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    A COMPENDIUM FOR THE DRY GARDEN

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Cougar Action

The deer population in my zone has crashed over the last several years due to a series of very hard winters. Deer are about at 50% of what they were 4 or 5 years ago. Wyoming Game & Fish completed their mountain lion quota review, done every three years, this past summer. G&F decided to increase the cougar quota in our zone (zone 19) from 20 to 25 lions. Their logic was they’d adjusted the unit’s parameters, creating one unit that hugs along the Absaroka front, instead of two smaller units which went from mountains to desert. G&F figured the mountain area could withstand a higher kill rate, while the desert, zone 20, would be a ginormous year-round kill zone where lions wouldn’t be tolerated.

Lion print

Lion track

Unsaid at the review spring meeting was the hope killing more lions would increase deer–a logic that has been soundly debunked via scientific research. And although the G&F biologists know this, they also are placating deer hunters who don’t follow the science, but just know lions eat deer.

Apart from the “growing more deer” argument, a deep flaw in raising our quota is this: Zone 19 is considered by G&F a “source” zone. Wyoming uses a management tool for lions called source-sink-stable.  It works pretty much how it sounds. Sink is a zone where lions are not tolerated–in areas with more population. Stable just keeps the population as it is, and source is where lions disperse from to fill the rest of the state where they deem appropriate.  As a source zone, zone 19 abuts Yellowstone National Park, so it is a logical place for a “Source” population to come from.  Yet at our season setting information meeting last spring, when several houndsmen protested they were no longer seeing large males, that they’d been over-hunted, the G&F replied “You’re just not going to see what you used to before 2008.”  2008 was when the G&F cracked down on lions with higher quotas. With that reply, G&F pretty much admitted they were no longer managing zone 19 as a source population, that they’d abandoned their own management constraints.

G&F Lion quotas

A snapshot of today’s hunt quotas. Column 1 indicates zone. Column 2 is the quota for that zone. Column 3 is what has been killed so far in that zone. Column 4 are kills not counted towards quota. For instance, zone 26 is closed with a quota of 15 and kills of 17, with 1 not counted towards quota. Zone 20 is shaded because it is open year-round. Otherwise the lion season is Sept. 1-March 31.

Dr. Toni Ruth did a study in Yellowstone’s northern range. One of her findings was that road density outside the park determined quota fulfillment.

Lower elevations and increasing density of roads, particularly in areas open to cougar hunting north of Yellowstone National Park (YNP), increased mortality risks for cougars on the GYNR.

Here is a map from that study. You can see that the drainages east of the Park, where there is easy road access, is where kills are highest:

Ruth map source sink

If G&F were managing for a true “source” population, they would close off road access to vehicles, create walk-in access only, limit areas in zone 19 to photography only, have a zero quota on females, and other rules; not raise the quota. I requested a map from G&F showing where the three years of kills were approximately made in zone 19.  I did this before their review of quotas at the commission meeting last July. Predictably all the kills clustered around the main road in my valley and roads elsewhere in the zone.

I’ve been using trail cameras for over ten years in reliable cougar travel corridors. The last two winter seasons it has been obvious our cougar population is down. Where once a dominant male was regularly making scrapes, only bobcats now come. Where I’d always catch females with cubs, I haven’t caught any in several years, nor have I encountered many tracks. With the deer population down, it would follow our lion population would too. Females just wouldn’t be producing cubs or not very many at least.

Deer bed with lion print

Today I was thrilled to find a male lion track and follow him. I’d caught him briefly on my camera, but in a very different location than I’d seen before. I also found one of his kills. In addition, I filmed a wounded female last month at a site where in past years males made scrapes, yet there hasn’t scrapes at that site for three years. Here are a few photos.  Because of the sensitive nature of these cats, I will not reveal any location data.

Screen Shot 2020-02-13 at 3.56.58 PM

Wounded female at an old scrape site

Screen Shot 2020-02-13 at 4.01.35 PM.png

Here is the male I was following. I’ll be trying to get a better photo of him.

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