We’re letting another predator go down

  • A mountain lion yearling pads around Joshua Tree National Park, California. Mountain lion hunting in California has been illegal since 1996, but is allowed in some other Western states.

    National Park Service
 

In New Mexico, some wildlife outranks others, with mountain lions landing near the bottom of the pack. It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that the solitary Puma concolor enjoys the status of rats or “trash fish” -- which is how New Mexico’s wildlife department characterizes carp.

Late last month, the New Mexico Game and Fish Department unveiled its latest proposal to benefit hunters who think lions are taking too many deer and elk: leg-hold traps. Though they would only be permitted on private land, these traps are known to cause terrible suffering; some unfortunate animals are so desperate that they even bite off their own legs in order to escape.

But lions seem to be considered expendable, and this bias against the big cats is sadly common in most states, including Montana, Colorado, Arizona and South Dakota. Though each state claims to study lions, none can tell us with any clarity how many there are, and each has set goals to dramatically reduce their numbers, with little or no science to guide this politically driven destruction.

South Dakota’s anti-lion policy is clearly working. The state is said to be home to an estimated 225 lions, but that number may be too high. The game commission significantly upped the number of available deer and elk tags in the Black Hills in a state that already sells over 55,000 deer tags annually. Yet state officials and hunters continue to blame lions for depleting the deer, even though deer are now so numerous that most residents of small mountain towns can’t even have gardens. Deer replaced yard gnomes years ago.

Lions keep ecosystems healthy by taking out some deer, elk and bighorn sheep, and keeping grazing animals away from fragile riparian areas.  So why wildlife managers remain so prejudiced against them is hard to explain, especially in this age of increasing awareness of the need for conservation of all species. Three groups influence lion policy out of all proportion to the actual damage that lions do. The first is hunters, who don’t like to compete with other predators; the second is ranchers, who don’t like the bother of practicing lion-friendly animal husbandry. (Lions have been known to kill a few head of livestock.) Finally, there are the always-underfunded wildlife agencies. 

South Dakota’s West River wildlife manager, Mike Kintigh, agrees that lions are killed for fun and profit — not for the benefit of the species — and to make life safer for a handful of favorite hunted species, such as Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep, as well as deer and elk. Yet 90 percent of South Dakotans say they would prefer using  “non-lethal means” to deal with conflicts between lions and people, and more than half of South Dakotans say they support lions continuing to live in the wild.

Nonprofit lion supporters such as Arizona’s Southwest Jaguars: a Voice for the Jaguars, Wyoming’s Biodiversity Conservation Alliance and California’s Mountain Lion Foundation are waging an increasingly hopeless war to turn the tide and save the species. But the opposition appears to favor keeping mountain lions penned up in zoos or as exhibits in museums.  Even those who are somewhat supportive of maintaining lion populations, such as John Clemons of the Arizona Desert Bighorn Sheep Society, seem content to sacrifice lions for other species.

Though few in number, lion opponents are dictating what game animals roam the wild and under what conditions. That is why lion numbers are declining in most Western states, including California, even though lion hunting has been illegal there since 1996.  But state lion policies are coming home to roost. In Arizona, for instance, where lion hunting with dog packs is an important business, hunters say they are alarmed that only 188 lions were taken in 2014, down from the average of 220. 

While all but dewy-eyed neophytes understand that big cat biology in the West is two parts politics and one part science, we are on course to eradicate catamounts, including jaguars, much as we did grizzly bears. Only one lonely jaguar roams the American side of the Mexican border now.  What’s worse, we’re not even pausing to wonder if it’s too late to do the right thing and protect these creatures.

In the end, it’s really about political power and influence rather than the need for a balanced ecosystem. The bottom line is that some people like to kill lions, and they bring in a lot of money by doing so.

Frank Carroll is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a column service of High Country News. Now retired from the U. S. Forest Service, he lives in Custer, South Dakota.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.