For the week of February 17, 1999  thru February 23, 1999  

The question is not why should Fish and Game open cougar hunting in Unit 48 but why not?

Carl Nellis Fish and Game regional supervisor

Mountain lion dilemma draws comments

Majority in favor of opening hunting season

Express Staff Writer

Fueled by the deaths of local domestic pets blamed on mountain lions, a proposed change to lion hunting regulations in the Wood River Valley dominated discussions last Wednesday at the annual Fish and Game open house meeting in Hailey.

The meeting, one in a series of five scheduled for various southern Idaho cities last week, was designed to elicit feedback from southern Idaho’s residents on changes the Department of Fish and Game proposes for wildlife management areas. The public’s feedback will be taken into account when the Fish and Game Commission, seven private citizens appointed by the governor, votes on these issues May 5.

The proposed change in the Wood River Valley’s mountain-lion hunting season would allow Unit 48, an area that stretches south of Ketchum on the west side of Highway 75 and north of Ketchum on the east and west sides of the highway, to be open for cougar hunting. The changes could go into effect for the 1999-2000 hunting season.

Previously, lion hunting has not been deemed socially acceptable in the Wood River Valley, Fish and Game regional conservation educator Mike Todd said.

But he added: "We think that situation has changed."

Regional supervisor Carl Nellis said Unit 48 is the only unit in Southern Idaho that does not have a mountain lion hunting season. He also pointed out that Unit 49, across Highway 75 from Unit 48, does have one. A number of the people at the open-house meeting were unaware of that fact, he said.

In addition, Nellis said, many of the Wood River Valley’s residents were, or are, unaware that other forms of big game hunting are currently allowed in Unit 48.

"The question," he said, "is not why should Fish and Game open cougar hunting in Unit 48, but why not."

He said public sentiment expressed at the meeting ranged from "open the season" to "absolutely don’t" to everything in between.

Todd said that if the Fish and Game doesn’t open a mountain lion season in Unit 48, the organization could potentially be held accountable should someone be hurt in a mountain lion related incident.

"If we didn’t do something like remove animals or have a hunt," he said, "it could result in a lawsuit."

But despite lawsuit potential should it not be opened, Nellis said opening Unit 48 to cougar hunting is not a foolproof solution to the recent increase of Wood River Valley cougar-and-pet conflicts.

"I couldn’t guarantee that it will (solve the Wood River Valley’s problems), but I think it will," he said. "We don’t know where hunting will occur and lions are extremely mobile. In terms of a guarantee, there is none."

Out of the 33 written public comments on the Unit 48 mountain lion hunting proposal, 21 were in favor and 12 were against opening the season.

Debbie Edgers wrote on her comment sheet that despite living in the Hailey neighborhood where several domestic cats have been killed by lions, she is not in favor of opening a Unit-48 lion hunting season.

"I do not want that area to be opened to cougar hunting," she wrote. "We live in their territory along the river. We need to be responsible pet owners and not let our domestic pets out to roam and kill other wildlife but, yet, be upset when that wildlife kills our pets."

Linda Vinagre, a Ketchum resident whose dog was killed by a lion a week and a half ago in her backyard, disagreed: "There needs to be some kind of control or, at least, a fear of man put in them one way or another," she wrote. "Please open Unit 48 for cougar hunting."

Hailey resident Armando Alcalde voiced strong opposition to opening the Unit-48 season. In fact, he voiced opposition to predator hunts state-wide.

"A few incidents involving pets, a few somewhat inflammatory articles in the local papers and an increase in mountain lion sightings are not good reasons to decide the lion population needs to be culled," he wrote. "A healthy population of lions should not be reason for initiating a hunt…I would like to see all predator hunts stopped in the entire state of Idaho."

Fish and Game wildlife biologist Steve Elam said several mountain lion behavior traits are coming into play in the local human-lion predicament.

He stressed that the mountain lion is an opportunist and that during the winter months, when hunting can prove to be difficult, domestic pets make easy prey. However, he said, lions are not out to specifically hunt pets.

Also, he said, the local mountain lions as a whole have not become overly accustomed to man; there is not an overwhelming lack of fear toward man. Elam said lions act similarly to house cats in this respect.

"Just as some house cats are afraid of people and others are not," Elam said, "lions are the same way."

He also said the compulsion on the part of some local residents and business owners to feed deer and elk has helped to draw the lions into the valley. Deer and elk are the lion’s primary prey, Elam said, and when they come into the valley to feed at areas where humans have provided an easy food source, the lions follow.

Another option facing the Fish and Game is the prospect of tranquilizing and relocating the cats. But that option, Elam said, is also problematic due to the animal’s behaviors.

Male cats, he said, have territories that are set by the dominance of the cat. These territories can range in size from 20 to 100 square miles.

If a male cat is tranquilized and moved, it would most likely be moved into another dominant male’s territory, thereby initiating a fight, which would result in serious injury or death to one of the animals.

Separating a mother cougars and kittens could also be fatal for the young cougars.

Tranquilizing a mountain lion would require treeing it with hounds to dart it, a possible liability in a neighborhood. And, when a cat is tranquilized, the drug, called Capturall, stays in the cat’s system for 30 days. Because it is currently cougar-hunting season in Idaho, the animals would need to be taken away to avoid the possibility of a hunter ending up with tainted meat. The hunting season ends late in March.

The final decision remains in the hands of the Fish and Game Commission.


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