Reaching out to ensure the best possible outcome for the Cache Creek cougar family, The Cougar Fund offered to buy a monitoring tool for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department that it could use to track and glean information about the impact and effects of the cats' relocation to a new home territory in the middle of the winter -- an area the department also chose to leave open to cougar sport hunting.
Instead, the WGFD chose once again to "go it alone" to the detriment of wildlife, science, their stakeholders, the Jackson community and most of all, the Cache Creek cougar family.
What could have been: The mother could have been collared to help both researchers and the community learn more about these elusive, magnificent cats. The measure would have benefited WGFD by giving data on the cats' movements to ensure their decision was a sound one, and one it may use again.
A satellite collar costs $5,000. The Cougar Fund offered the seed money to pay for the collar and committed to raise the rest of the funds. Arguably the cougar experts in the area with the most scientific knowledge and hands-on experience, Craighead Beringia South biologists could have tracked the cat using the technology they use each day. The Wyoming Game and Fish Department would then have been updated five times a day on the cats' whereabouts.
With that knowledge, the Forest Service could have posted signs about cougar activity in the area and closed the trailheads if they felt it was necessary. We might have learned why this cougar was so close to residences. A big tom in her territory? People feeding wildlife? Wolves pushing her to the edge of her territory? Deep snow forcing her prey to lower elevations?
They might also have learned something that would help us know how and why she was such an excellent cat -- she was living within the wildlands-rural interface for at least several weeks without ever causing harm. She didn't kill pets or livestock. She didn't threaten humans. Like our beloved grizzly 399, she produced healthy offspring and raised them without harm to anyone. The community could have been proud to have nonprofits and government agencies working together for the good of wildlife.
What actually happened: The Wyoming Game and Fish Department responded to a complaint about cougars in the area. They tried to haze her. Cougar mothers limit how much they travel for the well-being of their kittens. This mother had a kill and a good prey source. With no reasonable policy in place to educate the public or make them aware that cougars live everywhere in the Jackson area -- whether they are seen or not -- the WGFD trapped and removed the mother, leaving her kittens behind. Nearly a week later, they caught the first kitten with hounds. The WGFD was unaware that there was not just one other kitten, but two. Wouldn't "experts" know this? Why did it take 10 days after the mother was caught to trap the last two kittens? How much trauma was sustained by their prolonged separation?
Locals and people from around the country called on the WGFD to release the family back into their home range. The WGFD refused. We offered a solution that would have given the cougar family the best chance of survival by collaring the cats and proposed releasing them in another drainage away from Cache Creek yet adjacent to their home range.
The WGFD rejected this proposal. Instead, they chose to relocate the cats in an area far from Jackson where the home ranges of the resident cougars are unknown. Despite urging from The Cougar Fund, they refused to collar the cat. WGFD complain that they don't know the success rate of relocation. If they were interested in understanding the relocation success, wouldn't they have accepted the free offer to collar the mother or have done it themselves?
A Wyoming Game and Fish spokesman was quoted in Jackson Hole News and Guide on Feb. 3 as saying the release area had a "winter closure." That was a misleading statement, when in fact there is only a vehicle closure. To give the family a real stab at surviving their ordeal, WGFD could have at least recommended closing the area to cougar hunting. They failed to do that, too. WGFD trapped the cats, refused the offer to have them collared, moved them out of their home range and left their new area open to hunting. To add insult to injury, the family was not reunited at the Sybille Wildlife Research Center. Was the family even released together as we were led to believe they would be?
According to the WGFD's mission statement, "The department is charged with providing an adequate and flexible system for the control, management, protection and regulation of all Wyoming Wildlife." At a meeting on Feb. 2, they claimed they were being flexible by not shooting the cougars. That's not the kind of flexibility anyone who cares about wildlife would even mention, and they obviously forgot about their charge to protect these beautiful cats, too.