Dead Cats, Dead People

At my job this week, a friend showed me a photograph of a 200 lb mountain lion reportedly killed on a deer lease near Junction, Texas. The cat was absolutely huge, bigger than anything I had ever handled or seen. (The biggest I had personally seen was a 150 lb mountain lion we named Fritz. Click here to see a picture.) The cat's story ended the way too many stories about mountain lions end: the hunter spotted it, thought it would be cool to "take" a mountain lion, and shot it dead.

What a waste!

The other side of the "better dead" coin occurred last week in Californiawhen a young male lion killed a man and attacked a woman mountain biker. Descriptions of the cat in the press said it was a two year old male weighing about 110 pounds. That's not big for a mountain lion of that age and sex. Additionally, he was at the age when most males disperse to establish their own home range. During that trek, they're likely to get into trouble or be troublesome since food tends to be scarce. While we'll never know, my guess is that was he was out on his own and having trouble getting established or was still in transit and hungry.

Taking these two things together always raises The Big Question: Did California's total protection of mountain lions play a role in the attacks? Would allowing hunting make the cats wary of people and actually help to prevent them?

The answer depends on whom you talk to.

I'm personally not in favor of hunting mountian lions or any other animal just for sport. I have no problems with hunting from need (i.e., for food...and I mean real need... not a rationalized one.). That said, I also am not in favor of eliminating all sport hunting. I'm a realist first of all; and though I don't like our current wildlife management systems, especially at the state level, sport hunting does serve some positive functions in today's wildlife environments.

Still, I'm waiting for the pro-mountain-lion-hunting rhetoric in California to start...again. There will be the usual clamor from hunters who like to think that hunting pressure causes mountain lions to be afraid of people and that these recent attacks might not have happened had the cats been hunted. That's an old argument with absolutely no science behind it, and it makes no logical sense. To the best our knowledge, mountain lions are not telepathic nor do they communicate with each other by radio. They don't caucus at night and compare notes. So, unless you're hunting each and every cat in a population and you either shoot at, wound, or scare each one, there is no way for them to communicate to each other what being hunted means. The most mountain lion attacks in the world take place in British Columbia where mountain lions are also heavily hunted. The real ingredients of the California problem lies in the creation of a larger and larger mix of people and mountain lions due to urban sprawl and large numbers of people, in a quest for some solitude, moving farther out into the country.

There is, however, one logical argument for why total protection of the animal in an area may hurt you. As I said earlier, the cat involved in the California attacks was described as a two-year-old male weighing about 110 pounds. The cat was at the age of dispersal, the time when young males go out to establish new home ranges. One of the things hunting may do (as well as kill a lactating female so one death results in the death of several lions ) is kill an older, established male. That openis his home range to younger competitors. In this sense, a hunter might do the mountain lion population a favor, especially in areas where habitat is very limited. While I suspect a young cat who can't establish a home range because he can't displace an older male would simply move on, I can't know whether the California cat in question had another option. Is California's total protection of the animals serving up a scenario where all the available home ranges are taken and the young males have nowhere to go? It is a question that needs answering.

It is not, however, a question to ask in Texas, where the only good cat continues to be a dead one. It's unlikely that mountain lions will ever be protected here, not only because the state of Texas doesn't really understand what its populations look like (acknowledging that getting a good head count is impossible and unrealistic) but because there is no political motive to protect them. Even though a good management scheme that could help ensure viable mountain lion populations in this state without a mountain lion census was presented at a mountain lion conference in San Antonio a few years ago, (the "reservoir theory" advanced by Dr. John Laundre), Texas has done nothing to implement it. And is unlikely to. That is balanced by the fact that, more than likely, the western part of the state will never succumb to the blob-like proportions of Houston or Dallas. Unpopulated ranges, as long as they are accompanied by a good proportion of deer, mean that mountain lions will probably always have some place to call home in Texas. But if I'm wrong and even the desert and mountains of the state become overrun with people, then mountain lions could disappear out of Texas just like they have out of most parts of the United States. It's not out of the question, as much as some folks would like to act like it is.

Let's take a deep breath and stare at reality. Mountain lions are beautiful, majestic, intelligent, animals who deserve a right to life just like we do (perhaps more so since they're not the ones overpopulating or trashing out the planet). But they also ain't kitty cats. They're highly-efficient, intelligent predators designed to operate in the wild. They are not compatible with city streets. We can co-exist if we use both heart and our heads, but not if we forget we possess either one.

It may be a useless request; but, for once, when it comes to the environment, let's do something right.

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