A mountain lion kitten, of an age when they remain in the den awaiting their mother’s return to nurse and bond with her. Photograph by Mark Elbroch / Panthera
An early snow had painted northwest Wyoming completely white, making it beautiful, but treacherous. Navigating the slippery roads of the backcountry, we paused to look at footprints of a mountain lion we call F61. She had crossed the road and climbed toward the ridgeline.
Just up the road, we found a houndsman’s truck tucked up against the trees. I turned off the engine, and we stepped out into the crisp, still air. We didn’t hear the baying of hunting hounds. Just ravens and wind. Perhaps he hadn’t found her?
We knew that F61 was nursing four tiny kittens at the time, tucked up in a woody fortress to the south, across the river. If she were killed, four more mountain lions would die.
F61, an adult female mountain lion, nursing 4 tiny kittens in northwest Wyoming just before being chased by hounds. Photograph by Mark Elbroch / Panthera
It’s an unavoidable reality that, on occasion, hunters unintentionally kill females with dependent young—subsequently dooming the kittens along with their mother. This is why we at Panthera’s Teton Cougar Project conducted new research just published in the Wildlife Society Bulletin. We set out to study female movements and behaviors while they were caring for the youngest and most vulnerable kittens in the den. Using 12 dens to determine the average length of “denning”—the period before kittens start traveling with their mother to her kill sites—and 34 dens we recorded to determine when mountain lions give birth, we made the following recommendation: If we delay legal mountain lion hunting until December 1 each year, we can avoid the denning period for 91% of mountain lion families.
Such a change would allow hunters the best opportunity to detect family groups in the field, and to avoid inadvertently hunting females with kittens. It’s also a change that could provide mountain lion families greater safety while their kittens are most vulnerable. Moreover, it’s a policy change that could reflect a growing appreciation for predators in an evolving world.
In our minds, it’s just common sense conservation.
The morning after our encounter, Michelle Peziol, the Project Manager of Panthera’s Teton Cougar Project, followed F61’s trail from where we’d found her tracks crossing the road. Climbing the hill and traversing the ridgeline, she saw that the mountain lion’s trail was intercepted by a hunter on horseback and his hounds. She discovered the tree where F61 had sought refuge. The area was a mess—churned up by the feet of cat, baying hounds, horse, and man.
Three of four mountain lion kittens born to F61, a female followed as part of Panthera’s Teton Cougar Project. Photograph by Mark Elbroch / Panthera
At the same time, I toured F61’s usual haunts and found her by using the beacon in her collar. The hunter had let her go.
I caught up with him several days later. He was gracious and recounted a beautiful day on the mountain—his first day hunting of the year, he said. He described F61 well, saying he’d noticed her collar and realized she must be one of the mountain lions we studied. He valued research, so he hauled in his hounds and walked away, letting her be.
The hunter had spared F61, and in doing so, had saved the lives of four other mountain lions, too. He was more than relieved when I told him.
Please spread the word: Delay mountain lion hunting seasons in western states until December 1 to protect the youngest kittens. It’s a simple, common-sense change that we can apply immediately to increase protections for mountain lion families in hunted populations. Write your Wildlife Agencies, your Senators and Representatives–its a small change with big implications for mountain lions.