The American Lion: Pumas At The New Mexico Wildlife Center

Mountain lion kittens at the NM Wildlife Center in Espanola. Courtesy photo
Orphaned mountain lion kitten at the NM Wildlife Center. Courtesy photo
NM Wildlife Center

Historically this powerful predator claimed a range that covered most of the New World. The only other mammal that covered more territory and flourished in as many environments was Homo sapiens. Nearly all of the Western Hemisphere was home to the mountain lion (cougar, catamount, puma, painter).  By the 1900s the other top predator in its range had managed to extirpate it from the eastern United States.  While it has begun to return to its eastern range it is now mostly relegated to the west. 

I wrote about Puma concolor a few years ago.  At the time we didn’t have two in rehabilitation.  We do now and I cannot resist writing about them again.  Some of you may be familiar with the controversy around new regulations on hunting mountain lions in New Mexico. The regulations state:

  • Hunting season is April 1 to March 31 or until a unit’s mortality limit or female sub-limit is met
  • Hound hunting is allowed
  • The State Game Commission sets “mortality limit.” New Mexico prohibits the killing of kittens and any female accompanied by kittens. In areas where the Commission wants to increase mountain lion population the limit is set at less than 17% of population and no more than 30% of female population. Where it wants to decrease population the limit is less than or equal to 25% of the population and no more than 50% of females.

Depredation Law – “A landowner or lessee, or employee of either, may take or kill an animal on private land, in which they have an ownership or leasehold interest, including game animals…that presents an immediate threat to human life or an immediate threat of damage to property, including crops; provided, however that the taking or killing is reported to the Department of Game and Fish within 24 hours and before the removal of the carcass of the animal killed.”

And how do they know what the population is? That is hard to determine. Mountain lions are elusive animals.  In 2008 NMDGF used a population density model based on GIS-mapped habitat.  This model determined that there were approximately 2,250 mountain lions in the state.  NMDGF is now using a different model (unpublished) that diminishes the amount of mountain lion habitat while increasing the number of animals by 1,930. Based on the new numbers NMGF increased mountain lion quotas in 2010-2011.

In 2015 a bill was introduced that would have removed protections for mountain lions treating them more like raccoons.  NMDGF opposed the bill. They would have had no authority to monitor take. The bill was tabled. However a controversial amendment was passed that allows the use of traps and snares to kill lions.

NMDGF has a tough job which at times puts one managed animal up against another. The Department has been working to regain populations of Rocky Mountain and desert big horned sheep. While predation by mountain lions did not cause the decline of sheep populations (disease transmitted from domestic sheep had a huge impact) it may now impact recovery efforts. The Northern Wild Sheep and Goat Council made seven recommendations for maintaining sheep herds of 50 or less. None of the recommendations included predator control. However an Arizona study concluded that short-termed local predation control increased sheep survival in marginal habitats. In quality habitats predation of desert big horned sheep by mountain lions was independent of predator abundance. 

So what will we do with our two young mountain lions? Their mother was killed. Kittens stay with their mothers for over a year. They have a lot to learn in order to take their place as a top predator. It will be difficult, maybe impossible, to give these kittens opportunities to learn the skills they need to survive. We will do all we can. It will be time consuming and expensive. We will work with experts here in New Mexico and anywhere else. We will work closely with NMDGF to arrive at the best outcome. And we will advocate for abundant populations of these magnificent animals.

For more information about New Mexico Wildlife Center and to donate to its work, visit