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."
Loewen has been featured in several news stories in Helena's Independent Record, on local TV stations and even on the National Geographic Channel. He enjoys some small celebrity because he is one of the people Helena officials call when potentially dangerous animals like lions or bears turn up on private property or in the middle of the city. Loewen shot and killed a mountain lion on a deck in Helena's south hills some months back and another in February after it killed a couple of domestic cats west of town.
Loewen's job title doesn't convince Howser and the others that he made the right decision with this particular cub. When Howser found out about the euthanasia a few days later, she says she was bewildered. "If I felt it was on death's door, I wouldn't have bothered taking it over there. I would have just dealt with it until death, but I thought it had a good chance."
Howser says she and O'Brien only agreed to meet Loewen in the rehab center's parking lot because they believed he was going to try to rehabilitate the cub or transfer it to the center's manager, Lisa Rhodin. Howser is adamant that Loewen lied to her, claiming the warden explicitly stated he was going to make sure the cub was rehabilitated. O'Brien didn't go so far as to say Loewen lied, but he did say the warden gave them the impression that someone was going to try to rehabilitate the cub.
Loewen denies lying or giving them false impressions. "I think at one point I told them I would have to take a look at the cat and that it probably would have to be euthanized," he says.
That doesn't gibe with Howser's memory. She says it hadn't even occurred to her that he might do such a thing.
Asked if he thought it was possible that meeting Howser and O'Brien outside the rehab center might have led to their mistaken impression, Loewen says he met them there because they didn't know their way around Helena and they happened to know where the center was. Told that O'Brien lives in Helena, Loewen adds that it also made sense to meet there because the pair was coming from McDonald Pass and the highway passes by the center.
Howser, who wrote a strongly worded letter to FWP about the circumstances of the cub's death, says that almost a year later, she still believes the warden let his personal feelings about mountain lions affect his professional judgment.
Loewen denies this. He doesn't want to respond to "Janie Howser's personal attacks," he says, but then speculates that she might have been angry because he "had a pretty frank discussion with her about what they had done wrong" with the cub.
By the time the cub arrived in Helena, the issue of what they should have done back at the Lubrecht Experimental Forest was moot. O'Brien and Howser weren't planning to take the cat back over McDonald Pass because it was just a few yards from the rehabilitation center's doors. Loewen wasn't either, as events showed.
Neither Howser, O'Brien, Foresta nor Maus is a wildlife biologist, but all four saw the cat for extended periods and were convinced it stood at least a chance of survival, if not a very good chance. Maus returned to the idea a few times in an interview, looking for ways to prove the cub's health. While he believed it was still too young to walk, he says, he saw it pushing itself up, wobbling on its legs, "meowing and just acting like a kitten."
None of them thought to video the cub, but Foresta took several photos while Howser was caring for it. Most show the small cat wrapped in blankets with someone cradling it. One photo shows it holding its head up as it nurses on a small bottle of formula. In a couple of other pictures, it appears to be sitting up in a box under its own power. Seeing the cub do such things firsthand caused most everyone involved to think the cat was on the mend.
"They thought wrong," Loewen says, citing his biology degree and 12 years of experience as a game warden. "It was weak. It was not moving around. It was lethargic ... When I became involved, the animal obviously couldn't survive."
All that was left, then, were a few less-than-ideal options: a gunshot or exhaust.
He explains that he didn't like the former because it didn't seem as humane.
"It's a very difficult position to be in," he says.
Loewen says he followed American Veterinary Medical Association guidelines when he used exhaust to kill the cub. "Several different methods are acceptable," he says, "including carbon monoxide."
It's important to remember wardens in the field can't always use the AVMA's preferred methods. However, Loewen wasn't in one of the remote areas wardens typically refer to as "the field." He was in the parking lot of the wildlife rehabilitation center. And while carbon monoxide does appear in the guidelines as one acceptable means of euthanasia, the specific method Loewen used is explicitly discouraged.
The relevant passage from the guidelines lists three common sources of the gas that people have used for euthanasia: gas produced from certain chemical interactions, exhaust from idling combustion engines and commercially compressed gas in cylinders. It goes on, "The first two techniques are associated with problems such as production of other gases, achieving inadequate concentration of carbon monoxide ... therefore, the only acceptable source is compressed CO in cylinders."
FWP Warden Captain Sam Shephard says he trusts Loewen's assessment of the cat's health. Asked if FWP reprimanded Loewen for any aspect of the incident, Shephard says "it didn't rise to the level of a reprimand." But he and Loewen did talk about the choice to use exhaust, Shephard says, adding that they sat down for "corrective counseling" and decided "this form of euthanasia was not the way we wanted to handle these situations." If there were another situation like the one Loewen faced in May 2011, Shephard says, they decided, "We would contact our [state] vet and if our vet is not available, then we will take it to a local vet to have it put down."
Using good judgment
FWP used the death of the mountain lion to clarify unwritten policy with regard to euthanasia. But what kinds of levers, if any, does the department have to steer wildlife to the rehabilitation center when conditions permit it?
Loewen explains that wardens in the state's seven enforcement regions don't have rigid policies for what to do with every kind of wild animal in every situation because every situation is different. "We're sort of decentralized," he says. "As far as trying to connect [regional policy] with the center, there's no connection there ... you might get seven different interpretations." For example, he says, a warden who finds an injured black bear a short distance from Helena might be able to make a quick trip to the rehab center, but to drive a longer distance with a similarly injured bear might be unrealistic or cause undue harm.
FWP Assistant Chief of Wardens Mike Korn says there's no written policy that enforcement officers follow when it comes to whether or not to take animals to the rehab center. "We try to operate off the rehab center's policy," Korn says, "but we rely on our officers' judgment and experience."
What are the department's baseline positions? FWP Communications Director Ron Aasheim refers to the agency's "Policy on Intake, Rehabilitation, Holding and Disposition of Wildlife." Dated January 2010, it lists mountain lion cubs up to six months as candidates for rehabilitation and permanent placement. This means the center can accept injured or orphaned mountain lion cubs, though such cubs have to be placed in zoos or educational facilities rather than released into the wild. Biologists generally agree that large cats would become overly comfortable with humans during the long internments they would require before reaching maturity.
The policy authorizes humane dispatch of those animals "with little chance of recovery." It also outlines what FWP officers should do if someone presents them with a wild animal "with injuries that are not life-threatening and/or do not require treatment." It explains a few conditions under which an animal in such a situation should be returned immediately to the wild. Two relevant conditions are that "the animal is not injured in any way and appears in good health" and that it "has been out of its natural environment for less than 12 hours."
There is no statement about what should happen if an animal fails, in a warden's judgment, to meet those conditions. As for animals that require treatment or have been out of the wild for more than 12 hours, there is only a paragraph break followed by a subheading and a section for the Montana Wildlife Rehabilitation Center. There, one finds a list of animals that cannot be accepted under any circumstances; another for those that can be accepted for rehabilitation and release in the wild; and yet another for animals such as mountain lion cubs under six months that can be accepted for rehabilitation and permanent placement in a zoo.
If this is the only policy document on the subject, there is no explicit statement that FWP officers should or even could attempt to take animals to the center. There is only the inference created by the paragraph break and the subheading for the rehab center, as if drafters assumed the very mention of a rehab center made such a statement unnecessary. That would make state veterinarian Jennifer Ramsey's statement about FWP officers"hopefully, they use good judgment"ring that much truer.
Almost a year has passed since some well-intentioned people found a mountain lion cub in the Lubrecht Experimental Forest. In that time, Montana's wardens have cited scofflaws and poachers. They've helped injured animals and they've been in situations where they had to make snap judgments about whether to put some of those animals down. This bears mention because almost every FWP employee interviewed for this story said in various ways that this one little cat, big as it may have become in the eyes of those involved, was just one piece of a much larger picture.
In Helena, wildlife rehab center manager Lisa Rhodin had a busy year, too. Over the past several months, she's placed six orphaned mountain lion cubs in zoos in New York, Mississippi and Idaho.
That the cubs were orphaned might not be pleasant to think about. And any question about whether people should be happy about wild cats living out their lives in zoos is a topic for another discussion. But FWP wardens transported all six of those cubs to the rehab center.
An earlier version of this story appeared in The Helena Vigilante, at helenavigilante.com.