Saturday, April 22, 2006

Science Can't Answer All the Questions About Cougars Jefferson City, Mo

Science Can't Answer All the Questions About Cougars Jefferson City, Mo


Dave Hamilton's job as a resource scientist is to find answers. As Missouri's furbearer biologist, he has quite a few answers about mountain lions. But he admits that science can't answer the toughest questions, which concern the future of the mountain lion in the Show-Me State


Hamilton has been fielding lots of questions since April 7, when the Missouri Conservation Commission, which sets policy for the Conservation Department, moved the mountain lion, Puma concolor, from the state's endangered species list to the list of "extirpated" species. One of the most frequent questions is whether removing the mountain lion from the state endangered list means it is open season on mountain lions


"The answer is absolutely not," says Hamilton. "There is no hunting or trapping season for cougars in Missouri, and under Missouri's Wildlife Code that means they may not be killed. The only exception is that people can protect themselves and domestic animals if they are attacked. Neither the endangered nor the extirpated designation changes the protected status afforded the mountain lion in Missouri as it exists in the Wildlife Code book."

One of the hardest questions to answer is whether Missouri has a population of mountain lions, also called cougars or pumas. Hamilton's answer is a clear "no," but the explanation is not simple.


Cougars' secretive nature makes it hard to know exactly when and where they are present. All the same, there is a good deal of evidence on which to base an opinion about the animal's status in Missouri.


One of the Conservation Department's most valuable tools in evaluating mountain lion presence is citizen reports. The agency set up the Mountain Lion Response Team in 1996 to ensure that every report is recorded and timely investigations are conducted where physical evidence may be present.


All seven confirmed reports since 1994 came from citizens. These included motorists who accidentally killed cougars, hunters who encountered cougars in the field and people who captured cougars on film or video.


The two cougars killed by motorists in the Kansas City and Fulton areas both were young males. This is significant, because young males usually move out of the area where they were born to find new territories. These two animals' presence in Missouri fits the theory that mountain lions found here have moved in from other states, rather than being native to Missouri.


Missouri is not the only state that is experiencing mountain lion dispersal. Cougars-mostly young males-are wandering into parts of Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois, Kansas and Oklahoma where they have not been seen in decades. Some of these animals had been fitted with radio-tracking collars and were known to have traveled up to 700 miles from their original capture sites.


At least one of three mountain lions captured on video tape showed an unnatural tolerance for human presence, remaining near homes long after wild cougars likely would have fled. This is consistent with the theory that some cougars seen in Missouri either escaped or were released from captivity.


Hamilton said the seven confirmed Missouri sightings represent a tiny fraction of the more than 800 reports received in the past 10 years. Some reports could not be confirmed but could be authentic. Most were found to be dogs, house cats, coyotes, deer, bobcats or other wildlife.


Hamilton noted the lack of photographic evidence of mountain lions in Missouri. The growing popularity of "trail cameras" to monitor deer and other wildlife increases the likelihood that cougars will be caught on film if they are present in significant numbers. These devices are placed beside wildlife trails and are triggered by motion or infrared radiation from warm-blooded animals. They regularly record the passage of deer, bobcats and coyotes, but so far no one has produced a trail camera picture of a cougar.


Some people might look at seven confirmed sightings and conclude that Missouri has an established cougar population. Hamilton says a careful examination of the facts leads him to the opposite conclusion.


"In areas with breeding populations of mountain lions, sightings are rare, but physical evidence is very easy to find," he said. "You see lots of tracks. You find deer carcasses with the unique signs of a mountain lion kill, and you see cougars of all ages, from cubs to adults, killed by cars. If we had an established population of mountain lions in Missouri, you would see multiple photos of them taken by trail cameras. We are not seeing any of those things in Missouri."


Most telling, says Hamilton, is the extremely small number of road kills here. He said even states with small mountain lion populations record frequent road kills. South Dakota, where the statewide population is estimated at 165 cougars, has had 20 road-killed in the past two years. In Florida, where the number of cougars is believed to be fewer than 100, five have died on roads since Jan. 1.


"All this points strongly to the conclusion that Missouri has a very small number of cougars that wander in from states with established populations, such as Texas, Colorado and South Dakota," said Hamilton.


What you do with that conclusion is less clear. The Conservation Commission concluded that Missouri has no established, viable mountain lion population of its own and mountain lions are more properly classified as "extirpated" than endangered.


A working definition of "endangered" is "in imminent danger of extinction." This, says Hamilton, doesn't fit the mountain lion, which already has been eliminated from Missouri, although it is thriving in some western states.


"Extirpated" means that an animal has been eliminated from part of its historic range, a definition that fits mountain lions in Missouri.


"There was a time between the 1950s and the 1970s when biologists thought small numbers of cougars might have survived or have become re-established in remote parts of Missouri, Arkansas and Oklahoma," said Hamilton. "With that assumption, the endangered classification made sense. I don't think it does anymore, in light of what we know today."


Arkansas removed the mountain lion from its endangered list in 2001 based on lack of evidence of a breeding population there. Illinois, Kansas, Oklahoma and Iowa, all of which also have had a handful of confirmed mountain lion sightings, do not classify the species as endangered.


Hamilton acknowledges that different people have different ideas of what a population is. "I feel comfortable saying that Missouri does not have a permanent, self-sustaining breeding population of mountain lions today. All the evidence indicates that we have a few individuals wandering into Missouri from states that do have established populations."


On any given day, Hamilton cannot say with confidence whether there is even one mountain lion in Missouri.


"Removing the cougar from the state's endangered list is not an acknowledgment that the species has recovered in Missouri, as some people have suggested," said Hamilton. "In fact, declassification recognizes that we don't have a remnant or re-established breeding population of cougars that would merit endangered status."


At the same time, he says, cougars dispersing from other states create a real possibility that one or more might be somewhere in Missouri on a given day. This, along with continuing unconfirmed reports of mountain lion sightings are enough for some people to feel Missouri has a cougar population. This belief leads to reactions ranging from excitement to fear and dismay. It also raises questions that science cannot answer.


On one side are people who see cougars in Missouri as an opportunity to restore a species found here before European settlement. On the other are those who view the big cats as a danger to livestock, pets and people. Conservation Department Deputy Director John Smith said the Regulations Committee, which he chairs, tried to consider both sides when formulating its recommendation to the Conservation Commission.


"It is wonderful to see mountain lions thriving in other states," said Smith. "It is exciting, too, that Missouri once again has an abundance of deer, which are mountain lions' main prey. Conserving and restoring native wildlife is the Conservation Department's mission, but to practice conservation responsibly, we have to try to anticipate the effects of pursuing that mission."


That is why the Conservation Commission not only took the cougar off the endangered list, but adopted a policy statement that "it is not desirable to encourage re-establishment of a sustainable population of mountain lions in Missouri."


Smith said the mountain lion is not the only large animal once native to Missouri that has been extirpated here. The Conservation Department does not seek to restore some native animals because Missouri is different today than it was 200 years ago.


He noted that bison, elk and wolves once inhabited Missouri, but the Conservation Department has not tried to reintroduce those species for several reasons. For one thing, they all require lots of room. The growth of Missouri's human population in rural areas, livestock production and the state's extensive highway network would not make it desirable to bring back some animals due to habitat loss and potential conflict with human activities.


"The Conservation Commission began considering elk restoration in 1999 at the request of some citizens and conservation groups," said Smith. "We studied the idea and found it was biologically possible but dropped the idea two years later due to concerns from Missourians about restoring elk." He said emerging biological concerns about chronic wasting disease in elk herds in other states also figured in the decision not to restore elk.


"Conservation has to be practical and responsible. In Missouri, we are very proud of having a conservation program based on science, not politics. But managing wildlife is not purely a scientific matter, and science can't answer some of the toughest questions we face."


Nonscientific questions about mountain lions in Missouri concern human reactions. Would most people support a growing cougar population? Would some people kill cougars out of fear of attacks on humans or livestock?


"The Conservation Commission's decision not to support re-establishment of mountain lions relates more to these sociological questions than to science," Smith said. "Science can help with such decisions, but it isn't enough to know what is good for wildlife. We also have to ask what is good for Missourians."


The booklet "Mountain Lions in Missouri" is available free on request from Missouri Department of Conservation, Distribution Center, P.O. Box 180, Jefferson City, MO 65102-0180


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