In an ideal world, Arizona Game and Fish Department would census mountain lion populations each year before setting hunting quotas. With the current tools available, such efforts would be expensive in time and resources. Instead, wildlife managers use a combination of population models and stakeholder desires, namely hunters, in order to set their hunting quotas. Unfortunately, AZGFD has not used data from local researchers to inform their own mountain lion population estimates, which makes the Mountain Lion Foundation question whether AZGFD is managing the public's wildlife for sustainability or for the benefit of small stakeholder groups.
In 2003, AZGFD estimated that there were approximately 1,000 to 2,500 mountain lions on their lands. At that time, wildlife biologist D. J. Schubert conducted an in-depth analysis of AZGFD's management policies and mortality data and concluded that their mountain lion population estimates were suspect because:
As far as we know, AZGFD has not yet addressed Dr. Schubert's concerns. In a strategic planning report AZGFD describes the state's mountain lion population as "robust" and estimated the animal's population level to be between 2,500 to 3,000. AZGFD explains the population increase as the result of an abundance of deer and discounts other lion population estimates as being too conservative.
The Mountain Lion Foundation agrees with Dr. Schubert that the state's estimate of mountain lion numbers are overly optimistic and are more closed based on satisfying demand or mountain lion hunting opportunities than they are on puma biology. Until an acceptable, peer-reviewed study of Arizona's lion population is produced to change our opinion, MLF estimates that state's lion population to be approximately 1,750 animals. Of this number, an estimated 1/3rd consists of kittens and subadults younger than three-years old.
Arizona currently uses what AZGFD calls Open Hunting to manage the state's mountain lion population. "Open hunting" allows the killing of an unlimited numbers of mountain lions of either sex in some areas during the legal hunting season. This season was extended from 9 months to year-round in 2012. Arizona is also one of only a few states to still allow hunting of lions at night, a practice dangerous to both mountain lions, hunters, and other outdoor recreationalists.
Arizona's human population is expected to double to about 12 million by the year 2050, and the state's urban areas will continue to expand into and overlap with mountain lion habitat. A Mountain Lion Action Plan was developed in 2004 to address the issue of human/lion conflicts and provide response guidance for AZGFD field personnel. The plan categorizes conflicts as sighting, encounter, incident, or attack based on acceptable or unacceptable behaviors by mountain lions. Department responses are guided by the action plan for each category. Reports of all lion/human conflicts are entered into a centralized Human-Wildlife Interaction Database.
In the 2005 Attitudes Toward Urban Wildlife Among Residents of Phoenix and Tucson survey, residents were asked whether or not mountain lions are "dangerous:" 44 percent agreed and 44 percent disagreed. Of those respondents, only 21 percent think that mountain lions are a threat to personal safety, while 72 percent believe they are not a threat. In the survey, 80 percent of the public accepted destroying a mountain lion that is a "threat to human safety" or is an "established threat to pets and livestock." According to Arizona residents in the survey, 33 percent think the mountain lion population is declining, 15 percent think mountain lions are endangered, 1 percent think they are extinct, and only 19 percent think the population is stable.
When asked about controlling mountain lions, 65 percent of the public found it acceptable "to protect endangered or threatened wildlife" and 55 percent found it acceptable "to protect wildlife populations that are declining." However, less than 50 percent found it acceptable "to increase numbers of big game animals."
Between 1917 and 2014, at least 19,499 mountain lions have been killed by humans in Arizona, with almost 60 percent of these deaths occurring since mountain lions were classified as game animals in 1970. This fact is reflected in a 2009 AZGFD report which noted that the sale of mountain lion hunting tags had "annually increased from about 3,000 in 1990 to nearly 11,000 by 2007."
However this claim of an ever increasing constituency of lion hunters was repudiated in 2011 when AZGFD personnel attending the 2011 Mountain Lion Workshop (a national conference for state game agency personnel) voiced dissatisfaction over the declining number of mountain lion hunters. According to them, to offset this reduction, the agency was beginning to offer lion tags in multiple hunt license "combo" packages to interest the incidental deer or elk hunter that accidently came across a lion. Without the public (trophy hunters) to help AZGFD meet their management objective of killing off between 250 to 300 hundred lion each year, the representative indicated that there would need to be more administrative removal programs and eventually the Department may be forced to return to "the dark ages" and employ the public's help to "balance wildlife populations" — implying a bounty program that would pay residents for their assistance in slaughtering mountain lions.
Frustration was also voiced by AZGDF personnel over the killing of bighorn sheep (a lion's natural prey species) on the KofA (King of Arizona Mine) National Wildlife Refuge by the refuge's resident mountain lions. Bighorn sheep (a highly valued trophy animal) raised at the refuge are raffled off to big game hunters for special hunts, and are also used to reestablish herds throughout the west. Being a money-making game species, the Department wanted to preemptively kill lions living on the refuge to provide a "safe haven" for those sheep. Due to public outcry this plan was scrapped in favor of lethally removing any lion that kills more than one of the refuge's bighorn sheep over a six-month period.
Similar to many other states that allow mountain lion hunting, Arizona provides protection to the state's female lions, however these efforts may not be terribly effective. Though Arizona's current hunting regulations restrict the killing of females with kittens, the "Open Hunting" harvest management approach limits the efficacy of this restriction. Many lion hunters have difficulty determining a lion's sex with the animal in hand, ascertaining whether the animal is a lactating female at a distance is far more challenging. In addition, AZGFD is also considering targeting female lions for eradication in areas which include large scale livestock operations.
In 2003, the Arizona Game and Fish Department provided a gender breakdown of its mountain lion sport hunting harvests for the years 1998 through 2001. During this 4-year period 48 percent (541) of the total sport hunting mortalities were female mountain lions. A similar review took place for the years 2004 through 2007 where the percentage of females killed remained at 48 percent.
According to one major study (Anderson and Lindzey 2005), when adult females consistently comprise greater than 35 percent of the overall harvest, resident mountain lion abundance may be reduced. While noting this study in their 2009 Conservations Strategies Report, AZGFD ignores the study's ramifications and denies any reduction in the state's lion population. AZGFD insists their opinion of an increasing lion population justifies the need to increase overall mortality levels by whatever means.