“While disease and starvation are occasional causes of cougar deaths, competition with other cougars or predators, and human hunting (during legal seasons outside protected areas), are the main causes of cougar mortality. Habitat fragmentation and loss are the main long-term threats to cougar populations across the western United States,” the park’s website says.
A mountain lion (Courtesy of the California Department of Fish and Game via Flickr | CC-BY-SA 2.0)
News of Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte legally killing a radio-collared mountain lion in the Greater Yellowstone Area earlier this year has generated national headlines, but one wildlife advocacy group said the incident raises more significant concerns beyond the killing of the animal.
The Republican governor and a team of hunters used hounds to track the 5-year-old Mountain lion on Dec. 28 on U.S. Forest Service land in Park County. The hounds eventually forced the cougar into a tree, where Gianforte confirmed it was a male and decided to shoot the animal. News of the killing was first reported by the Washington Post.
The hunt happened near a private ranch owned by Sinclair Broadcast Group director Robert E. Smith, who has donated to Gianforte’s past political campaigns. That is the same ranch where Gianforte was issued a warning after he trapped and killed a radio-collared wolf on Feb. 15, 2021, without taking a state-mandated educational course.
Brooke Stroyke, a spokesperson for Gianforte pushed back on accusations published in The Washington Post that Gianforte showed up to dispatch the animal after it was treed.
“Contrary to the unsubstantiated rumors by unnamed sources run by the Washington Post, the governor was a member of the hunt from start to finish. He had been tracking the lion on public lands and was a member of the group that used hounds to tree the lion in accordance with Montana mountain lion hunting regulations,” she said in an email.
Michael J. Robinson, a senior conservation advocate at the Center for Biological Diversity, said the animal being radio-collared and the kill location concerned him the most.
“By killing a radio-collared animal, it’s not only that the animal is lost to the ecosystem, but you also have a diminishment of our understanding of the natural world,” he said. “Those collars are tremendous study tools for wildlife officials.”
And where Gianforte killed the cougar diminishes the ability to study the animal and the greater ecosystem, he said.
“This is not just some random place in the united states it’s at the edge of Yellowstone National Park … because the park has never had livestock grazing and because in 150 years it has had not had hunting, it’s a tremendous laboratory for scientists to study the natural world,” he said.
Robinson also took issue with recently passed laws that he views as detrimental to predator populations in Montana. During the 67th legislative session Republican lawmakers passed laws making it easier to kill wolves and directed Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks to reduce the wolf population.
“The larger problem is that the carnivores of the Northern Rocky Mountains are being persecuted by state policies that (Gianforte) has pursued that give these animals so little respite,” he said.
A Yellowstone National Park spokesperson identified the mountain lion dispatched by Gianforte as cougar M220. Mountain lions were eradicated from the park by hunters in the 1930s before making their return in the 1980s, the spokesperson said. And now, there is an estimated 34 to 42 mountain lions that reside year-round in the park’s northern range.
The animal was collared by park biologists on Dec. 11, 2019, in the park’s northern section. The mountain lion was 3.5 years old based on top canine gum recession measurements and weighed 130 pounds at the time of capture. According to the park, male cougars weigh between 145 and 170 pounds and live between 8 and 10 years.
The spokesperson said park biologists use the collars to study cougar populations and have the technology to identify when a cougar is hunting, feeding or moving.
While cougars live throughout Yellowstone National Park in the summer, they are seldom seen, and there have been very few documented confrontations between cougars and humans, the park said. Still, human hunting is one of the leading causes of death for mountain lions, according to the park.
FWP spokesman Greg Lemon said about 5,700 people buy mountain lion tags each year. He said in 2019, 493 cougars were killed and 515 were harvested in 2020.
And hunting mountain lions is an arduous task, said Mac Minard, the Montana Outfitters and Guides Association executive director.
“Mountain lion hunting is an incredibly difficult endeavor. This is not something that someone who has no sense of the mountains can participate in; most of the time, it is a physically demanding experience,” he said.
Due to cougars’ cunning nature, hounds are often needed to track and hunt them, he said.
“Really, the only method to pursue a mountain lion is through the use of dogs,” he said. “And it generally requires snow-covered ground.”
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