Mountain lions in Nevada maimed by traps, killed by the state
Every day is open season on mountain lions in Nevada. The majestic cats are under attack on a variety of fronts – as prey for hunters, as unintended victims of traps set for bobcats, and as the primary target of a $900,000 a year state-sponsored effort to cull species deemed problematic by the state.
Between 2000 and 2021, at least 4,229 mountain lions were killed in Nevada by hunters, trappers, and the state’s lethal removal effort, according to data from the Nevada Department of Wildlife.
“The numbers are jaw-dropping,” says Dr. Donald Molde, president of the Nevada Wildlife Alliance. “On average, about 200 mountain lions are killed each year as a result of hunting, trapping or the state’s predator management plan.”
Wildlife advocates call the predator management project a misguided, wasteful, and ineffective effort to prevent mountain lions from killing mule deer, a prized trophy for Nevada hunters. They’re also calling on state regulators to take action to stem what some call the accidental but barbaric trapping of mountain lions, which can be left ensnared for days.
According to NDOW records, about two dozen mountain lions are discovered each year in traps set for bobcats. Many are found dead, while others who are injured are released, but incomplete reporting from trappers makes it impossible to determine their fate.
“We know NDOW is not tracking the long-term impact of incidental lion trapping since compression/constriction injuries of the type inflicted by leghold traps and snares may not manifest themselves for days or weeks after release from the trap,” says a letter sent this week by Molde and other wildlife advocates to the state.
The authors contend the unintended trapping of apex predators such as mountain lions “as practiced by Nevada trappers and accepted by NDOW, is not reflective of best available science, is not representative of good wildlife management, or ethical, responsible, or selective behavior by trappers.”
The state says incidental trapping is not affecting the mountain lion population, which NDOW has long estimated at 2,000, but recently revised to 3,400. Hunters are permitted to kill about 250 a year during a perpetual season that opens March 1 and ends the last day of February. In addition to deaths from trapping and hunting, mountain lions and other big game predators such as coyotes, are intentionally killed by the state via a program funded by a $3 surcharge on hunting licenses.
Each year, from mid-November through mid-February of the next, fur trappers pay the state $40 plus $5 per trap to catch a variety of fur-bearing animals, primarily bobcats.
At least two dozen mountain lions are inadvertently trapped each year by snares set for bobcats, according to reports filed by trappers with NDOW. But the true number is unknown, given the paucity of data reported to NDOW.
“The agency’s position appears to be that unless and until it can be shown that incidental lion trapping is adversely impacting the state’s lion population, no concern is warranted,” says the letter from wildlife advocates to NDOW. “Failing any better explanation, NDOW’s response to incidental lion trapping would indicate its acceptance as collateral damage in exchange for widespread fur trapping, particularly bobcat trapping, in Nevada.”
That collateral damage is not exclusive to mountain lions.
Data from 11 years of records kept by NDOW between 2002 and 2016 indicate trappers unintentionally snared at least 6,441 animals, including 240 mountain lions (an average of 22 a year) 123 domestic cats (an average of 12 a year), 306 dogs (an average of 28 a year), and 5,772 rabbits (an average of 525 a year).
A public records request to NDOW for meeting minutes on trapper education or information provided to trappers on avoiding accidental trapping yielded no results.
“NDOW has never done anything to alert trappers or ask for assistance other than the mandatory requirement that if they have a lion in a trap and can’t or won’t release it themselves, they have to call the state for assistance,” says Molde.
A photo from NDOW shows a mountain lion trapped as it climbed a tree – left to hang by a paw for as long as four days, thanks to a Nevada law that requires trappers to check their traps only every 96 hours, an interval that results in barbaric suffering, according to critics.
“Trap check intervals vary among states, but of those states allowing the use of foothold traps a daily trap check is most common,” says a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Department report.
Foothold traps, which close on an animal’s foot,may be used on land or water and are permitted in 43 states. They have been banned in California.
“As a game species, the lion deserves better protection from incidental trapping,” says the letter to the state, which recommends:
- Shortening the trap visitation interval to 24-48 hours
- Limiting trap sizes used for bobcat trapping which would reduce risks to larger animals
- Requiring swivels on all trap chains, allowing the trap to align with the animals movements and minimize injury
- Banning ‘drags’, which are traps attached by wire or chain to rocks, logs, and anchor-like devices which limit the trapped animal’s ability to move
- Requiring above-ground traps to be anchored by stakes, earth anchors, attached to posts or tree trunks, with a 30-inch (or less) chain, which, combined with a smaller trap allows a lion or bear to more easily pull free of the trap
- Provide educational information/opportunities for trappers, and require an exam on trapping methods and safety practices
- Emphasize the collection of non-target trap victim data to better monitor the degree of responsible trapping practices in Nevada.
“If we can’t get the department and the Wildlife Commission to do something about the incidental trapping by talking to them, down the road we may bring a legal petition before them,” says Molde.
NDOW did not respond to requests for comment.
In addition to accidental trapping and sport hunting, mountain lions are being killed each year by the state.
In 2001, lawmakers established a $3 surcharge on hunting licenses to be used for predator management. In 2024, the state plans to pay $934,000 for “lethal removal” methods to reduce the number of predators in an effort to preserve prey for hunters.
The state will spend just under $500,000 trying to protect mule deer, a favorite trophy animal for hunters, from being killed by mountain lions and coyotes, according to NDOW’s 2024 report. But experts say it isn’t working, citing uninterrupted declines in the number of deer.
The mule deer population peaked in Nevada in 1988 at 240,000. In 2023, NDOW estimated the state’s mule deer population at 68,000 mule deer, down from 99,000 in 2015, when lawmakers mandated that 80% of revenue generated by a $3 surcharge on hunting licenses be used to kill mountain lions and other predators.
Experts, such as former NDOW director Tony Wasley, attribute the decline of mule deer to a loss of sagebrush-rich habitat, not to predation by mountain lions. “Where there is insufficient habitat, all the predator control in the world won’t result in any benefit,” Wasley told the Reno Gazette Journal in 2010.
The Wildlife Department, at the direction of the Wildlife Commission, hires a government predator control program called Wildlife Services, an agency within the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which has been culling species in America for the last century.
“This ‘war on predators’ is not limited to Nevada,” says Molde, calling the practice of killing some species to boost big game populations “perhaps the key polarizing issue that is drawing attention from a concerned public which values all wildlife, not just deer, elk, pronghorn and bighorn.”
Wildlife Services data from 2022 reveals the federal agency killed hundreds of thousands of native animals last year, with many of the exterminations funded by taxpayers.
“In 2022, the program killed 56,089 coyotes, 26,371 beavers, 2,432 foxes, 515 bobcats, 450 black bears, 219 gray wolves, 205 mountain lions, and 7 federally protected grizzly bears, among many others,” in the U.S., according to WildEarth Guardians, a non-profit nature watchdog organization.
”It’s the program that went out and exterminated wolves around the country,” says Molde. “They act like a rogue agency, in my opinion. They do whatever they please, and they’re paid to do it by the Wildlife Commission.”
In 2017, lawmakers voted to remove the mandate that 80% of the revenue generated by the $3 fee be spent on killing predators, but Gov. Brian Sandoval vetoed the measure.
Assembly Bill 70, approved by lawmakers this year and signed by the Gov. Joe LombardoGov. Joe Lombardo, allows sportsmen to designate the tag fee to either predator control or habitat restoration. The measure went into effect July 1.
Hunting enthusiasts, during testimony on the bill, vehemently opposed the ability of sportsmen to choose how their money is used. “I’ve watched my state turn into something that’s hard to recognize because of the growth,” testified Thomas Bentz of Pahrump in opposition to the measure.
Molde notes that wildlife belongs to the people of Nevada, not the government.
“The Wildlife Department hires people to destroy public property,” he says. “I don’t know any other agency in the state that can destroy public property at will, and nobody complains about it.”