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Photos and article by Mary Katherine Ray. Mary Katherine is the volunteer Wildlife Chair for the Rio Grande Chapter of the Sierra Club and a nature and wildlife enthusiast and photographer.

While I love all the birds when I visit Bosque del Apache and always come home thrilled by what I’ve seen and captured on my camera’s memory card, my wish at the beginning of every visit is to see a bobcat. Not only is Bosque del Apache a refuge for these small and elusive felines, but it is a haven for carnivores of all kinds. I have seen skunks, raccoons, and coyotes. I once saw a bear cross the tour loop road just before the marsh boardwalk, but I didn’t have time to get a picture. Bears are probably not permanent bosque residents and only pass through on their way somewhere else.

Another time, at the north end of the tour loop, I caught a tawny movement out of the corner of my eye- or thought I did. Had something disappeared down into the drainage ditch? I waited to see if whatever it was would climb up the other side. And I waited some more. Just before I was about to drive on, I spotted a cougar on the far side bank! I don’t know how I got any pictures with my adrenaline rush at full bore, but before he (or she) disappeared into the greenery I did get some. What a thrilling experience! I almost couldn’t believe it was real! A few cougars probably do call the Refuge home, eating deer, possibly elk and even fish.

While some wildlife refuges allow trapping and killing of carnivores, Bosque del Apache does not. (Trapping would now be prohibited because NM state law no longer allows it on any public land.) Cougars and bears are apex carnivores. They did not evolve to be prey animals. For that reason, they have a behavioral system in place that prevents them from overpopulating, which means they do not have to be hunted for balance to be maintained. They defend territory and keep out interlopers. They socially limit who gets to breed. Sometimes, they kill each other. And both species breed slowly- having young at most only every two years. Mothers invest all that time teaching their kittens and cubs how to survive. Rather than limiting their prey populations, it’s the food supply or the populations of prey animals that limits how many cougars there can be. This is essentially true for all carnivores. While bears technically are carnivores, they mostly eat plants and insects.

Bosque del Apache has placed signs around the refuge instructing visitors on how to be safe in the event of a cougar encounter. Keep children close at all times, make noise, don’t run but slowly back away. The same rules can also apply to black bears. Humans are really not on the menu for either and attacks are very rare.

We also know that killing these large animals at random through trophy hunting, which is allowed on most public lands in New Mexico, does not make people safer or prevent conflict or depredation. Modern research instead suggests the opposite. Conflict caused by bears and cougars can be exacerbated in areas where hunting of these animals occurs. In the case of bears, the Sierra Club’s Sierra Magazine recently highlighted the work of Ben Kilham and others about bear behavior and intelligence (https://www.sierraclub.org/sierra/2019-2-march-april/feature/does-bear-think-woods). Kilham concludes that bears may be as smart as chimpanzees and are much like humans in their social interactions, where they know and recognize their neighbors, develop friendships, express gratitude, remember transgressions, and also punish those who commit them. Overall, much less is known about the social interactions of cougars, but recent research shows that while cougars are mostly solitary, they do interact with each other in meaningful ways (see recent article by UC Davis). They will share their kills with others and remember who shared with them. Large males behave as governors over their territories, forming networks with the other mountain lions in their area and structuring how they behave. When these animals are killed for sport, social chaos and upheaval results. The young and inexperienced take over. Mayhem is the result not only for these species but for the ecosystem.

The survival strategy of smaller carnivores is different. They are preyed upon by other species. These animals can compensate for losses by breeding more and having larger litters. The coyote is a prime example. We are fortunate that no matter how much early settlers tried to wipe them out, the task proved impossible. Limitless killing, trapping, and poisoning of coyotes, while fostering brutality and cruelty, could not get the job done. Coyotes will naturally limit their numbers to match the food supply which is mostly rabbits and rodents, but also plant material like juniper berries, especially in winter. If rodent numbers boom because good rains made for robust plant flowering and seed production, coyotes will get better nutrition and their litters will be bigger. If coyotes are persecuted, it means more rodents for everyone else and the same thing happens. On top of that, more will form pair bonds and breed. If it weren’t for coyotes and the slightly smaller foxes and bobcats, the wild would be over-run with rodents and rabbits, which are renowned for their prodigious reproductive capacity.

Scientists no longer see carnivores of any size as bad or mean, but instead recognize them as crucial members of the wild community. The best “management” strategy is to generally let them be, especially in their wild habitats.

I’m looking forward to more visits to Bosque del Apache. And who knows, maybe the next time will be the one when I get a good picture of a bobcat!

(NM Game and Fish is currently accepting comments about cougar and bear hunting on other public and private lands in New Mexico. If you’d like to learn more, please check out our Sierra Club Chapter newsletter, https://www.riograndesierraclub.org/wp-content/uploads/2023/10/Oct-Nov-Dec-Sierran-LR-Web.pdf, where you will find a link to send in your own comments.)

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