Federal and state agencies are on the verge of committing "biological malpractice" in their plans to continue with the lethal elimination of a small, shrinking cougar population based in Arizona's Kofa National Wildlife Refuge, according to comments (pdf) filed by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).
A pending U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service plan would allow state game agents to shoot radio-collared mountain lions on the Kofa refuge for the purpose of limiting predation on bighorn sheep, prized by hunters.
PEER maintains that an increased cougar take may actually completely eliminate the remnant cougar population on the refuge, while not necessarily benefiting the bighorn at all."Sterilizing the Kofa wildlife refuge of all cougars is bad biology and even worse wildlife management," said
Southwest PEER Director Daniel Patterson, an ecologist who helped broker a moratorium on removal of radio-collared lions. That moratorium ended in August, allowing elimination of lions linked to bighorn kills when they leave the refuge.
A pending study on the factors affecting the bighorn population will not be finished for another year. PEER maintains that, as a result, there is no scientific basis for making management decisions until the study is completed and its results analyzed.
Ironically, the current dispute arises as the bighorn population is on the rise, according to PEER biologists. Today's bighorn population, estimated at 436 animals, is larger than the estimated population of 390 bighorn recorded in 2006 and of the estimated 200-375 bighorn reported on the Kofa refuge from 1970-1978.
According to reports, in one of the first reported instances of a lion having killed a bighorn on the Kofa refuge, the sheep was ill and partially blind. "The lion may have very well prevented that sick bighorn from infecting other sheep," said PEER's Patterson. "The killing of more lions risks the elimination of a significant natural interaction that serves to prevent the spread of disease in the bighorn population."
PEER biologists maintain that in the absence of maintain lions, other predators, such as coyotes and bobcats, may fill the void causing as much and possibly more bighorn predation.
"Cougars have an important role to play in the web-of-life and in maintaining the health of bighorn herds, and they will not survive the feds' proposed removal policy," added Patterson. "Until these officials fully understand the role that predators play in bighorn populations, they have no business killing and removing them."
The public comment period for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife cougar removal plan ended last Friday, October 2nd.
Image via Tambako the Jaguar