I saw the South Hill cougar.
I had a service call about a half a block from the action near Manito Park. For a moment, I was a bit nonplused at the army of cops that showed up. But my taxes are paid and I have a business license, so, guessing correctly that they weren’t after me, I went to see what was going on.
The officer guarding the corner immediately warned me that I should get inside because “this thing will eat you for breakfast.”
I informed him that when I was a kid in Montana, we had cougars (we called them mountain lions) in our back yard. So many, in fact, that the state paid a $50 bounty for each one killed. This one, I further informed him, was probably in town to eat some dogs and cats, and wouldn’t hurt a soul.
My credentials thus established, the officer relaxed a bit and remarked that if that was true, he wished it would come to his neighborhood. Perhaps it would eat his mother-in-law’s dog.
Later on, courtesy of a reporter, I got to view this magnificent cat through a news media camera and was truly saddened to later learn of the animal’s death.
Unfortunately, such confrontations between humans and the wild are occurring more and more often. It’s equally unfortunate that we don’t have a solution to the problem.
Now the truth. I lied to the law. We never had cougars in our back yard. We rarely saw cougars outside the local zoo. We made our school expenses as kids by picking huckleberries.
My mother would drop us off in the middle of lion and bear country in the morning and pick us and our berries up at night. We never had an incident with either animal. As a young man, I hiked and camped extensively in the back country of Glacier Park and the Jewel Basin. I saw lots of signs but never a cougar or grizzly. Except for occasional bear encounters inside the park, I don’t recall any significant conflicts between people and wild animals.
What has changed?
The popular explanation is that we’ve destroyed so much wildlife habitat that animals have no place to go for food except our back yards. On the surface, this seems logical. There’s no question that our population has grown and spread out. But that’s only part of the picture.
In many rural areas, the population has decreased as farms become larger. We’ve added extensively to our wilderness and wildlife reserves in recent years. Large-scale clearcutting has added huge amounts of deer and elk habitat by replacing the trees with brush and grass. An explosion in the deer population has vastly expanded the food supply for cougars and other predators.
In short, decreasing habitat may not be nearly the problem it’s made out to be, and it certainly isn’t the only thing that’s changed. We also have more cougars, and we rarely hunt them. It’s this combination of more people, more cougars and reduced hunting that’s causing the problem and making any solution so difficult and controversial.
We have ourselves a dilemma. I’d love to coexist peacefully with all wildlife, but it’s not possible to change the nature of a predator. We can’t train cougars or wolves to become vegetarians. We can’t take away their hunting instincts. We cannot create a warm, fuzzy world where the lion lies peacefully down by the lamb without eating his little friend.
The North Fork of Montana’s Flathead River is habitat heaven for cougars. Lots of deer, very few people. If you visit the area, stop at the Home Ranch Store just south of Pole Bridge and ask Joan Ladenberg to show you the cougar skull with the bullet hole in it.
This cougar, despite an abundant food supply, was shot by Tom Ladenberg as it attacked his wife. As cougars expand their habitat and lose their fear of man, we will see more and more such incidents.
Eventually, if both cougar and human populations continue to grow, and if we continue the near ban on hunting, the problem will move to the suburbs and the cities.
I’m not a hunter. I’m an animal lover. We live in the country so I can be around animals. I support laws to protect animals from people and to create wildlife habitat.
I also believe that humans have a right to habitat. We have the right to build houses, grow food and protect ourselves and our property.
We also need to be realistic. Some animals simply cannot mix successfully with humans. I’d love to have cougars in my back yard, except for one thing. I have dogs, cats, chickens, ducks and a small grandson that are no match for a hungry, angry or frightened predator.
This is the reality that the game officials were faced with when they decided to kill the South Hill cougar.
This is why I will not criticize their actions.