The mountain lion was once the most widely distributed mammal in the Western Hemisphere. Today, although its numbers along with its habitat have been greatly reduced, the lion's range is still a broad one. It extends from as far south as Patagonia, through forests and jungles and highlands for almost a full 100� latitude that stretches over Central America, Mexico, the U.S. and as far north as the Peace River and Cassiar regions of British Columbia.
The American lion's past is a blend of fact and fancy. It is a past that still overshadows its present. Lion lore through the centuries has been stirred by imagination, kindled by awe and not infrequently tailored by the teller.
Like the profusion of names the American lion answers to—cougar, catamount, painter, panther, puma—the profusion of misinformation which persists about it even today helps little in unraveling the big cat's true identity.
Such ambiguity is not limited to the lion's public image. Viewed against overall game-management programs in this country, which by and large are among the most progressive and successful in the world, the enigma of the lion's official status is particularly perplexing.
In Arizona, for example, anyone may hunt mountain lions at any time of year, in any number. No licenses or permits are required, and each cat killed, regardless of age or sex, entitles the hunter to a payment of $70. Arizona is the only state in the U.S. that still pays a bounty on mountain lions, a fact which last year moved the Boone and Crockett Club, official custodian of the Records of North American Big Game, to pass a resolution barring all mountain lions collected in bounty-paying areas from entry or recognition in their big-game competition.
In spite of Boone and Crockett's action and the articulate, ecologically sound arguments of more than a dozen game, conservation and wildlife agencies across the country, the most recent efforts in the Arizona House of Representatives to abolish the bounty on lions died the same death several previous bills had suffered.
In California, where similar pleas in 1963 fell upon more receptive ears, then-Governor Brown established a four-year moratorium on that state's payment of lion bounties and at the same time authorized a major study of the system's effectiveness in game management. The California Department of Fish and Game, noting that the system was of no value and that the hiatus on bounties produced no lion problems, was among the first to endorse indefinite suspension. Five months ago Governor Reagan reaffirmed the game department's position by signing a bill which officially abolishes the bounty on lions in California. The new law does not mean that the lion is now as safe as a lamb in California, but it does mean that its legal status there, as in Idaho, New Mexico, Montana and Texas, is considerably better than it used to be. By being officially upgraded from vermin, lions in these states have at least a modicum more protection than their cousins in Arizona. The season, bag, age and sex limits are still wide open, but the monetary attraction to professional and commercial hunters no longer exists, and some form of permit is generally required to hunt lions. Fees from permits are too minimal to influence hunting pressure one way or the other, but the very fact that permits are required is an element in the lion's favor.
Such fees can also be a clue to exactly how the lion is ranked in the wildlife hierarchy of a state. In New Mexico, for example, a nonresident is charged $10 to hunt mountain lions. This entitles him to as many lions, or lionesses, as he wants in a given year. He must pay $50, however, to hunt wild turkey—two mature birds only—during the season, which totals a little more than a month.
The situation makes more sense in Nevada, where birds are birds and lions are legally considered game. To lion-hunt in Nevada, a big-game license (out-of-state cost: $35) is required. It is expected that hunting soon will be confined to a set season to afford the animals protection during mating and breeding periods and that the hunter may take only one male lion in any one year.
Such legitimate protection for the mountain lion was long in coming. Nevada in 1965 was the first state to confer the honor. Washington and Colorado followed soon after, and this year Oregon and Utah also reclassified their lions as game animals. The latter state, which now charges a nonresident hunter $150 for a single cat, also requires a $300 license fee from out-of-state guides.