Hunting Pumas Is Not Good Wildlife Management
Wildlife managers have long asserted that sport hunting pumas is not only enjoyable for hunters, but also brings broader benefits. Supposedly, sport hunting lowers conflicts between humans and pumas, and increases deer and elk populations. Unfortunately, the evidence points in a wholly different direction. This study compares data across the twelve Western states where pumas are found, and concludes that sport hunting pumas has the opposite of the intended effect. Far from reducing conflict, sport hunting seems to increase it. It’s time, the study argues, to rethink our approach to managing pumas.
If sport hunting is truly beneficial, this should be reflected in the data. Across the twelve states where pumas are found, the study compared data on puma populations; problematic encounters between humans and pumas; puma predation on farmed animals; and predation on wild prey animals (e.g. deer), who are hunted for sport.
Of these twelve states, California is the only one to fully protect pumas from sport hunting. In California, it has been illegal since 1972. Instead, troublesome Californian pumas are either relocated or killed as individuals when necessary. If sport hunting pumas is indeed a good wildlife management strategy, California should have more pumas, problematic encounters, and puma predation than the other states. So how do the outcomes of California’s puma management compare to those of the other eleven states?
Data from 2003 – thirty years since California’s 1972 ban on sport hunting – show that California has an average number of pumas. Additionally, more recent data suggest that California’s puma population does not seem to have increased over time. In contrast, puma populations have risen in five of the eight sport hunting states where such data is available.
In terms of puma-human conflicts since 1972, California ranks third lowest on a per capita basis, although its average of 200 incidents per year since 2000 is above average. Interestingly, there seems to be a positive correlation in that the higher the puma kill rate, the higher the number of incidents reported. Sport hunting pumas seems to increase problematic encounters.
Examining puma predation rates showed either no statistically significant relationship between farmed animal deaths and puma kill rates, or that higher puma kill rates increase predation on farmed animals.
In all the states where pumas are found, deer populations show similar trends, making it difficult to distinguish the effects of sport hunting. A deeper look into the data suggested that intensive sport hunting of pumas does not increase deer populations, and that higher puma kills one year do not correlate to more success for deer hunters the following year.
The data examined in the study suggest that sport hunting is either ineffective, or actively harmful as a wildlife management strategy. So what’s behind this counterintuitive result? The authors suggest that social dynamics are key. Pumas have complex social interactions. But when they’re hunted, their social structures are more fragile and may collapse. Without the moderating influence of their elders, for example, younger and inexperienced pumas are more likely to conflict with humans. Similarly, social upheaval can lead pumas to more often prey on farmed animals.
Based on this study, sport hunting pumas is problematic — something which animal advocates would heartily agree with. Sport hunting can increase conflicts between humans and pumas, in the form of direct attacks and predation on farmed animals – as well as harming the pumas themselves. The only people who seem to benefit from sport hunting pumas are trophy hunters – i.e., less than 0.4% of the public. How can we justify privileging their interests over all else?
It’s also worth bearing in mind that pumas only present a very small risk to humans. Pumas attack roughly two humans per year across the fifteen states where they live. In contrast, as many as two hundred people die each year in collisions between cars and deer.
The study looks at data from 1972 onwards, and focuses primarily on data from 1990 onwards. By 1990, puma populations had recovered from earlier periods of intense hunting, and so sport hunting really took off. As such, the influence of sport hunting should be greatest from this point.
The study relies on state and federal data that are open public records. The authors admit that these data may be flawed, but note that they are currently used to justify sport hunting. If the data aren’t good enough for the study, arguably they aren’t good enough for making decisions in wildlife management.