During a time when most wild animals are experiencing decline in the face of development and climate change, the intrepid mountain lion also known as a puma, a cougar, and by many other names – has experienced reinvigoration as well as expansion of territory. What makes this cat, the fourth carnivore in the food chain just ahead of humans – so resilient and resourceful? And what can conservationists and wild life managers learn from them about the web of biodiversity that is in desperate need of protection? Their story is fascinating for the lessons it can afford the protection of all species in times of dire challenge and decline.
With hands-on experience in both the Rocky Mountains and the wilds of Patagonia in South America, wildlife manager Jim Williams tracks the path of the puma, and in doing so, challenges readers to consider humans’ role in this journey as well as what commitment to nature and conservation means in this day and age.
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About the Author
Joe Glickman was the author of Fearless: One Woman, One Kayak, One Continent (Falcon Guide, 2012), The Kayak Companion (Storey, 2003), and To the Top (Northword, 2003). Glickman's work has appeared in The New York Times, The Daily News, Newsday, The Village Voice, Outside, Men's Journal, Inside Sports, Adventure Cyclist, Runner's World, US, EcoTraveler, The Paddler, Sea Kayaker, Women's Sports & Fitness, and Brooklyn Bridge. He co-wrote (with Allen Barra) That's Not the Way It Was, a book about myths in sports.
A wildlife biologist who studied mountain goats and grizzlies in the Rockies, elephants in Africa, and whales in the world's oceans, Doug Chadwick also writes about natural history, conservation, and wildlife around the world, from right whales in the sub-Antarctic to snow leopards in the Himalayas, producing close to fifty articles for National Geographic magazine. In addition, he has written thirteen books about wildlife and conservation, including The Wolverine Way, Tracking Gobi Grizzlies, Yellowstone to Yukon and the lead chapter in Crown of the Continent: The Wildest Rockies, a photographic celebration of the region's wildlife and scenic majesty.
Read an Excerpt
During the 1980s, wolves trotted south from Canada into neighboring Glacier National Park in Montana and became the first to survive in the US West for half a century. The little colony grew, split, and grew some more. By the early 2000s, offshoots roamed much of the northwestern corner of the state. Many folks were thrilled to have these new-old residents back adding untamed music to the great outdoors. A lot of other Montanans wanted the packs eradicated. Some days, it seemed that about all anybody around here did any more was argue over wolves.
On one of those days, a biologist working for Montana’s Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Parks looked out his office window to find the street lined with outraged, placard-waving big game hunters convinced that wolves were going to eat up all the state’s elk and deer. That biologist was the regional game manager, Jim Williams. You wouldn’t have wanted his job just then.
We met to talk not long afterward. It was just a casual chat, but it changed my view of the balance of wild lives in the landscapes around us when he told me, “Hardly anyone realizes that there are two or even three times as many cougars as wolves out in those woods and mountainsides. Now, the average cougar is bigger than the average wolf and consumes more wild meat than a wolf does. Cougars occasionally injure or kill humans. Wolves almost never do. Yet here we are dealing with outbreaks of near-hysteria over wolves while we don’t hear much at all from the general public about cougars. Why? Mainly because the big cats are so good at not being seen.”
Also known as the mountain lion or puma, the cougar is a stalk-and-ambush predatora spring-loaded embodiment of stealth. Unlike the wolf, it seldom travels in a group, doesn’t conduct nightly choruses, prefers to keep to thick vegetation or broken terrain, readily climbs to find seclusion high among the branches of trees, and often drags its kill away from a conspicuous site to dine in a hidden nook. As if those traits weren’t secretive enough, this hunter is mostly active at night and in the twilight hours. Not surprisingly, another common name for the cougar is ghost cat.
I first ran into Jim Williams many years ago a dozen miles east of the Continental Divide. He was a graduate student tracking cougars across the windy slopes of the Rocky Mountain Front with the help of radio collars. Although his career as a wildlife biologist led him to work with a variety of different animals, he rarely passed up any opportunity to go off chasing ghosts. Every time we got together, I would start off wondering whether I was going to hear more cougar news, new findings about the ecology of other species, insights about the social and political forces that influence game management, or a tale from his latest backcountry trip to climb one of the area’s high summits.
Invariably, given his boundless enthusiasm plus a fondness for coffee, every one of those subjectsand moregot covered before he left. The pages of this book deliver much the same Jim Williams high-octane combo of science, adventure, and conservation. But here the mix is all related to his decades-long pursuit of a special interest in cougars, with each chapter uncovering more aspects of the lives the big cats work so hard to conceal.
Of all the large mammals in the western hemisphere, this feline, Puma concolor, is the most widespread. Its distribution extends from Canada’s southern Yukon Territory all the way to Argentina and Chile. And in the second half of the book, Jim takes us to that far southern range as he joins researchers in ecosystems where the cougars’ neighbors include ocelots, maned wolves, guanacos, vicunas, and condors.
In North America, we think of cougars as being tied to the mountains and canyons out West. For the most part, they are. However, two centuries ago, their range sprawled from coast to coast. Cougars were exterminated from most of it by government-supported campaigns that relied heavily on poisoned baits. Harder to find than wolves and grizzlies, the last cats left in remote and rugged terrain escaped the continuing persecution aimed at those other large predators. Then, as the decades passed and attitudes toward meat-eating wildlife changed, cougar numbers started to rally across the western states. Puma concolor being the creature you don’t know is there treading whisper-soft in the shadows, the resurgence of this major predator through the late twentieth century never got much attention, but it stands as one of the most remarkable wildlife comebacks in US history.
The party may just be getting started. Because adult cougars are fiercely territorial, young animalsespecially malesapproaching sexual maturity are forced out of fully occupied ranges. This pressure disperses cats far and wide in search of new homes with suitable cover, abundant prey, and, with luck, a mate. Some find their needs met in rural and suburban habitats where adaptable species such as white-tailed deer, raccoons, and wild turkeys provide ready meals. In recent years, cougars have appeared in various Midwest states and as far east as Missouri and even Connecticut.
These cats are like emissaries from the raw landscapes out West, probing the rest of the nation, showing us where patches of wildness remain, and bringing a fuller dimension of wildness to them. It’s as if they’re testing to find out just what folks have in mind when they say they want to preserve natural settings. How natural? How toothy?
Don’t cougars pose a potential risk to us? Yes. But so do predator-less deer. Biologists have pointed out how restoring cougars to portions of the eastern United States could reduce overpopulated herds responsible for the spread of tick-borne diseases and for collisions with vehicles that leave many drivers injured, some permanently disabled, and more than a few dead. Here is the one formidably big, strong predator skilled enough at avoiding notice to live near surprisingly high numbers of peopleif allowed to stay. We’ll find out if that will happen. And judging from the way cougars keep pushing eastward from the Rockies and the Black Hills of South Dakota, I’d bet on sooner rather than later.
In the vast wetlands of southern Brazil’s Pantanal, a breeding pair once emerged from a gallery forest and stopped perhaps fifty feet away from me, nuzzling each other. The short fur of their coats, suited to the tropics, lay plastered against their skin by the moist air, revealing every underlying muscle of their bodies. For once, it was the cougars that were in plain view and the human who wasn’t, for I had been sitting very still beneath a tangle of leaves to keep watch on a path often used by jaguars, the Americas’ other great cats. A jaguar did come later that afternoon, but it’s the two cougars I remember, each the most perfectly sculpted balance of grace and power I had ever seen.
To be able to introduce a book about this species is a privilege, especially a book by my fellow Montanan Jim Williams. As of this writing, he’s busy as ever managing wildlife hereand periodically disappearing into some nearby chain of peaks, the pampas of Argentina’s Patagonia region, or a new national park in Chile to follow big stealthy cats.
– Douglas H. Chadwick, April 30, 2017
Table of ContentsForeword by Doug Chadwick
Chapter 1 The Chase
Chapter 2 Finding the Wild
Chapter 3 The Front
Chapter 4 In the Beginning There Was Brazil
Chapter 5 Cows Not Condos
Chapter 6 The Crown of the Continent
Chapter 7 Oh Caribou
Chapter 8 Citizen Science
Chapter 9 There's a Lion in My Backyard
Chapter 10 Down South, Way Down South
Chapter 11 Welcome to the End of the World
Chapter 12 Altered Landscape of Dreams
Chapter 13 Ranching for Wildlife
Chapter 14 Pumas Below Aconcagua
Chapter 15 Pumas and Penguins at the End of the World
Chapter 16 Kodkods and Other Cool Cats
Chapter 17 Rewilding Patagonia
Chapter 18 Road to the Park at the Bottom of the World
Chapter 19 Arcilio the Puma Tracker
Chapter 20 A Trophic Cascade of Colorful Creatures
Chapter 21 Montanagonia
What People are Saying About This
"Wild America - rugged, remote, rich with wildlife. But also highly urbanized, criss-crossed with roads, fences, and towns. Jim Williams brilliantly showcases this contrast of tame and untamed - and the possibility still contained within it - through the eyes of the puma on its journey across the Americas." Julie Kunen, Vice President of the Americas Program, Wildlife Conservation Society