Mountain Lion in Red Mountain Pasture, June 20, 2010
“The last word in ignorance is the man who says of an animal or plant, “What good is it?” If the land mechanism as a whole is good, then every part is good, whether we understand it or not. If the biota, in the course of aeons, has built something we like but do not understand, then who but a fool would discard seemingly useless parts? To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.” ― Aldo Leopold, Round River: From the Journals of Aldo Leopold
MOUNTAIN LION TRAPPING
Circle Ranch maintains 13 game cameras. We are constantly amazed at what these show about our animals and their habits. Here is a cougar watering at midnight. In many ways, cougar is the most interesting species in our mountains.
Cougar trapping is one of the most-debated issues in wildlife management. Viewed simplistically, the reasons in favor of doing this seem self-evident. Looked at more thoughtfully, and with a historic perspective, any certainty about this practice is hard to justify.
In our mountains, lions are killed whenever possible by most of our neighbors including Texas Parks and Wildlife Department at the Sierra Diablo Wildlife Management Area next door, under the theory that lions harm sheep and deer populations. When pressed to explain why, Department staff will explain that lion hunting is a temporary measure. Yet, it is now in its fifth decade.
The simple view is that since lions eat sheep, killing lions must be good for sheep. But nature is not simple. Wildlife in the Sierra Diablos has coexisted with predators for millions of years. The idea that we can improve on nature is dumb: instead we should try to restore complete systems that human impact has damaged: not to be different, but to be as they were before we messed them up. And, we should approach this with humility because these systems are far-too complex for any of us to understand. The more we learn about animal communities the more we come to see that relationships that at first looked parasitic, like lions eating sheep, are actually necessary for the health of both. Simple elimination schemes ignore this fact of nature, and as a result there are all kinds of unintended consequences.
Here are a few examples of unintended consequences of removal schemes:
- We have learned that reducing coyotes to “protect” quail lowers quail numbers because coyotes turn out to eat more quail predators than quail.
- When we removed California sea otters to “protect” the fish which sea otters were eating, we found out that sea otters also eat sea urchins. Without the otters the urchins numbers exploded and wiped out the kelp beds which the fish needed. And so, much of the fishery disappeared.
- Between 1906 and 1923, in an effort to “protect” mule deer on the Kaibab Plateau, all the coyotes and lions were removed. This exploded the deer population which then starved and crashed in one of the great and historic mistakes of wildlife management.
How many times must we be shown that simplistic predator removal schemes backfire, or that, even though they may look like they are working in the short run, over long terms they harm the species we mean to “protect”?
We acknowledge the simple logic that if we want to “protect” sheep we should kill everything that eats sheep, but shouldn’t examples like these give us pause? And here are some other reasons to doubt the certainly with which wildlife managers advocate these removals today in the Sierra Diablos.
The wildlife managers say there are too many animals and too much competition. And so they spend huge sums to fly around in $3-million Bell Jet Rangers at an expense of thousands of dollars per hour to kill all the Aoudad. Every elk is shot. Now they propose to cull mule deer, and remove excess sheep. Lions would do this for free and a lot better than any wildlife biologist or professional trapper.
But, “No,” the removal-advocates say, “we have to kill those lions to ‘protect’ sheep from lion predation.” But, the animals enumerated above, the animals that we are spending all this money to eliminate, are “buffer” prey species which lions would eat instead of sheep.
“No, no,” the advocates say, “you still don’t understand: We have to protect habitat from all these animals.” But, lions and other predators do much more than just remove sick, weak, or surplus animals. They also change animal behavior. For example: in Yellowstone National Park, elk were camping out along streams and harming riparian vegetation. When wolves were reintroduced this stopped: not just because wolves killed elk, but because they changed elk behavior. Elk are afraid of getting ambushed by wolves along streams, where the cover is greater, so now they come to the steams to drink and then they leave. Stream banks and aspen groves have recovered. The lesson: Animal behavior is as important as animal diversity and animal numbers. Predators will change wildlife behavior in ways that are good for plants: that in turn is good for wildlife. Removals alone cannot do this.
Through our Open-Records discovery I have obtained and read the internal memoranda of the Department on this subject including their derision of this thinking. The PR staff will tell you that, in addition to this 50-year old policy being temporary, it is not eradication at all. The distinction is this: they don’t want to kill them all, just every one they can on every property that they manage.
Management is when animals that could be killed are being spared for some reason. Eradication is when every animal that can be killed, is being killed. We are not opposed to management of this species under some plan that attempts to coordinate its numbers in some way with its prey species across large areas. There is nothing like this anywhere in West Texas, and certainly not the Sierra Diablos notwithstanding the potential of the Department to lead by example and use the WMA for this purpose.
And we’re not opposed to hunting of these animals provided it is by Fair Chase, which is the only ethical form of hunting. There are not a handful of people alive who have or could take a lion in this fashion.
Twenty-four hundred years ago Hippocrates told doctors that their first duty was to “Do no harm.”
Let us heed Aldo Leopold as well: “To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.”
These warnings offer a good starting place for a reexamination of these massive removal programs.
To learn more about this wonderful animal, see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cougar