The Kofa National Wildlife Refuge in southwestern Arizona is under fire. Advocates of mountain lions are up in arms with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposal to create a sport hunting season on mountain lions in the Kofa. Shouldn't wildlife be protected, they ask, in a wildlife refuge?
The agencies (USFWS and Arizona Game and Fish) insist that recovering the critically important Kofa desert bighorn sheep herd from near record-low population levels will be challenging due to additive mountain lion predation (emphasis my own). And their big guns- According to AmmoLand.com, data from a collared lion that reveals that it's killing and eating the endangered sheep at a high rate- ie. 16 sheep since February.
Sure, killing off the predators will keep the prey safe, for a little while. Perhaps a month, or a week, or maybe even just one night... Any biologist knows that where there is a sustainable population of lions, when one lion dies another takes its place. How long until a young adult in search of his own territory finds this sheep haven, or until another lion in an adjacent territory expands its range? It's inevitable.
Killing the offending lion and a few of his or her furry friends may give the sheep a brief respite from imminent death, but it's not a long-term solution. It is simply putting a bandaid over a persistent problem. A problem that needs creative, forward-thinking, and more permanent solutions. In order to protect the sheep, we need to take a step back and ask, how is it that they became so critically endangered in the first place? And, how can we address those issues?
The Kofa bighorn face a barrage of threats: limited water availability, diseases (including those spread by domestic sheep), isolation, habitat fragmentation caused by Interstates 8 and 10, State Routes 85 and 95, and human development, hunting pressure, and predation.
They need habitat protections, connectivity, increased gene flow, wildlife crossings, smart planning in regards to future development, and if we're going to talk about additional pressures, it's common sense that two other contributing factors be addressed, namely 1) cut back on sheep tags for trophy hunting, and 2) reduce the risk of disease by keeping domestic sheep out of the Kofa.
That's right, the Kofa offers a "once in a lifetime sheep hunt" according to AGFD who has separated the Kofa into 3 Game Management Units, and sells tags for each one. The hunter success rate has averaged 89% over the last 20 years. So, just to recap, the message AGFD is sending is: A) You have the right to kill protected sheep as long as you pay a fee to the state, and 2) It's okay for humans to kill sheep for fun, but not for lions to kill sheep for subsistence.
The agency misfired completely on this one. Perhaps if the lions could buy hunting tags they wouldn't be under attack?
Inconsistent management policies aside, addressing only predation by mountain lions is oversimplifying the problem. They're effectively making the lion the scapegoat in an anthropologically-created arena. Taking aim at a defenseless creature (okay you may not think of lions as defenseless, but against the heavy artillery this guy wants to level at them, they are) is a great way to divert our attention away from our own faults.
What did we do? We created the fragmentation that isolated the populations in the first place, with major multi-lane interstates and towns right in the middle of the natural corridors connecting the mountainous habitats that the sheep rely on. We've affected the metapopulation of desert sheep that would otherwise replenish the herds with mismanagement, over harvesting, fragmenting habitats, and more. Let's accept responsibility for what we've done and take steps to repair it, instead of pointing the finger, or in this case the gun, at others.
Photo Caption: Hunter with a Kofa Ram