Wednesday, June 11, 2008

The U.S. Now Has More Lions Than Africa




I tossed the latest copy of Earth Dog - Running Dog
magazine into the truck on the way to work this morning, and was flipping through it at a traffic light when I opened it up to see the picture at left. Hey, I know that fellow!

And sure enough I do -- it's John B., who I see once a year at the only dog trial I go to, the JRTCA Nationals.

That's a 200-pound stock-predating Mountain Lion John hunted in Arizona a few years back (subscribe to Earth Dog - Running Dog magazine if you want to read the full story).

John's Mountain Lion got me to thinking about the rise of Cougar populations here in the U.S.

As regular readers might recall, a Mountain Lion was recently shot in Chicago, and roadkills in Iowa prove they have gotten that far east as well.

Rumors of Mountain Lions in Appalachia remain (as yet) unfounded, but it is agreed by all that it is only a matter of time before they come here. With over over 2 million acres of contiguous National Forest in Virginia and West Virginia alone, and plenty of deer, they will not want for food or space!

On a hunch, I did a little research and confirmed what I suspected: there are now more lions in the United States than there are all in all of Africa.

Now granted that Puma concolor and Panthera leo are a different genus of big cat, but a Mountain Lion is no small animal; it is, in fact, the fourth largest big cat in the world.

Right now there are more than 30,000 Mountain Lions in the U.S., and their numbers are slowly growing despite the fact that hunting these large animals is legal (if controlled by permit) in 10 of the 11 western states where they reside.

All in all, about 3,500 Mountain Lions a year are shot by U.S. hunters, and another 800 or so are killed by vehicle impacts.

A slow steady increase in Mountain Lions is excellent news, and the kind of thing we can live with provided the populations are allowed to expand in the right direction (i.e on public lands) and away from farms, ranches and suburbs.

The return of the Mountain Lion (along with the concurrent rise in bear, wolf, coyote, turkey, eagle, hawk, osprey, deer, elk, and beaver populations) is proof-positive that the American way of science-based wildlife management has been a roaring success.

This is not to say, of course, that there will never be human-wildlife conflicts. There always will be with large meat-eating predators.

Problem lions, wolves and bears will always have to be shot, but regulated hunting and culling of these animals does no long-term harm provided the slaughter is not indiscriminate and the wild habitat they require is preserved as large unbroken blocks of land.

The real threat to animals like Mountain Lions is not regulated hunted; it is unregulated population growth which results in more roads, more water consumption, and more sprawl.

If we protect the habitat, the wildlife will generally take care of itself.

But to take care of the habitat, we have to control ourselves.

We cannot allow U.S. population growth (largely driven by immigration) to increase our numbers to the point that humans become like locusts on the land. If we plough and graze fence post to fence post, fragment the forests, drain the rivers and streams for irrigation, and put in roads every mile or two (with shopping centers in between), it is not just Mountain Lion we will lose; it is wild America as we know it and love it.

And, to put on a point on it, it will not take much human population growth in Arizona, where this mountain lion was shot, to wreck things forever.

As John McCain recently noted, Arizona is already so dry the trees have been known to chase the dogs!

So heads up; human population growth is what is killing off Africa's lions.

Now that we have a healthy Mountain Lion population in the American West, let's make sure we do not allow human population growth to kill off our lions as well.

Let's not worry about sustainable levels of hunting, while ignoring unsustainable rates of immigration.

Yet, as far as I can tell, that is exactly what every Mountain Lion and Cougar protection organization in America is now doing. Talk about missing the forest for the trees!


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