Mountain lion management: a wild blend
Mountain lion, cougar, puma or panther. Few species carry as many names as Felis Concolor, and few face as wide a mixture of hunting regulations from state to state.
Cougars roam from the Yukon border to the tip of South America, covering the broadest sweep of any large mammal in the Western Hemisphere. Not surprisingly, their diet is equally far-ranging, from caribou to capybaras, beetles to bison. That most definitely includes elk, for which cougars are the top predator in most places where they coexist.
Like elk, lions have been expanding their ranges, showing up in more places and in greater numbers than at any time since the 1800s. That fact has caught the attention of wildlife managers trying to balance wildlife populations and getting called on to deal with increasingly brazen cats venturing into towns and cities.
Some of these wanderers are undoubtedly overflow from wild areas filled to their cougar capacity. Adult males can have home ranges of 100 square miles or more, and aggressively defend those territories from other lions, with the penalty for trespass often death. This leads adolescent cougars in particular to search far and wide for vacant territories—sometimes finding them in suburban environments. It’s these young and often malnourished males that are largely responsible for the rare cases of human attacks.
Cougars from the Black Hills have recently dispersed as far as Missouri and Connecticut, and enough have recolonized Nebraska’s Pine Ridge and Niobrara River Valley that the state is launching its first modern hunt in 2014. Last March, South Dakota Governor Dennis Daugaard signed a measure allowing hunters to use hounds for lion hunting in Custer State Park. Many lion hunters consider dogs to be the most effective and engrossing way to hunt cougars.
Contrast that with what transpired in September 1,000 miles to the west, when California Governor Jerry Brown signed into law a bill restricting game wardens from killing problem mountain lions unless they are an urgent, imminent threat to public safety. This law came after a news story went viral about wardens putting down two young cougar cubs on the outskirts of San Francisco. Animal rights groups rode the resulting uproar straight to the state Capitol, where they pushed for legislation to limit lethal measures by state wildlife managers.
California is home to an estimated 3,000 to 5,000 cougars, and before this law went into effect only a handful of cats were killed every year by state game wardens and local law enforcement officers. Sportsmen haven’t killed any cougars in California since 1990, when a ballot measure outlawed all mountain lion hunting by any method statewide. The lack of hunting, though, presents a challenge for biologists tasked with managing these predators. On its website, California Fish and Wildlife notes that any statewide estimate of the mountain lion population is “just a guesstimate” and goes on to say that “without an ongoing statewide mountain lion study, it is impossible to know what is happening on a statewide basis with populations.”
Every other western state has a much surer grip on cougar populations. The common denominator? They all tap public hunters to actively manage mountain lions. Cougar license sales work to fund lion conservation and research, and biologists use hunter success rates to help gauge cougar population trends. Most states require hunters to report their kills and often present a skull for state biologists to use to help estimate age and sex ratios in the population.
In every state west of the Rockies with the exception of Oregon and Washington, hunters are allowed to use dogs to hunt cougars. And houndsmen groups are among the most vocal and active in conservation efforts, proving themselves to be particularly committed to the future of the species. In Arizona, for example, state hunting regulations prominently list a $5,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of any person who intentionally kills an endangered jaguar. But that reward isn’t coming from Arizona Game and Fish or an endangered species advocacy group. The award money is put up by the Arizona Houndsmen Association.
Cougar hunting, like all hunting, requires a good bit of research, hard work and careful attention to local regulations. The most elusive of America’s top predators is also the most adaptable. The science that supports their conservation has so far remained dependent on the interest and pocketbooks of hunters. Time will tell whether California’s prohibition will promote more cougars—and more aggressive ones—in urban areas, but without hunter interest and dollars, that may be very hard to gauge.
The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation firmly supports the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation, built upon the foundation of hunting-based management. Mountain lions are among the best examples of a species once on the cusp of extinction that began to grow in range and numbers the moment they became a hunting-managed game species rather than bounty-hunted vermin. This has taken place in a balanced way that has allowed deer and elk populations in many places to flourish alongside these predators. RMEF has to date committed more than $600,000 toward predator research. Anyone who vilifies sportsmen for hunting mountain lions needs to examine who is providing the bulk of the funds to ensure the long-term survival of lions across elk country.