Despite strong data and recommendations from their own biologists to lower hunting quotas, the state has continued to increase hunter harvest. A recently proposed bill would have created new opportunities for hunters to kill large numbers of mountain lions in the name of increasing mule deer numbers.
Public pressure successfully convinced Game and Fish to defeat the bill and lower hunting limits in one game management unit. With watchfulness and added pressure perhaps we can keep similar bills from being passed and persuade the state to set lower limits in the rest of the state.
The bill was purportedly introduced to provide "additional tools" to combat recent mule deer population declines. It would have allowed any person in the state with a valid hunting license to kill a mountain lion using a trap or snare. The kind of indiscriminate trapping proposed anything from bobcats to bears at risk of wandering into a trap and suffering from serious injuries - breaking or severing limbs and tearing skin - while delivering a slow, painful death.
In addition, allowing carnivore trapping wouldn't actually solve the problem. Information from the Wyoming Game and Fish Department itself says that mule deer declines are largely the result of other factors, such as habitat loss and disruption to migration corridors. Recent intensive research by Idaho Department of Fish and Game found that winter severity played a substantial role in determining deer population size and that removing mountain lions and coyotes did not improve mule deer numbers.
This change in harvest proportions points towards one hard truth: a population in decline. Hunters prefer large, prime-aged male mountain lions. When there are fewer mature male mountain lions in the population, hunters shift to killing the demographic groups that remain, namely younger animals and females. The demographic shifts in hunter-caught individuals are likely reflective of changes in the population structure as a whole. Fewer mature resident males, heavier harvest pressure on other age groups, and higher female mortality all lead to declining mountain lion numbers. Further compounding the influence of overharvest, hunting females is particularly problematic to maintaining a viable population because they are the ones who raise the kittens.
Exactly how hunting influences the population trajectory is no mystery. Local research led by the Teton Cougar Project shed new light on the influence hunting has on the state's mountain lion population. They found that the study area's mountain lion population declined by nearly fifty percent over the last decade, and that reducing the hunting limit in the unit from five to three animals could halt that decline.
This research provided the fodder for local citizens to speak out and put pressure on wildlife managers. A record number of people commented on proposed changes to wildlife regulations and were rewarded for their efforts. Directly motivated by the research conducted by the Teton Cougar Project, the public successfully pressured the state into reducing the study area's mountain lion quota by 75 percent. Unfortunately, that attention didn't spread to other parts of the state. While the quota in study area's hunting unit was greatly reduced, statewide hunting limits increased by 44 percent.
Once again, citizens need to join together to let the Game Commission know that they've made the first step in protecting the lion population, and now they need to see it through to the rest of the state. The Commission needs to ensure that mountain lions can persist in healthy numbers by reducing harvest quotas throughout Wyoming. Write a letter, send an email, or make a call to the Game Commission and tell them what you think!