Common Sense Conservation to Keep Kittens Safer

Three of F61’s kittens in a typical fortress of downed wood, in which she gave birth. Photo by Mark Elbroch.

An early snow had painted the landscape completely white, and we were navigating the slippery roads of backcountry northwest Wyoming as part of Panthera’s Teton Cougar Project. We paused to look at footprints of a mountain lion we called F61, where she crossed the road and climbed towards the ridgeline. Just up the road, we found a houndsman’s truck tucked up against the trees. I turned off the engine and we stepped out into the crisp, still air. We did not hear the baying of hunting hounds—perhaps he hadn’t found her. Just ravens and wind.

We knew that F61 was nursing four tiny kittens at the time, tucked up in a woody fortress to the south across the river. If she were killed, four more mountain lions would die. It’s an unavoidable reality that, on occasion, hunters unintentionally kill females with dependent young—subsequently dooming the kittens along with their mother.

This is why we conducted new research just published in the Wildlife Society Bulletin. We set out to study female movements and behaviors while they were caring for the youngest and most vulnerable kittens in the den (See this blog for a description of a puma den). “Denning” is the period beginning when kittens are born and ending when they start traveling with their mother to her kill sites.

F61 with her 4 tiny kittens in the den. Photo by Mark Elbroch

We used 12 dens to determine the average length of denning, and 34 dens we documented over the course of our work to determine the following—if we delay legal mountain lion hunting until December 1 each year, we can avoid the denning period for 91% of mountain lion families.

Such a change would allow hunters the best opportunity to detect mountain lion family groups in the field, and to avoid inadvertently hunting females with kittens. It’s also a change that provides mountain lion families greater safety while their kittens are most vulnerable. It’s also a change that reflects a growing appreciation for predators in an evolving world.

In my mind, it’s just common sense conservation.

The morning after our encounter, Michelle Peziol, the Project Manager of Panthera’s Teton Cougar Project, followed F61’s trail from where we’d found her tracks crossing the road. Climbing the hill and traversing the ridge line, she saw that the mountain lion’s trail was intercepted by a hunter on horseback and his hounds. She discovered the tree where F61 had sought refuge. The area was a mess—churned up by the feet of cat, baying hounds, horse, and man.

A portrait of F51 and her kitten. Photo by Mark Elbroch

At the same time, I toured F61’s usual haunts and found her using the beacon in her collar. The hunter had let her go. I caught up with him several days later. He was gracious and recounted a beautiful day on the mountain—his first day hunting of the year, he said. He described F61 well, saying he’d noticed her collar and realized she must be one of the mountain lions we studied. He valued research, so he hauled in his hounds and walked away, letting her be.

The hunter had spared F61, and in doing so, had saved the lives of four more mountain lions, too. He was more than relieved when I told him.

This is simple change that can aid mountain lions right now. Spread the word: Delay mountain lion hunting seasons in western states until December 1 to protect the youngest kittens. It’s common sense conservation that we can apply immediately to increase protections for mountain lion families in hunted populations, supporting the shared goals of conservation scientists, wildlife advocates, and hunters alike.

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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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