Living With Predators

Mountain Lions Are Thriving in the West, and So Are Close Encounters With Humans

Rosalind Wallace and Gretchen Roffler were both lucky and smart when they encountered a mountain lion in the remote reaches of Olympic National Park last summer. The two park employees, who were doing spotted owl surveys at the time, did everything right. They stayed upright, always above the lion. They stood their ground and didn’t even think about running. They looked the cat directly in the eyes. Most important, they made sure not to act like prey.

Wallace, who was surprised the lion was not larger, overcame her fear and made the first move: “We raised the pitch and volumes of our voices and took a small step toward the cat,” she says. “He responded by crouching slightly, laying back his ears and hissing—showing us his very sharp teeth.” Fortunately, the lion backed off. “At that moment,” Wallace says, “I think he decided we weren’t prey; at least not today.”

Encounters (mostly sightings, actually) between humans and mountain lions, including some attacks, are on the increase throughout the West. It was once rare, among even seasoned hikers and backpackers, to come in contact with a mountain lion in the wild. Not any more. Unlike wild grizzlies, wolves and panthers, who have not adapted to our sprawling presence, mountain lions are “a success story,” says Howard Quigley, president of the Hornocker Wildlife Institute in Moscow, Idaho. “From Patagonia to British Columbia, mountain lions are the most successful large predator in the western hemisphere.”

Maurice Hornocker, the founder of the institute and, for the past three decades, the dean of mountain lion research, points to two reasons for their success in this age of vanishing ecosystems and species: The first, he says, is the resurgence of deer and elk, the main staple of any lion’s diet. A second reason, says Hornocker, “is greater regulation of lion hunting. In Idaho, for example, upgrading mountain lions from `vermin’ to `game’ status helped tremendously.” Some 300 lions are killed during Idaho’s six-month, controlled hunting season each year but, Hornocker says, there are as many lions in Idaho as there have ever been.

We’ve come a long way from what biologist Paul Beier calls the “persecution era,” when mountain lions were shot as casually and with the same vicious compunction as are coyotes today. In a 1991 study published in the Wildlife Sociology Bulletin, Beier documented every single mountain lion attack in the western U.S. and two western Canadian provinces since 1890. Beier’s study found nine fatal attacks and 44 non-fatal attacks for those 100 years, a fraction of the number killed by dogs—or even bee stings—each year.

California, which has about 5,000 of the controversial felines, banned all mountain lion hunting in 1990 with the passage of Proposition 117. “Five years after shooting every mountain lion seen, of course there’s been an increase in numbers,” Beier says.

Nonetheless, many hunters in California want to reinstate a mountain lion hunting season, trying, as in earlier times in the West, to portray the mountain lion as an aggressive stalker and vicious killer of humans. Republican State Senator Tim Leslie, a Proposition 117 opponent, said recently, “We have a serious problem. There have been tragic deaths and tragic maulings.” But these scare tactics haven’t worked: On March 27, California voters easily defeated a ballot measure that would have ended the hunting ban.

Does hunting reduce lion-human interactions? Not necessarily, say scientists on Vancouver Island in British Columbia, where mountain lions have been hunted relentlessly, lions have accounted for 38 percent of all recorded attacks in Paul Beier’s 100-year study. What’s missing on Vancouver Island is not hunters with better aim, says Beier, but large populations of deer and elk.

Hornocker is even more blunt. “Hunting could solve the problem by annihilating lions completely. We need instead to educate people on how to live with lions.” He points to human population growth as the real numbers problem: “All you need to do is fly to Los Angeles and see all the new subdivisions on the finger ridges.” Those ridges are wildlife corridors, critical grounds, says Hornocker, for juvenile mountain lions to establish themselves and try new behaviors when they leave their mothers. And this is where humans and mountain lions will most frequently encounter each other. “You must accept some risk by living in these shared areas,” Beier says. “I accept that risk. I’m irritated that people who move in want to sanitize the West.”

Aside from the obvious situational problem of human development and sprawl, another question has arisen: Are we beginning to see a more aggressive mountain lion, a new cat with a genetic predisposition toward standing its ground and attacking?

Quigley says that lion cubs learn an attitude towards humans from their mothers, and that, hopefully, that attitude is negative—resulting in simple avoidance. The cub also has its own genetic imprint, or personality, which may be refined from its first few hunting experiences. For example, if a young lion kills a neighborhood dog near a small town, it will then have a positive association with human habitation.

“Populations of mountain lions may differ genetically,” Hornocker says. “Some are more inclined to live and interact with humans than others. We don’t know why yet. We need to do DNA testing on lions in areas where there are consistent attacks and perhaps replace those lions with others that avoid humans.” In the meantime, he says, we need an active program of teaching people how to live with mountain lions.

In a best-case scenario, wildlife biologists say that mountain lions will learn to make themselves scarce, while we, in turn, take simple pleasure in knowing that such a magnificent indigenous animal is thriving despite human pressures.