When a rare puma dies during a government shutdown, who do you call?


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But right now, we don’t know why that cougar was trying. We don’t know if it was the young female that was caught on camera feeding on a deer in August. We don’t know if it was the young male born in June 2012 attempting to disperse — to move off into less crowded territory. “Was it radio collared? Was it a new animal?” Cooper asks. “We just don’t have any answers. And when you call the park service all you get is an answering machine."

While all eyes are focused on the shutdown, it’s difficult to keep in mind that, where care for the ecosystem is concerned, government is already being starved to the bone. You see it in the duct tape that keeps antennae attached to radios, in the aging trucks researchers pilot through remote mountains, in the exhaustion in the faces of biologists who not only struggle to stay abreast of the movements of the animals they’re studying, but have to explain those animals to pestering reporters as well.

But without their explanations, we're all at a loss. No one can quite gauge the impact of this death on a tiny population always on the brink of extirpation. “To become an expert in this ecosystem requires a lot of little conversations with experts throughout the year, all the time,” Cooper says. “Everything you know you’ve absorbed because you’ve talked to people who know a lot more than you do and they’ve been generous with their information. When those lines of communication are cut, it degrades the whole network. We really feel it.”

Judith Lewis Mernit is a contributing editor of High Country News.

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