Just before Memorial Day weekend 2011, a group of U.S. Forest Service employees was finishing a training session in the Lubrecht Experimental Forest, outside Missoula, when some of them found a brush-covered depression in the ground and, in it, a tiny mountain lion cub.
The discovery raised the kinds of hard questions that Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks wildlife biologists spend a lot of energy addressing. Someone finds a cute baby animal. It's alone and seems to have been abandoned. The people are faced with a dilemma: Should they leave it where it is or intervene?
Biologists tend to say the best option is to leave the little animal where it is, because the mother is probably nearby. It can seem counterintuitive, but intervention can actually diminish the animal's chances for survival.
When this group found the cub, they left it where it was. However, according to Lubrecht's director, Frank Maus, they didn't entirely leave the area. They set up a motion-sensor camera to monitor what happened.
The mother didn't return that night. The next morning, the cub was more lethargic. Its mother didn't return that night, either. On the third morning, Maus went to check on the cat. It was no longer moving.
If things had ended there, those involved probably would have walked away feeling powerless and sad. But they had already interfered with nature and they felt responsible. Maus approached the cat to check for signs of life.
"It was stiff, almost like rigor mortis," Maus said. "But when I touched it, it raised its head. So we rolled it up in a fleece jacket and brought it down to the truck and put it by the heater and warmed it up a bit."
Janie Howser, who was Lubrecht's facilities manager at the time, lived in the area and kept several pets, so the group looked to her to be the cub's caregiver. She took the cub, wrapped it in a blanket, fed it some formula made for domestic kittens and gave it subcutaneous fluids. A local photographer who had also kept animals much of her life, Mae Foresta, said the cub wasn't walking yet but was "mobile and alert."
Maus said he was amazed. "Within a few hours, this little guy had come around."
This posed a new problem: What does one do with a mountain lion cub?
They knew Fish, Wildlife and Parks had jurisdiction, and they knew the department operated a wildlife rehabilitation center in Helena, so they tried to reach someone at the center, but they had the wrong phone number and couldn't get through. They kept making calls and eventually contacted a Helena-area game warden, Dave Loewen, who arranged to meet them at the rehab center.
U.S. Forest Service logging engineer Stephen "Obie" O'Brien was at Lubrecht, but he lived in Helena. He was about to make the return drive and offered to transport the cub. Howser rode along to help. Once in Helena, they met Loewen in the parking lot outside the rehab center, handed over the cub, and drove away under the impression the warden was going to try to rehabilitate it or transfer it to someone who might.
Loewen didn't contact anyone at the rehab center. Wardens sometimes consult with biologists or vets if they aren't certain about the best course of action, but Loewen says he didn't have to talk to anyone else in this case because it was obvious to him that the cub was dying.
So he euthanized it with exhaust at the tailpipe of his FWP truck.
'They thought wrong'
This incident occurred last May. It began with a well-intentioned decision to interfere with nature, and it escalated to the point where a group of state and federal employees found their evaluations of a mountain lion cub challenged by a warden who looked at the same cat and saw a starkly different set of options. The incident highlights the public's deep emotional investment with Montana's wildlife and the ways FWP policy navigatesor avoids navigatingfraught political waters.
State veterinarian Jennifer Ramsey says wardens are trained in ways to humanely euthanize wild animals and that she urges field staff to follow the American Veterinary Medical Association euthanasia guidelines whenever conditions permit. But, she adds, conditions in the field are not always optimal, so wardens have latitude to make decisions based on the situation at hand. For instance, though the AVMA might find an overdose of barbiturates to be a humane means of euthanasia, a warden who comes across a severely injured bear in the woods probably doesn't have a syringe or the ability to safely inject a wounded bear. Since so much depends on wardens' decision-making processes in the field, Ramsey says, "hopefully they use good judgment."