April 7, 2006

Plan to kill mountain lions at Lake Mead draws protests


LAS VEGAS (AP) - Environmentalists are protesting plans to kill 10 or more mountain lions on the Arizona side of the Lake Mead National Recreation Area, to prevent them from preying on desert bighorn sheep.

The plan calls for catching and killing individual mountain lions until a recent spate of sheep kills is reduced, said Jim deVos, research branch chief for the Arizona Game and Fish Department.

"Not every lion is killing sheep," said deVos, who said a start date had not been set for the program. "We're trying to focus on known kills and trying to remove that lion that is killing sheep."

Daniel Patterson, desert ecologist with the Center for Biological Diversity in Tucson, Ariz., called the culling plan a mistake.

"Lions are scarce," Patterson said. "We don't need to be killing mountain lions to protect the bighorn. We don't need single-species management, we need ecosystem management."

DeVos said the number of sheep in the region has dropped in recent years, partly because drought has reduced the population of mule deer - a more common mountain lion prey.

At least seven bighorn have been killed by mountain lions this year in the Hoover Dam area on the Arizona side of the Colorado River and Lake Mead, where deVos said about 1,000 bighorn sheep remain.

The area sheep population serves as a source for the reintroduction of bighorn sheep throughout the Southwest, including Colorado, Utah and Texas, deVos said.

Frank Buono, a 33-year veteran of the National Park Service and a national board member of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, said culling mountain lions should be a last resort after public discussion and an environmental assessment.

Buono, a former assistant superintendent at the park service's Mojave National Preserve in California, criticized the park service for letting Arizona develop the plan.

Roxanne Dey, park service spokeswoman at Lake Mead, said her agency cedes most authority over hunting and wildlife management in the area to Arizona and Nevada. Both states allow limited hunting of bighorn sheep.

The desert bighorn sheep is Nevada's state animal. More than 5,400 live in mountain ranges across the southern, central and western parts of the state.

"When Congress created the park, that was part of the legislation, that the park could not interfere with hunting," Dey said.

Buono and Patterson suggested that bighorn hunting was propelling the plan to kill mountain lions. DeVos disagreed.

"In the entire state of Arizona, we sell less than a hundred sheep permits," deVos said. "This is not a lucrative business. It's not about money. We lose money on the sheep management program."

DeVos noted a sheep and mountain lion management plan was created last year. He rejected arguments that the state and federal agencies should have a potentially lengthy series of public hearings on the culling plan.

"If we wait, what do we risk? Time is of the essence," he said. "We feel the loss of 50 (percent) to 60 percent of this sheep population is a critical issue."