If pumas learn from the canine chase, pursuit without being killed might make them more elusive prey
CHEYENNE, Wyoming––A new Wyoming state law meant to placate frustrated puma hunters who hunt with dogs might actually benefit pumas more.
If, that is, the hunters and their dog packs obey the law.
Wyoming governor Mark Gordon on March 1, 2023 endorsed into law a bill, SF 178, which extends the puma hunting season for pack hunters, even after the puma bag limit has been reached, by allowing the hunters to continue unleashing their hounds to trail pumas––so long as the pumas are not killed––until the last day of the puma hunting season set by the Wyoming Game & Fish Department.
Hounding will not end when kill quota is filled
“Previously, once quotas were met, all pursuits of pumas were immediately halted,” explained Powell Tribune reporter Mark Davis.
“The new law, which takes effect July 1, 2023, will allow hunters [with dogs] to continue chasing lions for the duration of published season dates,” so long as the hunters hold Wyoming Game & Fish Department pursuit permits.
“However,” Davis added, “there are stiff penalties for pursuits that end in the death of the lion once the limit has been met.
“If a hunter ‘knowingly kills’ a mountain lion during a mountain lion pursuit season,” Davis continued, the hunter may be fined “not less than $5,000, nor more than $10,000,” or face “imprisonment for not more than one year, or both. A third or subsequent conviction within 10 years” can bring a two-year prison sentence.
The Wyoming puma hunting season, until zone quotas were met, formerly ran from September 1 to March 31 in 28 of the 32 state hunting zones, ran all year in three zones, and was more closely limited in only one zone
In some of the most heavily hunted zones, especially the Big Horn Basin, the quota of pumas have often been killed within a few days or weeks of the season opening.
That meant surviving pumas had little chance during the rest of the year to learn to be wary of dogs and learn to evade them.
Even more important to puma longevity, pumas did not get to practice evading wolves by evading dogs, whose pack hunting behavior is similar, except that dogs in pursuit of a puma tend to bark warnings of their approach.
Will evading dogs help pumas to evade wolves?
Few cats of any species appreciate being chased by dogs. Pumas are no exception.
Yet the puma who learns to evade dog packs during the peak hunting months of fall, and lives to make use of the experience, may be much better equipped to elude wolves in winter than a puma who has never been chased.
This experience may come at a high cost to the puma in calories expended in escaping dogs and hunting time lost.
Only comparison of the before-and-after puma population will tell whether pumas really are benefitting from being chased more without lethal consequences.
Wolves are “primary force” suppressing puma population
What is clear now, though, is that wolves, rather than men, dogs, and guns, are “the primary force suppressing local mountain lion populations,” as Jackson Hole News & Guide reporter Mike Koshmrl put it back on November 18, 2020.
“That hypothesis was tested and confirmed using data amassed over the 16 years that the Teton Cougar Project tracked 147 cats on the east side of Jackson Hole,” Koshmrl wrote.
“It was already known that lion numbers in this area fell by half during the study period, which coincided with wolves reoccupying the landscape,” following the 1995 reintroduction of wolves to the greater Yellowstone ecosystem.
“While the new canine competition was suggested as an explanation for the puma decline,” Koshmrl continued, “until now the connection had never been confirmed with a vigorous analysis.”
“We know the cats declined––why?”
Said puma biologist Mark Elbroch, “We know the cats declined — that’s not up for debate — but what caused it? Is it human hunting? Is it declining elk numbers? Or is it increasing wolves? The answer we have the most support for is that it was increasing wolves,” who compete with pumas for prey, especially elk, the preferred prey for both species.
Pumas, who hunt mostly alone, from ambush, tend to have the advantage in rough terrain and heavily wooded areas, where they can pounce prey from a rock escarpment or an overhanging tree limb.
Wolves have the edge
Wolves, who run down and surround their prey in packs, have the edge in open habitat.
Should a puma manage to bring down prey in proximity to wolves, the wolves, with superior numbers, tend to quickly drive the puma off the carcass.
Elbroch, formerly the Teton Cougar Project lead scientist, has since 2016 headed the puma program at Panthera, a global wild cat conservation organization founded by former Wildlife Conservation Society scientist Alan Rabinowitz.
(See “We can still save them”: wild cat conservationist Alan Rabinowitz, 65.)
“Nowhere to hide”
“Think about North America 300 years ago,” Elbroch told Koshmrl , “and you can understand why mountain lions were never populous in places like the Great Plains — where there was nowhere to hide. Wolves were everywhere. They probably limited mountain lion numbers throughout most of our country.
“You hear people say, ‘Gosh, there are tons of lions,’ ” Elbroch continued. “Well, we have no idea how many were here 300 years ago — anywhere. But in some places I bet you there are more, because there are no wolves,” except where the Yellowstone ecosystem restoration brought them back, which is now the Rocky Mountain range south to Colorado and the Cascades in Washington and Oregon.
What elk have to do with it
Earlier, Elbroch documented what he called “a perfect storm of three overlapping management actions dating back to the mid-1990s that contributed, sometimes unintentionally, to a 48% decline in the mountain lion population north of Jackson, Wyoming.”
The wolf reintroduction was one of those management actions. Excessive puma hunting was another, and an ever-increasing portion of the elk population wintering (and being fed) at the National Elk Refuge was another.
Wolves killed at least 18% of the puma kittens that Elbroch and team tracked, he told Livescience in 2018.
Hunters killed the most pumas who lived longer than six months. Altogether, only about 7% of all the pumas born in a given year survived a full year.
70% decline in elk accessible to pumas
“Simultaneously,” Elbroch explained, “wolves were influencing where elk congregate on the landscape, and how many were available for mountain lions to hunt.
“The distribution of elk, in fact, has become vexingly skewed, and contrary to efforts by managers to encourage a broader distribution, a greater proportion of the remaining herd winters on the National Elk Refuge each year.
“Local biologists attribute this change to wolves and changing weather patterns.
“Elk who congregate in the open on the refuge are still prey for wolves, but not for mountain lions, who cannot compete with wolves away from the protection of trees and cliffs. “
The outcome, Elbroch said, was a 70% reduction in the number of elk accessible to pumas during his study period.
Wolves outnumber pumas three-to-one
“Juvenile mountain lion survival plummeted, and we saw mountain lions of all ages increasingly die from starvation,” Elbroch observed.
The outcome, Elbroch explained, was that wolves “now outnumber mountain lions at least three to one” in shared habitat.
But hunting wolves will not help pumas where elk have moved out of good puma habitat. Quite the opposite, killing wolves in relatively open range will encourage the drift of elk out of the best puma habitat, while any pumas who follow the elk will be more exposed to both wolves and human hunters.
“Reduce puma hunting”
Elbroch went on to “recommend reducing mountain lion hunting in areas where wolves are rebounding—the cascading effects of wolves’ presence are apparently too much for the cats to handle when already under pressure from human hunters.”
Cougar Fund founder and wildlife photographer Tom Mangelsen in 2016 called for a complete halt to puma hunting in Wyoming.
“It would appear that for every 100 hunter-killed cougars, 30 dependent young die,” Mangelsen told Koshmrl.
Wrote Koshmrl, “Wyoming hunters since 2004, Mangelsen figured, have killed some 530 adult females, resulting in what Mangelsen called the “likelihood of 881 potential orphaned kittens.”
The 320-odd licensed hunting outfitters and guides in Wyoming quickly shouted down Mangelsen and Elbroch when they shared their data at public meetings.
Trophy hunting industry pressure also appears to have caused the Wyoming Game & Fish Department and Bridger-Teton National Forest to cancel Panthera Teton Cougar Project permits to capture and radio-collar pumas, effective at the end of 2016.
“The reasons why are clearly politics,” Elbroch told Koshmrl.
Utah HB 469
While quiet about the changes to Wyoming law that in effect allow year-round puma hounding throughout the state, Elbroch on March 2, 2023 asked Facebook followers who reside in Utah to ask Utah governor Spencer Cox to veto Utah state bill HB 469, “which includes indefensible changes to mountain lion management,” in Elbroch’s opinion, and has already cleared both houses of the state legislature.
If Cox signs HB 469, Elbroch warned, “Anyone with a general license will be able to hunt small game and hunt or trap mountain lions year-round. It essentially makes mountain lions an unprotected species in Utah. Utah will also become the second state to allow mountain lion trapping, after Texas.”
Hunters, wolves, and elk movements have been augmented as a threat to pumas in recent years by bubonic plague, believed to be infecting pumas who––partially in response to elk movement––resort to hunting prairie dogs.
Elbroch in 2020 published findings in the journal Environmental Conservation showing that of 28 pumas from the Yellowstone ecosystem tested for bubonic plague, 12 either were infected or had been infected.
Concluded the Environmental Conservation article, “This suggests that bubonic plague may be present at higher levels in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem than previously assumed,” and “may be a significant cause of death” among pumas.