A bighorn dilemma

  • New target of the New Mexico Fish and Game Dept.

    Sherm Spoelstra photo
  Should predators be killed to protect prey? That's the strategy in New Mexico, where the state's Game Commission says killing mountain lions is the best way to bolster dwindling populations of desert bighorn sheep. To save the remaining 220 sheep, most of which have been reintroduced by the state's Fish and Game Department, the commission unanimously approved a plan to kill up to 34 cats a year - 20 in the bootheel's Peloncillo and Hatchet mountains and 14 more in the Manzano and Ladron mountains south of Albuquerque. State officials say of the 56 sheep deaths they've documented over the past few years, the lions' share was 43.

"It's either we take action, or basically our herds go extinct," says state biologist Bill Dunn.

Though most biologists agree that cougar populations can withstand a loss of 170 animals over five years, critics charge that targeting predators misses the ecological mark.

"The game department should be looking at what areas are going to be able to recover sheep and whether or not livestock should be able to exist in those areas, not at cougar control in the isolated populations where they have spent a lot of money reintroducing sheep," says Martin Heinrich of the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance. "We simply need more and bigger bighorn habitat."

Heinrich says the plan to diminish the lion population reflects a Game Commission that caters to hunting and grazing interests. Bighorn hunters, for example, fund most of the sheep reintroduction program through the auction of one desert bighorn license. Bids on the license sometimes approach $100,000.

* Ali Macalady

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