Killing Lions May Not Be The Right Answer

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Thursday night at its Mesa Regional Office, the Arizona Game and Fish Department held a public meeting to receive comment and concerns on the draft of an environmental assessment to study the possible causes of the declining population of desert bighorn sheep in the Goat-Stewart Mountain Complex south of Payson.

The department's proposed action is to experimentally reduce the mountain lion population by 75 percent during a three-year project to evaluate its effectiveness as a management tool in the recovery of bighorn sheep.

Bighorn numbers in the area are way down and apparently Game and Fish officers believe mountain lions could be the cause.

That perspective is nothing new. Ask any cattle rancher and he'll tell you lions have long been depredating both cattle and bighorn sheep.

Years ago, the Arizona Game and Fish Commission approved a program that included hunting mountain lions between Roosevelt Lake and the Verde River just south of the Salt River.

All a hunter had to do to participate was to announce his intentions to Game and Fish.

The only problem was, the area is so rugged that only a few hunters ever bagged a lion.

Statistics indicate that the bighorn numbers are declining, but are mountain lions really the problem?

There are those who believe not. Rather, they cite declining habitat and parasites as the reasons for the decline.

For years, domestic livestock, including sheep, have been herded through the area twice each year. Some argue that the bighorns mate with the sheep and acquire diseases that wild animals have no natural immunity against. Once infected, they pass on the parasites to other bighorns.

In addition to diseases, animal rights groups say the bighorn and mountain lion's shrinking habitat is responsible for the bighorn's decline.

Once in danger of becoming endangered, bighorns became the object of reintroduction into several Arizona ranges. They were transplanted to the Saguaro, Canyon and Apache Lake areas, among others.

The herd reached a population high of about 250 animals, but officials estimate there are now less than 50.

Whatever the reasons for the wildlife problems, groups like the Wildlife Damage Review in Tucson are certain to intervene and contend that the game and fish proposal to reduce lion numbers is senseless and fails to address the real problems of the bighorn's decline.

Copies of the environmental assessment are available at all Game and Fish Regional Offices and at the department's Web site, www.azgfd.com.

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