PAWS TO REFLECT

By Eleanor Guerrero
Thursday, July 12, 2018

Photo by Don Redfoot

This lion paused to survey the scene south of Red Lodge. Lions are a keystone species that help keep the balance of fauna and flora to provide a healthy wilderness landscape.

They may look cute and cuddly but stay back! Mountain lions, our elusive biggest cats, are here. They have been reported by the Dog Park and by Rotary Park (ignoring Lions Park for some reason). Recently, there have been frequent animal cam sightings by residents south of Red Lodge. Lions are generally reclusive, but if one is seen in your area FWP advises not letting dogs and cats roam freely.

Due to their success as a predator, the Montana Livestock Board has added mountain lions to the list of predators for which they will reimburse ranchers when stock is lost to predation.

Don Redfoot, of Red Lodge, who took the photo shot south of town said, “The question is how we can successfully live side by side with this fascinating creatures and avoid unnecessary conflicts.”

There is no denying their majesty, grace and power. They serve a major purpose in the wilderness ecosystem. According to National Geographic, “The deer, rabbits, and bird  species  in the ecosystem are at least partly controlled by the presence of the  mountain lion. ... Their population usually declines without…the  keystone species, new plants or animals could also come into the habitat and push out the native species.”

But at the interface between wilderness and man, the lion does not discriminate between livestock and wild. No simple fencing keeps him out. Lions are capable of running jumps exceeding 40 feet and standing vertical leaps of up to 15 feet. They can climb a 12 foot fence.

The Montana Livestock Loss Board (LLB) was originally formed in 2007 to address economic loss because of  wolf predation and to encourage ranchers to take preventive steps. In 2013, grizzlies joined the list. Then in 2017, the Legislature added mountain lions. LLB now covers wolf, grizzly and lion caused losses to cattle, swine, horses, mules, sheep, goats, llamas, and livestock guard animals on state, federal, and private land and on tribal land (with formal agreement). It also covers guard animals.

George Edwards is Executive Director of the Board. Last year, the LLB paid out $8,000 in claims over its $200,000 budget. It could have been worse; when the Legislature added mountain lions to the list it did not increase their budget.

Since Oct. 2017, the Board has reimbursed livestock owners for 40 animals killed by big cats and paid out almost $11,000.

Edwards says mountain lions more often kill sheep and goats, which are less expensive than cattle. Last November, one of the big cats killed 25 ewes at Ken Mckamey’s ranch south of Great Falls.

“We’d had problems with coyote kills on the lambs, so we put them in the corral every night," Mckamey says. "This mountain lion came along and jumped into the corral and killed 20 outright. Another five were still alive, but were bad enough that we had to put them down."

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Wildlife Services estimates mountain lion kills cost more than $61,000 in 2016. Saving money through prevention works. One rancher fenced his chicken coops, beehives and calving yards. He removes livestock carcasses quickly and composts them. With a range rider, he’s cut grizzly conflicts by 93 percent.

The LLB is a component of Montana’s Wolf Conservation and Management Plan. This board handles livestock loss prevention and livestock loss compensation. LLB is a five member board appointed by the governor, attached to the Department of Livestock. They also fund prevention programs. The Board has issued almost a million dollars in loss payments since it began accepting claims on April 15, 2008.

Montana has always had a balancing act between nature and man. Montanans overwhelming value their wilderness areas according to the third Montana Public Land Survey released this year. Wilderness would not be as wild for many reasons without its apex predators like lions. While a wolfpack can possibly kill a lion, it is generally considered at the top of the food chain along with grizzlies and wolves.

According to the Mountain Lion Foundation (MLF), “the value of predators, large and small, is complex and commonly misunderstood. Predators, even those at the very top of the food chain, play a vital role in sustaining other animals and plants within their range.”

A study by the Smithsonian Institution of a lake that occurred in Panama after the canal was dug showed the effect on wildlife of losing mountain lions. A hillside, rich with wildlife, was isolated as the surrounding lowlands flooded. Their lions soon disappeared from the new island since they require huge territory.

The hill area experienced a “catastrophic series of local extinctions” according to the MLF. “By 1970, forty-five species of birds had disappeared from the island.”

Biologists Joyhn Terborgh and Blair Winter hypothesized that surging populations of mesopredators (carnivores one step down from the largest and most dominant), over-populated because they were no longer subject to predation by, or in competition with, large carnivores. With so many additional animals feeding upon bird eggs and nestlings, bird populations plummeted. In addition, the number of plant varieties found on the island diminished, and soon it became difficult to find young saplings of the canopy trees.”

The reason soon became clear. “Populations of herbivores exploded, and fell upon the flora of the island with a vengeance, tugging up young saplings for their tender leaves, devouring all of the individuals of whole species that had inhabited small niches.”

The animals that were left, “middle-sized mammals”, did not thrive. “Without large predators to cull the weaker, older, and disease prone animals, several generations are born and pass on less hardy genes. But when food becomes scarce as a result of prey extinctions and over-populations, some species, despite their increased numbers, find themselves at a genetic disadvantage, unable to compete, subject to epidemics, and prey to more viable or adaptable species. As the ecosystem crashes, these middle species, too, may disappear,” summed up Terborgh and Winter.

Terborgh further concluded that, “our current knowledge about the natural processes that maintain biodiversity suggests a crucial and irreplaceable regulatory role of top predators. The absence of top predators appears to lead inexorably to ecosystem simplification accompanied by a rush of extinctions.”

Nature eventually rebalances unhealthy system. But fewer species occupy fewer ecological niches. According to MLF the environment left is “a much poorer one, severely degraded by the cascading losses, right down to the birds and flowers, caused by missing carnivores.”

Although some may feel they are untouched by such losses, crucial natural substances, derived from a diverse planetary flora and fauna, form the basis for much of our science, agriculture and industry.

According to MLF, “Natural systems contribute to the quality of the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the foods we consume. We turn to natural landscapes for recreation and renewal.” Lastly, concludes MLF, large carnivores “personify the wild.”

Redfoot agrees, “I also think it worth noting just how beautiful these creatures are. How wonderful it is that we live in their part of the world.”

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  • Tuesday, November 13, 2018 - 7:00pm
    Now Group meets at the Bridger United Methodist Church, 222 W. Broadway (west entrance of church) Tuesday at 7 p.m.
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