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.
Learn more about Panthera’s work to study and protect mountain lions here.And follow our work with mountain lions on Facebook.
This week we are allowed a unique insight into the lives of birds that hunt. When we think of birds hunting, we typically picture a raptor with ferocious talons and a sharp beak to tear apart prey. But in fact many birds will hunt opportunistically. In this week’s Top 25 we feature a wide range of birds that have defeated the odds and have made a spectacular catch! We have bee-eaters, seabirds, hornbills, waders and, of course, the raptors. Thank you to everyone who contributed this week, your pictures bring the world of these birds to life for all of us
A Black Kite emerges victorious from a hunt! This spectacular catch took place at Sukhna Lake in India and was captured by Gur Simrat SinghThis Hamerkop is holding tight to its catch! In southern Africa frogs and tadpoles make up the main part of the Hamerkops’ diet (Judi Fenson)A juvenile Shikra overpowers a rather large bird! (Bhargavi Upadhya)An Oriental Pied Hornbill tosses back a lizard it has just caught (Lil’tography Lilian Sng)African Pygmy Falcons are Africa’s smallest raptor. But don’t let their size deceive you, they are excellent hunters! Here a female feasts on a mouse in Samburu National Reserve in Kenya (Sammy Mugo)The Anhinga hunts by submerging itself under water and using its sharp bill to spear fish and other prey. This ANHINGA IN Florida (USA) HAS GOT QUITE A BIG CATCH! (Vasu Karlapudi Photography)Studies show that Atlantic Puffins eat between 15 and 20 per cent of their body weight every day, this is mainly fish but also squids, crustaceans and polychaetes (Suranjan Mukherjee)Two Blue-tailed Bee-eaters compare their dragonfly catches (Manoj K Bind)Adult mayflies emerge all at once, often in enormous numbers, but they are very short lived, most die within 24 hours. So birds like this Common Grackle need to take full advantage as soon as the mayflies emerge (Zachary Vanier)A double catch by two Double-crested Cormorants (Leslie Reagan)A stunning action shot of a Great Cormorant catching a fish (Hitesh Chawla)This Great Hornbill has caught and killed a Jungle Owlet, this image shows how large these hornbills are. They stand at about 1 metre tall (Mainak Ray)Green Sandpipers feed mainly on invertebrates but when an opportunity for something larger comes by, why pass it up? (Indranil Bhattacharjee)Horned Grebes dive under water to catch fish. they are amazing swimmers, able to reach speeds of 1 metre per second in some cases (Christopher Ciccone)A spectacular shot of an Indian Roller with a mouse (Jasvir Faridkot)A Large-billed Crow bites the head of a frog to incapacitate it (Lil’tography Lilian Sng)A breath-taking action shot of an Osprey in Rutland, England (Edwin Godinho)here we have a Red-vented Bulbul with a mantid. From the size of the mantid’s abdomen, this is likely a female full of eggs, an excellent source of protein for this bulbul (Sandeep Beas)In many cases, the predator’s prey puts up a fight. Here a Red-tailed Hawk tries to gain control over a Kingsnake, tossing it in the air (Jack Zhi)A Shikra enjoys its well earned meal, in this case an Oriental Magpie-robin (Subham Chowdhury)Purple Swamphens eat mainly plant matter but they will take meat when they get the opportunity. This Purple Swamphen seems very pleased with its fish! (Bhargavi Upadhya)A White-eyed Buzzard enjoys its meal at Siruthavur Lake, India (Ananth Ramasamy)White-throated Kingfishers are typical ‘sit and wait’ predators, they will sit on a perch looking for prey and when they spot something they swoop down to catch it, in this case a lizard (Gur Simrat Singh)Sometimes when a raptor has caught prey, another bird will try steal it. Here a juvenile Black-winged Kite guards its prey from an adult (Brian Culver)A Great Cormorant tosses a fish that it has just caught in the Chennai backwaters, in India (Pallavi Sarkar)
Our mission is to build a global community around the freedom and beauty of birds in the wild as ambassadors for the natural ecosystems that they depend upon. They are the music, decoration, and character of every terrestrial habitat on the planet and have been around since the dinosaurs. They are the witnesses and ambassadors of the awesome power of nature. The wide availability of good, cheap optics has opened their world to us for the last few decades. Amazing, affordable DSLR cameras with long lenses are delivering brilliant digital bird imagery to online communities.
We are in a day-and-age during which more bird species are threatened with extinction than ever before. The Wild Birds! Revolution aims to publish the “Top 25 Wild Bird Photographs of the Week” to 1 million people every week by the end of the year. That is a revolution that will change the world! Join thousands of other weekend naturalists, photographers, birders, experts, hikers, nature-lovers, guides, scientists, conservationists and artists that share the thousands of wild bird photographs submitted to the Wild Bird Trust website and Facebook page. Thousands of wild bird enthusiasts are going out every day to photograph our planet’s beautiful birdlife. Pick up your camera, fill your bird feeder, open your heart, and join the Wild Birds! Revolution!!
In an opinion piece for the Cape Cod Times earlier this month, Carl Safina and I wrote about coexisting with coyotes—as millions of people in fact do. We juxtaposed a Cape Cod coyote-killing contest against a San Francisco newspaper deliveryman who every morning gives a particular coyote their own paper. That coyote had been taking a paper to play with each morning from one of the driveways on the block. Giving the coyote a paper solved the problem for the deliveryman, the subscriber, and the coyote.
And now Albuquerque New Mexico agrees with the information we highlighted which shows that killing coyotes has various downsides and doesn’t even reduce coyote density. This week, Albuquerque’s City Council unanimously passed a resolution condemning coyote killing contests and asking for a statewide ban on this cruel practice. The resolution urges the New Mexico legislature to prohibit “contests organized, arranged or sponsored for the purpose of killing coyotes for prizes or entertainment.”
Coyote, Lake City, Colorado, between Slumgullion Pass and Creede. Photo: Larry1732 (Wikimedia Commons)
At the hearing, wildlife biologist Dave Parsons—who is also a science advisory board member of Project Coyote, a nonprofit which advocates for the encouraging respect for the U.S.’s native carnivore population—testified before the Albuquerque City Council. “Many respected wildlife experts agree that there is no scientific justification for coyote killing contests and no proven wildlife management benefit,” said Parsons. “These contests are antithetical to modern wildlife management principles. It is well past time to end this unethical practice.”
If the New Mexico legislature passes a bill, it would become the third U.S. state to outlaw the killing contests. California passed a ban in 2014, and Vermont just passed a ban this year. While coyotes occasionally have minor run-ins with pets, people and livestock, more often than not these animals choose not to interact with human lives.
Coyote on the McCormick Ranch Golf Course at sunrise. Photo: Dru Bloomfield (Flickr)
However, the states that allow coyote-killing contests vastly outnumber those that have prohibited the practice. One of the reasons is due to the incorrect notion that mass-killing coyotes and other so-called “nuisance” predator animals is an effective way of reducing run-ins. This notion is so engrained in the American psyche that even some wildlife managers are in support of killing contests. This year the State of Georgia opened up its own coyote-killing contest with a prize of a lifetime hunting license, calling the contest an “educational effort.”
We applaud states like California, Vermont, and—hopefully soon—New Mexico, which have recognized that the best available science shows coexisting with predator animals—rather than killing them—is the most effective, and peaceful, kind of management strategy.
Gray wolves, and bison, in Yellowstone National Park. Photo: Carl Safina
Currently the gray wolf is listed as an endangered species in all states where it exists, except Alaska, which is home to a much larger population. Across the lower 48 states, hunting of gray wolves is illegal, though federal agents kill wolves deemed a danger to human lives and livestock. Usually, this happens after a hungry wolf looking for an easy meal kills a rancher’s cow or sheep.
But wolves outside Alaska may lose their legal protections by the year’s end, rendering them open targets to anyone who wants to kill them: Last week the Associated Press revealed that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS)—the governing agency tasked with regulating wolf populations across the United States—has recently begun reviewing the conservation status of the gray wolf across the lower 48 as part of the Endangered Species Act.
The big question federal officials are trying to answer is: Have America’s gray wolves—once virtually wiped out by hunters but recently supported by conservation efforts—rebounded enough to make them a nuisance, and thus, fair game for hunters once again by removing them from the Endangered Species List?
“Working closely with our federal, state, tribal and local partners, we will assess the currently listed gray wolf entities in the lower 48 states using the best available scientific information,” says Gavin Shire, FWS chief of public affairs. Shire adds that the federal government will open up a public commenting period if his agency creates a gray wolf delisting proposal.
Gray wolves in Yellowstone National Park. Photo: Carl Safina
FWS proposed delisting gray wolves in all of the lower 48 in 2012, after successfully removing them from the Endangered Species List in the Northern Rocky Mountains and Western Great Lakes, allowing hunters to begin killing wolves there. In these regions, gray wolves became plentiful enough to warrant removal from the Endangered Species List, according to FWS. However gray wolves were shortly returned to Endangered Species status in the Western Great Lakes after FWS lost a legal case brought by animal welfare organizations, led by the Humane Society of the United States. The court found FWS made administrative mistakes when making its delisting decision in that region, declaring its decision making “”arbitrary and capricious.”
Shire says FWS vows to “use the best available science in our determination of the wolf’s current status.” If the gray wolf population is found to have recovered past regionally targeted goals across its range. According to FWS, more than 3,700 gray wolves now live across the lower 48 states—from Wyoming to Oregon Idaho to Montana to Wisconsin. While all gray wolves experienced extreme population loss due to hunting persecution during the 20th century, one gray wolf—the Mexican gray wolf—was particularly hard hit. The subspecies went extinct in the wild and was reintroduced over the past few decades into eastern Arizona, New Mexico and Mexico. Only about 300 Mexican gray wolves roam today.
Gray wolf in Yellowstone National Park. Photo: Carl Safina
While the federal government equates the surpassing of gray wolf recovery goals to a green light for hunting, predator conservation advocates say there’s no number of wolves that could ever be enough to merit delisting these large carnivores because they are so ecologically important.
“Wolves are a key engine of evolution for terrestrial ecosystems, helping to hone the instincts and enhance the protections that prey animals develop over generations,” says Michael Robinson, conservation advocate with the Center for Biological Diversity, a nonprofit organization that supports maintaining the gray wolf’s Endangered Species status. “The population is still small and vulnerable.”
Robinson says the carcasses of animals wolves kill provide food for scavenger animals like bears, bald eagles and badgers. They keep check on populations of grazers, like elk and deer, allowing plant life to thrive in sensitive ecosystems that provide habitat to other animals. Their presence also scares off coyotes and thus increases populations of the species coyotes hunt, like ground-dwelling birds and pronghorn fawns.
Gray wolves share an elk carcass with ravens in Yellowstone National Park. Photo: Carl Safina
“We stand to lose these benefits to other animals where wolves are recovering, and we would never experience the enhancement of natural diversity in the habitats where wolves could recover, since delisting would bring a halt to wolf recovery,” Robinson says. Besides wolves’ role as a key part of natural ecosystems, science tells us that killing predator animals, including wolves, can actually lead to an uptick in livestock deaths. As we have noted in this op-ed for the Cape Cod Times, this is common among social predators like coyotes and wolves after a shakeup in pack dynamics, such as the death a pack member. Wolves are complex social animals who rely on one another to live, and the death of even one member of a pack can reduce the entire pack’s ability to survive. What’s more, effective nonlethal deterrent techniques exist to keep wolves and other predators from killing livestock and interacting with humans.
Will FWS declare it open season for wolves across the lower 48 by the end of the year? Time, and science, will tell.