The Cougar Next Door

A new documentary reveals that mountain lions are not the solitary killing machines we’ve always thought.

November 27, 2015

Photo: Neal WightA mountain lion wears a radio collar as part of the Teton Cougar Project.

Americans don’t hear pumas howling in the night or find them rooting through garbage cans, but tens of thousands of these big cats are out West, living among us in secret. At most we may see a blur of tawny movement, a shadow shifting on the ridge, a faint rustling in the dark that might raise the hair on our necks and set our hearts pounding in fight-or-flight mode, but in the end, we’re left wondering whether anything was there at all.

“The mountain lion is a species that can live like ghosts in between us,” says Mark Elbroch, a staff scientist for the Teton Cougar Project, which is run by the conservation group Panthera. “Most people never even know they’re there.”

Elbroch is the human star of Cougars Undercover, which airs tonight, kicking off Nat Geo Wild’s annual Big Cat Week. The film features never-before-seen footage captured by Panthera documenting the longest, most intense study of mountain lion mothers and their cubs ever to take place in the United States. The inimitable David Attenborough may narrate the film, but the cats, of course, steal the show.

Photo: Anna Place/BBCMark Elbroch (left) and a colleague examine a mountain lion kitten.

Puma, panther, catamount, cougar, mountain lion—this tawny, 100-pound cat, one of North America’s few remaining large predators, goes by many names. Somehow, after more than 200 years of hunting, trapping, poison campaigns, and development, these fierce felines still prowl much of the West in numbers scientists can only begin to guess at. In the East, the species has been almost entirely eradicated from more than half of its historical range. Though the big cats maintain a lone stronghold in Florida, that population is struggling mightily against habitat loss, reduced genetic diversity, and speeding cars.

Every once in a while, a mountain lion will make local headlines for taking out a steer or a pet labradoodle—or, even more rarely, a hiker (in which case the killing makes national news). But for the most part these carnivores slink through the landscape like specters.

The cats are so secretive that scientists are only now getting a feel for how they behave in the wild. But not for lack of trying. In the years since biologist Maurice Hornocker first began studying Idaho’s cougars, back in 1964, every Western state has launched programs to catch, tag, and track mountain lions. In California alone, scientists have been monitoring cougars in San Diego, Los Angeles, Mendocino, the San Francisco Bay Area, and the Sierra Nevada. After 51 years studying this species—and for all the hundreds of cats that have been captured, collared, marked, and measured—we know little about the ways of the mountain lion, says Elbroch.

Exonerated Cub-Killers

“Every time a camera comes into the office, we see something that blows us away,” says Elbroch. “Almost everything we’ve learned in the last 5 years has contradicted what we thought we knew for the last 20.”

It has long been assumed, for instance, that mountain lions are strictly solitary creatures that meet up only to reproduce. Males were thought to be hyperaggressive, killing any cubs they encounter to spur females to mate with them.

Photo: Jeff Hogan/Hogan FilmsMountain lions share a meal.

But remote video footage has captured adults of both sexes gathering to share a meal without any fighting or spilled blood (well, other than that of their prey). Cameras have revealed that males accompany females with cubs—both of their own siring and not—without even a hint of infanticide. And they’ve found that the cats will even sleep together near a carcass for days on end, showing a social side that had never been seen or studied before.

“It’s just not supposed to happen,” says Elbroch. “They’re supposed to be solitary killing machines.”

Conserving Cougars

Our management practices are partly to blame for our lack of knowledge about mountain lions, says Elbroch. Only Florida has listed the cats as endangered, granting them federal protections under the Endangered Species Act. Everywhere else, each state decides how, or whether, to conserve mountain lions.

“Research is driven by wildlife managers, and all they care about is how many deer and elk [mountain lions] eat,” he says. “They’re not interested in the conservation of the species for the species’s sake. It’s about deer and elk, and nothing to do with mountain lions.”

Unfortunately, most states manage mountain lion populations from the point of view of hunters and livestock owners, who see the animals as competition. Outside of Jackson Hole, Wyoming, where Elbroch works, the biggest threat to mountain lions is a bullet.

Photo: Mark Elbroch/PantheraMountain lion hunts take place in the winter.

“Forty-six percent of the adult and subadult animals we’ve followed on our project over the last almost 15 years were killed by legal hunting,” he says.

An estimated 4,000 mountain lions are killed through state-sanctioned hunting each year in the western United States and Canada, but Elbroch says it’s impossible to say what percentage of the general population that might represent.

We’re only just starting to learn what crucial and often unexpected roles these predators play in maintaining the health of ecosystems. There’s evidence that the presence of mountain lions can affect everything from plant diversity to the abundance of butterfly populations. Whether pumas allow themselves to be glimpsed or not, we can, it seems, see their influence on the forests they inhabit.

Photo: Duncan ParkerA mountain lion takes cover in a tree.

Elbroch says he hopes Cougars Undercover will give viewers a better picture of these fascinating predators and highlight a species that has tended to “slip through the cracks.” More than most, mountain lions are predators that have shown themselves to be adaptable to diverse habitats and circumstances—thriving both on remote, rocky cliffs and the edges of suburban backyards.

Perhaps now that we can get to know this animal as never before, we’ll be willing to give the cougar a second chance to show us its softer side—before it vanishes forever. For as a great man once said, “Understanding is the first step to acceptance, and only with acceptance can there be recovery.”

(Hint: He might have been a wizard.) 

Anna Place/BBCPhoto: Anna Place/BBCA mountain lion kitten shows its soft side.

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