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Grizzlies and other wild news

The second edition of The Wild Excellence is out.  With ten new photos and updated information on grizzly bears, I’ve included below a piece from the new preface. Order direct from Amazon and tell your local bookstore to please order from their distributor for in-stock local availability.

In October 2018, my new book on mountain lions, Ghostwalker, will be available.  Ghostwalker: Tracking a mountain lion’s soul through science and story is an account of my personal journey to understand as much as possible about this elusive, secretive animal. To that end, I conducted dozens of interviews–with cougar researchers, conservation organizations, wildlife managers, houndsmen and trackers. You’ll find the latest, cutting-edge research explored in the book. More info to come later.

GhLrg2lines

Below is an excerpt from the new preface of The Wild Excellence.

“His cowboy boots are probably still sitting there.”

 

Jim was relating the story of J. K. Rollinson, the first Forest Service Ranger in the valley where I live. Rollison helped build a government cabin in the Beartooth Mountains in 1908. My new friend Jim, a slight man in his mid-80s yet still in excellent shape, had guided me the week before to another historic Beartooth site—a crumbling stockade from the 1860s hidden within a copse of spruce. Jim grew up in the Big Horn basin where he worked in an array of outdoor jobs throughout his life, including with the Forest Service. The cabin, he said, if it’s still there, was at Sparhawk Lake.

 

I knew the Beartooth Range pretty well, but hadn’t heard of Sparhawk. Jim said the lake was named after Ranger Frank Sparhawk. Sparhawk, along with Rollinson, used the cabin as a summer refuge while overseeing livestock operations in this high alpine environment. The small cabin saved the rangers a ten-mile rugged horseback trip from the Crandall Ranger Station. I was curious if any remnants were left. Pouring over a map, I found the tarn not far from Sawtooth Lake, a large body of water wrapped at the base of a mountain bearing the same name. A rough dirt road off the main highway leads to Sawtooth’s lakefront. The road is in good shape for the first mile and a half, then turns into a rocky, rutted mess. I pulled off where the road loses its shape and walked the final two and a half miles to the lake.

 

Spruce and whitebark pine forest, interspersed with verdant meadows of high alpine wildflowers, make this scenic dirt access road a popular weekend ride for off-road vehicles. The course is along a ridgeline overlooking a U-shaped wetland of marsh and lakes. The adjacent eastern ridgeline, visible at times from the Sawtooth road, is also a popular route. Called the Morrison Jeep Road, it’s an historic trail used as a connector route from the 10,000 foot Beartooth Plateau down to the desert mouth of the Clark’s Fork Canyon. The local ATV club was anxious for a loop trail joining Sawtooth Lake with the jeep trail. To accomplish that, the Forest Service would have to build a new road into and through the marsh up to the opposite ridgeline. That was another reason I wanted to walk this road. I had to see what kind of habitat damage that would create.

 

A few hundred yards before the final approach to Sawtooth Lake, I encountered a parked Toyota 4-Runner with Montana plates. That last stretch is too rough and eroded for even the toughest vehicle. I also heard gunshots. It was early September, not yet hunting season, but these fellows were using trees for target practice on the far side of the lake. I couldn’t see them, but sure could hear their antics. No one else was around, and thankfully the route to Sparhawk was in the opposite direction.

 

A small jewel hidden within dense tree cover, I found the remains of Sparhawk’s cabin by the side of the lake, along with a Forest Service plaque commemorating his service. Only the log outline of a tiny cabin, but no cowboy boots, remained. I ate lunch, then returned the route I came.  Walking the road back up the steep hill, I found the 4-Runner still parked on the small knoll. From this point, the road opens into a meadow edged with dense tree cover on its far side. Breaking the forest’s silence, a deep sonorous barking suddenly roared through the trees. I stopped and listened. The mysterious low-pitched “honk” came again, then again. I looked across the meadow just in time to see a large grizzly bear running through the woods, followed by a tiny cub. The barking continued and another cub ran to catch up with her bear mother. These little cubs, born last winter, referred to as cubs of the year or COY for short, were incredibly cute. All this raucous was far enough away, with me downwind, that I wasn’t afraid. Mom was headed for the lake at a quick clip. The barking continued, like an old man with a wheezy cough and a megaphone, and after a few minutes a third cub appeared.

 

Mesmerized by this scene, I momentarily forgot about the men still down by the lake who were probably fishing by now. Instead I reflected on the increasing use by grizzlies of this alpine area. The Beartooths are good habitat with intact whitebark pines—now a rarity in the rest of the ecosystem due to widespread beetle kill. Females who eat whitebark pine nuts are known to have larger litters. Here was a successful grizzly mother utilizing these resources.

 

When the bears were out of sight, I remembered the men. No chance for me to let them know those bears were on their way towards them. The quartet of bears would be at lakeside before I could even turn around. Hopefully the men would not run into them, or at the very least keep their cool….

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Missing Mama Grizzly

Last October our game warden was hunting in my valley when he was bluff charged by a sow grizzly bear.  This bear had three cubs of the year (COY) by her side. She first gave a bluff charge, but then turned around, huffed, and came at the warden again. It was then that Chris Queen discharged his hunting rifle and killed her. After some deliberation about what to do with her young, small cubs, the Wyoming Game and Fish decided to let nature take its course, giving them a slim chance to make a den and survive the winter.

Grizzly cubs stay with their mother for about 2 1/2 years. Born blind and helpless in the winter den, cubs need to learn everything about bear survival from their mother. What foods to eat and where to find them. One fall I was in Tom Miner Basin. A pair of two year old grizzlies were roaming together. I was told they’d lost their mother the previous fall, but somehow managed to survive the winter and thrive through the summer. COY surviving without their mother is a rare event.

Grizzly Cubs 2 years old

Tom Miner basin. Two cubs that survived when their mother was killed the previous year

When I heard about the sow’s death, my heart ached. I knew that bear. In fact, I’d just observed her and the cubs the week before. She was ambling across a pasture while the cubs pranced and played behind her. A few years ago, I watched her with two two-year-old cubs cross a meadow on the opposite side of the road. Every spring I would drive up the nearby drainage across from these meadows and find her tracks with cubs in tow. Little Sunlight, where the warden killed her, was not far from the area I’d observed the family. These were her haunts.

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Mama grizzly with her three COY in September shortly before she was killed

I wondered if those cubs survived. The Game & Fish said they counted them in their tally as dead bears. How many bears died in a previous year would determine how many could be hunted in the following. I’m sure they ear-tagged them though. My plan was to drive up their mother’s favorite drainage and see if I could either spot the cubs, or at best, locate their tracks. Mom always walked down the dirt road, then veered off into the meadows at a predictable place. Since I saw her there (either by sight or by sign) early spring and late fall, I thought maybe she tended to den in that area so the cubs might too. At the very least, I felt this was an area the cubs knew. To my disappointment, after an extensive search, the only tracks I could see were the faint sign of an adult male. That doesn’t mean the cubs didn’t survive, but the odds are low.

Grizzly print

Male griz about 12″ long and 5″ wide. He’s traveling towards the left of the print.

Just last week a person shot and killed a female sow in what they said was self-defense. She had several cubs with her. There was no mention in the article of the hiker carrying bear spray. It also appeared he was hiking alone, so his story can never be verified.

Last week I attended the very important Wyoming Game and Fish commission meeting. After hours of public comment, running 5:1 against a hunt, the commissioners voted unanimously within a few minutes to let the first grizzly hunt in the lower 48 in over 40 years proceed. We all knew the outcome of that vote before we even attended. Regardless, it was important we be heard. A spokesman for the tribes read a comment. The tribes requested that instead of a hunt, those bears be transferred to various tribal lands. If the Wyoming Game & Fish along with residents who say “have a hunt to reduce bear numbers” really believe that meme, then why not transfer bears to other areas where they once lived instead of killing them for trophy.

I was in Silver City, New Mexico last month. One of the last grizzly bears was killed in that area in the 1930s. An extensive study was done in the 1970s to see if the Gila National Forest would still support a small population of grizzlies. The study concluded that although there had been fire suppression which hindered some of their food sources, grizzlies could survive there. Since that time fires have come to the Gila and opened up the habitat. With livestock protections, grizzlies could once again roam the Gila National Forest and surrounding areas. The tribes could be the catalyst who help expand grizzlies into areas where they once lived where habitat is still suitable.

Grizzly habitat SW 1860

Yellow indicates grizzly range in 1860 in northern Mexico and SW USA

Wyoming has it backwards. The state feels it has to hunt the bear to reduce conflicts and bear population. Instead, they should be ramping up their efforts to teach people how to live around grizzly country, like carrying bear spray and protecting food sources. Plus they should cooperate with the tribes, transferring the 2018 hunt quota of 23 bears to tribal lands.

As William Wright so succinctly put it over a hundred years ago:  “grizzly bears are minders of their own business.” We can honor that bear temperament by leaving them be.

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Tired COY leans on Mama. I still haven’t seen any signs of the COY this spring

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Pumas leave their mark

Here’s a sequence at a scrape I put together. It is believed these linear impressions, made by males using their back feet, are intended to mark territory as well as attract mates.

Biologist Max Allen and his colleagues worked on analyzing puma scrapes in California’s Santa Cruz Mountains and Mendocino County. Allen put up trail cameras on puma scrapes, hoping to find answers to research questions. How are cougars using scrapes to communicate? Why do they go to such elaborate means, rather than simply urinating as canines do? After analyzing more than one thousand videos of scraping behavior, he concluded that lions could distinguish not only the freshness of scrapes, but also the individual lions who made them. This knowledge is only an icebreaker; biologists are still in the dark as to what information cougars learn from scrapes.

In this video, you can see how a male makes a scrape. A few evenings later several coyotes come to investigate. They leave their own calling card. Then a female cougar arrives to smells the scrape.

 

Interestingly, Allen, who was working in northern California where the top predators are cougars and black bears, discovered foxes were routinely cheek rubbing on puma scrapes, and doing this more frequently on the fresher ones. Cheek rubbing releases chemicals from the sebaceous gland, allowing animals to deposit their own scent, but it can also be a way of accumulating scent from the object rubbed. Since the fox cheek-rubbing visits didn’t correlate with fox breeding season, or with how recently other foxes had visited, Allen believes foxes were applying puma scent for protection from larger predators like bobcats and coyotes. In other words, foxes, being the crafty animals they are, were attempting to disguise themselves as pumas.

Here in the Yellowstone Ecosystem where cougars are subordinate to wolves, black bears and grizzly bears, red foxes don’t use this camouflage technique since smelling like a cougar might be an attractant, not a deterrent.

fox

But cougar researcher Mark Elbroch discovered a different unique behavior of Yellowstone’s crafty red foxes. Elbroch wonders if foxes might be following pumas around in wintertime, since foxes seem to locate a cougar kill so quickly. On the Panthera Teton Cougar Project in Jackson Wyoming, with the advantage of G.P.S. collars, Elbroch might, for instance, see a cougar make a kill at 4:00 a.m., and he would be at the site by 8:00 a.m. When the crew arrived, there’d be a fox on it already. Foxes take great risks, he told me, and, incredibly, they are rarely killed.

Research on cougars in Yellowstone National Park used trail cameras on scrapes. Dan Stahler, project manager for the current Yellowstone cougar study, has video of scores of other animals investigating these scent marks, including a grizzly bear that laid down on the scrape and napped for the day.

If you’ve enjoyed learning a little bit about cougars (sometimes called pumas, mountain lions, panthers, and many other names), then look forward to my new book that will be published in 2018 called Ghostwalker: Tracking a Mountain Lion’s Soul through Science and Story.

Ghostwalker_Poster

 

Kill Cougars to Grow More Deer?

Don’t you think that if you’re going to go out and kill cougars, you should know some basic biology and facts about your quarry?

I had an upsetting and disheartening encounter today with some ‘cat’ hunters. For the last week I’ve been walking a forest service road that goes up a wide valley. Yesterday I saw snowmobile tracks. This morning, two young men were returning on this road from the treed area higher up. They were carrying a rack from a large bull elk on their snowmobiles. The elk had been killed about a mile up the road. Elk season is closed, so this was either a winter kill or a predator kill. It was their tracks I saw yesterday, where they’d taken a snowmobile looking for cat tracks. They spotted the kill along the roadside, and saw cougar tracks feeding on it. This morning they returned with their dogs, treed the cat, while their sister shot the young female cougar.

I ran into these two young men and spoke with them for a while. They were pleasant, but seemed to know nothing about mountain lions, and from the course of my conversation, they certainly didn’t respect the animal. Our conversation went something like this:

“You know” I told them, “when you kill one female, you’ve killed several other cats as well, because females are either traveling with kittens, pregnant, or in heat.”

“We tracked her for two days so she had no kittens.”

(Note: two days is an exaggeration. I was up that road at 11 a.m. yesterday and saw the snowmobile had been up and back already. Then they were out this morning when they killed the cat)

Mountain Lion or Cougar mom with young cubs, Western U.S.

“It’s true,” I replied. “She could be a young disperser, but she also might have young kittens with her that she’s stashed.”

“No, she couldn’t have had kittens. There were no other tracks around this elk.”

“Kittens eight weeks and younger stay at a den site while the mother hunts and goes back to them to nurse.”

“But lions only give birth in September. It’s January now.” One of the young hunters replied.

“Nope.” I told him.” They can give birth at any time of the year. Once their kittens disperse they go into heat. And kittens stay with their mom for 15-18 months. Even once kittens start to travel with her, up until around six months old the mother stashes her kittens while she makes a kill, then she comes back for them to feed on it. So you might not see tracks in that case either. And kittens can’t reliably climb trees till about 5 or 6 months old.”

“Really?! They can’t climb till six months?”

Then the other young man chimes in…”Well if we kill more cats, that’s good. We want to get rid of them all. They kill deer and we want more deer.”

two cougars, mom and kitten

Mom with 8 month old kitten

I was getting pretty tired of attempting to educate these guys on lion biology 101.

“That’s plain ole not true. They’ve done studies on that since the 1980s and habitat is what grows deer, not less cougars. Look up the science. Your logic has long been debunked.”

“If that’s not true, why would Game and Fish issue two tags for this area?”

“Now that’s a good question. Talk with the state legislature.”

One of the young men told me there’s “tons of cougars here.”

“What’s ‘tons?'” I asked him, for which he had no answer. I told them lions have low densities across huge territories.

“Well, there’s a lot more now. There’s too many and they need to be managed so there’s less.” He replied.

Cougar Kitten 1:2016

Cougar kitten 5-6 months

I’ve just finished writing a book about mountain lions (which will be out sometime in 2018). The book, called Ghostwalker: Tracking a Lion’s Soul through Science and Story, discusses all the latest science in Yellowstone, Jackson, Montana, and California. I speak with scientists, conservationists, trackers, state game managers, as well as houndsmen from Montana. The houndsmen I spoke with were old timers who never used all this new technology such as GPS on their dogs. They all were highly educated about mountain lions. And they all respected and honored the animal. Several, such as Boone Smith and Grover Hedrick, worked with biologists on lion studies. The young men I spoke with this morning represent a group of cat hunters who should not have been given cougar licenses. They were not properly educated.

My blog post today is not a discussion on whether or not to have mountain lion hunting. This is a discussion of how to work “in the better.” The “best” would be no lion hunting. As biologist Colby Anton who is working on the current Yellowstone National Park mountain lion study told me, ““It’s kind of nice that people don’t see cougars, and that is why [Yellowstone] doesn’t have a management program for cougars—we don’t have to manage cougars, they manage themselves.” Yet, living in Wyoming, we need to be realistic. We need to work “in the better” in places like Wyoming where I live. Wyoming isn’t about to follow in California’s footsteps anytime soon with a voter referendum to place lions as a “protected species.”

So what are a few “betters” we can begin with?

Wyoming Game and Fish 2015 tally shows that houndsmen fulfill their lion tag in three days or less. Why is that? It is because of easy road access. The fellows I spoke with today spent a few hours, at best, over the weekend, driving up a road on a snowmobile, putting their dogs out with GPS collars, then treeing the cat. Not only did they learn nothing about tracking a cougar and the habits of cougars, but they are only interested in a dead lion, not in the life of the lion.

Wyoming 2014-15 ML Harvest data

Wyoming Harvest Data Mountain Lions 2014-2015

Elk and deer descend in the winter. Easy winter road access means lion sink zones (a sink zone is a term that indicates a declining lion population vs. a source or stable population). Look at this map produced from a study by Dr. Toni Ruth in Yellowstone. The dark areas are sink habitat, which correspond with drainages where there is easy road access.YNP Cougar survival souce sink chart RUTH

One change Wyoming must make is to consider road density. Gary Koehler, wildlife research scientist with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife from 1994 to 2011, has suggested managing hunt areas based on road density and snow conditions. More road access means easier hunter success. By distributing the hunter harvest over a wide area, hunters are not necessarily attracted to areas where it’s easiest to get a cougar.

These young ignorant hunters also made me think that Wyoming Game & Fish should be requiring every houndsman to take a class on basic mountain lion biology that is science based. Wyoming Game and Fish doesn’t subscribe to ‘kill more lions, grow more deer’, so they should put that science out there for every houndsman to hear.

WY 2007-2014 harvest data

In addition, all the Montana houndsmen I spoke with told me that they wanted a ZERO quota on females. In order to maintain a stable or source lion population, females should not be hunted. Wyoming doesn’t separate their quotas by sex, but Montana does. Wyoming recently made a change that cougars traveling together cannot be shot, but that didn’t protect this young female.

My hope is that my new book, Ghostwalker, will help to not only educate but also give people a glimpse into the secret life of these animals and their complex social systems. You only protect what you know and love. Let’s give lions a better chance.

cougar kittens 2:2017

Two Cougar Kittens around 5 months old early February 2017. These kittens should have dispersed by now. Was one of these killed by the hunters today?

Advocating for Lions, Bears and Wolves

cougar track with penny

As wolf hunting re-emerges this month in Wyoming, and grizzly bear hunting is now being considered with their new delisted status, I thought it was a good time for a blog post on how Game and Fish Agencies are influenced in their decision processes. So called ‘non-consumptive users’–those who do not hunt nor fish (or rarely so)–have no real voice in state wildlife management because they are excluded from being a funding source. Few people understand the mechanics of wildlife management. To that end, this blog post is a short excerpt from my upcoming book on mountain lions, with the working title Thinking Like a Mountain Lion: Tracking a Lion’s Soul through Science and Story.  Although the excerpt references lions, the fundamentals apply to all wildlife, including trophy game animals like bears and wolves.

As a simple introduction to the post below, one has to understand the hierarchy of wildlife management. Under United States common law, the people own the wildlife, while the states hold them in trust for citizens. The lines of jurisdictional authority are complex and highly political. But, in general, state legislatures pass wildlife laws, state game commissions interpret the laws, and the state wildlife agencies implement and enforce the laws. The governor usually appoints state wildlife commissioners for a set period of time, which means they are not elected by the public, and therefore do not have to be responsive to the wide range of public opinions on mountain lion management. The commission establishes hunting seasons, harvest quotas, and management actions. Mission and mandate statements for these state commissions are broad, allowing them to accommodate non-scientifically supported decisions, such as drastically reducing cougar numbers in order to enhance deer populations for recreational hunting. These kinds of decisions fit neatly in with where the majority of the funding for these agencies comes from—hunting and fishing licenses. In other words, non-consumptive users, people who just like to watch wildlife and take photos, have little say in state wildlife management.

I first met David Mattson through his advocacy work for grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone. What I didn’t know then was that he had also participated in over ten years of research in the Southwest focused on puma ecology and puma-human interactions. Both of these experiences with megafauna have shaped his observations on state predator management and its interactions with the public.

Mattson points out that although changes in attitudes towards predators have been incorporated into state game agency policy, the essential structure and funding of the agencies themselves has not changed. What he calls the “utilitarian/dominionistic” worldview has dominated these wildlife agencies since the early 1900s, where domination and utilitarianism is the goal. Over the last forty or so years, a new approach among the public has emerged which values nature for its intrinsic beauty, focusing on ecological connection, scientific advancements, and the idea that humans have a moral responsibility to protect the earth and its wildlife. These two stances are diametrically opposite, creating increasing public demands on the agency management.

Yet, only one set of people holds power over wildlife decisions. Wildlife commissions and employees in wildlife management agencies, are almost all self-identified hunters and supporters of groups that support hunting. Funding sources for these agencies comes primarily from hunters, trappers, anglers, and gun owners through licenses sales and other fees. In Wyoming, for instance, 80% of their Game and Fish funding is from sales of hunting and fishing licenses. North Dakota’s entire budget for wildlife management is sourced from these user fees. The Pittman-Robertson (or Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act) places an excise tax on the sale of firearms, ammunition products, and archery equipment. This act gives additional monetary support to wildlife agencies to the tune of millions of dollars a year from lethal weapons sales. The funding bar is heavily weighted in favor of hunting opportunity.

Mattson writes that having a homogeneous group in charge of wildlife issues makes for a uniform world-view, one that tends to be sympathetic towards that particular constituency—the hunting crowd becomes the ‘in-group’ with preferential treatment, with livestock growers a secondary component.

Wildlife are considered public trust assets. What that means is that they are owned by no persons, but held ‘in trust by governments for the benefit of present and future generations.” This idea dates back to the Magna Carta in England, and was enshrined into law by the Supreme Court over 150 years ago. The public trust doctrine provides a framework for which state and federal governments can protect, conserve, allocate and control wildlife for the benefit of the public.

Over the last forty years, increasing urbanization has made “the internal world of the utilitarian/dominionistic subsystem increasingly out of sync” with the decline of hunters, notes Mattson. This has threatened the revenue stream for Game and Fish agencies, perplexed them as to how to understand and reverse these declines, as well as challenged their traditional values and identities.

The other side of the coin is what Mattson calls the ‘out-group’, those who have no real voice in wildlife management.  These include non-hunting environmentalists, animal welfare groups such as The Humane Society, and what is commonly referred to as ‘non-consumptive’** users, those who like to take photographs and watch wildlife. This group is excluded from decision-making because they have no access to agency budgets through fees, the legislature, nor to the commissions who are appointees by the Governors rather than elected officials. These outsiders’ perspectives are not shared by those who have dominated this arena of wildlife management for the last hundred years.

Mattson argues that the incompatibility of these two perspectives, and the fact that only one narrow view holds all the power over what should be a representative and democratic agency, is the main obstruction to reform in management.

“Mountain lion management will continue to serve a narrow set of special interests organized around hunting as long as revenues are primarily hunting related, commissioners are deeply imbued with the ethos of hunting, and management agencies are dominated by a hunting culture. This is not to say that hunting is intrinsically bad, but rather that any policy process that patently serves narrow special interests while marginalizing all others is fundamentally incompatible with a liberal democracy grounded in civil discourse.”

So how to move forward. No one person has the answer, but a good beginning is represented by groups like the one Sharon Negri participates in with a variety of stakeholders in Washington State. Or the Predator Policy Group in California that Rick Hopkins sits on with three consumptive, three non-consumptive, and three Ag users, with himself as the science advisor. They are responsible to consider predator reforms and suggest new language or regulations that the Commissioners might adopt. Shrinking hunter-dollar revenues, even as the number of wildlife watchers and non-consumptive users is growing, is beginning to push agencies to come to the table to find new funding sources. These new funding sources must include all users—whether something like a tax on photographic equipment and wilderness gear, use fees, lottery proceeds, or even general tax dollars—that could be worked out by these consensus groups. Additionally, public awareness of how these agencies currently operate, what their policies are, how they are funded, and what voices they are excluding is essential. When Texas Mammalogist Jonah Evans said to me “if the public knew the trapping policies on mountain lions they’d be outraged”, he was right. I asked a few Texans if they knew that cougars have absolutely no protections in their state and they were more than surprised at that news.

To begin the conversation, all interests need to come to the table. Again, Mattson sums it up very succinctly. “Moving beyond the current paradigm will likely require diversifying revenues so that no one interest group has a lock on agency financial well-being, diversifying commission membership to represent the full spectrum of ways that people value animals such as mountain lions, and diversifying the cultures of management agencies and the academic institutions that train prospective employees.”

Wildlife agencies are waking up, but letting go of control is not easy to relinquish. Yet on the other side, conservationists and animal rights advocates need to come to the table in good faith, with an open mind. Democracy isn’t about getting everything one side wants, but about listening, honoring and respecting the interests of others, and coming to policy decisions that not only take all stakeholders into account, but, in this case, the lion’s future as well. Shifting the conversation from ‘resource’ to ‘intrinsic value’ and the ecological benefits of lions, as well as other predators, is a good starting point. The prioritization of establishing stable, self-sustaining lion populations needs to be a first topic of conversation not only amongst western agencies, but where lions are absent or struggling to exist in the eastern half of the country.

State wildlife management amounts to only one piece of this multi-pronged approach. Corridor identification and protections (such as freeway overpasses or land purchases), preserving large tracts of habitat for a species that follows migrations of prey, banning rodenticides, public education programs, elimination of predator programs like Wildlife Services, funding and educational help for non-lethal livestock protection programs, developing risk maps for livestock owners—the to-do list is long.

NOTES

1. Mattson, David J. “State-Level Management of a Common Charismatic Predator. Mountain Lions in the West.” Large Carnivore Conservation, Chapter 2, University of Chicago Press 2014.

2.The term ‘non-consumptive user’ has recently been coined as a label for all those enjoyers of wildlife and the natural environment that do not hunt nor fish. But it has been pointed out to me during my research for this book that it is a faulty and misleading term, as we are all ‘consumers’ in one way or another–whether we eat animal products, use ATV’s, horses or bicycles which mar the landscape, or just hikers who make noise and disturb wildlife in their native habitat. As humans, we plough through the landscape, leaving a wake of invisible disturbance that interferes with the daily habits of wildlife. A better term for those who do not hunt nor fish, but enjoy the outdoors needs to emerge.

Tracking a Mountain Lion

A few weeks ago when I was out looking for mountain lion sign, I noticed that a male was making scrapes in a very defined route. I followed through the narrow corridors where he was putting his sign down and came to a rise that looked out over the valley. Just below the viewpoint was another tight drainage. I’d seen this pathway before but never ventured down that way. I knew it went down to a C-shaped plateau that linked the creek, a heavily forested area I’d been to before and had seen lion sign. I decided to return and explore the narrow passage, and see if it was a good corridor for wildlife down to the river.

Last week I made that trip with my trail camera in hand, as well as a GPS. To my surprise, not only was the corridor fairly easy to traverse, but this lion had marked it with scrapes about every 150 feet, and killed a deer along the way. I marked a few of the cougar canyon

scrapes with the GPS as you can see and put my camera on one of them. When I got down to the wooded canyon, the C-shaped plateau is fairly flat, one side which easily leads to the creek while the other is steep and filled with brush. Scrapes (which I did not mark on the GPS) continued all along the forest floor, with several deer kills, as well as two scrapes with a large amount of covered lion scat.

I was hoping to see the male lion on my camera who was responsible for all this marking. I went today to retrieve the photos. It’s only been a week, and although lions have very regular routes (I know I will see him) he may not return this way for 2 weeks or more.

DCIM102RECNX

Black wolf

DCIM102RECNX

Grizzly bear

No cat yet, but bears and wolves.

Mark Elbroch, in puma studies in Northern California and Colorado, found that pumas likely killed more prey when bears are around. The cats are pushed off their kills more quickly, losing precious calories, forcing them to kill their next prey sooner than they might otherwise. The study found that many bears were on a puma kill within just forty-eight hours after the kill was made.

That’s a big bear that was ‘following’ that puma. I retrieved my photos and started up the corridor drainage, with bear spray in hand as the visibility is poor. Halfway I came upon that bear’s day bed, along with a very large scat that smelled terrible. Bear scat usually just smells sweet, from all the grass and plants they eat. But when they eat meat, watch out! The whole zone smelled bad.

Bear Scat

Bear Scat

Bear day bed

Koda by the Bear day bed

Lions in Texas Part 2

I wanted to do another short lion post on Texas. Short because there is literally nothing going on with protections for mountain lions there; hasn’t been since the Mexican-American war. Truthfully, every time I think about the status of Mountain Lions in Texas, it infuriates me. I would hope it begins to infuriate others, especially Texans.

Cougar

I spoke with Jonah Evans whose the mammalogist for the entire State. A study done by Joseph Holbrook in 2011 compared the genetics of South Texas, West Texas, and New Mexico. It showed that cougars in South Texas had decreased by at least 50% historically, were inbred, and generally not doing well.  The Trans-Peco region of West Texas was still holding up o.k. The Trans-Peco region has immigration from mainly Mexico and probably some cougars from New Mexico. It is an area with large ranches, a lot of them older ranchers trying to eek out their living. In addition there are large ‘game’ ranches where people come to hunt deer and exotic species, paying the big bucks. Those ranchers hire trappers to rid the area of cougars who kill their commodity. South Texas by comparison is contiguous with sheep and goat ranchers, easy prey for cougars. Immigration would come mainly from Big Bend National Park.

Texas immigrants

Confirmed sighings of lions in Texas in the last ten years

The reality is that Texas is a state with almost no public lands and where private landowners have a lot of political power. It comes down to a private rancher or landowner who might not care if he has cougars on his property, and so lets them live. This makes for a hodge-podge of lands that cougars move through, some safe and others not.

Mountain lions are considered a nuisance animal–varmit–and can shot anytime, anywhere, without telling anyone. There also are no trapping regulations on cougars. At this point the only reason why Texas has any mountain lions at all is because of immigration from Mexico. cougar print

One thing Jonah Evans mentioned (that I could tell upset him as well) is that the usual trapping regulation for fur-bearing animals in Texas (36 hour trap check) do not apply to Mountain Lions. They also do not apply for bobcats and coyotes. There are trappers out there, he told me, that leave their traps out for a month, big steel bear sized traps, without checking them and it’s perfectly legal.

Cougar

Cougar exhibits a flehmen response

In 1992 the Sierra Club did a campaign for several years trying to bring attention to the plight of the Texas Mountain Lion with the hope of changing their status to trophy game with a legal hunt. It was all over the news, but got no traction. The biologists I’ve spoken with all told me about that effort as if it had been yesterday. Since then, nothing’s happened.

Jonah felt that if people actually knew the status of mountain lions, the trapping that is not regulated, and the shoot on sight policy, they’d want change. As it is, Texas is definitely the Lone Star state, as all the other Western states identify mountain lions at the very least as a valuable animal that deserves game status and regulations.

three cougars

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