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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?

8 Responses

  1. So sad that this mentality persists. Near our cabin in central Washington we have a healthy population of cougar, bobcats and a local pack of wolves. We are fairly high up at 4500’ with a winter snow pack in the forty to fifty inch range most of our mule deer and elk head down to lower elevations by mid December. The lower wintering areas continue to be developed for ranching and new homes and have drastically limited carrying capacity, yet local hunters continue to blame the predators for their lack of success. I’ve come to think of this as almost a form of animal racism, we “need” to blame someone or thing for our problems. It can’t be our fault, can it…..?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great post! I really can’t stand people with this kind of mentality. Pardon my French but they are ignorant arseholes (and that’s polite). When will people realise that we don’t have a divine right to rampage about doing what we like and exterminating anything that gets in our way? It might be nice to put idiots like that in the woods without weapons and give the various predators their scent and see how they fare when the odds are stacked against them.


  3. Great post, Leslie. Be sure to announce when your book becomes available and if it isn’t too expensive I’ll order a copy or ask the library to get one.

    Around here (northern Arizona) the lion hounders are all about the high tech GPS collars. There are so many forest roads it’s often hard to get more than a quarter mile or so away from one. The hounders drop the dogs off after work and then just drive around or sit in the truck until the dogs tree something, then go finish it off. It’s the most despicable and unethical practice I’ve ever seen. I doubt it would happen much if it weren’t for the hyper-dense network of forest roads.

    As part of their big travel management plan a few years ago the Coconino National Forest tried to close a few of the most poorly designed roads that were built during the 20th century logging frenzies. You should’ve heard the uproar from the hunting fraternity when they thought they were about to lose the easy access to every square inch of the National Forest they’d been previously enjoying. In the end the Forest Service “closed” a few roads, but it was all just so much hot air as in the real world no gates or barriers were built and none of the “closed” roads were ever rehabilitated. You have to use a paper map or smart phone app to tell which roads are open and which are closed. Of course, big game hunters were given a special exception so they can drive cross country for up to a mile from any open road to retrieve their kills, which because of the extreme road density means they can go anywhere they like outside of the handful of small Wilderness Areas. And because there’s zero enforcement the whole process was just a pointless exercise exercise to appease the green groups. I’ve walked a ton of their “closed” roads doing my woods rambles and there are just as many tire tracks on them as there are on the “open” roads. It’s a total farce.

    Anyway, I just laugh now when I hear the Forest Service management talking about “temporary” roads being constructed as part of some project or another they’ve cooked up. It’s all permanent. Once the roads go in they become permanent fixtures on the landscape and the forest and the wildlife suffer for it.



  4. I’m pretty sure you are adding your own dramatic license to make your story sound better and push your agenda. I also notice where you make reference to hound hunting and emphasize not using GPS like that is a better way. I hope your “old timers” explained how far more ethical using GPS is for both the hounds and the game, and hopefully you made this clear in your new book. If not you should remove that chapter as it would be untrue and just go to discredit your book. Take care and remember hunting is conservation!


    • No dramatic license. Just reported as it went.

      My friends who are ‘old timers’ never used GPS. They trained their own dogs and followed them. Most of them camped out in the mountains in the winter for months on end and shot few cougars in their lifetime, although they’d treed a lot and took many photos. By following their dogs on foot they learned a lot about cougars that people who just look at their devices, then snowmobile or drive to the closest place to walk to the tree, don’t learn much. Mountain lions, who have been here since the Pleistocene, don’t stand a chance with all this new technology. You might enjoy my chapter on houndsmen and learn something from these guys, many of whom have worked extensively on studies that are quite well-known. Most know as much or more about lions than many biologists.

      Just a note for you that the Boone and Crockett Club WILL NOT score a cougar trophy if the hunter used GPS.


    • Michael, just so you understand how idiotic these guys are, and why I say they need to give classes to new hunters, I’d like to add something I found out today from the WG&F biologist. These men brought their cougar in for the tag. When they told the biologist they’d shot a female, he laughed and pointed out to them this lion was a male, and showed them! Sometimes reality is more unbelievable than fiction. Do not need to add any dramatics to this story.


      • Ha! Good one, Leslie.
        What a shame that the mentality of some so-called hunters is only about ridding the forest of any and all mountain lions. Education and tags should go hand in hand. Maybe it would change some ignorant thinking.
        I love the cats, I wish there were more than there are. I photograph wild horses and I’d like to see mountain lions on more of those ranges. A herd of mustangs in AZ never need to be rounded up due to the prevalence of cat kills. On Green Mountain in SE Wyoming, I’ve seen evidence of wild foal deaths from mountain lions.
        Anyway, I’m just fascinated by cougars and mountain lions and care about their well being. I cannot wait to read your new book!
        Do you have an idea of a release date?
        Thanks for your important work and good writing.

        Liked by 1 person

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