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Mark Elbroch: The Cougar Conundrum

Posted by Mark Elbroch on Wednesday, May 27 2020

Fellows: 

What is the initial problem and solution that was implemented, that later turned out to have unexpected consequences?

A century ago, we tried desperately to wipe out mountain lions in North America, and failed. Then American culture changed. In the mid-20th century, we offered mountain lions limited protection in the form of managed hunting. As a consequence, mountain lion populations rebounded far more than anyone would have predicted, and likely more than many would have liked. Today, mountain lions may be as abundant as they ever were in the West, and people are faced with a new reality.

The heart of “The Cougar Conundrum” is this: Can we peacefully coexist with such a successful predator? The answer is yes, of course we can. More to the point, the question is: Will we choose to peacefully coexist with such a successful predator? Given the increasing polarization surrounding mountain lions—the us-versus-them so visible in media surrounding mountain lions and reflective of larger patterns in American culture—the more likely it is that we will remain mired in power struggles and minor social-media fights while avoiding the core issues altogether.

What are those consequences, and how serious are they?

Today, there are more mountain lion advocates and advocacy organizations than ever before, while at the same time, we are killing record numbers of mountain lions in the United States each year. People irrationally fear mountain lions, but there are now in fact more instances of mountain lions attacking people, pets and livestock than 50 years ago. We kill scores of mountain lions to aid bighorn sheep recovery across the Southwest, while simultaneously Los Angeles residents are raising $87 million to build a bridge spanning 10 lanes of pavement to save a handful of mountain lions in the Santa Monica Mountains. State and federal agencies fund the killing of mountain lions that kill livestock, but they don’t fund infrastructure to protect livestock. Consequences and ironies both.

More broadly, the consequence of the cougar conundrum is the constant divisive battle over lethal management of mountain lions to support special interests, within an entrenched state wildlife system built on customer service rather than ecosystem health and the interests of all people. The consequences are the continued persecution of carnivores, enshrined in a bureaucracy that appears uninterested in or unable to adapt quickly enough to adopt inclusive wildlife management strategies and whole ecosystem objectives. 

What are some of the possible new solutions being considered? A minor modification? Back to the drawing board? Or something in between? Did new solutions come from other disciplines or other unexpected sources?

The components of forward movement seem quite plain, even if complicated by power dynamics, outdated ideals, and entrenched bureaucracy. First, we must weed out myths and share an understanding of the real mountain lion. Second, we must answer people’s questions and concerns about mountain lions. Third, we must come to some consensus around the legal hunting of mountain lions, as well as what to do when a mountain lion kills pets or livestock, or in the rare cases when one attacks a person. Fourth, we must exercise inclusive and transparent mountain lion management. Parallel with these milestones, we must foster greater tolerance for mountain lions (and large predators more broadly) in our culture and around the world, and we must change the revenue streams supporting state wildlife agencies so that every person pays for their services (and thus becomes paying clients).

The integration of social sciences into wildlife conservation is bringing forth new solutions and strategies at every level—in conflict mitigation among stake holders, in building greater tolerance for mountain lions and other carnivores, and in helping agencies realize why people are increasingly trying to undermine their authority via ballot initiatives and other activities. Today, we stand at a tipping point—will we go backward and cling to the old system where white, politically-savvy men who hunted for sport largely decided the fate of US wildlife? Or will we forge a new system in which every interested stakeholder invests in state wildlife management and, in turn, is embraced and included in decision-making by state wildlife authorities? 

What direction is work going in now, and how likely is it to address the conundrum?

At the local scale, there is wonderful work in building tolerance for large predators, and addressing the biological threats to mountain lions and other wildlife, including habitat fragmentation and anticoagulant poisons. There is also greater research investment in determining effective tools for mitigating mountain lion-livestock conflict. But at the larger scale, there is less evolution. Right now, the movement to sell the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation to the American people is a move backwards, not forwards. Right now, the Restoration of American Wildlife Act, which recently passed the House, is a move to bolster a broken system and retain the status quo—yes, it brings desperately-needed funds to non-game species programs administered by state agencies, but at the cost of creating a new system in which all people invest in state wildlife management. I believe that the only way to fundamentally shift the power dynamics that dictate how we manage mountain lions and all wildlife is to diversify the source of the money supporting the system. “The Cougar Conundrum” covers all these issues and more—it is my attempt to both educate people about mountain lions and equally, to inspire people to engage in conservation action. Assigning frown emojis on social media is not participation, it is spectating. We must do more.

Dr. Mark Elbroch is Director of the Puma Program for Panthera, based onthe Olympic Peninsula, Washington. Dr. Elbroch designs current puma research, manages and leads project operations, and directs the analysis of project data gathered in the field.

His new book,The Cougar Conundrum, is being published by Island Press on August 13th.

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