Mountain Lions in the State of New Mexico

Like most states, New Mexico’s first lion management plan took the form of paying a bounty for every lion killed. In 1971 the species became a game animal and the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish initiated recreational hunting of lions. New Mexico is believed to have a population of roughly 2,500 lions. While trophy hunting threatens the future of lions in New Mexico, the recent authorization of trapping has exacerbated wildlife mortality and set the state back decades in terms of management attitudes and the public’s trust in the agency.

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History

Bounty Period

Like most states, New Mexico’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 New Mexico until 1970.

Game Management

In 1971, mountain lions became a “protected” species, under the management authority of the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish. In that year the Department initiated a 4-month regulated hunting season in the southwest corner of the state, with spotted kittens and females accompanied by kittens protected from being hunted. Over the years the length of the hunting season, the size of the legal hunt areas, and the hunting harvest limits have been expanded to be year-long events (April through March) and include almost all of the state.

In 1983, New Mexico’s agricultural industry, concerned with potential livestock depredation, introduced a legislative bill to eliminate the mountain lions so-called protected status. While the bill was eventually tabled for lack of information, it did cause NMDGF to produce a detailed report on lions in New Mexico (Evans 1983). The reports final recommendations resulted in reducing the 1984 harvest limit and shortened (for a year) New Mexico’s lion hunting season.

In 1999, NMDGF implemented a mountain lion harvest quota system based on Game Management Unit (GMU). New Mexico is divided into 69 GMUs, each with its own lion population estimates and hunting quotas.

New Mexico has two long-term programs which attempt to protect other species by lethally removing mountain lions from specific geographic locations. And as of 2015, traps and snares can be used to help hunters capture and kill lions.

Status

Legal Status

  • Classified as a game animal.
  • 2019: New Mexico State Game Commission voted to end cougar trapping in certain parts of the state.

Estimated population: New Mexico officials list their population estimate at 3,500 animals, which is likely too high.

Annual trophy kills: New Mexico has high annual hunt quotas, allowing hunters to take nearly 600 lions. In 2019, hunters killed 358 lions in the state.


Like most states, New Mexico’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 New Mexico until 1970.

Recreational Hunting

In 1971, mountain lions became a “protected” species, under the management authority of the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish. In that year the Department initiated a 4-month regulated hunting season in the southwest corner of the state, with spotted kittens and females accompanied by kittens protected from being hunted. Over the years the length of the hunting season, the size of the legal hunt areas, and the hunting harvest limits have been expanded to be year-long events (April through March) and include almost all of the state.

In 1983, New Mexico’s agricultural industry, concerned with potential livestock depredation, introduced a legislative bill to eliminate the mountain lions so-called protected status. While the bill was eventually tabled for lack of information, it did cause NMDGF to produce a detailed report on lions in New Mexico (Evans 1983). The reports final recommendations resulted in reducing the 1984 harvest limit and shortened (for a year) New Mexico’s lion hunting season.

In 1999, NMDGF implemented a mountain lion harvest quota system based on Game Management Unit (GMU). New Mexico is divided into 69 GMUs, each with its own lion population estimates and hunting quotas.

Depredation

Depredation is defined in New Mexico as “property damage by protected wildlife on privately owned or leasehold interest land, where damage value exceeds applicable income earned on that site from the wildlife species causing damage.”

NMDGF issues depredation permits against mountain lions on any verified complaint.

Mountain Lion Control Programs (Preventative Kills)

New Mexico has two long-term programs which attempt to protect other species by lethally removing mountain lions from specific geographic locations.

The first program, passed by the NMDGF Commission in 1985, was in response to an increasing number of livestock reported killed by mountain lions in GMU-30. In 1986, The Commission ordered NMDGF to preemptively kill mountain lions found on ranches that had more than 6 verified lion depredation occurrences in any 3-year period. A maximum of 14 mountain lions can be lethally removed from GMU-30 in any given year as part of this program. Since the program’s inception, at least 206 mountain lions have been killed in GMU-30.

The second program was created by the NMDGF Commission in 1997 in response to declining rocky mountain and desert bighorn sheep populations. Bighorn sheep hunting-tags auction off for large sums of money, thereby providing an economic incentive for NMDGF to remove natural predators and assist bighorn sheep herds which have been decimated by detrimental climate, deteriorating habitat, and diseases introduced by domestic sheep grazing on public lands.

In 1999 the Commission authorized NMDGF to preemptively kill up to 34 mountain lions each year from the following five mountain ranges: Peloncillo, Ladron, Hatchets, San Andres, and Fra Cristobal. During the first 8 years of the program (1999-2006) 103 mountain lions were killed as part of this program.

Human-Caused Lion Mortalities in New Mexico

Since 1917, (the first year records are available) at least 7,779 mountain lions have been reported killed by humans in New Mexico.

This figure does not include:

  • secondary poisoning,
  • orphaned kitten mortalities,
  • death by unknown causes,
  • poaching, and
  • the “shoot-shovel-and-shut up” practices espoused by some ranchers.

Since 1971, when they became a “protected” species in New Mexico, at least 6,630 mountain lions have been reported killed by humans. About 90 percent of the total deaths since 1971 were a result of recreational hunting. Around 5 percent died for New Mexico’s preemptive mountain lion control programs (livestock & bighorn sheep), with the remaining 5 percent occurring as a result of known depredation, road kills, and uncategorized mortalities.

2015 Trapping Proposal

The New Mexico Game and Fish Department (NMGFD) opened its cougar hunting regulations for amendments. This only happens once every four years. On August 27, 2015 the NMGFD Commission adopted a proposal to allow the use of snares and traps to kill lions, as well as making it easier for deer and elk hunters to kill any lions they randomly come across. Trapping is a cruel and indiscriminate practice that injures and kills millions of wildlife and pets annually. The Commission ignored the voice of the public and the science. We lost this round, but the fight is far from over. Check out the Action tab to learn more.

Habitat

The state of New Mexico encompasses 121,356 square miles of land. According to the New Mexico Department of Game & Fish (NMDGF), mountain lions “generally inhabit the rougher country in New Mexico avoiding the low elevation desert areas and eastern plains. They do however occur in these areas in conjunction with pockets of mule deer and areas of topographic diversity.”

In 2008, NMDGF used a Mountain Lion Population Density Model based on a GIS-mapped habitat study funded by the conservation organization, Animal Protection of New Mexico. This particular model divided 92 percent of the state into four distinct mountain lion habitat categories: Core, Minimum Patch, Dispersal, and Poor / Marginal; and assigned population density ranges for each category.

Using this same lion population density model, MLF estimates that New Mexico currently has approximately 2,550 mountain lions distributed accordingly:

  • Core: prime mountain lion habitat able to support about 1 adult lion per 15 square miles. 24 percent of the state is Core (approximately 29,118 square miles), home to an estimated 1,886 adult mountain lions.
  • Minimum Patch: areas of land able to support about 1 adult lion per 37 square miles. 4 percent of the state is recognized as Minimum Patch (approximately 4,853 square miles) and supports an estimated 131 adult mountain lions.
  • Dispersal: areas of land able to support about 1 adult lion per 77 square miles. 4 percent of the state is recognized as Dispersal (approximately 4,853 square miles), sustaining an estimated 63 adult mountain lions.
  • Poor/Marginal: poor quality mountain lion habitat with less resources, only able to support 1 adult lion per 154 square miles. The majority of the state, 60 percent, is considered Poor/Marginal (approximately 72,795 square miles), and is home to an estimated 471 adult mountain lions.

Apparently, officials at NMDGF felt that the population estimates derived from the 2008 model were too low. Less than two-years later, NMDGF is now using a radically different mountain lion population density model which seems to be developed from an unpublished Master’s Thesis. As a result, New Mexico appears to have lost 39,448 square miles of mountain lion habitat, while gaining an additional 1,930 adult mountain lions. MLF can only assume that NMDGF’s use of the new 2010 lion population density model is based more on political concerns rather than biological evidence, for the express purpose of justifying the increased mountain lion hunting quotas since 2010.

Law

In New Mexico’s legal code, Puma concolor is generally referred to as “cougar.”

Species Status

The species is classified as a game mammal, along with javelina, American bison, wild goats, wild bighorn sheep, Barbary sheep, kudu, Oryx, American pronghorn, elk, deer, pikas, squirrels, red squirrels, marmots, and bears. New Mexico’s Wildlife Conservation Act applies to mountain lions. The Wildlife Conservation Act does not limit itself to non-game species and includes over-utilization for sporting purposes as a factor that may jeopardize a species’ prospects of survival within the state.

State Law

Generally, treatment of wildlife in the State of New Mexico is governed by the New Mexico Statutes – the state’s collection of laws. Since our summary below may not be completely up to date, you should be sure to review the most current law for the New Mexico.

You can check the statutes directly here. These statutes are searchable. Be sure to use the name “cougar” to accomplish your searches.

The Legislature

The New Mexico Legislature is a part-time, bicameral legislature. The lower chamber, the House of Representatives, consists of 70 members who serve 2-year terms. The upper chamber, the Senate, is made up of 42 members who are elected to 4-year terms. Information on finding your state legislators can be found here. The Democratic Party has controlled both houses of the New Mexico Legislature since at least 1992. The legislature convenes on the third Tuesday in January each year. The legislature’s regular sessions last 60 days in odd-numbered years and 30 days in even-numbered years. The governor may call special sessions and the legislature may also call special sessions when three-fifths of each house’s members petition the governor to request one. Special sessions may only last 30 days.

State Regulation

The New Mexico State Game Commission sets the regulations found in the Natural Resources and Wildlife section of the New Mexico Administrative Code – the state’s collection of department regulations. Along with mountain lions, the rules contain provisions for the hunting of deer, elk, pronghorn antelope, bighorn sheep, ibex, Barbary sheep, Oryx, turkey, javelina, bear, furbearers, and upland game.

New Mexico State Game Commission

The New Mexico State Game Commission is a seven-member board appointed by the governor and confirmed by the state Senate. When the governor appoints commissioners, their terms are designated one-, two-, three-, or four-year terms so that no more than two commissioners’ terms expire during the same year. At least one commissioner must manage and operate a farm or ranch that raises at least two species of game animals. At least one commissioner must have a demonstrated history of involvement in wildlife and habitat protection issues and whose activities or occupation are not in conflict with wildlife and habitat advocacy. No more than four commissioners may be from the same political party. The commission is tasked with providing a system for the protection of game and fish in New Mexico and using and developing natural resources for public recreation and food supply.

New Mexico Department of Game and Fish

The New Mexico Department of Game and Fish (NMDGF) enforces the state’s wildlife laws and the New Mexico State Game Commission’s regulations. The NMDGF is a department within the executive branch of the New Mexico government.

Hunting Law

Hunting of mountain lions is allowed in the State of New Mexico. The regulations governing “recreational” hunting of mountain lions specify 19 Cougar Management Zones. Mountain lion hunting season runs from April 1 to March 31 or until a unit’s mortality limit or female sub-limit is met.

Hound hunting is allowed.

Mountain lions may be hunted with center-fire rifles and handguns, 28 gauge or larger shotguns, muzzle-loading rifles, bows, and crossbows.

The State Game Commission sets New Mexico’s “mortality limit”. New Mexico sets sex-specific quotas and prohibits the killing of kittens and any female accompanied kittens. In management zones in which the commission wishes to increase the mountain lion population, the limit is set at less than or equal to 17% of the area’s mountain lion population and no more than 30% of its female population. In management zones in which the commission wishes to decrease the mountain lion population, the limit is set at less than or equal to 25% of the area’s mountain lion population and no more than 50% of its female population.

Depredation Law

Depredation law in New Mexico is monitored by the State’s Department of Game and Fish. The law reads: “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 twenty-four hours and before the removal of the carcass of the animal killed, in accordance with regulations adopted by the commission.” There is a government-funded compensation program for losses of domestic animals to mountain lions. Owners of domestic animals do not appear to be required to take certain steps to protect their pets or livestock.

Trapping

On April 4, 2021, New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham signed into law Senate Bill 32, which bans bans traps, snares, and poisons on public lands across New Mexico. Passage of SB 32 also protects outdoor recreationists and their companion animals from cruel and indiscriminate traps, snares, and poisons on public lands across the state.

According to WildEarth Guardians, “Since 2008, private trappers in New Mexico have killed nearly 150,000 native wildlife species such as bobcats, swift foxes, badgers, beavers, ermine, and coyotes. Critically endangered species, such as the Mexican gray wolf, have also been killed and injured in traps, including two wolves caught in traps in New Mexico in the past six months.”

Poaching

Poaching law in the State of New Mexico 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. Poaching is a misdemeanor in New Mexico. The first conviction is punishable by imprisonment for up to 6 months and a fine depending on the specific offense: illegally taking, attempting to take, killing, capturing or possessing a mountain lion during a closed season results in a fine of $400 per animal; hunting mountain lions without a valid license results in a $100 fine; exceeding the bag limit results in a $400 fine; attempting to exceed the bag limit is punished by a $200 fine. A second conviction is punishable by up to 364 days of imprisonment and a fine based on the offense: illegally taking, attempting to take, killing, capturing or possessing a mountain lion during a closed season results in a $600 per animal; hunting mountain lions without a valid license results in a $400 fine; exceeding the bag limit results in a $600 fine; attempting to exceed the bag limit is punished by a $600 fine. A third or subsequent conviction is punishable by imprisonment between 90 and 364 days as well as a fine depending on the nature of the offense: illegally taking, attempting to take, killing, capturing or possessing a mountain lion in a closed season results in a $1,200 fine; hunting mountain lions without a valid license results in a $1,000 fine; exceeding the bag limit results in a $1,200 fine; attempting to exceed the bag limit is punished by a $1,000 fine.

Public Safety Law

New Mexico law allows any landowner, lessee, or employee of either to kill any mountain lion on their land that “presents an immediate threat to human life.” The killing must be reported to the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish within 24 hours and before the carcass is removed in accordance with commission regulations.

Road Mortalities

The New Mexico Department of Transportation does not keep records of mountain lions killed on the State’s roads.

Relationship of Mountain Lions to Native Prey

While historic native prey for mountain lions, competition with sport hunters for bighorn sheep has led to a debate over lethally removing mountain lions to increase prey populations. Under state policy, the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish can kill mountain lions that are believed to be threatening the survival of bighorn sheep in any area with bighorn sheep ranges.

Action

There are currently no Action Alerts for New Mexico. Check back often for updates!

Story Map

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Library

New Mexico Cougar Files Sorted by Type

Scientific Research

  • Barnes, 2001, Counting Cougars
  • Bauer et al 2005 Scarvenging Behavior in Puma
  • Beausoleil, 2000, Status of the Mountain Lion in New Mexico 1971-2000
  • Bender 2012 Factors Influecing Survival of Desert Mule Deer in the Greater San Andres Mountains New Mexico
  • Cochran, 1984, Lions Win in New Mexico
  • Coppinger 1984 Protecting Domestic Sheep from Cougars with Livestock Guarding Dogs
  • DeLorenzo 1977 Evaluation of Sheep Losses
  • Dickson et al 2013 Models of Regional Habitat Quality and Connectivity for Pumas in the Southwestern US
  • Dyszynsk 2001 Microsatellite Analysis of Mountain Lion Scat
  • Frey 2003 ABSTRACT The Conservation Dilemma in the Absence of Occurrence Records An Example Considering Wolverine and Canada Lynx in New Mexico
  • Frey 2003 The Conservation Dilemma in the Absence of Occurence Records An Example Considering Wolverine and Canada Lynx in New Mexico
  • Halloran 1946 The Carnivores of the San Andres Mountains
  • Harris et al 2015 Weather and Prey Predict Mammals Visitation to Water
  • Harrison 2002 Evaluation of Microscopic and Macroscopic Methods to Identify Felid Hair
  • Harveson 1999 Trends in Populations of Mountain Lions in Carlsbad Caverns and Guadalupe Mountains
  • Hibben 1937 Preliminary Study of the Mountain Lion
  • Hornocker 1985 PROPOSAL Proposal for Research on Ecology of the Mountain Lion in the San Andres Mountains
  • Hornocker et al 1990 Ecology of an Unexploited Mountain Liop Population in a Desert Environment
  • Hubbard, 1975, Our big and mysterious cat
  • Iriarte 1990 Biogeographic Variation of Food Habits and Body Size of the American Puma
  • Littauer 1987 Cougar Predation on Livestock
  • Littauer, White, 1984, Cougar Predation on Livestock in New Mexico in 1983 and the First Half of 1984
  • Logan et al 1996 Cougars of the San Andres Mountain New Mexico
  • Logan et al 1998 Capturing Pumas with Foot Hold Snares
  • Logan et al 1999 Capturing Pumas with foot hold snares 1985-1995
  • McPhee 2000 Cougar Bighorn Interactions and Sustainable Ecosystem Management in New Mexico
  • McPhee et al. , N/A, Cougar/bighorn interactions and sustainable ecosystem management in New Mexico
  • Menke 2008 REPORT Locating Potential Cougar Puma concolor Corridors in New Mexico Using a Least Cost Path Corridor GIS Analysis
  • Rominger et al 2004 The Influence of Mountain Lion Predation on Bighorn Sheep Tranlocations JWM
  • Rominger et al 2006 Bighorn Sheep Mountain Lions and Ethics of Conservation
  • Ruth 1998 Evaluating Cougar Translocation in New Mexico
  • Sawyer 2002 A Review of the Predation on Bighorn Sheep
  • Shultz Howard 1937 Fauna of Burnet Cave Guadalupe Mountains
  • Stiner et al 2012 Carcass Damage and Digested Bone from Mountain Lions
  • Sweanor et al 2000 Cougar Dispersal Patterns Metapopulations Dynamics and Conservation
  • Sweanor Logan Hornocker 2005 Puma Responses to Close Approaches by Researchers
  • Welch, Donaldson, 1975, Mountain lion management: A new game
  • Wheeler 1875 Report Upon the Ornithological Collection
  • Young 2010 Survival and Mortality of Cougars in the TransPecos Region

Agency Reports

Legal

Other

  • Alba, 2007, Warm weather rouses more wildlife
  • Animal Protection of New Mexico, Inc., 2004, Animal Protection of New Mexico, Inc., ADC’s Cougar Killing Violates Federal Law
  • APMN POSTER Cougar Smart New Mexico
  • APNM 1998 APNM Sues New Mexico Game Commission for Cougar Killing Plans
  • APNM 1999 Department Promotes Flawed Cougar Killing Policy in Attempt to Protect Desert Bighorn Sheep
  • APNM 2001 Historical Involvement in Cougar Protection
  • APNM 2003 Vanishing Wildlife in New Mexico A Legacy of Neglect
  • APNM 2011 Cougars Under Fire!
  • Associated Press, 2004, Pet-killing cougar shot near Ramah
  • Associated Press, 2007, More cougars spotted in northern New Mexico; bad weather blamed
  • Associated Press, 2008, Animal attacks boy, 5, in New Mexico mountains
  • Associated Press, 2008, Authorities kill mountain lion that might have attacked Pinos Altos man
  • Associated Press, 2008, Boy attacked by large animal on Sandias
  • Associated Press, 2008, Mountain lion sought after man’s body found
  • Associated Press, 2008, New Mexico Man Torn Apart by Mountain Lion
  • Associated Press, 2008, Officers kill mountain lion that might have attacked Pinos Altos man
  • Associated Press, 2008, Second mountain lion killed near Pinos Altos
  • Associated Press, 2007, Mountain lion tracks spotted near Winsor Trail
  • Baeza, 2008, The Independent, Mountain lion kills New Mexico man
  • Bailey, 2003, Animal Protection of New Mexico, Inc., Vanishing Wildlife of New Mexico- A Legacy of Neglect
  • Carter, 2007, New Mexico Daily Lobo, Human impact destroys vital ecosystems annually
  • Cooley, 2002, Animal Protection of New Mexico, Inc., State game commission approval of reckless and dangerous cougar regulations is illegal
  • Defenders of Wildlife 1998 Defenders Files Complaint Against Federal Mountain Lion Slaugher in New Mexico
  • Fowler, 2007, Cibola Beacon, Lions and bears, oh my!
  • Gaynor, 2008, Reuters, U.S. man attacked, eaten by mountain lion
  • Goldman, 1998, Defenders of Wildlife, Mountain Lion Complaint Filed
  • Hill, 2008, Sun-News, Pinos Altos Lion Killed
  • Hill, 2008, Sun-News, Big cat blamed in man’s death
  • Hummels, 2000, The New Mexican, NM Senate committee rejects proposal to stall cougar killings
  • Ibanga, 2008, , Father Saves Son From Wildcat Mauling
  • Kalvelage, 2012, Ruidoso News, Mountain lion roaming Alto Lakes again
  • KDBC 4 News Staff, 2008, KDBC 4 News, Mountain Lion Attacks, Kills Poodle in Las Cruces
  • Knight 1994 Mountain Lions Damage Prevention and Control Methods
  • Macalady, 1999, High Country News, A bighorn dilemma
  • Mardis, 2008, , Parents say NM boy mauled by mountain lion
  • Matlock, 2007, The New Mexican, Officials say cougar sightings on the rise
  • Medina, 2008, Sun-News, Mountain lion preys on pet poodle in Las Cruces
  • Medina, 2008, Sun-News, Mountain lion that killed poodle not yet captured
  • Montoya Bryan, 2008, Associated Press, New Mexico looks at its hunting rules
  • Montoya Bryan, N/A, Associated Press, New Mexico considers downlisting endangered sheep
  • Neary, 1999, The New Mexican, NM Game department wants to kill cougars to help bighorn sheep
  • Neary, 2000, The New Mexican, NM state to kill 34 mountain lions to protect bighorn sheep
  • New Mexico Department of Game and Fish, 2007, New Mexico Department of Game and Fish, Meetings Scheduled Statewide to Discuss Bear, Cougar Management
  • Richards, 2005, Wyoming Outdoor Industry, Mule vs Mountain Lion
  • Smalling, 2000, The New Mexican, New Mexico cougar policy is based on flawed logic
  • Summar, 2007, Albuquerque Journal, More Cougar Sightings Reported
  • Taos News, 2008, Taos News, Man attacked by mountain lion at Taos Ski Valley
  • The Southwest Biodiversity Initiative 1999 Cougar Bighorn Interactions and Sustainable Ecosystem Management in New Mexico
  • Thompson, 2000, Albuquerque Journal, Judge Halts Federal Cougar Kills in New Mexico- No change in state hunting plans
  • Unknown, 1999, Animal Protection of New Mexico, Inc., Department Promotes Flawed Cougar Killing Policy in Attempt to Protect Desert Bighorn Sheep
  • Unknown, N/A, Animal Protection of New Mexico, Inc., New Mexico Cougars Under Fire!
  • Unknown, 1998, The New Mexico Game Commission, APNM Sues New Mexico Game Commission for Cougar Killing Plans
  • Unknown, N/A, Animal Protection of New Mexico, Inc., APNM Historical Involvement in Cougar Protection