Wildlife management policies have contributed to a steep decline of mountain lions in northwest Wyoming, according to a new report published last week in the journal “Ecology and Evolution,” which found that population numbers have dropped by almost 50-percent in only 16 years.
Mark Elbroch, a wildlife researcher with Panthera’s Puma Project, said mountain lion’s numbers have been strong for decades, but now hunters are allowed to kill more because of a higher quota. Hunters have been killing fewer cougars in the area, though, probably indicating a decrease in population.
But Elbroch said the species also has less food to eat because elk have been hard to distribute back into their natural habitat, instead, wintering by the thousands on the National Elk Refuge outside Jackson.
“They’ve seen a 70-percent reduction in the availability of elk. That’s a huge decline. 70-percent of the food is no longer there that they’re relying on and that’s shocking.”
Elbroch said, wolves can hunt elk on the open range but mountain lions can’t, leading to the starvation of juveniles.
“Wolves do really well hunting open landscapes, running down their prey, and mountain lions just don’t,” Elbroch said. “So all those elk that are congregated in the middle of the refuge in winter, they’re just not accessible to a mountain lion.”
Wolves are also known to kill mountain lion kittens.
But Elbroch acknowledges that mountain lion numbers may have been much lower historically before big predators were wiped out 200 years ago.
“They’re all in this sort of dance, if you will, renegotiating each other on the landscape and coming to some sort of new equilibrium,” he said. “We just don’t really know, what it looked like before. All we can tell you is what it’s looking like now.”
He said grizzlies and wolves are dominant over mountain lions and he’s curious to see how the three species strike a balance on the landscape in coming years.