We all know about the controversy stirred when sightings of mountain lions in Sabino Canyon inspired Arizona Game and Fish officials to declare that the cats had lost their fear of humans and needed to be killed. Public outcry forced officials to temper that judgement; they decided instead to catch, tranquilize and relocate the lions, despite a lack of actual evidence that the lions were or would become dangerous to people.
To the West, a January attack in which a cougar killed one mountain biker and injured another in Orange County, Calif., made many people wary of hiking and biking in lion country. And David Baron's recent book, The Beast in the Garden, claims that the big cats are growing increasingly aggressive toward people.
But mountain lions, not people, may be the ones who are truly in danger in the West. Every Western state except California allows sport hunting of mountain lions. Because females with young frequently travel alone, hunters may not realize they're shooting a mother cat. Kittens that are orphaned when they're less than a year old usually die of starvation. Most Western states kill somewhere between 50 to 100 lions each year--lions who have reportedly threatened or attacked people and livestock. And that doesn't count those cats that fall victim to ranchers who take livestock protection into their own hands and "shoot, shovel and shut up."
The arguments for hunting mountain lions are many: protecting humans, safeguarding livestock, increasing the numbers of elk and deer. But according to Dr. Rick Hopkins, senior wildlife ecologist with Live Oak Associates, an ecological consulting firm in California, "sport hunting is insignificant" in controlling attacks on people and livestock.
California has banned lion hunting for the last three decades. The state has about 35 million people and perhaps 4,000 to 6,000 lions--more of each than are found in any other Western state. Yet Colorado, Montana, Idaho and Washington have a higher rate of attacks on humans, according to Hopkins.
Some biologists think that sport hunting might actually make mountain lion problems worse, because it increases the percentage of young, inexperienced lions in the population--and those animals are disproportionately responsible for attacks on people.
In any case, mountain lion experts agree that the danger to people has been blown out of proportion.
"There's a strong, strong natural selection pressure for lions to avoid humans," says Jerry Apker, a wildlife biologist with the Colorado Division of Wildlife. "Those that don't, get killed."
Paul Beier, a lion expert at the University of California at Berkeley, found that on average, someone is killed by a mountain lion in this country once every 10 years. Meanwhile, every year, three people are killed by black widows, 12 by rattlesnakes, 20 by domestic dogs, 40 by bee stings and 80 by lightning.
Even though mountain lions pose little danger to people, and livestock and game can usually be protected by targeting specific "problem" lions, lion killing in most Western states is increasing. This might be acceptable if game managers knew how many lions were out there, say biologists, but no state has ever had a sound population estimate for the secretive animals.
The debate about lion population levels has simmered for decades. Most state biologists believe that lion numbers are either steady or increasing, but that's based on anecdotal evidence and indirect statistics such as the percentage of females killed in the hunt.
Without sound data, politics often plays into determining hunting quotas.
"Game commissions make decisions based on what they hear from their sportsmen constituents," says Greg Tanner, wildlife biologist with the Nevada Department of Wildlife. "We've seen recent trends toward the commission opting to establish year-round (hunting) seasons, increase the annual limit and reduce the cost of the tag to encourage more lion hunting."
Rich DeSimone, wildlife biologist with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, says, "Most states have no idea what they're doing. They just hope that nobody challenges them" about their quota numbers.
Lion biologists also worry, because lion habitat is falling fast all across the West. Suburbs and shopping malls fragment territories, cause prey to disappear and create more opportunities for run-ins between man and cat.
Recently, some states have started trying to gather more data on lions. In Texas, DNA analysis may help game managers get a handle on cat numbers. And Colorado just hired premier lion researcher Ken Logan for a multiyear project.
But until wildlife managers have a solid understanding of the nuances of lion populations, mountain lion management will be mostly based on guesswork.
"If you're really conservative, you can get away with guessing," says Hopkins, but most states are not willing to take a conservative approach until they can determine whether too many lions are being killed. He adds, "They keep pushing the envelope."