In an effort to ensure responsible, science-based wildlife management practices and protect New Mexico's animals from indiscriminate injury and killing, conservationists have initiated a state appeal and a separate federal challenge of the validity of the expansion of cougar trapping in New Mexico.
Animal Protection of New Mexico (APNM) and The Humane Society of the United States (The HSUS) are joined by concerned New Mexican citizens who run Search and Rescue missions in the expanded trapping areas and have had dogs injured in leg-hold traps, a hunting and fishing guide, and wolf advocates.
A capacity crowd attends the State Game Commission meeting in 2015 to comment on bear and cougar kill limits. Photo credit: Clyde Mueller/The New Mexican
When the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish (NMDGF) released its proposal in 2015 to allow recreational cougar trapping for the first time in nearly five decades, it elicited statewide outcry, yet the Commission voted unanimously to allow:
Cougar trapping using leg-hold traps and snares on 9 million acres of state trust lands, in the habitat of highly endangered Mexican wolves and jaguars;
Trapping and snaring for cougars on private land with no permit requirement; and
Trappers to take twice as many cougars as previously allowed.
The challengers have appealed the rule in state court and filed a petition to keep it from going into effect pending a court ruling, because of the irreversible harms that could occur.
The Commission based the expansion of trapping on unscientific guesses about the cougar population, and NMDGF's own scientists have admitted that methodologies used to estimate the cougar population are "neither adequate nor reliable."
Experts estimate that the introduction of trapping may more than triple the number of cougars killed in New Mexico this year - up to 750, compared to the annual average of 200-250 cougars killed from 2000 through the present. In addition to protecting vulnerable cougar populations, a stay of the Cougar Rule is needed because of the threats posed by traps and snares to non-target companion animals, Search and Rescue and hunting dogs, endangered species, and other protected wildlife like nursing mother cougars and kittens.
In light of the likely harm to endangered species -- in particular, Mexican wolves and jaguars -- the coalition has given notice of their intent to file a separate federal case under the Endangered Species Act. The Cougar Rule's radical expansion of cougar trapping into Mexican wolf and jaguar habitat presents a mortal and unlawful threat to these endangered animals because -- due to their similarity in size, prey and habitat preference -- they are likely to be accidentally caught in traps set for cougars. As of February 2016, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimated that only 97 Mexican wolves remained in the wild, and a significant number have already been caught in traps intended for other animals.
"The Game Commission's expansion of cougar trapping was an egregious decision that appears to be based on fictitious data and that seems likely to injure and kill more dogs and legally protected animals than cougars - especially when the latest science shows cougar populations are far lower than the Commission alleged," said Jessica Johnson, APNM's Chief Legislative Officer.
Anna Frostic, senior wildlife attorney for The HSUS, said: "Littering public lands with leg-hold traps and snares will expose cougars and endangered Mexican wolves and jaguars to cruel and unnecessary suffering and death. The Commission cannot unilaterally undermine the effort to recover these fragile populations in violation of state and federal law, against the will of the majority of New Mexicans and contrary to the scientific evidence."
The practice of wildlife trapping and snaring has caused enormous controversy and concern across the state. In an August 2015 statewide poll, New Mexicans opposed the Cougar Rule and the practice of trapping and snaring on public lands by a three-to-one margin.
If the state appeal or federal challenge succeed, neither will prevent otherwise lawful hunting, nor will they affect ranchers' or state officials' ability to kill cougars who are threatening or attacking livestock.