Stealthy, solitary and highly adaptable, mountain lions are remarkable survivors.
But the same traits that helped cougars survive widespread persecution throughout the 20th century, and that routinely keep them out of sight and out of conflict with humans and livestock, have also limited the ability of researchers to study them.
As a result, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife concluded back in 2002 that it had far too little information about cougar populations to determine how to best manage them as development continues to push farther into the higher altitude habitats where some of the best mountain lion habitat remains.
Thirteen years and $5 million later, more than a dozen peer-reviewed studies now offer clear and compelling evidence that protecting adult cougars is a key to conserving their social structure and maintaining viable populations.
And the studies included this revelation: Contrary to the livestock-industry fueled assertion that the best way to prevent cougar attacks on livestock – which are extremely rare – is to kill a lot of cougars, the research found that limiting cougar hunting actually works to limit attacks on livestock and conflicts with humans.
Hunting disrupts cougars’ sex-age structure, leaving behind younger males who fan out to find their own territory. And younger males are more likely to engage in livestock depredations than animals in stable, older populations.
But now, following pressure from a vocal minority to extend the cougar hunting season, a new proposal by the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission to extend the cougar-hunting season threatens to ignore all the research.
Earlier this year, during its regular three-year review of state hunting seasons, the commission proposed to lengthen the cougar season by a single month. Several months later, however, the commission adopted a substantially different rule that would result in far more dead cougars by increasing the cougar-hunting quota by approximately 50 percent in some areas for the 2015-17 hunting seasons.
This drastic change came with no warning to the public, which was given no prior notice the change was even under consideration, and provided no opportunity to offer comments.
According to the commission, Fish and Wildlife assured the commission that the season changes “would probably not change cougar population size, but would likely result in a population with fewer adults, more subadults, and therefore the loss of territorial behavior of adult males.”
That statement is in direct conflict with the findings of the best available and most recent research, which shows that older adults are less likely to engage in any conflict behavior; therefore, creating a population with more subadults – or younger males – actually increasing territorial conflicts between adult males.
In explaining the sudden change of heart, the commission noted that several members of the public asked for increased quotas for cougar hunting. The charge was led by Washington Residents Against Wolves, a special interest group that focuses on eliminating predators from the landscape so their domestic livestock can graze freely on public lands.
Rather than catering to the wishes of an anti-wolf special interest group, the commissioners should be paying closer attention to the views of the majority of Washington residents, who believe in following the best science and protecting native species like cougars.
The commissioners have a legal and moral duty to manage Washington’s wildlife as a public trust, using science, not politics, to guide their oversight of these remarkable animals.
The 13 years and $5 million in research make the strongest case yet for the fact that killing wildlife for the sake of killing should be a thing of the past.