Should the East Embrace Mountain Lion Expansion?

whitetailed doe

A white-tailed doe in North Carolina. Note the lack of understory.

When I attended public meetings regarding elk and deer hunting, it was common for managers to ask attendees what it was that they wanted. In a nutshell, the responses could be summed up in one word regardless of the species—more. More deer, elk, bears, moose, bighorns, pronghorn. Not only more, but bigger too. When regulations were proposed to reduce a particular herd in a given area, it was almost always met with strong resistance, notwithstanding the reasons for the proposal. Concepts like carrying capacity were seldom seen as justification to the guy who didn’t get his deer last year.

In the eastern US, this concept has been carried too far, and not just by hunters. That whole other side, those who oppose hunting for whatever reason, are just as guilty as hunters in promoting one species to the detriment of most others. That species is white-tailed deer.

If you have never been east of the Mississippi, you are missing a whole different world ecologically. The forests are mostly deciduous and thick with native underbrush. Hunters rarely have the opportunity to shoot more than 30 yards, making it a bowhunting paradise.

Or, at least that is the way it is supposed to be. In many locations, white-tailed deer have changed that. They have become so numerous that native vegetation has been mown down and exotics and unpalatable species like ferns have proliferated. It is not uncommon to find forests where a hunter can now shoot at 150 yards or more.

White-tailed deer numbers skyrocketed for a number of reasons. After near decimation over 100 years ago, laws protecting the deer started the recovery. Forests logged for their timber came back with thick undergrowth that deer preferred. Deer from established herds were transplanted to other areas. And deer found out that cities and suburbs were great habitat where their only real remaining predator, man, could not hunt them (bears, lynx, bobcats, and coyotes all kill deer on occasion, but rarely enough to control them). With terrific habitat and no predation, deer numbers soared.

This became a problem by the 1980s and efforts to reduce deer numbers began. But people couldn’t grasp the concept of carrying capacity any more there than here. People loved to see the deer and any control was seen as inhumane. And white-tailed deer began to degrade the habitat for other species and not just themselves. At least nine eastern states have over one million deer each. Alabama has possibly the most liberal deer season, allowing one deer a day for a month-long season and has a spring season as well. Hunters still can’t control the deer population.

The Izaak Walton League reported in 2016, “The U.S. Forest Service found that when deer exceed 20 per square mile, cerulean warblers, pewees, indigo buntings, least flycatchers, and yellow-billed cuckoos can no longer survive. At 38 deer per square mile, phoebes and even robins disappear. (In his eastern project areas, DeNicola [Owner of a Non-profit company that helps to control deer numbers] routinely deals with 100 deer per square mile.) Ground nesters, including wild turkeys, ruffed grouse, wood-cock, ovenbirds, and whippoorwills, can nest successfully in ferns. But as adults, these birds need thick cover, so they take a huge hit from predators when deer denude the understory.”

This same scenario applies to small mammals and other critters that depend upon the understory for cover and for food. Just imagine the consequences that are already developing—for instance, with so many bird species in trouble because of the deer, who is eating all the forest pests?

Enter the eastward expanding cougar population. In western populations, an average lion kills between 30 and 40 deer a year. Using these numbers, experts believe that an established lion population in the east could reduce deer density by as much as 22% over 30 years. Ecologists predict that once deer numbers are stabilized near carrying capacity, damaged forests could regenerate within 20-30 years. That is great news, but it is still 60 years distant if the lions started today.

As we have seen with wolf predation in Yellowstone, where aspen stands and river bottoms are recovering since wolves were re-introduced and changed elk behavior, it is about more than just killing deer. Animals that are experiencing predation spend more time looking over their shoulder and less time foraging. They change their habits, thus reducing pressure on the habitat, and the stress of predation can reduce deer fertility.

Without predation control, eastern deer numbers may eventually control themselves through diseases easily transmitted with high population numbers. Very serious and long-lasting diseases like chronic wasting disease, could literally depopulate entire areas and place humans at risk. Lions seem like a far better option that that.

Help Idaho Wildlife

When we traveled across the state in October 2017, most of the vehicles we saw using the wildlife management areas did not have wildlife plates. Buying wildlife plates is a great way for non-hunters and hunters alike to support wildlife-based recreation like birding.

C'mon folks, let's help Idaho's wildlife by proudly buying and displaying a wildlife license plate on each of our vehicles! 

See below for information on Idaho plates. Most states have wildlife plates so if you live outside Idaho, check with your state's wildlife department or vehicle licensing division for availability of state wildlife plates where you live. 

And tell them that you heard about it from!

Wildlife License Plates

Idaho Wildlife license plates provide essential funding that benefits the great diversity of native plants and wildlife that are not hunted, fished or trapped—over 10,000 species or 98% of Idaho’s species diversity. Game species that share the same habitats (such as elk, deer, antelope, sage-grouse, salmon, trout) also benefit from these specialty plates.

No state tax dollars are provided for wildlife diversity, conservation education and recreation programs. Neither are any revenues from the sale of hunting or fishing licenses spent on nongame species. Instead, these species depend on direct donations, federal grants, fundraising initiatives—and the Idaho Wildlife license plates.

Both my vehicles have Bluebird Plates. I prefer the bluebird because the nongame program gets 70 percent of the money from bluebird plates, but only 60 percent of the money from elk and trout plates - 10 percent of the money from elk plates supports wildlife disease monitoring and testing programs (to benefit the livestock industry) and 10 percent from cutthroat plates supports non-motorized boat access.

Incidentally, in 2014, the Idaho Legislature denied the Department of Fish and Game the ability to add new plates or even to change the name of the elk and cutthroat plates (very specific) to wildlife and fish plates, a move that would have allowed for changing images occasionally and generating more revenue. It would seem that they believe that we Idahoans don't want a well funded wildlife program.

I think it is time we let the Legislature know that Idahoan support wildlife funding and that we would like to see these generic plates come to fruition.

"WOW. What a phenomenal piece you wrote. You are amazing." Jennifer Jackson

That is embarrassing, but actually a fairly typical response to my nature essays. Since The Best of Nature is created from the very best of 16 years of these nature essays published weekly in the Idaho Falls Post Register (online readership 70,000), it is a fine read. It covers a wide variety of topics including humorous glimpses of nature, philosophy, natural history, and conservation. Readers praise the style, breadth of subject matter and my ability to communicate complex and emotional topics in a relaxed and understandable manner.

Everyone can find something to love in this book. From teenagers to octogenarians, from the coffee shop to the school room, these nature essays are widely read and enjoyed.

Some of the essays here are my personal favorites, others seemed to strike a chord with readers. Most have an important message or lesson that will resonate with you. They are written with a goal to simultaneously entertain and educate about the wonderful workings of nature. Some will make you laugh out loud and others will bring a tear to the eye and warm your heart.

Readers Write:

"You hit a home run with your article on, Big Questions in Nature. It should be required reading for everyone who has lost touch with nature...great job!" Joe Chapman

"We enjoyed your column, Bloom Where Planted. Some of the best writing yet. The Post Register is fortunate to have your weekly columns." Lou Griffin.

To read more and to order a copy, click here or get the Kindle version 


Copies are also available at:

Post Register

Island Park Builders Supply (upstairs)

Barnes and Noble in Idaho Falls

Harriman State Park, Island Park

Museum of Idaho

Valley Books, Jackson Wyoming

Avocet Corner Bookstore, Bear River National Wildlife Refuge, Brigham City, Utah

Craters of the Moon National Monument Bookstore, Arco, Idaho