What I learned from The Cougar Conundrum, by Mark Elbroch

This summer I read The Cougar Conundrum, by Mark Elbroch, ecologist, author, accomplished wildlife tracker, and lead scientist for the Puma Program director for Panthera. Having a particular love and passion for the puma, I knew the book was going to be good, and provide perspectives I hadn’t considered before. But I really didn’t expect to learn so much, to take away so many points, and to continue to mull over topics months later. I figure for someone like myself who has a deeper fascination with the species than the general public, to read this book and still learn so much I should share what I learned factually, but also the conundrums I continue to grapple with. My thoughts on hunters with hounds changed, I gained an new perspective on how state wildlife agencies are organized, and added an additional layer of respect for this incredibly resilient species.

Before I get into the facts and issues that were new to me about mountain lions, here’s a little synopsis of my history with the animal. 

That one time I saw a cougar

The only cougar I’ve seen, in person was in 2016 in British Columbia. On a return trip home from a fieldwork, heading south just past the turn off to Alice Lake Provincial Park in Squamish I was awoken from a dazed state, probably exhausted by all the hiking. My fearless leader (Hey Rylee) yelled “COUGAR!” There, close to the middle of the lane, a sight I’ll never forget, a large cat with an endless tail was thinking about crossing the road, but decided Nah Uh… and darted back into the woods. It felt like a long moment, but it was all over in mere seconds. There were a few construction workers further down the highway, just beyond the cat. I’m sure they’ll never forget that day either! Whenever I drive by that spot the memory floods my mind. 

Wildlife Cameras for the Bay Area Puma Project

For about two years I checked wildlife cameras for Felidae Fund’s Bay Area Puma Project, along the peninsula in the San Francisco Bay Area. Now, being a nomad, I occasionally virtually catalogue the images captured on the cameras. I really enjoyed getting to know trails the cameras were situated on. When I would upload the images and see that a puma had come through it was the greatest feeling. Plus working with awesome biologists was major fun – thanks for all the laughs Brad! 

One time in particular stands out. Trevor, my hubby didn’t join me very often, as I usually checked cameras alone on my day off during the normal work week. But one time he joined me, and unfortunately it was in the rain, so not the best conditions. Woops. The hike and camera checks went as usual, just a bit wetter than the normal heat on the south facing mountainside. The following month I went back, changed out memory cards and when scrolling through the images I saw ourselves on the camera, two dorks in bright orange rain jackets. Then twenty minutes later a large (by my standards) puma walks along the path right where we had just been. I couldn’t believe the time stamps! AH! Was it watching us till we left? Or because it was raining and foggy perhaps we could have run into each other! Wow, wow, wow! Just the thought of our paths crossing so close in time was really really awesome. I’d seen this before happen to people on the trail, but never to myself.

Puma in the backyard. . .

The second instance wildlife cameras proved our closeness in time and space was in BC in 2020. Summer was ending, and I had pulled the family farm’s wildlife cameras from their more remote places and decided to put it on a bridge that crosses a small creek, about 50 feet from our abode. I was curious who might turn up on the bridge during the night, as all sorts of beautiful creatures had already shown themselves on the cameras in the surrounding area previously. 

Well one early morning, still dark and slightly misty from the fog security guard in chief, the farm dog started barking. This was no raccoon or barn cat, there was much more commotion than normal barking. Something was up. Trevor went out to investigate, but returned with nothing to report back to me who was still cozy in bed. A few hours later, you may have guessed it, I went to check the camera, and HUZZAH! A beautiful cougar was caught walking on the small foot bridge. WHAT?! Incredible! 

So you can see I’ve had a fascination with this mighty, mysterious and misunderstood species. So when I saw Mark Elbroch’s book all about how humans and cougars can coexist I had to read it. 

Quite the size difference between the wild and barn kitties.
A short background of the puma/cougar/catamount. . .

Yes, the name puma, mountain lion, cougar, catamount, ghost cat, puma and more all refer to Puma concolor. This species since it spans from Northern Canada all the way down to the tip of South America has lots of names! Upwards of 80 different names! Dos-lotch is a Kalamath Indian name for them, among many other indigenous names.

Pumas are territorial, with defined boundaries, males generally have larger territories away from their natal area than the females. While pumas are solitary independent animals, females will spend “82% of their lives in the company of kittens” (pg 35). However the idea of being completely solitary is being questioned. Wildlife cameras have allowed an insight into their lives showing sharing of food amongst multiple lions. This for now could be described as pumas “tolerating” others at kills, instead of what we humans would consider sharing (pg 35). But this sharing/tolerating of food helps create and strengthen bonds between mostly unrelated lions (pg 120,121). 

Multiple cougar conundrums

Before I opened the ebook (current nomadic life means I’ve got to pack light) I knew the conundrum Elbroch was going to discuss was ways how humans can coexist peacefully with cougars. While that is the general theme, there are SO MANY conundrums within that. How do ranchers coexist? How do wildlife management agencies properly manage the opinions of hunters versus conservationists? Answer, not well. How do wildlife advocates get their voices heard to speak on behalf of pumas? How do hunters that use cougar hounds, but don’t shoot to kill fit in the picture? How do we deal with pumas that kill livestock, once, or multiple times? How do we protect a species that spans large territories across multiple jurisdictions and state lines? You can see that there are probably HUNDREDS of conundrums to be discussed. I also started having my own personal conundrums. Hunters fighting for the reduction in quotas? How does that work? My own knowledge of how humans interact with cougars were tested, flipped, and broken down for some topics, and that’s what a great book does. 

I wanted to include some more common facts that I already knew, but for those who aren’t so familiar with cougars may find enlightening. 

  • Killing older mountain lions leaves behind young males, which increases the likelihood of human-puma conflicts. Therefore in hunted areas both sex and age classes are skewed, this is undesirable for population resiliency.
  • Hunting does not increase the safety of humans in a given area
  • Reducing human hunting of ungulates is a better strategy than reducing predator populations to increase ungulate populations (pg 95). Improving habitat, which increases food quality is the “primary drivers of ungulate population numbers” (pg 94-95). When pumas do threaten populations of wildlife like Big Horned Sheep, its because that population was already at unhealthy levels due to factors like habitat loss, climate change, disease, etc. (pg 99).
  • Pumas are an ecosystem service. They eat deer, which means less deer on the roads, which means less traffic accidents. For example in South Dakota “resident mountain lions reduced deer collisions by 9 percent…an annual savings of approximately $1.1 million”(pg 142).
New facts to me

As mentioned I learned, or expanded upon facts and findings from this book, here are a few.

  1. “For every mountain lion killed the previous season in an area, the likeliness that a complaint will occur in that area increased by 36 percent. Killing a mountain lion had more than ten times the impact in determining the likelihood that there will be conflicts in the area as compared to adding one more live mountain lion to that same area” (pg 79).
  2. This one I could have guessed, but not the full extent. “Annually we kill somewhere between 3,000 and 4,000 mountain lions in the US and Canada. Humans are the leading cause of death for mountain lions everywhere in the US. (pg 106). Even in states where hunting is illegal, like California, deprivation permits and vehicles kill lions every year. 
  3. “Intolerance and, more importantly, illegal killing because of intolerance are among the most influential factors in determining whether a carnivore population declines, remains stable, or thrives and grows” (pg 139). I’ll just let that one sit right there. Maybe read it again.
  4. Mountain Lions are ecosystem engineers and therefore a keystone species because they provide nutrients to the soil, plants and animals from the carcasses of kills (pg 155,158). “They influence the habitat selection of their prey, and almost certainly cause trophic cascades.” In order to maintain a healthy ecosystem these connections within and between trophic levels are essential. One fact that really stood out was the diversity and quantity of beetles that visit kills. Elbroch describes a study done by researcher Josh Barry who found “215 unique beetle species” who were attracted to the kill site, and for science got caught in his traps (pg 154). 215! Incredible! 
  5. I really don’t think the most interesting thing about living with cougars is the potential of being attacked. Buuuuut just to reiterate, these beautiful creatures are not killers, you are more likely to die by a cow, a dog, or vending machines in any year (pg 46-47). 
Politics in Management and why some Houndsmen are allies to the puma

Probably the biggest issue I learned about and still trying to wrap my mind around with is how houndsmen, who use hounds to find and tree cougars influence and pivot to aid in reducing hunting quotas for lions. “Many experienced houndsmen, in fact, choose to stop killing mountain lions completely. Cal ruark, former president of the Bitterroot Houndsmen Association in Montana, is among them. “I love ‘em. It’s just something to see them in the tree, or in the rocks or wherever you get them bayed up (pg 153).” I would love to see a mountain lion up close, a coastal wolf,  blue whale, or any large animal, but I don’t understand why humans think they are allowed to stress, frighten and anger an animal in order to see it up close. How elitist and unethical, in my opinion.

But on the other hand, “Houndsmen in Montana and Wyoming are largely credited with killing legislation that would have allowed leg-hold traps and snares to be set for mountain lions. And every year, houndsmen across the West pit themselves against deer and elk hunters, and request lower mountain lion quotas in an effort to see mountain lion populations grow (pg 151).” So we as wildlife advocates need these types of people. While I’d love to eliminate all trapping and hunting of pumas across the US, that’s not realistically going to happen overnight, and incremental change is beneficial, and welcomed. In the US, and a bit in Canada too there is too much divisive conversation. Dialogue across all types of folks that live or visit cougar territory should be willing to discuss this topic. I’d love to have a conversation with such a houndsmen one day. Not every issue is black or white, and I appreciate the nuance. These houndsmen are definitely a potential avenue towards greater common sense “management,” and one I never would have considered, without this book. 

Modern Wildlife Management 

“Modern wildlife management follows a business model for hunting clientele . . . and therefore caters to customer satisfaction” (pg 165). Hunters disproportionately fund habitat restoration and preservation projects which are administered by state wildlife agencies; they do not disproportionately fund conservation activities more broadly. Since states receive a good chunk of their budget, which constituent do you think the state listens to? The hunters who indirectly provide tons of funds, or the wildlife watchers who provide less, but direct funds? Even though there are “86 million wildlife watchers in the USA” versus “an estimated 11.5 million hunters” (2016 data, pg 174), the political influence sways towards the hunters. This was something I was aware of, but not to this degree. It’s depressing how money influences conservation, something us wildlife advocates need to change. 

The Pittman-Roberts Act contributes millions, roughly $300-400 million each year towards the state’s efforts to preserve, conserve and restore habitats (pg 176).  Wildlife populations were decimated by European colonists, and people like Roosevelt were instrumental in starting the movement to conserve land, but he and others included the hunting angle that hasn’t depreciated, even though the number of hunters in the US has been steadily decreasing (NPR/USFWS). Elbroch suggests altering revenue streams is one method to change how states fund wildlife programs. Continuing to put the voice of those who fork over money isn’t in everyone’s best interest, human or otherwise. The book goes into much greater detail on this topic, and an aspect of conservation I am much more aware of nowadays. I do this by paying greater attention to upcoming bills, elections, and letter writing campaigns. One organization that does a great holistic job to inform people on many cougar conundrums is the Mountain Lion Foundation.

Oooof, just look at those paws!
In Conclusion

I only scratched the surface of some of the topics in this great book. If interested in coexisting with livestock in mountain lion country, famous LA-area lions, how rare human deaths due to pumas actually are, and more, take a read yourself. I know I’ll read it again one day because there are so many avenues to walk down and explore more deeply and take beyond the book. Any text that makes you question and wrestle with previous beliefs (especially wildlife related) is a great book in my opinion, and this one definitely did that.

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5 Comments Add yours

  1. Bruce Reid says:

    I’d never thought that being killed by a cow or a vending machine was more likely in a year than killed by a cougar.

    Like you’ve found with hunters supporting mountain habitat, I found Ducks Unlimited do the same for wet lands. The clue to me was their magazine was full of gun adds. You are right, the much larger number of wildlife viewers need there voices heard more over the hunting business minority.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yup, the conversation needs to change away from the threats to humans, or how humans can destroy them to conservation and appreciation.

      Like

  2. I’m going to pick up this book. I’m fascinated by these big cats and have a healthy respect for them. I’d love to see one in the wild, but in a “controlled” setting (a car). Now, every time I go to Alice Lake, or drive by, which is frequently, I will think of your cougar sighting.

    Like

    1. Wonderful! I think you’ll be surprised how much you’ll take away from the book!
      I hope you get see a beautiful puma one day! You really never know when that day will come.

      Like

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