The following story was written by Kyle Munson, and originally posted on-line under the title Munson: One man's mountain lion mission by the Des Moines Tribune
NEVADA, Ia. - Shane Griffin's loner crusade to protect Iowa's mountain lions began as he struggled to finish a story.
A few years ago he was writing a fictional account of a war veteran who embarks on a deer hunt in Iowa with his daughter. He wanted to introduce a wild animal to symbolize the main character's own fears dredged up from his past.
That's when Griffin noticed a news report about a mountain lion that had been shot in western Iowa.
His writerly quest for a mere plot element led to Griffin's deep sympathy for these majestic 150-pound cats when he realized that they had been driven out of Iowa for more than a century. In the last 20 years they've trickled back in from the West.
"I'm just a citizen who picked up a couple of books and thought something was wrong and wanted to change it," he said.
At this point Griffin, a 43-year-old Des Moines firefighter and paramedic who lives on an acreage north of Nevada, might be Iowa mountain lions' best friend as he lobbies lawmakers on their behalf. (The big cats also are called cougars, pumas and a host of other names.)
This week he was on the prowl again at the state Capitol.
Griffin prodded his local representative, Republican Dave Deyoe of Nevada, to introduce a bill last week: "An act prohibiting the hunting or taking of cougars and making penalties applicable."
More than a century ago when fur-bearing critters were written into the Iowa Code there were no mountain lions to speak of. So the list stopped with beaver, badger, mink, otter, muskrat, raccoon, skunk, opossum, spotted skunk or civet cat, weasel, coyote, bobcat, wolf, groundhog, red fox, and gray fox.
Ron Andrews, now retired in Clear Lake, spent more than 44 years as an Iowa Department of Natural Resources furbearer resource specialist.
"Initially we kind of thought people were hallucinating," Andrews said of the sightings that preceeded a big cat that was hit and killed by a car near Harlan in 2001 - essentially the year that mountain lions roared back to life in Iowa as a hot topic.
There have been 19 confirmed mountain lions statewide in the last two decades, seven of the animals were shot or killed by vehicles.
One sighting was confirmed last year. There also were two probable and 14 unconfirmed reports in 2014.
Meanwhile, the vast majority of the thousands of reported sightings tend to be anything from a bobcat to a large dog.
The elusive mountain lions have no status under Iowa law, and it's likely to stay that way in a state where livestock and wild game such as pheasants are prized.
"The agricultural politics of Iowa is going to make that very, very difficult," Andrews said of the prospects for passage of Griffin's bill or anything similar.
"I've already heard from a couple of hunting groups that are concerned that I filed the bill," Deyoe admitted.
Vince Evelsizer, the DNR's furbearer and wetland biologist who has followed in Andrews' paw prints, admits that cougars are a "polarizing topic." And the DNR as an institution remains neutral in the debate.
Griffin is "taking the right approach with ... doing what he can to try to get it introduced into the Legislature," Evelsizer said. "And whether it goes through or not I think it's good to foster that discussion."
State Rep. Clel Baudler doesn't expect Griffin's bill to move past his natural resources subcommittee for one major reason: "Because mountain lions eat people."
"I don't want them to get established," Baudler said of the cats. "I want them to be in fear of humans."
He scoffed at the recommendation to "look larger" if confronted by a mountain lion.
"If you're a 5-, 9-, 10-year-old kid," Baudler said, "how do you look larger to scare a mountain lion away?"
A mountain lion advocate such as Griffin faces a tough fight on multiple fronts. On one hand, people fear being eaten.
Then there are hunters who would like to be allowed to kill more of the beasts.
Ted Nugent recently posted a photo on Facebook that showed fellow musician Kid Rock proudly displaying a freshly slain mountain lion.
"HAIL my Motor City boy Kid Rock for saving all those muledeer elk & livestock by whacking this magnificent mountain lion," Nugent wrote.
Griffin sees mountain lions as a central ethical debate on how we intend to relate to nature, similar to Iowa's brewing legal war over water quality.
"To me there's such a hangover from the settlement days of come in, dominate, make it yours, produce off of it," he said.
Mike Rentz, a lecturer in Iowa State University's natural resource ecology and management department, recently moved from Minnesota, where cougars, black bears and other large predators are more common.
He'd like to see mountain lions make more of a national comeback. They're all but invisible to humans, he said, if they're "not persecuted, not hunted, not harassed."
"There are wolves in Duluth, Minn., that are in town, in the city limits," Rentz added, "and you just never see them."
The first wolf documented in 89 years in Iowa was shot by a coyote hunter last year in Buchanan County.
If we were to act based solely on statistics, Iowans should be shooting the more numerous unleashed dogs on sight as the true hazard to kids.
Lightning strikes and bee stings are greater threats than mountain lions.
Missouri established its own Mountain Lion Response Team in 1996, where state law dispenses with the clunky need to specify certain species and simply protects all fur-bearing wildlife - while still allowing people to kill the animals to defend themselves and their property.
Among the national statistics compiled by Missouri: The risk for a dog attack is 1 in 208,000, compared with 1 in 6.25 million for a mountain lion attack.
"They're not these bloodthirsty killers that people think," said Griffin, a father with three daughters of his own - ages 14, 15 and 19 - to protect.
About 25 fatal and 95 nonfatal mountain lion attacks have been recorded within the last century in all of North America.
To be sure, the attacks that do happen can be harrowing: A 6-year-old boy survived an attack by a lion in September near Cupertino, Calif.
They also can be simultaneously comical and disturbing: A woman in Colorado fended off a mountain lion last summer in part by loudly singing opera.
No matter what happens in Iowa, the big cats' numbers might be winnowed because of what's happening in our neighboring states to the West.
Tim Dunbar, executive director of the Mountain Lion Foundation based in California, said that his organization has been watching Iowa because we're on the "cutting edge of lions coming into the state."
"Some policy changes both in South Dakota and Wyoming have been really hammering that population very hard," he said.
South Dakota opened its first mountain lion hunting season a decade ago. There have been at least 19 cats killed already this year - all but one of those by hunters. The remaining lion was hit by a vehicle.
Nebraska's first mountain lion hunting season last year saw five cats killed by hunters but 16 total deaths, 10 of them females.
The state skipped a hunting season this year and will study the issue for a few more years.
Male cougars tend to roam east in a direct line, searching for a date.
Females, meanwhile, tend to stray no farther than about 25 miles from where they were born - hence the migration of large numbers of the cats tends to be slow.
The first confirmed cougar in Kentucky since before the Civil War was killed there in December.
One mountain lion hit and killed by a car four years ago in Connecticut had strayed all the way from South Dakota.
That last cat's trek sounds like an odyssey ripe for one of Griffin's stories.
After all, it's much easier writing mountain lions into fiction than into Iowa law.
MOUNTAIN LION FACTS
SIZE: 6 to 9 feet long
WEIGHT: 100 to 150 pounds
LIFE EXPECTANCY: Reach reproductive maturity at age 3 and live 12 to 20 years
OFFSPRING: Two to three kits per litter (peak birth rate in July) that remain with the female for up to 18 months
DIET: Deer, small mammals, rabbits, beavers, raccoons, coyotes
BEHAVIOR: Readily climb trees to escape dogs or obtain food, capable of swimming
TERRITORY: Females range 15 to 30 square miles, males 50 to 135 square miles.
Source: Iowa Department of Natural Resources
WHAT TO DO IF CONFRONTED BY A MOUNTAIN LION
1. DON'T RUN! Running may stimulate a mountain lion's instinct to chase.
2. Stand tall, look big, puff up, and lift your coat over your shoulders.
3. Take control of the situation. Scream loudly, throw objects.
4. Gather children close and slowly back away, keeping your eye on the animal.
5. If attacked, fight back vigorously with sharp objects and poke the eyes of the animal.
Source: Iowa Department of Natural Resources
CONFIRMED MOUNTAIN LION SIGHTINGS IN IOWA, BY YEAR
Kyle Munson can be reached at 515-284-8124 or firstname.lastname@example.org. See more of his columns and video at DesMoinesRegister.com/KyleMunson. Connect with him on Facebook (/KyleMunson) and Twitter (@KyleMunson).