A President’s Unexpected Legacy

As we celebrate Presidents’ Day 2023, let’s take a look at the history of mountain lions in California over the last century. We’ll see why that state has come to be the best example of having both the worst challenges for lions in the form of huge development, and some of the most progressive solutions to help them thrive.

Mountain lions have long been an iconic symbol of the wild landscapes of California. However, in the early 20th century, their population was in sharp decline due to unregulated hunting, habitat loss, and conflicts with humans. It wasn’t until the latter half of the century that concerted efforts were made to protect them, thanks in large part to the efforts of conservationists, politicians, and activists.

In the mid-20th century, mountain lion hunting was widespread and largely unregulated in California. By the 1960s, it was clear that the population of mountain lions was in rapid decline. However, it wasn’t until the 1970s that meaningful steps were taken to address the problem. In 1971, Governor Ronald Reagan signed a temporary moratorium on mountain lion hunting, marking a turning point in the conservation of these animals.

In the following years, conservation groups and animal welfare advocates worked to build on Reagan’s efforts to protect mountain lions in California. One of the most significant milestones in this effort was the passage of Proposition 117, a ballot measure that permanently banned the hunting of mountain lions in California. This proposition was led by the efforts of conservationists, including Sharon Negri, and a range of animal welfare groups who argued that the hunting of mountain lions was unnecessary and cruel.

Proposition 117 was approved by California voters in the November 1990 election, with 52% of voters in favor of the ban. This measure was the culmination of years of advocacy, political action, and scientific research aimed at protecting mountain lions from harm. William Newsom, former California appeals court judge and attorney, played an instrumental role in leading the campaign to pass the proposition and make the ban on mountain lion hunting permanent.

Today, mountain lions in California are protected under a range of regulations and conflict management policies.

The conservation of mountain lions in California is an ongoing success story, thanks to the work of dedicated advocates, researchers, and policymakers. The temporary moratorium signed by Ronald Reagan marked an important first step in protecting these animals from hunting, and subsequent efforts to make the ban permanent demonstrate the power of political action and advocacy in support of conservation.

Heightened public awareness of how mountain lion encounters are handled by authorities led to more successful advocacy following a sad incident at Half Moon Bay in 2019.

A law enforcement officer fatally shot two mountain lion kittens that were found near a residential area.

Two kittens were first discovered in a backyard in Half Moon Bay and were reported to authorities. A game warden was dispatched to the scene, but when he arrived, he found that the kittens had moved to a nearby public area. A sheriff’s deputy was then dispatched to assist with the situation.

According to reports, the deputy attempted to corral the kittens into a cage but was unsuccessful. At this point, he fired his weapon, killing both of the kittens. The incident sparked outrage among conservationists and animal welfare advocates, who argued that the use of lethal force was unnecessary and that the kittens could have been safely relocated.

Following the incident, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife conducted an investigation and concluded that the use of lethal force was not justified. The department developed new protocols for handling mountain lion incidents, including improved training for law enforcement officers and a greater emphasis on non-lethal options for managing conflicts with these animals.

The Half Moon Bay incident highlighted the need for improved training and protocols when dealing with conflicts involving mountain lions and led to important changes in the way that these situations are handled in California. By prioritizing the safety of both humans and animals, California’s approach to mountain lion management represents a model for effective and responsible wildlife conservation.

A pretty cool interview by The Guardian with Cougar Fund Director Dr. Jane Goodall

We are always inspired when one of our Directors pops up in a news feed and we will be bringing you more insights into the things that inspire them to support the issues that we all care about. Each Director brings special knowledge, passion, experience and skill to our organization. Dr Jane Goodall changed the face of how the world looks at animals when she observed that man is not the only ‘tool maker’. She made it, not only OK, to identify animals by name (imagine if all our dogs and cats and horses were just a number!) but also the best way to remember their sentience and sensitivity. Thank you Dr Jane, you have changed our relationship with the natural world by striving to make the human world more humane.


Can a mesocarnivore fill in the functional role of an apex predator?

As keystone species, apex predators play a role in structuring most ecosystems through competition and facilitation, thereby affecting community structure, prey abundance and behavior, vegetation, and abiotic processes. Apex predators are also highly threatened and have been extirpated from much of North America, leading to mesocarnivores, such as coyotes (Canis latrans), becoming de facto apex predators in many ecosystems. However, it is unknown if these mesocarnivores can fill the same functional keystone role as true apex predators.

Ecosphere – 2023 – Avrin – Can a mesocarnivore fill the functional role of an apex predator

Mountain Lions matter

The University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign recently published a study that compounds previous evidence of the positive role large carnivores, such as cougars, have on the landscape. Known as a keystone species,  just like in architecture, lions’ presence or absence ‘holds up’ or ‘destabilizes’ the rest of a structure. In nature it is other species-both flora and fauna.

The more scientists ask questions about the ecological contributions of large carnivores and invest effort into answering those questions, the more juxtaposed the traditional view of mountain lions as nuisance, vermin, or objects of sport becomes.


  • Editor’s notes:

    To reach Alex Avrin, email alex.avrin@gmail.com.

    To reach Max Allen, email maxallen@illinois.edu.

    The paper “Can a mesocarnivore fill the functional role of an apex predator?” is available online and from the U. of I. News Bureau.

    DOI: 10.1002/ecs2.4383


    Michael Jeffords and Susan Post are wildlife photographers and research affiliates of the Illinois Natural History Survey at the Prairie Research Institute of the U. of I. Their photographs are available here.

It can’t be completed soon enough.

Sadly, another mountain lion was killed on a highway in Southern California this week. This comes on the heels of the vehicle collision death of four year old P81 on January 22nd this year. These human caused mortalities are a microcosm of the impacts that we have on the landscape.

There is not much indication that growth will slow down, but how we plan and consider the needs of the wildlife and the habitat that development is invading has to become a priority everywhere.

Due for completion in 2025, the Wallis Annenberg Wildlife Crossing in Southern California will represent a landmark cooperative effort between state agencies, federal departments, non governmental organizations  and passionate support from an inspired public, tired of the constant human costs and wildlife casualties from vehicle collisions on congested and expanding highway systems.

Probably the most elusive, yet ironically public symbol of collateral damage is the majestic cougar. For a species once native to all of the Americas, loss of habitat by encroachment and fragmentation has become an enormous threat. In the few states where mountain lions still remain and where development is at an all time high, lions have become confined to semi island populations that limit genetic diversity and where lions have displayed signs of inbreeding such as tail deformities and heart malformations.

Wildlife crossings, which benefit all animals that use them (even crabs on Christmas Island in Australia!) allow for genetic diversity, expanded range-famous P22 survived in an area 1/9th a male lion’s unrestricted territory- preventing overuse of forage, limiting disease spread by allowing dispersal of herds and keeping migratory routes patent.

Thanks to all the partners that made this project possible. Wildlife Crossings can be a wonderful focus of common ground for all people that care about animals and want to see them safely across the road.

Grizzly bears, different perspectives weigh in…

With the recent announcement of yet another look at the grizzly bear delisting process moving forward in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, voices are being heard, both expected and some not-so-much. The Cougar Fund was present in Missoula in the winter of 2013/14 when the delisting process started again, again. One of the most avid proponents of confirming recovery at that time was then USFWS Grizzly Bear Recovery Coordinator, Chris Servheen. Now he is taking a different view of how safe the bears will be if they face the possibility of losing protections under the Endangered Species Act. This article presents perspectives from Dr Servheen and other stakeholders as the public and those who feel most affected by bears on the landscape try to come to grips with how states management plans should be drawn up.

Please click on the photo below to go to the article.

More misunderstanding in Wyoming

When legislation is considered about how to avoid stock depredations by wild predators, it can become mired in looking at short term solutions. Killing coyotes, foxes, wolves, mountain lions, and bears en masse, doesn’t really solve anything. It is a very temporary ‘fix’. Let’s take a moment to ask ourselves why we opt for widespread slaughter of coyotes when the body of scientific evidence indicates  this can often increase the population.

Coyotes play a crucial role in North American ecosystems, and their removal or reduction can have significant impacts on the environment. Coyotes are known to regulate populations of small mammals, such as rodents, which can have negative impacts on the landscape if left unchecked. Coyotes also help to control the spread of disease by reducing the populations of those same small mammals that are often carriers of disease. In addition, coyotes can serve as a food source for a wide range of predators, including eagles, bears, and mountain lions.

Interestingly, there is research to suggest that coyotes actually reproduce in larger numbers when their populations are subjected to high levels of mortality. This phenomenon is known as compensatory reproduction, and it has been observed in a number of species.

One study, conducted by Dr. John Way and colleagues at the Eastern Coyote Research Center in Massachusetts, found evidence of compensatory reproduction in coyotes in response to predator control programs. The researchers found that as predator control efforts increased, coyote populations responded by increasing their reproductive output. There have been many other studies that show similar findings.

We understand the devastation of losing stock and the impact on livelihoods. Perhaps looking at how the coyote responds to adverse predator control is the first step towards coming up with a solution that honors human interests AND the natural world.

Legislative News

The most challenging aspect of advocating for wildlife is the uncertainty of whether our efforts are making progress or if we are losing ground. This is particularly relevant when it comes to recognizing that every species plays a role in the ecosystem. 

Requesting consideration for the ecological impact of large carnivores is not just about emotions.

 The term “emotion” is often used to belittle individuals who have a different perspective on wildlife and its relationship with human presence. 

However, we are an emotional species at every level, not just those who advocate for a non traditional approach to managing our precious wildlife resources. The 10th Amendment of the Constitution assigns responsibility to each state This responsibility is actually held in the public trust for all people, similar to clean water and air.

It is hard to comprehend  the “sport” hunting of mountain lions, which is allowed in 14 out of the 16 states with breeding populations. It is important to understand that “sport” hunting is a hobby, and while some hunters may eat the meat of the animal they hunt, this is not their primary motivation. In states where bears, lions, and wolves are classified as Trophy Game and there is no wanton waste statute, nothing is required to be taken back except proof of the animal’s sex and a tooth for data recording. Often only parts that can be hung, mounted, or walked on, are retrieved.

In Wyoming, hunt areas have reached their “harvest mortality limits” for lions quickly, and hunters who use hounds have lobbied to continue chasing lions until the end of the season, even after the limit has been reached.

This extended chase season is not a harmless alternative to killing. It is in addition to the long days and weeks of pursuing lions from September 1st until the limit is met.

The Cougar Fund has grave concerns about adding to the already harsh mountain lion hunting opportunity.

Mountain lions are a keystone species

A keystone species is a species in an ecosystem that plays a critical role in maintaining the balance of that ecosystem. Its presence and impact on the ecosystem are much larger than would be expected based on its abundance. The loss of a keystone species can cause significant changes to the ecosystem, potentially leading to a cascade of effects that alter the balance of the ecosystem and the interactions between its species.

  • Hounding mountain lions can disturb the balance of the ecosystem by driving lions out of their territory and leading to competition for food and resources and intra-species conflict.
  • It can also cause significant stress to the animal, especially female lions who may have young not traveling with them and become separated.
  • It can lead to the death of the animal, either from the hounds themselves or from the lion’s inability to find food or shelter after being chased out of its habitat.
  • This practice can  be cruel, as the animal may be tracked for long distances and chased for hours before finding refuge in a tree or cave. (Most hunting occurs when an animal is unaware of its fate)
  • The hounds can also kill kittens that cannot climb to safety.
  • Being chased by hounds is not a hazing tool; lions are simply cats that climb to escape, a remnant from a time before humans when they had to escape large canids on the landscape.
  • Lions are often near where they can find food, so constant hounding will also affect the winter range of ungulates during their most vulnerable time of the year.
  • Chasing lions through the end of March coincides with the critical last two months of deer pregnancy, when the doe’s health is vital for the viability of the fawn.

Let’s remember when we hear that a season has closed and there is a problem because there are hounds that can no longer be trained or exercised but have to be fed, is that having these hounds is a choice, a hobby.  Should our wildlife really be expected to pay for those choices?

Avian Flu confirmed in mammals in Montana and Colorado

Montana recently announced that three grizzlies were killed following confirmation that they had contracted bird flu. Bird flu is most likely passed by consumption of an infected carcass, the organism can live up to 48 hours on surfaces and much longer on organic materials such as feathers. Interestingly, while avian flu is almost immediately fatal in birds, many mammals have actually survived after contracting it, although the risk of it spreading through wild populations is extremely serious and the resilience of the virus makes it a global threat to both wild and domestic birds.



Colorado this week added to the data verifying the spread of avian flu to wild mammals in that state. As of November 2023, the US had recorded a record number of cases in wild birds and domestic poultry. State wildlife agencies are now beginning to look at avian flu as a cause of unexplained illness or mortality in other wild species. We know what a devastating effect widespread infection can have on birds, we need to have a concerted approach from the states and federal agencies to the impacts of avian flu on other wildlife as well.