SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — A bill that would allow the unlicensed hunting of cougars and other mountain cats in New Mexico cleared a hurdle in the state Legislature.

The House Agriculture, Water and Wildlife Committee voted 8-2 to move along legislation that would reverse a law that requires a license to hunt cougars. Under the proposal, people will be able to trap and shoot any number of mountain cats at any time.

The bill must now pass a vote before two more House committees before heading to the House floor.

Rep. Zach Cook, who is sponsoring the legislation, said the measure is “a cleanup bill.” He was supported by Jim Lane, a former state Department of Game and Fish director who gave expert testimony. According to Lane, eliminating protection for mountain cats will help control their populations. Between 2,000 and 2,500 hunting licenses for cougars are purchased annually, but the number of kills amounts to only 200, he said.

Ranchers also are throwing support behind the legislation, citing dwindling livestock. Former state Democratic Senator Tim Jennings, of Roswell, said the sheep industry in New Mexico has experienced a sharp decline because of predatory animals, the Santa Fe New Mexican reported. Cougars are also encroaching more in urban areas, Republican Rep. Andy Nunez said.

However, opponents say the legislation is grounded in very little science and is a knee-jerk reaction to incidents of pets and livestock getting killed by cougars. “I am full of fury, and I am full of disgust for this bill,” said William Wiley, of the state chapter of Republicans for Environmental Protection.

Others argued the state Department of Game and Fish would be unable to manage cougar populations under the bill. Alexandra Sandoval, agency director, said the department would lose its authority to respond to complaints about mountain cats. The agency will continue to track some lions with GPS collars to gain a better understanding of the population, she said.

John Crenshaw of the New Mexico Wildlife Federation said the bill means female mountain cats and their cubs won't be protected.

Between 3,000 and 4,500 cougars reside in New Mexico, state Game and Fish said. Sandoval said 700 kills of cougars each year would be a proper management number.

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Information from: The Santa Fe New Mexican, http://www.sfnewmexican.com