Man of the Mountain Lions

Home & Family, Hometown Heroes, Outdoors, People
on February 18, 2001

Rich DeSimone couldnt budge the 150-pound mountain lion huddled with her three kittens in her den on a Montana mountain. The biologist needed to put tracking collars on the kittens, but the mother wasnt about to let this stranger near her offspring.

I was throwing small stones at her, small sticks, and she wasnt going anywhere, DeSimone says. I dont like to say I was scared, but yeah, I was nervous.

He also was intrigued because the mother cat didnt strike out, just protected her kittens until she was tranquilized.

DeSimone and his team quickly collared the kits to get data needed for a project aimed at creating healthy mountain lion populations.

The 49-year-old state biologists forays into the Montana wilderness from his home in Helena (pop. 27,982) are a far cry from his upbringing in upstate New York. He moved to Montana to attend college here more than 25 years ago, got a degree as a wildlife biologist, and developed a growing passion for protecting wild animalsamong them, the mountain lion.

Four years ago, a study indicated that precious little was known about the elusive mountain lion. Officials recognized the decades-long struggle to coexist with the predators wouldnt end soon, however, as the number of mountain lions increases and more people build homes in lion habitat on the fringes of cities and towns.

Relocating a mountain lion habituated to people wont deter it from frightening people or harming livestock or pets. DeSimone says sometimes killing lions is the only solution to avoid risk. His goal has been to learn enough about the cats to help ensure their survival without endangering humans.

Increased hunting was the typical response to more sightings of mountain lions, but DeSimone felt a more balanced approach was needed. He believed some reports of sightings simply meant a few lions were moving around.

To find out if that was true, he needed to make sure the lions he tagged werent killed before he could track them. DeSimone convinced Montana officials to close a 300-mile area south of Ovando, a town of about 362 people in central Montana, to lion hunting for three years. Now, from December to March, either DeSimone and his team of trackers and scientists, or a second similar team, collar cougars and track their movements daily.

We need some semblance of ordernot hunting them to annihilation or ending hunting them altogether. Lion experts are coming up with different management techniques and recommendations, but we need to know what works and how to enforce it, he says.

Lion attacks on humans are extremely rare, with one recent study finding that since 1988, such attacks caused at least seven human fatalities in the western United States and Canada. Encounters with humans can endanger the lions.

DeSimone recalls one incident in which a 10-year-old girl found a snarling lion under the porch. Game wardens tried to tranquilize the lion but guessed its weight wrong, and the lion died from an overdose of anesthesia.

Lions dont want to be in contact with humans. No matter what we do, the odds are well have incidents, but we can significantly reduce the chance of encounters, DeSimone says.

The biologist hopes his study, which lasts another three years, will produce strong scientific data on natural changes in the lion populationhelping to serve both man and beast by gauging the impact of hunting on lion populations. The work can be grueling and dangerous in 20-below zero temperatures and blizzards, but DeSimone is dedicated.

Hes intense, in a soft way, friend and co-worker Tom Palmer says. Hes a man who never raises his voice, who never gets angry … But he pushes (everyone) hard.

Still, the beauty of these wild creatures can compensate for the hardships.

One afternoon, a 78-pound female cougar ran across the snowy trail about 25 to 30 feet in front of DeSimone. It took his breath away.

She was beautiful, just beautiful, he says. Here you have days when you do everything by the book and everything goes wrong, and then you get this.