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WildEarth Guardians has advocated in three states for maintaining ecologically functional populations of mountain lions. Results have varied.

The Problem:

Wildlife agencies often adopt policies that are uninformed by the best available science. Because hunters, the key stakeholder group of the wildlife agencies, have held historical relationships with, and provide benefits to, wildlife agencies through the user-pay model, unsustainable and scientifically unjustified mountain lion hunting-permit levels have been instituted—despite the fact that wildlife belong to no one and are held in a public trust for all (see e.g., Horner 2000, Jacobson et al. 2010). Agribusiness also greatly influences wildlife policy decisions, which can also result in detrimental outcomes for mountain lions.

In 1982, sporthunters in 10 Western states killed a total of 931 mountain lions. By the mid-1990s, however, lion hunting increased three-fold, peaking at 3,454 in 2001. Since that time, hunter kill of lions has declined by about 1,000 in those states—perhaps because of overkill.

Native carnivores such as mountain lions are largely killed because of misperceptions that they compete with humans for food or make humans and livestock safer (Baker et al. 2008). A high level of lion hunting benefits state wildlife agencies because states derive license revenues from both lion and ungulate hunters. State agencies’ key constituents are appeased because it appears the state has allowed greater hunting opportunities for both lion and ungulate hunters. Furthermore, by keeping lion quotas high, states can wrongfully claim they are helping to prevent future conflicts between lions and humans, livestock, and pets:

  1. Mountain lions and other native carnivores kill few livestock. Livestock growers face threats from disease, calving, and weather, but numerically few from native carnivores and dogs;
  2. Mountain lions and other native carnivores are also implicated by some for eating native prey such as deer, elk, or bighorn sheep. Yet, the largest threat to ungulates (and indeed, all mammals) is human hunters; and
  3. There is “no scientific evidence” that sport hunting reduces the risk of lion attacks on humans (Cougar Management Guidelines 2005). Eighteen people have died in the U.S. from lion attacks in the period between 1890 and May 2011. High-hunting pressures on lion populations change their social structure—releasing more sub-adult males, which can create both social and ecological chaos.

cougar usfwsThe Colorado Case:

In 2001, WildEarth Guardians (then known as “Sinapu”) raised concerns about Colorado’s mountain lion population when we saw that the quota and hunter kill of lions had jumped by 219% and 442%, respectively, over a period of two decades. Beginning that year, and until 2008, we annually petitioned the Colorado Wildlife Commission seeking redress, such as calling for the establishment of hunt-free refugia (a robust conservation biology concept), protections for breeding females and their dependent young (hunter education and sub-quotas), and reductions in the lion-hunting quota.

Our campaign involved debating and networking with agency officials, houndsmen, and outfitters. During those years, we maintained a constant presence in the public sphere using dozens of public speaking forums, and paid and unpaid media.

Because of our Colorado campaign, and because ultimately the Colorado Division of Wildlife (DOW) was willing to adopt a more robust stakeholder process, several positive steps for mountain lions have been achieved in Colorado.

  • In 2004, the DOW produced a defensible mountain lion management plan that was informed by GIS technology and population modeling.
  • The estimated lion population was deduced, which lead to a 30% reduction in the lion-hunting quota. The reduction in the quota, in turn, has lead to a reduction in the hunter kill of lions. In the last two years, however, the lion kill has climbed, which concerns us.
  • The DOW has hired two carnivore biologists to study mountain lions. Dr. Ken Logan studies the effects of hunting on a lion population on the Uncompahgre Plateau of western Colorado, while Dr. Mat Alldredge studies human-lion interactions in the urban-rural interface on the Front Range (Denver-Boulder corridor).
  • The mandatory online lion hunter education program has resulted in a decline of females in the hunter kill. From 1991 to 2004, the average percent of females in the hunter kill was 43%. From 2005 to 2011, the average percent of females in the hunter kill equals 36%. The program has since been exported to other states we have worked in.
  • A less tangible measurement has been increasing public awareness about mountain lions–both on co-existence issues and on management.
  • The final result in Colorado over time has been a developing trust between the DOW, hunters, outfitters, and conservationists.

The multi-year Colorado process resulted in a win-win-win outcome for lion hunters, conservationists, the Colorado Division of Wildlife, and arguably, most important for lion conservation. While the agency was initially adverse to robust input from all stakeholders, but eventually, it came to appreciate participatory mechanisms during the mountain lion policy process; it has been open to hearing input from diverse stakeholders on mountain lion issues over the last few years. As a result, the quota has remained roughly static, and the number of females in the hunter kill has declined. The debate in the public sphere has also subsided.

New Mexico Case:

WildEarth Guardians along with our colleagues, Sierra Club and Animal Protection of New Mexico, has worked on a multi-year campaign to better cougar conservation in New Mexico. We gained some achievements in 2006 and 2008 such as the establishment of female subquotas in some units and the adoption of the mandatory hunter education program.

In July 2010, the New Mexico Department of Game & Fish (NMDGF) reversed that progress when it proposed a 140% increase (490 to 1,190) in the annual cougar mortality for the years 2011-15. At the same time it called for an enormous quota increase, it shuttered the public rulemaking process for cougars from a two-year to a four-year cycle. The agency claimed that it needed to see trends in the lion mortality before the public could again be entrusted with weighing in on cougar quotas.

To justify its new quota system, the NMDGF threw out the 10-year Logan and Sweanor study (2001), and instead adopted an unpublished, one-year masters student’s study. That study was conducted in an unusually biologically rich area of New Mexico. NMDGF then took the highest density estimate produced by that study and applied it statewide.

Our groups lead a vociferous public campaign over a few short months in the summer of 2010. As a result, thousands of people sent correspondence to the Game Commission, and we earned a steady drumbeat of statewide media. At the hearing, one NMDGF official dismissed our letters and emails as “robo” mail during public testimony.

Yet, as a result of the public outcry, NMDGF at the eleventh hour reduced its proposed July quota of 1,190 to 745 in October 2010. The new quota for the next four years represents a 52% increase from 2008-10 figure of 490. The New Mexico Game Commission also instituted the agency’s recommendation of a 137% increase in the female subquota from 126 to 299. These increases have no credible biological basis.

In sum, the NMDGF advanced an extremist agenda, which resulted in detrimental outcomes for everyone, including itself. The agency has damaged its own credibility with the public.

Montana Case:

In 2009 in Montana, WildEarth Guardians worked with individual houndsmen on its campaign to maintain ecologically functional populations of mountain lions. We also immediately invited Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks (FWP) officials to attend and speak at all of our public forums which we held across the state in 2009. The outcome of our 2009 campaign: We developed a strong trust with some houndsmen, and potentially a few agents within FWP. Houndsmen and state officials presented at a few of the public forums.

While Montana immediately adopted the online hunter education program as a result of our collective work, we have been dismayed to see quotas—and particularly female subquotas—increase. In 2008, the statewide quota equaled 411 with a female subquota of 136. By 2010, the statewide quotas increased to 562 and female subquota to 174, a 37% and 28% increase, respectively. Like New Mexico, these jumps in the quota are neither gradual nor biologically justifiable.

In many parts of Montana, the most current understanding of science fails to drive the decision making process, including mountain lions’ effects on prey and exaggerated anxieties over human safety. In Montana, an open arena for all stakeholders to mountain lion management has not yet been instituted, which will have detrimental outcomes for large carnivore conservation.

The level of trust and communication we have enjoyed in Colorado has not been developed in either New Mexico or Montana. We urge that state agencies, in the absence of scientific evidence, use the precautionary principle when setting hunting quotas. Not to do so can damage mountain lion subpopulations. We also urge all state agencies to begin to broaden their economic portfolio—so that science, not politics, informs decision-making. Not only is this good policy, it is expedient given that the numbers of hunters is in decline. The public interest in large carnivore conservation is increasing and those resources should be tapped to maintain ecologically functional populations of mountain lions.

photo credit: cougar: USFWS