Tucson — The Arizona Game and Fish Commission has extended a moratorium on shooting GPS-collared Kofa mountain lions crossing the boundary of Kofa National Wildlife Refuge until July 31, 2009, after which the big cats may be wiped out of this sanctuary. Conservation groups are protesting this too short reprieve and planning legal action.
A year-long moratorium on “lethal removals” of pumas (a.k.a. mountain lions, cougars or panthers) collared on the refuge lapsed last week on April 17th. That moratorium was imposed by state and federal officials last year days after Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) threatened to go to court unless state agents stopped killing radio/GPS-collared Kofa lions on the federal lands surrounding the refuge. This one-year respite was to allow completion of a study to determine whether cougars within the 665,000-acre southwestern Arizona refuge are responsible for any declines in prized bighorn sheep.
That study has yet to be completed. Nor has the Kofa NWR finished the environmental assessment for a mountain lion management plan on the Kofa refuge that is required by law for removals to take place. That environmental assessment may not be completed until December 2009.
Despite the urging of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (which operates Kofa NWR) and a joint request from conservation groups, the Arizona Game and Fish Commission extended the moratorium for only 3 ½ months. In addition, the Commission added a caveat that one radio-collared lion may be killed before July 31st if it is linked with bighorn predation and leaves the refuge.
“Mountain lions and desert bighorn sheep evolved in the Sonoran Desert together, and the desert ecosystem needs both to be complete,” said Michael Robinson of the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the signatory organizations on the joint letter submitted to the Commission and Department last week. “Wiping out natural carnivores from a national wildlife refuge reflects archaic and scientifically repudiated management.”
In 2007 and 2008, the Arizona Game & Fish Department shot two other GPS-collared lions in the same region. According to Ron Kearns, former longtime wildlife biologist at Kofa NWR, the state was close to eliminating breeding potential of the refuge-based cougars.
“While the short extension is welcome, Arizona Game and Fish still has a short-sighted shoot first, plan later posture, and appears to be demanding a national wildlife refuge be run as a state game farm,” stated Southwest PEER Director Daniel Patterson, an ecologist who helped broker last year’s moratorium. “By our reading of the law, state gunners cannot come onto a national refuge and kill wildlife without the permission of the refuge manager – who cannot make that call until the required environmental assessments are completed.”
The groups are pushing for a statewide moratorium on killing collared mountain lions and an ecosystem management plan for the Kofa refuge that respects the role of predators in the web-of-life.