This morning I came across a blog with some great photos of a collared mountain lion recently "captured" by a remote camera in Colorado. You can see the cat in all its feline glory in full daylight. You'll notice its amber fur, the black tip of its tail, its muscular build, and you won't be able to miss the GPS collar and the eartag. These photos spurred a few comments from readers raising concern about the collar and the eartags. The readers wondered whether the collar might hinder the cats ability to hunt, how it must be heavy, what an eyesore the eartags are, and wrapped it up with a resounding "Why can't we just leave mountain lions alone?"
And I found myself agreeing completely. Why can't we just leave mountain lions alone? That would be great. In an ideal world, we could. If we could just stop converting their natural landscapes into suburbs, stripmalls, and highways, stop shooting them for sport or as our way of "managing" any lions that wander too close to civilization for our comfort, if we could stop running them over with our trains, buses, and cars, if we would stop inadvertently killing them with rat poison, stop paving over their trails and homeranges, stop releasing climate-change inducing emissions that alter their habitats, stop polluting water sources with uranium, sewage, and other toxic byproducts of our existence....if we could just preserve plenty of wildlands giving them room to roam, and stop blocking their natural movement corridors with impermeable multi-lane freeways and high density developments....if we could do all of that, then they would be just fine.
The reality is that we have an impact on these animals whether or not we're collaring them. I'm not advocating collaring every wild animal, but I am in full support of using the best tools available to help us preserve sustainable wildlife populations. In order to do that, we need data- information that can help us identify the threats these animals are facing, understand how human activities are impacting their populations, and determine how we can counteract the damage before its irreparable.
Collaring animals provides a wealth of information about their ecological requirements. The data we glean from GPS collars can provide a foundation for effective conservation. In other words, the highly detailed information we get from one animal wearing a GPS collar can be used to save the lives of many animals in the future. The precise locations give us an unparalleled insight into mountain lion behavior, with specific information about their habitat and prey requirements, causes of mortality, and birth rates, to the precise locations where they cross roads. My lion roadkill stories are another post all together.
GPS data can provide a framework for developing management policies that will preserve mountain lion populations into the future. The accumulation of data from long term research can help us make science-based decisions about how to preserve sustainable populations. If for example, you've had several lions killed on the same stretch of highway while trying to cross the road, you know that's a good area to propose building a wildlife crossing. You can present the data to the public, land managers, wildlife managers, and conservation planners to direct changes in policies.
Capturing animals can also provide vital information about their genetic viability. While poking, prodding, and taking their blood for DNA samples and disease testing, you may learn that all the lions in one area are very closely related --as well as "boxed in" by non-habitat (as was the case with the Florida panther) that prevents them from finding unrelated mates. In Florida, biologists brought in some new blood to salvage the population before they succumbed to inbreeding and loss of connectivity.
Without tirelessly tracking individuals in a population over the long term, you wouldn't have any of this information. If Paul Beier hadn't noticed in the 1990s that the collared lions he was tracking in southern California were in desperate need of corridors made up of natural habitat in between the large wild areas they inhabited, where would we be? More importantly, where would lions be? They would be living in fragmented forests as isolated populations- each of which are extremely vulnerable to local extinctions, putting entire populations at risk. Now imagine this happening over and over across each county, forest, state, and national park and you can imagine the outcome....
Leave them alone? Maybe in a perfect world. I hope there will be a day when we can- when we won't have to intensively manage them to ensure that we don't lose them. But as long as our actions are detrimentally affecting wildlife we can't. Until we develop a means of coexisting with nature and wildlife without continually putting them in peril, I don't think we can afford to leave them alone.