Cougar, Puma, Lion, Modern Huntsman, volume 9, Mark Elbroch

Cougar. Puma. Lion.

Interview

Photos

Steve Winter

Read Time

15 minutes

Posted

It is electric exhilaration to discover the fresh track of a mountain lion after searching miles and miles of pockmarked snow. The sun shines brighter, and fatigue washes away. A single impression in snow becomes the tangible startpression starting point for a string that extends somewhere out of sight and ends with the mountain lion itself. If you are persistent and lucky and very quiet, you might follow the trail and glimpse the big cat in repose. But if you want to catch the mountain lion, that footprint is where you release scent-trailing hounds. 

For 20 years, I’ve been working side by side or with hound hunters to catch mountain lions in order to conduct research that supports conservation. Mountain lions are short, shorter than people think, and stocky. They have stout, strong legs, and a thick, sinuous tail that feels like corded steel in the hand. They come in varied hues of brown and yellow and rusty orange. They can even be a pale gray that mimics the weathered stone in Patagonia. Their faces are adorned with darker patterns that are generally unique to an individual. 

Their large eyes weigh you in an instant — you actually feel them looking at you, considering you. Their thin fur is soft and smells of fresh wind carrying pine. They are curious but ruled by caution. They are poised and handsome. They are intelligent, and sometimes unnerving when they choose to watch you rather than run away. But they are rarely aggressive, and instead avoid confrontations at all costs. That said, not all mountain lions behave in the same way.

The hounds leap forth following the trail, howling and bawling with noses held low, filling their nostrils with scent. We pursue on foot as quickly as we can while loaded down with equipment on rugged terrain. When we hear an uptick in the intensity and pitch of their voices, we know the hounds have switched from following footprints to actively pursuing the mountain lion. The actual ing chase, which begins once the mountain lion realizes its predicament, tends to be brief. Dogs are better evolved to run marathons, while cats are instead built for sprinting. Sometimes the hikes are short, sometimes they run well into the night, but they generally end at some tree, where a beautiful mountain lion has taken refuge from the trailing hounds. If the tree is safe for both the mountain lion and the research team, we anesthetize the animal, slowly lower it to the ground, and attach a GPS telemetry collar to monitor its movements and behaviors. Then we stand in silence and watch the majestic animal wake and walk off to melt into the surrounding terrain. 

Cougar, Puma, Lion, Modern Huntsman, volume 9, Mark Elbroch
Photo by Mark Elbroch

Over my career, I’ve watched hunting limits for mountain lions, also called quotas, steadily climb across the West. In recent years, that trend has become alarming. Right now, there is proposed legislation to allow unlimited mountain lion hunting in more than 90% of South Dakota. In 2021, Utah changed its regulations to allow unlimSouth unlimited hunting in more than half the state. In 2020, Idaho passed legislation to allow it statewide, and in the same year, Washington state increased hunting quotas in 19 areas to levels higher than its own biologists suggested. Other Western states also include areas with unlimited hunting of mountain lions. Why, may I ask, are we killing so many? According to state and provincial wildlife agencies, there are five main reasons we hunt mountain lions. I’d like to address each in turn: 

1) TO PROVIDE RECREATIONAL OPPORTUNITIES TO THOSE PEOPLE WHO WOULD LIKE TO HUNT THOSE MOUNTAIN LIONS. IMPLICIT IN THIS ARGUMENT IS THAT TAIN INCREASING HUNTING QUOTAS WILL NOT THREATEN FUTURE HUNTING OPPORTUNITIES OR OTHER NATURAL RESOURCES HELD IN PUBLIC TRUST.

There is little evidence that this is true. Perhaps some hunters want more hunting opportunities, but in many areas, hound hunters are quite vocal in declaring the opposite. These hound hunters in particular often place themselves at odds with deer and elk ers hunters, and advocate for reducing hunting quotas for mountain lions to increase mountain lion populations.11 This may in part be explained by the fact that hound hunting can be practiced without killing mountain lions. Hunters can pursue and “tree” an animal, and then choose to walk away. In my experience, most hound hunters are more interested in the opportunity to run and work their dogs than in killing mountain lions. 

It is the regulation of harvest management, not hunting in and of itself, that ensures sustainable hunting opportunities. If liberalizing the killing of mountain lions succeeds in reducing their abundance, it reduces hunting opportunities for this species. While this dance, the article goes on to advocate for science-driven policy, our societal governance also demands that equitable representation reflects the needs and wants of people. Carnivore hunting is experiencing a decline in public acceptance around the globe, and as such, those policy cline makers and wildlife managers who aim to represent a democratic society will experience tension when trying to balance carnivore management, hunting opportunities for a small sect of society, and an often opposing majority opinion.

2) TO INCREASE HUMAN SAFETY. 

There is no evidence that liberalizing carnivore killing — unrestricted hunting — increases human safety, and some concerns exist that it may instead exacerbate the problem. According to 13 mountain lion authorities who authored the Cougar Management Guide Cougar Guidelines, 22 “Sport hunting has not been shown to reduce risk of attack on humans … there is no scientific evidence that sport hunting achieves this goal.” In those rare instances when a mountain lion poses a risk to people or physically attacks a person, wildlife professionals react swiftly to remove that individual mountain lion. In fact, the idea act that hunting more mountain lions might increase human safety represents a mismatch between the goals and methods to achieve said resents goals. Individual mountain lions, on occasion, pose risks to people, but not whole populations of mountain lions. Therefore, the removal of said individuals is the best course of action, not blanket culling. al Indiscriminate culling may actually miss an offending animal, and therefore have no effect on human safety at all. 

Increasing killings also fails to increase human safety because the risk is already so small. Mountain lion attacks on people are so very infrequent, and even then, they are often explained by very exceptional circumstances. There is, however, cold logic to the idea that reducing the number of mountain lions should reduce the probability that anyone might meet one, and therefore, hunting should increase human safety. Nevertheless, it is flawed logic because it makes crease two false assumptions. First, it assumes that all mountain lions are the same and behave in the same ways, which they certainly are not and do not. Second, it assumes that every mountain lion removed from an area actually reduces the number of mountain lions in the mountain lion population. Suffice it to say that animal populations don’t respond so simply. In fact, sport hunting pressure often removes resident males and results in an influx of young mountain lions trying to fill the void. Evidence shows that young mountain lions are more likely to threaten people and livestock. 

Whereas there exists no scientific evidence that hunting increases human safety, numerous researchers have warned us that creases heavy hunting pressure may in fact increase the chances that mountain lions will threaten or attack people. For example, several prominent mountain lion biologists conducted rigorous analyses of previous mountain lion attacks to decipher patterns that could help us predict the circumstances under which future mountain lion attacks might occur. They concluded that “young cougars in poor condition are more likely than other cougars to threaten people,” and that, because hunting often results in an increase in the number of young mountain lions running about on the landscape, “heavy localized hunting of older cougars could increase rather than reduce exposure of people to close-threatening encounters with cougars.”

3) TO INCREASE PET AND LIVESTOCK SAFETY. 

There is little research available on this subject for mountain lions, but what has been undertaken for other carnivore species, suggests that the opposite may be true. As early as 1983, Wain Evans, then gests Assistant Director of the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish, reported to his State Legislature, “Efforts to reduce depredations on livestock and wildlife through cougar hunting and controls on problem areas have failed.” He went on to suggest that they should reduce mountain lion hunting to “take advantage of the cougar’s self-limiting potential by allowing the development of stable social structures over most of the occupied range” in combination with compensation programs for livestock owners experiencing losses. 

Unfortunately, we lack research that directly tests whether killing mountain lions increases livestock protection or substantive research about the individual mountain lions that kill livestock. From what we know so far, it seems that mountain lions kill livestock opportunistically and that few individuals seek them out to become fabled “livestock killers.” But it can happen, and when it does, it’s generally agreed that the best course of action is the surgical removal of the offending animal to stop the conflict. As with issues of human safety discussed above, individual mountain lions, not populations of mountain lions, pose risks to livestock safety. Liberalized mountain lion killing will therefore almost certainly fail to improve livestock safety, unless the mountain lion population is decimated, in which case there just aren’t any individuals left to pose any potential risks at all. 

Some evidence suggests that killing mountain lions may actually increase problems for pets and livestock. For example, researchers in Washington State compared how the total population of mountain lions and the number of mountain lions killed the previous season correlated with complaints in a given area. As expected, as the number of mountain lions in a system increases, there is a greater number of complaints regarding pet and livestock safety. 

Cougar, Puma, Lion, Modern Huntsman, volume 9, Mark Elbroch
Members of Teton Cougar Project collaring a sedated cougar with a tracking device in order to monitor its movements.

Specifically, they found that for every individual mountain lion you add to an area, you increase the likelihood that a complaint will be filed by 3%. What may be surprising was their discovery that the number of mountain lions killed during the previous hunting season was more important in predicting the number of complaints about mountain lions in an area than was the total population of mountain lions. For every mountain lion killed the previous season in an area, the likelihood that a complaint would occur in that area increased by 36%. Killing a mountain lion had more than 10 times the impact on the likelihood of pet and livestock issues as adding a live mountain lion to that same area. They speculated that this pattern was driven by the influx of younger mountain lions that occurs following the removal of resident adults.

4) TO INCREASE WILD UNGULATE POPULA4) POPULATIONS, LIKE DEER AND ELK, IN ORDER TO PROVIDE GREATER HUNTING OPPORTUNITIES FOR THESE SPECIES. 

Loosening restrictions on the killing of mountain lions as a method is a much better match for this objective than the safety concerns discussed above, as it is not the impacts of individual mountain lions but all mountain lions that are the concern. Nevertheless, there is substantial scientific evidence to show that this rarely works as policymakers and wildlife managers hope, and even then, the positive effects of killing mountain lions and other carnivores to increase ungulate populations are so small and short-lived as to make the means needed to achieve these effects morally objectionable. For example, researchers T.J. Clark and Mark Hebtionable. Hebblewhite recently conducted a rigorous assessment of the outcomes of carnivore removal on ungulate populations. They found that removing carnivores generally increased fawn and calf survival and recruitment, but had marginal or zero effects on deer, elk, and other ungulate abundance, which should be the metric of success. This is because this ungulate abundance is primarily explained by weather, water and resulting forage quality and quantity rather than carnivores, which we’ve known for decades. 

The exception to this discussion is the fact that mountain lions and other large carnivores can have dramatic impacts on rare ungulate populations already in trouble due to pacts anthropogenic influences on ecosystems, such as woodland caribou and desert bighorn sheep. In these cases, removing carnivores may increase ungulate abundance, or at least maintain their small populations on the landscape. Nevertheless, maintaining or increasing rare ungulate populations generally requires heavy and continuous carnivore control.

5) TO INCREASE TOLERANCE FOR MOUNTAIN LIONS AMONG PEOPLE WHO LIVE WITH THEM AND ONS SHOULDER THE “COSTS” OF LIVING WITH LARGE CARNIVORES. 

I’m not aware of any research specific to testing whether hunting mountain lions increases tolerance for them, or said another ing way, whether hunting makes people feel safer living in mountain lion country. In general, tolerance for large carnivores, including mountain lions, has been improving over the last 50 years, and this fact is likely explained by improving societal conditions and an overall reduction in people exposed to the risks posed by large carnivores. Today, more people work in the safe confines of their offices than in fields and forests. There is, however, limited research for other species, including wolves and brown bears, and what evidence exists suggests that increased hunting quotas for carnivores don’t necessarily improve tolerances for remaining animals nor reduce illegal poaching of carnivores in the region.

THE COSTS OF OVERHUNTING MOUNTAIN LIONS. 

The purported “benefits” of reducing carnivore populations are discussed above, but suppressing carnivores carries both costs and benefits to our communities. There is substantial evidence that mountain lions and other carnivores bolster the resilience and health of ecosystems, which in turn support humans. Recent evidence suggests that mountain lions may contribute to chronic wasting disease gests control, and perhaps other wildlife diseases so devastating to hunting industries and wildlife management as well — however, more research is needed to fully determine this impact. 

I will not speculate on why policymakers continue to push agendas unsupported by science, whether in support of hunting or against it. It would be difficult to disentangle all the pressures acting on politicians and wildlife agencies in any given area at any given time. Nevertheless, there are several recent case studies that might shed light on the trend of increased carnivore hunting. 

Cougar, Puma, Lion, Modern Huntsman, volume 9, Mark Elbroch
Black Hills South Dakota Sean and John Fulton and Arlin Stratmeyer who is a taxidermist – he is mounting a cougar that Sean shot during the S Dakota cougar hunting season

In 2020, the state of Colorado voted to restore wolves within its borders. The research found that the strongest predictor that any local community in Colorado would vote for wolf restoration was the proportion of that community that voted for the Democratic presidential candidate that year (Joe Biden, rather than Donald Trump). In fact, political affiliation and sociopolitical identity are among the strongest predictors of attitudes toward carnivore policies elsewhere as well. So the question becomes whether the polarization surrounding mountain lions only reflects broader American culture, which has become highly polarized, or whether it is a statement and reaction to current affairs. 

With collaboration from hound hunters in North and South America, we continue to learn the importance of mountain lions in supporting biodiversity and healthy, resilient ecosystems on which we depend. Living with mountain lions strengthens our communities; it does not weaken them. And yes, I recognize the difficulty faced ties; by wildlife managers attempting to maintain recreational hunting and ensure sustainable wildlife populations, all while balancing, and sometimes deflecting, political will and the influences of different stakeholder groups. But when policymakers and wildlife managers deregulate the killing of mountain lions and other carnivores based on claims and objectives unsupported by science, the result is the corrosion of public trust in the agencies and people responsible for caretaking shared resources, as well as democratic principles more broadly. From there, we will also undoubtedly see erosion in support for hunting more broadly, even if just practiced to harvest food. Think about that for a moment. 

We can both hunt mountain lions and conserve them so that we benefit from their presence. Hunting is not the problem, but rather the level of hunting, and the misinformation campaigns used to promote unlimited hunting of the species. Mountain lion hunters, too, are not the problem; in fact, hound hunters in particular have long been advocates for mountain lions in Western states. Political will — which sometimes reflects the voting public and sometimes special interests — is the problem. Politicians and wildlife agencies need to reassess their approach to large carnivores and separate polarizing political pressures from their responsibilities to support healthy ecosystems with diverse wildlife. Perhaps it is time to do away with governor-appointed wildlife commissions that guide state wildlife practices. Perhaps it is time to adapt the North Ameristate American Model of Wildlife Conservation to be more inclusive of diverse perspectives, and not only prioritize hoofed animals and hunters over carnivores and people who do not hunt. There are hundreds of changes we might consider to improve equitable representation in decision-making around our shared natural resources and to ensure we promote healthy human-wildlife ecosystems rather than just sure game species. But ultimately, that responsibility to change begins with us. If we want to maintain support for ethical hunting, we must make clear to decision-makers and wildlife managers that we are fed up with misinformation campaigns that promote anti-predator sentiment and the politicization of wildlife management. I for one want to hunt animals also hunted by mountain lions.

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