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Basic Instincts are hard to overcome

Should there be a hunting season for mountain lions?

Did I get into a time warp and miss something here? I first heard this during a (exciting) resolutions portion of a county Farm Bureau meeting in Iowa, where I thought I’d be the most entertaining part of an evening of dinner, speakers and door prizes. The debate over whether we should have a hunting season on one of North America’s two largest cats has a lot of implications we rarely get to examine.

First of all, are there really mountain lions among us? Wildlife biologists are hesitant but the public says “yes,” as the expanding deer population has apparently had the unintended consequence of bringing this predator out of the remote mountains and into the countryside. A healthy male (mountain lion) was struck and killed by a car on the north side of Kansas City a few years ago. Missouri wildlife biologists examined the carcass, but would not say it was a mountain lion. They did say that they could not find that it had lived in captivity, so it was assumed that the wild cat had just made a bad choice and ventured too close to civilization. From this point forward, running into a cougar on the highway takes on a whole new perspective.

“Should we have a season” is a little devious. The mountain lion, in a new range, can be declared a threatened or endangered species. If it’s acknowledged that a population exists within an area, then federal safeguards may be put in place to try to protect it and that could mean a requirement to protect its habitat or food source. It might also mean that domestic livestock, killed as an alternative food source, would have to be documented for any compensation by the government. All this can change the status quo. So the implication is that, if there is no season, all mountain lions should be shot before one is established.

Several years ago, I spoke with a rancher from Southern Arizona who owned land where a Mexican jaguar was identified by a researcher with a video camera and confirmed by a cowboy who saw one eating a deer carcass. The spotted jaguar is a beautiful creature that had apparently extended its range out of Mexico. To appreciate this cat, it can reach 300 pounds and is the only western hemisphere feline that roars. The rancher said his first response was to shoot it, since he feared that it would become an endangered species, if the population could be proven. He chose to let it co-exist with his livestock and went on to great acclaim in conservationist circles, for providing habitat and protecting nature’s diversity.

But the big question for us in the quiet, contemplative Plains is: “Can we co-exist with a predator large enough to kill a human?” It’s still about survival, isn’t it? Do we have the ability to intersect with a new species in our range that stalks its prey, hunts by night and has the animal instinct to fight if provoked or frightened?

My answer is that 90+ percent of us won’t endorse protection to any species that is perceived as a threat, to ourselves or our children. It’s why there aren’t any grizzly bears in Sacramento, Calif. The state flag proudly shows one, and the area is in their range, but people will push back any animal they feel is a threat to them.

We’re not the same hunters we once were and we’ve made changes in our environment and lifestyle that are reflected in the expansion of several species that were almost hunted to extinction in the early 20th century. Turkeys, deer, geese and coyotes have found a niche due to our conservation efforts and adherence to hunting regulations. But adding black bears, wolves or mountain lions into this mix clashes with basic human emotions and fears.

Humans have the cultural ability to become fearful without actual experience, just from legends passed on by others. A recent movie “The Songcatcher” has a part where the learned lady professor, looking to prove the roots of mountain music, is told that if she hears a woman screaming in the night she should run and throw off her coat and keep running. The mountain lion stalking her, they say, will stop and shred the coat and allow her to get away. In the movie, the lion is never seen but the shredded coat is evidence of its presence and intent. Scared me!

In Oklahoma City, in the 1950s, a leopard jumped out of its cage at the Lincoln Park Zoo. It caused panic in the whole area, as many said they saw this big cat roaming their neighborhoods. It was poisoned with meat put out by the keepers, just a short distance from its cage. The cat, dubbed “Leapin’ Lena,” was as scared of the world she had leaped into as we were of her.

There is no doubt that we will get to know ourselves better if we interact with a new species that pushes our comfort zone, but in the case of once native predators of the Plains, I doubt we’ll let that happen. Legal or not, I’d say there won’t be support for a “hunting season,” but Farm Bureau members and other gun carrying citizens will declare “open season” and shoot the few they see—on sight.