Tuesday, November 11, 2003

What's the truth on cougars?

It was a good buck. Perhaps a trophy. A deer of a lifetime, perhaps. And, it was walking right along a trail that led right under the bowhunter. Anticipation became reality as the arrow was sent on it's way.

A solid "thunk" told the bowhunter the arrow had hit the deer; at 15 yards distance, it was hard not to miss a vital spot. As the buck crashed into brush over a small hill, the bowhunter recovered his wits; a buck like that, and it was his, for sure. He shook a little as he climbed down the tree, stand to summon help in finding, gutting, and hauling his trophy out of the woods.

After waiting two hours or so, the hunter and his buddy quickly found the blood-trail left by the wounded buck. They also found where the buck had left a large pool of blood while bedded down; mortally wounded deer do that, if not immediately disturbed. But, the blood-trail led over the next hill.

As the two hunters topped the next hill, they saw the buck, half-covered with leaves. It was dead; the arrow had shot a perfect heart-lung penetration. But, as the hunting partners rolled the deer over, they discovered half of one hind-quarter had been eaten. A good 15-20 pounds of venison had been gnawed-off the deer. Plus, there were claw marks on the deer's neck, a good six inches across. The hunter hadn't noticed that when he loosed his arrow.

Conjecture over what had happened started as soon as the hunters saw the missing venison. Bobcat, maybe? But, no bobcat in the world has a six inch claw spread. Cougar!? More than likely. The bowhunter wasn't the only hunter in the woods.

Now, this scenario didn't happen back in the 1800's, it happened yesterday, on Election day, 2003. And I got the call on possible causes of the "missing venison" while the hunters were still in the woods. I advised them to haul the deer out of the woods as quickly as possible, although a cougar who had just consumed 15 to 20 pounds of venison probably wouldn't be interested in scrawny humans. It would probably come back to the kill-site and wonder where it's supper had gone. Much later surely.

There's a growing body of evidence that Iowa does, indeed, have a viable population of cougar. Tracks, scat, claw-marks on deer, and half-eaten carcasses are all evidence of cougars. Plus, there's far too many incidence of evidence to attribute to the occasional wandering cougar. Circumstantial evidence sometimes convinces people.

For example, a local farmer lost about 10 acres of corn last summer when a stampeded herd of cattle went through a fence to escape something. The cows had been hand-raised by a neighbor; no untamed range cows, there. But, something had spooked them enough to force them through a three-strand barbed wire fence into the neighbor's cornfield. The insurance adjuster told the corn-farmer, "Cougars, huh?" He then indicated it wasn't the first such incidence he's adjusted last summer.

Then I got wind of an "unholy deal" made by the Iowa DNR two years ago wherein trapped eastern strain turkeys would be exchanged for cougars from a southwestern state. As I heard it, 13 mated pairs of cougars were released, all in western Iowa, to help combat a growing number, of deer. Deer are cougar's favorite food.

I've got a few things to say about this situation, obviously. First, what ever happened to our government telling people the truth? I can dismiss a rare sighting as a "wandering cougar" but, when people tell me they've actually seen green ear-tags on cougars, then tell me they've seen one wearing a collar... well, I've got to wonder a bit. Wonder at just who's telling the truth, here. Do we actually have radio-tagged cougars wandering around western Iowa?

I'll be the first one to admit that hunters tend to stretch the truth a bit, at times, especially about the size of the deer or length of the fish. But, when it comes down to outright, blatant lies, we're talking about a whole different ball game here.

Did the Iowa DNR make a swap; turkeys for cougars? If they did, why not just tell people about it, instead of having a sudden influx of "wandering cougar." And, especially so, in eastern Iowa, where many people make a living from trying to raise cattle. A hungry cougar might not be able to discriminate between deer and cow, all the time.

Secondly, If the cougars were, indeed, released by the Iowa DNR, why not enlist local hunters, outdoors people, and environmentalist to keep a watchful eye out for them, especially while hunting deer.? If someone turned one loose in my backyard, I'd want to know about it, wouldn't you? I might not object to it, but, I'd surely want to know about it, especially while wandering around at night going to-and-from a deer stand.

Third, If there were cougars released, they didn't enjoy any kind of "special protection," at least during the first year of Iowa living. They weren't classified as non-game species, nor as big-game. They were simply wandering critters. And, by not admitting anything, the Iowa DNR could be "held harmless" by objecting public.

Sometimes, government agencies don't really need to tell the general public everything. But, when a potentially dangerous critter is introduced if that happened, I think the public ought to at least have a say-so in the matter. And, there ought to be some kind of protection afforded the cougars, if released. Certainly some limited protection until they become established. As things stand, currently, they're wandering critters. But, wandering critters don't have radio-collars attached, nor do they have ear-tags.

Finally, this discussion is moot to the bowhunter who lost a part of a deer. He compared the scenario to ordering a steak in a restaurant, and getting only a gnawed up piece served.

* Jim Brauhn is an outdoorsman and environmental writer from Linn Grove