Dr. Mark Elbroch, principal investigator and project leader for Panthera's 13-year long Teton Cougar Project, recently gave a public presentation on his team's findings. The results of their research present a fairly bleak picture of the sustainability of Wyoming's mountain lion population and show the survival rate of Wyoming's mountain lions has dropped drastically over the past decade.
According to Dr. Elbroch, during the critical first six-months of life the greatest threat to a mountain lion kitten is predation. In Wyoming's case that threat primarily comes from wolves. At this time, out of 100 kittens, only 17 will survive until they are six-months old. After six-months, while the chances of predation from wolves and bears have been reduced, human hunters and starvation kill another 40 percent of young lions (10 of the 17). Ultimately, only 7 of the original 100 will reach dispersal age (18-months old). From there, each lion must find and defend its own home range while avoiding human hazards like roads, ranchers and hunters.
Survival rates were twice as high just a decade ago when the project began, but since that time appear to be on a steep decline due to wolf recovery and increased sport hunting of lions in the region.
The Wyoming Game and Fish Department (WGFD) refuses to publicly estimate exactly how many lions live in their state and bases its claim of a healthy, expanding lion population on public opinion: not scientific fact. This new scientific evidence of such a low kitten survival rate should bring into question the sustainability of Wyoming's mountain lion population.
There is still a lot to learn. But what we do know is the ever-increasing number of mountain lions killed by humans in Wyoming. In 1974 (the first year mountain lions were classified as a game animal in Wyoming) eight mountain lions were reported killed as part of regulated hunting. In 2012 (the last year of publicly available data) that annual hunting mortality number had increased to 305 lions.
So while Panthera's Teton Cougar Project may prove that wilderness is a dangerous environment for mountain lion kittens, the primary — and entirely preventable — threat towards the species still comes from humans. When will we finally put an end to this outdated and barbaric blood sport?