This story appears in the December 2013 issue of National Geographic magazine.
It’s a warm winter day in southern California, and busloads of tourists are pulling into an overlook above Beverly Hills and West Hollywood. As their guides point out movie studios and the mansions of stars, Jeff Sikich, a wildlife biologist with the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, directs my gaze toward a thin ribbon of woods in the distance. At least ten months earlier a young male cougar from the Santa Monica Mountains set out, following that trickle of green through the vast human hive. After somehow crossing two of the world’s busiest roads, including the ten-lane Hollywood Freeway, he settled in at Griffith Park, the huddle of hills rising just behind us, recognizable worldwide by the giant HOLLYWOOD sign partway up.
Homing in on signals from a radio collar on the animal, Sikich leads the way along the famous slope. He pinpoints the cat’s current location; then we hike on to check sites where it lingered to feed on a kill. We discover two mule deer carcasses dragged into tangles of scrub oak and manzanita. Remains of a third lie in a ravine next to the manicured lawns of a cemetery where deer often graze. We pass dog walkers, bird-watchers, hikers, joggers, bicyclists, horseback riders, and scores of graveside mourners. If any know they’re sharing this landscape with an invisible but potentially deadly predator, they show no sign of concern.
“There’s only room in our Santa Monica Mountains for ten to fifteen cougars,” Sikich says. “The average territory of an adult male there is around 200 square miles. With older, stronger males defending all the available space, this young one had to leave to claim a home of its own. Griffith Park takes in less than seven square miles, but our guy seems to be finding what he needs to survive here.”
Think of it: A large carnivore that must kill to eat is meeting its nutritional needs in the heart of greater L.A., all the while avoiding attention better than a camera-shy celebrity. How does he do it? By moving with a whisper-soft tread mostly in the twilight and at night, sticking close to thick cover, zealously guarding his privacy in a metropolis renowned as the gateway to fame.
With a range that extends from southern Argentina and Chile to the edge of Canada’s Yukon, Puma concolor, the cougar—aka puma, panther, painter, and brown tiger—is the most widespread large, land-dwelling mammal in the Western Hemisphere, yet among the least seen. In North America it also goes by the names catamount, mountain screamer, and mountain lion, though the species is more closely related to cheetahs and smaller felines than to African lions or other big cats, and it’s at home in steamy tropical lowlands as well as among the peaks. North America’s cougars came to be thought of mainly as mountain dwellers because the highlands offered the last refuge from settlers’ guns, traps, and poisons, as well as government-sponsored programs aimed at eradicating predators.
Cougars once inhabited the lower 48 states from coast to coast, but by the early 20th century, virtually all the survivors in the U.S. were confined to the backcountry of the Rockies, Pacific Coast ranges, and Southwest. (An exception was the subspecies called the Florida panther, which still holds out in that state’s vast marshes.) Finally western states dropped the cougar bounties some were still paying as late as the 1960s. In 1972 federal law banned the use of predator poisons on federal lands. More wildlife departments started managing the cats as game animals with a regulated hunting season. And for the first time in 300 years cougar numbers began to rise. The story ever since has been about the comeback of a major carnivore—a recovery with broader reach and larger implications than the better-known and more controversial return of grizzly bears and wolves.
During the past 40 years cougars have continued to expand throughout the western United States. They also spilled eastward onto the Great Plains, establishing new groups in Montana’s Missouri Breaks, North and South Dakota, and most recently, western Nebraska. In fact a growing number of confirmed reports—more than 200 since 1990—have revealed cougars visiting almost every state in the Midwest, along with Canadian provinces to the north. Like the Griffith Park cat, the wayfarers are typically young, dispersing males. Very few stay long before they push on, perhaps in search of a mate, or fall victim to nervous landowners, local cops, poachers, or traffic. The most dauntless of the explorers made headlines in 2011 when he was killed by an SUV on a highway exit in Milford, Connecticut. According to genetic tests this animal came from the Black Hills of South Dakota via a route estimated to be more than 2,000 miles long, setting the continent’s distance record for a journey by four-legged wildlife.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had just declared the eastern subspecies of cougar extinct when that South Dakota cat was killed in Milford. Two years later, in a forested suburb a block from where the cat died, resident Gary Gianotti told me he had recently spooked another cougar off his back porch.
“We’ve got a booming deer population around here, as well as wild turkeys, rabbits, and raccoons,” Gianotti said. “I see cougar tracks all the time.” Turning on a cell phone, he showed me photos of large feline paw prints in the snow. “There’s a cougar population breeding in Connecticut,” Gianotti insisted, referring me to a website filled with citizens’ accounts of seeing the big cats or their sign. “None of the agencies want to deal with it.”
Stories of supposedly unmistakable sightings, eerie nighttime caterwauling, or fresh kills with evidence of a big cat’s signature choke hold on the throat have persisted generation after generation, from Maine to the southern Appalachians. Since the 1960s authorities have received thousands of reports of cougars in the East. As a rule the accounts they investigate turn out to be any and every creature except a cougar. Surprisingly, up to a third describe what they saw as a black panther, despite the fact that no scientist has ever found evidence of a black cougar anywhere in North America. But not all the eastern cougar sightings were illusions; experts confirmed well over a hundred. Most appeared to be animals that escaped from captivity—or were purposefully set loose. In other cases, though, the cats’ origins remained obscure.
As a species Puma concolor is faring better than any of the world’s other great cats. How much further cougars will advance along the comeback trail ultimately depends on where the public is willing to tolerate them. That in turn hinges on what people believe these cats are really like.
Cougars have attacked humans on about 145 occasions in the U.S. and Canada since 1890. Just over 20 of those assaults—an average of one every six years—proved fatal. Perhaps the more telling statistic is that at least a third of the verified cougar attacks have taken place over the past two decades. More cougars plus more people in the countryside add up to more potential for conflict.
As ambush hunters most active after dark, cougars have never been easy to get to know. But with technology now able to keep eyes on the stealthy cats around the clock, much of the mystery shrouding their lives is evaporating.
Patrick Lendrum is a biologist with the Teton Cougar Project, a long-running study in Wyoming’s Grand Teton National Park region. At the project’s field office in Kelly, Lendrum downloads the latest data from several cougars fitted with satellite radio collars. With a couple of computer clicks he converts the numbers into dots on a detailed satellite image of the landscape, which allows him to study the cats’ movements almost in real time. To watch the animals themselves, he inserts memory cards retrieved from automatic cameras deployed at the most recent kill sites. Using natural light by day and infrared at night, the cameras tirelessly collect both photos and video—and all kinds of surprises. “Every day around here is a little like Christmas,” Lendrum says as his computer screen displays two adult males, natural rivals, each taking a turn feeding on an elk while the other rests a few yards away. “I’m not sure anybody’s seen that before. Our cougars keep doing things cougars aren’t supposed to do.”
A female labeled F61 is another prime example. When she and her siblings were six months old, a cougar mother living nearby was shot, leaving her three kittens suddenly on their own. The next week, F61’s mother allowed the orphans to share a kill she and her own kittens were feeding on. As days passed, the mixed youngsters played and ate together at times and even groomed one another with rough-tongued licks. This was the first known kitten adoption in cougar society.
Years later grown-up F61 and a neighboring female, F51, had kittens at about the same time. (F51’s were sired by one of the original orphans.) The two families frequently met, shared food, and traveled together through the spring. Eventually F61 began rearing one of the other’s young as her own—the second case of adoption.
On my first visit to the Tetons, in November 2012, both females had new litters. When I returned a few months later, F51 had lost two of her kittens to wolves. One of F61’s kittens seemed to have met the same end, judging from the unvarying location of its radio signal. Lendrum and his supervisor Mark Elbroch snowshoed toward the signal’s source and came on tracks of the cougar family crisscrossed by wolf trails. There was blood on the snow and mingled with the mother’s claw marks on a tree.
Sometime after the wolf attack F61 killed a mule deer, so the scientists set up remote cameras near the carcass. As expected, the video footage verified that she had lost a kitten. It also showed an unexpected addition—an adult male feeding with the family.
“The assumption has been that males and females associate to mate, period,” Elbroch said. “Yet I’m seeing video after video of adult males and females sharing a carcass. We’ve had seven cats at once at a kill site—a male, two females, and four kittens.” He punched up a video of them. They looked like an American lion pride.
An earlier study in Glacier National Park in Montana found that wolf packs from Canada that recolonized the area occasionally killed cougars and often drove them off carcasses. Biologists observed the same thing happening in Yellowstone National Park after wolves were reintroduced there in the mid-1990s. Over the following decade packs began spreading southward into the Teton area, putting cougars there under more pressure to defend their young and food. Were the cats responding by becoming more social—“priding up,” as some put it? Or were they just behaving as cougars have always behaved, only now scientists have the ability to watch them?
Whether or not wolves are affecting cougar sociality, they are definitely having an impact on some of the cats’ behaviors. Cougars in Yellowstone National Park, for instance, used to hunt in open bottomlands and sagebrush flats. Now they prefer steeper or more heavily forested areas that offer better cover. And after wolves moved into the Teton area, the resident cougars made themselves scarce in open valleys.
“In the 60 or so years that modern wildlife science has been around, most of the animal communities we’ve studied had no apex predator,” says Howard Quigley, senior ecologist with the big cat conservation group Panthera, which oversees the Teton Cougar Project in partnership with Craighead Beringia South. “Here in the Tetons and in Yellowstone, grizzlies and cougars survived the nation’s anticarnivore purges. The addition of wolves amounts to a grand wildlife experiment, the reconstitution of a complete North American ecosystem. It’s a rare opportunity to learn how these systems work.”
Cougars are now the most common apex predator across one-third of the lower 48 states. Most of the other two-thirds lack any big predatory mammal. So far, anyway, a large cat whose trademark is stealth appears to be the major carnivore modern society finds easiest to accept, or at least tolerate. But people still want a clearer understanding of potential problems. Beyond concerns over personal safety, some suburban and rural householders fear for their pets, while ranchers and farmers worry about damage to livestock. But the loudest calls to do something about cougars tend to come from sportsmen who resent these wild hunters as direct competitors for hoofed game.
“If you listen to some hunters around here, they’ll tell you there’s no game left in the woods,” says David Gray, a former game warden and now mayor of Hill City, South Dakota. When hunters made the same complaint to state game commissioners at angry public meetings, the commissioners raised the 2013 cougar quota to 100 out of a total population estimated at 300—even though the decline of elk and deer was due mainly to excessive sport hunting.
Wildlife management operates at the intersections of science and politics, economics and social traditions. Policies regulating the killing of cougars vary widely from region to region and state to state. In Texas, for instance, cougars are still classified as varmints; you can shoot one almost anywhere anytime. California, on the other hand, has not allowed cougar hunting since 1972 and now has the most cougars of any state. It also has an abundance of deer and one of the lowest rates of cougar conflicts with humans. How could that be?
Assuming that every cougar killed means more game for sportsmen, some states cull as many cats each year as wildlife managers think the population can withstand. The toll generally falls most heavily on adult males, which hunters prize as trophies. But as the biggest, strongest cats, they hold the prime territories and force young upstarts to leave, setting an upper limit on the number of cougars in a given area.
Studies by Washington State University professor Robert Wielgus and his co-researchers have shown that when too many large males are killed, footloose young males converge on the emptied territories. Fierce competition pushes more of them to the fringes of the space, often closer to human habitation. Meanwhile, females may roam more widely to avoid the influx of unfamiliar males, which sometimes kill kittens.
Wielgus sums up his surprising findings: “Heavy hunting can result in higher overall density of cougars, increased predation on game, and more frequent conflicts with people—in short, the exact opposite of what was intended.”
Rather than ramping up the legal kill, Wielgus prescribes limiting the take to the cougars’ natural rate of increase, around 14 percent annually. The state of Washington recently adopted such a policy. Given the widespread approval this strategy has received from wildlife biologists, it may set the standard for hunting of cougars—and perhaps other major predators—making it easier for them to coexist with people.
It seems vital to many people that something big and fierce is out there wilding the landscape, something that prickles the hair on the back of the neck and fires the imagination. Scientists think it’s important too, since most ecosystems developed with large carnivores playing a pivotal role. In the absence of a major carnivore—and with sport hunting dropping in popularity—white-tailed deer have become a danger to drivers, a nuisance for gardeners, and a host for ticks carrying Lyme disease. Having no predators to cull the weakest and sickest animals leads to the spread of other parasites and diseases as well. And as unchecked deer populations overgraze shrubs and sapling trees, they are slowly but surely transforming portions of North America’s native forests.
No one is saying that cougars belong in every patch of local woods. But some are asking why not in state and national forests across the Great Lakes states, or New York’s Adirondacks, or maybe the Ozark Plateau—all places cougars have visited in recent years. Where the cougar will be tomorrow or in ten years is anyone’s guess. But chances seem very good that it will continue reclaiming lost ground. As Howard Quigley says, “We’re looking at one of the most successful large carnivores on the planet.”
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