Recently, Colorado Wildlife Commissioner Rick Enstrom (whose term ends March 1), proposed hunting lions on open space as a way to prevent conflicts with humans (“DOW: Give hunting a shot,” news, Dec. 19).
Should Front Range open-space managers accept this idea? No. Hunting mountain lions does not prevent lion-human conflicts. Mountain lions maintain territories called “home ranges.” If the lion in a home range is removed or killed, then the vacancy likely will attract a younger, dispersing lion. Younger lions are more likely to have negative interactions with humans than are older animals. Ironically, hunting lions exacerbates conflicts with humans, because the lions’ social structure is disrupted, which invites in animals with less capable deer-hunting skills.
More importantly, mountain lions rarely bother people, so hunting them to prevent future attacks is simply an over-exaggerated notion. In Colorado, since 1890, there have been only two confirmed fatalities from lions, and both took place in the 1990s. Nationwide, 17 fatalities have occurred since 1890. Added to that, there have been approximately 100 non-fatal attacks in the nation in the past 100 years. The numbers of attacks is very low because mountain lions do not view people as prey. If they did, there would certainly be more attacks, because mountain lions are skilled ambush predators, and are capable of taking down an animal many times their own size, such as adult elk.
According to a survey that was published by the Colorado Division of Wildlife in August 2005, people are not particularly worried about mountain lions, in part because the division has educated people about what to do if they encounter a lion. According to the survey, people are far more worried about being injured by other means, and rightfully so. Certainly the risk of injury is significantly greater if one simply gets into one’s car and accelerates to speeds over 25 mph than if one walks in open space.
Additionally, if land managers allow hunting in open space, that will necessitate closing that land to other recreationists trail runners, mountain bikers, hikers, equestrians, dog walkers for days or even weeks so that no people are struck by bullets. So, for the benefit of a few lion hunters, Enstrom proposes to shut down Front Range open spaces to hundreds, more likely thousands, of outdoor enthusiasts. Hunters already enjoy the privilege of hunting on other public lands, such as national forests, in large portions of the state during the fall and winter. Moreover, hunting lions in open space will also mean that packs of lion-hunting hounds will be running at large, in violation of most Front Range open-space regulations.
Having unhunted refuges for mountain lions is important for this species’ long-term health. Biologists have a concept that distinguishes between “source” and “sink” populations. Where lions are hunted, those sub-populations decline, creating sink areas. In contrast, where lions have ample habitat and prey and are not exploited, those sub-populations are considered “source” sub-populations that is, there are more individuals than are sustainable. To compensate, the young disperse to the sink areas from the source areas.
Because lion hunters prefer trophy-quality animals, it is important to establish hunt-free refuges for lions and for the long-term benefit of lion hunting because, in refuges, the animals with the greatest genetic fitness pass down their traits. Those progeny then disperse into areas where lion hunting currently is allowed. Therefore, maintaining lion refuges is important to the overall population from a genetic standpoint. But also, maintaining refuges guarantees that fitness traits, the qualities sought by hunters, will not be extinguished, as they would be if all lions are hunted everywhere.
Finally, having large carnivores in ecosystems contributes to the overall health of the ecosystem both in terms of functionality (such as modulating prey populations) and indirectly contributing to species richness. In one recent study where lions were absent, a desert riparian ecosystem collapsed because of overgrazing by deer. As a result, the numbers of plants and animals in that ecosystem declined. In an adjacent area, where lions were present, the stream was in better health, and the numbers of plant and animal species were far greater.
So, rather than closing open-space areas for an over-exaggerated notion that lions might harm someone, the state should just keep on doing what it’s doing, and that’s to provide common-sense precautions to people who live or recreate in lion country. Without lions, we lose an important part of our state’s natural heritage and biological diversity. Lions, as the majority of Coloradans agree, have a right to exist in their ancestral homelands.
If people are afraid, then they should stay out of lion country and leave that pleasure to the rest of us. I accept the minuscule risk. Do you?
Wendy Keefover-Ring is director of the carnivore protection program for Boulder-based Sinapu.
By Wendy Keefover-Ring
Sunday, December 31, 2006