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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Mountain Lions

Air Date: Week of

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Mountain lion populations in western U.S. and Canada are as high as they have been in decades -- but there are far more people in the West as well -- and with the steady spread of suburbs into the mountains, there are more encounters than ever before between mountain lions and humans. Clay Scott reports, from the Black Hills of South Dakota.


CURWOOD: Researchers say that mountain lion populations throughout the western United States and Canada are robust these days. The big cats are back, after enduring a sharp decline that began 200 years ago. But these days, there are far more people in the west, too, and, as suburbs sprawl into the mountains, encounters between mountain lions and humans are becoming more frequent. The Black Hills of South Dakota is one place where lions and humans are increasingly coming into contact, and conflict. Clay Scott has our report.


SCOTT: Country Estates is a new housing development not far from Rapid City. Here, pleasant two story homes, identical except for the different shades of pastel, are set back from freshly paved cul-de-sacs and winding names with names like Moon Meadows, Blue Stem Way, and Cougar Court. This is a perfect place to live, people say, the best of both worlds, only ten minutes from the city but with a hint of wilderness. The ponderosa pine forest beyond the neat lawns is home to deer, wild turkeys, and other animals. It's also prime habitat for mountain lions, a fact that residents here, especially those with pets or children, are trying to deal with.


WOMAN: You don't let it immobilize you, and you don't let it take over your life. Just keep heads up and keep your eyes open, that's about it. Go on with life.

SCOTT: If people here are cautious, it's not without reason. Lions in the Black Hills have killed dogs and cats, even a 500-pound llama. Elsewhere in the western U.S. and Canada there's been a startling increase in mountain lion attacks on humans. So far, that hasn't happened in South Dakota. Researchers here are just beginning to gather data on the lion population and its behavior. Dorothy Fecske, a doctoral student at South Dakota State University, has been studying the Black Hills lions for two years.


SCOTT: In a four-seat Cessna 205, Dorothy, pilot Bob Laird and I fly low above the Black Hills. With stomach churning dips and loops Bob passes again and again over a steep wooded canyon. We're trying to pick up a signal from lion number six, a three year old female Dorothy radio-collared last year. Not far from Country Estates we hear the ticking we've been listening for.


LAIRD: I was a little early on my --

FECSKE: Bob, I think it was on my side a little bit here. I don't know if she's in the canyon or not yet, but they're in the canyon or on the top of the canyon.

SCOTT: After one more pass, we pinpoint the cat's location, and Dorothy writes down the coordinates. She's currently monitoring seven animals, but this one is of particular interest to her. Lion number six has a home range that extends to the very edge of the suburbs, possible evidence, says Dorothy, that the cats are more tolerant of the presence of humans than previously thought. But, state wildlife officials are not convinced that's such a good thing. Many western states allow hunting of mountain lions, and there's growing sentiment here that the animals should no longer be protected. Mike Kintigh is regional supervisor for South Dakota's Department of Game, Fish and Parks.

KINTIGH: It's not our intent to eliminate them entirely. However, it's not our intent to let them increase their numbers without any system of checks or balances. I do believe that we're at near or at saturation levels. We have as many lions in the Black Hills as the ecosystem can sustain.

SCOTT: The Black Hills ecosystem is a relatively small one, especially given the territorial needs of mountain lions. Adult male lions jealously guard home ranges of 100 to 200 square miles or more. Young males without a home range of their own are driven away or even killed. The result is that young transient males are often forced into marginal habitat, and that's where they're most likely to come into contact with people.

REID: That's where they killed the lambs, right over here, in this little pasture right here. He killed some up north here, about a mile, and then, two days later he come down here after I moved them down here and he killed three more.

SCOTT: Rancher Vic Reid has just lost five lambs to a mountain lion. When state hunters tracked and killed the animal, they discovered that it was indeed a young male, very likely a cat that couldn't establish his own territory in the Black Hills. Reed's ranch is 25 miles north of the hills, an open landscape of closely grazed prairie with very few trees. There's almost no cover here for lions to hide in, or to stock their prey.


SCOTT: Along a fence row, in a small pasture, the half-eaten carcasses of two lambs lay among the weeds. With a pointed boot, Reid flips one of them over to expose a gaping cavity.

REID: They eat through the--get the heart, the liver and the lungs, and also the teeth marks in their throat. And usually a coyote don't have that big a mouth to go around their throat like that, and you can kind of tell by the puncture in their throat, too, you know.

SCOTT: Reid won't be compensated for the loss, and it's little consolation to him that the lion was killed. Like many ranchers here, he's angry at the state for continuing to protect an animal he sees as dangerous to both his livelihood and his family. And he's scornful of people in cities, he says, who want to protect lions without ever having dealt with them.

REED: We've had some calls, people saying, "Well, why did you shoot this animal?" Well, my gosh, what was they going to do with him? These people that way to say that, they ought to just stick them in their yards and fence them in and see how they like that, see what they think of the nice little lion. (Chuckles.) That's my personal opinion.


SCOTT: Back in the Black Hills, Dorothy Fecske is on the ground, looking for lion number six. With her are a state trapper and his two hounds, a state biologist, and her professor, Jon Jenks. Dorothy is hoping to put a new collar on the cat, a special GPS unit that will give her exact readings of the animal's movements. Our starting point for the hunt is the top of the canyon, where we located the cat from the air.


SCOTT: Within minutes, the Walker-Redtick hounds have picked up fresh scent. We stumble and slide down steep, pine-needle-covered hillsides, straining to keep up with the dogs. But this is not turning out to be a wilderness chase--after half a mile the trail leads us through a cluster of houses. Biologist Steve Griffin stops to reassure a startled woman and her young son, in a new Jeep Cherokee.

WOMAN: Has she always been in this area?

GRIFFIN: She runs from Sheridan Lake all the way down to Reptile Gardens.

WOMAN: I see.

GRIFFIN: It just happens, today she's in this vicinity.

WOMAN: I see. Okay.

GRIFFIN: I think she was up on the hill up there this morning when we started, but nothing to worry about.

WOMAN: I see. Okay. All right. Thanks.

SCOTT: Past the houses the terrain gets rough once again, as we scramble up a steep ridge. The dogs have lost the trail, and they work frantically back and forth to pick it up again, noses in the air. The unusually warm weather is working against us today. On the open south slope, the scent quickly dissipates in the heat. But today we're in luck. Both hounds suddenly get a whiff of fresh lion scent, and they disappear into the pines.


HOUNDSMAN: Maybe we'll have her in the next mile or so.

SCOTT: A few minutes later the voice of Steve Griffin comes over the two-way radio.

GRIFFIN: We got her. She's down here. The dogs just ain't hollering and I know she's right here. They've seen her, so come on over this way.

SCOTT: The chase is over. Lion number six clings to a slender ponderosa pine 30 feet above the ground, staring down at us with yellow eyes. Quickly we stretch a net around the base of the tree while Professor Jon Jenks gets out a CO2 pistol. He loads it with a drugged dart and takes aim.

JENKS: Wish I had a tree I could lean against. I'm shooting.


JENKS: Got her. Got her. Dorothy, don't worry.

SCOTT: Within minutes, the drugs take effect. The combination of Telazol and Xylazine has immobilized her. Now Steve Griffin has the dangerous job of climbing into the tree with the still-alert lion. He injects her with Ketamine, the notorious "date rape" drug and lowers her down with a rope.


HOUNDSMAN: Steve, is the rope on her? Just tie it on and get away from her, and let her go.

JENKS: Come on down. You've got the rope.

HOUNDSMAN: Just tie it onto her, get away from her.

SCOTT: Less than two hours after the chase began, the lion is on the ground in front of us, sides heating faintly. Dorothy Fecske and Jon Jenks work quickly to weigh and measure the animal, take her vital signs, and fit her with a new GPS collar.

Photo: Jon JenksBiologist Dorothy Fecske checks lion's vital signs.
(Photo: Jon Jenks)

FECSKE: How's her eyes, Jon?

JENKS: She's blinking fine. Look at that, she's great, she's coming out of it.

SCOTT: For the next eight months, the collar will give almost hourly readings of the cat's movements. Those data could give valuable insight into the behavior of mountain lions around humans, especially in those rapidly growing areas where the line between suburbia and wilderness is starting to blur. Finally, the lion starts to move again. She struggles to her feet, looks briefly in our direction, then staggers drunkenly away. Except for the white plastic collar she's nearly invisible against the tawny pine needles that coat the forest floor.


For Living on Earth, I'm Clay Scott, in the Black Hills, South Dakota.



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