The Limitations of Puma Recolonization and the Strategy to Bring ‘Em Back: Part 2, Recovery
“And I think in this empty world there was room for me
and a mountain lion…” —D.H. Lawrence
From a cabin in the mountains north of Taos, New Mexico, looking west over the infinite plain of the Rio Grande plateau, Lawrence wrote his Mountain Lion poem — an elegy to a trapped she-lion — sometime in the early 1920s. Wiped out east of the Rockies but for a tiny enclave in southwest Florida’s Big Cypress Swamp, trapped, shot, and hounded into the West’s remote outbacks for the next half-century, western state protections finally provided just enough cover for Puma concolor to stage one of the most remarkable recoveries of any large carnivore in the world — without reintroductions.
From Rapid City, South Dakota west to the Pacific coastline, nearly all of it, even into the very center of Los Angeles, there is room in the not-so-empty world for us and for mountain lions.
Over the past quarter century, puma recovery crept east from the Rockies, into the North Dakota Badlands, South Dakota’s Black Hills, and Nebraska’s National Forest. Young, mostly male dispersers from these prairie colonies began reaching the Twin Cities, St. Louis, Chicago, and dozens of smaller towns. In 2011, one intrepid suitor left a trail of tracks and photographs, deer-kills, and DNA from the Black Hills to Connecticut, where he became the only wild puma ever to be photographed on the East Coast north of Florida. A collision with an SUV within the week ended his 2-year trek seeking a mate. At three years of age, he was the oldest eastern disperser yet to be documented.
Puma confirmation maps east of the prairie colonies, hundreds of dots holding hope of the recovery over-taking the Midwest, turned out to be not a record of fecundity, but a graveyard. Hit by cars, trucks, and even trains, wandering into states where they hadn’t been seen for a century, these pioneering youngsters were welcomed not with celebrations but with execution, again, and again, and again. The rest, every last one of dozens, have disappeared. Since 2015, five dispersing females have arrived in states east of the prairie colonies. Three were shot, two disappeared. Unsustainable hunting quotas in the primary prairie colonies have reduced the number of yearly dispersers east to a trickle. North of central Florida, no wild puma kittens have been documented east of north-central Nebraska’s Niobrara River Valley.
As noted in Part 1 of this series, researchers are beginning to agree that the puma’s self-powered recovery in the United States is stalled, if not over.
So, what can be done to facilitate recovery for the two-thirds of the country still missing pumas, both naturally and by reintroductions? Three pieces of a puma recovery strategy come to mind:
- Because only the Florida panther is listed as a federally protected subspecies (currently in review), uniform state protections and enforcement of those protections must be established across the Midwest.
- Facilitate a series of Midwest cougar incident management courses. Run in conjunction with public puma coexistence programs, training first responders, animal control officers, and state wildlife professionals on how to handle dispersers trapped temporarily in residential areas without killing them would not only save cats, but the courses would reverse the spectacle of highly publicized, dangerous and frenzied executions.
- Develop a reintroduction strategy from Maine to Georgia, fine-tuning the recent habitat and social attitude research to include southern states, National Parks, and state wildlife agency personnel, determining the top regions for reintroductions, much like the Florida Panther Recovery Plan.
Midwest Puma Policies
State policies for pumas in the Midwest currently run the gamut, from blanket protections, to sporadic enforcement, to non-existent.
Michigan lists pumas as endangered and protected under state law. It is the only Midwestern state to successfully prosecute a puma poaching incident.
Missouri provides protection in its Wildlife Codes for any species not listed as threatened/endangered or as a game species. Missouri established a Mountain Lion Response team in 1996. Killing pumas is permitted only by those who claim they were protecting pets, livestock, or their own safety. The Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) states they will investigate any mountain lion killing incident to determine whether the killing was necessary. In 2011, a raccoon hunter shot a puma treed by his hounds. Fearing prosecution, a farmer-friend of the houdsman was enlisted to lie about killing the cat for threatening his livestock. An MDC investigation uncovered the lie, but because the houndsman claimed self-defense, no charges were brought.
In 2012, a puma was captured in a bobcat trap in the Ozarks’ Shannon County. A 122 lb. male, MDC took the catx’s vitals and released him. A cluster of field evidence and cam-pics in the area over the years suggested he established a home range: the sole Midwest disperser to do so in thirty years of dispersals. In 2018, his DNA was once again matched from an elk-kill in Shannon County, confirming the home-range theory. A year earlier, DNA also gleaned from an elk-kill in Shannon County revealed the first wild female puma documented in Missouri. Alas, no evidence of a Shannon County tryst — no evidence of kittens — emerged, and no further evidence of her presence, or his, has appeared.
Iowa provides no protections for pumas (or black bears) in their Wildlife Code. As primarily a corn desert, Iowa holds little puma habitat, but it has seen three of the five females documented east of the prairie states. All three were shot. Despite advocacy efforts by firefighter and paramedic Shane Griffin, who convinced his state legislator to twice sponsor a puma protection bill, the bill has never reached the House floor for a vote.
Illinois provided an inspiring case for just how uniform protections and enforcement across the Midwest might be done. In November 2013, a dispersing male was spotted in Morrison, IL hiding under a farmer’s corn crib. An Illinois DNR conservation officer was dispatched. After consulting with the farmer, and with no state puma management/protection policy in place, at the farmer’s request, the young cat was shot. The incident raised the ire of the Chicago Tribune, who responded with a nuanced editorial citing the low threat and continued likelihood of dispersing pumas reaching Illinois, and the subsequent need for their protection. A similar plea by the Tribune was ignored five years earlier when a cat was killed in a highly publicized incident in a north Chicago alley by police, who sprayed the neighborhood with a barrage of bullets. A Tribune op-ed by Illinois DNR director Marc Miller, citing Julia Smith’s University of Illinois Carbondale’s carnivore habitat thesis proposing there was indeed habitat for black bears, wolves, and pumas in Illinois, soon followed. The Illinois legislature got on board, and a carnivore protection bill passed and was subsequently signed by the governor a mere nine months after the farm killing.
Interpretation of Illinois’ regulations has been a mixed bag on the ground. Last year, a radio-collared male from Nebraska was captured safely in residential Springfield. Despite the Illinois carnivore habitat study, rather than releasing him into a more suitable location like Illinois’ Shawnee National Forest, he was transported to the Exotic Feline Rescue Center in Center Point, Indiana.
Catch & Release
Going hand-in-hand with protections are puma incident management courses for first-responders. Typically travelling at night along river corridors, young cats inevitably must skirt towns and cities, towns and cities filled with harassing dogs, who the cats respond to like their only natural foe, wolves. Seeking sanctuary in trees — Midwest dispersers have been treed by dogs as small as 15 lb. terriers — residents awaken in the dawning light to find a mountain lion staring down at them, setting off a lynching reception by inexperienced first-responders called to the scene. Police, fire departments, and even SWAT teams have been summoned, the media appear, and the cats are treated like invading marauders and dispatched, leaving the impression in the hub-bub that a lethal threat has been taken out.
Protocols for managing cats marooned in residential areas, including handling the public and the media, have been outlined in the book Cougar Management Guidelines. Further refined by California Fish & Wildlife, who deal with more residential cats than any other state, State Senate Bill 132 authorizes first-responders to use only “nonlethal procedures when responding to reports of mountain lions near residences that do not involve an imminent threat to human life.” As Western state agencies well understand, given an exit, trapped dispersers will quietly leave town on their own.
The incident management courses would be run in conjunction with puma public education programs partnering with zoos and schools, local media, and NGOs. In 2012, Cougar Rewilding Foundation (CRF) wildlife veterinarian, Dr. Jay Tischendorf, with the late Vice President of CRF, carnivore ecologist, Dr. John Laundré, ran an incident management course at the Minnesota Zoo in Apple Valley, MN. With a grant from the Fund for Wild Nature, and co-sponsored by the American Ecological Research Institute and CRF, the course was attended by Minnesota municipal police, cat advocates, and Wisconsin Department of Natural Resource biologists.
In February 2018, though their official cougar response guidelines were still in development at the time, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) agents called to residential Brookfield patiently assessed a disperser hiding under a pine tree that may have been injured. Deciding not to attempt tranquilizing the cat in the tight confines, biologists returned the next morning, tracking its trail through the neighborhood until the cat was lost. Codified later in 2018, Wisconsin DNR’s Cougar Response Guidelines are a comprehensive document of protocols rivaling California’s.
While high quotas in the prairie source colonies remain the single biggest impediment to Midwest puma recolonization, and vehicle strikes of dispersers will continue, losses from random shooting, public executions, and unenforced or absent regulations need not take their toll. The first piece of a national puma recovery strategy includes:
- Advancing uniform state puma protections and enforcement of regulations across the Midwest.
- Educating first-responders to safely capture and release dispersers stranded in residential settings while securing the public’s safety, including managing on-lookers and the press.
- Teaching Midwest state agencies, the public, and the press on how to safely live with cougars, raising general awareness and acceptance for their homecoming.
Despite the on-going pressures limiting dispersal and recolonization, the 2016 near-tryst in Shannon County, Missouri — 600 miles from the nearest source colony — remains a pulse of puma resilience and potential. By advancing a Midwest recovery strategy — finding room for us and for mountain lions — puma advocates may off-set the dour recolonization forecasts.
Part 3 of this series will move East, detailing the final piece of a national puma recovery strategy: Reintroductions.
Christopher Spatz, inspired by Dave Foreman announcing the birth of Earth First! on the Today Show in the early ’80s, procured a copy of Eco Defense and began his peripatetic pursuits as an eco-gadfly. Yanking surveying stakes, canvassing for Greenpeace in Boston, performing for Trenton, NJ’s Klark Kent eco-street theater troupe, directing the Gunks’ Climbers Coalition, and advocating for puma recovery as the president of the Cougar Rewilding Foundation were some of his ventures. He lives and writes from the Shawangunks in southern New York State.