Saturday, December 23, 2006

The Kofa Kill – Wildlife Management at Its Worst

Too often in this country, true wildlife management gets superceded by the political wills and desires of its administrators. This is exactly what’s happening in the Kofa National Wildlife Refuge in Arizona. The National Wildlife Service there is proposing to open the refuge to hunting mountain lions, at the behest of The Yuma Valley Rod and Gun Club, whose legislative chair is also reported to be chairman of the Arizona Game and Fish Commission.

The Mountain Lion Hunting Plan, prepared by NWS states that; “At this time, insufficient data exists to determine the sustainability of the hunt beyond the harvest of one lion annually.”

I’m not convinced there is any data at all to show that even that is sustainable. Plain common sense would suggest it is not. Here’s why.

If you dig into the plan a little bit, you’ll find that the supposed mountain lion population consists of two adult males, one adult female, and a couple of kittens, sex unknown. Obviously, the lynch pin in this little population is the female, since it will be a couple of years before one of the kittens, if one of them is a female, will be able to have kittens. The plan states that “Spotted kittens or females accompanied by spotted kittens may not be harvested. However, because females are not always accompanied by their kittens, hunters will be encouraged to take male lions rather than females to avoid orphaning kittens.” Sounds good, doesn’t it? But the reality is there is absolutely no way to enforce this. I’m willing to bet you that few if any of the hunters allowed into the refuge have ever seen a mountain lion and could tell you from scope distance whether the cat they’re shooting at is a male or a female. It’s tough enough to so standing three feet away. If the hunters are using dogs and they have the animal treed before they shoot it, then there is a chance a truly conscienscious hunter might get a cat at the right angle to see the genitilia with a pair of binoculars. But I’m going to bet you that adrenaline will take over here, and that the first time any hunter is going to know whether he has bagged a male or female is when he’s petting it after the kill. So, the odds are that this plan will result in the death of the female. Assuming her kittens are still spotted, there is a one in three chance.

This is most troublesome because female mountain lions do not disperse like males do. Once the female is lost, there is much uncertainty about how long it will be before another female shows up. Hopefully, the hunt would be shut down once it was determined that the female was dead, and one of her kittens would be a female that took her place. It would be a couple of years before the hunt could be resumed if that were the case, and it might never resume if another female did not show up. There is some reason to think the latter might be the case since the plan admits that: “Mountain lions have long been considered occasional transients on Kofa NWR, not residents.” The excitement started in mid 2000 with a hunter sighting and in 2003 with the spotting of three mountain lions by a biologist performing an aerial survey. Indeed, despite the continuing human encroachment into mountain lion habitat, mountain lions are staging a limited comeback in some parts of the country. Here, though, I would hardly call a population of five cats, and of which there is only one confirmed female, a comeback. Nor would I have rushed to start hunting the critters. Yet, the NWS seems to be doing just that. One has to ask, “Why?”

There is no doubt in my mind that this action is premature from a biological standpoint. Now, I will admit I’m not a biologist. I do have a feeler out to someone who is for some feedback. But it doesn’t take a rocket scientist (or maybe it does, since I might be considered one) to look at the numbers and see they don’t add up. It’s too bad I am not a biologist, because if the determination that this size of a mountain lion population was made by what appears to be the Refuge’s only biologist, then he or she seems to need a second opinion.

My problem also is I’m not convinced that’s how the determination was made. I’ve been involved with Texas mountain lion politics enough to see the state bend over like a whore in heat to exploit lion populations to please a high-ranking state official (or ex-official who still had a lot of political pull); and I have to wonder if some form of the “good ole boys club” isn’t at work behind this. I have no objection to hunting lions where the population can sustain it, but this plan looks to me like it’s really premature, and that those who are charged with protecting wildlife have lost their way.

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