 25 years, in areas where they are hunted, the average bear lives seven to eight years, according to the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish. 

Bears reach sexual maturity around three to five years old and a sow will have a cub every two to four years. 

Eydelman said hunting means a sow may only be able to have one cub before she is killed. 

Impacts of climate change, wildfires

Another issue that wildlife advocates have is that they say the Department of Game and Fish has not accounted for recent climate change related events such as heat waves and larger wildfires. 

The areas of the state with the highest number of bears and cougars that can be hunted have been impacted by wildfires in recent years, including the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire.

“After a 20 year drought, the driest period in the southwest since 800 CE, a record heatwave this summer, you’d think that the department would give wildlife a break and instead, we see the agency doubling down on permitting trophy hunters to kill even more black bears to continue the cougar slaughter,” Eydelman said. “And there’s no indication that they’ve taken into account the huge sweeping record wildfires we’ve had last year.”