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Opinion
Text: The editorial voice of the Mountain Lion Foundation.

5/29/2012

Idaho Tells Familiar Tale to Justify Lion Killed by Boise Police

According to the Idaho Department of Fish and Game (IDFG), Boise is in the middle of lion country. Tucked up next to the Idaho National Forest, and with a riparian greenbelt running through town, its no wonder this community — fondly referred to by locals as the "City of Trees" — will get the occasional mountain lion showing up where it shouldn't.

Such was the case of a young female lion first spotted on Friday, May 18th, in an east Boise foothills neighborhood with a recently killed deer — a natural prey source for lions.

That sighting sparked an intense hunt for the lion by IDFG personnel who staked out the cashed deer carcass in the hope that the lion would return and could be harassed out of town with rubber bullets. However, the lion failed to comply with IDFG's plans and wasn't seen again for several days until being spotted Monday morning in Boise's downtown area and again later that day by Boise State University staffers who reported a lion eating from a dumpster near the student union building.

Police were dispatched to the scene and under IDFG's authority shot and killed the young lion early Tuesday morning as it crossed a nature trail in the Boise River Greenbelt near Bronco Stadium.
Media storm around Matt O'Connnell and the body of a female cougar in Boise, Idaho.

IDFG spokesman, Matt O'Connell, justified the lethal action by claiming that "the Boise PD was actually acting on our behalf. We had given them the OK that if they felt it necessary they should go ahead and kill the cat." He explained further that "the cat had crossed the line from normal cat behavior." because it was scavenging food, and opined that "using a tranquilizer was not an option."

Apparently, like most law enforcement agencies, Boise police officers do not carry the equipment necessary to tranquilize an animal, and despite the fact that the lioness hadn't demonstrated any evidence of threatening humans, someone decided that the police officers could not wait for a trained IDFG officer with the proper equipment to arrive.

The Department's explanation of this latest "public safety" killing is almost the same as that delivered last September when another young, transient lion was shot by an Ada County sheriff's deputy.

In both cases, excuses were made by IDFG representatives about the trouble of relocating lions, how tranquilizers don't always work as expected, and how interaction with humans "habituates" the creatures. All reasonable sounding arguments, but not necessarily true.

See Mountain Lions CAN be Safely Captured and Released! for an example of how one agency is successfully and humanely handling wildlife incidents. And check out WDFW Hard-Releases a Relocated Cougar to see their program in action.

Mountain lion stalking toward you through green grass.Lion research conducted in numerous western states show that mountain lions have long interacted with humans along urban interfaces, and to a greater extent than previously assumed. One such lion used neighborhoods in the outskirts of Tucson, Arizona as part of her territory without causing trouble or killing any pets after her first encounter with humans six years earlier when she was trapped in a chicken coop and fitted with a radio collar. And counter to what many claim, it is a fairly common practice for lions to scavenge the leftovers of another animal's kill.

As for relocation, lion researcher Toni Ruth conducted a study in New Mexico to ascertain the validity of the standard belief that you can not relocate mountain lions. The study's findings showed that young lions — transients — who have not yet established a permanent home, can easily be moved to a new location without any apparent complications.

Unfortunately older lions were more likely to return to their established home territories — but they are not necessarily the ones that get into trouble in the first place. This new understanding is being successfully field tested by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife with their ground-breaking efforts to capture and relocate lions that've become lost and find themselves in developed areas.

Click here to learn more about Toni Ruth's research.

Matt O'Connell, a conservation officer with the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, stands above the mountain lion killed by Boise Police in May 2012.Matt O'Connell, a conservation officer with the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, stands above the mountain lion killed by Boise Police in May 2012.

However, the true problem isn't the rationalization IDFG and other state game agencies offer to excuse a killing, it's the fact that it's a rare local law enforcement agency that is equipped or trained to handle wildlife calls or emergencies.

These young, frightened animals can't wave a white flag or raise their arms and surrender when surrounded by excited and inexperienced police officers.

If a lion can't out-wait its persecutors, it will focus on anything that looks like a way out and run as fast as it can to reach it. Unfortunately, to first responders trying to "contain" the scene, this terrified break for freedom has the same appearance as a dangerous, wild animal charging for an attack.

In incident after incident the story remains the same, no one involved with a public safety shooting of a lion is happy with the results. It doesn't matter whether they are police officers or state game agency personnel. In almost every case, all voice a sincere regret for the lethal outcome and wish things could have turned out differently. Maybe it's time for society to help those individuals putting their lives on the line by insisting that they receive the tools and training needed to create non-lethal outcomes in tense and dangerous wildlife situations.

Check back next week for a special feature story from MLF's Washington Field Rep Bob McCoy about how Washington Fish & Wildlife's innovative bear dog program began.



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