Skip to main content
Original Issue

The cougar moves up from vermin to trophy

Old wives' tales and old ranchers' fears have long made the American lion a prime target for bounty hunters. Most of the fears are proving groundless, and the big cat is slowly being accepted as a game animal

The mountain lion was once the most widely distributed mammal in the Western Hemisphere. Today, although its numbers along with its habitat have been greatly reduced, the lion's range is still a broad one. It extends from as far south as Patagonia, through forests and jungles and highlands for almost a full 100° latitude that stretches over Central America, Mexico, the U.S. and as far north as the Peace River and Cassiar regions of British Columbia.

The American lion's past is a blend of fact and fancy. It is a past that still overshadows its present. Lion lore through the centuries has been stirred by imagination, kindled by awe and not infrequently tailored by the teller.

Like the profusion of names the American lion answers to—cougar, catamount, painter, panther, puma—the profusion of misinformation which persists about it even today helps little in unraveling the big cat's true identity.

Such ambiguity is not limited to the lion's public image. Viewed against overall game-management programs in this country, which by and large are among the most progressive and successful in the world, the enigma of the lion's official status is particularly perplexing.

In Arizona, for example, anyone may hunt mountain lions at any time of year, in any number. No licenses or permits are required, and each cat killed, regardless of age or sex, entitles the hunter to a payment of $70. Arizona is the only state in the U.S. that still pays a bounty on mountain lions, a fact which last year moved the Boone and Crockett Club, official custodian of the Records of North American Big Game, to pass a resolution barring all mountain lions collected in bounty-paying areas from entry or recognition in their big-game competition.

In spite of Boone and Crockett's action and the articulate, ecologically sound arguments of more than a dozen game, conservation and wildlife agencies across the country, the most recent efforts in the Arizona House of Representatives to abolish the bounty on lions died the same death several previous bills had suffered.

In California, where similar pleas in 1963 fell upon more receptive ears, then-Governor Brown established a four-year moratorium on that state's payment of lion bounties and at the same time authorized a major study of the system's effectiveness in game management. The California Department of Fish and Game, noting that the system was of no value and that the hiatus on bounties produced no lion problems, was among the first to endorse indefinite suspension. Five months ago Governor Reagan reaffirmed the game department's position by signing a bill which officially abolishes the bounty on lions in California. The new law does not mean that the lion is now as safe as a lamb in California, but it does mean that its legal status there, as in Idaho, New Mexico, Montana and Texas, is considerably better than it used to be. By being officially upgraded from vermin, lions in these states have at least a modicum more protection than their cousins in Arizona. The season, bag, age and sex limits are still wide open, but the monetary attraction to professional and commercial hunters no longer exists, and some form of permit is generally required to hunt lions. Fees from permits are too minimal to influence hunting pressure one way or the other, but the very fact that permits are required is an element in the lion's favor.

Such fees can also be a clue to exactly how the lion is ranked in the wildlife hierarchy of a state. In New Mexico, for example, a nonresident is charged $10 to hunt mountain lions. This entitles him to as many lions, or lionesses, as he wants in a given year. He must pay $50, however, to hunt wild turkey—two mature birds only—during the season, which totals a little more than a month.

The situation makes more sense in Nevada, where birds are birds and lions are legally considered game. To lion-hunt in Nevada, a big-game license (out-of-state cost: $35) is required. It is expected that hunting soon will be confined to a set season to afford the animals protection during mating and breeding periods and that the hunter may take only one male lion in any one year.

Such legitimate protection for the mountain lion was long in coming. Nevada in 1965 was the first state to confer the honor. Washington and Colorado followed soon after, and this year Oregon and Utah also reclassified their lions as game animals. The latter state, which now charges a nonresident hunter $150 for a single cat, also requires a $300 license fee from out-of-state guides.

Utah's high license and guide fees are not only positive steps forward for the lion in that state, but, more significantly, they represent a long-overdue about-face in the basic attitude of its game department toward the cats. Until nine years ago Utah, like Arizona, paid bounties. Although it dropped the bounties in 1958 it took eight more years before the cougar was reclassified as a game animal.

Today the lion, which once populated the entire 48 continental United States, has been eliminated from all but 11 western states and Florida. The latter state, which estimates its present population of panthers, as they are called there, at 100, had the foresight several years ago to put the cat on the protected list. New Hampshire, in a classic act of belated conscience, added the lion to its protected list this year. No one has seen a lion in the state since 1885.

That there are lions to be seen anywhere in the U.S. today, considering the concerted efforts that have been made to obliterate them, is rather remarkable in itself. It is also principally accidental. In his efforts to urbanize every square inch of the U.S., man finally ran up against a few places that were too wild even for him. In this handful of remote regions, among the most isolated and untamed in the country, the American lion is now making its final stand. But without the immediate legal sanctuary of game status in every place that it still exists, the American lion cannot hope to survive.

The resistance to making the lion a game animal is a normal reaction to an idea that refutes old beliefs. After generations of gory lion tales, it is difficult to accept the lion as less dangerous than the family dog. Yet carefully documented studies have established that more humans have been attacked by dogs—and, for that matter, by any one of three specific breeds: boxers, German shepherds and Doberman pinschers—than by lions.

In spite of the hundreds of reports of cougars killing people that have proliferated over the years, the actual number of deaths by lions in the entire history of the U.S. is considered to be well under a dozen. Of these, only one has ever been fully substantiated. This was in 1924 and involved a 13-year-old Washington boy who, from the evidence in fresh snow, was first trailed by the cat as he walked through a coulee. The boy, discovering that he was being followed, apparently became frightened and ran. The lion gave chase, struck him down and partially devoured him. When the lion was trapped and killed one month later, its stomach still contained matted bits of the boy's hair and clothing.

This story is of particular interest, not only because it is the sole fully documented account of a lion attack on a human, but because it points up two other distinctive characteristics of the lion. First, the fact that it did not eat the boy but took only a few bites, mainly about the head, supports the opinions of many scientists that the American lion, unlike several of its relatives, finds human flesh basically unpalatable. Even when other food is scarce, the lion evidently prefers hunger to humans. If this were not so, certainly the record of men being eaten by mountain lions would be substantial, particularly since man has always been the slowest and easiest prey in the lion's range. No people were more aware of this than the early pioneers, which may account in part for the inordinate fear they felt toward the lion.

The other characteristic of the lion that the Washington story points out is its extraordinary curiosity. There are literally dozens of documented accounts of lions trailing humans for as much as several miles for no apparent reason other than curiosity. In almost every such instance, no attempts to attack or to close the distance and make contact between itself and the man being followed were made. Most times the man was unaware of the lion's presence until, in backtracking, he made the discovery. Indeed, the cat's tracks often revealed that it had taken extra care not to be observed, frequently moving along the edge of the trail rather than on it to avoid detection. This does not mean that mountain lions are never dangerous to man. With proper provocation under proper circumstances, any large animal, and even some relatively small ones, will attack. The lion is no exception. But its record does not begin to support its formidable reputation as a man-killer.

Nor do the facts support its reputation as a wanton killer of game and livestock. There is no question that the lion kills both. But there is serious question that it kills with the frequency and capaciousness attributed to it. And there is growing evidence that many of the kills blamed on lions are actually made by other animals. Dogs again rank high on the list. In this case the dogs are generally packs of semi-wild animals rather than house pets, but the latter have racked up their share of kills too.

The New Mexico Department of Game, which for the past several years has carefully investigated each report it has received of lion depredation of livestock, found that in less than 10% of the cases reported was the lion actually guilty of the charge. Dogs, wolves and coyotes all outranked the lion as killers of livestock.

Armed with such information, I asked more than a dozen ranchers on a trip not long ago through New Mexico about their attitudes toward the mountain lion. Each unhesitatingly spoke of the lion as the prime predator on his property. And yet, these men did not hate lions as such, nor were they otherwise unreasonable or ignorant. But they had never bothered to question what their fathers and grandfathers believed to be fact.

Surprisingly, another of the lion's most formidable foes has been the sportsman, who, above all others, should be its staunchest ally. Like the rancher, the sportsman's attitude toward the lion developed not because of malice but because of misinformation. The prime item in the lion's diet is deer. The prime target for most U.S. big-game hunters is also deer. Where the pioneer once considered the lion's taste for deer a threat to his personal survival, many hunters consider the lion a threat to their sport. If a lion eats two deer a week, they figure, each dead lion must mean more than 100 deer saved every year for the sportsman.

Aside from the error in the initial figures (an average lion seldom eats more than one deer per week), there is gross error in this logic. Among the important factors not considered in such thinking is the kind of deer lions eat. The lion consistently culls the weak, the infirm, the subnormal, the poorest of the herd. It is, in fact, one of nature's most precise game-management tools.

But if the hunter has been slow in recognizing the lion's place among the ecological facts of life, he has been even slower in recognizing its place in his own sport. For, of all the many convincing arguments for granting the American lion the game status it deserves in this country, the most convincing of all is the sporting challenge it offers the hunter. The real measure of a game animal is not the food it eats, the coat it makes, the meat it provides or the cost of the license required to hunt it. It is the contest it offers the hunter on which an animal is really judged. Of the many contests available to the sportsman in this country, there are few animals as exciting or as challenging as the lion.



A CORNERED LION snarls defiance at yapping dogs after a long and wearying chase across the wild land of western New Mexico.