Tuesday, 12 May 2009 02:20

State: Cougar killings come down to liability

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Santa Fe - New Mexican - May 2, 2009

Game and Fish can't release an animal only to have it attack someone

Staci Matlock

The debate over what should happen when cougars encounter humans is heating up again.  
After a New Mexico Department of Game and Fish warden darted a female cougar in the backyard of an Eldorado home April 20 and later euthanized it, angry callers and letter writers lambasted the agency for "trigger happy" tactics.

Albuquerque resident Charlotte Salazar thinks just the opposite. Her 5-year-old son was attacked by a cougar last May during a family hike on a popular Sandia Mountain trail. Salazar believes wildlife officers aren't doing enough to control the cougar population.

The debate over what should happen when cougars encounter humans has changed little in 30 years, said Marty Frentzel, public information officer with the state Department of Game and Fish. "We're stuck between those who want more cougars and those who want fewer," Frentzel said. "For every person who thinks predators are kind and gentle, there's another who wants to sue us for failing to protect public safety." For the state, the decision over euthanizing a captured cougar comes down to one word: liability. Game and Fish Department officials worry about getting sued if someone is attacked by a cougar that was captured and released elsewhere. That fear isn't unwarranted.

In a 1996 incident in Arizona, a black bear that had been captured, tagged and released into a mountain range near Tucson badly mauled a teenage girl in her tent. The girl's family sued the Arizona Game and Fish Department, claiming the agency shouldn't have released a bear when it knew the animal had previously shown no fear of humans. The state settled the case out of court for $2.5 million.

In the case of the female cougar in Eldorado, the animal hung around a courtyard and appeared unafraid of people, according to a report from the game warden at the time. "That's odd behavior," said Rick Winslow, the large-predator biologist for New Mexico Department of Game and Fish. "Normally she would be over the fence and gone. You can't take the chance that this animal is going to get away and do something to someone three houses down."

Some people angry over the cougar shooting wondered why the game department hadn't taken it to an animal sanctuary. Frentzel said sometimes the agency gets requests for a cougar if an animal is captured, but doesn't have a waiting list. He said wounded cougars are taken to The Wildlife Center near Española.

Reports of cougar sightings are increasing, especially around Santa Fe and Albuquerque, according to Game and Fish Department reports. In 2008, the Chama district for Game and Fish reported 16 calls about mountain lions, most of those from around Santa Fe. That was more than double the number of calls during the prior two years. Last year, the Albuquerque district fielded 41 calls, compared to eight each in the prior two years. Winslow thinks cougar attacks last year raised people's awareness of the animals. In Santa Fe, people have spotted the elusive animals gliding through parks, sitting on fences, and at least once, walking downtown along Marcy Street.

Human and predator encounters are likely to increase as housing developments expand ever further into predator territory and as more people take to the woods for recreation. Cougars are territorial and range widely, another reason why moving them to a new area can be difficult. Winslow said he doesn't think the cougar population has grown much. "In a situation where cougars are not being harmed much by humans, they are self-regulating. They kill each other off."

People make it tougher on predators to survive when they decide it is fine to feed deer (which cougars eat), leave dog food outside (which attracts bears) and insist on keeping bird seed in backyard feeders (another bear attractant). As cougars come into contact with people, they lose their natural fear of humans and can become threats. "The animals always lose," Frentzel said. "When they exhibit no natural fear of us, we are very nervous about releasing them into the wild."

The decision to euthanize the Eldorado cougar came from on high. Game warden Desi Ortiz handled the call, darted the animal and then, per policy, informed the northwest area office. State Game and Fish Department director Tod Stevenson, northwest area game chief Brian Gleadle and assistant director for resources R.J. Kirkpatrick discussed reports from Ortiz about the animal's behavior and decided the cougar should be put down. "Due to the circumstances of last year (with Salazar) we are very cautious about releasing animals we've handled," Frentzel said.

Salazar thinks the state doesn't really know the cougar population size and thinks the number is so large that the big predators are moving into populated areas. The state allowed more than 400 cougars to be hunted last year, but the number killed fell well short of that. "I feel the state is not being aggressive enough," said Salazar, an environmental engineer. "There's been a big push to protect cougars in the state. I appreciate their importance in the ecosystem but the population needs to be controlled."

Her perspective was affected by the incident that occurred while her family was walking on a highly used trail near the Sandia ski area one evening. A cougar grabbed Jose Salazar Jr., 5, and dragged him down the trail. His father, Jose Salazar Sr., ran after him and caught the boy's legs, wresting him away from the mountain lion. Charlotte Salazar said they knew what happened to their son was rare. "We could accept that and move on and help our son get over it," Salazar said. "But a month later, a man was killed by a cougar."

A 55-year-old Pinos Altos, N.M., man was killed by cougars near his trailer last June. Game officials later killed two cougars suspected of mauling the man. Then in September, 29-year-old hiker Adam Wheat was attacked and wounded by a cougar west of Taos Ski Valley after he came between the lion and its kill. To Salazar, it seemed like the increase in attacks on people signaled a problem. Since last fall, Salazar has asked the Game Commission to revisit cougar hunting regulations. She hopes they'll take up the issue at a May 28 meeting in Albuquerque.

Winslow, the Game and Fish biologist, said people need to remember some rules for living and taking recreation in cougar country: Avoid walking mountain trails in the early morning or evening and keep small children between adults when hiking. Cougars are beautiful animals, Winslow said, but "they are not nice creatures. People want to anthropomorphize them into cute, cuddly and endangered animals. But they aren't endangered and they definitely are not cute and cuddly."

Little Jose Salazar Jr., now 6, has the scars on his arms and legs to prove it. A year after the attack, the boy says he's more scared of dogs than cougars and he still likes hiking trails. But he can recite verbatim the rules for living in cougar country.

Contact Staci Matlock at 986-3055 or This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .


Comment: Wonder if a lawsuit would wake NDOW up. Probably not!

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