Several winters ago, I spied three trucks racing down our dirt road in Wyoming. I knew these were cougar hunters and went out to meet them. They had already taken away their quarry, but two young men remained, loading up their snowmobiles. I asked about their hunt.
“We had the lion on an elk kill up the trail.”
I asked what sex the mountain lion was. I know it’s not easy to discern females from males.
“It was a female,” they replied.
I told these young hunters that she probably had kittens stashed somewhere.
“But we only saw her tracks around the kill site,” was their response. I knew then they didn’t even have basic lion biology under their belts.
Most adult females have dependent cubs
These young hunters brought their cougar into Game and Fish the next day to verify their tag. The agency biologist told them they’d killed a young male. Even with the cougar dead, they had no idea how to sex the animal.
This is a problem because mothers typically stash cubs under six months old when they go hunting. Even older kittens may be away from their mom up to 50% of the time during the winter hunting season. Kittens normally remain with their mother for 18 months to two years.
Females are usually either caring for young or pregnant, which is why three out of four adult females harvested each year are mothers with dependent cubs. Cubs less than a year old have almost no chance of survival when hunters kill their mothers.
While researching my book “Ghostwalker: Tracking a Lion’s Soul through Science and Story,” even the experienced houndsmen I interviewed agreed that females should not be hunted.
Proposed quota is too high, too complicated
Yet on April 1, the Arizona Game and Fish Commission will vote on changes to mountain lion hunts for the next five years, which would allow up to 50% of the total number of lions killed in a particular hunting zone to be female.
Arizona, like all western states, is divided in hunt zones for each animal, and each hunt zone has a certain number of lions that can be hunted. Once that quota is filled, the hunt in that zone is closed.
So, if a zone has a quota of 20 lions, Arizona is proposing that once 10 females are killed in that hunt zone, the zone closes for the remainder of the hunting season, but other zones would be open if they didn’t reach their quota.
Each zone would have a different quota based on how many lions they want to remove.
Many conservation groups are calling for limiting the hunting of adult female mountain lions to 20% of the total quota for each unit. They want Game and Fish to consider females adults at 24 months instead of 36 months, an arbitrarily high cutoff, considering most have left their mother at 2 years and are capable of reproducing.
That makes sense. But there might be a simpler way.
Require a class, lower the quota
Arizona Game and Fish should require a class on mountain lion biology and sex identification for all new lion hunters. Then, the agency should either prohibit killing female mountain lions, or at least implement a very limited total female quota that would require hunters to be judicious and careful in their hunt.
Hunters would have to be able to sex the animal before they kill it, encouraging an understanding of mountain lion biology and the reasoning behind a female quota. Filling the female quota would shut down a hunting unit.
This strategy is not new. In New Mexico, managers require a mandatory sex identification course for all mountain lion hunters. When the percent of females harvested in a unit begins approaching 30% of the total quota for that unit, managers shut down that unit for the rest of the season.
This encourages hunters to avoid killing female mountain lions.
A basic class and a strict female quota would bring a depth of awareness to houndsmen and ensure the long-term survival of Arizona’s mountain lion population.
Leslie Patten is the author of “Ghostwalker: Tracking a Mountain Lion’s Soul through Science and Story.” She lives in northwest Wyoming. Online: lesliepattenbooks.com.