A 16-year-running study aimed at understanding mountain lions will soon cease to operate as it does today because of what cougar biologists describe as political pressure.
Federal and state permits that allow Panthera’s Teton Cougar Project to capture and collar lions and enter onto wildlife winter range otherwise off limits are set to expire in December. Mark Elbroch, who directs the project, said that he was told well ahead of time by the Wyoming Game and Fish Department and Bridger-Teton National Forest that this year would be his last operating as he has in the past.
“The reasons why are clearly politics,” Elbroch said. “The real issue is about access to closures that the public does not have access to. And there are members of the public who feel that nobody should have access if they don’t have access. It’s kind of like high school playground rules — if we can’t do it, you can’t.
“We are, in my opinion, doing a public service, because no one else is doing the work,” Elbroch said. “So it’s frustrating that we can’t get beyond certain political barriers.”
Private landowners in the Gros Ventre River drainage, Elbroch said, have been the most persistent and influential parties voicing their displeasure.
Gros Ventre Wilderness Outfitters owner and rancher Brian Taylor said that he’s glad that the Cougar Project will soon be off the winter landscape.
“I just think that they overstepped their bounds here a little bit,” said Taylor, who also presides over the Jackson Hole Outfitters and Guides Association. “And the Game and Fish and anyone in authority think that, too. They got out of control.
“The outfitters, we kind of backed off last winter because we knew last winter was the last year,” he said. “As an organization, we felt like they’ve learned enough. ... It was time to see them go. It was good, I thought.”
The descendent of one of Jackson Hole’s oldest ranching families, Taylor alleged that Teton Cougar Project personnel have stashed antlers in winter, pushed elk off natural range onto private land and been loose in abiding to the terms of their permits.
Elbroch denied the charges.
“We have such a small footprint,” he said. “It’s always on foot and it’s in and out. What we’re doing is going to places where an animal has been killed.”
Bridger-Teton specialists who have dealt with the Cougar Project and their permits were unable to be reached for an interview by press time.
The leadership of the Jackson regional Game and Fish office said that they’ve been a “sounding board” for landowners and hunters disgruntled about Teton Cougar Project’s winter operations.
The state’s concerns about the Cougar Project stem from the public perception of the study and the researchers’ effects on species like elk, Regional Wildlife Coordinator Doug Brimeyer said. Chalking the permitting decision up to politics alone is “short sighted,” he said.
“There’s been discussions about the merits of the study and the impacts associated with the study on other species,” Brimeyer said. “It’s been a real struggle for us over the years. We’ve encouraged them to do research and finish research over the last few years to bring to closure the entirety of the whole study.”
The Teton Cougar Project, which started in 2000 under Howard Quigley and Maurice Hornocker, isn’t going away entirely.
The plan, Elbroch said, is to continue the local work using “noninvasive” research techniques that don’t require Game and Fish permits. The Forest Service, he said, has indicated it would support their continued work as long as they steer clear of the winter ranges, which are vast in the Gros Ventre — the core of the team’s historic study area.
Taylor was OK with the study as long as it was narrower in scope.
“If they want to study them, fine,” he said, “but study them when you and I can be out there. If they want to study them from the first of May to the 15th of December, have at it.”
Panthera is on the hunt for an alternative study area to relocate Elbroch’s moderate-size staff, which consists of four full-time employees, three graduate students and four seasonal interns.
One of Jackson Hole’s most active lion hunters and Teton Cougar Project supporter got worked up at the mention of the research group’s plight.
“The bottom line is that not giving these guys a renewal on their permit and not taking their data to heart is ludicrous,” houndsman and Star Valley resident Jason Reinhardt said. “They’ve got a golden opportunity here with a bunch of professionals who do nothing but want to help, and they’re slapping them in the face.”
Reinhardt said he had nothing against Gros Ventre ranchers, but finds them “uneducated.”
“If they were to grasp the big picture here and see that these guys aren’t just out there playing,” he said. “They’re doing a job that someday will hopefully bolster the population of our cougars.”
It was the Cougar Project’s population research, he said, that proved how few cats remain and led to a decrease in the hunt limits in the area surrounding Jackson Hole from five to three.
“That number would not have changed,” he said, “had that data not been available.”
Game and Fish’s Brimeyer disagreed with that assessment, and said the study’s data was a factor but did not drive the reduction.
The loss of the Cougar Project’s research as it stands today would leave a Wyoming model that bases population health on hunter success as the best gauge of Jackson Hole’s lion numbers.
To local resident Lisa Robertson, a Cougar Project funder, the less scientific approach to lion management would be a disservice to the big cats.
“Our wildlife management needs to have an independent, unbiased source of research,” Robertson said. “Not just numbers from an organization that grows wildlife for trophy hunting.
“I don’t think that the research is ever complete on these wild, elusive and incredible animals,” she said.
Quigley, the project’s co-founder who is still employed by Panthera, said that Elbroch and his crew are at the forefront of lion research.
“Mark Elbroch and his field skills and understanding of science and technology have really, truly pushed the project over the edge and is opening doors of understanding,” Quigley said.
The study’s behavioral research has debunked the belief that unrelated cougars don’t interact, he said.
“The solitary carnivore is no more,” Quigley said. “We’re myth busters.”
Brimeyer stressed that he valued the findings and contributions of the Cougar Project, but felt that the group’s presence in the Gros Ventre ran counter to more pressing agency goals like keeping elk on natural winter range.
“It’s kind of a struggle for us,” Brimeyer said. “There’s certainly a benefit to having them.”