This story has been updated.
In July, the death of Cecil the lion in Zimbabwe at the hands of trophy hunter Walter Palmer sparked international outrage, incited widespread debate about the ethics of trophy hunting, and provoked calls to the U.S. government to ban the import of trophies from other countries. But some conservationists are arguing that people in the United States should be paying more attention to the trophy hunting of our own lions — mountain lions, that is.
The Humane Society of the United States, along with other wildlife advocacy groups, has expressed concern numerous times in the past few years about proposals by state wildlife agencies to increase cougar hunting without considering the best science on cougar management, or taking majority public opinion into account. Such hunts are almost exclusively carried out for sport or trophies.
Currently, the only cougar populations in the country that have federal protection are the Florida panther and the Eastern cougar, the latter of which is believed extinct and has been proposed for delisting under the Endangered Species Act. Most other populations are unprotected and spread throughout the West, where the only state that currently forbids cougar hunting is California.
In the past year, nearly half a dozen states — including Colorado, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah and Washington — have proposed an increase in cougar hunting quotas for a variety of reasons, including the desire to reduce human conflict, protect livestock or increase native deer populations. These proposals have been made despite recent research suggesting that overhunting actually causes more conflicts with humans.
One of the most recent instances occurred in Washington state, where Gov. Jay Inslee just reversed a controversial new rule from the state’s wildlife management agency that would have expanded cougar hunting, allowing a harvest rate of up to 21 percent of the population in some areas, without allowing for a public comment period first. The new rule was hastily passed during an April meeting of the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission and met with immediate outrage from advocacy groups, including the Humane Society, which appealed the decision.
The expanded hunting was proposed for regions of the state also occupied by wolves in an attempt to quell the concerns of citizens concerned that living in close proximity to two large predators — instead of just one — could cause an increased risk of conflict. The wolf is a protected species in Washington and currently cannot be hunted, so the state proposed cutting down on cougars.
But a cougar harvest rate of 21 percent would have likely only produced more problems, according to Rob Wielgus, director of the Large Carnivore Conservation Lab at Washington State University, who has been at the forefront of cougar research for the past several decades.
The problem with killing off too many big cats
Killing off too many cougars can cause demographic problems in the cats’ populations, Wielgus said. Male cougars are territorial. If you kill off one male, other (usually younger) males will move into the area to take his place. Invading younger males will seek out females in the territory and frequently kill any existing cubs in order to make room for their own offspring.
This influx of young males can cause a number of conflicts. First, young male cougars tend to “get in trouble,” said Howard Quigley, puma program director for Panthera, a global wild cat conservation organization. “It’s kind of like in a human society, if you had a bunch of teenagers running around,” he said.
These young males are the ones usually responsible for preying on livestock and otherwise causing problems with humans, said Wielgus. Additionally, female cougars often go into hiding to protect their cubs if younger males start invading their territories, Wielgus added. This means they sometimes end up hiding out in places they previously didn’t inhabit and start eating animals they didn’t prey on before.
“Basically the bottom line was this heavy hunting of cougars was actually causing all the problems we were seeing,” Wielgus said of his work in Washington.
Cougar-related problems in the state largely dissipated once an appropriate hunting quota was established, according to Wielgus. The harvest rate is currently set at 12 to 16 percent of the population. Wielgus’s research in Washington, along with other studies in Montana, has suggested that cougar populations tend to increase at a rate of 12 percent — meaning a hunting quota of 12 percent or lower is best for maintaining stable cougar populations and minimizing conflict with humans.
But state wildlife management agencies don’t always want to abide by the 12-percent quota — and it’s not just limited to Washington.
Many states contemplating changes
In Utah, state wildlife management officials decided this year to slightly increase cougar hunting quotas in an effort to protect mule deer and bighorn sheep. In its updated cougar management plan, the Division of Wildlife Resources points to a set of management guidelines from 2005 that suggest cougar populations can sustain a harvest rate of 20 to 30 percent of the population, while also acknowledging Wielgus’ more recent research that indicates the average growth rate of a cougar population is 12 percent.
And in Colorado, state officials recently proposed increasing harvest rates in certain areas, mostly surrounding the town of Westcliffe, by up to 46 percent in a research project aimed at doubling local mule deer populations. The proposal would have increased the harvest limit in the area from 24 cats to 35 — potentially up to 50 percent of the cougar population in that area, according to Wendy Keefover, native carnivore protection manager for The Humane Society of the United States. This proposal was later withdrawn.
But it’s not just the increase in hunting quotas that’s bothering scientists and conservationists. It’s the reasons for doing so.
In several recent cases, the rationale behind proposing an increased harvest is to protect livestock or increase prey populations, frequently mule deer. This was the case in Colorado, and was also the motivation behind a recent decision in Oregon to increase hunting by 25 percent. The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife pointed to recent research indicating that elk populations in the state increased when cougars were removed.
But there have also been at least four studies so far indicating that removing cougars doesn’t do much to help mule deer populations, according to Quigley, the Panthera puma expert. Such research suggests that habitat degradation is the critical factor in declining mule deer.
Additionally, Keefover pointed to research from the U.S. Department of Agriculture suggesting that predators, and particularly cougars, account for a relatively small percentage of losses in livestock. And out of the livestock killed by predation, cougars usually accounted for less than 10 percent of the losses, although this number can rise as high as 15 percent for sheep and lambs in some areas.
Still, losses due to predation can add up to millions of dollars per year, so it’s an issue that the industry takes seriously.
The problem, Wielgus said, is that pressure from lobbying groups can cause wildlife agencies to enact management practices meant to appease the industry without taking the best science into consideration.
On top of this, the public is sometimes not given an adequate opportunity to voice its opinion on proposed management changes, Keefover said. Washington is just one example.
When the Colorado proposal was being considered, for instance, the Humane Society decried the Parks and Wildlife Commission’s failure to hold more than one hearing and give the legally required 30 days notice for public comment in a letter to the Commission.
When that proposal was withdrawn, the Colorado Division of Wildlife cited “the extensive amount of comment provided by the public in response to the draft proposal to evaluate the relationship between mountain lion and mule deer populations, and to allow for additional public comment and participation,” as the reason in a release.
“I think there’s this public antipathy to trophy hunting cougars at the same time we have all these agencies pushing for more trophy hunting,” Keefover said.
But it does seem that there’s some hope for the cougar. While increased hunting has been proposed in a handful of states in the past year, it’s only been finalized in a few, including New Mexico, Utah and Oregon. In other places, such as Washington and South Dakota, the rules were overturned. And in Nebraska, state Sen. Ernie Chambers is pushing to end cougar hunting, which has been allowed for several years now, on a population believed to number fewer than 30 individuals.
The cougar’s story can be thought of as a “two-edged sword,” according to Quigley.
“It’s a wonderful success story that we still have this large carnivore across most of the Western states and they’re increasing their pawprint into the Midwest,” he said. “That really to me says that we’re creating the environment for the expansion of mountain lions in North America.
“On the other hand,” he added, “I think it’s these steps backward that really worry me and other lion biologists in that it seems like there’s much more difficulty with these game agencies to come to grips with accepting some of these modern approaches.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission is legally obligated to hold three hearings and a 30-day public comment period on a proposed regulatory change. While the public comment period is mandatory, three hearings are not required by law.