Arizona Game and Fish Commission Approves the Arizona Hunt Guidelines, Setting Up the Next Five Years of Mountain Lion Management
Phoenix, Arizona – On Friday, April 1, the Arizona Game and Fish Commission voted 5-0 to approve the Arizona Hunt Guidelines, establishing the next five years of hunting management for Arizona’s mountain lions and other hunted wildlife species.
The approved Hunt Guidelines came with two improvements for mountain lions, both targeted towards female lions. The Arizona Game and Fish Department will now limit female mountain lion hunting to 50% of the total mountain lion hunting limit in each unit, and count female mountain lions as adults if they show evidence of lactation, thereby counting these individuals towards their existing adult female hunting limit of 25%. Previously, the Department only counted females over three to be adult, even though many reach reproductive maturity between two and three. This was especially problematic given that that lions less than three years old are the most heavily hunted age class in Arizona.
Despite these improvements, several important recommendations were not included in the final Hunt Guidelines. “We were hopeful that the Department would prohibit hunting during times when female mountain lions are having kittens, and limit overall hunting levels to no more than 14 percent of the independent mountain lion population,” said Logan Christian, Region II Conservation Advocate for Mountain Lion Foundation. “The best available science demonstrates that those changes would prevent the majority of kitten orphaning and ensure a more stable population over the long run.”
The Department included a new positive change for black bears- to evaluate habitat conditions every three years, or after landscape-level events such as wildfire. However, they did not include a similar provision for other native carnivores impacted by changing habitat conditions. “Mountain lions need similar periodic habitat evaluations given the impact of drought and wildfire on their population,” said Christian. Additionally, the Department decided to maintain their spring bear hunt, making Arizona one of only seven states that still allow black bear hunting during this sensitive time when mothers are nursing their new cubs.
Before voting on the Hunt Guidelines, the Arizona Game and Fish Commissioners reacted to public criticism received throughout the Hunt Guidelines process. Several Commissioners posited that maintaining current hunting levels is justified since hunting provides revenue for wildlife conservation. Holding up a check from Arizona Deer Association, Commissioner Leland Brake stated, “We have a stable population because sportsmen groups are paying to support wildlife.”
Christian criticized the notion that hunting revenue makes the conservation of mountain lions and other native carnivores possible. “Hunting tags for mountain lions and other native carnivores provide a small source of revenue for the agency, and these species should be considered more than just a hunting opportunity. They hold intrinsic value and real tangible value as ecosystem engineers. They are worth far more alive than dead, and should be managed for all of us, not just hunters.”
Over the last seven months, MLF staff, volunteers and partners worked to raise awareness about mountain lion hunting management issues through media engagement, presentations and public testimony. “We were hopeful that the Department would make additional changes for Arizona’s mountain lions in line with the best available science,” said Christian. “However, we are grateful for the small improvements made, and will continue to advocate for the conservation of mountain lions and other native carnivores in Arizona.”
The Mountain Lion Minutes are a blog authored by Zack Curcija, an Adjunct Professor of Anthropology at Estrella Mountain Community College and Arizona-based volunteer with the Mountain Lion Foundation.
The Archaeology of America’s Lion
The most enduring cultural legacy of the mountain lion in the United States is preserved in the etymology of Lake Erie. Lake Erie takes its name from the common name for the Erie People, an Iroquoian-speaking group that inhabited the lake’s southern shore in present day Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York. To their Wendat (Huron) allies, the Erie were known as Eriehronon or “Panther Nation,” derived from the Wendat yenrish, meaning mountain lion (literally, “long-tailed one”) and ronon, denoting nationhood (Barbeau 1915; Sioui 1999). Early French explorers and cartographers believed this name reflected the high density of mountain lions in the forests around Erie territory, and referred to the Erie People and Lake Erie as the “Nation du Chat” and “Lac du Chat,” respectively (Harder 1987).
Mountain lions appear directly in the rich archaeological record of North America through relatively rare occurrences of claws, teeth, and hide. More commonly, mountain lions are indirectly represented in artifacts and features (e.g. rock art and monumental architecture) in nearly every medium available to ancient North Americans. Mountain lion effigies in wood, stone, clay, shell, bone, and native copper conferred leonine beauty, power, and protection to human beneficiaries. Material culture ranging in size from a carving that could fit in the palm of your hand to the 125-foot-long Panther Itaglio Effigy Mound testify to the prominence of mountain lions in the cosmology and worldview of many Indigenous cultures (Birmingham 2000).
The presence of mountain lion remains in the archaeological record – while rare – establishes that Indigenous people hunted mountain lions throughout antiquity. Ethnographic literature, the use of mountain lion products by historic-era groups, and detailed artistic representations in the archaeological record (e.g. the presence of dew claws in carvings) corroborate some degree of traditional hunting. Historically, mountain lions were hunted by several tribes for their hides, claws, and meat – though mountain lion meat was taboo for some tribes or for individual members of specific religious groups within tribes that otherwise consumed it (Hamell 1998; Kuhnlein and Humphries 2017). The extent to which Indigenous people hunted mountain lions in antiquity is impossible to determine with accuracy. Considering the broad and unimpeded range of mountain lions at the time of European contact, which is today used as a reference of a “natural” distribution, it’s fair to assume that traditional levels of hunting never approached the industrial-scale persecution the species experienced in recent centuries.
Despite their important role in Iroquoian cosmology and common representation in material culture, mountain lions were – as of a 1998 report – absent in the faunal remains of all excavated Northern Iroquoian sites, among the best-documented archaeological traditions in North America (Hamell 1988). From the Southwest, my region of specialization, I know of only three archaeological sites yielding mountain lion remains, but more than a dozen representations of mountain lions in artifacts and rock art. My inexhaustive analysis reveals that mountain lion remains appear less frequently in southwestern archaeological contexts than some rare exotic items, such as copper bells or macaws imported from present day Mexico.
With such an intimate relationship with their local environment, ancient people probably encountered mountain lions often while travelling, hunting, and collecting resources. However, the paucity of mountain lion faunal remains in the archaeological record suggest that hunting mountain lions with traditional means was nonetheless a difficult and/or rare endeavor. Three variables likely limited traditional levels of hunting from adversely affecting the continental mountain lion population as a whole. Here I will make generalizations of the nuanced details of human societies for the sake of brevity and conveying broad trends.
First and foremost, Indigenous people did not have any cultural or economic incentives to eradicate mountain lions or other predators. Such practices seem entirely incongruent with Indigenous perspectives on the natural world, and humanity’s place therein (Hughes 1976). With the exception of turkeys raised in parts of Mexico and the American Southwest, the only domesticated animal in ancient North America was the dog. Conditions were therefore not fertile to germinate the adversarial relationship between human and predator found on other continents where livestock was raised. Although mountain lions and humans often sought the same prey species – chiefly, deer – mountain lions were not viewed as competition. Instead, mountain lions were venerated cross-culturally for their physical prowess, and material culture associated with the athletic felines was worn or carried to imbue humans with good fortune in hunting and warfare (Hamell 1988; Hamilton 1964).
Further, the population size and density of the pre-contact United States was markedly lower than today. For perspective, the most populous human settlement north of Mexico during pre-contact times was Cahokia, an anomalously large ancient city along the Mississippi River that was home to approximately 15,000 people at its zenith between 1050 and 1200 CE (Jarus 2018). Before the advent of agriculture, most people in North America lived in small and mobile band-level societies, as did forager communities across the globe throughout the bulk of human history. Once maize agriculture spread into what is now the contiguous United States, the landscape became a mosaic of relatively large and sedentary population centers – large villages rarely exceeded 1,500 people – surrounded by smaller horticultural villages and even smaller nomadic bands retaining a hunter-gatherer lifestyle. Thus, there was never an evenly distributed, intensive, and pervasive pressure placed on mountain lions across a wide region at any given time, and the abundant locations of light or nonexistent hunting served as sources to replenish areas that were temporarily strained by heavier hunting.
Finally, much of the modern technology used to aid contemporary mountain lion hunters – such as firearms, spotting scopes, and GPS-collars for specially bred and trained hound dogs – was unavailable to ancient people. In the ethnographic literature, mountain lions were reportedly captured in traps or hunted directly by tracking or in chance encounters (Kuhnlein and Humphries 2017). Methods of direct hunting were limited to the use of handheld spears or close-range projectiles, such as the atlatl-and-dart system and – later – the bow-and-arrow. While the scenthound breeds most commonly used for mountain lion hunting today have origins in Europe, Native American dog breeds were used to hunt bears, so it’s possible dogs were also employed in hunting mountain lions (Kuhnlein and Humphries 2017). Slain mountain lions were treated with respect, and some groups maintained ritual shrines to honor the skulls of hunted cats (Hughes 1976; Parsons 1939).
After more than ten thousand years of Indigenous levels of hunting, the distribution of the mountain lion was restricted only by geographic variables at the time of European contact. Historically, mountain lions inhabited all of what is now the contiguous United States, with low-density or transient populations living above river corridors on the Great Plains and in the most arid regions of the Great Basin and Southwest. Within just three hundred years of the Mayflower landing, Euro-American predator policy had extirpated mountain lions east of the Black Hills, save an endangered remnant population in Florida. The annals of North American archaeology, ethnography, and contemporary Indigenous tradition demonstrate that human beings and mountain lions can successfully coexist – that respect and ample habitat are prerequisites for the continued existence of the honorable mountain lion.
Barbeau, M. (1915) Huron and Wyandot Mythology: With an appendix containing earlier published records. Ottawa: Government Printing Bureau.
Birmingham, R. (2000) Indian Mounds of Wisconsin. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.
Hamilton, T. (1964) Pueblo Animals and Myths. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.
Hammel, G. (1988) Long-Tail: The Panther in Huron-Wendat and Seneca Myth, Ritual, and Material Culture. In N. Saunders (Ed.) Icons of Power: Feline Symbolism in the Americas (p. 258-286). New York: Routledge.
Kuhnlein, H. and M. Humphries (2017) Traditional Animal Foods of Indigenous Peoples of Northern North America: http://traditionalanimalfoods.org/. Centre for Indigenous Peoples’ Nutrition and Environment, McGill University, Montreal.
Parsons, E. (1939) Pueblo Indian Religion. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Sioui, G. (1999) Huron-Wendat: The Heritage of the Circle. Vancouver: UBC Press.
Denver, Colorado – On Thursday, February 3, the Colorado Senate held a hearing for S.B. 31, the bill to end the recreational hunting of mountain lions, bobcats and Canada lynx in Colorado. While hunting groups stormed the capitol to protect their ability to kill Colorado’s wild cats, a broad coalition of conservation groups urged the Colorado Senate Agriculture Committee to bring the state in line with the best science and end the hunt. The committee ultimately voted 4-1 against the bill this year, but called for more detailed information from state agencies and deeper consideration of the hunt going forward.
Conservation organizations including Mountain Lion Foundation, Humane Society of the United States, WildEarth Guardians and Animal Welfare Institute testified in support of the bill, highlighting research that hunting is not needed to manage wildcats. Josh Rosenau, Conservation Advocate for Mountain Lion Foundation, explained, “For too long, mountain lions have been subject to consistent annual killing, despite evidence that hunting is not necessary to regulate their populations, exacerbates conflicts with humans, and hinders their roles in natural ecosystems.”
Many who testified against S.B. 31 posited that sportsmen should be allowed to continue hunting these species since hunting tags help fund wildlife conservation. Responding to these arguments, Rosenau stated, “[Sportsmen] disregard the contributions of non-consumptive wildlife users through general tax revenue, user fees and direct donations. Moreover, wildlife management is not a pay-to-play game. The first tenet of the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation states that wildlife resources are a public trust to be managed by governments for the benefit of all citizens. Just over 5% of Colorado residents are hunters, and a very small fraction of those hunt wild cats. Compare that to over two-thirds of state residents who do not support the recreational hunting and trapping of wild cats.”
Many sportsmen also stated that S.B. 31 would take management away from experts at Colorado Parks & Wildlife. Logan Christian, another Conservation Advocate for Mountain Lion Foundation, clarified that this would not occur under the bill. “The expertise of CPW staff has been invaluable for understanding wildcat populations, responding to human-wild cat conflicts, and educating the public about human-wild cat coexistence. All of these activities would continue under S.B. 31. What hunters are really saying is that managers should focus on providing hunting opportunities, but hunting is only one of many considerations that wildlife managers must balance. Their primary mandate is sustaining all wildlife populations for the benefit of current and future generations.”
Senators who voted against the bill raised questions about its fiscal impact, and requested detailed information about mountain lion populations on the fly during the hearing. Despite her opposition, Committee Chair Donovan explained that she was nonetheless impressed with the arguments from both sides. “What was unique about this bill is that the majority of the emails were not form letters, they were people sitting down and writing their thoughts. You can tell people are being thoughtful about this issue on both sides.
Responding to her fellow senators requests for population information, Senator Jaquez Lewis, the bill sponsor and sole person who voted for S.B. 31, explained that Colorado Parks & Wildlife mostly uses harvest data to assess the population, which doesn’t accurately capture how many wildcats are on the landscape. She also stated that she hopes to address some of these questions with a future bill. “If I had done it again I would have a component to gather more information about big cat populations.” She went on to say, “While CPW doesn’t have reliable data, we’ve really shown a light that that’s where we need to go. I hope in the future I can bring a bill to you that helps address where we need to go.”
CPW is currently experimenting with new mountain lion population monitoring methods that use GPS collaring and camera trapping to better understand the state’s mountain lion population. Christian, who has communicated with CPW staff about this research, stated, “We support these new population monitoring efforts by CPW and hope that the agency will not rely on harvest data to assess populations as has been done in the past. CPW will continue to be an important player in mountain lion research and management, even if recreational hunting of the species is eventually banned.”
Colorado legislators introduce S.B. 31, a bill to protect mountain lions, bobcats and Canada lynx from hunting.
Colorado – On Thursday, January 13, Colorado legislators introduced S.B. 31, a bill that would end the hunting and trapping of mountain lions, bobcats and Canada lynx in the state of Colorado. Sen. Sonya Jaquez Lewis (Boulder County), Sen. Joann Ginal (Fort Collins), Rep. Monica Duran (Wheat Ridge) and Rep. Judy Amabile (Boulder) are championing the legislation.
In Colorado, hundreds of mountain lions and thousands of bobcats are killed each year. Hounds are used to chase and corner lions to be shot by a hunter, while traps are commonly used to capture bobcats and shoot them at close range. The bill would end this recreational hunting and trapping of these two species, while also protecting the Canada lynx in case it loses its protection under the Endangered Species Act in the future.
Polling data from Colorado shows that more than two-thirds of Coloradans oppose the hunting of these wild cat species. The public has long viewed the pursuit of wild cats as ‘trophy hunting,’ where the primary motivation is to capture and kill animals for bragging rights or displaying the carcass, even if the meat is consumed. In addition to public support, a broad coalition of wildlife conservation organizations are supporting S.B. 31, including Mountain Lion Foundation, Humane Society of the United States, Animal Welfare Institute, the Center for Biological Diversity, Project Coyote, Sierra Club Colorado, WildEarth Guardians and Boulder Bear Coalition.
Logan Christian, Region 2 Conservation Advocate for Mountain Lion Foundation, said, “We are proud to support S.B. 31 and applaud the legislators who are taking this bold effort to end the hunting and trapping of Colorado’s wild cats. Hunting disturbs the social structure of mountain lions and other wild cats, often exacerbating conflicts between these species and humans. Colorado’s wild cats already face mounting threats from highways, urban expansion and climate change. Removing hunting as an additional source of mortality will help protect the long-term persistence of these species.”
Sen. Sonya Jaquez Lewis from Boulder County, one of the legislators who introduced the bill, said, “We know that 72% of Colorado residents believe that our state’s beautiful mountain lions and bobcats should not be hunted as trophies, yet, hunters kill hundreds each year. Mountain lions self-regulate their population sizes and very few livestock are killed by them in Colorado. We do not need to be hunting these gorgeous animals for sport in our state.”
The bill includes exemptions for killing wild cats when necessary to protect livestock, public safety or to euthanize an injured animal.
All paws on deck: The movement to end trapping is far from over
By Logan Christian and Josh Rosenau
Early this year, New Mexico enacted Roxy’s Law, a policy that restricts almost all forms of wildlife trapping on the state’s public land. This law will help end considerable animal suffering in the state, not only for “furbearing” species but also for unintentionally captured endangered species and pets.
Roxy’s Law is named for a dog whose death galvanized the movement against trapping in New Mexico. Recently, a New Mexico court dismissed a range of wildlife crimes facing Marty Cordova, whose illegally placed traps killed Roxy. Officials from New Mexico Department of Game and Fish and the Bureau of Land Management mishandled evidence by deleting numerous photos and not collecting the implicated traps.
Only if law enforcement gives it teeth can Roxy’s Law take a bite out of illegal trapping. In addition to clearer enforcement guidelines, the new law needs a longer reach to stamp out this cruelty and protect our pets and wildlife. Trapping remains legal on all of New Mexico’s private lands, and throughout most private and public lands in the vast majority of states.
For decades, wildlife agencies have viewed trapping as a way to protect desirable game populations. Eleven states allow the trapping of mountain lions, whether by wildlife agency officials, federal Wildlife Services, or private contractors. Nationally, thousands of coyotes and other carnivores are trapped every year, with no evidence of any benefit for game species, and regardless of the social and ecological benefits carnivores provide.
Fortunately, change is coming, even within the livestock industry, once a major advocate for trapping. Many livestock producers do not see trapping as the only way to meet their objectives. From 2000 to 2015, the percentage of producers who use non-lethal predator deterrence methods grew six-fold from 3% to 19%. Non-lethal deterrence often proves more effective and cheaper in the long run compared to trapping.
Professional trappers are changing their views, too. Carter Niemeyer grew up trapping for federal agencies, “a hired gun for the livestock industry,” as he puts it. But after 26 years of that work, he went from hunting wolves, cougars, and other carnivores, to helping return wolves to the West. As he came to see that killing those animals didn’t cure anything, Niemeyer rethought the value of trapping. “I know now,” he writes, “that most of the predator killing I did was unjustified.” He follows a new path now, as have many other trappers. He doesn’t reject what trapping was, just doesn’t see it as the future for himself or wildlife. “Trapping was everything to me. I wouldn’t take back most of what I did. After all, it taught me almost everything I know about wildlife. But that doesn’t mean I’m the same now.”
Neither are New Mexicans. Trapping may be an important to some, but the majority of New Mexicans supported a trapping ban for decades before Roxy’s Law passed. New Mexico shows what the movement to end trapping can accomplish, but also highlights how far we have to go. To win this battle, wildlife advocates need to keep working with agriculture producers, sportsmen, and agency officials who see that trapping isn’t a solution, but a problem. If the movement can do that, it might just prevail.
Logan Christian and Josh Rosenau are Conservation Advocates with the Mountain Lion Foundation, a National non-profit organization.
Utah Wildlife Board votes 4-3 to ban trail cameras for most hunting purposes, shortens the seasonal timeframe of the ban to give more opportunity to mountain lion hunters, and removes some protections for collared lions.
Utah – On Tuesday, January 4, the Utah Wildlife Board voted 4-3 to approve a proposed rule change that will ban the use of trail cameras for aiding in the take of wildlife (i.e. for hunting purposes). The new rule will go into effect from July 31 to December 31 of each year, covering most of Utah’s big game hunting seasons. The original proposed timeframe of the ban was July 31 to January 31, but an amendment shortened the timeframe to December 31 to give more opportunity to mountain lion hunters who use trail cameras. This new rule will apply to both internal storage cameras and transmitting trail cameras that display images to users in real time. The rule change also prohibits the use of night-vision devices during any big game hunt, including 48 hours before and after a big game hunt, and prohibits the sale or distribution of images from trail cameras used for aiding the take of wildlife.
Over the past year, the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources (DWR) administered several surveys to inform their proposed rule change. These surveys found that the majority of Utah hunters do not support the use of trail cameras for hunting purposes, mostly due to concerns about fair chase. Utah’s consideration of the trail camera issue comes as many other states limit the use of trail cameras for hunting purposes, including Nevada in 2018 and Arizona in 2021.
Several Board and Regional Advisory Council (RAC) members voiced concerns about enforcement of the new trail camera ban. The RACs only approved the ban by a 3-2 margin, with the two opposing RACs requesting that Utah adopt something similar to Nevada’s ban that applies to all trail cameras instead of those used for hunting, which makes enforcement easier. Board Member Bryce Thurgood motioned to amend the rule change to apply to all trail cameras, but the DWR’s lawyer clarified that the agency does not have authority to limit trail camera use outside of hunting without authorization from the legislature. Utah State Representative Mike Schultz was present and agreed to take up the issue of a more all-encompassing seasonal trail camera ban in the legislature at a future time.
Board Member Wade Heaton also called for a future action item to explore limiting other emerging technologies that reduce fair chase hunting practices, such as scopes for muzzleloaders. The Division’s Big Game Coordinator, Covy Jones, supported this idea, saying the Division will help “look at technologies that impact harvest success, form a committee to address these issues, and then get some public sentiment and decide which ones to address.”
As originally proposed, the trail camera ban would have extended through January 31. Board Member Bryce Thurgood amended the rule during the meeting so that the trail camera ban would only extend through December 31 after some board members expressed a desire to give more opportunity to cougar hunters who use trail cameras. “Give the cougar hunters the month of January,” said Randy Dearth, Vice Chair of the Wildlife Board.
Mountain Lion Foundation supported the ban on trail cameras for hunting purposes, submitting comments in favor of the rule change and encouraging their statewide members to do so as well. However, the Foundation was not in support of the last minute change to give more opportunity to lion hunters who use trail cameras.
“This last minute change to promote mountain lion hunting is disappointing, but not surprising given the DWR’s recent move to allow unlimited lion hunting in over half of Utah’s hunting units,” said Logan Christian, Region 2 Conservation Advocate for Mountain Lion Foundation. “The DWR has the backing of the State Legislature to hunt lions at an unprecedented rate in the name of protecting elk and deer, despite the evidence that declining habitat quality and climate change play a far greater role in the decline of these species compared to predation. Mountain lions are just an easy scape-goat that allows the Division to sell more hunting permits.”
In line with this sentiment against cougars, later in the meeting, the Board voted to remove some limitations on killing cougars with radio collars. In 2021, the Board prohibited killing cougars with collars to help ensure quality data collection for active cougar studies. This rule included a sunset period after 3 years when hunters could resume killing collared cougars. However, on Tuesday, the Board decided to let hunters kill collared cougars as long as they are in a hunting unit that does not have an active study, despite concerns that cougars from active study areas may wander into inactive study areas.
The Mountain Lion Minutes are a monthly blog authored by Zack Curcija, an Arizona-based volunteer with the Mountain Lion Foundation.
The Consequences of Sport Hunting: Orphaned Kittens
A gunshot pierces the crisp December air in a central Arizona mountain range, temporarily halting the cacophony of baying hounds. A female mountain lion – a queen – is dead. She was not destroyed for committing depredations on the cattle that graze the nearby valleys. She was not posing any threat to the humans who pursued and killed her for sport. She was also not a solitary cat: A litter of approximately four-month-old kittens awaits her return.
How many kittens comprised the litter will remain a mystery, though it is probable the slain female – like the average mountain lion mother – had between two and four kittens. Young kittens are entirely dependent on their mother for nutrition and protection, and – once orphaned – are destined to die of starvation, exposure, or predation on their own. This is the presumed fate for all but one of the litter, a remarkable female kitten who emerged from her mountain stronghold nearly one month after the death of her mother. Lured to an idyllic homestead by the sound of clucking chickens, the kitten ventured to the same trailhead where the hunters who killed her mother initiated their chase.
A benevolent rancher discovered the emaciated kitten clawing at a chicken coop in a desperate attempt to satiate weeks of hunger. At the recommendation of the Arizona Game and Fish Department (AZGFD), the kitten was captured and rescued by the Southwest Wildlife Conservation Center, where she was rehabilitated back to health and given the name Poppy. There she will spend the remainder of her life among other mountain lions with similar backstories. Though her growth was stunted from the malnutrition she suffered at an early age, Poppy retains the vigor that saw her through her time as an orphan, and she enjoys roughhousing with her older – and much larger – foster siblings.
Poppy is emblematic of a common but typically invisible repercussion of mountain lion hunting. While the recreational harvest of spotted kittens or females with spotted kittens is unlawful in Arizona, young kittens are rarely travelling with their mothers when the latter are pursued by hunters and their hounds. Aiming to reduce the number of kittens orphaned each hunting season, AZGFD recently implemented a seasonal closure between June 1st and August 20th of each year to accommodate a portion of the seasonal birth pulse when most kittens are born (AZGFD 2021a). A seasonal closure – in principle – offers a window for dependent kittens born during the birth pulse to physically develop and begin travelling with their mothers, therefore making family groups more identifiable to hunters when the season reopens.
However, the brief recess – in practice – only benefits a small minority of kittens born during the earliest stage of the closure, which itself represents a fraction of the seasonal birth pulse observed in North American mountain lions. Though female mountain lions can birth litters at any time throughout the year, North Americas mountain lions exhibit a seasonal birth pulse between May and October, during which more than 70% of annual births take place (Laudré and Hernández 2007; Logan and Sweanor 2009). For the first six weeks of life, a period known as the “denning” life stage, mountain lion kittens are mostly sedentary and therefore especially vulnerable to orphanage while their mother frequently travels alone. As kittens mature, the probability they will be found travelling with their mother increases continuously until they disperse to establish their own territory as independent subadults between 12 and 24 months of age (O’malley et al. 2018).
Most of the studies that support the birth pulse phenomenon are from northern latitudes. An Arizona study revealed a possible delayed birth pulse, which may reflect an adaptation to extreme summer heat and aridity. Most kittens in the study area were born in August, October, and December, suggesting there is minimal overlap between when most kittens are born and the seasonal closure that occurs when temperatures are high and historic levels of hunting were already relatively low (Wakeling et al. 2015; Zornes et al. 2006).
To confer sufficient protection to most mountain lion mothers and their dependent kittens, a seasonal closure must accommodate a greater portion of the mountain lion birth pulse. Research conducted by Panthera found that the overwhelming majority of mountain lion kittens born in a given year complete their denning stage and are capable of travelling with their mothers by December 1st. The biologists reveal that extending a seasonal closure from June 1st through November 1st would accommodate the denning period of 85% of mountain lion family groups that include dependent kittens, while delaying the season until December 1st would accommodate the denning period for 91% of litters (O’malley et al. 2018).
At nearly nine and half months long, the hunting season for mountain lion is conspicuously longer than that of any other big game species in Arizona (AZGFD 2021b). A seasonal closure from June 1st through December 1st would still allow for six months of hunting opportunities while improving the detectability of most mountain lion family groups on the landscape. Extending the seasonal closure to overlap with the hunting seasons of other game species is also important to mitigate the type of hunting that most adversely affects female mountain lions. AZGFD data show that hunters targeting other game species while opportunistically carrying a mountain lion tag are less selective if they encounter a mountain lion. Opportunistic hunters disproportionately shoot females compared hound hunters who generally seek larger trophy males and can often get close enough to – with the appropriate knowledge – identify sex and approximate age (Zornes et al. 2006; AZGFD 2021a).
While orphaned kittens are an inevitable consequence of hunting female mountain lions, AZGFD possesses the knowledge and the ability to offer greater protection to female mountain lions and their dependent kittens through an extended seasonal closure and other measures such as reducing female harvest thresholds and implementing mandatory mountain lion sex identification training for hunters. AZGFD was instrumental in mediating Poppy’s rescue, and as an agency expressly committed to applying knowledge generated through rigorous conservation research, fostering ecological sustainability, and upholding hunting ethics, they should be receptive to sound recommendations that embody all three desirable features of modern hunting.
Hunting induced kitten orphanage is an additive source of predictable mortality that occurs each year as a function of annual hunting rates. Though precisely quantifying the number of kittens orphaned each year through sport hunting is not possible at the state or national level, estimates can be calculated from hunter harvest and mountain lion life history data. The following estimates use numbers published exclusively by AZGFD, and analogous data should be available in other states where mountain lions are managed as a game species. In 2021, hunters killed and reported 118 female mountain lions across Arizona. Age-specific information is not available at this time, and it is likely that at least some of these females were younger than reproductive age (less than 1.5 to 2.5 years old). Therefore, these calculations might slightly overestimate the number of orphaned kittens if some of the females harvested last year were themselves kittens or juveniles. The agency reports that 75% of reproductively mature females are caring for depending offspring at any time, with the majority of mountain lion mothers caring for kittens born during the current year. If 75% of the 118 female lions killed had an average of three kittens, then Poppy was one of approximately 267 mountain lion kittens orphaned by hunting in Arizona in 2020 (AZGFD 2021c; AZGFD 2021d).
Not every kitten dies as a result of being orphaned and not every kitten with a mother survives to adulthood, but the kittens that were orphaned and died because of hunting would otherwise have competed within the arena of natural selection where their survival or death would influence mountain lion population health. AZGFD reports that the survival of orphaned kittens is significantly lower than the survival rate of kittens with a mother: Kittens older than six months have a 71% chance of survival once orphaned compared to a 95% survival rate in kittens with their mother, while kittens younger than six months have a 4% chance of survival as an orphan compared to a 66% survival rate in kittens with their mother (AZGFD 2021d). In reality, kitten survival rates exist on spectrum such that the probability of survival increases exponentially with age. The broad age categories outlined by AZGFD likely yield an overestimation of kitten survival since the survival rate of an orphaned seven-month-old kitten will be closer to the survival rate of an orphaned five-month-old kitten than that of an orphaned eleven-month-old kitten.
Making the conservative assumption that the age classes of orphaned kittens are neatly arranged into thirds (one third of the kittens are less than six months old, one third are between six months and a year old, and one third are over one year old and almost ready for dispersal), calculations based on AZGFD data suggest that around 137 orphaned mountain lion kittens died as a consequence of sport hunting in Arizona in 2020. Had this cohort of misfortunate mountain lion mothers survived to raise their litters, they would have collectively lost roughly 38 kittens to natural sources of mortality. Therefore, in 2020, sport hunting in Arizona resulted in the death of approximately 99 mountain lion kittens that would have otherwise survived to dispersal, adulthood, and reproductive viability.
The story of Poppy the mountain lion kitten represents the disproportionate impact of killing a female mountain lion with dependent kittens: How – in an instant – a single gunshot destroyed two generations of female mountain lions, and removed all possibility of Poppy growing to become a progenitor of her species in the wild. She lived for nearly a month as an orphan, weathering winter storms and frigid nighttime temperatures, evading predators, securing water, and likely outlasting her siblings before being mercifully rescued on the brink of death.
Most young kittens in her situation perish in obscurity, but Poppy may shine as an ambassador of future generations of mountain lion kittens vulnerable to orphanage without added protection. Her story compels us to question whether hunting induced kitten orphanage must remain an unfortunate reality, and recent conservation research suggests the current magnitude of these unintended collateral effects is reducible with ethical management strategies that consider mountain lion life history.
Logan, K., & Sweanor, L. (2009). Behavior and social organization of a solitary carnivore. In M. Hornocker & S. Negri (Eds), Cougar: Conservation and Ecology (p. 105-117). Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.
O’malley, C., Elbroch, L.M., Kusler, A., Peziol, M. and Quigley, H. (2018), Aligning mountain lion hunting seasons to mitigate orphaning dependent kittens. Wildl. Soc. Bull., 42: 438-443. https://doi.org/10.1002/wsb.902
Wakeling, B., Day, R., Munig, A., and Childs, J. (2015) Age and Sex Composition of Harvest and Timing of Birth Frequency for Arizona Mountain Lions. In L. Huenneke, C. Van Riper, and K. Hays‐Gilpin (Eds). The Colorado Plateau VI: science and management at the landscape scale (p. 95-101). University of Arizona Press, Tucson. https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctt183pc7f
Zornes, M., S. Barber, and B. Wakeling (2006) Harvest methods and hunter selectivity of mountain lions in Arizona. In J. Cain III and P. Krausman (Eds). Managing wildlife in the southwest (p.85-89). Southwest Section of the Wildlife Society, Tucson. https://bri.sulross.edu/pubs/proceedings/Southwest2006_sm.pdf
Nevada Department of Wildlife votes 5-4 to not move forward with proposed language banning wildlife-killing contests.
Nevada (remote meeting) – On Friday, November 5, 2021, the Nevada Board of Wildlife Commissioners workshopped language, proposed by Commissioner David McNinch, that would ban wildlife-killing contests in the state of Nevada. After considerable discussion and dozens of comments from members of the public and County Advisory Boards, the Commission voted 5-4 to not move forward with the proposed language.
The language, proposed for inclusion in Nevada Administrative Code 502, reads: “A person shall not by any means: a) Participate in, organize, promote, sponsor, or solicit participation in a contest where a participant uses or intends to use any device or implement to capture or kill predatory animals or fur-bearing animals. For the purposes of this subsection, “contest” means a competition among participants where participants must register or record entry and pay a fee, and prizes or cash are awarded to winning or successful participants.”
Tony Wasley, Director of the Nevada Department of Wildlife, provided a more direct stance on wildlife-killing contests than the Department has been willing to provide previously. Commenting in support of the proposed language, he stated, “My fear as a sportsman and Director of the Nevada Department of Wildlife is that an unwillingness to consider what society writ large feels about what we do will hasten the erosion of privileges that I hold near and dear.”
Commissioner David McNinch clarified that he does not view this as a biological issue for coyotes, but as an issue related to the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation and improving the relevancy of sportsmen. “The vast majority of the public are largely accepting of what sportsmen do, but how we [pursue wildlife] will change those opinions.”
Several commissioners commented against the proposed language, many highlighting how the commission should not weigh in on ethical issues. “Ethics are subjective”, stated Commissioner Tommy Caviglia. “What some of you agree to do, I might not agree to do.”
Logan Christian, a Conservation Advocate with Mountain Lion Foundation, commented in support of the proposed language. “These contests do not represent standards of fair chaise or science-based management of our native wildlife. Research finds that the indiscriminate killing of these species can lead to unintended consequences including disruption of family groups, increased rates of reproduction and increased conflicts with domestic animals.” Many other conservation organizations commented in support of the proposed language including Sierra Club, Project Coyote and the Humane Society of the United States.
Commissioner McNinch motioned to move the language forward for a vote at a future meeting, but the motion did not pass. Amid considerable public outcry against wildlife-killing contests, as well as pressure from a growing contingent of Western states that have banned the contests, the Nevada State Legislature will likely take up the issue next since the Commission could not reach an agreement.
New Mexico Department of Game and Fish votes to amend the Furbearer rule prohibiting all “sports harvest” trapping on New Mexico public land.
Las Cruces, NM – On Friday, October 22, 2021, New Mexico Department of Game and Fish (NMDGF) Commission approved changes to the Furbearer rule (19.32.2 NMAC) with a 5-0 vote. These changes conform to statutory requirements set forth in New Mexico Senate Bill 32, the Wildlife Conservation and Public Safety Act. The Act, better known as Roxy’s Law, was passed in March 2021 and prohibits all trapping on New Mexico’s public lands.
Overall, the rule change conformed to the Act’s statutory requirements. However, the Mountain Lion Foundation (MLF) and other members of the coalition Trap Free New Mexico signed and delivered a comment letter authored by Chris Smith of WildEarth Guradians outlining certain concerns coalition members have related to future enforcement of the rule. The letter clarified that existing closures will not be opened to any sport harvest trapping and that depredation trapping shall only be carried out as specified under exemptions in the Act. The letter also acknowledged that NMDGF will work with New Mexico Indian Affairs Department to ensure that exemptions for religious or ceremonial trapping will be carried out in a lawful and respectful way consistent with federal procedures for recognizing tribes, nations, and pueblos.
Logan Christian, Conservation Advocate for Mountain Lion Foundation in New Mexico, delivered a verbal comment at Friday’s Commission meeting affirming MLF’s support for the proposed changes. In line with the comment letter, MLF also urged the NMDGF to ensure that any future publications or communications make clear that the exemptions in the Act do not open any public land to “sport harvest” trapping.
MLF will closely monitor the new Furbearer rule as implementation and enforcement begins. New Mexico is setting an example for other states, and MLF and other Trap Free New Mexico coalition members hope that this is the first of many states to ban trapping on public land for the benefit of both public safety and wildlife.
The Mountain Lion Minutes are a monthly blog authored by Zack Curcija, an Arizona-based volunteer with the Mountain Lion Foundation.
Why Advocate for Mountain Lions?
Mountain lion. Puma. Cougar. Catamount. Panther. The many common names that describe the cat known scientifically as Puma concolor reflect the physical prowess and adaptability of the species. Historically ranging from northern Canada to the southern tip of Patagonia and from the Atlantic to the Pacific coasts, the mountain lion is the most successful large mammal in the Western Hemisphere, next to humans. In the United States, the species is now primarily confined to the Mountain West, living in areas that support deer, their chief prey. From alpine meadows, through rugged canyons, and across sunbaked deserts, the mountain lion reigns as the top carnivore throughout most of its present range.
In the rugged American West, and in a small pocket of the Florida everglades, mountain lions found refuge from the centuries of persecution that extirpated the grizzly bear and wolf throughout much of the contiguous United States. Despite losing over 60% of their range in North America since the time of European contact, the IUCN registers the mountain lion as a species of “Least Concern,” since a robust population exists in the western United States and Canada where suitable habitat is currently abundant (Nielsen et al. 2008).
So why advocate for a species if their present population is deemed stable? In short, mountain lions require human advocates for the simple fact that human mismanagement of the natural world poses the greatest threat to the long-term survival of the species. Mountain lions cannot speak for themselves, but their success demonstrates their ability to flourish if afforded sufficient protection from habitat destruction and overhunting.
Ethical questions about the natural world can be viewed through three distinct yet potentially overlapping lenses. An anthropocentric view appraises the natural world for its direct and indirect value to humans. An ecocentric view is concerned with the integrity and intrinsic value of ecosystems. A biocentric view narrows the scope of ethical consideration to the well-being of individual nonhuman animals (Halsey and White 1988). I submit that the preservation of mountain lions strikes at the intersection of all three views, that each perspective forms one part of a braid that is essential to the long-term conservation of mountain lions and other nonhuman animals. In the following paragraphs, I will introduce the ways in which each perspective informs mountain lion advocacy, topics that will be explored in greater detail in subsequent essays.
Mountain lions are sentient creatures, and their capacity to suffer should warrant them ethical consideration on the individual level. Darwin’s (1871) elegant statement that, “The difference in mind between man and the higher animals, great as it is, certainly is one of degree and not of kind” has been substantiated in the fields of modern zoology, psychology, ethology, and others (de Waal 2016). Mountain lions are no exception, and, as mammals, they share with humans hundreds of millions of years of evolutionary history resulting in a similar physiology and nervous system.
Far from being the senseless killers of historical American lore, those who study mountain lions know them to be intelligent animals that exhibit the range of emotions and capacities of domestic cats. Like their domesticated feline cousins, mountain lions are playful, emotional, intelligent, and curious. Trail cameras and observations from the field reveal the otherwise secretive lives of wild mountain lions: a mother mountain lion purring while grooming and cuddling with her kittens, spirited kittens rambunctiously playing amongst themselves, an adult lion pushing and chasing a river cobble across a sandy beach.
Though generally regarded as solitary, mountain lions exist within a network of intraspecific interactions. Female mountain lions, in particular, spend the bulk of their adult lives caring for litters of dependent offspring. Meanwhile, adult males dedicate a significant portion of their time to patrolling their territory for infiltrating males and searching for responsive females to sire litters.
Recent research is beginning to unveil the complexity of mountain lion sociology. Elbroch and colleagues (2017) recorded reciprocally altruistic food-sharing relationships between individual mountain lions in their study area, where a successful individual shares its kill with another, often unrelated, mountain lion from an adjacent or overlapping territory. Such reciprocal relationships – a prosocial feature common to humans – requires the cognitive ability to recall past encounters, to consider the future, and to mentally map the territories of friendly conspecifics. The authors suggest that this behavior may function to reduce potentially deadly intraspecific conflict, to relieve the high energetic demands and risks associated with frequent solitary hunting, and to maintain social order and breeding access between individual mountain lions.
Existing at low population densities, each individual mountain lion forms an integral component of the regional mountain lion population. With such large territorial needs, mountain lions are known as an umbrella species, because protecting sufficient habitat for them will invariably provide abundant habitat for a plethora of other species with smaller territorial requirements (Lambeck 1997; Beier 2009). For instance, the average range of an adult male mountain lion of 75-150 square miles may harbor thousands of individuals from other mammal or bird species and millions of individual insects (Shaw 2009).
As apex predators, mountain lions are ecosystem engineers that exert top-down control over the ecosystems they inhabit. Their presence in an area modulates the behavior of prey species. By keeping ungulates alert and mobile, mountain lions prevent the overconsumption of vegetation and mitigate the detrimental ecological consequences that would result, such as inhibited riparian plant recruitment, increased erosion, and changes to stream turbidity and temperature (Ripple and Beschta 2006). By disproportionately selecting aged and diseased prey species, mountain lions help direct ungulate population health (Krumm et al. 2010). Once prey is captured, the carrion produced and distributed by mountain lions supports an unprecedented variety of organisms, including numerous species of beetles, birds, and other mammals (Barry et al. 2018).
In addition to the cultural significance of such an iconic species, mountain lions offer ecosystem services that directly and indirectly benefit humans. Although industrialization allows modern humans to feel insulated from the natural world, we still ultimately rely on healthy ecosystems and the health of the components therein. Like other top carnivores, mountain lions are essential to ecosystem function, and their conservation should therefore appeal to those holding even the strongest anthropocentric view.
Though equipped with sharp teeth, claws, and incredible physical capabilities, mountain lions are far from the most dangerous animal to humans in North America. In the United States, this distinction goes to the mountain lion’s primary prey, deer. Each year, over 1.2 million vehicular collisions with deer injure 28,000 and kill over 200 people in the US. These accidents are most frequent in the East, where mountain lions and wolves are absent, and deer have consequently reached unnaturally high densities. Since mountain lions prevent deer overpopulation and modulate deer behavior, the ecosystem services provided by mountain lions offer compelling arguments to encourage their recolonization of their former range, possibly saving hundreds of human lives and billions of dollars each year (Gilbert et al. 2016). In addition to reducing vehicular collisions with deer, mountain lions contribute to curbing the spread of diseases for which deer are vectors, such as Lyme disease and chronic wasting disease (Krumm et al. 2010; Elbroch 2020).
As sentient animals that play an integral role in the ecosystems they inhabit, and upon which humans ultimately depend, mountain lions are worthy of protection. Clairvoyance is not required to foresee the impending threats mountain lions will face in the western US in the coming decades. We need only to identify the factors that led to the extirpation to their eastern cousins a century ago, and the recent extinction of their more distant feline cousins across the globe. Though mountain lions are notoriously cryptic in their habits, decades of rigorous research has clearly established the biological needs of the species. Mountain lions, like other large cats, require large, continuous tracks of biologically productive land with connectivity between subpopulations to maintain genetic diversity. Without adequate protected space, viable populations of mountain lions cannot survive, irrespective of how the species is managed by game agencies.
While levels of sport hunting in some US states exceed historic levels of bounty hunting, the greatest long-term threat to mountain lions is the loss, fragmentation, and degradation of habitat (Shaw 1989). As the human population and attendant industrialization increases in the American West, so too does the pressure placed on mountain lions. The trends of diminishing habitat, an exploding human population, and increasing hunting thresholds in the West are – without intervention – destined to replicate the tragedy of the eastern cougar.
The chronicles of the eastern and western mountain lion populations should not be viewed as distinct, but as a continuous story of the consequences of increasing human population densities and habitat degradation across the continental US. The current plight of threatened subpopulations within the American West offers an alarming preview of a prospective future for mountain lions across their current range. Even in parts of California, where sport hunting is prohibited, immense freeways fragment small islands of protected land thereby genetically isolating small populations of mountain lions. These closed populations are beginning to manifest the same deleterious recessive genetic traits observed in endangered Florida panthers, and both populations – through secure from hunting – suffer high rates of mortality from vehicular collisions (Beier 1993; USFWS 2018; NPS 2020).
Despite their resiliency, there is nothing intrinsic about mountain lions in the West that precludes them from meeting the same fate as their extirpated eastern cousins. Only our game and land management strategies can ensure the long-term viability of mountain lion populations. The current “Least Concern” status of mountain lions should not encourage complacency, but should instead motivate proactivity to anticipate and address impending threats to the species. The present circumstances are not fixed, and only represent a slice of time amid marked demographic changes to the western US. In a sense, the resiliency of the mountain lion has afforded humans the luxury of applying what we have learned from the recent regional extirpation of eastern mountain lions to inform the future management of the species across their present range, an option lost to the numerous taxa of wild cats that went extinct within the last two centuries. From our lofty position as the dominant species on the planet, we have the knowledge, the ability, and the duty to ensure that the magnificent mountain lion thrives in our wild places in perpetuity.
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