Over the last three decades, 80,000 mountain lions have been killed for trophies, most of them from the western and midwestern United States. This unbridled and ongoing assault, perpetrated by trophy hunters and predator-control agents and enabled by state and federal legislators, doesn’t just hurt one of America’s most iconic carnivores, although that’s bad enough. It also has the potential to negatively influence ecosystems in these states and can lead to increased human-animal conflict, as it likely did in Colorado, where a jogger was recently attacked by a mountain lion.
The mountain lion in the encounter was later discovered to be no more than three to four months old, and malnourished, with no mother in sight. While we don’t know what happened to the mother, it is not difficult to hazard a guess, given the scale at which trophy hunters and others kill these animals. States and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services, a program whose agents kill millions of wild animals a year at taxpayer expense, also kill mountain lions — allegedly to protect livestock – a myth we’ve debunked in a new report that shows that the USDA highly exaggerates the number of livestock deaths due to mountain lions.
Colorado, which did a long-term study of the effects of trophy hunting on a mountain lion population a few years back, chose to ignore its own findings to permit trophy hunters to kill up to 28 percent of the population – a significantly higher figure than what biologists found to be sustainable.
This endless cycle of killing creates many dangers and uncertainties for young kittens who depend on their mothers for up to two years. Had a mother been present or nearby in the recent incident, a mountain lion kitten would likely not have wandered off by himself to find food, or threatened a human being. When mothers are killed, the kittens can also either become targets of trophy hunters, or they can be killed by other male mountain lions looking to move into the territory. Robert Wielgus, a mountain lion biologist, says that when left alone, large, territorial, adult males protect both their females and kittens within their territory. But when these large males are killed, “at least three young males come to his funeral,” hoping to take over the resident adult male’s vacant territory so they can father their own kittens.
Because these young male lions are often unskilled hunters, they are also more prone to create conflicts in human communities, including by killing livestock.
Despite this, some states not only continue to allow hunting mountain lions, but one is taking things a step further by adding a dangerous practice into the mix: hounding. In Oregon, lawmakers have introduced a raft of bills to allow the trophy hunting of mountain lions by chasing the animals down with radio-collared dogs — a practice that Oregonians earlier voted to ban through a ballot initiative. Not only does this result in a cruel death for the mountain lion, but the dogs too can get injured and die. Oregon allows incredibly high levels of trophy hunting, with rates twice as high as what experts recommend, and the state has already seen an increase in conflicts with mountain lions in human communities.
Mountain lions serve critical ecological roles and increase the biodiversity in their natural habitats. They reduce deadly deer-vehicle collisions and help maintain the health and viability of prey species by removing sick individuals and by reducing the spread of deadly diseases such as chronic wasting disease, an epidemic plaguing deer and elk herds throughout the country.
Research indicates that the majority of Americans hold positive attitudes toward mountain lions, and a variety of studies suggest that Americans oppose the trophy hunting of America’s big cats. Killing mountain lions benefits no one other than a handful of trophy hunters looking to display body parts in their living rooms. States like Oregon and Colorado should make policies that respect the wishes of their citizens to protect rather than persecute mountain lions. If they do, they are more likely to see flourishing populations of lions who keep the ecosystems in their states healthy and who are less likely to cause conflicts with humans.