Trophy hunters were allowed to kill more than 350 mountain lions in Arizona during the 2019-2020 hunting season, which lasts nine months. While the Arizona Game and Fish Department acknowledges that it’s difficult to get an accurate estimate of the state’s lion population, the department guesses there are 2,000 – 2,700 lions in the state. The true population is likely lower than that.
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Like most states, Arizona’s first lion management plan took the form of paying a bounty for every lion killed where the pelt was turned over to authorities. This program continued in Arizona until roughly fifty years ago.
History of Mountain Lion Management in Arizona
In 1919, mountain lions in Arizona were classified as a “predatory animal” by the territorial legislature and a bounty of $50 was paid for each one killed. While Arizona reclassified mountain lions as “big game” animals in 1970, the bounty law remained on the books as a non-funded program until its repeal in 1990. During the 51 years Arizona’s mountain lion bounty was in effect, 7,723 mountain lions were killed and turned in to the government for the bounty.
At the same time that lions were listed as big game animals, the Arizona legislature revised Statue 17-302 to allow the killing of mountain lions for depredation purposes. In 1990, the state’s depredation policy changed to require that there be an actual loss of livestock prior to lethal removal of mountain lions.
In the year 2000, Arizona Game and Fish Department (AZGFD) established a wildlife predation management policy. Among other things, this policy in part called for killing individual mountain lions or suppressing resident mountain lion populations where ungulate numbers (deer, elk, big horn sheep, etc.) are considered to be below AZGFD management goals, or when conducting transplants of species such as bighorn sheep and pronghorn. According to this policy, the Department can increase the number of lions killed by hunters or trappers, or authorize department personnel and other individuals to kill mountain lions to achieve these policy ends. For several years now AZGFD has consistently increased quotas and bag limits in several of their Game Management Units (GMUs) in an effort to reduce the resident population of mountain lions, citing concern about the health and well-being of bighorn sheep and mule deer populations.
In its 2001 Strategic Plan, AZGFD stated that the goals of its mountain lion management strategy were to “manage the mountain lion population, its numbers and distribution as an important part of Arizona’s fauna [and to] provide mountain lion hunting (including hunting with dogs) and other related recreational opportunities.” The department’s stated objectives are to:
“maintain an annual harvest of between 250 to 300 mountain lions (including depredation takes),
provide recreational opportunities for 3,000 to 6,000 trophy hunters per year; and
maintain existing occupied habitat, and maintain the present range of mountain lions in Arizona.”
In 2003, Arizona Game and Fish Department, in accordance with its wildlife predation management policy, proposed intensive mountain lion removal projects in several western Game Management Units in conjunction with their bighorn sheep relocation program. Arizona currently (2012) has a year-round trophy hunting season on mountain lions, as well as predator “contest shoots,” in which prizes are given for shooting as many coyotes, foxes, bobcats, etc. as possible.
Arizona continues to allow the trophy hunting of mountain lions. All mountain lion hunting is managed in five-year planning cycles, the most recent of which was adopted in 2018. Several changes were made in the 2018-2023 hunt guidelines including:
Removal of multiple bag limits (now there is a bag limit of 1 lion in all units)
Removal of minimal occurrence zones (these zones previously allowed unlimited hunting with some restrictions, but were moved to standard zones)
Removal of daylong hunting hours (lions can now only be hunted from dawn until dusk)
Summer season closure from May 31 to August 20
Decrease of the adult female harvest threshold from 35% to 25%
While these changes were mostly positive, there is still considerable room for improvement. An average of 313 lions were killed per year between 2016 and 2020 in Arizona. The department’s Predator, Furbearer and Large Carnivore Biologist recently found the population to be 1,166-1,715 lions. This means that at least 18-27% of the adult population is killed each year, well above the established intrinsic growth rate of 14% for mountain lion populations. Additionally, the state’s population estimation method does not account for habitat suitability. Mountain lion habitat is shrinking as climate-driven drought reduces the available forage for mule deer. For this reason, the population of adult mountain lions may be even lower.
Current Hunt Guidelines limit hunting of adult female mountain lions to no more than 25% of the total harvest, but this still exceeds the limit of 20% suggested by the best available science. Additionally, the total percent of female lions killed, including under three years old, made up 46% of the total mountain lion harvest during 2016- 2020. This means that many female mountain lions between 2-3 years old, that are coming into reproductive maturity, are killed without being counted toward the female harvest threshold set by AZGFD.
Additionally, while the mountain lion hunting season currently extends from August 21st to May 31st to accommodate the summer birth pulse, this summer closure does not provide enough time to accommodate for the period after birth when kittens are highly dependent on their mothers. Extending the season closure until December 1st would reduce the orphaning of kittens by up to 90%, improving the viability of Arizona’s mountain lion population. Furthermore, most states with mountain lion hunting require hunters to take a mountain lion sex identification course to prevent the killing of female mountain lions when female thresholds have been met. Arizona does not require such a course.
Arizona’s Killing Fields
Based on a lion-mortality density model developed by the Mountain Lion Foundation, Arizona averages 0.45 mountain lions reported killed by humans for every 100 square miles of habitat. The eleven western state average is 0.65. Using MLF’s mortality ranking system, Arizona ranks 8th amongst the 11 western states studied by MLF in reported human-caused mountain lion mortalities.
A review of average annual mountain lion mortality numbers at the Game Management Unit (GMU) level clearly defines Arizona’s diagonal band of habitat with the highest concentration of mountain lion kills located in the southeastern quarter of the state. Game Management Units 27, 28, 31, and 32 in particular stand out with their disproportionate annual average mountain lion mortality numbers. An analysis of these GMUs from 1997 to 2001 shows a higher proportion of depredation related lion mortalities than experienced elsewhere in the state. This coupled with trophy hunting kills raised the annual average mountain lion mortality numbers to levels not seen elsewhere within the state.
Using MLF’s mortality ranking system, the top five Game Management Units in Arizona where human-caused mountain lion mortalities were greatest were numbers 27, 31, 32, 17 and 21. From 1997 to 2001, these GMUs accounted for 485 human-caused mountain lion mortalities. During this time period, these GMUs were responsible for 29 percent of human-caused mountain lion mortalities while encompassing only 9 percent of Arizona Game and Fish Department’s mountain lion habitat.
Between 2016-2020, the top five hunting units with the most mountain lion mortality were units 17B, 23, 24A, 27 and 33. Hunting in these units alone resulted in the killing of over 300 mountain lions over the time period.
Until 2019, Arizona also allowed predator killing contests where prizes were given for shooting as many coyotes, foxes and bobcats as possible. These contests were finally banned on September 4th, 2019.
The figure above depicts average hunter harvest from 2004-2018.
In 2003, Arizona Game and Fish Department (AZGFD) estimated that there were approximately 1,000 to 2,500 mountain lions on their lands. At that time, wildlife biologist D. J. Schubert conducted an in-depth analysis of AZGFD’s management policies and mortality data and concluded that their mountain lion population estimates were suspect because:
projections of suitable mountain lion habitat are not based on defensible biological information;
projections are subjectively determined by regional personnel;
projections can be (and reportedly have been) altered to increase population estimates;
projections assume that mountain lion habitat is saturated to its highest biological level; and
projections rely on estimates of mountain lion densities that are higher than the reported literature.
Some of these concerns have been addressed recently. A paper published by April Howard, the department’s Predator, Furbearer and Large Carnivore Biologist, describes AZGFD’s revised mountain lion population estimation process. This new process uses age-at-harvest and extrapolated data on survival rates, harvest probabilities, and hunter effort. With this method, Howard arrived at a total population range (including kittens) of 1,848-4,661 individuals and a population range of 1,166-1,715 for sub-adults and adults only (excluding kittens). For management purposes, AZGFD estimates that the total population is 2700 mountain lions and the independent population is 1300 mountain lions.
AZGFD purports this method as being the most cost-effective way to estimate population. Nevertheless, it does not address all of Dr. Schubert’s concerns. The method continues to lack an incorporation of habitat suitability and a lion density that is supported by the literature. Additionally, the current hunt guidelines base harvest limits on the higher end of the population range.
Between 2016 and 2020, 313 mountain lions were killed per year on average.
Human/Lion Conflicts in Arizona
Arizona’s human population is expected to double to about 12 million by the year 2050, and the state’s urban areas will continue to expand into and overlap with mountain lion habitat. A Mountain Lion Action Plan was developed in 2004 to address the issue of human/lion conflicts and provide response guidance for AZGFD field personnel. The plan categorizes conflicts as sighting, encounter, incident, or attack based on acceptable or unacceptable behaviors by mountain lions. Department responses are guided by the action plan for each category. Reports of all lion/human conflicts are entered into a centralized Human-Wildlife Interaction Database. Department policy (2015) mandates that game officials submit a report whenever a mountain lion is lethally removed due to conflict with humans. Additionally, department policy requires that all male mountain lions found to be in conflict with humans are to be sedated and euthanized, rather than released in a new location.
Public Opinion about Lions in Arizona
In the 2005 Attitudes Toward Urban Wildlife Among Residents of Phoenix and Tucson survey, residents were asked whether or not mountain lions are “dangerous:” 44 percent agreed and 44 percent disagreed. Of those respondents, only 21 percent think that mountain lions are a threat to personal safety, while 72 percent believe they are not a threat. In the survey, 80 percent of the public accepted destroying a mountain lion that is a “threat to human safety” or is an “established threat to pets and livestock.” According to Arizona residents in the survey, 33 percent think the mountain lion population is declining, 15 percent think mountain lions are endangered, 1 percent think they are extinct, and only 19 percent think the population is stable.
When asked about controlling mountain lions, 65 percent of the public found it acceptable “to protect endangered or threatened wildlife” and 55 percent found it acceptable “to protect wildlife populations that are declining.” However, less than 50 percent found it acceptable “to increase numbers of big game animals.”
Human-Caused Mountain Lion Mortalities in Arizona
Between 1917 and 2014, at least 19,499 mountain lions have been killed by humans in Arizona, with almost 60 percent of these deaths occurring since mountain lions were classified as game animals in 1970. This fact is reflected in a 2009 AZGFD report which noted that the sale of mountain lion hunting tags had “annually increased from about 3,000 in 1990 to nearly 11,000 by 2007.”
However this claim of an ever increasing constituency of lion hunters was repudiated in 2011 when AZGFD personnel attending the 2011 Mountain Lion Workshop (a national conference for state game agency personnel) voiced dissatisfaction over the declining number of mountain lion hunters. According to them, to offset this reduction, the agency was beginning to offer lion tags in multiple hunt license “combo” packages to interest the incidental deer or elk hunter that accidently came across a lion. Without the public (trophy hunters) to help AZGFD meet their management objective of killing off between 250 to 300 hundred lion each year, the representative indicated that there would need to be more administrative removal programs and eventually the Department may be forced to return to “the dark ages” and employ the public’s help to “balance wildlife populations” — implying a bounty program that would pay residents for their assistance in slaughtering mountain lions.
Frustration was also voiced by AZGDF personnel over the killing of bighorn sheep (a lion’s natural prey species) on the KofA (King of Arizona Mine) National Wildlife Refuge by the refuge’s resident mountain lions. Bighorn sheep (a highly valued trophy animal) raised at the refuge are raffled off to big game hunters for special hunts, and are also used to reestablish herds throughout the west. Being a money-making game species, the Department wanted to preemptively kill lions living on the refuge to provide a “safe haven” for those sheep. Due to public outcry this plan was scrapped in favor of lethally removing any lion that kills more than one of the refuge’s bighorn sheep over a six-month period.
Since 2015, approximately 313 mountain lions are killed by humans per year, and between 9-13 percent of that total is for removal of depredating lions. This level of hunting exceeds the average annual harvest of 244 lions/year which occurred during Arizona’s bounty hunting period. If the agency’s adult lion population estimate (1,166-1,715 lions) is correct, that means approximately 19-28% of the population is removed each year, well above the average intrinsic growth rate for the species which is estimated at 14%.
Arizona Female Lion Mortalities
Similar to many other states that allow mountain lion hunting, Arizona provides protection to the state’s female lions, however these efforts may not be terribly effective. Though Arizona’s current hunting regulations restrict the killing of females with kittens, the “Open Hunting” harvest management approach limits the efficacy of this restriction. Many lion hunters have difficulty determining a lion’s sex with the animal in hand, ascertaining whether the animal is a lactating female at a distance is far more challenging.
In 2003, the AZGFD provided a gender breakdown of its mountain lion trophy hunting harvests for the years 1998 through 2001. During this 4-year period 48 percent (541) of the total trophy hunting mortalities were female mountain lions. A similar review took place for the years 2004 through 2007 where the percentage of females killed remained at 48 percent. Between 2012 and 2017, the average female mortality remained at 48%, coming down only slightly in the subsequent years to 45% in 2018, 43% in 2019 and 42% in 2020.
According to one major study (Anderson and Lindzey 2005), when adult females consistently comprise greater than 35 percent of the overall harvest, resident mountain lion abundance may be reduced. While noting this study in their 2009 Conservation Strategies Report, AZGFD ignores the study’s ramifications and denies any reduction in the state’s lion population. AZGFD insists their opinion of an increasing lion population justifies the need to increase overall mortality levels by whatever means. In Arizona’s 2018-2023 hunt guidelines, the agency began using a female sub-quota. If over 25% of harvested adult lions are female, they will reduce quotas. However, the agency considers mountain lions adult at three years of age. While not all female mountain lions are reproductively mature at age 2, most states consider female mountain lions adults at age 2 since they often reach reproductive maturity sometime between age 2 and 3 (Robinson & DeSimone 2011). Between 2016-2020, an average of 33 female mountain lions killed per year were between the ages of 2 and 3. None of these counted towards AZGFD’s female sub-quota.
The state of Arizona encompasses 113,635 square miles (294,313 km2) of land. The main portion of Arizona’s best mountain lion habitat is distributed in a wide diagonal band stretching diagonally across the state.
The Arizona Game and Fish Department (AZGFD) has the authority for managing mountain lions over 72,157 square miles (186,885 km2) of mountain lion habitat covering almost 63 percent of the state. Additionally, an unknown amount of mountain lion habitat falls under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service (4,200 sq mi. or 10,877 km2), or is located on tribal lands (29,500 sq. mi or 76,404 km2). Data on mountain lion population estimates, suitable habitat, and human-caused mountain lion mortalities for these 33,700 square miles is unavailable to MLF at this time.
The species is classified as a game mammal, along with deer, elk, bear, pronghorn antelope, bighorn sheep, bison, peccary, tree squirrels, and cottontail rabbits. The species is also classified as big game, along with wild turkey, deer, elk, bear, pronghorn antelope, bighorn sheep, bison, peccary, and bear.
Generally, treatment of wildlife in the State of Arizona is governed by the Arizona Revised Statutes – the state’s collection of its laws, updated at the end of each legislative cycle. Arizona also collects its department regulations in the Arizona Administrative Code. Since our summary below may not be completely up to date, you should be sure to review the most current laws and regulations for the State of Arizona.
You can check the statutes directly at a state-managed website: http://www.azleg.gov/ArizonaRevisedStatutes.asp These statutes are searchable. Be sure to use the name “mountain lion” to accomplish your searches.
The Arizona state legislature is a bicameral legislature consisting of a lower chamber – the House of Representatives – and an upper chamber – the Senate. The House of Representatives is made up of 60 members, and the Senate is made up of 30 members. Members of both chambers serve 2-year terms and are limited to four consecutive terms. If you do not know in which legislative district you live, Arizona maintains this website to help you find your district. If you already know in which district you live, you can contact your legislator by using the House of Representatives’ membership roster and the Senate’s membership roster.
The legislature meets annually with the session beginning on the second Monday of January and normally running until late June. The governor may call special sessions when he/she feels it necessary. During special sessions, the legislature may only pass laws related to the subject for which the governor has called the session.
The Arizona Game and Fish Commission is a five-member board appointed by the governor. Members serve five-year terms, which expire on the third Monday in January of their final year. No two members may be residents of the same county, and no more than three members may belong to the same political party. The commission sets Arizona’s regulations for managing wildlife and fisheries. It also regulates watercraft and off-highway vehicle use.
Arizona Game and Fish Department
The Arizona Game and Fish Department (AZGFD) enforces the state’s wildlife laws and the Game and Fish Commission’s regulations. The AZGFD is a stand-alone department within the executive branch of the Arizona state government.
The Arizona Game and Fish Department reviews, revises, and reports on mountain lion conservation strategies when the Game and Fish Commission directs it to do so. As of 2014, the latest report appears to be the 2009 Mountain Lion and Bear Conservation Strategies Report. The report was written by “wildlife scientists and managers,” two of whom were not employed by the AZGFD. The commission takes no action on the report itself but can implement its recommendations in future public sessions. There do not appear to be written guidelines as to when a new report is to be issued.
Arizona allows the hunting of mountain lions with centerfire rifles, muzzleloading rifles, all rifles using black powder or synthetic black powder, centerfire handguns, handguns using black powder or synthetic black powder, shotguns using slugs or shot, bows with a standard pull of 30 or more pounds, and crossbows with a minimum draw weight of 125 pounds. Arizona also allows hunting with the assistance of artificial light as long as the light is not attached to or operated from a motor vehicle, motorized watercraft, watercraft under sail, or floating object towed by a motorized watercraft or a watercraft under sail.
Arizona prohibits hunting spotted kittens and females accompanied by kittens. Beginning in January 2022, hunters cannot use trail cameras to aid in the pursuit of any game species, including mountain lions.
Public Safety Law
Arizona law allows any person to kill wildlife “in self-defense or in defense of another person if it is immediately necessary to protect oneself or to protect the other person.” That person must notify the Arizona Game and Fish Department within five days. No portion of the animal may be retained sold, or removed from the site without permission from the AZGFD. Arizona law also requires agency officials to sedate and euthanize any male mountain lion found to be in conflict with humans, rather than capturing and releasing these lions.
Depredation law in Arizona is monitored by the Arizona Game and Fish Department. The law specifies that a landowner or lessee whose livestock has been attacked by a mountain lion may dispatch of the depredating lion with leg hold traps without teeth, leg snares, firearms, and “other legal hunting weapons and devices.” After beginning to pursue a mountain lion, a livestock operator must notify the AZGFD within five days. The AZGFD may request that the livestock operator provide them with reasonable evidence that the livestock was attacked by a mountain lion. After killing a lion, the operator may not keep any portion of the carcass without permission from the Arizona Game and Fish Commission. The law also states that no lion taken alive may be kept in captivity.
Owners of domestic animals do not appear to be required to take any specified steps to protect their pets or livestock. There also does not appear to be a government-funded compensation program for losses of domestic animals to mountain lions.
Mountain lions may not be trapped for fur in Arizona. The laws governing trapping in Arizona specify that licensed trappers may trap predatory, nongame, and fur-bearing species. Arizona classifies mountain lions as game mammals and does not include them on its list of either predatory or fur-bearing species.
Poaching law in the State of Arizona provides some protection of mountain lions in law, but only as a deterrent. It is rare for penalties to be sufficiently harsh to keep poachers from poaching again. Anyone who takes a mountain lion during a closed season, in an area closed to mountain lion hunting, through the use of an unlawful device or method, in excess of the bag limit, or possesses or transports a mountain lion or parts of a mountain lion that was unlawfully taken is guilty of a class 2 misdemeanor. A class 2 misdemeanor is punishable by up to 4 months of imprisonment. Anyone who knowingly takes a mountain lion during a closed season or who knowingly possesses, transports, or buys any big game that was unlawfully taken during a closed season is guilty of a class 1 misdemeanor, which is punishable by up to 6 months of imprisonment. Finally, any person who barters, sells, or offers for sale any mountain lion or a part of a mountain lion taken unlawfully is guilty of a class 6 felony. The duration of imprisonment for a felony is determined by the court. In addition to the criminal proceedings, the Arizona Game and Fish Commission or any of its officers may bring a civil lawsuit against the poacher, seeking a minimum of $1,500 in damages per lion.
Update – Arizona Hunt Guidelines Approved on April 1, 2022
The Arizona Hunt Guidelines, approved April 1, 2022, established all aspects of mountain lion hunting management for the next five years including the length and timing of hunting seasons and the total number and gender of mountain lions that can be killed. Arizona Game and Fish Department (AZGFD) updates the Hunt Guidelines every five years. To see the final Hunt Guidelines, visit: https://www.azgfd.com/Hunting/Guidelines/
How Will The Hunt Guidelines Affect Mountain Lions?
Current hunting levels are too high, with approximately 320 lions killed per year (previous 2015-2020 average). Hunting at this rate removes approximately 23% of the adult mountain lion population per year. While population growth rates can vary for mountain lions, the best available research suggests that hunters should kill no more than 14% of the adult population per year (Beausoleil et al. 2013). AZGFD plans to continue allowing hunting at this much higher ~23% rate. Additionally, drought is reducing the availability of forage for deer, the main source of prey for mountain lions, which will reduce the abundance of both deer and lions over time (Stoner et al. 2018).
The hunting season begins in August when kittens are still dependent on their mothers. AZGFD closes hunting in the summer for the expressed purpose of “accommodating the mountain lion birth pulse.” However, the agency’s own research demonstrates that many lions have their kittens in August, October and December (Wakeling et al. 2015), possibly to avoid the heat of summer months. Kittens also remain highly dependent on their mothers for the first several months of life. Hunting females during times when they are having and raising kittens often results in kitten orphaning, where kittens are left to starve (O’Malley et al. 2018).
Female mountain lions are overhunted. The agency should limit the hunting of female mountain lions to 20 percent of the annual harvest rather than 25 percent, as suggested by the best available science (Robinson & DeSimone, 2011), and consider females adults at the age of two when many lions begin reaching reproductive maturity, rather than 3 (Beausoleil et al. 2013). Currently, two-year-old lions are the most heavily hunted segment of the population according to recent harvest data, so not properly accounting for those that are reproductively mature could be putting Arizona’s mountain lion population in jeopardy.
Update: AZGFD included two important improvements for female mountain lion management in their final Hunt Guidelines, which were both approved. First, female mountain lions will now be considered adults if they are either over three years old OR if they show evidence of nursing. Additionally, no more than 50% of the annual mountain lion harvest may consist of female lions (of an age) in a particular zone. We commend AZGFD for both of these improvements.
Why Should I Care About Arizona Mountain Lions?
Mountain lions are a critical species in Arizona. Their cached kills provide food for hundreds of other species, and they keep deer and elk herds healthy by preying primarily on diseased and old individuals (Krumm et al. 2010; Elbroch et al. 2017). Lions also keep deer and elk from excessively browsing open areas along streams and roads, thereby protecting our waterways and reducing deer-vehicle collisions (Ripple & Beschta, 2012; Gilbert et al. 2017). If we continue to hunt lions excessively, especially adult females, the population will likely decline over time, hurting not only mountain lions but also countless other species, and people too.
How Can I Get Involved?
Make Your Voice Heard!
While the Hunt Guidelines are now approved, it is never too late to continue a dialogue with AZGFD about mountain lion hunting in Arizona. You can make your voice heard in the following ways.
1. Attend the Arizona Game and Fish Commission meetings and provide verbal testimony, calling on the agency to:
Consider reducing hunting to stay below 14 percent of the adult mountain lion population per year and improve population estimates by including the effects of drought on the mountain lion population;
Delay the hunting season to begin on December 1 to avoid killing mothers who are having and raising kittens;
Reduce the hunting of adult females to 20 percent of the total harvest and consider females adults at two years old.
How to attend and comment at the meeting: Generally, only people attending the meeting in-person at the Phoenix AZGFD office or their regional AZGFD office (where the meeting will be broadcasted) are allowed to comment. Please consider attending and testifying on behalf of mountain lions. For more information on where the meeting will be located and how to testify visit: https://www.azgfd.com/agency/commission/meetingagenda/
Mountain Lion Foundation, Humane Society of the United States and Center for Biological Diversity held a webinar on the AZ Hunt Guidelines and how to call for protections of native carnivores (lions, bobcats and bears) on January 12th. If you missed the webinar, you can view the slides or recording below.
Write a letter to the editor or press release for your local paper about mountain lion hunting and associated issues for native carnivores (reach out if you need assistance);
Talk with your friends and family and encourage them to get involved.
For more information on how to get involved with protecting Arizona’s mountain lions, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thank you for your time and involvement. Collectively, making our voices heard, we can protect Arizona’s mountain lions!
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