Why Research Matters to Mountain Lions in Wyoming

F61, an adult female mountain lion followed as part of Panthera's Teton Cougar Project.
F61, an adult female mountain lion followed as part of Panthera’s Teton Cougar Project. Photograph by Mark Elbroch / Panthera.

Mountain lions live like shadows around us, and most people have never seen one. Most never will. Yet on July 8, the Wyoming Game Commission granted these wraiths of forests and mountains a reprieve in several parts of the state, including Unit 2 in the northwest where Panthera’s Teton Cougar Project (TCP) operates. Unit 2 extends north of Jackson through the Bridger-Teton National Forest to Yellowstone National Park. Thanks to the diligent efforts of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s Large Carnivore Section (WGFD LCS) and researchers on the ground, research-driven mountain lion management is taking hold in Wyoming.

Since 2007, Wyoming has been aggressively trying to reduce its mountain lions in many areas to support mule deer populations and reduce real and perceived risks to people. Statewide, the number of mountain lions killed by hunters increased from 180 in 2006 to 306 in 2013, before dropping to 243 in 2015. Hunter success followed similar trends, with a steep drop of several percentage points after 2013. The proportion of older male mountain lions (the larger trophy animals hunters prefer) killed each year has also decreased. As a result, over the last 10 years, statewide harvest numbers have included 20% more young mountain lions. More adult females are being killed in many hunting units as well, and at younger ages. We know this thanks to improved tracking initiated by LCS biologists.

All of these changes indicate a population in decline—there are fewer mature male mountain lions on the landscape and fewer mountain lions in general, so many hunters are killing younger animals and females instead. This is significant because females are the reproductive capital of animal populations.

F61 sits adjacent her freshly-covered kill, the beautiful Teton Mountain Range in the background. Photograph by Mark Elbroch / Panthera.
F61 sits adjacent her freshly-covered kill, the beautiful Teton Mountain Range in the background. Photograph by Mark Elbroch / Panthera.

This year, a record number of people took part in the public comment process and provided feedback on proposed changes to mountain lion hunting regulations. Overwhelmingly, those who participated were mountain lion hunters requesting that the WGFD increase hunting opportunities and increase mountain lion populations around the state. Tex Adams, representing the WY Federation of Houndsmen, explicitly requested more “science-based management.” Until this Game Commission meeting, most Wyoming hunting units other than Unit 2 have steadily increased mountain lion hunting limits since 2000. This year, the Game Commission approved reductions not only in Unit 2, but under recommendation by the LCS, reductions in Units 3, 6, 12 and 20 as well. In stark contrast to the rest of Wyoming, this is the fourth reduction in the hunting limit for Unit 2 since 2000.

So, what makes Unit 2 so special? One reason is research. Mountain lions are notoriously difficult to track and count, and thus the LCS has had the incomprehensible task of managing mountain lion populations in the absence of accurate population numbers. Unit 2 is an exception. The Teton Cougar Project launched in 2000 under Craighead Beringia South and is now led by Panthera. With support from local people and the Community Foundation of Jackson Hole, we’ve monitored local mountain lions ever since. Subsequently, Unit 2 has seen a 75% reduction in the hunting limits for mountain lions, while statewide mountain lion hunting quotas have increased by 44% in the same time frame. This is both a testament to the value of research and the voices of Jackson’s conservation organizations.

Adult female mountain lion followed by Panthera’s Teton Cougar Project. Photograph by Khalil Karimov / Panthera.

Research-driven management can help managers with tough decisions. In our study area, we’ve found that the local mountain lion population has declined by 47% over the last 8-10 years. Our calculations show that by reducing mountain lion hunting in the study area to just one animal, the population decline could potentially be halted. If the quota were reduced to zero, mountain lion populations might slowly recover. Given that TCP’s study area is one-third the area of Unit 2, WGFD “scaled up” and reduced the hunting limit in Unit 2 from five to three animals.

Jackson is unique in Wyoming in that the majority of residents enjoy the presence of large carnivores; many feel that a hunting limit of three mountain lions is still too many. It’s important to realize that mountain lion management is highly influenced by deer and elk management, as well as safety issues for people and livestock (both perceived and real). While it’s true that this new limit is unlikely sufficient to support the population’s rebound, this science-supported decision to limit the number of lions killed in several Units is a step in the right direction. Work is also underway testing new methods of counting mountain lions across Wyoming, some developed in collaboration between the LCS and TCP researchers, and others pioneered by the LCS alone. When we better know how many mountain lions reside across the state, imagine what we could do for them.

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Meet the Author
Mark Elbroch is Director of the Puma Program for Panthera, a US-based non-profit that conducts science and conservation action to promote wild cat conservation worldwide. He has contributed to puma research in Idaho, Colorado, California, Wyoming, Mexico, Washington and Chile. He earned his PhD at the University of California, Davis, where his dissertation research focused on puma ecology in Patagonia in the presence of endangered humeul deer. He has authored/coauthored 10 books on natural history (http://www.amazon.com/Mark-Elbroch/e/B001ILHI96) and numerous scientific articles published in peer-review journals.