Catfight: How mountain lions are struggling to survive

Cougars are making a comeback. But conflicts with humans are on the rise, putting their fate in jeopardy

Published March 9, 2014 9:00PM (EDT)

This originally appeared on Earth Island Journal.

The big cat was a mystery. No one knew where the animal came from, or whether it was even real. It was the spring of 2011, and wildlife officials in Connecticut had started receiving reports of a mountain lion prowling the tamed landscapes of the state’s suburban woodlots. The accounts seemed hard to believe – it had been 120 years since the last cougar was killed in Connecticut, and the US Fish and Wildlife Service had just declared the Eastern cougar to be extinct. But the sightings kept coming. Officials at a private school in Greenwich, a scant half-hour drive from Manhattan, reported spotting a lion near the school grounds. A nearby homeowner called in a similar report, and a paramedic team said a cougar had leapt in front of their ambulance. When officials went to investigate, they found lion scat and paw prints, confirming, to their great surprise, that a big cat was, in fact, roaming the Constitution State.

Then, on June 11, a person driving a SUV struck and killed a 140-pound mountain lion in the town of Milford. The mystery appeared solved – or so many thought – until it deepened. A DNA analysis performed as part of the necropsy found that the animal came from the Black Hills of South Dakota. During its short, three-year life, the lion – a male – had walked some 1,500 miles across North America. This transient (as biologists refer to dispersing cougars) wasn’t merely following a primeval wanderlust. It would have stayed put at any point along its continental crossing had it found an available female. But a mate proved elusive. So the cat kept going. In the course of its odyssey the cougar crossed countless farm fields, culverts, and highways, and ultimately transected five states and at least one Canadian province, pulverizing all migration distance records for a land animal.

The story of the Milford lion is just the most dramatic example of the cougar’s comeback. Across North America, mountain lions are on the move. From the first years of European settlement until the twentieth century, mountain lions were systematically hunted down, the target of government-sponsored bounties and sport hunting. The cougar was extirpated from most of the Eastern United States, with the exception of a small population of Florida panthers. Then, beginning in the 1960s, some states outlawed bounty hunting. Mountain lion numbers stabilized, then increased. Now, some mountain lions are moving from their strongholds in the Mountain West and are returning to parts of the animal’s former range. Mountain lions are reaching into the Upper Plains, the Great Lakes region, East Texas, and the Ozark Mountains – even as far as the suburbs of New York City.

With an expanded range, however, come new conflicts with humans. Ranchers complain about stock raiding. Hunters assert that the lions compete for game. Pet owners worry about the threats to their furry friends. These politically influential voices – abetted by politicians who are, at best, ambivalent about the cougar’s fate – have convinced wildlife management officials in some states to allow for increased hunting allowances. In parts of the United States, cougars are being hunted aggressively once again.

I have spent much of the last three years traveling across the US and meeting with ranchers, cougar biologists, conservationists, and big cat hunters to try to understand how (or, as some would see it, whether) humans can coexist with these predators. What I learned surprised me. If our goal is to “control” cougar behavior to reduce human-lion conflicts, then hunting mountain lions isn’t just pointless, it is actually counterproductive. When we aim a rifle barrel at a mountain lion, we merely increase the chances for conflicts. The mountain lion, one of the least understood large predators, has become a scapegoat due to the sort of massive misconception that has marred relations between humans and wildlife in North America since the European contact.

The Lakota called the animal igmu tanka, “the great cat.” Puma concolor is its official taxonomic designation, but it has gone by many other names through the centuries: cougar, catamount, puma, wildcat, panther, shadow cat, painter. The animal’s habits are as protean as its name. The mountain lion may well be the planet’s most adaptive felid, at one time boasting the broadest range of any land carnivore. Before European contact, it could be found almost anywhere between the Atlantic seashore and Pacific coastline, and it occupied every latitude from Patagonia to the Yukon.

The cougar’s adaptability is an expression of its evolutionary history. The mountain lion is one of the most recently evolved felids, a New World species that at its beginnings shared the landscape with dire wolves, carnivorous short-faced bears, and the terrifying smilodon, a massive saber-toothed cat capable of taking down bison. Trying to be the king of the hill was never an option for the cougar, and prudence seems embedded in the animal’s DNA. In much of the United States today, the mountain lion is an apex predator. But in areas where it encounters competitors – places such as Wyoming and Montana, where grizzlies and wolf packs lay down the law, or Central America, where jaguars dominate – the cougar is content to play second fiddle. When confronted with trouble, a cougar typically runs away. The cougar’s instinctive wariness extends to people as well. The animal seems uniquely adept at avoiding us, and can survive even in areas where humans dwell, often passing unnoticed.

The mountain lion is something of a wildlife success story. It is the most widespread large carnivore in the Americas, managing to survive even as other predators have nearly perished. The wolf was hunted to the brink of extinction, and has been able to make a shaky comeback thanks only to expensive and difficult reintroduction programs. The grizzly, once found on the shores of San Francisco Bay, remains only in the Northern Rockies and Alaska, ecosystems large enough to accommodate its need for large, open spaces. The coyote, famously, is one predator that has seen an actual gain in numbers since European colonization (thanks mostly to the disappearance of other carnivores). But the coyote’s success – like that of, say, the crow and the raccoon – is due in large part to the animal’s ability to accommodate itself to human development. In contrast, the cougar remains as cagey as ever.

Cougars are, above all, solitary, connecting with other cougars only to mate. Since it is effectively invisible, this enigmatic species doesn’t enjoy (or suffer) the kind of cult of personality that surrounds the grizzly and the wolf. A cougar sticks to the shadows, and that instinct helps explain its enduring success, a success that seems all the more remarkable given the odds stacked against it. And the odds are staggering.

As early as 1684, the then-colony of Connecticut set up a bounty system aimed at eradicating cougars. It worked. By the end of the nineteenth century not a single lion remained there. As European settlers spread across the continent, they brought their antipathy to predators with them, and the bounty system spread. Mountain lions were trapped and poisoned. They were hounded by dog packs, cornered, treed, and then ignominiously blown away – reduced to the equivalent of furry fish in arboreal barrels. Sometimes the government assisted with the lion hunting. In the 1880s, the US Department of Agriculture began systematically targeting mountain lions as part of its broader campaign against predators (see “The Killing Fields”).

The idea of cold cash for dead cougars persisted well into the 1960s, at which point breeding lion populations only remained in the most remote patches of the mountainous West. At the nadir, there may have been as few as a couple of thousand cougars remaining in the continental United States. Then something incredible happened: Cougar numbers rebounded. With its stealthy habits, the big cat steadily returned to much of the West. By the 1990s the cougar population had grown to as many as 30,000 animals. Venturing east from Wyoming’s Laramie Range, cougars reappeared in the Black Hills of South Dakota and the Nebraska Panhandle, places they hadn’t been seen for generations. At the same time, some cougars found a way to make a living at the urban fringe, and mountain lion sightings were reported from Hollywood to the Berkeley Hills.

The rebound was all the more remarkable because it was unassisted. Unlike the California condor or the gray wolf, the animal managed its comeback on its own, a fact that only adds to the cougar’s intrigue. “If there are lessons to be learned from how populations of large cats have managed to survive – even thrive – into the twenty-first century, there is perhaps no better species to focus on than the puma,” says Alan Rabinowitz, CEO of the wild cat conservation group Panthera. “[It] has displayed a resiliency unmatched by most other big cat species.”

But moving into populated lands has become an increasingly perilous proposition for the tenaciousPuma concolor. Despite the abandonment of bounties in all but a handful of areas, humans are up to their old tricks once again. Skyrocketing hunting quotas in some states and taxpayer-funded airborne predator-control programs are obliterating the possibility that there will be another Milford mountain lion. The steady spread of human development exacerbates the situation, robbing cougars of their habitat and perhaps contributing to dispersals. The cougar’s recovery is tenuous; the fate of this native carnivore hangs in the balance.

State fish and wildlife agencies have responded to the cougar comeback in dramatically different ways. In California, state officials have kept in place a longstanding prohibition on cougar hunting. Cougars are a “Specially Protected Mammal” in the Golden State, and, in 2013, the state legislature passed a bill to provide additional safeguards for orphaned mountain lions. In contrast, Oregon has a year-round cougar season and an unlimited number of hunters can receive tags. The situation is even worse in Nevada, where the state’s wildlife commission has sought (unsuccessfully) to remove mountain lions from the game category and reclassify them as vermin. In Nebraska, where biologists estimate there are fewer than two dozen mountain lions present, game commissioners have nevertheless instated a hunting season. After the number of resident cougars on the South Dakota side of the Black Hills reached an estimated 170 individuals in 2005, management authorities there bowed to local hunters and opened a cougar season. South Dakota officials swear they merely want to keep big cat numbers in check. But the number of cougars in the Black Hills has been whittled down so far that in 2013, for the first time, hunters did not reach their quota of trophy kills.

Much like the scorched earth campaign against the gray wolf, hunting and ranching interests fuel the antipathy toward the cougar. And, again like the wolf, a toxic brew of superstition and hatred of government agencies and public land management heightens the fear of mountain lions.

Glen and Marian Taylor – ranchers outside of Jackson Hole, Wyoming – offer a glimpse into how deeply the fear of mountain lions runs. Glenn Taylor descends from one of the oldest ranching families in Wyoming, and the Taylors have been raising cattle on the Gros Ventre River for generations. On the morning I showed up to meet the couple, Glenn had just run out to one of his pastures to chase off two wolves. Taylor told me he would have considered shooting the pair, but because of his proximity to the Atherton Creek campground – and the fact that he and his wife “live in a fishbowl” – he restrained himself.

Marian offers me a cup of coffee as her husband settles down to evoke the days before the ranch had electric power. Finally, the subject veers to cougars. Glenn wants to know why the “lion tamers” are still around, “using up government funds for no good reason,” as he puts it. By lion tamers he means the biologists working on the Teton Cougar Project, a multi-year study sponsored by Panthera to learn more about the big cat’s behavior. Hasn’t their study gone on long enough? Glenn asks. The scientists have access to backcountry roads that are closed to everyone else in the winter months, which eats at Taylor. When I tell him that the study doesn’t receive a single dollar of federal or state funding, he appears stunned.

“But why are they doing it?” he asks. It’s a sincere question. No one from the study had sat down with the Taylors to explain what it was all about, and why the research was necessary. I do my best, adding that humans have always strived to understand other species: why they do what they do and what role they play in our world. He nods.

“As an outfitter, I do the same thing,” he says. “Trouble is, they’ve shortened the elk season, and the odds of winning the moose lottery are next to nothing. I can’t really make a living outfitting anymore, and I sure as heck don’t make a good living with these cattle.”

Cougars, in other words, aren’t really a problem for Glenn Taylor. Neither, he will admit, are the other predators that roam the Gros Ventre Wilderness. With the exception of one calf lost to a grizzly (which was relocated by the Wyoming Game & Fish Department) and another to a wolf, the Taylors rarely suffer a livestock depredation. Taylor has never spotted a mountain lion near his ranch.

No matter. In Wyoming, fear and loathing of carnivores runs deep. Take, as just one piece of evidence, this anecdote: On August 19, 2005, a Jackson-based Wyoming game warden – acting under the assumption that one of the Teton Cougar Project’s study cats was preying on trumpeter swans from his own captive breeding program – gave chase to a female cougar know as F32 and her kitten near Atherton Creek. After treeing the female with hounds and shooting both mother and kitten, the state official decapitated F32. The official then delivered the severed head to the Teton Cougar Project’s lead scientist, Howard Quigley.

Such intense, almost pathological, hatred of cougars comes partly from the fact that these wildcats do attack humans from time to time. While the behavior is exceedingly rare – cougars have killed an estimated 21 people in the US and Canada in the last 120 years, far fewer than will die in a single year from bee and wasp stings – the attacks predictably generate plenty of fearsome headlines.

Interestingly, cougar attacks seem to be more common in places where the animals are hunted aggressively. According to one study from the 1990s, nearly a quarter of all worldwide cougar-related deaths have occurred around the city of Vancouver, and 57 percent of all confirmed attacks have occurred in British Columbia. Historically, sport hunting has been intense in British Columbia, and the cougar population there is largely made up of transients and younger animals. Maurice Hornocker, one of the world’s leading cougar experts, says the cougar population in British Columbia may not have learned to avoid people: “I’ve speculated that the lions that survive in intensely-hunted environments have evolved certain behavioral characteristics,” characteristics that could be detrimental to the humans in close proximity. “With other species, we’ve already found that hunting is a powerful selective force.” Put simply: In most places, successful cougars don’t grow old (and pass on their genes) by getting into conflicts with people. But in British Columbia cougars are hunted so intensively that they rarely have the chance to learn those lessons. There is no survival premium for good behavior.

The contrast with California helps illustrate the point. In California more cougars live in close proximity to more people than anywhere else. But hunting is illegal, and cougar populations are largely intact (except where urban sprawl and increasingly segmented habitat have taken a genetic toll due to inbreeding). On average, three cougars per year are put down for posing a public safety hazard.

Still, hunters continue to agitate for no-bag limits on cougars. Some hunters see the species as competition since the big cats target the same animals – deer, elk, mountain goats – and in the process make human hunters’ task more challenging.

“There is a growing acknowledgement from those inside and outside government that state wildlife management agencies need a major overhaul – structurally and culturally – if they are going to adequately address the complexity of contemporary issues facing wildlife,” says Sharon Negri, director of the conservation organizationWildFutures, an Earth Island Institute-sponsored project. Negri is also co-editor of the book Cougar Ecology & Conservation. “The Public Trust Doctrine states that government holds in trust wildlife for the benefit of present and future generations. Wildlife agencies are funded primarily from hunters, fishers, and gun owners – and so hunters and fishers become wildlife agencies ‘paying customers,’ leaving out the majority of the public who does not hunt.”

Think of it this way: Giving hunters near-total control over wildlife policy is like giving Big Pharma the ability to regulate drug safety. The system is undemocratic, and without any real accountability.

Mountain lion researcher Brian Jansen knows this as well as anyone. Jansen is a rarity in the politically sensitive universe of mountain lion research: a straight-shooter. “Hunters know how the system really works,” he says when I meet up with him at his campsite in the middle of the Nevada Desert National Wildlife Refuge, which, at more 1.6 million acres, is the largest refuge in the Lower 48. “They call their game commissioner when they want something. Members of the public might dial their elected representative, which is like barking up the wrong tree.”

Jansen is contributing his expertise to a community ecology project for the US Fish and Wildlife Service designed to determine if cougars are keeping down the number of desert bighorn sheep. Jansen is a houndsman: His job is to capture and collar as many big cats as possible. When I arrive at the camp, Jansen’s four blue tick hounds are cavorting around, sensing a looming chase. But mountain lions are a rarity in the desert ranges.

“This is an ultra-low-density population,” Jansen tells me. In more than 18 months, he hasn’t crossed any male mountain lion tracks, and he doesn’t believe any toms currently remain in the 580-square-mile Sheep Range. “There is intense hunting pressure on lions to the north and east of the refuge.”

The cougar-hunting season in Nevada is year-round, and every hunter can obtain two mountain lion tags. Jansen calls it “supply and demand” management. The supply of cougars, however, could be dwindling fast.

After traversing the sprawling expanse of Dry Desert Lake, flanked by scattershot swaths of Joshua tree, prickly pear, and beavertail cactus, Jansen and I ascend slowly into the snowy peaks of the Sheep Range. Jansen has placed in the brush a road-kill deer outfitted with sensors that will indicate possible cougar activity. Fresh snowfall covers the boxy pinyon pines and spindly juniper, and Jansen hopes to find cougar tracks in the snow, or a flashing light on the sensor indicating that a cougar has visited the deer. No such luck.

In the adjacent Delamar Mountains, cougars are the target of a state-sponsored predator control program that aims to maintain bighorn sheep numbers for human hunters. There are three such predator programs in Nevada targeting cougars; together, they cost the state approximately half-a-million dollars per year. Despite the premium on dead cougars, there is scant evidence that the prey these carnivores target is being devastated. Scientists largely agree that bigger phenomena (such as climate change, which has a powerful impact on the number of fawns born every year) account for the annual fluctuations in mule deer population throughout the West. Only one bighorn from the Sheep Range study has been taken by a cougar in the last two years.

Even some state officials acknowledge that in the past the decision making on cougar management was not informed by the best science. “Historically,” says Carl W. Lackey of the Nevada Department of Wildlife, “harvest limits were calculated by biologists and those recommendations were reviewed and sometimes altered during the public meeting process. Since 2003, harvest limit recommendations were not formulated in this manner, but rather have been indiscriminately chosen with little input from department biologists by the Wildlife Commission. With changes in the makeup of the Commission, that process changed [again] about three years ago and we now set those limits using biology and science.”

Jansen has witnessed the effects on the ground. “I don’t encounter a lot of floaters around here,” he says, referring to transient sub-adults. Instead of finding the desert a sanctuary where they would be off-limits to hunters, migrant lions can end up in areas with vigorous predator control programs. Records for the past few years show that, in the Delamars and other protected wilderness areas in Nevada, every mountain lion suspected of preying on bighorn was relentlessly pursued and, if possible, destroyed.

Soon enough I see such evidence of this myself. Driving back from the Desert National Wildlife Refuge, I pass a beat up, red pickup truck leaving the snowy desert flats near Mount Irish. Two hounds are prancing in the truck bed. A limp cougar is lashed down to the metal, its big head dangling lifelessly beneath a battered blue tarp.

“It’s time for a fundamental reevaluation of our relationship with these carnivores,” says Christopher Spatz, president of the Cougar Rewilding Foundation. To make his case, he points to the unbalanced ecosystems of the eastern woodlands, where deer populations have reached pestilential proportions. “The forest systems in New York State, which has an estimated one million white-tail deer wiping out saplings with ground-nesting habitat, and other vast expanses of the Eastern Seaboard, are in full arrest. Cougars are indigenous to the Adirondacks. Allowing them to return home would begin the recovery of our old-growth forests.”

Spatz is alluding to a phenomenon biologists know as the “trophic cascade.” In short, when keystone carnivores such as mountain lions disappear, it has a disruptive ripple effect through the entire ecosystem. The mere presence of big cats in the wild alters the foraging behavior of large herbivores. This “ecology of fear” forces deer, elk, and other animals to behave more cautiously, preventing overbrowsing and allowing species such as willow a chance to grow. Countless other animals – ground birds such as grouse, as well as frogs and beavers – also depend on the presence of these top-down regulators that limit the number of smaller predators like coyotes and bobcats. Without apex predators on the scene, the interlocking dynamic of life goes awry.

“Mountain lions have an essential ecological role to fill,” says Panthera’s Howard Quigley. “When we eliminate the cougar, it can have devastating impacts on other species.”

Although many human hunters resist the idea, predators such as mountain lions also bolster the health of ungulate herds. Mountain lions (like coyotes and wolves) usually pursue the most vulnerable members of a herd, picking off the weak, the old, or the sick. For ungulates, cougar predation is a kind of natural selection that leads to survival of the fittest. Human hunters, in contrast, accomplish precisely the opposite: They usually target the trophy bucks and stags, the strongest members of the herd. By killing the animals least likely to die from disease or starvation, human hunters may actually weaken a herd.

Cougar experts have noticed a somewhat similar effect with human hunting of mountain lions. Where hunting doesn’t disrupt the territorial instincts of the species, conflict with humans isn’t the norm, and attacks are incredibly rare. In places where hunting does occur, mountain lions’ social structure is obliterated, leading to an increased likelihood of human conflict. Mountain lion hunting, it seems, leads to a kind of biological backlash.

“Hunters will, by definition, target resident cougars – the very ones that have achieved a home range and have often learned how to cope with humans,” explains Rob Wielgus, who runs Washington State University’s Large Carnivore Lab. “In other words, hunting leaves a void – one that’s quickly filled by inexperienced sub-adults. Imagine a human society dominated by teenagers and you get an idea what high hunting takes do for cougar dynamics.”

Scientists say that within the complicated mountain lion social order there appears to be something akin to an “extended pride system” at work. If they are lucky enough to escape human hunting, young males have only two options: fight or flight. They can face off with the area’s ruling tom (often the riskiest strategy), or leave in search of their own home range, often travelling extraordinary distances in the process. (Sub-adult females will also disperse, though at lower rates and typically not as far as males.) But most dispersers will become fatalities. Thus some cougar biologists consider mountain lion populations to be self-regulating. With an adult male usually controlling an area of a few hundred square miles, densities remain low in un-hunted populations. The notion of exponential growth and “predator pits” – which assumes a carnivore could somehow destroy its prey base and eat itself into starvation – is a myth.

Where nonselective kills are common, the density of cougars on the landscape may surge the following year. And therein lies the rub. Studies have shown that high hunting quotas can actually increase the problems associated with the presence of mountain lions, due to how unselective kills wreak havoc within the knotty cougar social order. In the absence of the territorial toms, young cougars are free to occupy the landscape at higher densities – offering one explanation for the amplifying human-cougar conflicts in some states.

Cougar biologists agree that the no-bag limit school of carnivore management is an abhorrent anachronism. “Eliminating every last mountain lion from the ecosystem may eliminate the conflict temporarily, obviously,” Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife carnivore specialist Rich Beausoleil told me. “Barring that kind of scorched earth policy, harvest thresholds to preserve social stability within the cougar population are the more responsible and scientifically defensible solution.”

Maurice Hornocker calls human-cougar conflict “the single biggest issue in cougar conservation in the near future.” Statistics in Washington and Oregon confirm Hornocker’s longstanding view that “tenured territorial males literally hold the local population in check.” Like throwing a monkey wrench into a sophisticated machine, randomly removing resident cougars through hunting breaks down the system. “Ironically,” Hornocker says, “instead of the apparently intuitive conclusion that more hunting should reduce problem animal kills and complaints, the reverse applies.”

Eric Hoffman knows this from experience. Since 1984 Hoffman has been raising llamas and alpacas on his ranch in Bonny Doon, a remote outpost in the Santa Cruz Mountains 70 miles south of San Francisco. It’s wooded and rugged country – prime mountain lion habitat – but Hoffman has never suffered mountain lion depredation, though his neighbors have. “The generations of cougars whose territory has included our farm appear to be satisfied with a diet of deer, rabbits, and wild pigs,” Hoffman says. “In 35 years of farming llamas and alpacas, we haven’t suffered a single loss due to cougars. Our resident big cat keeps out other cougars that might have an entirely different view of what to eat. Ironically, the mountain lion sharing our area with us has most likely made it safer for our livestock.”

Often when I think about the challenges of managing cougar-human relationships, I find myself harkening back to an encounter I had in 2011 with a 4-year-old female lion near the National Elk Refuge in Wyoming. According to a guide and tracker I had hired, the cougar, dubbed F51, had mated with the area’s ruling tom. Her day bed was in an elevated, densely wooded area, which she usually left at dusk to hunt. She hadn’t made a kill in days, and when we located her she was a very pregnant, very hungry lion.

Following the treeline, we entered the woods gingerly, breaking through the deep, ice encrusted snow with every step. Finally, my tracker got a visual fix on F51, and we hunkered down to observe the recumbent feline. Nestled in a cushion of soft earth and pine needles below a tall fir, she lifted her head lazily and looked our way, blinking slowly. We were only about 30 feet from the big cat, but she didn’t seem the least bit perturbed. “She feels safe behind all that underbrush,” my guide said. Her hypnotic gaze settled on us, but only for a moment. Then her eyelids grew heavy, and F51 dozed off right in front of us.

Given their secretive habits, any close cougar sighting is something of a miracle. But this encounter felt especially magical, imbued with the force of parable. For whatever reason, this cougar wasn’t afraid of us. She had, at some primal level, decided to place her trust in us. So why – I thought then, and have wondered since – can’t we manage to shed our fear of this “dangerous” predator? Why can’t we place some trust in the natural principles that have regulated mountain lion societies for eons? Cougars are unlikely to get used to us; their instincts urge against it. So it’s our responsibility to accommodate ourselves to them, a task that mostly will require us to shed our old myths and preconceptions. That shouldn’t be so difficult. For me, at least in that one moment, coexistence with this predator seemed possible.


By Noah Sudarsky

Noah Sudarsky is a correspondent for the French newspaper Ouest-France.

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