Cougars would become an unprotected species in New Mexico under a bill that advanced Friday in the Legislature.
The House Agriculture, Water and Wildlife Committee sent the measure forward without recommendation on an 8-2 vote.
The bill would overturn the law that requires a license to hunt cougars. Instead, the mountain cats could be shot or trapped at any time and in any number, putting them in the same league as skunks and coyotes.
Animals are the focus of a number of high-profile bills. Last week, the House wildlife committee killed a bill to outlaw coyote-killing contests. But the full House of Representatives has approved a bill to better protect animals in zoos by adding a criminal penalty.
Rep. Zach Cook, R-Ruidoso, is sponsoring the measure to eliminate protection of cougars, which he called “a cleanup bill,” not one of significant change. Former state game and fish director Jim Lane, serving as Cook’s expert, did most of the talking. He presented the bill as “a common-sense” means of better controlling cougar populations.
Lane said cougars inhabit parts of the state that hunters never reach, so the bill would not threaten to make them extinct. He said 2,000 to 2,500 hunting licenses for cougars are sold in New Mexico each year, but kills number only about 200.
Former state senator Tim Jennings, a Democrat from Roswell, held a stuffed lamb as he testified for the bill. He said the sheep industry once flourished in New Mexico, and predators are one of the main reasons for its steep decline.
Ranchers testified that they have been plagued by drought and cannot afford the losses of livestock caused by cougars. And Republican Rep. Andy Nuñez, a committee member from Hatch who voted for the bill, said he saw an enormous cougar prowling a golf course in Las Cruces. Nuñez said mountains cats are encroaching on cities.
Opponents of the bill far outnumbered those who supported it.
They said Cook’s bill was devoid of any science and called it “a knee-jerk reaction” to anecdotal reports of runaway cougar populations killing pets and livestock.
John Crenshaw of the New Mexico Wildlife Federation testified against the bill, saying it was flawed because it removes protection for females and even cubs.
Other critics of the bill said it is illogical, taking away the legal authority of professionals in the state Department of Game and Fish to manage cougar populations.
William Wiley, of the state chapter of Republicans for Environmental Protection, condemned the proposal. “I am full of fury, and I am full of disgust for this bill,” he said.
A woman from Albuquerque had a similar assessment: “The only killing that should be done today is to kill this bill,” she said.
The Department of Game and Fish “conservatively estimated” that 3,000 to 4,500 cougars inhabit New Mexico.
Alexandra Sandoval, director of the department, said her agency would have no legal authority to respond to complaints about cougars if the bill were approved and signed into law by the governor. She said the department estimates that 700 kills of cougars annually would be the right management number, but it is proceeding with tracking some lions with GPS collars in hopes of getting a better understanding of the population.
Democratic Reps. Bill McCamley of Mesilla Park and Bobby Gonzales of Taos voted against the bill. A mix of Democrats and Republicans supported it.
The bill has two more committee assignments in the House of Representatives. If it clears both, it would reach the full 70-member House for a floor vote.