New Mexico desert canyon with swirls of sandy rock formations and low brush.


SUMMARY: Mountain Lions in New Mexico

Map of Potential Mountain Lion Habitat in New Mexico

Mountain Lion Habitat and Population in New Mexico

The state of New Mexico encompasses 121,356 square miles of land. According to the New Mexico Department of Game & Fish (NMDGF), mountain lions "generally inhabit the rougher country in New Mexico avoiding the low elevation desert areas and eastern plains. They do however occur in these areas in conjunction with pockets of mule deer and areas of topographic diversity."

In 2008, NMDGF used a Mountain Lion Population Density Model based on a GIS-mapped habitat study funded by the conservation organization, Animal Protection of New Mexico. This particular Model divided 92 percent of the state into four distinct mountain lion habitat categories: Core, Minimum Patch, Dispersal, and Poor / Marginal; and assigned population density ranges for each category.

Using this same lion population density model, MLF estimates that New Mexico currently has approximately 2,550 mountain lions distributed accordingly:

  • Core: prime mountain lion habitat able to support about 1 adult lion per 15 square miles. 24 percent of the state is Core (approximately 29,118 square miles), home to an estimated 1,886 adult mountain lions.
  • Minimum Patch: areas of land able to support about 1 adult lion per 37 square miles. 4 percent of the state is recognized as Minimum Patch (approximately 4,853 square miles), and supports an estimated 131 adult mountain lions.
  • Dispersal: areas of land able to support about 1 adult lion per 77 square miles. 4 percent of the state is recognized as Dispersal (approximately 4,853 square miles), sustaining an estimated 63 adult mountain lions.
  • Poor/Marginal: poor quality mountain lion habitat with less resources, only able to support 1 adult lion per 154 square miles. The majority of the state, 60 percent, is considered Poor/Marginal (approximately 72,795 square miles), and is home to an estimated 471 adult mountain lions.

Apparently officials at NMDGF felt that the population estimates derived from the 2008 model were too low. Less than two-years later, NMDGF is now using a radically different mountain lion population density model which seems to be developed from an unpublished Masters Thesis. As a result, New Mexico appears to have lost 39,448 square miles of mountain lion habitat, while gaining an additional 1,930 adult mountain lions. MLF can only assume that NMDGF's use of the new 2010 lion population density model is based more on political concerns rather than biological evidence, for the express purpose of justifying the increased 2010-2011 mountain lion hunting quotas.

New Mexico's History of Mountain Lion Management

Bounty Period

Like most states, New Mexico's first lion management plan took the form of paying a bounty for every lion killed where the pelt was turned over to authorities. This program continued in New Mexico until 1970.

Recreational Hunting

In 1971, mountain lions became a "protected" species, under the management authority of the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish. In that year the Department initiated a 4-month regulated hunting season in the southwest corner of the state, with spotted kittens and females accompanied by kittens protected from being hunted. Over the years the length of the hunting season, the size of the legal hunt areas, and the hunting harvest limits have been expanded to be year-long events (April through March), and include almost all of the state.

In 1983, New Mexicos agricultural industry, concerned with potential livestock depredation, introduced a legislative bill to eliminate the mountain lions so-called protected status. While the bill was eventually tabled for lack of information, it did cause NMDGF to produce a detailed report on lions in New Mexico (Evans 1983). The reports final recommendations resulted in reducing the 1984 harvest limit, and shortened (for a year) New Mexicos lion hunting season.

In 1999, NMDGF implemented a mountain lion harvest quota system based on Game Management Unit (GMU). New Mexico is divided into 69 GMUs, each with its own lion population estimates and hunting quotas.


Depredation is defined in New Mexico as "property damage by protected wildlife on privately owned or leasehold interest land, where damage value exceeds applicable income earned on that site from the wildlife species causing damage."

NMDGF issues depredation permits against mountain lions on any verified complaint.

New Mexico Game Management Unit Map

Mountain Lion Control Programs (Preventative Kills)

New Mexico has two long-term programs which attempt to protect other species by lethally removing mountain lions from specific geographic locations.

The first program, passed by the NMDGF Commission in 1985, was in response to an increasing number of livestock reported killed by mountain lions in GMU-30. In 1986, The Commission ordered NMDGF to preemptively kill mountain lions found on ranches that had more than 6 verified lion depredation occurrences in any 3-year period. A maximum of 14 mountain lions can be lethally removed from GMU-30 in any given year as part of this program. Since the programs inception, at least 206 mountain lions have been killed in GMU-30.

The second program was created by the NMDGF Commission in 1997 in response to declining rocky mountain and desert bighorn sheep populations. Bighorn sheep hunting-tags auction off for large sums of money, thereby providing an economic incentive for NMDGF to remove natural predators, and assist bighorn sheep herds which have been decimated by detrimental climate, deteriorating habitat, and diseases introduced by domestic sheep grazing on public lands.

In 1999 the Commission authorized NMDGF to preemptively kill up to 34 mountain lions each year from the following five mountain ranges: Peloncillo, Ladron, Hatchets, San Andres, and Fra Cristobal. During the first 8 years of the program (1999-2006) 103 mountain lions were killed as part of this program.

Human Caused Mountain Lion Mortalities in New Mexico

Since 1917, (the first year records are available) at least 6,788 mountain lions have been reported killed by human in New Mexico.

This figure does not include:

  • secondary poisoning,
  • orphaned kitten mortalities,
  • death by unknown causes,
  • poaching, and
  • the "shoot-shovel-and-shut up" practices espoused by some ranchers.

New Mexico's Killing Fields

Based on a lion-mortality density model developed by the Mountain Lion Foundation, New Mexico averages 0.75 mountain lions reported killed by humans for every 100 square miles of habitat. The eleven western state average is 0.65. Using MLFs mortality ranking system, New Mexico ranks 5th (11th being least deadly) amongst the 11 states studied by MLF in reported human-caused mountain lion mortalities.

Since 1971, when they became a "protected" species in New Mexico, at least 5,641 mountain lions have been reported killed by humans. 4,993 of those deaths, or 88.5 percent of the total since 1971 were a result of recreational hunting. Around 5.5 percent died as a result of New Mexico's preemptive mountain lion control programs (livestock & bighorn sheep), with the remaining 6 percent occurring as a result of depredation, road kills, and uncategorized mortalities.

Last Update: February 14, 2012

Double Cross

06/05/11 GUEST COMMENTARY: Constantine Chuchla

The pursuit of game as trophies is a pursuit of vanity. It is a self-indulgence that amounts to a bravura by those with a predilection to kill wildlife. For those with a trigger itch, trophy hunting fulfills that enigmatic urge to connect with nature. Obliterating nature while claiming a respect for it is the ultimate double-cross.