Human/cougar and livestock/cougar interactions

The good news is that mountain lions generally avoid humans and you are much more apt to be killed by your neighbor's dog or a black widow spider than a mountain lion. There is simply no reason for hysteria.  Continue to enjoy the outdoors  Many of our popular parks out west have resident cougar and folks don't stop enjoying Yellowstone or Glacier because of them.  The Black Hills area has a healthy population of at least 50 resident adults (plus at least 2 kittens per female and some subadult transients1) and has not had a documented human attack by these cats in recorded history, even though it has lots of human visitors2.  However, mountain lions are still wild animals and the risk of human/cougar interactions, while very low, is not zero.  In fact there were a couple of early attacks in the early days.  The first by wild cat that appears to have been a cougar was in Crawford county in Western Iowa in 1856.  Although many western states have had a few interactions, most interactions, including the few fatalities, are reported from a few areas, like California and Canada's Vancouver Island, both of which have lots of cougar in great mountain lion habitat and lots of people close to that habitat.  Still if you are in an area where mountain lion are known to exist, it would be wise to take some sensible precautions.  A number of sites provide  provides good advice on what to do in a lion encounter. I also like the one from the FG&P of South Dakota that go into some of the behavior signs of cougar.

In this agricultural area, farmers are also concerned that their livestock will become a major prey item.  So far this has not been the case and I don't foresee it becoming the case in the near future.  There have been only a few instances in this area (NW Iowa and adjacent states) where it appears that cougar have tried to prey on livestock.  This pattern is consistent with the historical feeding habits of cougar, which generally are not a problem with livestock with the exception of the south western part of the US, where they are a significant predator on livestock in some areas.   In this area livestock are usually contained in buildings especially at night when cougar are hunting.  Another reason for lack of predation on livestock is the abundance of white-tailed deer and other wild prey.  Still we can not expect the depredation (attacking) of farm animals to be zero.  Probably most at risk are sheep that are pastured away from farm buildings.  In Wyoming "from 1996 to 2002, 84 percent of reported lion depredations ... involved sheep, 6% involved horses, 6% unknown livestock species [? poor record keeping], and 4% involved cattle" (Becker et al. 2003 p. 69). Cougar have been in or passing through our area for about 10 years and there have been few attacks on livestock.  In addition many kills that are attributed to cougar turn out to be something else.  Coyote "are the most common and the most serious predator of livestock in the western United States."  (Wade and Bowns 1984)

There are, however, a couple of differences between the cougar populations that have been studied out west and the cougars that are here in NW Iowa.  Most of the populations that have been studied out west are resident or breeding cats with territories or home ranges and partly because of historic hunting  (with the exception of some in California and Colorado) their highest concentration is in wilderness areas or places without a lot of human interaction.   As far as we know the local cougar are dispersing males and often not that territorial.  Normally a dispersing male will gain experience and then find an area where there are there are other cougar (especially females) where he can displace a weaker Tom (male) and takeover his territory and females (Logan and Sweanor 2001; Maehr 1997). Our cougar are dispersing into an area without cougar and will perhaps remain dispersers, although there is some evidence that at least one has set up a home range (see below).   Cats that depredate livestock are more apt to be younger, but the local young dispersers are moving into land with abundant prey and little competition from other cougar.  If food runs out, they are not tied to the area and can move to another area.  Secondly, these cougar are dispersing into one of the most intensive agricultural areas of the country, into areas with lots of human structures and activity. Older literature, when cougar numbers may have been lower even out west,  suggested that cougar would be intolerant of human activity.  However, as cougar populations rebounded and /or humans moved into their territory, we have found that as long as they have food and some good habitat, cougar will tolerate proximity to humans.  This is seen in California, where resident cougar can be found in parks in urban areas or in Florida where a female cougar denned within 50 yards of a very busy human trail on Bear Island (Maehr 1997).  Here in Iowa almost all the land is plowed, so cougar cannot avoid the farms, yet there is almost no evidence of their eating pets or hanging around close to livestock areas (although some dead pigs seem to have been scavenged).  Many of them do seem to like the wooded corridors of the Big Sioux and Rock Rivers.  However there is good evidence that some hunt and use cover of corn, since the Ireton cat was killed while using the cover of corn to sleep off his meal of raccoon (necroscopy by Mahaffy, McReynolds, and Cupercus).  Another one left signs (tracks) in winter (January 2004) on a farm where two dead piglets where scavenged in an area that is not close to cover.  A number of other sightings would suggest that this cat has shown some fidelity for a home range for about a year - hunting during dawn or dusk and apparently finding cover (groves etc.) during the day.

Just because a few of these cats are around us, does not mean that they have lost their wariness for humans.  The first cat to have been captured in this area (the Worthington cat in December 1991) was known to have used abandoned or unoccupied buildings for shelter (a barn 5 miles south of Worthington and an old chicken coop in the Worthington area) just before he was captured and yet the same cat, after capture, did not like humans to be close to him (information from the conservation officer, Joel Mikle [phone conversation of June 19, 2002] who was involved in the cat's capture).  Wise public policy would suggest that Midwest states continue or take steps to foster this wariness and remove any cat that develops a habit of feeding on livestock or one that ends up in an urban area.  That is the reason Nebraska shot the cat that was found in a residential area of South Sioux City (Nov. 23, 2004).   Unfortunately the attempts of the Iowa DNR to develop some policy for cougar have been stymied by the legislature that did not pass a bill that would have provided the cougar legal status and minimal protection (game animals without a season) against the hunter just seeking a trophy.  However the lack of minimal protection may not strongly impact the  Iowa cougar numbers, since they are not near abundant enough to support commercial hunting with mountain-lion dogs and knowing they can be shot at may increase the wariness of the cats.

Because of rumors that still circulate, it is important for the reader to know that the Iowa DNR is not and has not released mountain lions.  These are most likely dispersing males since all the ones killed or captured in or near this area have been males and we know that young males must disperse when they leave their mother or be killed by the male in their area (their father) (Logan and Sweanor 2001, Maehr 1997).


1 Based on a June 2002 phone conservation with Mike Kintigh of SD Game Fish and Wildlife with numbers based on the research of Dorothy Fecske (2003).  South Dakota is continuing to study and model the population and the numbers may currently be a bit different. Kintigh gives somewhat higher estimations in his 2003 status report. Since this estimate they have collared more cougar and have raised the estimates of cougar in the Black Hills (Woodward 2006; Knight -phone conversation of April 7, 2006).

2 On April 23, 2006 a 16 year old boy in Ramona in Lake County SD reported an encounter with a mountain lion that resulted in a torn shirt. (LaBelle 2006).  Although we don't know its origin this was likely a disperser from the Black Hills. Fecal analysis latter confirmed that this was a mountain lion.
 

References:

Anderson, A.E. 1983. A critical review of literature of Puma (Felis concolor). Special report Number 54. Colorado Division of Wildlife

Becker, S.A., Bjornlie, D.D, and Moody, D.S. 2003. Wyoming mountain lion status report. P.64-70 in:Becker, S.A., Bjornlie, D.D, Lindzey, F.g., and Moody, D.S. eds. 2003 Proceedings of the Seventh Mountain Lion Workshop. Lander, Wyoming. 186.pp.

Fecske, D.M. 2003. Distribution and abundance of American martens and cougars in the Black Hills of South Dakota and Wyoming. Unpulbished PhD (South Dakota State University) 194 pages.

Kintigh, M. 2003. State of South Dakota Mountain Lion Status report pages 43-48 in Becker, S.A., Bjornlie, D.D, Lindzey, F.G., and Moody, D.S. eds. 2003 Proceedings of the Seventh Mountain Lion Workshop. Lander, Wyoming. 186.pp

Labelle, M. 2006. Mountain lion knocks down Romona teen. Argus Leader of April 26, 2006. Sioux Falls, SD.

Logan, K.A. and Sweanor, L.L., 2001. Desert Puma: Evolutionary Ecology and Conservation of an Enduring Carnivore. Island Press, Washington D.C. 463.

Maehr, D. 1997. The Florida Panther: Life and death of a vanishing carnivore. Island Press, Washington, D.C. 262 p.

Wade, D.A., and J.E. Bowns. 1984. Procedures for evaluating predation on livestock and wildlife. Texas Agric. Ext. Serv., Texas Agric. Exp. Stn., and U.S. Fish & Wildl. Serv. 42 pp. An adapted online (1997) version can be found at url: http://texnat.tamu.edu/ranchref/predator//pred.htm  Accessed on December 28, 2004.

Woodward, R. 2006. GF&P estimates lion increase. Rapid City journal Monday April 3. [the figure given in this article is 165 - 210 but may include cubs and subadults - not included in my figure].
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