A Perfect Storm: How Multi-Jurisdictional Management Affects Mountain Lions

A subadult mountain lion, an age group our research has shown is particularly vulnerable to current management strategies. Photo by Mark Elbroch

 

Among the hallmarks of the American West is its mosaic of public lands, each governed by one of several state and federal agencies with different missions and objectives and, thus, varying impacts on the wildlife that call them home.

Our newest research, just published in the scientific journal Ecology and Evolution, reveals what happened to mountain lions that crossed jurisdictional boundaries and felt the effects of multiple management strategies simultaneously. We found that a perfect storm of three overlapping management actions dating back to the mid-1990s have contributed, sometimes unintentionally, to the 48-percent decline in the mountain lion population north of Jackson, Wyoming.

It all started in 1995 and 1996, when wolves absent since 1926 were re-introduced to Yellowstone National Park as part of efforts to restore natural and cultural resources to lands overseen by the National Park Service. Without a doubt, this is one of the most successful conservation stories of all time, both in terms of its cascading ecological benefits for a complex ecosystem and the social benefits it brought to our people.

In about 2000, managers turned their attention to the Jackson elk herd, the primary food source for the mountain lions we studied. A collaboration between state and federal agencies set forth objectives to reduce the herd from about 16,000 to 11,000 animals through “liberal” hunting measures. This objective, too, has been achieved in recent years.

Elk migrating northward out of the National Elk Refuge across Grand Teton National Park.

 

Finally, in 2007, the Game Commission for Wyoming Game and Fish Department encouraged increased mountain lion hunting on public and private lands across the state to reduce mountain lion numbers and their associated risks (both perceived and real) to people and livestock. This objective, too, has been achieved. The results of these three different management actions have brewed unexpected outcomes, and been hard on mountain lions.

M68, a subadult male mountain lion in the background, chased off his kill by the wolf in the foreground in northwest Wyoming.

 

Our research focused on mountain lion mortality rates, using 14 years of monitoring data from 134 individually marked mountain lions. Wolves impact local mountain lions in multiple ways, but one of them is by killing kittens. Even while people were increasingly killing adult and juvenile mountain lions across the state to meet State objectives, wolves had begun killing mountain lion kittens after being restored to the area. Wolves were responsible for the death of at least 18% of the kittens we followed (we were not always able to determine the cause of death).

Simultaneously, wolves were influencing where elk congregate on the landscape, and how many were available for mountain lions to hunt. The distribution of elk, in fact, has become vexingly skewed, and contrary to efforts by managers to encourage a broader distribution, a greater proportion of the remaining herd winters on the National Elk Refuge each year. Local biologists attribute this change to wolves and changing weather patterns.

Elk that congregated in the open on the Refuge were still prey for wolves, but not for mountain lions that could not compete with wolves away from the protection of trees and cliffs. As elk numbers dropped in our study area, following established management objectives to reduce the herd, they also changed their distribution. In combination, this has resulted in an amazing 70-percent reduction in the number of elk that winter on native range surrounding the National Elk Refuge, where they can be hunted by and sustain local mountain lions. Juvenile mountain lion survival plummeted, and we saw mountain lions of all ages increasingly die from starvation.

70 percent reduction is huge! And the remaining 30 percent of elk—around 2,500 individuals—must now be shared with the local wolf population, which over the course of the study increased by 600 percent and now outnumber mountain lions at least 3 to 1. Suddenly, it doesn’t seem so surprising that mountain lion numbers are down—adults and kittens are being killed, and their food resources are greatly reduced.

We’ve just completed the next step in our research, which is to make recommendations to aid the recovery of mountain lions. Unsurprisingly, we emphasize the need to redistribute elk on the landscape, a concept easy to propose but very difficult to implement on the ground in a system with multiple predators, multiple jurisdictions, and multiple management objectives all interacting with each other in sometimes unexpected ways.

We also recommend reducing mountain lion hunting in areas where wolves are rebounding—the cascading effects of their presence are apparently too much for the cats to handle when already under pressure from human hunters. Finally, this study shows the need for managing whole ecosystems in complex areas like the West where various stakeholders hold different objectives for wildlife, sometimes complimentary, sometimes contradictory. In this case, it is the mountain lion that suffered.

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Eastern Cougar “Extinction” — Some Key Points

 

The eastern cougar is not extinct, it never existed–here is a mountain lion from the west, which genetics confirm is as much an eastern cougar as those cats that historically roamed New England.

I’ve received a lot of worried messages and comments on social media about the recent U.S. Fish and Wildlife declaration that the “eastern cougar” (or mountain lion, Puma concolor couguar) is extinct, and was therefore being removed from federal endangered species protections. I think the wording of the federal ruling unintentionally—but unfortunately—influenced how the media covered the change in conservation status.

Here is the complete federal ruling, but here I provide what I believe are the five key take-home messages for those of us invested in mountain lion conservation. This is just one man’s opinion, of course.

  1. There never was an “eastern puma/cougar.”

This is one point I believe should have been included in the summary at the start of the federal ruling. Yes, the fact that there is not a breeding population of “eastern cougars” in the northeast of the United States or eastern-most Canada is reason for the declaration. But, much more importantly, the newest science has revealed that there never was an “eastern cougar” subspecies to begin with.

Phylogeny is the science that proposes how animals are related by their evolutionary history. Think of phylogentic trees, something most people can remember from school, and the “tree of life” showing how animals evolved and are related to each other. Today, phylogenetics is the more appropriate term, because our study of phylogeny is almost entirely dependent upon genetic tools.

In the old days, phylogeny was proposed based upon morphology (the shape, color, and external characteristics of an animal and its skeleton). Based upon subtle differences in coat color and skeletal measurements, historic scientists believed there were many subspecies of mountain lions in North America, including the eastern cougar. Genetic tools, however, have provided a very different picture.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) currently recognizes six subspecies of mountain lions, of which only one—Puma concolor cougar—inhabits North America. This means that current genetic research supports the belief that all the mountain lions in North America are of a single subspecies. In other words, the eastern cougar was never a separate subspecies, and mountain lions that historically inhabited the northeast of North America were the same subspecies as the mountain lions in Idaho—which are still very much alive. Thus, the eastern cougar is not extinct—it never existed.

It is more correct to say that the North American subspecies of mountain lions is locally extinct in the northeast, because there is not a breeding population in this region.

  1. Recent and future mountain lions in the northeast are not eastern mountain lions.

Any recent news of mountain lion sightings in the northeast, and any future confirmations of mountain lions in the northeast, do not justify the existence of the “eastern cougar” as a separate subspecies. These are migrants from the west, not local mountain lions that survived undetected for the last 70 years. Even if there was evidence that some of these new migrants were breeding, that is still not evidence of eastern mountain lions. These are the North American subspecies of mountain lions returning to where they were extirpated some 70 years ago when wide-scale predator control was commonplace.

Tracks of an adult female mountain lion from northwest Wyoming (F72). Photograph by Mark Elbroch

Some people still argue that mountain lions have existed in hidden pockets in New England for all of these years. Importantly, this does not matter because the subspecies distinction of “eastern cougar” was incorrect. But, further, most people agree this is unlikely. New England has numerous people skilled in interpreting animal tracks and sign, and mountain lions leave considerable sign where they move and kill prey.

Consider the amazing adventure of the dispersing male mountain lion that was killed on a Connecticut highway in 2011—and subsequently became national news and was written up in the book Heart of a Lion. Documenting this lone male was akin to looking for a needle in a haystack when you consider the massive geographic range he traversed, in which he unlikely ever encountered another mountain lion east of the Mississippi (if not east of Kansas). Yet, even he was documented numerous times on motion-triggered cameras and by experienced woodsmen and women while he traveled. Paul Rezendes and I were two of the many that confirmed photos of footprints he left in the Quabbin Resevoir in central Massachusetts before he was killed. My point is that even a single cat without a territory leaves sign, and a resident breeding population leaves much more.

  1. Eastern migrants are unaffected.

Mountain lions that disperse eastward from the west were never protected under the Endangered Species Act. Thus, current and future eastern migrants are unaffected by the new federal ruling—and still protected following the laws of the states in which they move while they are dispersing to seek new territories to call their own.

This map was made by Brad Herried for the Cougar Network, an organization leading the documenting and analyzing the eastward expansion of western mountain lions. https://www.cougarnet.org/research/

  1. Introducing mountain lions in the east just got easier (probably).

Re-introducing animals into previous range (as was done with wolves into Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho in 1995 and 1996) is an arduous process. Re-introducing federally protected animals, which are monitored closely and have stringent rules about how they are handled and moved, is even more difficult.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and numerous conservation scientists agree that delisting the eastern cougar actually makes it easier to reintroduce this top predator in the northeast. For one reason, now that all mountain lions in North America are considered the same species, we can reintroduce the native subspecies to New England rather than replace it with a different subspecies. It will now be up to each state to decide whether that is a course they would like to pursue, however, the debates between pro-predator and anti-predator constituents are unlikely to be any easier

If you live in an eastern state that is deliberating reintroduction, or if you would like then to consider it as an option, get involved, reach out and contribute your thoughts. State Wildlife Agencies act on behalf of their public—so let them know how you feel. Certainly, there are numerous areas that could sustain mountain lions in the northeast.

  1. The Florida panther is unaffected (at least for now).

The Florida panther, Puma concolor coryi, is listed separately from the eastern mountain lion, and its status under the Endangered Species Act is unaffected by the recent federal ruling. The 80-100 wild Florida panthers remain protected wherever they are found, even if they disperse out of Florida into neighboring states.

The caveat, however, is that current phylogentics could be used to argue that the Florida panther subspecies, just like the eastern cougar, is not justified either, and that their protective status should be ended as well. This would be devastating for Florida panther conservation, which is currently led by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. This is something conservation scientists, advocates, and managers need to monitor closely as the status of Florida panther is reviewed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Two Washington Talks on Mountain Lion Social Behaviors in February

For anyone interested in mountain lion social behaviors, please join me on February 1st in Port Angeles, Washington or February 24th in Duvall, Washington.

Feb 1 at Studium Generale in the Little Theater, Peninsula College:

1502 E. Lauridsen Blvd./Port Angeles, Wa. 98362.

Here is a link for directions:

Additional directions: The “Little Theater” is centrally located in the Pirate Union Building (“The PUB”), which is directly above (south of) the main parking area. If you walk between the library and the clock tower building, you will come right to it.

 

Feb 24 at Wilderness Awareness School, Duvall WA.

Contact: Marcus Reynerson <marcusreynerson@gmail.com>

I don’t actually know exactly where the presentation will occur–contact Marcus for details.
The office of WAS is at 26425 NE Allen St, Ste 203, Duvall, WA 98019. Their main campus is Linne Doran and directions are found here:
https://wildernessawareness.org/docs/linne_doran_directions.pdf
Thank you for your interest.

 

The Importance of Fieldwork and Field Skills

Young male mountain lion with a mule deer fawn killed by his mother.

Among my favorite activities is investigating mountain lion kill sites—meaning the work of actually going into the field and finding the remains of prey killed by mountain lions. We just published new research in the Journal of Mammalogy that shows that these expeditions in search of prey remains are not just enjoyable, they are also the best way to study carnivore foraging behaviors.

Every kill site is different, and some are tough to find. But over the years, I’ve begun to better predict where a cat might feel secure enough to feed and hide the remains of their prey. Flies are a great clue too—the sound and sight of them have often drawn me to a hidden carcass or a subtle area blood-flecked and sprinkled with tiny bits of tissue and bone easily overlooked. Magpies and eagles are even better, their vocalizations provide guidance from afar and if you can spot them on the ground, then you’ve found your kill.

Modern research on mountain lions relies heavily upon GPS technology built into collars. Location data are transferred via satellites to our computers while the collar is still on the cat, thus we can follow them in near real time. It’s absolutely amazing. When we see a group of location points on a map, we know a mountain lion has remained in place for some duration—what that animal was doing can only be determined with certainty by visiting the site to see what happened (and even then its not certain because we rely upon tracking skills to interpret signs; tracking will always be an imperfect art and science).

An elk killed and cached by a female mountain lion in northwest Wyoming.

Now it might be apparent to those who know me—that studying mountain lion kill sites brings together my dual interests in wildlife tracking and mountain lions. Its as if this work were created with me in mind. For the most part, our research teams (including those with professional tracking skills: Casey McFarland, Neal Wight, Matt Nelson, Max Allen, Michelle Peziol, Connor O’Malley, Anna Kusler, Blake Lowrey, and myself) spend almost all of our time visiting these sites in the field—its time consuming work, but I believe, well worth the effort.

Other researchers, however, invest elsewhere, and rely upon statistics and mathematics to measure kill rates (how often a carnivore kills prey) and even prey selection (what carnivores eat). They do this by visiting just a sample of locations in the field and then extrapolating what they observed to every area a mountain lion or other carnivore stopped and spent time, with the help of complex mathematical models. This approach is appealing because it saves lots of time in the field, and therefore money. Thus, the mathematical method has spread rapidly across the globe where it is being applied to more and more carnivore species.

My coauthors, Blake Lowrey and Heiko Wittmer, and I tested this mathematical approach to estimating kill rates against our own heavy-fieldwork approach, in which we try to visit every location a mountain lion stops for 4 or more hours on the landscape (we used to do 2 or more hours but 2-hr sites yielded very little prey data). We did this for 3 different study systems in which we’ve worked (Chilean Patagonia, Northern California, western Colorado), and found that the mathematical approach yielded unpredictably, inaccurate and imprecise estimates of kill rates. This was mostly due to the fact that carnivores are inconsistent in how they feed. They eat prey of different sizes, so the associated time it takes to consume their kills is highly variable. Mountain lions and other carnivores also have their kills stolen by bears and condors, and thus they sometimes feed for very short time periods from a large animal they killed. This confuses computer models, which tend to predict that places where a mountain lion spent little time must have been a place where it rested rather than killed prey.

An adult female mountain lion stands over an 11-month old elk calf she killed and cached.

Fieldwork is not just enjoyable, its justifiable. Spending time in the field remains our best approach to studying carnivore diets and kill rates. This is excellent news for those of us that have invested so much time in learning tracking skills, and so delight in forays afield where we apply our trade.

Do Mountain Lions Target Bulls and Bucks?

F47, an adult female mountain lion, turns back to look at the camera. Photograph by Steve Winter / National Geographic.

 

I’m often told that mountain lions target adult male deer and elk, called bucks and bulls by many people. Its become a point of contention among deer and elk hunters, and has fueled persecution of mountain lions. We just published a paper in which we tested this assumption in two areas of the Rocky Mountains.

I share a longer blog about our results on National Geographic’s CatWatch. But in short, we found that mountain lions went out of their way to target the youngest age classes of deer and elk, not the adult males.

The full article published in Wildlife Research can be found here. If you’d like a copy, please send a message through our project Facebook page.  Thank you for your interest.

Scientists Warning to Humanity

In 1992, the Union of Concerned Scientists and >1700 scientists wrote the “World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity”. They warned of environmental destruction and warned, “a great change in our stewardship of the Earth and the life on it is required, if vast human misery is to be avoided.”

Twenty five years later, scientists make the same plea. I signed the #ScientistsWarningtoHumanity.

Read the paper published in BioScience, spread the news.

Caption for the image adapted and shortened from that published in the paper by Ripple et al. (2017.) in BioScience:

Panel (a) shows emissions of halogen source gases, which deplete stratospheric ozone, assuming a constant natural emission rate of 0.11 Mt CFC-11-equivalent per year. In panel (c), marine catch has been going down since the mid-1990s, but at the same time, fishing effort has been going up. Panel (f) illustrates vertebrate animal abundance between 1970 and 2012– vertebrates declined by 58 percent. Five-year means are shown in panel (h). In panel (i), are increasing abundance of humans and ruminant livestock (domestic cattle, sheep, goats, and buffaloes).

 

Welcome, a Fresh Start

Well, it is exciting to finally have a website again. Its been more than 2 years since I gave up wildlifetrackers dot com, which was promptly hacked and still displays my name while now selling outdoor products. Please do not support the site. Have a look around and please let me know your feedback. Thanks.

There’s a lot happening in the mountain lion world right now, and I hope to write a few blogs about current issues. Stay tuned. Much more to come.

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