1. Do you suppose there is any evolutionary impetus for the cats to typically head west?
I don’t imagine any evolutionary impetus for dispersing cougars to head west, given they once roamed coast to coast and would have found likelihood of suitable habitat whichever direction they went. But perhaps there is something more immediately appealing about the westward landscape, as viewed from the Black Hills, that suggests a more “cougary” place to go. There is a little range rising just off the northwest edge of the Hills, the Bear Lodge Mtns, that may provide the initial enticement that prompts them in that general direction.
2. What is South Dakota’s annual quota on mountain lions, how does it compare to neighboring states, and to your knowledge has science ever helped to influence lower quotas in states other than CA?
Thanks! I believe SD is still determining 2017 quota, but 2016 was set at 60 in the SD side of the Black Hills (where such quotas have not been reached for years, for lack of cats), and unlimited everywhere outside the Black Hills. Science contradicts SD’s goal to deplete their lions. Nebraska suspended their hunting season from a few years ago when 10 females (from a total population estimated at 15-22 cats) got shot the first year. North Dakota, which has a small population in the Badlands, had a limit of 7 cats last year, that was filled in four days. Washington State has some of the best science showing the benefits of killing fewer or no cougars, but it’s being ignored. Wyoming hammers its cats, including those on their side of the Black Hills, where the agency’s goal is to deplete the population. Colorado was recently talking about upping its lion quotas to bolster a mule deer population for hunters—an old notion that’s been discredited by 50 years of lion-deer science. They were even pitching it as a “study.” And so it goes.
3. Why not stay in Canada and head north? What's driving the eastward migration? Some dispersers do in fact head north, into Canada, but run against the same problems: No females, and lots of hazards and traps set for other animals. One venturer from the Black Hills was shot in Saskatoon. They all disappear.
4. Do mountain lions have a sense of north, south, east, west, or detect water from long distances? Great question, which has had me wondering too. Had to defer this one to lion biologist, John Laundre, who answers: “I don't think anyone has tested if they have a sense of direction but given that they have had to maneuver and migrate for millennia with a predictable solar movement, I suspect that like most species, they do have a good sense of direction. Just that they really don't know what lies in the direction they are headed! I think more than striking out at a given direction, they, like a lot of species, follow land lines, rivers and streams, mountain ranges, cover. The fact that they don't seem to retrace their steps or wander aimlessly indicates that they can tell direction enough to stay on course and know where they came from. As for detecting water at a long distance, given the poor sense of smell cats in general have, I doubt it.”
5. Is it just high density of big cats to the West or chasing prey base that causes the mountain lions to take such long and possibly dangerous migratory routes? Also, what is the reason that wild mountain lions tend to not avoid urban/populated areas?
In my experience (observing African Lions and Indian Tigers), wild big cats tend to avoid human settlements. It’s the quest for females that drives these long journeys. They set out looking for what should be another colony of mountain lions just over the horizon, and find there’s nothing there, and just keep going. The reason lions don’t necessarily avoid populated areas is likely several reasons. One may be the river course they happen to be following, which inevitably leads them into towns and cities. Another is prey. They go where the food is, and these days, many urban or suburban areas have unusually high populations of deer and other mid-sized mammals that get along well with people, and also make attractive prey to lions. And in fact we even see this with African (and Asian) lions and Indian tigers, which are now being documented operating very close to human settlements, again because there are good things to eat there.
6. How can those of us who value wildlife intrinsically, instead of for a recreational kill or trophy, have a voice with state and federal wildlife management agencies?
One way is to reconfigure the way state wildlife is managed, which is now typically controlled by politically appointed wildlife commissions with minimal to no training in the biological sciences, and heavily stacked by ranching and hunting interests. But as I also mentioned in the webinar’s Q&A, money talks, and there may be a way to channel monies from outdoor recreation and wildlife-watching toward a more democratic management of our wildlife. Christopher Spatz and John Laundre of the Cougar Rewilding Foundation have thought long and hard on this and have written extensively about it here and here.
7. With ample habitat in the East, what do you think are the most important policy steps that we can take to protect cougars as they move from South Dakota eastward?
Stop shooting them along the way. As I mentioned, SD (and ND) has a year-round season on prairie lions, and they, along with Nebraska, have zero-tolerance policies for cats found in towns. California (which has a non-lethal policy for town cats and a relatively good safety record) is ample proof you don’t need to shoot every cat you see. And start prosecuting citizens who shoot mountain lions on the grounds of fear and threats to their lives and livelihood.
8. Thank you for your brilliant talk and your passion. It was truly powerful to hear. As a science student (in the US) and newly a veterinarian student (in Hungary) planning to work with wildlife. What in your opinion is the best way to work in the conservation of big cats & how best to get involved now?
Thank you for listening in! There are probably as many paths toward becoming a big cat conservationist as there are big cat conservationists! One way would be to hook up with a research project or conservation group, learn the ropes, and climb the ladder. You can find cougar research going on in any of the western states, usually in conjunctions with one of the state universities. And in addition to the lion conservation organizations I mentioned at the end of my talk (another good place to start, by the way), there’s also a group called Panthera (panthera.org) that’s researching cats around the globe.
9. I happen to be a social science Masters student whose planning his Masters thesis at this very moment. Are there any social science-oriented research questions I can ask that might help with cougar rewildling? I would recommend having a look at surveys by others who have asked the general populace about their feelings about living alongside cougars. Their questions may help you formulate your own. At the end of the day, it’s society’s attitudes (and habitat, of course) that are going to decide the fate of our big predators. Here are just a few links to such studies:
10. What effective action can an individual do to help these cats?
Educate yourself. Get behind some of the groups who have dedicated themselves to the cats’ conservation. (See the next to last slide listing some of those groups.) If you’re a pet owner in cougar country, keep you pet inside at night. It you’re a livestock owner in cougar country, fence and protect your livestock appropriately. Make allowances and accept your responsibilities for the privilege of living in cougar country. See the Resource Section of the Secret Life Of Mountain Lions for a list of groups working to gain protections for these big cats.