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The ‘Cougar Conundrum’: Q&A with author Mark Elbroch

A puma with a recent kill by Neal Wight/Panthera.

A puma with a recent kill by Neal Wight/Panthera.

  • In a new book, The Cougar Conundrum: Sharing the World with a Successful Predator, wildlife biologist Mark Elbroch explores the polarizing debate around mountain lions in the United States.
  • Elbroch is the puma program director for Panthera, the global wild cat conservation organization.
  • Mountain lion behavior has long been cloaked in mystery and mythology. Still, recent research has revealed a complex portrait of the mountain lion (Puma concolor) and its role in the landscape.
  • Elbroch argues for moving past the entrenchment around how to manage mountain lions and for a more inclusive debate incorporating the views of a larger proportion of society.

In 2016, a mountain lion known as P-45 killed 10 alpacas on a ranch in California’s Santa Monica Mountains. That’s rare behavior for a mountain lion, writes wildlife biologist Mark Elbroch in his new book, Cougar Conundrum: Sharing the World with a Successful Predator. Even so, the killing spree touched off a firestorm of controversy over what to do about the problem. Livestock owners argued for the right to kill problem pumas. Animal rights advocates said that pumas like P-45 are critical to the survival of the small population living in this part of southern California.

The polarization is common in wildlife management, with entrenched views on each side and very little common ground on which to build consensus. But the community persisted, said Elbroch, the puma program director for Panthera, the global wild cat conservation organization. In the end, ranchers were authorized to go after problem mountain lions only after they’d tried and failed other measures to deter them, an outcome that was criticized. But Elbroch said it could also be seen as an example of a compromise that, in his view, happens far too infrequently in wildlife management.

“I would argue that, at least on a local scale, the Malibu community wrestled with the cougar conundrum and came up with a solution,” he writes. “Not everyone involved was happy with the end result, but it’s the process that’s most important, not the outcome.”

The book, published on Aug. 13, likewise wrestles with the vexing questions that living alongside a predator like the mountain lion (Puma concolor) creates. Early extermination campaigns were aimed at removing an animal from the landscape to protect the lives of humans and livestock. Today, some argue for the use of similar tactics, though perhaps not the extent of outright extinction, in the form of increased mountain lion hunting quotas and more aggressive removal of “problem” animals.

Nature, however, doesn’t always cooperate with such attempts. Research from Washington state that Elbroch cites in the book reveals, for example, that when the numbers of mountain lions killed by human hunters increase, so do the number of complaints about attacks on pets and livestock. The reason is that the absence of the confident predator on the landscape allows younger mountain lions to move in and jockey for position in the territory, who are then more likely to go after dogs, sheep and cattle that are easier to catch than deer or elk.

Also worth noting, Elbroch points out, is how unlikely lion attacks on people are. Between 2010 and 2019, the U.S. had an average of fewer than four (not necessarily lethal) attacks a year, down from a peak of perhaps six per year in the 1990s.

“We are not on the menu,” California mountain lion biologist Doug Updike said, according to Elbroch.

By comparison, deer kill as many as five, and cows kill about 20 people annually.

Polarized groups on opposite sides of the debate have driven many of the policy decisions on mountain lion management in the United States, Elbroch writes. Image by Duncan Parker/Panthera.

Our methods in dealing with mountain lions have rested on our often limited and sometimes flat-out-wrong presumptions of how best to manage mountain lions to protect the deer and elk that hunters value, or to keep them away from livestock, or to minimize the perceived threat of deadly encounters between people and pumas as the areas we inhabit have come to overlap more and more.

Mountain lions, in effect, have become political pawns, argued over by small minorities in society. Elbroch is unsparing in his critiques of mountain lion advocates, hunters, the media and even his fellow scientists when they cherry-pick data or create facts out of whole cloth to support their conclusions about how the species should be managed.

Elbroch’s own research has filled in the details of what’s been a pretty hazy picture of mountain lion ecology, and it’s shown that they are a critical cog in a functioning landscape. For instance, he believes that they’re ecosystem engineers — that is, a special category of keystone species that alter their environment in a way that affects other species in the ecosystem.

Mountain lions do kill more prey than they can eat, though not typically to the level of P-45 and not out of bloodlust. It’s out of necessity. In their range, mountain lions often have to give way to more dominant predators. Elbroch’s study, published in 2018, demonstrated that lion kills feed not only the more dominant bears and wolves as well as other scavengers. They also support an array of other plants and animals, including at least 215 beetle species.

Pumas are intimately connected to more other lifeforms “than any other predator,” he said. And these “linkages” make for a more robust and resilient system.

In a way, those interconnections also mirror what our decision-making process could look like with respect to the mountain lion: The more people involved, the better, as Elbroch sees it. In his view, as the United States struggles to shed systemic sidelining of large segments of the population, it might well be time to consider more inclusive policies for how we deal with the wildlife that we live alongside.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Mongabay: What is the cougar conundrum?

Mark Elbroch: The short version of this is we tried ruthlessly to wipe out mountain lions in North America and failed. We certainly achieved eradication in parts of the eastern United States, but we failed overall. Lots of things changed back in the early 1900s to mid-1900s. American society changed, and we changed the status of mountain lions from one of just vermin in which bounties were paid for skins and kills, to one in which they were a managed game species, at least over most of their range.

What was amazing was how well they’ve rebounded. Suddenly, all these mountain lions were finding each other, the ones that had hidden and survived in these wild parts of the West, and began to reproduce. And, oh my goodness, all of a sudden, their numbers started climbing. They’re living in between us.

Now, we’re sort of faced with the conundrum of how to live and share habitat and natural resources with another large predator. That’s kind of it in a nutshell.

What are the questions that prompted you to write the book?

The book itself is more a collection of different conundrums that are born of that change. Are there issues around mountain lions and safety? Are there issues for pet and livestock safety? Are there concerns for deer and elk hunters that are worried that they’re going to outcompete them? Are we concerned about the integrity of mountain lion populations? Are we concerned about hunting? All of these sorts of questions that are on people’s mind are born of this rapid change from trying to get rid of them and failing to suddenly protecting them just a little bit, and then the population rebounding. And here we are, living with them and, much to everyone’s dismay, I think, finding them in our backyards. What do we do?

How does our understanding of mountain lions fit into these issues and questions?

The other part of the conundrum, of course, is that we don’t really know much about them. Whenever you don’t know about something, it’s easy to fill the void with mythology. There’s all this haunting mythology, which kind of dictates what people think about mountain lions and their roles within natural systems. All of those things provide the perfect storm for a challenging current wildlife crisis.

Biologist Mark Elbroch in the field. Image by Dave Moskowitz.

You mentioned in the preface to the book that you thought about writing a book about the social behaviors of the mountain lion, but instead you wrote one centered on these issues. Why was that more important now?

It’s important now for a couple of reasons. I’ve worked in this field for a long time. You work with the species, you work with the people who are invested in the species, both those who are invested in seeing them reduced on the landscape versus those who are invested in seeing their populations remain healthy and grow and even reclaim previous range. I think there are a couple of things that can happen to biologists that work with a species for a long time: One is, they just become indoctrinated, following along with the status quo of what the culture thinks of mountain lions and what game managers think of them, how they’re managed. They just sort of fall in line. And that’s an easy thing to do, because the system is set up to encourage that sort of behavior.

For instance, as a researcher, I have to apply to the state agencies for permission to work on the species. As you can see in the book, I’m concerned about the structure of state management and how decisions are made around mountain lions. So ironically, here I am, faced with working directly and relying on my relationships with those people to do the work that I want to do. The truth is many mountain lion researchers do that.

For me, I felt that tension inside me from dealing with a species that is controversial — dealing with the lovers, the haters. There are rarely the folks in between. I just made a conscious decision that I wasn’t going to just remain quiet and fall in line, that I was going to be part of this new movement. There’s a group of biologists across fields that have decided that education and media can benefit from the participation of scientists who actually know something about the topic at hand.

What led you to that decision?

You think about sort of the things that have happened in the last 20 years. There were huge changes. First of all, the mountain lion population. We don’t know exactly how many there are or how many there were. There was a peak in attacks on people in the ’90s. There was tremendous frustration among state wildlife managers with what do we do with this species. We don’t know much about them. We are trying to control their numbers, and people are becoming more afraid. So there was a tremendous backlash to increase hunting of mountain lions.

All of that was happening simultaneously with lots of other things. GPS technology was booming. And then, boom, the birth of social media. It’s amazing, and yet it’s also dangerous — divisive is really the word. It has created opportunity for folks to dig in their heels to fight harder. A lot of the voices we encounter today on social media are planting seeds of strife rather than community. Not that community isn’t occurring because social media has really two sides. There’s one side that is amazing, opening up access to resources to a vast number of people and therefore leveling the field of knowledge.

Yet on the flip side, it is creating these opposing communities that are more and more entrenched and more and more engaged in these never-ending battles over whatever topic they choose. We were seeing tremendous progress in wildlife management and wildlife conservation. Suddenly, there’s this pushback, which we are really experiencing within wildlife management right now. You’re seeing a tremendous amount of anti-predator mentality within wildlife management in the West right now.

Then, if you watch on social media at all, how depressing it is to just watch these endless battles and misinformation being thrown around by both wildlife advocates and those who are pro-hunting and pro-mountain lion control just waging war against each other without any progress at all. And it was just getting worse. So, it was just a decision to say that I wanted to at least attempt to provide some sort of bridge that would just hopefully bring people to consider talking to each other.

The real loser is, of course, mountain lions and so many other wildlife species.

Elbroch’s research suggests that mountain lions may be ecosystem engineers. Image by Mark Elbroch/Panthera.

That all seems particularly relevant given what’s going on in the U.S. right now.

I think it’s pertinent to bring up some current events. We’re all being challenged to look through a new lens, to actually look for inequality in political structures. Ultimately, that is what the book about, that there is real inequality in how wildlife management occurs, and the structures that govern our natural resources and public trust resources. And that now more than ever, that is apparent across our society, but that is so true of wildlife.

Early on in the book, you list a number of “facts” from experts about mountain lions that you found on the internet — things like mountain lions have no natural predators and that they kill for pleasure. You then write that all of these “facts” are untrue. How does that misinformation spread?

I wish I knew. If I did, I think we could address it. We don’t know enough about the species. That is true. I think that’s playing a role. People stand up, and they share their opinion, and opinions become facts over time. But I also think it’s because of our relationship with the species that we have in this country, which is different.

Certainly, science has played a larger role since the ’60s. We’ve learned what they eat and how big their home ranges are and where they wander. But what it has not done is address kind of what is a mountain lion? What makes a mountain lion tick? What’s the personality of a mountain lion? None of those questions have ever been addressed.

Biology until now is focused on statistics and natural history knowledge, like, what does it eat? Where does it go? How many are there? How many males versus females? Do males overlap with females? Do they compete for space? These kinds of things are all little factoids about mountain lions, but they are not a mountain lion. They’re pieces of a whole.

Recent research has revealed previously unknown or misunderstood behaviors in mountain lions. Image courtesy of Panthera.

At one point in the book, you mention how inaccurate some of the research is, for example, a 2015 report stating that there were nearly 1,500 cows killed by mountain lions in Michigan. But Michigan is a state that doesn’t have mountain lions, and this was reported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

We have to talk about the structure of society and wildlife management and natural resource management and who’s in power and what their agenda is, which is generally to reduce predators. That is to either aid livestock industries, or to aid hunting constituents. The narrative of that mountain lions and other large carnivores are responsible for the death of untold numbers of livestock and pets and pose threats to people — that’s a narrative that’s important to keep perpetuating.

They, of course, want to know things that feed the machine, which is greater wildlife management. Prioritizing elk, deer, bighorn sheep and things like this have way more value to them economically than the mountain lions. And so they do the kind of research that feeds that machine and that narrative. This is why we don’t know much about their personalities. We don’t know much about their social behaviors because we just don’t need to know that stuff if the goal is to keep mountain lion populations down. If you start recognizing mountain lions as individuals and intimate animals that have families and feel pain, that feeds the narrative that they should probably reduce hunting.

This is the complexity of the problem. You could plug in almost any species, certainly carnivores, and the story is much the same because mountain lion management is reflective of the larger issues of how management occurs. That’s part of the reason I wanted to write this book.

In other research, scientists show that reducing mountain lion numbers to increase deer and elk numbers for hunters may not have the intended effects. Image by Mark Elbroch/Panthera.

You brought up some research in the book that showed that when you remove a mountain lion because of a problem, a lot of times, that will actually increase the conflict.

The research you just talked about was from Washington state. Washington is a fantastic example to think about because they actually paid for that research to see what was driving conflict. I’m not really sure most states would want to invest in such a thing, because they don’t want to know the answer.

And then their state biologist, which is even more amazing, actually said, “Wow, that’s really insightful. Let’s say our goal, of course, is to reduce conflict. So let’s stop hunting mountain lions the way that we’re hunting them to reduce juvenile delinquent theory — that is, seeing youngsters flood in and cause problems.” Then, the state actually acted on it, which is unheard of.

In the last year, Washington has thrown out all of that work. The biologists said we need to act on this. They designed a new program for how we’ve managed mountain lions in the state.

But, lo and behold, just after they began, politicians, ruled by livestock owners and others, have completely reversed all of that work and are going back to basically kill as many mountain lions as you can. It’s crazy.

It’s really hard to integrate the nuances into policy. One way is to bring people to the table. Science can play a role, a really important one clarifying facts from fiction, but then also getting a greater representation of the diversity of people in our societies to participate in decision-making for wildlife. Then, we’d see a lot of these issues could go away. The current power structures only represent a tiny sliver of society. By diversifying that constituency, I think we’d see rapid change in how we manage wildlife, including mountain lions.

I don’t want it to feel like us versus them. I very much believe that hunters, in particular, must be involved in conservation management. They already are, and I certainly don’t want to push them out. What I really want to see is that other types of people are as engaged as hunters are in wildlife management.

It’s something that I hope comes across in the book, that I really do believe in the process. I feel like mountain lions would benefit but also much more than mountain lions. People would benefit, societies would benefit, communities would benefit from inclusive decision-making. That means coming together and actually negotiating through the arguments to some sort of shared outcome. The outcome to me is less important than the process.

A collared mountain lion in Wyoming. Image by Mark Elbroch/Panthera.

What’s the case for mountain lions? Why are they important to have on the landscape?

What I’d love folks to recognize is that their lives are inextricably tied to natural ecosystems. Our health and quality of life as people are reliant upon healthy systems. These things have to be healthy for us to be healthy.

What amazes me about mountain lions is how little work we’ve done to explore their ecological roles and larger natural systems. The more linkages you have connecting all the pieces of an ecosystem, the healthier it is. Research has shown that mountain lions, more than any other large carnivores around the world so far, support building out complexity. What I mean by that is that they build out the number of linkages and food webs. The more linkages, the healthier the system, the more resilient the system, which speaks directly to its ability to heal itself.

If you think of your own body, if you get a wound, your body moves energy around to heal that wound. And the more linkages you have in that pool, the more ways you can move energy. A wound severs linkages, but if there are other ways to move energy around to heal it, it will rebound faster. The systems that are the least complex, that are missing large carnivores, actually function at a lower level than those with mountain lions in it, and therefore, they are less healthy. They are less able to heal themselves after some sort of crisis, whether it’s a fire, disease or drought.

What that means for us is that we, as humans, are an animal that is dependent on the health of natural systems suffer as well. And we will not have the natural resources, nor the support of those natural resources and ecosystems to maintain healthy human communities. It’s just that simple, that we need natural systems and mountain lions to disproportionately maintain healthy natural systems.

Banner image of a puma with a recent kill by Neal Wight/Panthera.

John Cannon is a staff features writer with Mongabay. Find him on Twitter: @johnccannon

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