UPDATED 8/28: The state Game Commission has voted unanimously to approve the expansion of cougar and bear hunting in New Mexico.
The vote came Thursday during a meeting in Santa Fe that was attended by dozens of wildlife advocates who voiced concerns about the proposal.
The new rules will allow for more black bear hunting in all but two of the state's game management districts as well as the doubling of cougar hunting limits. The trapping and snaring of cougars on private land and state trust land will also be allowed without special permits.
The Game and Fish Department says new population data warranted an update of the hunting limits.
Critics argued that the department's plan wasn't based on science and that more hunting will have negative long-term effects on animal populations.
The State Game Commission is considering several controversial new rules, including one that would allow hunters to kill 25 percent more bears in New Mexico. Wildlife conservation advocates are planning to protest at the commission meeting on Thursday in Santa Fe. At issue is how to interpret the state’s bear density study.
Game and Fish Department biologists set up hair snares to collect DNA from bears at three sites within the Sangre de Cristo, Sandia and Sacramento mountains. They found the bear populations were larger than previously thought. But Mary Katherine Ray says that doesn’t mean the bear populations are that big all over the state.
“While we have a good study, the study was only in three limited areas,” Ray said, “and from that they’re extrapolating that we have a significantly higher population then we do.”
Ray spent her career as a science teacher and says the problem is that the department crunched the bear population numbers from just three areas, then applied the result across all 14 Bear Management Zones. She says at best, the scientific validity of the study is debatable.
“Sadly there is a lot of chance for over estimation,” Ray said, “and if they’re wrong – and they could be wrong by double – if we start killing 800 bears a year, our populations are going to drastically go down, and it’s going to go down really fast.”
The State Game Commission can adjust bear hunting quotas every four years, and they increased them last time around in 2011.
But reports from last years hunting season show that in 2014, 28 percent fewer bears were killed than in the year before, an anomaly according to the agency. Ray is worried that a few years of higher kill quotas might have already devastated New Mexico’s black bears.
“If the bear population was starting to become impaired,” Ray explained, “if we’re starting to reduce the population, it’s highly likely it’s harder to find bears now because we’ve killed so many.”
“You know it’s not like I go out in the woods and I’m being chased by bears every time I go out there,” hunter Patrick Trujillo said, “so I just don’t see us being over run with bears.”
Trujillo is an avid hunter in northern New Mexico, has been for years, and he said he doesn’t see the need to increase the hunting quotas for bears. He doesn’t hunt predators.
“You know there’s a lot that Fish and Game does that I don’t agree with,” Trujillo said, “but I’m not the only hunter in New Mexico.”
Trujillo hunts deer and elk and said predators play an important role in the ecosystem, down to maintaining a healthy watershed.
“They break up the herds and keep them moving,” Trujillo explained. “They keep them healthy, to keep that ecology in its natural flux, and you do have cougars and bears doing that job, which I think is an important job.”
“We’re in the business to manage wildlife,” State Game Commissioner Bill Montoya said. “If our biologists tell us that we have an excess that should be harvested, then we do so.”
The New Mexico Department of Game and Fish refused an interview for this story, saying that the proposed rule changes have become too controversial.
Commissioner Montoya didn’t want to discuss the bear density study either.
"We get dinged a lot and say 'well you don’t know this, you don’t know that' - with wild populations you never know everything,” Montoya explained.
But he did say he thinks their data on bears is solid.
“The biologists that we have right now are very capable, they are probably some of the best bear and lion biologists we have in the western states,” Montoya said. “And the information that we are getting now from the biologist data on bear populations is probably the best we’ve ever had.”
The State Game Commission is also considering whether to allow hunters to set cougar traps on private and state trust lands.
Wildlife advocates don’t want to see that rule approved either, they say other species and even pets can end up in the traps and possibly die from their injuries.
The commissioners will hear presentations from department biologists and take public comment at a hearing in Santa Fe on Thursday before voting on the proposed rule changes.