August 27, 2023

Game Commission discusses bear and cougar hunting rule

New Mexico Department of Transportation & Arizona Department of Game & Fish

A black bear is seen crossing beneath 1_25 near Raton, NM.

Bernalillo County resident Thomas Solomon recalled having a bear break into his house on the western slope of the Sandia Mountains about a month ago in search of food in the form of bird seed.

“He could smell (the bird feeders) in the kitchen where we put them overnight,” Solomon said during a New Mexico Game Commission meeting on Friday in Raton. “He ripped open the window, came in, trashed our kitchen, left his scat on the floor.”

The bear had left before Solomon discovered evidence of the intrusion the next morning.

A representative from the New Mexico Cattlegrowers Association said conflicts between predators like bears and cougars and humans and livestock have increased in recent years. The cattlegrowers maintain that hunting is needed to control the number of predators and reduce those conflicts.

But, despite his experience, Solomon opposes the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish’s proposed limits on how many bears and cougars can be killed annually by hunters, which wildlife advocates say are too high.

He said that the ecosystems the bears and cougars depend upon are being impacted by humans, including through anthropogenic climate change and drought.

“Given all the other things that we are doing to harm their environment, the last thing we need to do is to harm them more,” he said.

The commission discussed these proposed changes during its meeting in Raton. It is expected to vote on the bear and cougar rule during its October meeting in Farmington. The Farmington meeting will be livestreamed and people will have the opportunity to comment both in person and virtually, as they did during the Raton meeting.

Kerrie Romero, executive director of the New Mexico Council of Outfitters and Guides, commented on how much interest the bear and cougar rule has generated. She has been attending meetings for more than a decade.

“I can promise you that predator hunting is the only issue that ever generates this level of a visceral anti-department response from the public,” she said.

One reason for the backlash against potential increases in predator hunting limits is because of the type of hunters that tend to go after bears or cougars. Chris Smith, southwest wildlife advocate for WildEarth Guardians, explained that in his comments.

“I don’t know anyone who eats lion. I know very few people who eat bear,” he said. “So is this hunting almost entirely for sport or for a wall trophy? If so, that’s something that public is largely in opposition to”

Surveys have found that less than a third of Americans approve of trophy hunting while the majority of Americans, about 80 percent, approve of hunting for food.

New Mexico Department of Game and Fish Wildlife Management Division Chief Stewart Liley emphasized that the proposed numbers are a limit to how many bears and cougars can be killed by hunters, not a quota that the department tries to meet. In fact, when zones approach the limit, they are closed to future bear and cougar hunting. The rule further limits the number of females that can be killed and prohibits the killing of mothers with cubs or kittens.

Still, the average age of a bear killed in New Mexico is seven years old and sows generally don’t have cubs until they are at least four years old, according to information Liley provided. 

Because bears spend more than a year raising their cubs and have a long gestation period, that means a sow may only be able to have a couple of cubs before she is killed.

Liley further said the actual number of animals killed is much lower than the limit imposed by the department. For example, while the department allows 8 percent to 12 percent of bears to be killed depending on the management zone in the state, the bears’ total mortality—including those killed by hunters and other sources like vehicle collisions—over the last four years has ranged from 6.7 percent to 9.3 percent of the estimated population. Those killed by hunters ranged from 5.9 percent to 7.5 percent of the estimated population.

Likewise, he said cougar total mortality has ranged from 8.7 percent to 10.2 percent of the estimated population, which is lower than the proposed harvest limits. The number of cougars killed by hunters has ranged between 8.2 and 8.7 percent of the estimated population.

But wildlife advocates argue that the state’s population estimates are inaccurate and that there are fewer bears and cougars in the wild than the department uses in the modeling to determine hunting limits.

Liley tried to rebuke these claims by offering details on how the population estimates are achieved. For example, he said that the bear populations are estimated by collecting hair follicle samples using pieces of barbed wire that the bears brush against while walking through the areas. He said that this method has been published in peer-reviewed wildlife management journals.

Marc Bedner criticized that claim. Bedner spoke as a member of the public and not as part of any specific group. 

“I have a background in biology and I know peer review when I see it,” he said.

He said the peer review process is just an evaluation of what game managers in other states where bears and cougars are hunted advocate for. 

“It’s not a peer review of the general science,” he said.

Some of the opponents questioned the need for killing apex predators such as bears and cougars.

Antoinette Reyes, a Las Cruces resident who grew up in the Silver City area, argued that bears and cougars do not need hunters to keep their populations in check.

“I want to start off by saying bears and cougars are extremely important to the integrity and health of ecosystems. They’re also self-regulating species,” she said.

In fact, she argued, hunting may lead to more conflicts between humans and predators.

“They are territorial animals and if an individual with no history of conflicts is killed, younger and less experienced individuals can move into the now vacant territory, opening up possible conflicts with the newer, less experienced individual,” she said.