Science Can't Answer All the Questions About Cougars
Dave Hamilton's job as a resource scientist is to find answers. As
"The answer is absolutely not," says
One of the hardest questions to answer is whether
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
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
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
Some people might look at seven confirmed sightings and conclude that
"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
Most telling, says
"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
A working definition of "endangered" is "in imminent danger of extinction." This, says
"Extirpated" means that an animal has been eliminated from part of its historic range, a definition that fits mountain lions in
"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."
On any given day,
"Removing the cougar from the state's endangered list is not an acknowledgment that the species has recovered in
At the same time, he says, cougars dispersing from other states create a real possibility that one or more might be somewhere in
On one side are people who see cougars in
"It is wonderful to see mountain lions thriving in other states," said Smith. "It is exciting, too, that
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
Smith said the mountain lion is not the only large animal once native to
He noted that bison, elk and wolves once inhabited
"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
Nonscientific questions about mountain lions in
"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
For the cats,
Carole Baskin, CEO of Big Cat Rescue
an Educational Sanctuary home
to more than 100 big cats
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