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State officials reject push for stronger mountain lion protections, but will discuss the issue further

Texas parks and wildlife officials have denied a conservation group’s request to formally consider new protections for the wild cats, but say they’ll form a working group to consider the issue further.

By Travis Bubenik

Texas officials on Tuesday rejected a conservation group’s push for new rules to protect mountain lions in the state, at least for now.

The advocacy group Texans for Mountain Lions has warned that mountain lion populations in the state are dangerously low, particularly in South Texas, where studies suggest the wild cat could be on the verge of local extinction.

Earlier this summer, the group filed a petition with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department asking for a formal rulemaking process to consider new mountain regulations. The group’s proposals range from limits on hunting and trapping the animals to more thorough research on their numbers.

In a letter Tuesday, the department informed the group that its petition had been automatically denied after none of the agency’s commission members moved to place the petition on a meeting agenda within the required timeframe.

Still, the department said it would convene a group of mountain lion experts, landowners and other stakeholders to discuss the issue further. That group is expected to brief commissioners at a public meeting later this month.

Ben Masters, a wildlife documentary filmmaker and advocate with the mountain lions group, said the news was “disappointing,” but not all bad.

“While the petition was officially denied, it was successful in raising the issue of mountain lion management high enough to where parks and wildlife commission is now going to hear about it to consider further action,” he said. “So I’m cautiously optimistic.”

In Texas, unlike in some other states, mountain lions are considered a “nongame” species and are generally allowed to be hunted or trapped year-round. The conservation group’s proposals would move the state toward managing the animals more like deer, antelope or other “game animals.”

Tuesday’s petition denial was not entirely unexpected, as parks and wildlife staffers had already analyzed the group’s proposals and recommended they be rejected.

“[The department] should not administer or initiate the proposed regulations or management program for mountain lions without having more up-to-date information about the species population and distribution in the state, as well as more stakeholder engagement and input, particularly among affected landowner and wildlife management interests,” the staffers wrote in a formal recommendation sent to the conservation group in late June.

The recommendation to deny the petition also referenced a “variety of strong opinions regarding the status of mountain lions and the disagreement among constituencies about the need for regulatory management actions.”

Ranchers and agriculture producers don’t always have the same rosy view of mountain lions that wildlife advocates do.

The Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association, a powerful trade association, considers mountain lions a “predatory” species and generally opposes proposals that would limit ranchers’ abilities to kill such species.

When previously asked about the conservation group’s petition, a TSCRA spokesperson pointed Marfa Public Radio to policy position language the association has adopted on the matter.

“Despite the efforts of livestock producers to reduce damage caused by predators, livestock producers continue to suffer significant economic losses each year to livestock and private property as a result of predators,” the language reads. “TSCRA oppose [sic] predator hunting seasons, take limits, permit requirements, or any predator management limitations that would impede food and/or fiber producers from protecting their livestock, wildlife, family, guests, and employees from predators.”

In a hint to just how heated debates about protecting mountain lions can be, Masters claimed in a public Instagram post this week that he and his family had received violent threats after someone he described as a “prominent individual in Texas Hunting media” accused him of having an anti-hunting agenda. Masters did not name the person, saying he didn’t want to “increase his profile.”

Still, Masters said he’s encouraged that officials are at least willing to listen to a variety of perspectives on the issue at this month’s commission meeting.

“They’re going to get to hear from our organization, hunters, ranchers, outfitters, tourist guides, cattle raisers,” he said. “I think having all those stakeholders involved is a good thing, rather than just kind of shoving a petition through.”

Travis Bubenik is All Things Considered Host and Big Bend Reporter at Marfa Public Radio.