The lawsuit says “deadly leg-hold traps” set for cougars could snare wolves and jaguars, both protected under the federal Endangered Species Act, as well as female cougars with kittens, which are protected under state law.
There are an estimated 97 Mexican wolves in the wild in Arizona and New Mexico, officials have said, despite a federal program to recover the species. Jaguars — the largest cat species native to the Western Hemisphere — are far more rare in the U.S., after being driven to the brink of extinction by “human-caused factors like poaching and trapping,” the lawsuit says. It also names the state Game and Fish Department as a defendant.
Humane Society attorney Nicholas Arrivo, in a phone interview Tuesday, said the trapping program presents “a pretty unjustifiable risk to nontarget animals.”
Mexican wolves, jaguars and cougars share overlapping territory in New Mexico, Arrivo said. “Traps that are set for cougars are not intelligent. They are indiscriminate machines that will snap shut on any animal unfortunate enough to cross its path,” he said. He likened traps to land mines, saying both are “brutal, unnecessary and indiscriminate as to what they take.”
The State Game Commission could not be reached for comment on the case.
Lance Cherry, a spokesman for the state Game and Fish Department, said in an emailed statement Tuesday that the suit “is only a distraction; the rule was crafted after nearly a yearlong process of public and scientific scrutiny, including consideration of potential impacts on endangered species. The Department will vigorously defend the rule, which is part of a world-class effort to manage New Mexico’s wildlife.”
The State Game Commission reviews the rules for hunting and trapping bears and cougars every four years. In 2015, the panel held five public meetings on the topic before approving changes in August that cleared the way for “sport harvest” trapping of cougars on private and state trust lands between Nov. 1 and March 31 without a special permit. The new rule also doubled the number of cougars a hunter or trapper can take in some areas, increasing the kill limit in those lands to four from two.
Representatives of the New Mexico Council of Outfitters and Guides, the New Mexico Trappers Association and the New Mexico Cattle Growers’ Association spoke in favor of the proposed changes at a hearing in August.
But numerous other residents spoke in opposition, including Animal Protection of New Mexico’s wildlife campaign manager, Phil Carter. He cited a 2015 poll of 1,000 New Mexico voters, saying that “across the board” those surveyed opposed the changes — and trapping in general — by a 3-to-1 margin.
“That is consistent across every congressional district in the state and every political party,” Carter said at the hearing.
Retired elementary school teacher Jean Ossorio and her husband, Peter Ossorio of Las Cruces, have signed on to the suit as plaintiffs. They’ve been Mexican wolf advocates for more than 20 years and have volunteered for many federal wolf recovery efforts, along with outreach and education activities.
According to the complaint, Jean Ossorio has attended “virtually every state and federal public meeting pertaining to Mexico wolf recovery” since 1998.
The couple could not be reached for comment.
Carter, at the August hearing, accused the State Game Commission of using outdated data to draw its conclusions about cougar populations.
“This is not about sportsmanship,” he said. “This is about killing.”