TUCSON, ARIZONA — It was, after all, a dispute over only two to four mountain lions, a fraction of the approximately 300 killed in the state each year. The Arizona Game and Fish Department had planned to hunt down lions it believed were threatening people in the suburban foothills north of Tucson. But the ill-starred effort may lead to some changes in how the state manages mountain lions across Arizona.
The battleground was the Sabino Canyon National Recreation Area, where one of Tucson’s few perennial streams cascades through cottonwood, willow and ash trees at the base of Mount Lemmon. Lions, long known to spend time in the canyon, had started appearing much more often than usual, and Game and Fish officials surmised that they had lost their fear of humans, and could attack.
Lions were reported strolling into yards and crossing paved roads; they were said to be caterwauling in one resident’s front yard, and fearlessly staring at people — even stalking pedestrians, according to Game and Fish officials. Department agents spotted lion tracks in a wash just behind an elementary schoolyard where two cafeteria workers had reported seeing a lion the day before.
On March 10, the department declared an imminent safety threat and started the hunt. At the same time, the Forest Service halted all public use of the canyon, which draws more than a million visitors each year.
Then, more than 1,000 protest letters, e-mails and faxes from the general public poured into the offices of game officials, legislators and Gov. Janet Napolitano.
"I have kids. I can watch kids, make sure my kids are safe, and keep them in the house," said Mark Osugi, a resident of the Sabino Canyon area. "There are other animals in the desert: bobcats, wolves and coyotes. What are we going to do? Shoot every animal out there?"
Napolitano and members of the Defenders of Wildlife and Center for Biological Diversity argued that the state had not proven that the lions’ behavior was particularly unusual or threatening. Only a handful of the sightings had been officially confirmed, they said.
The scientific community was split. In interviews, three of seven scientists across the West with blue-ribbon mountain lion research credentials agreed that the lions were a safety threat, meriting removal. Three others disagreed. The seventh had no opinion.
After 10 days of protests, Game and Fish decided to try to tranquilize, capture and move the lions to a wildlife rehabilitation center in north Scottsdale, more than 120 miles away.
But in the next six days, a state-hired trapper using dogs found only scattered lion tracks. The only dramatic moment came March 24, when authorities arrested Rod Coronado, an EarthFirst! activist who was dropping lion scent liquid into the canyon to mislead the dogs. Coronado, along with an Esquire magazine writer who was working on a profile of the activist, was charged with trespassing and interfering with the hunt.
On March 28, the Game and Fish Department announced it was suspending the hunt. But 12 days later it trapped an adult female lion, luring her with meat from a deer that a cougar had recently killed.
After the hunt ended, legislators started pushing bills to ban feeding wild animals such as javelina, which are known to be lion prey, and to grant the state immunity against lawsuits by people claiming damages from wildlife. Game and Fish held a public workshop to solicit comments on new criteria for determining the safety threat from lions.
Environmentalists argued for more research on exactly where the lions live, and for saving more of their habitat from the bulldozer. They also hoped to convince the state Legislature to make the state Game and Fish Commission friendlier to wildlife, by requiring that commissioners have a demonstrated background in conservation.
The wildlife feeding bill has stalled out, but the immunity bill may be revived before the end of the legislative session, in late May or early June.
The writer reports for the Arizona Daily Star in Tucson.
Arizona Game and Fish Department www.gf.state.az.us, 602-942-3000
Center for Biological Diversity www.sw-center.org, 520-623-5252