Book overstates lion dangers

The Daily Camera

By Wendy Keefover-Ring

Part-time Boulder writer David Baron’s Colorado Book Award-winning 2004 book, “The Beast in the Garden: A Modern Parable of Man and Nature” — just released in paperback from W.W. Norton — is being read by a lot of people, and Baron has given numerous media interviews.

Unfortunately, the book has succeeded in unnecessarily frightening the public about the dangers posed by mountain lions. It relies on sloppy methodology, leaps of logic and invented history.

Baron argues that Boulder’s hippie-bred, animal-venerating culture led to an “inevitable” mountain lion attack on 18-year-old Scott Lancaster in Idaho Springs in 1991, because wildlife lovers living in Boulder’s rural-urban interface encouraged deer into their unhunted “gardens.” Baron argues that the “increasing” deer population has attracted lions closer to human habitants and has created cats habituated to humans. In other words, he argues, Boulder’s culture of animal/nature reverence killed Lancaster.

But the book’s fundamental underpinnings are easily contested. First, in Idaho Springs, animal veneration has a different meaning. Bambi is venison, and the Lion King, an ornamental rug. Idaho Springs is the cultural antithesis of Boulder. This fact alone undercuts Baron’s main thesis.

Moreover, Idaho Springs lies 40 air miles away from Boulder. Although a large male mountain lion will have a territory of at least 100 square miles, those mountainous miles are far from linear. California-based lion biologist Dr. Rick Hopkins has shown that a 40-mile radius is equivalent to 5,000 square miles. It is unlikely that a lion living near Boulder traveled to Idaho Springs.

Lions do not predictably habituate to humans, according to a well-respected 2003 study in Southern California, co-conducted by Ken Logan, who is now the lion researcher for the Colorado Division of Wildlife. Those biologists documented that lions typically avoid human encounters. Baron’s claims that Boulder’s cat population increased rapidly during the 1980s are based on flimsy anecdotal data. As of this writing, lion biologists have yet to correlate “track counts” with population densities.

Unsound ethical reasoning further compounds the book’s flaws. Baron writes that mountain lions use ritualized murder no different than the Aztecs who “hauled prisoners up high pyramids and cut out their beating hearts as an offering to the sun.” The lion that killed Scott Lancaster, he writes, “hollow(ed him) out” “like a pumpkin,” then “sprinkled (the body with) moss and twigs … as if to signify something profound.” Dramatic, anthropomorphic words that keep the reader turning the pages, yes, but problematic. Ethicists agree that predators do not have murderous intent when they kill — they are simply seeking food.

Baron also makes unsupportable historic claims. He writes that in the late 19th century, Boulder residents participated in a “frenzy” of killing mountain lions. A reasonable statement, given the dominant American ideology prior to 1960, which maintained that mountain lions, bears and wolves were evil and ravenous. But here’s the trouble: Boulder County’s bounty records show only two recorded payments for lion “scalps.” Most of Boulder County’s early records were destroyed in a 1930 fire. Lacking primary evidence, Baron improvises.

In recent radio interviews, Baron has declared that the mountain lion population in the West is on the rise because states have replaced bounties with regulated hunting. Again, no empirical data exist to support this claim, because lions are cryptic and notoriously hard to count. Colorado’s bounty records show that few lions were bountied as compared to hunter kills in the past two decades. While bounty records may or may not reflect true mortality, across the West mountain lion mortality has increased significantly in the past two decades due to trophy hunting. In the early 1980s, hunters in 10 states killed less than 1,500 cats annually. Today, in those same states, more than 3,000 cats are killed annually. Technology — such as off-road vehicles, radio collars for hunting-dog packs and remote communication devices — have accelerated lion hunting. Human hunting pressures can easily overwhelm a cat population.

Baron notes growth and sprawl issues that gobble up and fragment habitat for large mammals, but the discussion is unsatisfying. Large mammals, especially large carnivores, need expansive, intact and connected ecosystems if they are to persist.

Finally, Baron fails to tell us the mountain lions’ own story — one that is likely to be in peril unless we take concerted efforts to conserve them. Absent from Baron’s tale: Few people in the United States have been attacked, much less killed, by lions. Since 1890, only 17 credible human fatalities have occurred as a result of mountain lion attacks. Of that total, only two were killed in Colorado. Yet Baron leads us to believe that lion attacks are inevitable and will increase exponentially, but he misses an opportunity to discuss the impacts of increasing human encroachment on what was once excellent lion habitat. Content to frighten readers with gory details, he fails to tell us how to behave while living or recreating in lion country. People can take common-sense precautions to protect themselves, their children, and their pets; it is our individual and collective responsibility.

David Baron asserts that his book is a “balanced” account, but “The Beast in the Garden” is rife with inaccuracies, inventions and an anti-predator bias, and critical omissions. The book’s anachronistic reasoning returns us to the turn of the 19th century, the time when the dominant American culture — conservationists included — believed that predators were evil.

Wendy Keefover-Ring, director of Sinapu’s Carnivore Protection program, obtained her master’s degree in history from the University of Colorado at Boulder. She has been an advocate for mountain lions and other native carnivores for more than a decade.

[Letters to the Editor of the Daily Camera that followed.]

Feb. 10
Beware knee-jerk environmentalism

Wendy Keefover-Ring of the carnivore protection group Sinapu made false and misleading statements about my book, “The Beast in the Garden,” in a recent guest opinion (“Book overstates lion dangers,” Feb. 5). I wish to respond.

Keefover-Ring disputes my contention that mountain lions were widely killed in the Boulder area in the late 1800s, grew scarce in the early 1900s, and returned to abundance by the late 1980s. She calls these “unsupportable historic claims.” Not so.

Anyone serious about the history of Front Range lions can do as I did — go to Norlin Library and read old newspapers on microfilm — and find ample evidence of how locals treated cougars in the 19th century. Here’s a sampling: “A big puma (mountain lion) was strychnined … this side of Sugar Loaf” (Boulder County News, July 17, 1874); “Mountain Lion shot … on the Magnolia mountain” (Boulder County News, Nov. 19, 1875); ” … a young mountain lion, which was killed near Boulder …” (Rocky Mountain News, Nov. 19, 1869); “A mountain lioness … around Longmont … has at last been killed” (Rocky Mountain News, Feb. 9, 1885).

Why do I conclude that Boulder’s lions became scarce by the early 20th century and later rebounded? Brownlee Guyer, the state game warden for Boulder County from 1938 to 1970, knew of just three lion sightings in his district during his three decades on the job; in Boulder County today, it’s not uncommon for the Division of Wildlife to learn of three lion sightings in a week. One can also logically infer that few cougars lived in Boulder County 100 years ago because their primary prey — deer — had been killed off by market hunters. The return of deer since then has allowed lions to return.

This historical fact — that lions have returned to Boulder in recent decades — runs counter to Sinapu’s political agenda, which is to convince the public that cougars are on the decline statewide. Hence the organization’s campaign to denigrate my book.

Keefover-Ring complains of “an anti-predator bias” in “The Beast in the Garden,” yet — despite its focus on a fatal lion attack — the book is not really about the threat posed by cougars (which is, admittedly, minuscule). It is about the danger posed by knee-jerk, simplistic notions of environmentalism that fail to incorporate the role of people in the natural world. The book’s ultimate message is one of environmental stewardship, a message one might expect Sinapu to embrace.


Feb. 14

We don’t know how many there are

David Baron missed the point with his recent rebuttal of Wendy Keefover-Ring’s Feb. 5 critique (“Book overstates lion dangers,” op-ed) of his book “The Beast in the Garden” (Open Forum, Feb. 10).

Although it is worth noting that the Colorado Division of Wildlife’s stated policy toward mountain lions is “suppression” over a large part of our state, Sinapu has never maintained that lions are “on the decline statewide.” Instead, Sinapu’s point is that lion management in Colorado and throughout the West is off-track, and the biggest problem is that we simply don’t know how many lions are out there.

While Sinapu educates the public and pushes the Division of Wildlife to improve its lion-management program, Baron paints an almost Satanic picture of our largest native cat. I’ll opt for education and improved wildlife management over scare tactics any day.


Feb. 22

A good story, but not good science

Apublished book does not a fact make. David Baron, in his book “The Beast in the Garden,” does what any royalty-seeking, well-intentioned writer (with an extensive background, not to mention valuable connections at NPR) would do: Research a fabulous news story, inject a dramatic narrative arc, and then draw conclusions.

The facts about Boulder’s cougars are murky at best, and may be argued ad nauseam. The same goes for Boulder’s cougars 100 years ago (imagine what archivists in 2105 would make of our time if they relied on present-day media headlines to extrapolate historic fact).

But for Baron to brand Wendy Keefover-Ring’s fair questioning (“Book overstates lion dangers,” op-ed, Feb. 5) of his methodology — if one could call it that— “knee-jerk environmentalism” (Open Forum, Feb. 10) ignores that fact that Sinapu, along with the Colorado Division of Wildlife and many other groups, are working to solve the big unknowns regarding Colorado’s cougars. And in the scientific arena — which must stand up to peer review, stakeholder interest and the impact of financial repercussions of animal-related damages on the state’s dime — this means more than just drawing loose conclusions and weaving a good yarn.

Together, and spearheaded by realistic concerns of habitat loss and a growing human impact on the Front Range, these entities have committed millions of dollars to seeking solutions for the long-term survival of this crucial keystone species.

Baron is in the catbird seat. But will his book change policy? Unlikely, given its paucity of scientific rigor and the fact that the DOW has commissioned a decade-long cougar study that will find the elusive beginnings of an answer to the basic questions surrounding the state’s cougar population; they also reduced the cougar kill quota by 30 percent in the fall of 2004.

And will the book make the world a better place? The answer to that one lies in the heart of Baron himself and his readers.

Co-founder, The Cougar Fund
Jackson, Wyo.

Feb. 19, 2005

Fire didn’t destroy all bounty records

I read the Feb. 5 commentary by Wendy Keefover-Ring titled, “Book overstates lion dangers,” regarding David Baron’s book “The Beast in the Garden” and was puzzled by her comments regarding the loss of records in a Boulder Courthouse fire.

In her seventh paragraph, she comments that Baron “makes unsupportable historic claims. … Boulder County’s bounty records show only two recorded payments for lion ‘scalps.’ Most of Boulder County’s early records were destroyed in a 1930 fire. Lacking primary evidence, Baron improvises.”

The Carnegie Branch Library for Local History archive has 69 ledgers from the Boulder County Treasurer’s office, many of which predate the courthouse fire in 1932. Ledger 63 contains accounts and receipts of bounties paid for bears, mountain lions, wolves and coyotes between the dates of 1889 and 1892. It is true that there were just two killings of lions during that time.

Baron may have embellished, but he didn’t need to improvise. He visited our archive to research the material in this volume and other sources we have on the topic.

In addition to the courthouse ledgers, we also have 17 boxes of courthouse records that survived the firs. We are open to the public six days a week to share our primary sources with anyone researching Boulder County history, just as we shared them with David Baron.

Wendy Hall
Carnegie Branch Library

[This letter was submitted but not published.]

As I earlier indicated, in David Baron’s Beast in the Garden he writes, “residents of Boulder and nearby towns enthusiastically participated in the frenzy [of mountain lion] killing” in the late 19th century. His endnote refers us to Colorado’s lion bounty statutes.

Indeed, Colorado maintained a bounty on lions from 1881 to 1965 (but repealed the law briefly between 1885 to 1889). Under state statutes, lion hunters turned in lion “scalps” to the county clerk; they then signed an affidavit declaring the county where the lion was killed. Based on ledgers and these affidavits, county clerks would receive periodic reimbursements from the state treasury.

Wendy Hall, Manager for the Carnegie Library, in her February 19th letter writes that Baron did not “improvise” (my words) because he had “visited our archive to research” his project. I too visited the archive; I even made a copy of the bounty ledger in question. It reveals that Boulder residents killed 296 coyotes, 11 bears, 32 wolves, and 2 mountain lions between 1890 and 1892. (I also learned from Ms. Hall that there may have been other bounty records that were destroyed by fire.) Based on the evidence, one might argue that a “frenzy” of coyote killing occurred in Boulder, but not so for the other species. So I stand by my claim that Baron “improvised” his argument without having primary evidence, and I concur with Ms. Hall that Mr. Baron “embellished” his story.

In his February 10th letter, Mr. Baron notes that he found 4 historic newspaper accounts of mountain lion mortalities between 1896 and 1885. If anyone’s counting, we now have a total of 6 mountain lion mortalities—now do we have a “frenzy”?

I appreciate Mr. Baron’s clarification too that his book isn’t “really about the threat posed by cougars” because I missed that interpretation. I thought the point of the book was about “a tale of politics and history, and ecology gone awry, all come to life in feline form.” I am also glad he illuminated that threats by lions are “admittedly minuscule.”

Wendy Keefover-Ring
Director, Carnivore Protection Program

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