Cost of Doing Business: Oil and Mountain Lions

Oil, the one thing that allows us to live very convenient and comfortable lives. It is responsible for creating wonderful things but it also has the ability to destroy. Time and again we have seen the damage that can happen when things go wrong such as the devastating consequences of oil spills, but besides that is there another impact the industry has on wildlife? To be honest it wasn’t something that I really thought about until I came across a series of articles in the Boulder Weekly that takes a fascinating and in-depth look at the relationship and potential motives for the killings of mountain lions and bears in Colorado.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) approved two controversial and highly contested management plans that look at the impact mountain lions and black bears have on mule deer populations. The plan, which was implemented as of this spring, essentially calls for the killing of these predators in the Piceance Basin and Upper Arkansas River areas. It received support from ranchers, hunters, farmers and the USDA, but met with opposition from scientists, conservationists and private citizens. Lawsuits filed by the conservation group WildEarth Guardians and the Center for Biological Diversity argued that land development including residential growth as well as the oil and gas industry has had a much greater impact on deer populations than predators and that a full environmental study should be completed before any killing begins.

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Are mountain lions and bears the latest victims of the oil and gas industry in Colorado? – Image credit – Boulder Weekly

Joel Berger, a wildlife conservation biologist at Colorado State University told the Boulder Weekly that Instead of looking at predation, the agency should be directing its research to other more relevant questions, “such as whether the mule deer populations in question are being limited by habitat quality and food limitation.”

Through this management plan CPW hopes to provide a clear picture of the “effects on mule deer population demographics relative to changes in mountain lion density, as well as to determine their ability to manipulate mountain lion populations through sport-hunting or harvest.” The stress, cruelty and suffering that mountain lions will be subjected to is not lost on those who oppose the plan which includes the use of “cage traps, culvert traps, foot snares and trailing hounds for capture”. As of May 1 efforts have already begun to trap and remove or relocate mountain lions and bears from the Piceance Basin predator control area. Gail Keirn, public affairs official with the United States Department of Agriculture Wildlife Services said that snares were being used to trap live animals and that “CPW would determine what species was snared, if it is female with young or an adult.” Family groups would be relocated, but adult target animals will be killed with a firearm.

USDA’s Wildlife Services will be contracted $50,000 annually to assist in the killing of mountain lions and bears in the Piceance Basin area, rather than hunters, but CPW is unsure if they will use them in the Upper Arkansas River area. Overall the plan aims to kill between “15 and 45 mountain lions and 30 to 75 bears over three years in 500 square miles west of Meeker and Rifle, Colorado, as well as more than half of the mountain lions in 2,370 square miles in the south-central part of the state.” WildEarth Guardians staff attorney, Stuart Wilcox, told the Boulder Weekly that he thinks the predator management plans are being used to divert attention away from the actual cause limiting mule deer populations, which, he believes, is land use regulation. There is also a lack of data on mountain lion and bear numbers in the areas which means they have no population base line making it impossible to determine if these predators are indeed responsible for declining deer numbers or if mountain lions and bears are being “over-killed”. It was also said that CPW did not use part of its mule deer funding from the oil and gas sector to carry out proper population research prior to deciding to order the killing of an unknown part of the mountain lion and bear population.

The killing has bigger consequences in terms of upsetting the balance of the eco-system as well as disrupting the target animals social structure putting males, females and kittens at risk. Kittens risk being orphaned before they are old enough to survive on their own or become victims of infanticide and, when mature mountain lions are removed (killed) it is known to cause more human wildlife conflict as younger and less experienced males move in.

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“The combined cost of the nearly three-year Piceance Basin Predator Management Plan and the nine-year long Upper Arkansas River Predator Management Plan would be $4.6 million dollars“. – Boulder Weekly

There is plenty of oil and gas development in the area where CPW’s predator management plan is taking place and, mule deer naturally range among the equipment which includes drilling rigs and pipelines. While the oil and gas companies have plans to alleviate pressures on wildlife CPW does not have a proper way to determine whether or not these plans will be successful. CPW’s own research showed that oil and gas development is limiting mule deer populations, but despite this arrangements have been made “between the agency and oil and gas companies to conduct the predator-killing efforts on oil and gas company owned land.” Not only did they find the association between a decrease in deer and oil and gas development, but CPW concluded that during an oil and gas boom there were incidents of increased poaching. This is said to be another cause of decreasing deer populations and an additional factor that needs to be fully understand before putting the blame on predators.

The Boulder Weekly points out that CPW did not consider oil and gas impacts on the deer because “sportsmen” didn’t think it was necessary to include it, which is confounding except when it is pointed out that a portion of their research funding comes from hunters or an “excise tax on the sale of firearms and ammunition products.” Hunting quota’s must be increased in order to get more funding – more deer, more money.

The plan to remove predators and methods are disturbing and unscientific especially since there is no accurate population data for mountain lions and, with another gas boom on the horizon in the area it is predicted that deer populations will once again fall as more habitat is destroyed by the industry and poaching increases. This means that mountain lions and bears will become convenient and expendable scapegoats.

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“CPW is required to balance oil and gas extraction with wildlife and its habitats; a balancing act that is proving impossible.” Boulder Weekly

While it is acknowledged that the connection to the oil and gas industry via funding is evident it does not necessarily mean that CPW is “exhibiting funding bias on behalf of the oil and gas industry.” However the Boulder Weekly goes on to say that with regards to the plan to kill mountain lions and bears where CPW’s previous non-oil and gas funded research concluded that “oil and gas extraction and suburban development, not predators” were the main reason for declining deer numbers, does make the plan look highly questionable.

The lawsuits are still pending and in the meantime mountain lions and bears continue to be targeted for declining deer numbers. While our dependency on oil and gas seems here to stay at least for the foreseeable future this leaves us with more to consider on how companies, cities, countries and governments will address the impacts of the industry on both our wildlife and environment.

Excerpts have been taken from the six-part Boulder Weekly series Off Target which can be read in full by following the links.

Cost of Doing Business

Some would say wildlife is priceless, but do the same animals still hold ‘value’ when deemed an inconvenience or in the way of human progress? Take predators for example, who seem to become scapegoats or expendable when their interests and needs conflict with ours. Do we on a subconscious level see them as direct competition for space, food and resources? Can we co-exist with them and share or must we, by our actions or lack of, eliminate the competition?

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Whatever the reason they become one of two things – the forgotten victims, or in some cases the ‘poster animal’ for the cause helping to create awareness and positive change. We now know that everything in our environment is connected and all species including predators are vital for helping maintain a healthy balanced Eco-system. Organizations, researchers and even the average citizen are working harder than ever to ensure that these animals are given a voice and a chance to co-exist despite our continued pressure upon the natural world and their habitat. Along with the encouraging stories of progress we have made, are there cases in which the loss of wildlife is simply another cost of doing business?

A few years ago when I was writing the story about an ocelot who was photographed in the Santa Rita Mountains outside of Tuscon Arizona I started reading up on how a Canadian mining company HudBay Minerals Inc. was planning on building the Rosemont Mine, the third largest open-pit copper mine in the U.S., in the same area where the ocelot was discovered and where later the now famous jaguar El Jefe would be photographed. The discovery of the endangered ocelot would prompt the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to re-evaluate their original report (biological opinion) on the impact of the mine. Conservationists said that there would be no way species like the ocelot and jaguar could survive, or co-exist if their habitat was destroyed by the mine.

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Male ocelot, photographed on May 14, is the fifth to be documented in Arizona over the past five years.

Fish and Wildlife Services would later issue their final biological opinion coming to the conclusion that the mine would cause “significant adverse impacts on many of the species” threatening not only predators but also endangered birds and fish. They went on to say that despite this, the number of measures that would be put in place by the mining company, such as the hiring of biologist to monitor effects on wildlife and creating permanent protected areas of conservation lands, it would “not jeopardize the continued existence of any of the 13 affected listed species” or hamper recovery of species like the jaguar despite destroying part of their habitat.

There has been mixed messages among the agencies tasked with reviewing the mine. An EPA report stated that the mine would have adverse consequences on the water system as well as several endangered species including fish, frogs and birds that reside near local streams. The Army corps of Engineers concluded that any measures taken would not fully make up for the “unavoidable adverse” impact of the mine even with appropriate measures taken. The U.S. Forest Service said that due to the 1872 Mining Law, which is still applicable today, the project cannot be denied.

Government agencies weren’t the only ones in disagreement with each other on the mine and, the value of a single jaguar seemed to be something that divided wildcat conservation groups. Panthera’s CEO, and leading expert on jaguars, Alan Rabinowitz wrote back in 2010 that the occasional cat crossing the border from Mexico does not mean they have established territory or that there is even suitable jaguar habitat left in the U.S. Southwest. His feelings remained the same and he told The Star that other reasons should be found to save the landscape especially when resources are needed elsewhere where the data supports evidence of concrete jaguar recovery. Wildcat researchers Aletris Neils and Chris Bugbee who had been studying El Jefe are on the other side and disagreed saying that every single jaguar was important and that the focus should be on recovery of the species to its former range. They believe jaguars can be brought back to the area and that the public must weigh in on the decision.

In a federally financed three-year study by the University of Arizona study tracing the paths of jaguars and ocelot across Southern Arizona, researchers placed remote cameras at 250 sites across 16 mountain ranges capturing photos of a jaguar, ocelot, bobcat and mountain lion at two sites in the northern Santa Ritas. Both times, all four species were photographed within a 24-hour period, the researchers said. Melanie Culver, the study’s principal investigator and Susan Malusa, the study’s project manager told Tucson online that the habitat in the Santa Rita’s should be protected but they could not fully comment on the proposed mine as it wasn’t part of their study. Malusa said it would change things but they weren’t able to predict how.

David Chambers, an environmental consultant, told The Star that there was no definite answer as to whether the mine was “good or bad and, that it comes down to determining if the economic benefits outweigh the environmental and social costs.” Jessica Moreno of Sky Island Alliance said that not everyone cares about a jaguar named El Jefe. The critical issue of the water permits may be the best way stop the mine.

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El Jefe in 2014 – Image USFWS – As of early 2017 it has been about a year since El Jefe has been seen leading to speculations that something has happened to him or he has returned to Mexico.

Here are a few things to think about. Copper is in everyday items that we use from cars to cellphones, what are we wiling to give up or eliminate from our lives in order to protect our environment and wildlife? Do we invest more heavily in the technology to recycle and reuse existing copper or are we forever stuck having to mine for it and risk diminishing precious Eco-systems for materials like copper? As the human population grows demand for copper and other materials will increase and if it must be mined, who determines where the copper comes from? Kathy Arnold, Rosemont’s director of environment said in the article from The Star that if the demand for copper continues to grow it will have to come from somewhere and with about “30 percent of what we need being imported another country pays the environmental price for our consumption”. She goes on to say that it’s better to have someone like her watching out for the environment than in places where there are less or no proper controls.

What can be expected with a mile-wide, half-mile deep open-pit mine that is set to border the Santa Rita Mountains in the Coronado National Forest? It would bury 3,000 acres of surrounding public land generating more than a billion tons (1.25 billion tons) of toxic mine waste that will be dumped into 700-foot high “earthforms” and, it is expected to require “6,000 acre-feet of water per year”. It is clear that the mine will disturb, stress, disrupt and possibly become an additional form of mortality for wildlife in addition to the impact it would have on the environment, water supply and local people.

According to Rosemont Mine Truth, who continues to monitor this highly controversial project, there is a “possibility that HudBay could mine up to an additional 591 million tons of copper-bearing rock after mining in the pit is completed” further impacting the landscape, threatened and endangered species, water resources and ecotourism.  As it stands now a Clean Water Act permit issued by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and, final approval from the Coronado National Forest are required before construction could begin. A final decision is expected soon.

For updates and details on the mine’s progress, please head over to Rosemont Mine Truth on Facebook.

The Cost of Doing Business continues looking at few other projects elsewhere that are, or have the potential to impact the big cats and wildlife.

Building Walls

Building border walls is not a new concept but the impact they have tends to focus on the human element, of how the walls or fences will be used to keep people out, rather than the toll they take on the environment and wildlife. The first time I was introduced to how fences impact wildlife was many years ago while reading Cry of the Khalahari, which touches on Botswana’s veterinary fences that were erected to “stop the spread foot and mouth disease to cattle” and to meet strict EU regulations for the beef trade. The impact these fences had on wildlife was undeniable and brutal “many wild animals including giraffe, elephant, zebra and many species of antelope, became ensnared, cut off from migratory routes and from vital resources.” In short, many species perished as a direct or indirect result of the fences.

Botswana wasn’t the only country to erect fences for the purpose of protecting livestock, Australia put up a fence in the 1950’s to keep sheep safe from predators like dingos and wild dogs. The fence didn’t work out exactly as planned and it ended up also protecting kangaroos which turned out to be more of a problem for sheep due to the fact that they competed with them for pasture.

More recently the effects of the anti-refugee wall between Slovenia and Croatia was studied. The report showed how the barrier is hurting gray wolves, Eurasian lynx as well as possibly threatening brown bears. Suggestions to help alleviate the pressure at the fences includes: using new alternative forms of high-tech monitoring methods that would allow selected sections of a border to remain unfenced while still providing security; more carefully thought out fence alignment that would reduce it effects; and, design that minimizes the chance of wildlife entanglement and death similar to border fencing that has been “retrofitted between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan to enable the saiga antelope to pass between the two nations.”

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Habitat fragmentation caused by the fence interrupts gene flow and threatens the already small population of Eurasian Lynx – Image Wikipedia

While the report recognizes that many fences are permanent, it says the role of conservationists is critical and that our knowledge and understanding about border fences and their effect on wildlife needs to be improved. Interestingly it was found that in some cases the fences, “may unintentionally actually help conservation by preventing animals from roaming into countries with low degrees of law enforcement, by creating well-guarded spaces where human impact is minimal and by preventing the spread of wildlife diseases.”

Germany’s Cold War barriers of fences and walls that separated East and West later became an accidental nature preserve and is now part of a green belt that runs through central and eastern Europe. In China the Great Wall was found to have no major effect on wildlife as it was not one solid piece of construction but rather consisted of a series of different builds including mounds of pounded earth which later became degraded from use. However, in specific areas where the wall is truly solid a team of Chinese scientists, who conducted a study of plant species on both sides, confirmed that in these areas it was indeed a physical barrier to gene flow.

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Arizona section of the U.S.-Mexico border wall – Via Northern Jaguar Project – Photo by Jay J. Johnson-Castro, Sr.

Connectivity and wildlife is a hot topic these days when it come to urban planning and building roads and freeways, but it is very unlikely that an extension of a wall at at the U.S.-Mexico border would take into account concerns for wildlife, habitat fragmentation, or gene flow for endangered species like the jaguar.  While humans can and will generally find ways around walls, wildlife from snakes and frogs to jaguars, pumas, bob cats and big horn sheep will not be able to move freely. They will be forced to adapt to smaller territories which will ultimately prove deadly to them especially when their access to food, mates and water, is cut off.

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Mountain lion at border wall U.S. Border Patrol – Image Northern Jaguar Project

In 2006 the Secure Fence Act, which was responsible for the 1,000 kilometers of impenetrable barrier along the Mexico–U.S. border, had environmental laws waived for its construction. The impact of these walls on wildlife has been studied along with the effects it has had on the highly endangered ocelot. The solid metal and concrete fence further fragments ocelot habitat and kept the small population in Texas separate from the larger and more genetically diverse population in northern Mexico. Even though there were about 100 openings incorporated in the fence for wildlife they were much to small to allow larger animals like bobcats or coyotes through.

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Ocelot

Wildlife biologist Mitch Sternberg told Nature that “bobcats don’t go out looking for holes in fences as they travel back and forth through brushy habitats. Overall, wildlife connectivity does not exist in these sectors anymore.” It was also noted that there were major shifts in territory due the construction for the 20 bobcats that had been collared and studied. Some simply abandoned their home range and others became trapped on one side of the wall and were eventually killed on highways while looking for new territory.

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Bobcat at US-Mexico wall. Image via Triggerpit.com – Photo: ILCP photographer

In 2014 a report was released that stated the fence had little to no impact on human travel and most native species, however it had a great impact on pumas and coatis. While pumas had greater capability to roam farther in search of territory the fence meant there were less of them. With regards to coatis who are unable to move home ranges easily, researchers concluded that this could lead to a “possible collapse in their populations”. It also pointed to the fact that any impact the wall had on the behavior and populations of pumas and coatis could have serious implications for those species with whom they interact.

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Coati – Image The Dodo – Jamie McCallum University of Bristol – U.S. Mexico Border

It is estimated that the border wall has the potential to impact 111 endangered species, 108 species of migratory bird, four wildlife refuges and fish hatcheries, and an unknown number of protected wetlands.

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Puma – Image The Dodo – Jamie McCallum University of Bristol – U.S. Mexico Border

El Jefe, the male jaguar who caused a stir of excitement when captured on trail camera in  2016 along the Arizona side of the border, would undoubtedly be cut off from any females attempting to come from Mexico. Even though a possible new jaguar has been photographed in the U.S. it is not considered enough to help re-establish the species. Kierán Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity told EcoWatch that “walls don’t stop people from crossing the border, but Trump’s plan would end any chance of recovery for endangered jaguars, ocelots and wolves in the border region.”

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El Jefe, is believed to have crossed the U.S.-Mexico border before making his home in Arizona. (Conservation CATalyst/Center for Biological Diversity)

In December 2016 a conservation plan was released for the jaguar, a species that was systematically exterminated in its former historical habitat, by the USFWS in which they hoped to work more closely with Mexico. The plan, which is supposed to “make it easier for agencies and organizations in the U.S. and Mexico to align their efforts at restoring jaguar habitat along the border” includes keeping corridors intact so the cats can move back and forth freely. The proposed wall along the entire 2,000 mile border with Mexico would essentially be the end to the jaguars recovery in America. It would also be an ecological disaster—ripping populations and fragile ecosystems apart. Louise Misztal, biologist and executive director of conservation non-profit Sky Island Alliance in Arizona tells Motherboard that “wide-ranging mammals like mountain lions, bears, jaguars, ocelots, need to be moving between these different mountain ranges to get to food resources and water.”

Saving predators like jaguars go beyond a feel good story about bringing an endangered species back from the brink – they like other apex predators are invaluable in their ability to help regulate, naturally, other species and the ecosystem in which they reside. When apex predators disappear from the landscape trophic cascades, the top-down regulation of ecosystems by predators which is an essential aspect of ecosystem function and well-being, are disrupted.

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Camera trap data from Arizona found that the wall did not prevent illegal immigrants from crossing into the United States, but wholly stopped wildlife movement. Toad looking through the metal bars of part of the existing border wall. Credit: Anonymous. Image –  Seeker by Dan Millis

A number of groups and organizations have released statements opposing the proposed wall including the National Wildlife Federation and Panthera. Jesse Lasky, an assistant professor of biology at Pennsylvania State University told Live Science that “If Trump’s wall is built, it could push endangered animals and native animals with small habitats over the edge…and If the populations on the border start disappearing, the functioning of these ecosystems could be reduced.” Bryan Bird, director of the Southwest Program for Defenders of Wildlife tells Seeker that “fences are only appropriate directly adjacent to urban areas and should not be used in wildlife corridors or other ecologically sensitive areas” and, alternative monitoring devices, which minimize the impact on wildlife, such as “virtual high-tech fencing options like unmanned aerial vehicles, motion-sensors, laser barriers and infrared cameras ” should be employed to provide security.

In addition to what the wall means for wildlife, the construction of it will have a further impact on human health and the planet as it has the potential to release about “2 million tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.”

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The U.S.-Mexico border is the largest human construction that has been made to divide two countries since the great wall of china.” US-Mexico wall arial – Image via Triggerpit.com – Photo: ILCP photographer

It is widely accepted that it is a negative prognosis for wildlife and ecosystems when man-made barriers are introduced, unfortunately even with this knowledge border walls and fences are on the rise. Wildlife at the current U.S.-Mexico border wall has been documented acting confused and stressed due to their daily routines being disrupted and, without further environmental impact studies, or incorporating designs in fences that allow animals to move through, researchers will not know the extent of damage or long-term implications. Along with undoing decades of conservation efforts and work any new fences will increase the number of species at risk by further isolating them on either side, pushing wildlife like the jaguar and ocelot even more precariously close to extinction while degrading our ecosystems in the process.

Discerning Foxes wear Puma N°5

Animals exist in a completely different sensory world than humans and scents that humans would find offensive or unattractive are often found to be a draw for our four-legged friends. An article in New Scientist recently revealed research by Carnivore Ecologist Max Allen showing gray foxes in California rubbing themselves in “community scrapes” left by male mountain lions.

Discerning foxes wear Puma N°5. While rubbing oneself in puma scent may not sound appealing to us for the fox it could possibly be the equivalent of Chanel N°5 with the added bonus of providing life saving camouflage. Allen tells New Scientist that he was surprised to find foxes frequenting the sites where camera traps had been set up to monitor and film mountain lions. Footage, taken over four years at 26 different sites “revealed the foxes were rubbing their cheeks on bits of ground that had been freshly marked by the mountain lions, often within hours of a big cat’s visit.”

Why are foxes resorting to rubbing Eau de Mountain Lion on them? Coyotes. Foxes are in direct competition with the much larger coyote and are often killed by them, Allen says this is a way for the foxes to evade detection. “Coyotes are very reliant upon smell when hunting and are much bigger than the foxes. The foxes have a hard time fighting back, so they use this to give themselves a chance to escape.” To a coyote if it smells like a puma it must be a puma.

It was found that no other animals, coyotes or bobcats, exhibited this behavior even though they were documented to have visited the community scrapes, but 85% of the foxes did. Predator avoidance seems the most likely explanation and in order to confirm, Allen and his team are planning to tag some gray foxes to determine if puma scents are in fact helping them survive predation.

The Cat that Changed America

P-22 the most famous mountain lion in the world is a both a celebrity and messenger. So far he has managed to: survive the deadly traffic of Los Angeles; stealthily navigate the cities massive urban sprawl taking up residence in an area that represents 3% of a normal size home range for a mountain lion; and, recover from a potentially life-threatening case of rodenticide poisoning. For the most part P-22 has overcome the odds, but his story is a cautionary tale with an important message – one that is explored in the upcoming documentary film The Cat that Changed America.

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The film focuses on P-22, the challenges mountain lions are facing in California and the plan to build the world’s largest wildlife crossing which will help connect mountain lions, and other wildlife, to spaces better suited for them. There is an urgency to get the crossing built as mountain lions are running out of time in California – they are threatened by urban sprawl, inbreeding, vehicles, rat poison and ultimately extinction. If they do not get the help they need now they will most certainly be gone in 50 years

P-22 has helped to create a movement that is shifting our view of mountain lions and, with effort on our part to learn to co-exist with this important keystone species, his story can be a catalyst to help change America and the rest of the world.

In anticipation of the films release I recently spoke to Director Tony Lee about The Cat that Changed America and the role he hopes it will play in helping P-22 and other mountain lions in California.

When you first became aware of P-22, and the crisis facing mountain lions and wildlife in LA, what inspired you to tell his story?

I was struck by how passionate and eloquent the campaigners for the wildlife crossing are, especially Beth Pratt, the California Director for the National Wildlife Federation, and Miguel Ordenana of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. It was actually Miguel who was the first person I spoke to about the story, which is appropriate as he captured the first photograph of P-22 in one of his camera traps in Griffith Park.

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The making of The Cat that Changed America – Behind the scenes stills provided by Tony Lee

Why do you think it is important to make this film now?

I think the film is very timely, as the National Wildlife Federation and the Save LA Cougars campaign are aiming to raise $10 million by the end of 2017 to fund the development of the wildlife crossing, with the long-term goal of completing the crossing in 2021. They need to raise a total over $55 million for this. My film is part of this much larger campaign to raise funds and raise awareness.

How do you see P-22 and his story changing the way Americans, and the world, view mountain lions and their role in a healthy ecosystem?

I chose the title “The Cat that Changed America”, because P-22 has moved the dial in our thinking about where urban wildlife can thrive, especially wildlife as big as a mountain lion. P-22 is living in the middle of the second largest city in the United States, and one of the biggest metropolitan cities in the world. If wildlife is to co-exist alongside us, we also need to change our thinking about what are acceptable places for wildlife to live. We also have a choice of becoming responsible and considerate neighbors, which means changing our consumer lifestyle, thinking about the impact on the countryside and not using rat poisons.

In a feature for the Natural History Network you wrote that this was “an intricate and sensitive story”, as well as a challenging one. What makes P-22’s story different from other wildlife conversation films you have made?

I feel a huge responsibility to tell the story well, and use my knowledge and experience as a filmmaker. Together with Alex Rapaport my cinematographer based in LA, we aimed to tell the story through cinematic language and emotional appeal. This story is different from other conservation films I have made, because it is part of a bigger campaign, and I feel the urgency and the responsibility that comes with that.

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Director Tony Lee with Cinematographer Lance Jeffery

You also mentioned that the 1 hour film was completed in about 3 months. What were some of your biggest challenges making a film about one of the most elusive and shy cats in the world, in such a short time frame?

As a wildlife filmmaker, I know that filming mountain lions, and especially P-22 within the time frame would be nigh impossible. They are called ghost cats for good reason as they are incredibly elusive. So I concentrated on filming the characters connected with the wildlife crossing and studying P-22. For actual mountain lion footage, I relied on existing film captured by Miguel Ordenana and Matthew Whitmire who were part of the Griffith Park Connectivity study, as well as the National Park Service, who had footage and photographs of P-22.

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California Director for the National Wildlife Federation Beth Pratt-Bergstrom

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Wildlife Biologist Miguel Ordenana in Griffith Park

You interviewed researchers, experts and citizens for the film – what about P-22’s supporters has stood out most?

There are so many wonderful quotes and passionate stories in the film; some of the stand outs for me include Miguel’s description of finding the P-22 photograph for the first time, which he likens to discovering ‘Big Foot’. Beth also describes her life changing experience when being shown around Griffith Park by Jeff Sikich and realizing that urban wildlife as big as a mountain lion can live right in the middle of LA. Sherry Ferber’s description on hearing that a mountain lion had been killed on the 101 freeway near her home in Liberty Canyon and how that cemented her bond with these cats, and Poison Free Malibu’s plea to stop using anticoagulant rodenticides as we are poisoning the Earth as well as each other.

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National Park Service wildlife biologist Jeff Sikich

The Cat That Changed America has been accepted at the World International Film Festival in Los Angeles and New York. Are there plans to enter it at the Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival where the conservation focus will be on the big cats?

Yes I absolutely plan to submit it to the 2017 Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival. I actually won the Special Jury Award at Jackson Hole in 2015 (for ‘The Secret Life of Your House’, about animals which live in our homes). The award partly inspired me to make this film about P-22. I’ve already approached the Festival board with panel suggestions for their Wild Cats symposium, with the focus being on connectivity and habitat fragmentation facing wild cats.

How important is it for a wildlife film like this to be seen at film festivals?

I think it’s vital to raise awareness to anyone who is interested in wildlife, and especially to those who are unaware or not so interested. P-22 is a celebrity, but many Los Angelenos and people around the world are still unaware of the serious issues facing mountain lions and how they are suffering from fragmentation, habitat loss and the threat of anticoagulant rodenticides.

Besides the film festival circuit where else will the documentary be available for viewing?

I’m currently talking to distributors and channels about broadcasting after the film festivals. I’m hoping that the popularity created by the festivals will stir broadcaster interest as it has done so with other environmental films such as ‘Blackfish’ and ‘Racing Extinction’.

Was there anything that you learned about mountain lions during the process of making the film that has left you in a position to be a better advocate for the species?

Yes, I didn’t know that male mountain lions need very large home ranges – around 200 square miles – they need to be connected to open spaces, otherwise they will fight to the death over territory. It’s our responsibility as Los Angelenos and considerate neighbors to ensure they have enough space to thrive, otherwise they suffer from the effects of inbreeding and intraspecific killing.

P-22’s celebrity seems to be doing for mountain lions what Elsa the lioness of Born Free did for African lions. How do you see your documentary fitting into a new movement towards helping save North America’s Lion?

I like to think that bringing my 25 years experience as a wildlife and conservation filmmaker will help P-22’s cause and help raise funds for the wildlife crossing. In fact I feel so strongly about this film, it’s the first time I have used my own money to solely finance a feature, because I felt so passionate about getting it made. I’m sure that people will want to watch it, but I also see it as a donation I’ve made to the Save LA Cougars campaign in the way I know how to contribute as a filmmaker. Conservation films have been notoriously difficult to get funded, but I think we are entering a golden age for documentaries, and I’m excited to be part of that movement.

Do you think that P-22’s story will help change attitudes towards mountain lions and how they are viewed and ‘managed’ outside California?

Absolutely. P-22 has been described as a conservation hero and ambassador, and in fact, I’ll be putting him forward in that category at Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival in 2017. A conservation hero doesn’t necessarily have to be a person like E.O. Wilson or David Attenborough, it can be an animal too, and P-22 is the best poster child for urban wildlife and issues of connectivity.

What is the main message about mountain lions in LA, and in general, that you want people to take away from the film?

If we are to coexist with nature, we radically have to change our lifestyle and our way of thinking, and become part of nature, even if we are living in one of the densest urban areas on Earth. Species are disappearing at an alarming rate; we are Nature’s gatekeepers, the responsibility of the planet at this moment in time rests solely in our hands, and P-22’s story and the wildlife crossing truly shows that charity begins at home, right on our doorstep.

HOW YOU CAN HELP

Be sure to visit the films website The Cat that Changed America and share – If there is any story that can help sway people’s interest in helping conserve North America’s lion it’s this one.

If you would like to support the wildlife crossing by making a monetary donation please visit Save LA Cougars

About Producer and Director Tony Lee: Tony is an award-winning filmmaker, television producer and author. Tony has worked in California for 2 years for National Geographic Television and in New York City for Animal Planet. Over his 25 year career, he has produced and directed many programmes in the science and natural history strand for a range of broadcasters. He spends his time between California and England, and has a special interest in big cats. 

When Mountain Lions Are Neighbors

If you are the most famous mountain lion in LA (arguably all of North America), have safely crossed two of the busiest freeways in the U.S., been immortalized in a now iconic photo in front of the Hollywood sign by Steve Winter, and, have become the spokes cat for your species and the center of a national campaign to help wildlife, you would think that you had nothing left on your list to accomplish. If however you happen to be P-22, it’s only logical that you end up gracing the cover of a book.

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The enormous pressure wildlife faces from humans and human development means they either learn to adapt to survive or, as we have seen with many creatures, vanish. We are bombarded almost on a daily basis with these negative and depressing stories which for many, including myself, can be very overwhelming. Instead of focusing on those aspects which we often feel helpless to change, When Mountain Lions Are Neighbors does the exact opposite by highlighting the inspirational – what is being done to help wildlife and what can work if we decide to take action. Today it is not only the scientist and researcher making a difference it is people like you and me, the everyday citizen who will ultimately play a key role in helping wildlife prosper and survive.

Being one of my most anticipated reads of this year, I reached out to author and California Director for the National Wildlife Federation (NWF), Beth Pratt-Bergstrom to talk more about her book, wildlife in California, the handsome cover boy P-22 and the campaign to get the worlds largest wildlife crossing built.

Lets start off with where you at with the Save LA Cougars Campaign (which for readers who don’t know is the national campaign to raise funds to build a safe and desperately needed wildlife crossing at LA’s 101 freeway)

It is going forward, the crossing is going to get built and there is a lot going on. Right now we are at the planning and compliance stage, which is funded through early 2017. We need to raise 10 million by middle of 2017, then balance by mid 2019 to have the crossing built by 2021.

We are having P-22 Day and Urban Wildlife Week October 16 through to the 22 to raise awareness for the crossing fundraiser and to announce leadership gifts – big online fundraising. Before hand I will be hiking the same route P-22 took (40-miles) from the Santa Monica Mountains to where he has been living in Griffith Park. This event will be a big milestone in the Save LA Cougars campaign.

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If you live in LA be sure to check out P-22 Day and Urban Wildlife Festival October 16-22 – Image P-22 Mountain Lion of Hollywood Facebook.

Interestingly there has been a study released that has confirmed what we have been saying – there is empirical evidence that if we don’t do something now and help mountain lions in California, in 50 years it certain they will go extinct. So it’s like ‘we told you so’ it’s both good and bad, we have to get the crossing built we have no time to lose. The best worst case scenario is mountain Lions go extinct in 50 years if we don’t, this is based on facts from modeling but it doesn’t take into account other mountain lion fatalities from vehicles and rodenticides poisoning. In the case of rodenticides people are seeing what mountain lions and other animals have suffered and want to make change. In California there is something here, a value and call to action, and I hope other people in other places can do the same.

When Mountain Lions Are Neighbors is positive in its message and very accessible – meaning anyone can read it. How important were these aspects when you were writing the book?

The goal was to make it about the positive as all of us are exposed to so much of the negative, I get battered down with the bad news, so I wanted it to focus on what was working and how you get people inspired. For instance, I was inspired by Born Free and being taken whale watching by my dad – It is the good news that inspires people. This also helps getting people who aren’t already converted as it is easy to get burnt out.

It was also important to make it accessible –  not academic. We want people to learn about science, but we do this by tricking them into learning about it. It is difficult for science based organizations like NWF and researchers to be non-scientific like when I first mentioned to National Park Service wildlife biologist Jeff Sikich about ‘P22 dating’ he said please they (mountain lions) don’t date…but they eventually got it..that it makes it easier for to the average person to relate to the predicament P-22 is in, which is the lonely bachelor looking for love.

Besides being an awesome cover boy, mountain Lion P-22 plays a major role in the book

The book is actually the reason why I work on the Save LA Cougars Campaign – it was a very different book initially, then when P22 came on the scene it changed the whole book. I thought that this was the story it was about urban interface. P-22 shouldn’t be where he is but I had this great epiphany – who am I to judge if this is the only way the cat can live? We need to share our human spaces with wildlife, if we don’t share our spaces they aren’t going to be here. The study of wildlife in urban environments say they are stressed…but so are people! it doesn’t mean that wildlife can’t live there. This is a big shift and it’s catching ground a lot, LA is leading the way. I use it as a challenge – if LA can do it what’s anyone’s excuse.

P22 is a modern lion in many ways, including being socially savvy, he fits perfectly into a media obsessed culture

He is the reason that the film The Cat that changed America is being made. The headline is a modern story that people can relate to on social media, it is about having a day-to-day relationship with wildlife and he has shown that wild predators can live rather peacefully with us. People can relate to P-22, it has set this model and the world has been watching. In my mind he is the cat that changed the world, people are asking ‘what’s going on in LA with a mountain lion…and they are OK with this?’.

He is figuring out how to adapt to human interface  – not every mountain lion could be this successful in Griffith Park, but P-22 is a modern cat and has worked it out. He also shows us they are individuals and have personalities like people and that is a game changer, he is the right cat for the right time to be an ambassador for his species. You have P-22 who has adapted to LA, and LA who has adapted, and for the two to coincide is remarkable.

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P22 last year looking good after recovering from a bad case of mange – Photo National Park Service

There is the message in the book that mountain lions aren’t the big scary threat that media so often makes them out to be

I am all for anthropomorphism, they are not exactly like us but they are like us, however there is a balance  –  we want people to be familiar with their typical behavior but also know when to be scared. We want people to learn about them and to know that mountain lions aren’t waiting ready to jump out of the woods at any moment at people. If you become familiar with these animals and build a relationship that is a good thing. I think that’s where science has done a disservice in the traditional mode in teaching us that they are just as numbers, but you don’t want to go to far into familiarity and have people feeding them and petting them or thinking they are pets – they are not pets.

So it’s a fine balance and we want the public to establish a relationship with them but doing this by maintaining a distance recognizing that and respecting that they are wild animals as well. We tend to go to far down either extreme when we over-estimate or underestimate the risk – they are cute or they are vicious murderers – no they are not in fact, they rather not eat us. It’s a fine balance that we need to strike if wildlife is going to have a future – it can’t be hands off and it can’t be that we are in utter terror all the time.

Predators like mountain lions were demonized by the first settlers, why do you think that mentality still exists even when we know more about them today?

I try to sympathize with people who didn’t know anything about them. I live in mountain lion country, every wild animal that lives in California is in my yard, bears, bobcats, mountain lions, foxes, etc…but I live in a secure house, have a fenced yard and I don’t have a farm. So I sympathize to a point and I get why it was dark and scary at the time of the first settlers, although if they had listened to Native Americans it would have been different.

If you don’t know about mountain lion behavior and see a snarling cat near you although he is probably not a danger, you are going to think he is. I think it (fear) is innate in some people, however most are fascinated and in awe with wildlife  – seeing wildlife is remarkable for most people. I don’t know why at this point the fear still exits giving the relative comfort we live in and the given the risks we should be frightened of everyday… we actually should be shuttering in our feet everyday about cars more than mountain lions. It is a very emotional thing, wolves are also a great example of how these myths have persisted. They have been demonized for no reason and this hatred has persisted even though when you look at rate of attacks on humans which is almost nothing and livestock depredation rates disease and domestic dogs take out more.

We are creating new myths and P-22 is part of that story telling, that is what matters now. We have science to back it up, but how we actually feel about predators like P-22 matters more than the science so he is forging new grounds for mountain lions.

Your book (and Heart Of A Lion by William Stolzenburg) are part of a new movement giving people a new way to look at these animals

There is a whole new genre about animals in general it is really challenging preconceptions about what an animal is  – books pointing to science telling us what many of already know. I am a person of science so you do want the rigorous science but I am glad it’s coming out. Look at Black Fish, that was science based and looked what happened the Sea world model collapsed and people look at killer whales differently. Challenging the preconceived notion that animals just eat and mate and have no emotional lives beyond that – it’s basically what animal lovers already knew but it’s great to have the science behind it.

Your book features a lot of other wildlife in California as well as how people are helping

P-22 is definitely the lead story but I could have done 10 volumes because there are so many great stories. The take away is the wildlife crossing is a grand sweeping and visionary, it will be the largest in the world when built – other stories illustrate what stuff  you can do in your backyard and business, it’s not just all about grand projects – we collectively make a difference for wildlife doing some easy things. For example the Facebook Foxes, they made a home on campus for the foxes and it is one of my favorite stories. They don’t pet or feed them but they just accepted them as part of the campus and the foxes have adapted are comfortable, it’s a success story.

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Move fast and fox trot – (photo credit @mzajko) Facebook Foxes page

Another favorite story is the Marine Core who raise baby desert tortoise and train 30,000 Marines a year on tortoise conservation when they come through boot camp. So many simple stories like city of Martinez who let the beavers stay…regular citizens doing things, it shows it’s simple things we can do collectively to make a huge difference for wildlife. We are restoring habitat in our own backyards that has been lost and the conservation impact on that can be high if we all do it.

Like Leo Politi Elementary the school that transformed a concrete pad into a wildlife friendly habitat, it’s a great story – save wildlife and ourselves. It’s like if mountain lions disappear and the Eco-system is out of whack and what’s next – we have collapse. The school built a community and it benefited kids, test scores went up and their health improved and even their parents got involved – it built a community. It connected wildlife and people they are the perfect illustration of how all of it works together.

The message is people in California want wildlife in their cities, but other cities are doing things to like Chicago who passed an ordinance to looking at non-lethal solution for urban coyotes, Austin Texas where the NWF has a community wildlife certification program, Baltimore is a certified wildlife city doing a lot with city gardening. I think there are a lot of signs of hope and it seems to be catching on, lets hope it becomes a real movement.

What is up next now that your book is out and P-22 Day is scheduled?

My job is a mix of programs, research, fundraising and continuing working on projects for cougars, foxes, pika, fissures and frogs to push more initiatives forward and help to fundraise. My sweet spot is engaging people and getting out in the field, I want to be out there to get people involved, but the biggest project is getting the crossing built but we are going to get there.

Will I write another book? I’d love to, as I have many more stories, it will just be under different circumstances when I have more time!

What are your personal experiences with mountain lions?

I have seen them four times, most out while hiking, but I have been very lucky and seen one collard and up close. My favorite sighting was one with parents who moved 2 miles down the road from me. My mom has a bird bath and one night they called me up to say they saw a mountain lion take a drink from the bird bath and I said no they don’t do that in full view people, this happens for 2 nights. On the third night I go back and sure enough there the cat was! It was remarkable but sad as the drought at the time was so bad that he had to go to a house in daylight to drink. He wanted nothing to do with us, he just wanted water.

Finally what are your thoughts mountain lions outside of California

I see signs of hope that other places are recognizing the importance and benefits of predators like mountain lions and wolves but there is still  a long way to go, but I am seeing signs of hope. Wildlife is also making tentative first steps (like the cat that is profiled in Heart of A Lion) my hope is that other places come to the realization that it is possible to live among predators, we can achieve balance and they need to be an integral part of the landscape for Eco-system health.

Values are shifting and we will get there for practical reason like the study that shows if you bring mountain lions back you can help prevent Lyme disease. I am hopeful even though it is sometimes hard, but I do think people no matter where you live, have an awe and connection to wildlife that will prevail at some point.

I really do think views are changing we already see that in some places and, I think this will be a non-issue in 50 to 100 years in most places.

When Mountain Lions Are Neighbors is an inspirational and educational read. It is filled with interesting accounts and stories (including what African Lion poop has to do with bears in Yosemite) for the dedicated city-dweller or nature lover, no matter you live. It is part of my Recommended Reading List and can be purchased at online retailers like Amazon.

If you are looking for ways to support the wildlife crossing you can make a donation to the Save LA Cougars campaign. If you live in LA be sure not to miss P-22 Day Festival and Urban Wildlife week October 16-22.

Heart of A Lion – A Lone Cat’s Walk Across America

On June 11, 2011 a mountain lion was struck and killed by a car in Connecticut, for most his death would go unnoticed, a cat that was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, another causality of urbanization. For scientists his death would eventually reveal an incredible and ultimately tragic journey, while giving hope to the idea that mountain lions could one day reclaim their former territory in the Eastern U.S. where they have been considered officially extinct for decades. For wildlife journalist and author William Stolzenburg this young male mountain lion would become the extraordinary and unlikely hero of his book Heart of A Lion.

Heart of a Lion A Lone Cat's Walk Across America, William Stolzenburg, Mountain Lions, Pumas, Eastern Cougar, Book Review, Heart of a Lion, big cats of north america, American Lion, save pumas, Mountain Lions journey to find love,The mountain lion, who has been nicknamed Walker, was discovered to have journeyed almost 2,000 miles from South Dakota’s Black Hills all the way to Connecticut, not that far from New York City. Through DNA analysis, physical evidence left behind, eyewitness accounts and camera traps, biologists were able to trace his origin back to the Black Hills. His journey, which is the longest documented of any mountain lion, would come to an end in a place where his species had not been seen in almost a century.

Heart of A Lion pieces together Walkers short but extraordinary life as he made his way across dangerous and challenging territory complete with urban sprawl, busy roads, and, people who would want him dead simply for existing. The reason for his journey can be found coded in his DNA, the deep biological need to seek out and establish his own territory and, to find a mate. This search would take him east across six U.S. states, and at one point north into Canada and my home province of Ontario. What he couldn’t have known is that he would never encounter a female. With no established mountain lion populations in the east and the fact that females do not undertake long distance journey’s, instead sticking close to their home range (there has been one documented exception), Walker’s search would sadly prove futile.

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“The first photographic evidence of a cougar in Wisconsin that would eventually travel all the way to Connecticut. This photo was taken by an automatic camera in a cornfield in Dunn county, Wis. on December 22, 2009.” Credit: Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources via LiveScience

The saying To walk a mile in someone’s shoes, comes to mind when reading Heart of A Lion and I don’t think it makes a difference that in this case the someone happens to be a mountain lion, especially if his story helps readers identify with and feel empathy for him and the plight of his species.  Despite traversing his way through highly populated areas he would rarely come into contact with humans, revealing himself only to a lucky few, a testament to the elusive nature of his species. He did not bring harm to nor was he a threat to humans, and he was most definitely not the blood-thirsty killer that mountain lions are so often wrongly labeled as. Walker’s story sends us a message and it’s one that we have heard before – that co-existing with these cats is possible and in some places we are already doing that.

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“A cougar from the Black Hills of South Dakota prowls forest land in Clark County, Wis., Automatic trail camera snapped this early-morning shot on January 18, 2010. In June 2011, the same cougar was hit by a car and killed in Connecticut, DNA tests showed. The cougar’s  journey from South Dakota to Connecticut blew previous cougar travel records out of the water.” Credit: Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources via LiveScience

Heart of A Lion doesn’t rely on portraying these cats as the stereotypical ‘beast’ to tell an intriguing story. Instead, it shows us a side of these animals that rarely makes headlines, the side that research and science is discovering is the norm rather than the exception – mountain lions are shy cats who avoid humans when given the space and opportunity to do so.

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Walker’s journey came to an abrupt end on Wilbur Cross Parkway, Milford in June, 2011. (Courtesy Connecticut State Police)

In addition to the main story the book also explores the history of the mountain lion, including how they were treated as vermin, right up to present day and the pressures they face from current day hunting policies. The book is guaranteed to stir up emotions, which may be a good thing especially if gets people thinking and pushes us towards changing outdated attitudes towards North America’s lion. It’s OK to celebrate Walker’s journey and mourn his passing, I know I did.

Whether you already love mountain lions or you are just starting to learn about them, the book is an important read and a new way of looking at these amazing animals, one that I hope becomes a trend. Heart of a Lion can be purchased at various online retailers including Amazon and is part of my Recommended Reading List.

An interesting note is the story of a GPS collard female mountain lion named Sandy who was being studied by biologists in British Columbia. Sandy had made a never before documented journey for a female walking 450 miles from BC to Montana before her life was taken by a trophy hunter in December of 2015. Just how far she would have gone and where she would have ended up, will never be known.