In the late 1980s, to celebrate my survival of a serious heart attack, my older brother Keith suggested to me that we go to Africa on a photo safari, something both of us had dreamed of doing for much of our lives but had never acted on. Although my own primary interest was birding and his was in climbing Mt. Kenya, we both especially looked forward to seeing such wonderful megafauna as elephants, cheetahs and lions. We spent a good deal of time watching a lion pride on the Serengeti and were greatly impressed by the bravery of young Maasai men, who spent the daylight hours guarding their cattle from lion attacks armed only with a spear. Indeed, the ultimate and sometimes fatal bravery test of a Maasai warrior is to kill a lion with nothing more than his spear.
Keith was so taken by the history and beauty of some of these museum-piece spears that he purchased two of them from some Maasai whom we encountered while crossing the Serengeti. I was very disappointed in his decision because these weapons were no doubt heirlooms that had been passed down though many familial generations. Although they could probably be replaced by modern and perhaps even better factory-made versions, I felt that such exchanges result in a cheapening of the Maasai culture, as was the then-common tendency for tourists to trade transistor radios or baseball caps for beadwork and other aboriginal souvenirs.
When we returned home, Keith proudly put his Maasai spears and related artifacts on display in his house, in essentially the same way that big-game hunters often return home with the trophy heads of animals that they have shot in Africa. It is possible that displaying the horns, antlers, tusks and other secondary sexual characteristics of these magnificent animals may help boost the ego of dedicated nimrods. However, killing large animals at a great distance and with a high-powered rifle is hardly comparable to the invisible badge of courage that Maasai men exhibit every time they face a threatening lion while holding nothing but a hand-made and metal-tipped wooden spear. Tom Mangelsen, Nebraska’s internationally known wildlife photographer, conservationist and founder of the nonprofit Cougar Fund, has informed me that since lions are now becoming quite rare on the Serengeti, there has been a big awareness campaign with the Maasai that they no longer kill lions in order to become a recognized warrior, or to reach manhood.
In Nebraska, we are now beginning to enjoy the occasional presence of mountain lions (also called cougars, pumas and catamounts), which had been absent in the state for a century and are now increasingly reappearing. After being extirpated from the central Great Plains by 1891, mountain lions were not again sighted in Nebraska until 1991. Since then, over 100 confirmed sightings have been made in the state outside of the Pine Ridge, and it is believed that a population of 15–22 animals exists in the Pine Ridge region of Sioux, Dawes and Sheridan counties. Those individuals appearing elsewhere are mostly young animals that have been forced out of their Pine Ridge and Black Hills homeland as a result of competition from older animals. They have been seen crossing the state along such natural corridors as the Niobrara, Loup and Platte rivers, very rarely encountering humans, but posing imagined threats during such encounters.
Mountain lions are primarily predators on deer in their usual habitats, and the older animals are sufficiently wary of humans to remain well away from any human contacts. In balanced populations, the mountain lions keep the deer population in check and selectively eliminate sick or weakened individuals. It is the young, inexperienced lions, driven out of the territories of older individuals, that are most likely to wander into strange places and begin selecting easily obtained prey, such as domesticated livestock, pets and, extremely rarely, people.
During the century-long period 1890–1990, there were only 53 documented attacks on humans by mountain lions throughout the U.S. and Canada, 10 of which were fatal. From 1991 to the present, there have been nine additional fatal attacks, including four in California, three in western Canada and two in Colorado. By comparison, 34,000 people we killed in the U.S. by vehicular accidents in 2012, and an average of about 32,000 die annually from firearms. The probability of being killed in an auto accident or being killed by gunshot (most often by a family member or other acquaintance) is thus more than a thousand times greater than being attacked by a mountain lion over one’s entire life, even assuming a lifetime of 100 years.
The recent increase in human-lion encounters is in part a reflection of increasing human populations and ever-greater access by humans into lion country by hikers, bicyclists and campers. The combination of decreasing lion habitat and increasing pressures on immature lions to spread into marginal areas has only increased the likelihood of contacts. Sport hunting is another factor that undesirably influences interactions between mountain lions and humans.
To kill a mountain lion is disgustingly simple. A common method is to use professional guides whose dogs have attached radio telemetry units. When the dogs have found and chased a mountain lion into a tree, it is necessary only to approach the tree and, with a .22 or other small-caliber pistol (so as not to damage the pelt too badly), shoot it out of the tree. Using a small-caliber gun only prolongs the death of the animal, but no doubt allows for a more elaborate recounting of the hunt. As Nebraska’s Sen. Ernie Chambers has bluntly remarked, “That’s not hunting, that’s slaughter.” Killing adult mountain lions often has other serious consequences. The loss of a mother with dependent young is also a sentence of death by starvation for the kittens, something a trophy hunter is probably unlikely to think about as he visualizes another hide to be nailed to the wall.
Of the 12 western states with viable breeding populations, most have regulated hunting seasons. As might be expected, Texas allows unlimited hunting of mountain lions, whereas California has recognized them as an intrinsic part of the state’s natural heritage and has classified them a protected species since 1990. Washington State limits the kill to the species’ biological rate of increase, estimated at no more than 14 percent. In Nebraska only a single case of breeding has so far been documented.
A thriving mountain lion population in Nebraska would help limit our out-of-control deer population. There were more than 2,500 deer-car collisions in Nebraska in 2012, including three human fatalities, so deer are millions of times more hazardous to both the property and health of Nebraskans than are mountain lions. Deer also host the ticks that most often transmit Lyme disease. Over 30,000 cases of this chronic and often-crippling disease are reported annually, according to the national Center for Disease Control, and more than 50 confirmed cases have occurred in Nebraska since 2003. Considering their influence as primary deer predators and thus helping to reduce the incidence of deer-car accidents and Lyme disease, mountain lions must be regarded as one of the most beneficial of Nebraska’s wildlife. Yet, a still-uncertain number have been killed for various, often questionable reasons since they first reappeared in the state in 1991.
Research by biologists in Washington State has shown that heavy hunting pressure on cougars often forces young individuals into the fringes of suitable habitat, increasingly exposing them to humans. Research there has shown that hunting also results in more frequent conflicts with people. Nevertheless, the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission decided to open the state’s first hunting season on mountain lions in 2014, even though they are far more rare in Nebraska than are some of our nationally endangered or threatened species, such as least terns.
Rather than considering all the undesirable effects of mountain lion hunting mentioned above, the Game and Parks Commission crafted a set of regulations designed to bring the maximum amount of revenue into the agency. Two people were chosen to hunt in the Pine Ridge unit of the Nebraska National Forest between Jan. 1 and Feb. 14, 2014, and both were allowed to kill a lion with the help of tracking dogs. One of the two permit holders was chosen by lottery, and the other was determined by auction. The auction winner paid $13,500 for this rare opportunity.
Within two days both permit holders had killed their allotted animals. The lottery was won by a teenager who had initially killed a mountain lion when he was only 13 years old and who said he felt “great” about his most recent success. The auction winner, an Iowa resident, killed a 138-pound male, thus paying about $100 per pound for the legal right to eliminate one of these magnificent animals. He had killed two mountain lions previously and already had 150 trophy mounts in his home. Presumably he needed yet another.
An additional 100 hunters who were also chosen by lottery have been allowed to buy permits to hunt in the Pine Ridge counties from Feb. 15 to March 31, with a maximum total kill of two lions. There is no overall limit on the number of permits sold or lions killed over most of the rest of the state, and throughout the rest of the year, for those who bought a $15 hunting permit by Sept. 30, 2013. Nearly 400 permits were issued. Only one lion kill will be allowed per hunter, and, although they would no doubt make cute trophies, shooting kittens is not allowed. Large dogs, campers and hikers should all be on high alert for the rest of the year.
R. H. Busch, “The Cougar Almanac: A Complete Natural History of the American Mountain Lion” (New York: Lyons and Burford, 1996).
D. Chadwick, “Ghost Cats,” “National Geographic” 224(6)(2013): 64–82.
T. D. Mangelsen and C. S. Blessley, “Spirit of the Rockies: The Mountain Lions of Jackson Hole” (Omaha: Images of Nature, 1999). (Tom Mangelsen’s Cougar Fund helps preserve this remarkable species; www.cougarfund.org.)
W. Stolzenburg, “Where the Wild Things Were: Life, Death and Ecological Wreckage in a Land of Vanishing Predators” (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2009).