Veteran science writer Stolzenburg (Rat Island: Predators in Paradise—and the World's Greatest Wildlife Rescue, 2011, etc.) tracks the two-year journey of a mountain lion from his home in South Dakota's Black Hills to a Connecticut parkway only 70 miles from New York City.
The 3-year-old, approximately 140-pound big cat had traveled more than 2,000 miles before his untimely death in 2011 on a heavily trafficked highway. His journey—most likely in search of a mate—provides the scaffolding for the author's broader story of how mountain lions have been driven to the verge of extinction by misguided, selfish policies and groundless fears that promote their extermination. This lion, writes Stolzenburg, had been one of a decreasing number of survivors “as hunters' quarry, public enemy, and roadkill candidate, dodging the armed sportsmen and police and the vehicular predators.” In 1914, Congress appropriated money at the behest of cattle raisers and sheep farmers to provide bounties for mercenary hunters, who had the mandate to rid the country of predators. In the 1960s, conservationists succeeded in eliminating bounties, and hunting seasons were established. As a result, a small colony of the lions have survived in the Dakota Hills, but powerful ranchers still agitate for their complete extermination. Myths abound about the extent of the danger the lions pose to humans and pets when they wander down from the hills. In the 1970s, writes the author, there were 16 attacks on people, resulting in three deaths. Though many more sightings were reported, most of those proved to be mistaken. Stolzenburg does not minimize the importance of removing these wild animals from populated areas, but he argues persuasively that an extermination policy is unnecessary and repugnant on moral grounds. Moreover, the lions play an important ecological role, keeping down the populations of deer and rabbits, which, when left unchecked, strip forests of vegetation.
A serious, engrossing look at issues influencing state and federal conservation policy, though not for readers looking for a feel-good tale.