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Bill could lead to hunting of lions, bears, otters

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ A bill that could lead to the hunting of mountain lions, black bears and otters in Oklahoma is prompting concern among wildlife activists.

The measure by Sen. Frank Shurden, D-Henryetta, would allow the state Department of Wildlife Conservation to permit hunting of the animals.

Supporters of the bill say regulated hunting of those animals would help control their populations, especially as otters in southeastern Oklahoma increasingly help themselves to fish from the area's fisheries.

But critics say there aren't enough of the animals to hunt, and they question why officials would allow an open season on otter, which has been a protected species after being nearly hunted to extinction decades ago in Oklahoma.

``River otters and mountain lions and black bears are not common species in Oklahoma,'' said Cynthia Armstrong, the state program manager for the Humane Society of the United States. ``Proposing a sport hunting season on them is not only ethically indefensible, but it is biologically and ecologically reckless.''

Wildlife Department officials say the legislation does not give the OK for people to hunt the animals. If passed, however, it would give the department the authority to allow hunting of black bears, mountain lions and otters in the future.

The measure passed the Senate 44-2.

Alan Peoples, the Wildlife Department's wildlife division chief, said the agency is working with Oklahoma State University to study the otter and black bear populations.

For two decades, the state has worked to reintroduce and increase the number of otters, which, he said, ``are doing well in Oklahoma.'' However, Peoples said the otters are creating problems for commercial fisheries in southeastern Oklahoma.

Otters currently can't be hunted, even during furbearer season, which runs from December through January.

Armstrong said her organization understands the need to protect livestock. However, she said, ``that's not the same as opening a season on these animals.''

She added that the leg-hold traps and others that are used to catch the animals are especially cruel and also can trap any unsuspecting animal, including pets.

If the legislation is passed, the department might regulate otter hunting during furbearer season, Peoples said. However, a bear or mountain lion hunting season is further off.
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