RENO, Nev. – State wildlife officials have announced a plan to kill more mountain lions to help increase the deer population, a move criticized by lion advocates who say drought and development are more important factors in the decrease of deer numbers.
The Nevada Board of Wildlife Commissioners told agency staff last week to employ the help of sport hunters and contract employees from the U.S. Agriculture Department's Wildlife Services for the state wildlife department's new "program of intensive, sustained predator reduction."
Ken Mayer, director of the Nevada Department of Wildlife, said his agency would use science to figure out the number of lions to be killed in areas where the predators have been found to adversely affect deer numbers.
"It's not an effort to exterminate mountain lions," Mayer said. "It's an effort to better manage lions with the prey base. Some hunters think the solution to the deer problem is to kill a lot of lions and the deer will come back."
The state's deer population fell from 240,000 in 1988 to 108,000 in 2008, while its current lion population ranges from 1,500 to 2,400, according to the wildlife department.
Nevada already allows lion hunts, each year issuing a quota of lion tags that a hunter can obtain. Commissioners set the quota at 306 tags for the year beginning March 1 and increased the number of tags allowed each hunter from two to three.
Lion advocates compared the new policy to the "Sarah Palin method of wildlife management," which wildlife biologist D.J. Schubert described as removing "animals with big teeth in order to promote the animals hunters like to shoot."
"It's an archaic form of wildlife management," he said. "Unfortunately, they're making the mountain lion a scapegoat, despite the importance of the mountain lion as a top-line predator in any ecosystem."
Palin, Alaska's governor, supports a predator control program that allows private citizens with permits to shoot wolves from the air in an effort to reverse a decline in moose and caribou numbers.
Don Molde, a former board member of the Defenders of Wildlife and a member of the Humane Society of the United States, called the plans "nonsense."
"This is a nonscientific effort to kill an animal just because they don't like it," he said. "It's an irrational dislike of an animal that has every right to live here."
He said similar programs in Washington, Oregon and New Mexico were cut back because of unintended damage to lion numbers.
Wildlife commissioner Scott Raine of Eureka said no one was trying to eliminate the population of mountain lions. He cited studies that showed lions eat one "deer-size" animal a week.
"We just want to bring them down to a reasonable number, a sustainable number. Otherwise, deer will continue to die off," said Raine, a hunter.
In 2007, hunters killed 145 lions and Wildlife Services killed 37 lions in the state.
Commission chairman Gerald Lent did not return phone calls seeking comment over the weekend.