The Paradox Called Cougar

Does the mountain lion really pose a threat to livestock in the West? Except for a few cases, the experts say no

12-01-1991 // Charles Creekmore

Hardened eccentric, keen observer, John Laundre would make a fine fictional gumshoe. Sitting cross-legged under a pinyon pine tree, he pushes back his Philip Marlowe-style hat and scrutinizes the severed leg bone of a mule deer. He cracks it open like a raw carrot. Then, squinting through spectacles, he carefully examines the marrow within. "This fellow was eating pretty well at the time of his death," he mumbles.

Laundre is no detective, at least not in the traditional sense. Rather, he's an Idaho State University biologist with a nose for clues and a sleuth's love of detail. Lately he has been sniffing out evidence as he tries to further clarify a mystery that researchers have been examining for years.

In this case, "Whodunit?" is no secret: During a winter hunt several months earlier, a female mountain lion and her three kittens jumped the deer that once belonged to this leg. Laundre discovered the carcass and telltale lion prints in the snow at City of Rocks, a rock-climber's paradise of high-rise cliffs in the Albion Mountains of southeastern Idaho.

Now it's summer and Laundre has returned to study the site with the help of a small contingent from Earthwatch, a Massachusetts-based nonprofit group that provides volunteers for field research. In time, Laundre's investigation may shed more light on the lifestyle of an elusive creature. Among other things, he wants to find out why mountain lions in some parts of the country develop eating habits that tend to land them in hot water with people.

Mountain lions are at high risk wherever they eat livestock. In a few areas of the Southwest, the lion's taste for such domestic animals has created big trouble. The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports, for instance, that some ranches in Graham County, Arizona, may lose between 25 and 45 percent of their calves to hunting cats.

By contrast, within the heavily ranched Albion and Jim Sage ranges around Idaho's City of Rocks, a lion has not taken a head of livestock in more than 30 years. Farmers and ranchers in the area get along just fine with the big predatory cats.

Hence, Laundre's conundrum: Why do most mountain lions seemingly turn up their noses when presented with easy livestock kills, while their kin in a few "hot spots" prey on domestic animals? That question, which remains largely unanswered, is at the center of a debate over how best to deal with problem lions.

Felis concolor, the "cat of one color"--sometimes called the cougar, puma, panther or catamount--once roamed the entire continental United States. By 1900, as the human population spread across the continent, habitat loss, combined with intensive hunting and predator-control programs, had reduced the mountain lion to its current, more limited range. Today, the animal ranges mainly in the western desert and mountain regions, and the southern parts of Texas.

Wildlife officials now generally place the U.S. mountain lion population somewhere between 16,000 and 20,000, though that figure is no more than an official guess because of the difficulties involved with studying such a shy, nocturnal creature. People rarely lay eyes on the "ghost walker" of folklore, yet the cougar inflames passions wherever it wanders.

A recent incident in Arizona is a case in point. After an unprecedented rash of cattle losses, ranchers in the southeastern corner of the state asked for help from a U.S. Department of Agriculture agency called Animal Damage Control (ADC), which deals with "nuisance" animals.

From 1988 through 1990, ADC shot and trapped some 50 cats on several thousand acres of ranchland in Graham County. In the course of its "weeding" campaign, the ADC handed the heads of 11 dead cougars over to the Arizona Game and Fish Department, a routine data-gathering procedure.

What happened next was not so routine. A Game and Fish employee who opposed the ADC's tactics stacked the severed heads against a tree trunk like so many cannon balls. Then he snapped a picture of this macabre jack-o'-lantern pyramid and distributed the photograph as a graphic representation of ADC's work.

The photo appeared in publications all across the country, igniting a storm of protest. Some environmentalists sarcastically dubbed the ADC "All the Dead Critters" and "Animal Decapitation Control." The episode chilled the already cool relations between ADC and the Game and Fish Department. "That photograph has probably done more damage than anything else to finding realistic solutions," says Arizona ADC director Darrel Juve.

The ADC is a product of the frontier era, when government hunters and trappers set out to protect the new cattle and sheep industries by destroying entire populations of large predators. Lately, says Juve, the agency has taken a narrower, more strategic approach. When called in to look at a predation complaint, he says, agents try to verify that a problem exists and what species is responsible. "Then, whenever possible," he says, "we try to weed out the particular animals involved."

Sometimes the problem isn't just with a handful of renegades. As Juve points out, "In these distinct areas of southeastern Arizona it appears that almost every lion is using livestock as a source of food."

In those cases, "catching a single lion on a single kill probably isn't going to help anything," says Harley Shaw, who has written two books about mountain lions. Shaw, a retired Arizona Game and Fish biologist, says his work in the northeastern part of the state echoed ADC's findings in the southeast. In one area near Prescott, calves made up 30 to 35 percent of mountain lion diet, and basically all the cats were taking livestock.

With lions swallowing up cow profits, experts face the choice: to control or not to control? The main management tool in most western states is the lion's status as a game animal--a giant step up from its previous classification as a "bounty animal" which lasted well into the 1970s.

Most states with viable populations regulate lions with seasonal hunting. Exceptions are Texas, which permits unrestrained killing, and California, which allows no lion hunting. Even in many areas with game laws, ranchers may take out cats that eat livestock.

While the experts bicker over management strategies, the mountain lion population is steadily growing in much of the animal's range. "We have more mountain lions than ever before," says John Firebaugh, a wildlife manager who works in Montana.

No one is sure why mountain lions are thriving, but certainly part of the answer has to do with the creature's resourceful nature. The adult lion reaches a length of 8 or 9 feet and weighs between 80 and 200 pounds. Its 30 teeth are specially designed for killing and consuming meat.

A lion often locates its prey by sight, crouching as it stalks, then frequently leaping on the animal's back. It wraps its muscular forelegs around the torso and dispatches its prey almost instantly with a bite to the back of the neck and skull. The animals maintain well-defined home ranges covering anywhere from 10 to 370 square miles and, unless driven away, often keep established ranges for life.

Normally, the lions' diet includes deer and elk, though they will occasionally take beavers, porcupines, rabbits and, of course, livestock. Throughout the ranching industry, however, cougar depredation is "a drop in the bucket," says Maurice Hornocker, a noted cat biologist with the Wildlife Research Institute in Idaho.

"Mountain lions throughout the country feed on livestock in just a few hot spots," he says. "Taxpayers spend much more money controlling lions in these isolated circumstances than the ranchers lose to depredation."

In parts of Arizona, the calf-drop in early spring occurs just as the deer population, thinned by winter deaths, hits its annual low. "Those little critters are being dropped on the ground just when lions have tougher pickings among native prey," says Harley Shaw. "When you look at that scenario, it's not surprising cats are eating beef." He suggests that ranchers move their calves out of lion country and onto safer pastures during the calving season. "That's what ranchers do in southeastern Idaho, and I believe that's one reason lions don't eat cattle there."

Surprisingly, however, even in areas with an abundance of deer, some lions cannot resist occasionally feeding on domestic animals. "Even where natural prey densities are high," explains Shaw, "the cats may still take a certain percentage of calves." Why? Because cattle commonly graze near deer, creating a kind of double jeopardy.

Field studies by Shaw, Hornocker and others suggest that predator-control projects could backfire, making the problem worse. Periodically killing off large numbers of lions may create vacant territories where transient lions might continually vie for these ranges. Such transients might be young, inexperienced lions that may be more inclined than older, mature animals to feed on livestock. "If we allowed an undisturbed lion population to settle in and stabilize into set territories," says Shaw, "livestock depredation could decrease accordingly. It might be better for a rancher to live with the devil he knows."

The free-for-all surrounding the stack of lion skulls in Arizona inspired the state Game and Fish Department to launch a three-year study of mountain lions. Using radio collars to monitor the predators' movements, research biologist Al Le-Count hopes to determine why lions prey on cattle within a 360-square-mile study area in Graham and Pima counties.

In New Mexico, Maurice Hornocker is more than halfway through a ten-year study of mountain lion ecology at the White Sands Missile Range. Government agents once tried to exterminate the area's entire lion population to protect bighorn sheep. Hornocker's project--conducted for the state Game and Fish Department in cooperation with the U.S. Army and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service--put a halt to the killing, with surprising results. He found that fewer bighorns were killed by mountain lions when no controls were in effect than were killed previously when control methods were used.

Hornocker reasons that reduced depredation comes as a result of the stabilizing lion population. What's more, his research has shown that not one of the collared lions has been caught marauding cattle.

Researchers have trouble drawing sweeping conclusions about mountain lions, largely because of the creature's individualistic nature: No two populations behave exactly alike. "It's tough to find ways to study them," says Shaw. "You can't build large sample sizes, you can't work with them on a direct-observation basis for any length of time. The lion is just a very difficult animal to get acquainted with."

Nevertheless, John Laundre and his colleagues are trying their best to get acquainted with the 11 to 15 adult lions that inhabit their study area in southeastern Idaho. Laundre's encampment, set up on land owned by rancher Virginia Bruesch, overlooks a broad, lush valley dotted with cattle and hemmed by mountain ranges bristling with Utah junipers and pinyon pines. This is lion country.

As two Earthwatch volunteers adjust the aerial, a radio receiver comes alive with a systematic series of bleats--coded messages from Bill, a mountain lion that Laundre and his crew collared the previous winter. During four years of research, the team has fixed radio collars on 13 cats. Twelve of the animals have died at the hands of hunters, poachers or other lions, slipped their collars or otherwise disappeared off the face of the Earth. Only Bill the lonesome cougar is left to broadcast roving reports to the volunteers manning the base-camp receiver.

Laundre and company will study this pattern of lion movements and activities along with their surveys of kill sites. They will also examine DNA "fingerprints" from mountain lion tissue samples to help determine genetic relationships among resident lions.

The team will use this evidence and more to deduce how mountain lions react to having their territory invaded and fragmented by human activity. Finally, when all the data are in, the scientists hope to develop a thorough, long-range management scheme for mountain lions throughout southeast Idaho.

The idea, Laundre points out, "is to apply the particular situation here, where mountain lions do not prey on livestock, to management strategies in areas of the West where they do."

Off in the distance, on Virginia Bruesch's land, cattle graze contentedly--steak dinners on the hoof, in some cats' eyes. But here they spend their days and nights roaming within the benevolent gaze of Bill the Cougar, whose discriminating palate, for whatever reason, prefers venison to veal.

Massachusetts journalist Charles Creekmore visited with mountain lion scientists in southeastern Idaho as part of this research for this article.

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