Mountain lions in political crosshair
A silent predator emblematic of the Nevada wilderness is at the center of a political debate that has split top levels of state government.
On one side is a Gardnerville-based sportsmen group, Nevada Big Game Restoration, and on the other side are biologists of the Nevada Department of Wildlife.
In the middle, unaffiliated with either party, is the mountain lion.
Just how many lions populate the rugged mountains of Nevada is actually where the disagreement begins.
Nevada Big Game’s Jim Ornellas, 87, believes that when lions were reclassified as protected game species in 1965, they numbered 375-400, and have since skyrocketed to 3,200-5,000.
“Their data is wrong,” he said of NDOW’s conflicting estimates. “They subtract lions killed, but they do not allow for reproductive potential. Sixty percent of any predator species is female. Consequently, the mountain lion population has increased, not decreased. One hundred female lions produce 100-500 new cubs a year.
“As the only predator that has no natural enemy to begin with, the mountain lion, like their cousin the domestic house cat, doesn’t have a breeding season,” he continued. “Consequently, they produce litters year round. This has been overlooked.”
Using this growth model, Ornellas believes a boom of mountain lions has diminished the state’s mule deer.
“Eighty five percent of a mountain lion’s diet is mule deer,” he said. “Mountain lions are responsible for the loss of our deer herds.”
Ornellas’ solution, and what Nevada Big Game Restoration has lobbied for across the state, is to delist mountain lions as a game species and return them to unprotected status.
The change would mean that mountain lions could be killed with no hunting tag or season — like coyotes or jack rabbits.
“You’re not going to manage deer by protecting their enemy,” Ornellas said.
He said he’s hunted lions for 57 years, predating many changes in state management. He prides himself on running the only “predator-oriented” sportsmen group in Nevada.
The problem to Ornellas’ approach, however, is that NDOW biologists disagree with his basic premises.
“One thing lions are known for, their premier characteristic that people all over the west understand, is their ability to move into empty territory,” said Pete Bradley, large carnivore biologist for NDOW. “The idea that you could just eliminate all of them and the deer population would go nuts is pretty far-fetched. If you had success doing that, you’d deplete the range. If the deer population got to that point, they would be outstripping the ability of the range to sustain them.”
Bradley said mule deer and mountain lions have evolved together for thousands of years.
“The mule deer are likely better for it. They’re better at defending their young,” he said. “There’s a reason they evolved together in the intermountain west.”
Bradley refuted Ornellas’ population estimates.
“We actually have a database that gives us our best possible estimate year to year,” he said. “Based on the last year we have, 2011, there were 1,324 adults statewide. That’s been fluctuating over 30 years, down from a high number of 2,192 adults in 1989.”
Bradley said the department uses annual harvest numbers to calculate projections.
“The population models are never exact,” he said, “especially for animals that are hard to understand, that are inscrutable. We do the best we can with a very complicated program, and we feel comfortable the numbers harvested are not excessive.”
Currently, mountain lions can be hunted like other big game species. The department sets a season and quota and issues tags accordingly.
Ornellas argued that the state won’t delist mountain lions because of licensing and tag revenue.
“NDOW is capitalizing on mountain lions at the expense of our deer herds,” he said.
He claimed the issue was at the heart of former NDOW Director Ken Mayer’s resignation in January.
“Contrary to NDOW sentiments, this is what the whole resignation thing was about — predator control,” Ornellas said. “Predators have as big of an impact on sage grouse as the hunting season.”
Facing a potential endangered species listing by the federal government, state officials have been trying to improve sage grouse habitat.
On Jan. 31, the Associated Press reported that Assemblyman John Carpenter, R-Elko, had lobbied Gov. Brian Sandoval to oust Mayer, who was also fired by Gov. Jim Gibbons in 2010 before being reinstated by Sandoval.
Carpenter had complained to the governor that NDOW was not focused on “ground predator management,” the AP reported.
In a letter sent to the assemblyman after news of Mayer’s resignation broke, Ornellas praised Carpenter for his influence.
“All of us as sportsmen owe you our gratitude,” he said in the letter. “Predators must be controlled by their constant, unrestricted removal before they kill, not afterwards. Unwarranted protection of predators provides a natural ability to proliferate.”
NDOW wildlife biologist Carl Lackey, known locally for his management of nuisance bears, said Ornellas’ argument lacks scientific merit.
“There is absolutely no correlation between killing all the lions and thinking that’s going to bring mule deer back. It’s a bad idea,” he said. “All science points in the opposite direction. Across the west, it’s a habitat-related issue. Predators can affect the prey population in small or isolated groups, but on a eco-system-wide basis, absolutely not. Lions do no keep a deer population down or declining.”
Furthermore, Lackey said Nevada has some of the least stringent regulations regarding mountain lion hunting.
“We still don’t even come close to harvesting our quota,” he said. “By relaxing regulations, we haven’t harvested any more lions on a long-term basis.”
He said mountain lions regulate themselves to a certain degree.
“They’re territorial and will kill other lions,” he said.
Although the department may officially disagree with Ornellas’ assessment, “everyone’s opinion is important,” Lackey said.
Nevada Big Game Restoration has been lobbying the Douglas County Advisory Board to Manage Wildlife for years. They want board members to forward their mountain lion petition to the Nevada Board of Wildlife Commissioners.
The chair of the local advisory board said there are many factors to consider.
“If we think it’s worthy of recommendation, we’ll recommend it,” said Board Chair Bob Cook. “If we don’t think it’s worthy, we can still forward it to commissioners with our denial.”
On Tuesday, Sandoval announced that he was appointing veteran biologist George Tsukamoto as interim director of NDOW.
“George’s extensive experience as a wildlife biologist and administrator in Nevada will enable him to effectively lead the department during this time of transition,” Sandoval said in a press release. “George has been a public servant for more than 40 years — he is a well-respected biologist, administrator and individual. I’m grateful that he has agreed to help lead the department while we identify a permanent director.”