Utah's high license and guide fees are not only positive steps forward for the lion in that state, but, more significantly, they represent a long-overdue about-face in the basic attitude of its game department toward the cats. Until nine years ago Utah, like Arizona, paid bounties. Although it dropped the bounties in 1958 it took eight more years before the cougar was reclassified as a game animal.
Today the lion, which once populated the entire 48 continental United States, has been eliminated from all but 11 western states and Florida. The latter state, which estimates its present population of panthers, as they are called there, at 100, had the foresight several years ago to put the cat on the protected list. New Hampshire, in a classic act of belated conscience, added the lion to its protected list this year. No one has seen a lion in the state since 1885.
That there are lions to be seen anywhere in the U.S. today, considering the concerted efforts that have been made to obliterate them, is rather remarkable in itself. It is also principally accidental. In his efforts to urbanize every square inch of the U.S., man finally ran up against a few places that were too wild even for him. In this handful of remote regions, among the most isolated and untamed in the country, the American lion is now making its final stand. But without the immediate legal sanctuary of game status in every place that it still exists, the American lion cannot hope to survive.
The resistance to making the lion a game animal is a normal reaction to an idea that refutes old beliefs. After generations of gory lion tales, it is difficult to accept the lion as less dangerous than the family dog. Yet carefully documented studies have established that more humans have been attacked by dogs—and, for that matter, by any one of three specific breeds: boxers, German shepherds and Doberman pinschers—than by lions.
In spite of the hundreds of reports of cougars killing people that have proliferated over the years, the actual number of deaths by lions in the entire history of the U.S. is considered to be well under a dozen. Of these, only one has ever been fully substantiated. This was in 1924 and involved a 13-year-old Washington boy who, from the evidence in fresh snow, was first trailed by the cat as he walked through a coulee. The boy, discovering that he was being followed, apparently became frightened and ran. The lion gave chase, struck him down and partially devoured him. When the lion was trapped and killed one month later, its stomach still contained matted bits of the boy's hair and clothing.
This story is of particular interest, not only because it is the sole fully documented account of a lion attack on a human, but because it points up two other distinctive characteristics of the lion. First, the fact that it did not eat the boy but took only a few bites, mainly about the head, supports the opinions of many scientists that the American lion, unlike several of its relatives, finds human flesh basically unpalatable. Even when other food is scarce, the lion evidently prefers hunger to humans. If this were not so, certainly the record of men being eaten by mountain lions would be substantial, particularly since man has always been the slowest and easiest prey in the lion's range. No people were more aware of this than the early pioneers, which may account in part for the inordinate fear they felt toward the lion.
The other characteristic of the lion that the Washington story points out is its extraordinary curiosity. There are literally dozens of documented accounts of lions trailing humans for as much as several miles for no apparent reason other than curiosity. In almost every such instance, no attempts to attack or to close the distance and make contact between itself and the man being followed were made. Most times the man was unaware of the lion's presence until, in backtracking, he made the discovery. Indeed, the cat's tracks often revealed that it had taken extra care not to be observed, frequently moving along the edge of the trail rather than on it to avoid detection. This does not mean that mountain lions are never dangerous to man. With proper provocation under proper circumstances, any large animal, and even some relatively small ones, will attack. The lion is no exception. But its record does not begin to support its formidable reputation as a man-killer.
Nor do the facts support its reputation as a wanton killer of game and livestock. There is no question that the lion kills both. But there is serious question that it kills with the frequency and capaciousness attributed to it. And there is growing evidence that many of the kills blamed on lions are actually made by other animals. Dogs again rank high on the list. In this case the dogs are generally packs of semi-wild animals rather than house pets, but the latter have racked up their share of kills too.
The New Mexico Department of Game, which for the past several years has carefully investigated each report it has received of lion depredation of livestock, found that in less than 10% of the cases reported was the lion actually guilty of the charge. Dogs, wolves and coyotes all outranked the lion as killers of livestock.
Armed with such information, I asked more than a dozen ranchers on a trip not long ago through New Mexico about their attitudes toward the mountain lion. Each unhesitatingly spoke of the lion as the prime predator on his property. And yet, these men did not hate lions as such, nor were they otherwise unreasonable or ignorant. But they had never bothered to question what their fathers and grandfathers believed to be fact.