by Dawn Stover
Conservation Magazine, October-December, 2009
[Stover notes: The original pitch was just a short blurb to see whether my editor at Conservation Magazine was interested. I sent her a few ideas at the same time and this was her top pick, but she asked me to modify my approach somewhat. I then wrote a much longer pitch that landed the assignment.
The story went through one major revision after the first draft. My editor had originally asked me to focus on multiple species, not just cougars. But after I wrote a draft, we both agreed that it would be stronger with cougars as the focus. So the other animals ended up on the cutting room floor, except for a sidebar on condors.
Another thing that happened along the way is that I decided to do a sidebar on the travels of a young radio-collared “problem” cougar. But after interviewing a bunch of wildlife scientists, I learned that the story of “Bron” was much more typical: Young male cougar leaves home, looks for territory, gets shot by hunter. As it turned out, the map for Bron’s travels shows that he may have literally passed through my backyard. I didn’t include that in the story but I was delighted to learn it.]
The initial pitch
Killing Cougars: Your Tax Dollars at Work
Agents working for the secretive branch of the USDA known as Wildlife Services kill more than 2 million animals a year, at an annual cost of more than $100 million. The animals include entire wolf packs, cougars, foxes, coyotes, blackbirds, even cats and dogs. Many groups oppose the practice on ethical if not scientific grounds, and they’re calling for the new Agriculture Secretary to abolish it. I see that you did a couple of features on lethal control a few years back, focused on wolves and coyotes. So I’m proposing to focus on cougars and new research that (as with the coyote story) contradicts assumptions about population dynamics. The conventional thinking is that the number of cougars in the West is growing, because there are more reports of interactions with humans, and more cougars being killed as a result. However, the latest
research suggests that there are actually fewer cougars out there, but that they’re behaving badly because the mature adults have been replaced by unruly teenagers that are more likely to attack livestock and pets. Scientists at Washington State University’s Large Carnivore Conservation Laboratory are doing some of the most interesting work, so there’s potential for some field reporting here.
The full proposal
On a dark night in September 2008, 11-year-old Joe Hess was playing hide-and-seek with his brother and a friend in the friend’s yard near Grand Coulee Dam in Washington. Lying flat on the ground, Joe suddenly felt his neighbor’s cat Magellan pounce on him, scratching his forehead. “No!” Joe yelled as he jumped to his feet. Then he saw the cat. It wasn’t Magellan but rather a young cougar weighing about 100 pounds. Joe backed slowly away from the cat and ran into the house.
Wildlife agents hunted through the night for the cougar but never found it. They say the cat may have been playing with the boy, who received only minor wounds. Or maybe it was an inexperienced predator that wasn’t sure whether an 11-year-old boy belonged on the menu.
Encounters like Joe’s are becoming more common in many parts of the United States, and most people assume that’s because cougar populations are growing. But what’s really going on may be just the opposite. In areas such as eastern Washington, recent research suggests that heavy hunting of cougars has reduced their numbers and replaced mature adults—which have learned to avoid people—with curious, unruly teenagers that are more likely to run afoul of humans and their livestock or pets.
Cougars aren’t the only species whose social structure has been altered by humans. Scientists have also observed other adolescent marauders:
In Africa, India and parts of Southeast Asia, elephant attacks on humans have been increasing. Young male elephants in protected areas of South Africa have even raped and killed rhinoceroses. Scientists studying the problem believe that poaching and culling has altered the structure of elephant society, eliminating older animals that would normally keep aggressive younger males in line.
In the United States, some young condors reared in captivity by humans using hand puppets have wreaked havoc on buildings and pestered people for food handouts. Condors raised by their parents or “mentored” by adult condors are more fearful of humans and don’t cause as much trouble. Many young condors released into the wild without their parents have had to be re-captured by biologists for “time-outs” to correct bad behaviors.
In the United States and Canada, scientists once believed that trophy hunting of older grizzly bears would increase the number of cubs by reducing competition and cannibalism. But it turns out that younger males are more infanticidal than their elders.
When hunters kill the older grizzlies, younger males disperse into their territories, and females steer clear of the young hoodlums. The end result: fewer cubs.
Rob Wielgus, who heads the Large Carnivore Conservation Laboratory at Washington State University, has studied this phenomenon in both grizzlies and cougars. During his three-month field season, which begins on May 15, he’ll be monitoring a group of radio-collared cougars in the Blue Mountains for additional clues about the relationship between population structure and behavior. I’d love to accompany him for a day or two of that work, which could serve as the narrative thread for a story on breakdowns in animal “culture.” (And of course there are some interesting parallels in human culture as well.) A possible sidebar could cover the recent controversy over how best to react when you see a cougar in the wild: Should you run away after all?
One positive aspect of the research being done is that it suggests ways to reduce problem behavior simply by introducing adult role models (or in some cases, enforcers) into animal communities. It also suggests changes to hunting policies that can help reduce conflicts between humans and wildlife without shrinking wildlife populations.