RICHARD MASON: Cougar comeback in Arkansas will aid ecosystem

Posted: February 4, 2018 at 4:30 a.m.

I was sitting in my SUV at Walmart when a friend walked up and started a conversation. We talked about the dozens of mountain lion sightings in south Arkansas, and then he mentioned a confirmed sighting west of Magnolia of a female mountain lion with three cubs.

There have been many other reports not only in south Arkansas, but in northwest Arkansas near the Buffalo National River. The proof of mountain lions in Arkansas is the fact that last year a deer hunter killed one in Bradley County. Adding to the sighting in southwest Arkansas, a local doctor told me he and his wife had seen two mountain lions cross the road west of Magnolia.

I think the evidence is overwhelming. We can conclusively state that we have somewhere around 20 to 30 cougars in our state, and based on a recent sighting of a female with three cubs, we have a breeding population. I hope the Game and Fish Commission will take notice and admit the obvious. There is a breeding population of mountain lions in Arkansas, and since our ecosystem desperately needs to be rebalanced, they should put a hunting moratorium on the shooting of cougars with a $20,000 fine for a violation. If you agree, send an email to Stan.Jones@agfc.ar.gov.

Mountain lions are in Arkansas because they have an extended range, and that is determined by the amount of prey available to the animals. All the rivers in the United States from the Continental Divide in Colorado to the Appalachian Mountains flow east and south, and the dense underbrush along the river banks gives the migrating cougars as easy path south and eastward, along with excellent prey. The ultimate proof of how far a mountain lion can roam is the discovery of a mountain lion in New England this past year that had been tagged in Colorado.

Why mountain lions would come to Arkansas is also an easy question to answer: Feral hogs, possibly as many as a million, roam our woods, and they are a lot easier to catch than a spooked whitetail deer. Naturally, if we want to reduce our feral hog population, we should increase the number of animals that dine on hog meat. So hunters, for God's sake, don't shoot a mountain lion, but nail every feral hog you see.

Feral hogs are taking over. Since my column on them, I've heard from a whole raft of folks, and the consensus is that the problem borders on catastrophic. A little figuring will shock you: In the several weeks since my column was published, as many as 25,000 new feral hogs will have been added to Arkansas' soaring hog population.

The bad news is that most of these hogs will mature, and since the state is almost void of hog predators, the 12,500 extra sows will have three litters a year of a minimum of 6, which will add an estimated 225,000 feral hogs to the state over the next five years. If you consider all the hogs, a population of over 2 million is a minimum number that will roam our forests, and you don't have to be a math genius to see the impending disaster. The Game and Fish Commission needs to address this problem and put a bounty on feral hogs.

Evolution is not a theory. It's a fact, and that goes for global warming, which creates climate change, and is caused by human activity. The California wildfires and mudslides and the hurricanes on the Gulf Coast have been intensified because of climate change.

The earth is not 6,000 years old (it's several billion years old), it's not flat, and dinosaurs didn't exist along with the first humans. Please don't let your predetermined judgment cloud the facts about our planet. When 98 percent of the scientific community says something, don't embarrass yourself by saying you don't believe them, and when a geologist tells you spreading hog manure on the Swiss Cheese Boone Limestone will pollute the Buffalo National River, don't sound like a backwoods dumbass and say, "Uh, well, you know, I don't think the hog farm will pollute the Buffalo." Yes, I have heard more than one uninformed but intelligent person say those very words.

Everything in the environment has a purpose, and as Chief Seattle (1786-1866) once said, "Man is only a part of the thread of life, and what he does to the web he does to himself ... Only when the last tree has died and the last river has been poisoned and the last fish has been caught will we realize that we cannot eat money."

That means exterminating certain so-called undesirable species such as wolves, cougars, bears, and yes, even snakes, has consequences. The ecology of the natural world is complex and intertwined, and when a species is removed it has a direct effect on other species. The current disappearance of our quail is an excellent example. We have removed most of the small animals' predators, and the population of raccoons, possums, armadillos, and feral hogs has exploded.

Where have all our quail gone? The quail nests have been destroyed by this overwhelming increase in these quail egg-eating animals. So if we ever want to hear a bobwhite whistle again, we will have to reduce the animals that prey on ground-nesting birds.

The only way to restore a damaged ecosystem is to repair the web of nature, and that means to restore the predators that prey on small quail egg-eating animals. Anyone who thinks loss of habitat is the cause of the diminished quail population should get out from behind a desk and take a look at the millions of acres in our state with good quail habitat that are void of quail.

We need more bobcats, coyotes, bears, mountain lions, and wolves in our woods, and unless we rewild these animals into the fabric of our state, we will continue to have a disruptive ecosystem, which will be substantially less than if we returned to a harmony with nature.

So when you see a coyote, bobcat, or any other predator that will help control the over-abundance of feral hogs, quail egg-eating raccoons, possums, and other small animals, don't shoot them! But when you see a feral hog, blast away.

By the way, the young piglets are a super edible part of the feral hog population. If our restaurants would feature roast suckling pig on their menu, they'd have folks standing in line.

Richard Mason is a registered professional geologist, downtown developer, former chairman of the Department of Environmental Quality Board of Commissioners, past president of the Arkansas Wildlife Federation, and syndicated columnist. Email richard@gibraltarenergy.com.

Editorial on 02/04/2018