Yuma — State and federal officials announced a one-year halt of killing cougars on the Kofa National Wildlife Refuge days after Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) said they would have to go to court unless the practice was ended. The announced moratorium on “lethal removals” of cougars will facilitate a study to determine whether cougars within the 665,000-acre southwestern Arizona refuge are responsible for a precipitous decline in prized bighorn sheep.
The Kofa National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) had allowed the Arizona Game & Fish Department to trap and collar cougars on the refuge, using the GPS collars to then track and kill cougars that have preyed on more than two bighorn in a six-month period. The lions are killed when the GPS signals indicate they have left the refuge boundary. In the past year Arizona Game & Fish has killed two cougars out of a small population of no more than five lions.
“This moratorium happened just in the nick of time to save the Kofa cougar breeding population,” stated Ron Kearns, a former longtime wildlife biologist at Kofa NWR. “Arizona Game & Fish had already killed the patriarch of Kofa cougars and they were close to capturing the matriarchal queen lion when PEER stepped in.”
Arizona Game & Fish derives significant revenue from selling bighorn hunting tags and is concerned that cougar predation may be costing it potential revenue. The federal refuge also expends significant funds to kill cougars in the name of bighorn protection, yet refuge management still allows the annual hunting of more than ten bighorn rams on the Kofa NWR itself.
“The Kofa needs to move toward ecosystem management and away from single-species game farm management.” stated Southwest PEER Director Daniel Patterson, an ecologist and an Arizona hunter. “There is room for pumas on the Kofa. Pumas and bighorn have an important relationship that ultimately is good for strong bighorn herds.”
On April 10, 2008, PEER sent a cease and desist letter to Southwest Arizona Refuges Complex Manager Mitch Ellis indicating that the cougar trapping and killing program violated federal environmental law and asked him to stop the puma killings. On April 18, 2008, Arizona Game & Fish and the Kofa NWR jointly announced that they would cease killing cougars for up to one year so the refuge could “develop a mountain lion management plan and environmental assessment” as required by law.
“This is a welcome and overdue development,” stated PEER staff counsel Adam Draper who wrote the cease and desist letter. “Public agencies should aspire to do more than shoot first and ask questions later.”
Under the arrangement, cougars may still be collared and tracked for research purposes. In addition, the remaining cougars are still in danger of being shot by hunters but the hunters are not supposed to use GPS signals to home in on the animals. PEER is urging the agencies to disallow any off-refuge hunting of Kofa collared cougars because, given the very small numbers, each lion is invaluable to the ecosystem and for the planned research.