National Geographic : 2013 Dec
Cougars 81 the lowest rates of cougar conflicts with humans. How could that be? Assuming that every cougar killed means more game for sportsmen, some states cull as many cats each year as wildlife managers think the population can withstand. The toll generally falls most heavily on adult males, which hunters prize as trophies. But as the biggest, strongest cats, they hold the prime territories and force young upstarts to leave, setting an upper limit on the number of cougars in a given area. Studies by Washington State University pro- fessor Robert Wielgus and his co-researchers have shown that when too many large males are killed, footloose young males converge on the emptied territories. Fierce competition pushes more of them to the fringes of the space, often closer to human habitation. Meanwhile, females may roam more widely to avoid the influx of unfamiliar males, which sometimes kill kittens. Wielgus sums up his surprising findings: “Heavy hunting can result in higher overall den- sity of cougars, increased predation on game, and more frequent conflicts with people—in short, the exact opposite of what was intended.” Rather than ramping up the legal kill, Wielgus prescribes limiting the take to the cougars’ natu- ral rate of increase, around 14 percent annually. The state of Washington recently adopted such a policy. Given the widespread approval this strat- egy has received from wildlife biologists, it may set the standard for hunting of cougars—and perhaps other major predators—making it easier for them to coexist with people. It seems vital to many people that something big and fierce is out there wilding the landscape, something that prickles the hair on the back of the neck and fires the imagination. Scientists think it’s important too, since most ecosystems developed with large carnivores playing a pivotal role. In the absence of a major carnivore—and with sport hunting dropping in popularity— white-tailed deer have become a danger to driv- ers, a nuisance for gardeners, and a host for ticks carrying Lyme disease. Having no predators to cull the weakest and sickest animals leads to the spread of other parasites and diseases as well. And as unchecked deer populations overgraze shrubs and sapling trees, they are slowly but surely transforming portions of North America’s native forests. No one is saying that cougars belong in ev- ery patch of local woods. But some are asking why not in state and national forests across the Great Lakes states, or New York’s Adirondacks, or maybe the Ozark Plateau—all places cougars have visited in recent years. Where the cougar will be tomorrow or in ten years is anyone’s guess. But chances seem very good that it will continue reclaiming lost ground. As Howard Quigley says, “We’re looking at one of the most successful large carnivores on the planet.” j This cougar was shot by a homeowner, then confiscated by South Dakota’s game agency. Responding to com- plaints that the cats are reducing elk and deer numbers, the state this year allowed hunters toshootupto100ofan estimated population of 300 cougars. Nat Geo WiLd presents a week of exotic felines, premiering on Friday, november 29, with Man v. Cheetah. Check local listings.