Protesters demand release of Sabino lion

By Jessica Lee
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Wednesday, April 14, 2004

About 30 people, including a UA employee and three UA students, rallied at Sabino Canyon yesterday afternoon to demand the release of the mountain lion captured Friday by the Arizona Game and Fish Department.

The protesters piled into the Sabino Canyon Recreation Area Visitor Center, demanding to speak to Larry Raley, the district ranger of the Santa Catalina Ranger District of the Coronado National Forest.

"We are here as members of the public to express outrage to the Forest Service in the way they manage public lands," said Lenny Molina, an activist with Chuk'son Earth First!, a local environmental group.

The crowd entered the visitor center to banjo music and made three demands: The protesters called for the release of the lion, the end of the lion hunt and the resignation of Raley and Jeanine Derby, Coronado National Forest Service supervisor.

Several Pima County and Forest Service law enforcement officers were present in case the protest got out of hand.

"The people in Tucson made it clear that we want our wild areas wild," Molina said. "We don't want a green Disneyland."

The Arizona Game and Fish Department and the U.S. Forest Service said they captured the lion Friday using a deer carcass and a snare. They called the lion a safety threat to hikers, students attending a nearby school and residents who live near the canyon.

The protesters also accused the two agencies of misleading the public by saying they had called off the hunt when they hadn't.

Raley denied the Forest Service had misled the public.

"Game and Fish's Gerry Perry said specifically two weeks ago on camera that he was not stopping the hunt; he was scaling back but would continue," Raley said. "I said we would take appropriate action if necessary."

The lion is being kept in Scottsdale at the Southwest Wildlife Rehabilitation and Educational Foundation.

Molina said the lion is likely to remain in lifelong captivity.

"Arizona Game and Fish admits that captured adults lions never survive captivity," Molina said. "We are here to demand they let her back into Sabino Canyon."

Sky Jacobs, a UA biologist, joined the rally after spending a night camping in Bear Canyon, next to Sabino Canyon.

"I felt more safe in Bear Canyon than when I came down and drove on Tucson streets," Jacobs said.

Andy Luttio, a political science junior, said he was outraged by the capture.

"It is completely hypocritical that humans come up here and remove lions from their natural habitat and encage them so we can continue with our daily recreation," Luttio said.

Raley said he could not release the lion.

"I do not have the authority to release the lion or to stop the hunt," Raley said. "I will not be resigning."

Many said they believe that mountain lions belong in an area appreciated for its natural wildlife.

"(The hunt) is wrong because Sabino Canyon is a wild area and cougars are part of the canyon, said Natalie Shapiro, a Center for Biological Diversity intern. "There will always be cougar and human interaction and we need to educate people how to be safe."

The Center has openly criticized the lion hunt.

Although the lion will continue to be caged, activists said the event was not a failure.

"I think it is a start; we need to keep the pressure up," said Eric Austin, an engineering physics freshman. "I was satisfied with this as a first step, that we got a leg in the door."

Sabino Canyon was fully opened yesterday, after some areas had been closed because of the perceived mountain lion threat.

Approximately 400-500 people visited Sabino Canyon Recreation Area yesterday, said Abbey Harmon, general manager of Sabino Canyon Tours. The tours use a tram that drives visitors up the canyon. Harmon said she did not think the protest affected the number of tourists who visited.

The original lion hunt began March 9 after Forest Service officials said lions in the Sabino Canyon area were possibly becoming a threat to visitors.

Environmental groups have opposed the hunt, saying Game and Fish and Forest Service officials have no solid evidence of a threat.