Who Doesn’t Like Mountain Lions?

There is an answer.


Let’s start with a loose definition of an oxymoron, a contradiction of terms in the same word, sentence, or utterance. Take the word, ‘sportsman’ for example.

A recent Sierra Nevada Ally piece by Kelsey Penrose centers on efforts by two hunters and a game warden to remove an entanglement from the impressive antlers of a mule deer. It adds some fluff…that sportsmen care passionately about ‘wildlife’, contribute financially to help fund the Nevada Department of Wildlife, benevolently kill ‘wildlife’ to avoid ‘overpopulation’ (an assertion that is not true, most animal populations can control their own population) ….and the like.

It is true that sportsmen voluntarily purchase a hunting, fishing, or trapping license, apply for and purchase tags (necessary to be able to make a kill of a deer, bighorn, elk, or pronghorn), volunteer for projects like building and maintaining guzzlers (remote self-collecting water ‘stations’), and hold annual banquets for fundraising purposes to support ‘wildlife’ management in Nevada.

A naïve member of the public might reasonably assume, then, that sportsmen have an unqualified empathetic high regard for all animals and birds the public would regard as ‘wildlife’. 

Unfortunately, not so. There is a dark side.

‘Wildlife’ is in quotes because sportsmen who use that term at wildlife commission meetings or in the press are referring, primarily, to mule deer, elk, bighorn sheep and pronghorns (antelope).  

They are not inclined to grant favored ‘wildlife’ status to mountain lions, coyotes, wolves (if we had any here), grizzly bears (if we had any here), black bears, ravens, bobcats, wild horses, and a host of other critters. Those animals are characterized in less complimentary terms and with much less goodwill.

A caveat: The Nevada Department of Wildlife sells about 70,000 resident hunting licenses to the 3 million + Nevada residents each year.  Virtually none of those 70,000 license holders ever makes an appearance at a Nevada Board of Wildlife Commissioners (NBWC) meeting to express his/her views. It is a mistake to paint all license holders with the same brush.  I speak only of sportsmen I know and have heard speak at wildlife commission meetings over 45 years.

So, the mountain lion comes to mind.  

Mountain Lion – image: National Park Service, public domain, no copyright.

The Mountain Lion

Nevada has mountain lions, probably many fewer now that in decades past. Its primary food source, mule deer, has been in decline since the mid-1980s. An alternative food source (for a few lions, anyway), wild horses, are again being gathered with vigor by the Bureau of Land Management.  

Nevada’s basin and range configuration provides much less favorable habitat for lions than is the case with other Western states which enjoy larger uninterrupted expanses of mountains and forests in the Rocky Mountains and Cascade Range of Oregon and Washington.  

How many lions live in Nevada?  

Good question, no good answer. Nevada Department of Wildlife (NDOW) staff has publicly announced it no longer tries to answer that question.  (The reasons are complex.)  A public estimate provided by agency staff to NBWC in 2014 was about 1400 animals.

How many lions die in Nevada each year?  

That number is known with more certainty. Hunters, looking for a trophy kill, account for most of the lion deaths…. perhaps 150-200 per year. U.S. Department of Agriculture/APHIS/Wildlife Services, the federal government predator-killing program, accounts for another 2-3 dozen per year.

Fur trappers kill an unknown number of lions each year due to incidental capture of the animal by leghold traps and snares.  Project 36 and its successor, Project LIFT, are a result of NDOW staff documenting such encounters over the past 6-7 years.  

Over 100 photographs and other documentation show devastating injuries to the paws, legs, and teeth of captured lions. Near decapitation by a wire snare, starvation due to trap injuries has been documented. An unknown number of lions die from trap/snare encounters each year that are never reported or found.

Alyson Andreasen, Ph.D., a UNR student who did her doctoral thesis by collaring and following lions in northern Nevada a few years ago, found a high incidence of incidental trap/snare capture of her study subjects. She wrote a scientific paper voicing her concern and making recommendations for reducing this unwanted outcome.  

To date, no remedial action has been taken by NDOW or NBWC to afford protection for the lion.

Mountain Lion – image: National Park Service, public domain, no copyright.

The Antipathy Part

So why is the lion, a relatively scarce big game species… animal hunters pay thousands of dollars to kill for trophy purposes…studiously neglected by the management agency? 

The answer is simple: Some sportsmen, wildlife commissioners, ranchers, and others have great antipathy…even outright hatred for the animal.

Why does this antipathy/hatred exist: because mountain lions kill and eat deer….as part of its natural diet. Some sportsmen would prefer that they kill and eat deer, denying the lion its rightful share. Greed and intolerance seem an obvious explanation. 

(Hunters are, by far, the biggest cause of non-natural deer mortality, killing between 7000 – 9000 animals each year.)

Years ago, NBWC established a 24x7x365 day hunting season for mountain lions which persists to this day. The commission hoped the year-round season and cheap lion tags would result in more lions being killed, more deer being saved. They were wrong.

The lion is the only big game species in Nevada which is denied an opportunity to raise its young and propagate the species without potential harassment by hunters and their dogs…any day of the year.  

Current science shows that for mountain lion social structure to operate properly…. for cubs to be raised, for peace and order to be maintained in a home territory, for the reduced likelihood of predation by lions on nearby domestic livestock…the resident male must be left in place to ensure that security of the family’s home range. If the resident male is removed, bad things happen to females and cubs as well as in the adjacent neighborhood.  

Current NDOW/NBWC lion management fails to take account of this important finding.

A base lion population cannot sustain itself if it suffers more than a 12-14% mortality rate per year. NDOW’s kill quota this year of 247 lions was decided without any firm knowledge of Nevada’s lion population.  

Whether this is a safe recommendation or one that exceeds what current science dictates is unknown.

The Oxymoron Part

So, is the term ‘sportsman’ an oxymoron?  Can ‘sportsman’ be a proper term if it means regard and empathy for only 4 species of wildlife, and a willingness to kill other wildlife species to benefit selfish human concerns?  Is ‘sportsman” a proper term when an animal is denied the opportunity to eat its natural diet because, by its evolutionary history, it is forced to compete with ‘sportsmen’ for mule deer?

If Nevada had wolves…consumers of deer and elk… the outcry from ‘sportsmen’ against wolves would be deafening. Coyotes are greeted with this same intolerance every day of every year in Nevada.

The term, ‘sportsman’ has lost luster over the years as the concept of fair chase has mostly vanished in the face of amazing technological advancements that allow wildlife killers to be more efficient. What is sporting about using ATVs, laser gun sights, GPS collars on dogs, trail cameras at water sources, drones, night vision equipment…all in the pursuit of wildlife?

What’s Coming

Discontent with wildlife management is not unique to Nevada.  A new coalition, Wildlife for All, has been formed to work on wildlife management reform across the country.  

The Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies knows a broader group of constituents and funding sources is necessary since hunters are a diminishing group and are insufficient to keep wildlife management solvent.

Now is the time, perhaps, for those who believe in ethical hunting to step forward, to abandon their ancient antipathy for ‘predators’, and to broaden their views of what the term ‘wildlife’ really means.  

The non-hunting public also needs to step up and take responsibility for the preservation and protection of wildlife within a democratic framework. Whether this is best accomplished by reform of NBWC, or its abolition (perhaps the best option) is yet to be determined.

None of this means that traditional hunting and fishing need to disappear. (We’ll leave trapping for another time.). It does mean that times are changing and it’s usually better if the stakeholders who are affected by change help in forging the new look.

Don Molde is a 50-year Reno resident, retired psychiatrist, co-founder of Nevada Wildlife Alliance, former board member of Defenders of Wildlife, and former board member of the Nevada Humane Society. He has been active in wildlife advocacy for 45 years. Support Don’s work here. 

The opinions expressed above are not necessarily those of the Sierra Nevada Ally. Our newsroom remains entirely independent of our opinion page. Published opinions further public conversation to fulfill our civic responsibility to challenge authority, act independently of corporate or political influence.

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