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for people who care about the West

Trading lions for bighorn


Unfortunately, we do not live in a land of undisturbed habitat where species with specialized habitat needs can live in balance with historical predators (“The cost of a comeback,” HCN, 5/29/17). The Sierra Nevada bighorn’s historical range and DNA profile were already limited, and multiple factors have subsequently further reduced their DNA diversity, habitat and population numbers. 

California, many years ago, eliminated mountain lions from the list of game animals that could be hunted via fair chase, and the lion population is consistently increasing. Even in other Western states where hunting is allowed, lion numbers are stable or increasing. Cougars are increasingly following conservation corridors and river corridors eastward across the Great Plains and Midwest, and northward into Georgia from South Florida. Cougars are opportunistic and adaptable to a variety of habitats, from the sawgrass/pine and oak hammocks of South Florida, to well-tended lawns in former winter migration corridors as well as alpine habitat in the Intermountain West. Not so with the Sierra Nevada bighorn.

There must be trade-offs in conservation and population biology. We can’t lose any more of these iconic and highly specialized Sierra Nevada bighorns. The cost may be to acknowledge that cougars are a contributing factor to their risk of extirpation, and that “cougar management” will need to remain as an option.

As a parallel and an example of predators re-populating their historic ranges, jaguars are re-entering the Southwestern U.S., being monitored by joint projects of the U.S. and Mexico and the Northern Jaguar Project. We must give the Sierra Nevada Bighorn Project and the Northern Jaguar Project all the protection possible if we hope to see both species again flourishing in their former historic ranges.

Gordon Lyons
Livingston, Montana