By Julie Marshall
Boulder Daily Camera
Mountain lions of Colorado have been in the news a bit lately. And the news is not so good.
Last month we heard one cougar was shot and killed with a .357 Magnum handgun at an undisclosed Colorado state park by Patrick Montgomery of Littleton, a professional hunting guide, who has been charged with 10 criminal counts, including assaulting a police officer during the Jan. 6 attack on our nation’s Capitol.
According to news accounts, Montgomery tried to grab the officer’s baton, wrestled him to the ground and kicked the officer in the chest. When he got home to Colorado, Montgomery used a slingshot to fell a bobcat from a tree and watch his dogs maul the feline to death.
Montgomery got caught after posting online photos he took posing with the cougar – a creature clearly in his prime at 170 pounds, appearing as tall as the man who propped the animal’s outstretched limp body upright for the camera. My first thought was “what a waste” and secondly, “what a loss of not just one cat, but his future sired kittens, too.”
Also in the news is that an undisclosed number of cougars, as well as black bears, have been killed (with more planned to be killed) as part of a $4 million multi-year, predator-killing program illegally supported with federal dollars. Starting in 2016 Colorado Parks and Wildlife began testing its theory of “less predators equals more mule deer” to address a decline in mule deer numbers and lost hunting opportunities in southwestern and northwestern parts of the state. A federal judge halted the experiment in April, because officials hadn’t conducted required environmental impact analyses with precision.
These stories raise questions of whether we should be hunting mountain lions for enjoyment as well as killing them for studies designed to enhance recreational hunting inColorado.
If you ask our state wildlife agency, the answer is a resounding yes: Colorado comes from a long tradition of conservation management and we need to hunt lions in order to have lions, is the answer. Our hunters are salt-of-the-earth people, who care deeply about keeping cougars around for generations and they are proud to be doing their part.
It sounds good -- the part about salty people wanting to keep lions around for all of us. But that doesn’t exactly make it true that we need hunters in order to have these tawny beasts in our forests. And if we can have lions without hunting them as recreation – or studying them to death for recreational goals -- that sounds a whole lot more appealing.
Every year, hundreds of lions are killed for recreational purposes, in other words: for fun. Hunters, many of them from outside state lines, get to keep the heads and the hides as trophies. In these circles, it’s considered OK to kill a lion at age 18, as a right of manly passage. (I heard someone say recently that if you want to prove your manhood, go hike alone in grizzly bear country and without a gun.) Lions killed each year by hunters in Colorado has steadily increased over the past 15 years, from an average of 375 in 2005, to closer to 500 in recent years. Add to the body count lions killed each year by Wildlife Services under the USDA in response to livestock depredation. Lions are struck by cars on our highways, causing orphaned kittens that don’t last very long without a mother – I was privileged to follow four orphans that were rehabbed for eight months (one died) and released by a very underfunded and one-woman state program in Silt. All of these avenues toward death are humancaused, and I haven’t even mentioned fragmentation of habitat, which is the reason Southern California is on the verge of listing cougars as state-endangered.
While lion estimates range from 4,000 – 5,500, those could be high because we still don’t know how many lions we have here in Colorado.
Earlier independent research out of Washington State University that included exhaustive and comprehensive studies of lion populations in Washington, northern Idaho and Montana concludes kill rates above 12 percent will trigger a decline in lion populations, and an independent 2020 study out of Western Oregon University concludes that sport hunting is not an effective tool for anything other than providing an opportunity for sport hunting.
It turns out that trying to manage lions for both hunting and sustainability is not easy; what appears to be a simpler and less harmful path is not managing lions for hunting.
And given the research, it seems wasteful and possibly counterproductive that our state recently approved for hunters to kill lions well beyond a sound threshold -- up to 15 percent in our West Slope Mountain Lion Management Plan for the Northwest Region -- with higher killing limits on the eastern part of the state. These are high levels of hunting in our wild places where we have not done the exhaustive studies as independent researchers did – so the outcome could be quite poor for stable lion populations and public trust of a state agency that is already in question as of last month’s federal court ruling.
We understand that CPW is conducting more lion population size estimates around the state, but we should be at best implementing very conservative kill numbers before the data is in. Even better, we should be halting the hunting period.
Equally troubling is the Glenwood Springs “Special Management Area” where we are managing a high “suppression” kill rate in response to public fear of lions. According to the plan, “The harvest limit in the ... SMA will be established at a level high enough that this SMA harvest limit group offers maximum hunting opportunity throughout the regular and April lion seasons (>25% harvest mortality, no human-caused mortality threshold and no adult female threshold).”
This style of management overkill isn’t worth the long-term cost, according to Mark Hurley, who tried it in a 2011 study for Idaho Department of Fish and Game called “Demographic Response of Mule Deer to Experimental Reduction of Coyotes and Mountain Lions”. Based on his results, and the fact there are no studies that provide any evidence that sport hunting increases public safety, we can say with a high degree of confidence that sport hunting does not reduce the risk of being attacked. Other lions will move into vacated and valued habitat. All you’ve created by ramping up killing is in an endless cycle of death of lions and more fear, followed by death of lions and more fear. This reminds me of Teddy Roosevelt’s comments circa 1890: “No American beast has been the subject of so much loose writing or of such wild fables as the cougars.”
For those of us who value lions alive, we can look to California as a living laboratory.
California, is a state with 39.5 million people, who spend a lot of time in nature where there are cougars. But they haven’t allowed cougar killing as a recreational sport for decades. One would think this state would have higher rates of conflict between lions and people, but they don’t: A study published last year by lion biologist the late John Laundre at Western Oregon University looked at the relationship between hunting lions, public safety and livestock predation. What he found out bodes well for coexistence without lion hunting – compared to 10 western states with cougars, California had the third lowest rate of per-capita attacks on people, with 0.4 attacks per million persons. It also had the least amount of cougar attacks on sheep by far.
Hunting or not hunting lions comes down to human values. And just as hunting deer and elk is a tradition and a value, so too is managing lions to support deer hunting. Killing vast numbers of lions to appease public safety fears may look good on paper, but it is not good science. The fact is, lions are not looking at humans as prey. They prefer to avoid us and there’s a study to prove it.
Maurice Hornocker conducted a 10-year study in New Mexico looking specifically at how pumas respond to approaching researchers and their findings indicate that cougars are not inclined to be aggressive toward humans. In 256 approaches, cougars made threat responses (hissing, growling, charging) in 16 (6 percent) of approaches, with 14 of those being females with young. The majority of cougars left when humans tried to approach and not one initiated an encounter or attacked a person.
Education for co-existence is important, but we also need a much stronger message from our state agency -- that living with lions means living with the smallest amount of risk, which is just part of life. Wiping out whole areas of lions is not ethical and incredibly selfish to the detriment of an entire healthy ecosystem of which lions play a major role.
CPW says hunting opportunities ought to be the main driver for policy, since hunters (don’t forget anglers) make up the largest part of agency funding through selling licenses and fees, but 11 percent of national gun and ammunition sales, and 10 percent of lottery proceeds pay for management of Colorado wildlife, too.
Other voices need to be heard, including the vast majority of Coloradans, who don’t hunt lions, but who value knowing they exist and maybe are lucky enough to see one. At least three surveys show public attitudes are on the side of not hunting lions, including one in 2019 by the National Shooting Sports Foundation, which found that the majority of Westerners (57%) oppose hunting of mountain lions. The study was funded by a Multistate Conservation Grant from the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies.
The answer is we don’t have to hunt lions to keep them around, and we should stop studying them to death in large numbers just so we can keep shooting them for fun or under a false pretense of public safety. Biologists across the country know for a fact that lions can manage themselves and these animals surely don’t need us to survive.