YUMA -- The Arizona Game and Fish Department has been making misleading statements about the role pumas play in bighorn population levels and has had to issue one public correction. Other uncorrected misstatements raise doubts about whether the state game agency will honor a one-year moratorium against killing more panthers that it had agreed to just last week, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).
In a press release of April 18, 2008 announcing a year-long halt to further "lethal removal" of pumas (a.k.a. mountain lions, cougars or panthers), Arizona Game and Fish Department (AGFD) wrongly claimed that the bighorn population on Kofa National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) continued to drop and that "lions were likely a significant cause of bighorn mortality." In fact, the agency's own surveys showed the bighorn population had grown by nearly 18% in 2007.
On April 24th, AGFD issued a corrected press release blaming false statements on a "typographical error." The corrected release still did not admit that the bighorn population had increased and it left unchanged questionable assertions about the significance of cougars in bighorn population fluctuations.
One more panther death may doom the last three cougars thought to remain on the Kofa NWR, according to Ron Kearns, a former longtime wildlife biologist at the refuge who has been critical of agency wildlife management practices. The puma removal campaign by AGFD is rooted in questionable assumptions -
- The gain of nearly 70 bighorn sheep in 2007 occurred before AGFD had killed even the second lion from Kofa, meaning that the population rebound was not threatened by pumas;
- An earlier loss of more than 400 bighorn over the previous two-year period could not be ascribed to mountain lions unless AGFD assumed that the estimated five remaining lions were eating 40 bighorn apiece, an absurdly high quota; and
- AGFD's own studies pointed to drought and drought-related diseases as the main culprits in prior sharp bighorn losses.
In the Yuma Sun of April 21st, just days after it announced a one-year moratorium, Gary Hovatter, the Yuma Game and Fish Office information manager, is credited with the following statement:
"Game and Fish said it will still continue to kill offending lions off the refuge if necessary."
Meanwhile, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (which operates Kofa NWR) has announced that it is preparing a mountain lion management plan that will be open for public comment during a one-month period ending May 24, 2008. PEER asked the Fish & Wildlife Service to prepare the overdue plan, to avoid a lawsuit for violating federal law in conducting any further panther removals before the environmental assessment of its plan is completed.