Perhaps the most controversial feature of hunting mountain lions is the unintentional orphanage and inevitable death of dependent kittens after a mountain lion mother is killed by a hunter. Existing preventative measures enacted by the Arizona Game and Fish Department (AZGFD) afford minimal security to mountain lion family groups in Arizona throughout most of the year.
As policies for the next game management period are under consideration, the agency has the opportunity to strengthen protection for female mountain lions and their dependent kittens for the upcoming Fall 2023 through Spring 2028 state hunting guidelines.
The story of a rescued mountain lion kitten recently orphaned through hunting, now known as Poppy, is emblematic of a common -- but typically invisible -- repercussion of mountain lion hunting. Through her story, I present a call-to-action for hunters and the non-hunting contingent of Arizona’s outdoorsmen and women to advocate on behalf of future generations of mountain lion kittens vulnerable to orphanage without added protection.
Poppy was orphaned after her mother was shot during a legal hunt in the Arizona wilderness in December 2020. At around four months old, she was entirely dependent on her mother for nutrition and protection, and destined to die of exposure, predation or starvation on her own. Since mountain lion mothers generally give birth to three or four kittens per litter, Poppy likely had siblings that suffered the typical fate of orphaned kittens. However, Poppy would survive long enough to be rescued by a benevolent rancher as the emaciated kitten clawed at his chicken coop in a desperate attempt to satiate weeks of hunger.
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She was then transferred to the Southwest Wildlife Conservation Center, where she will spend the remainder of her life among other mountain lions with similar backstories. Though her growth was stunted from the malnutrition she endured at an early age, Poppy retains the vigor that saw her through her time as an orphan, and she enjoys roughhousing with her older -- and much larger -- foster siblings.
In Arizona, the recreational harvest of spotted kittens or females with spotted kittens is unlawful, but young kittens are rarely travelling with their mothers when the latter are pursued by hunters and their hounds. Aiming to reduce the number of kittens orphaned each hunting season, the AZGFD implemented a seasonal closure between June 1 and Aug. 20 of each year for the 2018-23 management period to accommodate a portion of the seasonal birth pulse when most kittens are born. The reasoning behind the seasonal closure is that the period offers a window for dependent kittens born during the closure to physically develop and begin traveling with their mothers, therefore making family groups more identifiable to hunters when the season reopens.
However, the brief recess -- in practice -- only benefits a small minority of kittens born during the earliest stage of the closure, which itself represents a fraction of the seasonal birth pulse observed in North American mountain lions.
Though female mountain lions can birth litters at any time throughout the year, more than 70% of annual births take place during a seasonal birth pulse between May and October. For the first six weeks of life, a period known as the “denning” life stage, mountain lion kittens are mostly sedentary and therefore especially vulnerable to orphanage while their mother frequently travels alone. As kittens mature, the probability they will be found traveling with their mother increases continuously until they disperse to establish their own territory as independent subadults between 12 and 24 months of age.
To confer sufficient protection to most mountain lion mothers and their dependent kittens, a seasonal closure must accommodate a greater portion of the mountain lion birth pulse. Research conducted by mountain lion biologists with the Panthera Institute found that the overwhelming majority of mountain lion kittens born in a given year complete their denning period and are capable of traveling with their mothers by Dec. 1. The biologists suggest that extending a seasonal closure from June 1st through Nov. 1 would accommodate the denning period of 85% of mountain lion family groups that include dependent kittens, while delaying the season until Dec. 1 would accommodate the denning period for 91% of litters. If most litters born each year begin traveling with their mothers when the hunting season resumes, the greater the chance that hunters will distinguish between family groups and lone adult mountain lions, thereby reducing the unintentional harvest of mountain lion mothers with dependent kittens.
While orphaned kittens are an inevitable consequence of hunting female mountain lions, extending the seasonal closure until the majority of mountain lion kittens born in a given year become mobile is one sure way to decrease kitten orphanage, along with lower overall female harvest thresholds and mountain lion sex identification training for hunters. Poppy was one of countless mountain lion kittens orphaned during Arizona’s 2020-2021 hunting season. Most kittens perished in obscurity, but Poppy may shine as an ambassador of her species and the symbol of mountain lion conservation in Arizona. Her story compels us to question whether hunting induced kitten orphanage must remain an unfortunate reality, and recent conservation research suggests that the current magnitude of these unintended collateral effects is unnecessary and easily attenuated with management strategies that consider mountain lion life history.
As the AZGFD develops and revises drafts for the upcoming five-year game management cycle, Arizona residents -- both hunters and nonhunters alike -- may enter the discussion on how our state’s wildlife is managed. Recommending that the AZGFD implement additional, scientifically sound, measures to protect female mountain lions and their dependent kittens could significantly reduce kitten orphanage across the state, and further balance the practice of sustainable and ethical hunting.
As an agency expressly committed to applying knowledge generated through rigorous conservation research, fostering ecological sustainability, and upholding hunting ethics, I am confident that the AZGFD will be receptive to the preceding recommendations which embody all three desirable features of modern hunting.
The proposed hunting guidelines will be presented to the commission at the commission meeting taking place on Dec. 10 and 11, followed by a public comment period extending from Jan. 1-30, 2022. The final guidelines will then be presented on the AZGFD website and submitted to the commission at the April 1, 2022 commission meeting. Public comments may be submitted electronically at AZHuntGuidelines@azgfd.gov or mailed to Hunt Guidelines, Arizona Game and Fish Department, 5000 W. Carefree Highway, Phoenix, AZ 85086. For more information on the hunting guidelines, visit https://mountainlion.org/us/arizona/#!action.
Zack Curcija is an adjunct professor for the Maricopa County Community Colleges and an Arizona volunteer with the Mountain Lion Foundation. He can be reached at Zachary.Curcija@estrellamountain.edu.