For Wallace Lyons, the trouble started two years ago.
He’d known mountain lions roamed the rolling hills near his ranch. Like others near Hulett, he’d seen the tracks and scat, but they seemed to leave him alone.
Then bells he’d tied around his sheep weren’t protecting them anymore. Coyotes stayed away, but mountain lions treated the ringing like a dinner call.
He lost 40 lambs and nine ewes last year. He thinks lions killed them all. The state paid him for 17 its officials could confirm.
When he lost his guard llama, the retired military man had had enough.
Lyons started telling his story. He went to public meetings, leaning on his cane.
People need to know. Something must be done. He’s run the ranch for 17 years and his wife has had it since 1972.
“Another year like last year we will have to get out of the sheep business,” he said.
He doesn’t want mountain lions eradicated. They belong in the Black Hills. He just wants their numbers regulated; he wants them to move back into the mountains and away from his sheep.
In response to stories like this and others, Wyoming Game and Fish Department biologists have proposed changing hunting areas in the Black Hills, even allowing unlimited hunting in one region.
Ranchers like Lyons agree with the changes and hope they’ll make a difference. Other residents and cougar advocates worry these changes are too extreme. They could devastate one of the newest, naturally re-established populations of mountain lions in North America.
The problem with mountain lions in the Black Hills, is that people simply aren’t used to them, said Dan Thompson, a large carnivore biologist with the Game and Fish Department.
Twenty years ago, set the mountain lion quota at one for the entire region. It rarely got filled during the seven-month season.
This year, hunters killed 41 lions in less than three months in northwest Wyoming.
Mountain lions in the Black Hills aren’t like Wyoming’s other controversial predators. They weren’t reintroduced by humans like wolves, or federally protected like grizzly bears. Mountain lions moved into the hills on their own, slowly sleuthing back into their home range.
Thompson doesn’t have an estimate for the area because the Wyoming Game and Fish Department only recently began studying the population. He can say it’s one of the highest density populations in Wyoming.
That expansion, some believe, has brought problems.
Ranchers, motels, restaurants and guides rely in part on the Black Hills deer herds for profit during hunting season, said Sen. Ogden Driskill, R-Devils Tower.
Numbers are declining, and fingers point to mountain lions.
“We’ve had bad winters, and we’ve had a number of factors that have caused it, but the only factor we can control as humans is our take of lions,” Driskill said.
Mountain lions aren’t causing the deer decline, said Joe Sandrini, a Game and Fish biologist in Newcastle.
But they’re not helping it, either. Studies show when a prey population declines, it is more susceptible to predators.
“Reducing predators can bump deer numbers up,” he said.
“But if you get a bad winter in there it doesn’t matter.”
To control a predator
Two years ago, responding in part to public worries about deer numbers, Game and Fish biologists increased hunting quotas from 24 to 40 lions in the Black Hills area, Hunt Areas 1 and 30.
Humans killed more than 50 lions in 2011 and spring 2012 in the Wyoming Black Hills area. Even with the increased harvest, lion sightings continued, both in the woods and in towns like Hulett and Newcastle. Authorities even caught one in January in a residential neighborhood in north Gillette about 40 miles from lion country.
Some wanted to increase hunting again.
In February, Driskill called a meeting, inviting residents and Game and Fish biologists to talk about the increase in lions.
More than 100 people came sharing stories of lion sightings and worries over safety.
Since mountain lion quotas are set every three years, residents wanted to approach Game and Fish before another cycle began.
“By the time we get around to another cycle we could have dire circumstances,” Driskill said.
More meetings followed in the spring, one to explain how to stay safe in lion country and another to talk about proposed changes.
Then Game and Fish biologists agreed to re-evaluate the hunting quotas, Sandrini said.
Game and Fish is now proposing to divide two areas into three. The new area, which is mostly private land, would allow unlimited hunting.
The Wyoming Game and Fish Commission will vote on the proposed changes in its July meeting Tuesday. If approved, they will start Sept. 1.
A new unlimited quota area will help ranchers but not deplete the mountain lion population, said Sundance houndsman Paul Pollat.
“I remember when I was little it would take all season to find a cat,” he said. “We don’t want to wipe them out. We would like enough to hunt in the future and I want my kids to hunt them in the future.”
Some people think the proposed regulations go too far. An unlimited quota isn’t necessary.
Sundance woman Jean Adams has horses and llamas and has had cattle in the past. She’s never had a problem with mountain lions, though knows one crossed through her property for several years. She stays alert when she hikes in the hills and doesn’t worry about her safety. Lion attacks on humans are rare.
“If a mountain lion was attacking any of my livestock, yes, I would shoot it,” she said. “But unlimited quota is too much.”
“We’re trying to eliminate so many animals because they are predators and it doesn’t work to balance nature.”
Others worry the new unlimited quota will prevent lion numbers from growing and continuing to move back into their native ranges.
Many mountain lion supporters advocate for the cougar’s natural eastward expansion.
“In order to recover populations to the east in the forests, a female has got to cross the Missouri and keep going and find a male out there,” said Nancy Hilding, president of the Prairie Hills Audubon Society.
“The mountain lions are here and we should allow them to move back to the east to the forests that can still support them.”
Also, Sandrini, the Game and Fish biologist, warns people about the “juvenile delinquent theory” or the “hooligan hypothesis.” Hunters often kill big, adult mountain lions, which shifts the average age down.
“It’s pretty well accepted when you’re dealing with territorial carnivores, that when you have one in the area and you’re not having any problems, you don’t want to remove it,” Sandrini said.
“If you remove it, another one could come in and cause problems.”
Sandrini told Black Hills residents this could happen after hunting increased two years ago.
Now people are having more problems. Sandrini can’t say for sure if it’s because of the increase in hunting, but it’s possible.
Lyons doesn’t think so. Cougar numbers just keep going up.
If these new regulations pass and don’t seem to work, Driskill said he might push to have the animals listed as predators again.
This would mean mountain lions could be hunted like coyotes. No hunting season or quota would exist. Wyoming Game and Fish Department biologists wouldn’t have funding from hunting licenses to study them.
Lyons doesn’t think that’s the answer. Right now, ranchers are reimbursed for livestock killed by cougars. If they become predators, the state won’t pay for kills. It’s the rancher’s responsibility to take care of the problem.
No, Lyons wants to see what happens with the proposed changes.
If his sheep stop disappearing and cougar numbers shrink, maybe next year hunters won’t have to kill as many.