How did you get into working with pumas?
I get this question all the time, and its because people don't really understand the field of wildlife biology. Yes, the rare person chooses to devote their life to a species and attends graduate school, studying the species they want, then get their first job studying that same animal, and then somehow land a career position that allows them to do exactly the research they dreamed about as a teenager. Sure, that happens sometimes. But, more often, people entering the field are presented with opportunities and some you take and others you don't. I was lucky enough to be given the opportunity to study mountain lions in graduate school, and on several projects beforehand as a technician/biologist, but only after I failed to find a professor that would allow me to study fishers or black bears, which were my initial choice, or even ringtails or gray foxes, which I also wanted to pursue. Alas, it’s difficult to complain in retrospect--mountain lions are amazing.
Why do you continue to study mountain lions after so long, when you could have bounced to other species?
My short, waiting-in-line-at-the-grocery-store answer is this: Because mountain lions capture the imagination. They flare passion in people, whether they are anti-mountain lion deer hunters or livestock owners, or pro-mountain lion city slickers. Passion breeds opportunity, opportunity to pull people into discussion. And mountain lions, I think, are among the best animals to explore creative conservation strategies--they actually live in between us, like ghosts--they are a large carnivore in our midst. And last, I stick with mountain lions because it’s hard--hard keeps me interested.
Can you tell us about what you are working on with respect to pumas?
I'm a bit all over the place. I study competition with wolves and bears--how these species influence the lives of mountain lions. I study foraging--what mountain lions eat and how often, and how individuals of different ages and sex exhibit different diets. I study some of the positive roles mountain lions play in natural systems--through providing carrion to diverse scavengers, through contributing to resource heterogeneity in terms of soil nutrients and such. I study social behaviors and spatial organization, and hope to expand my work to begin to understand how social behaviors might be influenced by variation in mountain lion density, prey type and density, and hunting pressure. And I study human-mountain lion conflict and coexistence--I'd like to contribute work to support the peaceful coexistence of us and them across their range.
How is the relative status of the population of pumas in your study area?
In the Tetons of Wyoming, they've been in decline for some time and our latest research has been aimed at determining why. I don't want to spoil our findings before they are released, but it seems a combination of human hunting, reintroduced wolves, and declining elk in our system, and no doubt other complexities as well.
In Patagonia near Torres del Paine, I'm not sure. Evidence suggests that overall in southern Patagonia, pumas are increasing. This is due to failing wool markets, the closure of large sheep farms, which has relaxed pressure on both native prey for pumas (guanacos) and the pumas themselves. Guanacos and mountain lions are increasing in number and expanding their range. It’s a bit like the story of western North America 70 years ago--once we stopped killing them relentlessly, they launched an amazing comeback from their remote mountain holds.
What is your guess about the major threats to the species in your study area?
"Threat" is a loaded word, and I want to be careful how I use it. North of Mexico, I think the greatest threat is habitat conversion and fragmentation. Once habitat is turned into condos or highways split up big chunks of land into smaller, disconnected parcels, its land completely lost to mountain lions forever. That's a real threat. Human hunting, as currently managed in the west, is not a threat to the long-term persistence of mountain lions, and in general, not a threat to the number of mountain lions in western North America. Hunting, however, is the greatest threat to the integrity of mountain lion populations. What I mean here is that hunting impacts natural social structures, natural variation in age structures, natural dispersal patterns influencing immigration and emigration, and other subtle workings of mountain lion populations.
South of the US, there is much less known about how mountain lions are faring. The collective we believe that poaching and livestock-conflict are perhaps greater threats to mountain lion populations, or at least equal threats, to habitat loss and fragmentation across Latin and South America.
What is your greatest challenge working with these animals?
The greatest current challenge is that mountain lion management and conservation has become polarized--its an "us" versus "them" scenario. Unless people begin to listen to each other, and respect each other, we're stuck in stalemate, and worse in a system in which people in power are making decisions to spite those they consider their opposition. Sounds a bit like our larger political systems! Biologists, like myself, are often in the middle--the various factions all believe biologists should stand with them and only them, challenging each of us to try to maintain our own integrity while contributing to the discussion.
The other challenge is funding. Ironically, mountain lion research is difficult to fund. They are not endangered except in Florida, so don't qualify for many pots of money. And they are difficult to fund through the core-science programs, because they turn up small sample sizes that make creative mathematics difficult to apply to them. Scientists would rather fund work that will yield larger samples (more animals) so that their statistical analyses are more powerful and insightful. That leaves state agency funds, small grants, and private money. States vary in their commitment to funding mountain lion research--Colorado, for example, has invested very large sums of money into mountain lion research over the last 10-15 years, whereas Wyoming has not. Private money is wonderful, in that it generally allows researchers great freedom to pursue their desires, but it’s tough to secure. Biologists are not trained as fundraisers, and at least speaking for myself, I am really uncomfortable asking others for money (but clearly need to improve in this department)
What has been most meaningful about your work with these large cats?
My most meaningful moments are those in which I feel like I've truly discovered something new about mountain lions, the moments I truly felt my work aided their conservation, the moments I truly felt I aided in the conversion of a mountain lion hater into someone willing to coexist with them, and of course, the many personal encounters in which they enriched my life. I've been lucky, I think. I feel like we are discovering new aspects about mountain lions all the time, and I feel that my work has helped bring an awareness of the species to more people, and hopefully helped them understand mountain lions just a little bit more. And a personal level, I've been very lucky and privileged to do the work I've done.
What can people in the U.S do to contribute to advancing the conservation of Pumas?
Talk to people with opposing views. Don't attack them--try to understand their perspectives. Treat them with the respect you feel you yourself deserve. We are all people and we all deserve equal say on how we manage and coexist with mountain lions. This is key.
Second, listen to other people, especially those with opposing views. Really listen--postpone defensive maneuvers and really try to understand their perspective. We are all people and we all deserve equal say on how we manage and coexist with mountain lions. This is key.
Fund mountain lion research, education, and outreach--this is how work gets done.
Any other comments about your work or pumas that you would like people to know?
Give mountain lions a chance. They'll surprise you. They continue to surprise me.
Thank you for the opportunity to share and do the work I do.