By Predator Hunting Editor Judd Cooney
I must have hiked 20 miles, checking every sandy creek bottom and saddle for the track of a mountain lion. At the time, many moons ago, I was a junior at South Dakota State College, working a summer job as a government trapper. My supervisor, an avid hound hunter, was obsessed with being first to take a mountain lion in the Black Hills, and he told me that if I could find a track anywhere in the northern hills, he’d let me have the pick of his latest litter of Plott hounds.
Nope, didn’t get that pup.
Times sure have changed. Last year, South Dakota officials estimated that 220-250 cougars roam the western part of South Dakota, and they set a hunter harvest quota of 45. The state opened its first mountain lion season just 5 years ago, with a quota of 25 cats. Despite that extremely conservative quota, the wildlife agency was sued (naturally) by an anti-hunting preservationist group headquartered in California, the only Western state that totally protects cougars from hunting, thus maintaining its reputation as the land of fruits and nuts.
There is no logical reason to not hunt the big cats. In fact, all evidence indicates populations are exceeding the carrying capacity of the land, and hunting may only help to maintain some balance.
A cougar that had been live-trapped and radio-collared in 2005 in South Dakota later turned up in Oklahoma, 700 miles from its original home range. In 2008, another cougar that had been collared in South Dakota was killed in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. Later that same fall, a young male cougar from the Black Hills turned up in a suburb of Chicago, Illinois.
All of these cats were two-year-old males, dispersing far and wide to look for less-crowded home ranges of their own. South Dakota is the easternmost state with a viable, reproducing cougar population, and the fact that these young males are roaming so widely suggests that the population has peaked. Biologists figure that 90 percent of young males now leave the state to escape the older and larger toms that prowl established domains.
Cougars are turning up in Iowa, Kansas, and Missouri with increasing regularity. When you figure that the cats like to follow brushy stream banks, it’s only natural that the Missouri River and other drainages take them east.
A dramatic increase in cougar populations throughout the Western range has several states and Canadian provinces finally taking cougar management seriously, and due to the cougar’s secretive nature and the rugged country it inhabits, there is still a great deal to be learned.
Much of past cougar management (or mismanagement) was driven by misconception and sentiment, often at the behest of anti-hunting protectionist groups like the one that sued to stop South Dakota’s first hunting season. It is easy for such groups to misinform the public and then use the courts to take control of the management agenda. The cougar has become a golden kitty for such groups, thanks to the Equal Access to Justice Act, which directs the courts to reimburse the legal costs for nonprofit groups that successfully sue government agencies.
Multimillion-dollar “nonprofits” frequently collect hundreds of dollars for every claimed hour of legal work, bills that quickly climb into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. When they lose a suit, they are under no obligation to reimburse the agencies for their costs, which makes officials at these agencies reluctant to battle in court, even when they know they will probably prevail.
Talk about a win-win for the antis.
Thanks to a well-orchestrated media campaign by such groups, California voters banned cougar hunting in 1990. Since that time, the big game of California, most notably black-tailed deer and desert bighorn sheep, have declined dramatically. Not to mention the livestock, household pets, joggers and cyclists who have paid the ultimate price for this nonsensical overprotection of an alpha predator that doesn’t need protecting.
In 1996, Washington State voters banned cougar hunting with hounds, but by 2004, the unchecked cougars were causing enough livestock and wildlife damage to compel the fish and game department to push through a pilot program that allows hound hunting in areas where the feline predators are wreaking the most havoc.
Washington somehow has managed to keep this program running despite the howls of the antis, and just this year extended it for another five years. Most of the state’s hunter-harvest of 200 cats is taken during regular big-game seasons by opportunistic deer and elk hunters. But last year, a relatively few hound hunters operating under the restrictive guidelines of this pilot program took 42 cats.
Mountain lion predation may be underestimated, perhaps because most of the studies have taken place during winter, when it is easiest to locate the cats by the sign they leave in snow. Such studies have determined that cougars, on average, kill one ungulate (large hoofed critter, such as deer, moose or elk) a week.
However, an ongoing study in Canada, conducted by some savvy biologists, is showing that cougars may take considerably more prey during summer. In fact, the loss of big-game animals to cougar predation in summer may be 50 percent higher than in winter.
Summer is when young-of-the-year deer, etc., provide easier prey for the females and young male cougars. The mature toms pretty much prey on what they want, when they want.
Hound hunting is far and away the most effective way to take a cougar. Small wonder one of the distortions consistently promoted by anti-hunting groups is that hound hunting results in overkill, with too many breeding females taken. These breeding females must be protected for the sake of the cute little kitties.
Of course, this is hogwash. Hound hunters are actually less likely to take female cats. They want the big, trophy males, and given the chance to identify a female while the hounds have her bayed or treed, will often pass on the shot.
Where hounds are not allowed, opportunistic deer and elk hunters take most of the cougars, and they are much more liable to take a female cat because they have no real opportunity to discern sex. It’s about impossible to tell if a cougar on the run is female or a young male.
But when dogs have a cat treed, the hunter has ample opportunity to determine sex by simply looking for male sex organs. A male cougar has a very visible black ring around its penis sheath and often a visible scrotum; female underparts are white with no black marking.
What could be simpler?
The Colorado Outfitter’s Association long promoted a mandatory training seminar for outfitters and cougar hunters, in part to make sure they knew how to discern between male and female cats. The division of wildlife didn’t want this, at first, but when the anti organizations started pushing for it, too, they had little choice. Prior to 2005, when this simple training became mandatory, the female mountain lion harvest in Colorado was around 44 percent. As soon as the training became mandatory, the female harvest dropped to 30 percent. New Mexico and Wyoming are considering making it mandatory for their lion hunters, too, and I’m sure other states will follow.
Biologists in some states have settled on 35 percent as the desired maximum percentage of females in the harvest, to maintain self-sustaining populations. Others question this very conservative number. Regardless, decreasing the take of females only further skews the emphasis toward the harvest of toms.
In Colorado, outfitters’ clients and a growing number of local lion hunters with their own hounds are putting even more pressure on the trophy-sized toms. The unintended consequence of all of this is that populations of females and their litters, along with the young toms, are skyrocketing. The dominant, mature toms are no longer around to prey on younger lions and keep territories in balance.
Sometimes the preference for a male trophy can get plumb ridiculous. An outfitter friend who specializes in trophy cougars told me about a client last winter who, of course, wanted only a big cat. After several days of passing on smaller tracks, they hit a large track that appeared to be either an exceptionally large female or a good-sized male. Following an arduous chase, the hounds treed the cat, and after looking it over carefully, the outfitter came to the conclusion that it was a humongous old female. The hunter decided to take it.
The outfitter later learned that when the hunter took the cougar to a taxidermist he’d recommended, the hunter bought a smaller tom lion pelt from the taxidermist and had it mounted in place of his much bigger female.
The outfitter had aged the well-conditioned cat at around nine years and figured that during her life, she’d probably killed more than 400 deer, elk and bighorn sheep. She treed in prime bighorn winter range.
If that’s not a trophy predator, what is?
Again, the bias against taking females is not only irrational, it may actually be one of the reasons cougar populations are increasing. Targeting big toms not only decreases their numbers, it also takes the pressure off females and young males, allowing more of them to fill larger niches. Where cougar predation is making unwanted inroads into other big game, the taking of females may need to be encouraged, not discouraged.
The U.S. Forest Service closes an increasing number of backcountry roads at the end of big-game season each winter (don’t get me started on that one), creating vast areas of prime cougar habitat that is too inaccessible to hunt. Deer and other game animals concentrate in these areas, providing easy pickings for the cats.
An increasing number of ranches and other private land holdings are also blocking hunter access to public land, and this private property is usually posted off limits to hunters, creating additional sanctuaries for mountain lions.
The bottom line is that mountain lion populations are booming, and there is no reason to think that is going to change any time soon. While it may be bad news for hunters who pursue the same big game as the cougars, it is creating unprecedented opportunity for hunting the cougars themselves. The mega feline predator is one of the great trophy animals of North America, if not the world.