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MOUNTAIN LION MYSTERY: Do more cougar confrontations mean there are more of the big cats in East Idaho?

March 10, 2019
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A mountain lion snarls after recently being treed by Pocatello houndsman Brit Newby and his hound dogs in East Idaho.

For a creature that wildlife experts describe as secretive and solitary, mountain lion encounters with humans are on the rise, with reports of cougar sightings and attacks seemingly happening weekly throughout the American West.

Just last month, a Colorado jogger took the internet by storm after sharing an encounter that ended with him killing an attacking mountain lion cub with his bare hands. That same week, a Mackay woman pinned a juvenile cougar to the ground that she thought was a dog attacking her own canine before her husband fatally shot the cougar with a handgun.

In East Idaho, a multitude of mountain lions have been spotted in recent months, including a malnourished female cougar with a wounded eye that Idaho Fish and Game officers euthanized in Lava Hot Springs in January.

Though end-of-season hunting statistics and various tracking studies have provided valuable insights as to the lives these discrete cats live, it seems wildlife experts have more questions than answers when it comes to understanding the recent uptick in mountain lion encounters.

The mystery surrounding what’s actually happening with the mountain lion population is far reaching and even raises questions about the statistics regarding mountain lion attacks on humans, which seem incredibly low compared to the number of news stories chronicling these sometimes deadly encounters.

The increase in confrontations between people and mountain lions has also given rise to the use of hounds to deter the big cats from venturing into human populated areas in East Idaho. Houndsmen associations regularly deploy their hounds to chase cougars out of local neighborhoods in hopes that the cats will not return. The houndsmen believe wolves are displacing the mountain lions from their normal habitat, pushing the big cats into human populated areas.

Idaho Department of Fish and Game Wildlife Biologist Zach Lockyer told the Journal that in East Idaho several factors could be contributing to the perception that the mountain lion population is increasing. These factors include more people recreating in the outdoors, a younger population of mountain lions with more nomadic tendencies, the cougars’ prey animals traveling into human populated areas, or perhaps a more public spotlight has been placed on encounters between cougars and humans than in prior years.

Lockyer said it definitely seems like there has been an increase in the number of these confrontations during the past few years in East Idaho but whether this means that the mountain lion population in the area is actually increasing is uncertain.

“I would say that we don’t know anything definitive or for certain, but some of our harvest trends have indicated there might be more mountain lions on the landscape,” Lockyer said. “Some of it might be a public that is more aware. Communities are growing and there are more people recreating outdoors and so just the opportunities and odds of running across a mountain lion might be higher.”

Lockyer said most of the cougar management in Idaho is based on harvesting trends, particularly the number of mountain lions killed by hunters annually and the ages of those cats, determined by analyzing their teeth.

Since last winter, Idaho wildlife managers have used cameras on remote trails and DNA analyses as a means to try and develop a method to estimate the state’s mountain lion population, but at this point no one knows for sure how many cougars are roaming Idaho.

“We’re pretty excited about (the cameras and DNA analyses) because we’ve never been able to say how many mountain lions are on the landscape,” Lockyer said. “Collaring studies have been done in surrounding states, which give us a general idea of what to expect in Idaho, but the comparisons are fairly coarse.”

Wildlife experts believe that the average age of the mountain lions in East Idaho is about 3 years, which is fairly young, according to Lockyer. He said the average lifespan for a wild mountain lion is 10 to 12 years.

Lockyer added, “Some of the work in Wyoming and Montana alludes to the importance of having mature resident lions on the landscape as being self-regulators to the (cougar) population.”

The system of boundary marking via urine employed by mountain lions serves to provide for mutual avoidance and survival of the species, according to the U.S. Forest Service.

Without a large number of older, mature mountain lions present in East Idaho, younger cougars are able to live and reproduce more freely.

Juvenile cougars are often much more nomadic than the older mountain lions and this can obviously result in more human encounters, Lockyer said.

Seasonal changes can also increase the chances of running into a mountain lion. In East Idaho, the primary food source for cougars is mule deer and small elk. When the winter months roll around and snowfall accumulates in the region’s higher elevations, it drives the deer and elk into the lower elevations in search of food. This in turn causes the mountain lions to venture into the lower elevations so they can hunt the deer and elk that are there, Lockyer said. Lower elevation areas in East Idaho are typically heavily populated by humans, whereas the higher elevation areas have much fewer people.

And if the deer and elk populations are low, mountain lions will enter human populated areas in search for other food sources.

“In Southeast Idaho between 2012 and 2016 the mule deer population was doing really well so it would make sense that the mountain lion population was doing really well as a result of that,” Lockyer said. “Then we had that really bad winter two years ago, we lost a lot of mule deer and we’ve been getting more lion calls ever since.”

In addition, harsh wildfire seasons can destroy cougar habitats and force the big cats into human populated areas.

Most of what is known about the interactions between mountain lions and people in East Idaho is observational and theoretical due to a shortage of data and studies, Lockyer said.

He added that there is the possibility the cougar population is not actually on the rise, but the advent of social media and a more informed public have resulted in an inflated perception that there are more of the big cats.

For example, during the past three weeks at Idaho State University in Pocatello, people have reported seeing multiple mountain lions on multiple occasions. In each of these incidents authorities said all of the so-called mountain lions turned out to be much smaller house cats.

Furthermore, when Pocatello area residents see the media coverage about a mountain lion being captured in their community, they will likely be extra vigilant, Lockyer said.

“When (those residents) are out recreating or hiking, every flash of brown or track they can’t identify turns into the report of a mountain lion sighting,” Lockyer said. “We tend to get more calls right after some type of media involving a mountain lion encounter.”

He added that because mountain lions “are a charismatic and iconic species,” news stories about mountain lion encounters with humans always get people’s attention.

Although incidents in which mountain lions attack and sometimes kill humans seem like they’ve become almost regular occurrences in the American West, wildlife experts still maintain that such attacks are rare.

In all of North America, there have been about 25 people killed by mountain lions and 95 people injured by the big cats during the past 100 years, according to the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife.

To someone who follows mountain lions in the news, those numbers probably seem more like totals for the past decade rather than century.

More mountain lion attacks on people have been reported in the American West and Canada over the past 20 years than in the previous 80 years, the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife also reported.

There have been a total of three cougar attacks on humans in Idaho since 1980 and no humans died during any of those incidents, Lockyer said.

One of the most recent fatal mountain lion attacks happened in Washington state last May. A cougar killed a mountain biker near North Bend. Another mountain biker was injured during the attack and the cougar was found by authorities and euthanized later that day.

Oregon recorded its first fatal cougar attack four months later when a mountain lion attacked and killed a woman on a trail in the Mount Hood National Forest this past September.

The last documented case of a cougar killing a person in Idaho was in the late 1800s or early 1900s, Jon Rachael, the state game manager for Idaho Fish and Game told the Idaho Statesman last May.

In January of this year, Idaho Fish and Game officials in Ketchum received several reports of mountain lions near people’s homes in the Wood River Valley. Two dogs in the area were reportedly killed by the cougars.

About two weeks ago, Idaho Fish and Game officers trapped and relocated a juvenile mountain lion that had been repeatedly visiting a home near the Gibson Jack area south of Pocatello.

The Eastern Idaho Houndsmen Association, an organization that uses hound dogs as a non-lethal approach to controlling mountain lions, believes the reintroduction of wolves in Idaho has resulted in the displacement of cougars, pushing the big cats into populated areas such as Pocatello.

“Wolves are becoming more and more of a problem northeast of Idaho Falls in the Heise area. That wolf pack up there has killed like 11 hound dogs,” said Matthew Borg, president of the Eastern Idaho Houndsmen Association. “We’re seeing wolves in many different areas. There are packs 10 minutes outside of Boise and what people don’t realize is that a wolf’s range is so huge that we are starting to get wolves in areas that we typically wouldn’t.”

Wolves, because they operate in packs, can easily force cougars, which typically operate alone, out of any territory, said Borg who resides in Preston.

The Eastern Idaho Houndsmen Association, which has been around since the 1970s, is one of two houndsmen groups in the state. Using an array of hound dogs, including Bluetick, Redbone and Treeing Walker coonhounds, the Eastern Idaho Houndsmen Association is frequently called upon by Idaho Fish and Game to assist in both preventing mountain lions from entering human populated areas and capturing them if they do.

“Houndsmen are people that typically hunt bears, lions, bobcats and raccoons,” Borg said. “We use hounds that are bred specifically to trail those animals and tree them.”

Houndsmen will set a group of hounds loose to track down a mountain lion, allowing the canines to chase the animal up a tree and intensely bark at it. The hounds and houndsmen will eventually leave without harming the cougar. Known as “hazing,” the treeing and harassing of the mountain lion by the dogs will hopefully deter the big cat from again entering a human populated area.

The Eastern Idaho Houndsmen Association is a strong advocate for preserving cougars with a main focus on educating people about the big cats as opposed to harvesting them.

“The majority of houndsmen are strong advocates, very passionate about mountain lions and are probably some of the most sincere conservationists when it comes to preserving healthy lion populations,” Lockyer said. “They care very deeply about mountain lions and very much appreciate them. There are very few that are buying and training dogs because they don’t like mountain lions. It’s actually the complete opposite.”

Brit Newby, an Eastern Idaho Houndsmen Association member who lives in Pocatello, said he recently treed two mountain lions in one day near the Gate City. Newby says he rarely kills the cougars he tracks and trees, and his primary goal is to convince the big cats to stay away from human populated areas.

“We try to show the lions that they can’t be out walking around on porches and through backyards,” Newby said. “We actually save their lives by scaring them away. Lions have a natural fear of humans and dogs but the more we encroach on where they are living there are going to be more sightings.”

Newby added, “Without houndsmen, we’d be in trouble.”

As cougar sightings, encounters and even attacks become more prevalent, wildlife experts are taking a closer look at how to best manage the big cat populations.

Idaho Fish and Game and other government agencies involved in managing wildlife see expanding mountain lion harvest quotas and extending mountain lion hunting seasons as ways to curb cougar populations, with the hope being that cougar and human confrontations will decrease as a result.

Quotas for both male and female mountain lion harvests in East Idaho are proposed to increase.

If you spot a mountain lion, contact local law enforcement immediately. The National Park Service says anyone who encounters a mountain lion should stay calm and not approach the cougar. Do not run away or crouch down during a mountain lion encounter because such behavior might cause the big cat to attack you. If a mountain lion moves toward you or acts aggressively, do anything you can to make yourself appear intimidating, such as raising and waving your arms and start throwing anything you can at the cougar to deter it from attacking, the National Park Service said.

Despite the perception that the mountain lion population in East Idaho is increasing, Lockyer said local people should not be afraid to enjoy the great outdoors.

“I think it’s good to be aware and knowledgeable about the animals in this habitat, but people should not be scared, fearful or worried to the point of changing their recreation habits because of a mountain lion,” Lockyer said. “I think it is good to be conscious, but people shouldn’t be fearful.”