Lions of America

Ahead of a trip Stateside, Byron Pace investigates the status of the cougar – or mountain lion – which has been brought back from the brink of extinction.

The public’s relationship with hunting is often more to do with emotional response than any kind of logic. We see it time and time again with the reaction to certain species. I continually bring into my discussions the notion that we should endeavour to remove the distinctions between how we treat different animals. Concern certainly needs to lie with those that have their future survival threatened, and this must be a matter of priority.

However, it is always the charismatic species that connect with the general public. If the plight of our Atlantic salmon was instead suffered by the iconic red deer, you can be sure we would be hearing far more about it in public forums.

When it comes to hunting, few people bat an eyelid at a brace of rabbits for the pot. There will likely be even less interest at the sight of a red hind coming off the hill on a pony, or a crate of wood pigeons being ferried for processing. They were all living animals of this planet, and all have given their lives at the hands of hunters, professional or recreational, destined to be food of some description. Switch out a rabbit for an elephant, or a mountain lion, and everyone loses their mind. Granted, none of these species can currently be found on our shores, but you get the idea. The same anecdote would ring true in North America between species such as whitetail, sage grouse and a grizzly bear.

In my mind there is no difference. Yes, they play unique roles in their hierarchy and interaction with other wildlife, and this is important to understand, but it seems illogical that one should be acceptable to hunt and the other not.

The reason for this disparity is in fact fairly straightforward. To steal a phrase, people feel connected and emotionally animated by ‘charismatic megafauna’. This is a distinctly human affliction, where we off-load our own baggage on certain objects, often as a result of social influences growing up.

An unforgiving landscape, but it’s where you’ll find the cougar

Don’t get me wrong, there are certain species that fascinate me more than others. There is nothing wrong with that. But when it comes to environmental responsibility and greater wildlife management, we need to approach these activities clear of emotion; with science, fact and the best information we have to hand.

Grizzly bears have long held contention in the USA and Canada when it comes to management. We saw this most recently
in British Columbia earlier in the year, as was already covered in these pages. The same is true of mountain lions, and yet
 we hear very little of this majestic and impressive cat. It is not a species I have any experience with, but will soon be venturing into their domain. As with any new country or species I will be encountering, I always endeavour to understand the broad history, enhancing this on the ground from the people who live and breathe it.

The North American mountain lion goes by a number of names. Puma concolor, in its Latin derivation, cougar, puma and mountain lion are more commonly used terms, all referring to the same species. They are the fourth largest of the big cats, and it is believed were once the most wide spread in the world. They are able to inhabit an incredible array of environments, from the deserts of Arizona to the ragged tops of Montana’s mountains.

Adult animals can vary substantially in size depending on the geography, but in North America cougars tend to measure about 0.75 metres at their shoulders and typically weigh 45-77kg. From nose to the tip 
of the tail, they are about 2.1 to 2.4 metres long. Their species name, concolor, is
 a reminder that their coat is simply one colour; they are not spotted like their jaguar or cheetah relatives, or like the animal that is most commonly mistaken for a cougar, the bobcat.

Today mountain lions are appearing in more places and greater numbers than at any time since the 1800s. This is quite a reversal of the state the population was in before the 1960s. Since the early European settlers, cougars had found themselves increasingly at war with humans, with the government bounty system aiding the rapid decline in population. They were seen as nothing more than a pest and a threat to livestock; the last populations pushed to the most rugged, extreme and unpopulated areas of North America and Canada.

What happened with grizzly bear hunting in British Columbia is a lesson for other species and territories

If you look at the timeline of populations, it’s a sad indictment of our historical disregard for certain wild animals. Year after year from the 1840s, states and provinces report mountain lion eradication. Come the 1960s, the bounty programs had slowly begun to end around the country, often reclassifying cougars as a huntable big game species. The results of the bounty programme are borne out in the mass decline in overall populations, with most states reporting the death of the last known lions during this period.

By way of example, over a 57-year period, the State of California recorded 12,461
kills as part of the bounty programme. Today there is an estimated population in California of between 500 and 3,000 individuals. Though many other states allow regulated mountain lion hunting, there has been no hunting of mountain lions in California since the 1990s, owing to a ballot measure that outlawed the killing of cougars by any method.

The numbers quoted seem impressive given the large number previously removed from the state, but the Fish and Wildlife Department are clear that it is, at best,
 an estimate. What is interesting is their comment that, “without an ongoing state-wide mountain lion study, it is impossible to know what is happening on a state-wide basis with populations.”

Most other western states have a much more confident handle on the management of their population and their movements. The common theme? They all allow regulated hunting, with funds helping 
to support conservation and research. Biologists and ecologists work hand in hand with hunters, often requiring the skulls to be presented to state departments for age and sex testing, as well as recording locations and sightings of kills.

My investigation in mountains lions has just begun, but I am intrigued by what I’ve learned so far. Beyond getting to know the species further, I look forward to getting a better understanding on the ground as to their management and impacts, with facts and science to understand fully if hunters make a positive contribution to this.

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Posted in Conservation, Features

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