Talk of the Town: Public safety is top priority in human-wildlife conflicts

Arizonans have a passion for wildlife. Our state's diverse wildlife and landscapes are among the amazing natural resources that draw people here. We are fortunate to count a healthy mountain lion population as part of that diversity.

Over the past several decades, Arizona's desirability as a place to live has led to rapid population growth and human expansion into wildlife habitat. Finding a balance between sustainable growth and wildlife conservation is an ongoing challenge.

Human-wildlife conflict is one of the most difficult issues accompanying that challenge. On Aug. 10, Arizona Game and Fish Department personnel responded to a report of a mountain lion in a residential neighborhood near a golf course in Prescott. The decision to tranquilize and then euthanize the animal brought letters of support as well as expressions of concern from fellow citizens who did not understand the need for that action.

Game and Fish is both a steward of wildlife and of public safety. Ultimately, as the state's wildlife agency, we are responsible and accountable for our decisions and actions in a way private citizens, non-governmental organizations, and other interested parties can't be. When wildlife unacceptably crosses the line on public safety, this agency will choose to do the right thing with the full understanding that some of the public we serve will find that act as unpleasant as do our officers.

Mountain lions are an important part of the ecosystem. They are generally elusive and tend to avoid people. Few of us ever get more than a glimpse of them in the wild. But it is also important to remember that mountain lions are top-level predators and potentially dangerous to humans. Attacks are rare, but the threat can exist and is heightened in certain situations.

Game and Fish developed its current response protocol for human-mountain lion interactions after the Sabino Canyon situation in 2004. Its many months of development included extensive public participation, input and review by biologists, university experts, sportsmen, environmentalists, animal welfare advocates, and legal experts, who helped us consider safety, liability and other concerns.

The protocol is used as a guide, but recognizes some judgment calls have to be made in the

field. Those calls will always consider public safety the top priority. Most reported sightings don't warrant action beyond providing the reporting party with information about mountain lions. In the Prescott case, the mountain lion remained in an area of high human use despite being scared off at least once. In most cases, a lion aware that it has been observed retreats and disappears. In this case, it did not, and under our protocols this is unacceptable behavior requiring removal.

Some asked why the lion couldn't have been released elsewhere. Lions are strongly territorial and almost all of Arizona is already part of the territory of another lion. Moving a new lion into another's territory often leads to the death or serious injury of one or both of the competing lions. Even the surviving lion may be injured to the point where it faces a prolonged death due to starvation. In addition, due to a lion's vast range, it could return to the same area or become a problem for another community. Knowing the biology, the Department chooses to do the hard but responsible thing.

Some asked why the animal couldn't have been sent to a zoo or sanctuary. When Game and Fish has such a request, this is a possibility. But mountain lions, one of the most widespread large predators in the western hemisphere, are abundant, and zoos and sanctuaries rarely need one.

Our citizens' passion for wildlife was evident in the many comments received, but some

included inaccuracies and unfair characterizations of the Department and its staff. Our

biologists, wildlife officers and other staff chose their careers because they want to do good things for wildlife. They aren't "them." They are your friends, family and neighbors and they, like you, want future generations to have wildlife to enjoy. Those who have to euthanize an animal in these circumstances recognize it as an unpleasant, but necessary part of ensuring public safety.

Game and Fish helps educate the public to minimize human-wildlife conflicts. A good source of information is www.azgfd.gov/urbanwildlife. Conflict situations rarely offer easy solutions, but there are ways everyone can help, including not feeding wildlife, making potential food sources such as garbage or pet food inaccessible, and enjoying wildlife from a distance. We can all do our part to help avoid situations that are bad for both people and wildlife.