How cougars can help save human lives

September 21, 2016, 8 a.m.
Mountain lion in snow
Photo: Baranov E/Shutterstock

However frightening one might find a mountain lion, the fact is the big cats pose a very, very low threat to people. But what species poses a high threat to people? That would be the mountain lion's prey, the seemingly harmless deer.

The deer is actually the most dangerous large mammal on the continent to humans, due to deer-vehicle collisions. Deer-vehicle collisions happen 1.2 million times a year, and are responsible for 29,000 injuries and more than 200 deaths, according to a study published in Conservation Letters in summer 2016. The study also provides numbers on how many of these could be prevented if the majestic mountain lion were allowed back into its old stomping grounds.

According to the researchers:

Our coupled deer population models and socioeconomic valuations revealed that cougars could reduce deer densities and DVCs by 22% in the Eastern United States, preventing 21,400 human injuries, 155 fatalities, and $2.13 billion in avoided costs within 30 years of establishment. Recently established cougars in South Dakota prevent $1.1 million in collision costs annually. Large carnivore restoration could provide valuable ecosystem services through such socio-ecological cascades, and these beneļ¬ts could offset the societal costs of coexistence.

Luckily, mountain lions are starting to move into their old habitat on their own. Wildlife preserves, wildlife corridors, non-lethal livestock predator protection programs, and coexistence education programs can all make it a little bit easier for them to make their way back to historical habitat to perform their life-saving deer-killing duties.

However, as New York Times columnist James Gorman points out, "Figuring out the downsides of having cougars back was more difficult...they could not account for the obvious emotional response to predators. Even if the estimate is correct that five times as many people would be saved by cougars as would be killed, death by deer and cougar are different."

Though you're far more likely to be killed by a deer coming through your windshield than a cougar you pass on a mountain path, the terror factor makes it easier to think about living alongside Bambi.

Even so, there are individual mountain lions helping to put in a good word for the species. Namely, P-22, the urban mountain lion of Griffith Park in Hollywood. This big cat manages to live peacefully next to people in a park in one of the country's most densely populated urban areas. Who knows, maybe he'll be a spokes-cat for mountain lions heading east!