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Cougars on the Move

STANDING ON THE LIP of a steep cliff at about 8,000 feet elevation on the Uncompahgre Plateau in western Colorado, Ken Logan is rotating a telemetry antenna to pinpoint the radio signal of a female cougar named F-7. Far below, aspens shimmer and ponderosa pines jut above the rest of the canopy. Logan, tanned and fit at 48, with short steel-gray hair, wants to tag F-7's cubs, which she has stashed in a jumble of rocks on the mountainside below. But she won't leave them, and Logan is wary. In 25 years of studying cougars, he has had 275 “encounters” and has been charged four times. “And all four times,” he says, “it was a mother with cubs. So what we don’t want today is mom there with her cubs behind her.”

Logan is in the midst of a ten-year, $2 million study of mountain lions on 800 square miles of the Uncompahgre in Colorado. There’s a lot at stake for cougars throughout the West, where beliefs about the cat are more often rooted in politics, emotion and guesswork than in hard facts. The animals are so elusive that no one knows how many exist. “We’re studying a phantom in the mountains,” says Logan. The current guesstimate for the West’s lion population is 31,400. Some scientists, including Logan, think there are more now than 50 years ago. Cougars are also drifting back into the Midwest after an absence of more than 100 years.

This speculative recovery delights some people but worries others. It has turned the cat into a symbol for competing interests. Are cougars destructive, overabundant predators that kill livestock and deer (robbing hunters of that opportunity), or splendid, over-hunted icons that deserve protection? And how dangerous are they to people? Encounters have increased as more people spend more leisure time in the cat’s habitat, and as roads, houses, and developments claim more cougar country. Fatal attacks in the United States and Canada are rare —17 or 18 in the last 115 years—but 12 have happened since 1990. Where should we draw the line between protecting them and protecting us?

This native American lion—also called cougar, catamount, panther, and puma—is the world’s fourth largest cat after African lions, tigers, and jaguars. It once ranged more widely throughout the Americas than any mammal except human beings. From the Atlantic to the Pacific, from the bottom of South America to northern British Columbia puma concolor roamed across climates and altitudes, living in mountains, plains, deserts, swamps and forests. Indian tribes throughout the Americas respected and sometimes deified it, using its claws, teeth, and tail in ceremonies, and painting or sculpting its image.

But newer Americans reviled the animal as a sneaky “screamer” and a livestock-eating varmint. Theodore Roosevelt, though a champion of conservation, shared his countrymen’s contempt for the mountain lion and shot it at every opportunity. He described it as “cowardly,” “bloodthirsty,” and “a beast of stealth and rapine.”

Such a despicable creature clearly deserved annihilation, and by the beginning of the 20th century the mountain lion had vanished in the United States east of the Mississippi except for a remnant population in Florida (the still-endangered Florida panther, a subspecies). In the West, despite ardent attempts at eradication by ranchers, and government policies that included bounties, poisoning, and salaried lion-killers, the cougar survived, saved by its evasiveness and by the vast spaces.

Public opinion began turning in the 1960s and 1970s. The lion’s sleek powerful image and its many names began adorning consumer products and sports teams. Pioneering puma researchers, most notably Maurice Hornocker, who studied lions from 1964-1972 in central Idaho, began replacing ignorance with information, and most Western states reclassified the animal from a varmint that could be shot on sight to an income-producing big-game animal partially protected by seasons and quotas. (The exception is Texas, Logan’s home state, where cougars can be killed year-round without limit.)

In 1990, reflecting the public’s changing attitudes about pumas, Californians voted to outlaw lion hunting entirely. But most western wildlife agencies have gone in the other direction in the past few decades, increasing the number that could be killed annually. In 1982, hunters in 10 western states killed 931 cougars, but by the early 2000s that number was topping 3,000. Some wildlife agencies and hunters argue that higher harvests prove that cougars are plentiful, which in turn justifies high quotas. Logan calls this “the sledgehammer approach” to management and notes that the bigger harvests might reflect an abundance of hunters rather than cougars: the number of permits surged between the late 1990s and early 2000s after Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, and Washington all either expanded the season for lions, lowered the cost of licenses, raised bag limits—or all three. (Montana and Colorado, in contrast, have lowered their quotas.) Technology also may be driving up the kill rate as hunters chase pumas with snow mobiles and all-terrain vehicles, while also using walkie-talkies and hounds fitted with radio collars.

As Logan and Linda Sweanor (Logan’s wife and fellow biologist) comment in their authoritative Desert Puma, “Puma-hunting management in most western states is a far cry from science.” (The book resulted from the decade that Logan and Sweanor spent in the New Mexico desert tagging and following 295 lions —the most extensive study ever done of the animal.) Because it’s so hard for wildlife agencies to get accurate counts of cougars, Logan devised a conservative strategy for managing them by dividing a state into different zones: for sport hunting, for controlled killing in areas crowded with people or livestock, and for cougar refuges, which Logan calls “biological savings accounts.” Many of the country’s cougar experts, including Hornocker, have recommended that wildlife agencies adopt zone management.

That hasn’t happened. “Other political interests came to bear,” says Logan dryly, referring mostly to ranchers and hunters. “One of my roles is to do the best science I can and present it in the best form I can. But none of it matters without the support of citizens who can persuade policymakers to implement it. At least the science is there now. I think policymakers and managers will go back to it, because management based on politics is going to fail.”

UP ON THE UNCOMPAHGRE, still frustrated by the stay-at-home mom F-7, Logan decides to try his luck at F-2’s nursery. He knows where her cubs are thanks to GPS data transmitted by her collar to a satellite four times a day. He downloads the data every month and plots the lion’s movements on a topographical map. A cluster of data points usually indicates a kill where a lion has spent a few days feeding, which Logan can investigate to get dietary information. When a female’s cluster is dense and stretches over weeks, it usually indicates a nursery.

We drive for an hour on rutted dirt roads, occasionally passing new houses. “These people shouldn’t be surprised if they wake up one day with a mountain lion on their porch,” says Logan. At the edge of Horsefly Canyon, after rotating the telemetry wand for 30 minutes, he determines that F-2 is resting about 300 yards from the nursery—a slim opening, but good enough. We bushwhack down to a creek bottom, then climb through heavy brush toward the nursery.

“Got’em!” shouts Logan. “She chose a great spot.” Thick bushes conceal the entrance to a dry, tent-shaped den, ten feet deep, formed by two massive rocks leaning against each other. Logan puts on a headlamp and crawls in. I’m behind him with a burlap bag, into which he places three squirming cubs, a typical litter. Their camouflage of dark stripes and spots will eventually give way to the puma’s characteristic rich auburn.

Logan and a research associate, Jim Bauer, a tall laconic South Dakotan in a white cowboy hat, set up a makeshift lab using gear from their 40-pound packs. (Logan’s team often includes Sweanor, his spouse/partner, but she is in England with the couple’s 10-year-old son, Oren.) The cubs spit, growl, and flash their small fangs—predators-in-training. When Bauer lifts the first one, it defecates. “We want that!” says Logan; later he will collect the cub’s DNA from the scat. There are two females and a male, soon dubbed F-9, F-10, and M-11. Just over four weeks old, they’re the size of housecats and weigh about five pounds apiece. An adult female typically will weigh about 70 pounds. The male could reach 120 to 140 pounds and a length of up to eight feet, including three feet of tail.

Logan slips an expandable radio collar with a small antenna onto each cub and punches a plug of tissue from their ears for genotyping, which makes the cubs wriggle and growl. “I hate this part,” says Logan. Into the punch-hole goes a numbered tag bigger than the ear itself. “These cats could end up anywhere,” says Logan, “so we want a tag that’s visible to anyone who might harvest one of them.” Inside the other ear, he tattoos a number in green ink, which the cubs vigorously try to shake off. All of these identifiers will supply Logan with crucial data about the lions’ diet, habits, travels, battles, matings, and fates.

A male puma’s territory can cover 100 to 150 square miles. He prowls it constantly, marking its boundaries and advertising his virility with “scrapes”—small piles of dirt and debris scratched up by the back paws and topped with urine or feces. Logan points out several scrapes during our rambles on the Uncompahgre. He has seen females in heat stride back and forth near them, caterwauling. “They’re solitary, isolated animals,” says Logan, “so they have to find each other.” Once they do, they may mate dozens of times a day for several days.

That concludes the male’s contribution to family life. A female typically bears a small litter every two years. After nursing for six to eight weeks, the cubs start following mom to her kills. She supplies the meat for a few months until the kids learn to help ambush dinner. In South America the menu might include peccaries, monkeys, anteaters, bats, and guanacos. North American cougars prefer deer, though they’re strong enough to take elk and moose. Hornocker has established that a puma can leap onto an 800-pound elk, grab its muzzle with both forelegs, and break its neck. “One of the greatest feats in the natural world,” he says. Cougars will also eat skunks, rabbits, rodents, porcupines, raccoons, and bighorn sheep. Hornocker has documented a lion that snacked on grasshoppers. This dietary flexibility probably helped cougars survive over millennia, but nowadays can be a death sentence if they taste-test lamb chops or Labradors.

F-2’s youngsters, if they’re typical, might stick around for up to 16 months before heading into solitude. A juvenile male will roam until he finds country unclaimed by an adult male, which could take a while—one cat tagged in the Black Hills of South Dakota was killed by a car in the Oklahoma panhandle, 660 miles away. Though captive lions have lived up to 18 years, odds are strong that one and perhaps two of F-2's cubs won’t reach adulthood, and none of them are likely to reach double digits. Aside from hunters, the biggest danger is male pumas, which don’t hesitate to kill other lions over food, females, and territory. They will also kill cubs and juveniles to push a mother back into estrus for mating.

THE NEXT MORNING we rendezvous with Bruce Nay, a spry 57-year-old hunting guide from Norwood, Colorado who sometimes volunteers himself and his lion-hounds for Logan’s research. He has a Western twang and scraggly hair covered by a camouflage cap that he will not remove for the next nine hours. Driving to the Uncompahgre in his pick-up, Nay tells me that trophy-hunters have been hiring him and his hounds for 35 years. He has killed only one cougar for sport, a big male 15 years ago. It stands stuffed in house. “Don’t want another one,” he says. “No need.”

Growing up in southern Utah, he captured lions for money. After his dogs treed one, he would climb with a catch-pole and pull the cat into a 50-gallon drum. He sold the animals to a man who ran canned hunts, releasing the cougar from a cage as a client approached with dogs. The lion would tree quickly for an easy shot. “Illegal now, and should be,” Nay says as we jounce along a rock-strewn dirt road in the Uncompahgre National Forest. “I love the dogs and love the lions,” he adds. Helping hunters find and kill lions “is the way I make my living, but I’d just as soon they lived.”

Chasing cougars across rims and ledges, he has seen them go places no dog could follow. He once found a 10-month-old cub, killed by a chest puncture. The tracks told Nay a clear story: the inexperienced cub, attempting to ambush a buck deer, had impaled itself on the horns. The buck’s tracks bounded off. “I could see the mother’s tracks walking all around that kit,” says Nay. “Then she went down half a mile and killed that deer and just clawed it all over. Never ate it.”

Nay says the majority of local guides and hunters oppose Logan’s project, especially because Logan convinced Colorado’s wildlife officials to institute a five-year ban on hunting cougars in the study area. But Nay supports the research because accurate information could help preserve lion-hunting in Colorado. Cats have gotten more scarce on the Uncompahgre, and he blames weekend hunters.

"They will kill anything they find, including females,” he says. “When you kill females, you’re killing your factories.” (Of the 335 lions killed by hunters in Colorado in 2004, 44 percent were females.) Nay says he won’t release his dogs on a female—he can tell the sex by the size and shape of the tracks—but some hunters unleash their hounds even on a female with cubs, doubling the offense against the future, since orphaned cubs seldom survive. “Some people,” he says, “are so goddamned narrow-minded they can see through a keyhole with both eyes.”

Today he hopes to help Logan collar F-7’s litter, but once again her radio signal stays glued to the nursery. Logan has decided to apply some pressure by approaching the nursery, noisily, from above. “That way she’ll have to come uphill to get us,” says Logan. “But she’ll probably either run off or hunker down.” Time and again we climb and edge towards the nursery across ledges and dicey rock slides, but she doesn’t budge. In late afternoon, Nay, eager for action, volunteers to enter the nursery by himself, which Logan vetoes.

“You’re getting a pretty good idea of what we go through to get cub estimates and why we don’t have much data,” says Logan. In Desert Puma, he and Sweanor write, “Field ecologists normally 'observe’ pumas by their tracks, beds, nurseries, playgrounds, droppings and scraps of prey”—that is, not by actually seeing the animals themselves. Logan’s tech assistant, Tucker Murphy, has spent six months with cougar researchers, wearing out two pairs of boots, first in Yellowstone and now here, but has caught only two glimpses of the creatures.

“You generally see them for just a second or two before they fade away,” says Logan. “So many times when you’re glassing for them with binoculars, you know they’re right there because of the radio signal, and if you’re lucky you might see that black pom-pom on the tail twitch. And then you can put the whole cat together, with those big amber eyes staring straight at you. It’s been watching you the whole time but you couldn’t make it out.”

ERNIE ETCHART, his brother George, and his father, Martin, run 3,500 ewes on 12,000 acres, part of it in Logan’s study area. In 1985 a cougar killed 27 of their sheep in two nights. In 2000 another one killed 10. Still, Etchart says, “there’s a place for lions here.” A burly, bearded 42-year-old with a big smile, he considers bears a bigger problem than cougars, not to mention coyotes and foxes, which take 30 to 50 of his sheep every year. Not a hunter himself, he nevertheless worries that as Colorado’s population becomes less rural, voters might outlaw lion hunting, which he thinks controls their numbers. “Good science sure beats the emotionalism behind the anti-hunting, anti-kill approach to lions,” he says, explaining why he supports Logan’s work. “Otherwise we won’t be able to survive, and ranches are going to have houses on them.”

Linda Ingo and her husband Ed run 400 head of cattle on 4,700 acres near Ridgeway, Colorado. Neither of them has seen a lion on their property since the early 1980s, nor to their knowledge have they lost any cattle to lions. But she worries that cougars could take calves from their herd or, worse, stalk people on their land. More cougars, due to the five-year ban on hunting them here, could also mean fewer deer and elk, resulting in fewer hunters paying to use the ranch. To her and her husband, the five-year ban on hunting sounds like a recipe for disaster. “To come in here and increase mountain lions is irresponsible,” she says. “I feel like we’re the human guinea pigs.”

Ingo’s fears are understandable but might be exaggerated. John Kane, who worked for the Wildlife Services program within the U. S. Department of Agriculture (before he died this year), was responsible for tracking down and shooting coyotes, bears, bobcats, and pumas that killed livestock in western Colorado. He had to relocate only one problem puma in the last two years. Logan’s colleague, Jerry Apker, a carnivore management specialist with Colorado’s Department of Wildlife, says pumas “aren’t even on the register compared to black bears” when it comes to hassling livestock. And as for human interactions: “Over the last 20 years we’ve had far more maulings and people injured by black bears than by mountain lions, but mountain lions get so much more attention.”

Similar reports come from other states. Starting in 2000, Logan and a team of researchers studied the interactions of pumas and people in Cuyamaca Rancho State Park in San Diego County. Lions live in and near the park, and in 1994 one of them killed a lone female birdwatcher there. At the time of the study, about 500,000 people a year were visiting the park (a fire destroyed it in 2003), and over two and a half years Logan’s team collared 20 lions and traced their intersections with people. “The lions tried to avoid humans,” says Logan. They hunted at dawn and dusk and steered clear of trails during the day. Four lions did kill livestock outside the park and were shot.

Seth Riley has found similar behavior among eight collared lions in the busy suburbs between northern Los Angeles and the Los Padres National Forest. “No one ever sees the lions,” says Riley, a wildlife ecologist at the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area (NRA). “We don’t even see them and we’re tracking them. That’s good, because it indicates that lions can occupy the same broad areas as humans—though if the habitat keeps disappearing, there’s not going to be enough.”

An estimated 4,000 to 6,000 cougars live in California. Between 1996 and 2003 there were no attacks in that state. That streak ended horribly in January 2004 when a cougar killed a 35-year-old Mark Reynolds as he repaired his bicycle chain in Orange County’s Whiting Ranch Wilderness Park. A few hours later, the same cougar ambushed Anne Hjelle on the same trail, slamming her from her mountain bike and grabbing her head and face with its teeth. As the cougar began dragging her into the bushes, her riding partner, Debi Nicholls, grabbed Hjelle’s leg in a tug-of-war for her friend’s life. Nicholls’s screams drew five other bikers, who finally drove off the lion with rocks. When it returned later for Reynold’s body, government hunters shot and killed it.

Hjelle’s face was badly torn. Now 32, she has had three reconstructive surgeries. But she says she feels no anger toward the lion that mutilated her or toward cougars in general. “They’re gorgeous,” she says. “I bought a painting of one for my house.” She still bikes the same trails. “I don’t consider them a big threat to humans,” she says. “It was unusual behavior. But I do think it will continue to happen.”

Cougars that attack humans don’t fit a neat profile. A lion might be desperate because it’s old, sick, or orphaned. Logan thinks lions sometimes mistake a biker or runner for a deer. Genetics may play a role too. Hornocker suspects that some cougars are prone to stay invisible, while others are naturally curious or aggressive. A young male jumped Reynolds and Hjelle, and another mauled a hiker named Shannon Parker six months later in Sequoia National Forest in central California. Such cougars are typically transients passing through unfamiliar territory.

Scientists suspect that young transient males account for the return of cougars to the Midwest, where they’ve been confirmed in Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, North Dakota, Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, and Arkansas. (South Dakota has had a breeding population of cougars for years.) Hornocker and other biologists expect cougars to keep drifting east, drawn by abundant deer.

Clay Nielsen, a wildlife ecologist at Southern Illinois University, has started mapping potential cougar habitat and migration corridors to help wildlife agencies predict where the cats might colonize. So far, he says, the scattered Midwestern bachelors lack mates. A few people contend that cougars never disappeared east of the Mississippi, but, Nielsen says, “there are no wildlife biologists who think we have breeding pairs in the Midwest.” Still, says Hornocker, it’s just a matter of time.

AFTER THREE FRUITLESS DAYS of playing cat-and-biologist with F-7, Logan changes tactics. He positions a loudspeaker a quarter-mile from the mountainside nursery and serenades F-7 for two hours, first with a recording of a bleating fawn, then a distressed fawn, and finally a distraught hare. The idea is to entice F-7 from the nursery with the prospect of an easy meal. She doesn’t bite.

The next morning, day five of Logan’s quest for F-7’s cubs, John Kane of wildlife services meets us with four dogs, three redbones and a black-and-tan. They poke their heads through portholes in their crates, moaning and shimmying at the prospect of a lion hunt.

Today Logan is counting on the old antagonism between canines and felines to provoke F-7 into running. The excited dogs jerk us up the cliff, tangling their leashes in the thick underbrush and occasionally baying at F-7’s scent. Soon her radio signal is so strong that we know she’s very near, probably within 30 feet, somewhere in the rocks and bushes just below us. “Use all your senses,” yells Logan.

And then the radio signal suddenly moves, coming from farther downslope and to our left. F-7 has somehow crept away right under our noses. “I never even saw a bush move,” says Kane. Minutes later Bauer locates the cubs in a rocky crevice. Two females. He and Logan set up their lab on the steep slope and spend an hour processing F-12 and F-13. Logan is elated. “Maybe I’ll take the weekend off,” he says. “Or maybe I’ll just come up tomorrow and check the signal on those cubs.”