Tuesday, February 10, 2009

TP&WD: Cougars, Lies, and Websites

The idealist inside me still likes to think that state wildlife agencies really do look after the states’ resources and protect and preserve all the wildlife in the state. The realist inside me knows this rarely happens, and that many state wildlife agencies are little more than political hacks that often cater to the wishes of hunting and ranching interests. Both those interests deserve to be protected, but not at the expense of the state’s charge to protect wild the resources within its boundaries.

At the very least, one would hope that state wildlife agencies would hold to the truth concerning wildlife and their management for the sake of the children of the state who will take what they are told as gospel. But my experience with TP&WD has shown that when it comes to cougars the truth will sometimes be whatever is politically expedient. I often wonder if they don’t need to change their name from “Texas Parks and Wildlife” to “Texas Perks and Wildlife”, since the directorship often seems to come from the presiding Governor’s political backers and whose sole interest seems to lie in preserving their ability to hunt what they want when they want to.

But that’s an issue for another day. Let’s go back to talking about TP&WD’s scientific credibility or, actually, their lack thereof. Take, for example, this quote on TP&WD’s web pages in the “Nuisance Wildlife” section about cougars. It’s at the end of the first paragraph: “Other states have become more restrictive in their regulations, making it difficult to manage expanding predator populations and an increase in human injury has occurred.”

This, ladies and gentlemen, is a pathetic attempt to justify Texas’ long standing tradition of classifying cougars as “nuisance wildlife”, which used to be the official classification until TP&WD was confronted by the Sierra Club some years back and TP&WD changed the classification to “non-game”. In either case, what it means is that Texas does not regulate mountain lion hunting in any sense; they may be killed for any reason at any time, including whether someone wants to kill one just for jollies. More importantly, there is NO SCIENTIFIC EVIDENCE that justifies such a conclusion; this is a carry over from a myth that the hunting community has often tried to use to justify their own habits, i.e., that sport hunting keeps lion populations down and protects the public. (As if mountain lions can talk to each other about “how the human hunters are increasing” and “we need to stay away from all humans”. If you believe that, you might want to first stop watching so many cartoons.) In fact, in 2005, the Cougar Management Guidelines Working Group stated that “there is no evidence that sport hunting actually reduces mountain lion-human conflicts”.

Most experts agree that any increase in conflicts is usually due to increasing human encroachment on mountain lion habitat, a fact that is even referred to by TP&WD’s own brochure on mountain lions, which is actually pretty good. Concerning this subject, it states:

“Despite reports of mountain lion attacks on people in California, mountain lion attacks are rare. Only four attacks on humans in Texas have been reported since 1980, all of them in remote areas of West Texas. From 1890–2001, there were 98 attacks across the U.S. and Canada, 17 of those were fatal. Cougar attacks have increased during the past few decades but are still much rarer than other hazards from animals or nature. For example, dogs annually kill 18–20 people and inflict suture-requiring injuries on 200,000 U.S. residents. Increases in cougar attacks are probably due to increases in their numbers and more people using wildlands and building residences in areas where mountain lions live.”

So, how is it that TP&WD manages to capture the situation accurately in its brochure (above) but then manages to publish such mythology on its website? Obviously, there were two different authors, i.e., one who had the picture and one who didn’t.

To prove that, let’s look at the number of mountain lion attacks that have occurred in California since that state banned sport hunting of mountain lions. The law was passed in 1990. Here’s a table showing the number of mountain lion attacks that occurred in the state. The attacks include those that were fatal.

Year--Number of attacks (California)
  1. 1990--0
  2. 1991--0
  3. 1992--1
  4. 1993--2
  5. 1994--3
  6. 1995--1
  7. 1996--0
  8. 1997--0
  9. 1998--0
  10. 1999--0
  11. 2000--0
  12. 2001--0
  13. 2002--0
  14. 2003--0
  15. 2004--3
  16. 2005--0
  17. 2006--0
  18. 2007--1

If I disregard other factors (increase in human populations, decrease in mountain lion habitat), it’s hard to argue that the law caused an increase in human injury because of the two years of no injuries immediately after the law’s passage and the recurring multiple years of no injuries. Across a seventeen span, this averages out to .6 attacks/year or about one attack every two years. Without or without sport hunting, that’s not an unexpected number considering the close proximity of people to cougar habitat there.

See what I mean?

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