Pursuing the Puma

Longtime wildlife biologist Jim Williams explores the resilience of the iconic “ghost cat”

By Tristan Scott
A young Jim Williams holds a tranquilized mountain lion that his team darted deep in the Bob Marshall Wilderness early in his career. Courtesy Jim Williams

At a time when most wild animals face challenges amid increasing human development and climate change, the intrepid mountain lion has experienced reinvigoration as well as an expansion of territory.

Also known as a puma, a cougar and a “ghost cat,” the majestic mountain lion is gaining increased public attention with the publication of “Path of the Puma: The Remarkable Resilience of the Mountain Lion,” written by Jim Williams, a longtime biologist, wildlife manager and the supervisor for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks’ Region 1 in Kalispell.

Published by Patagonia, the book draws on decades of research and expertise Williams has cultivated in the field, both in North America and South America, where he’s frequently visited as he researches parallels between the Crown of the Continent ecosystem and the Patagonian wilds of Argentina and Chile.

As a biologist with FWP for more than 27 years, Williams has spent his career working with local communities to conserve mountain lions, bears, wolves, large ungulates, and their critical wildlife habitats.

Education has been a prominent element of his work to spotlight the species and their struggles, and his new book is the most recent and ambitious effort to date.

From Canada’s southern Yukon Territory to Tierra del Fuego in Argentina and Chile, the book explores what makes this cat, the fourth carnivore in the food chain — just ahead of humans — so resilient and resourceful. Williams shares stories of magical landscapes, remarkable wildlife habitats, and the people who work to protect them.

Big, wild cats worldwide are threatened and endangered — fewer than 20,000 lions persist in all of Africa, as few as 15,000 jaguars remain in the wild and and the global census of tigers has dipped below 4,000. And yet the mountain lions of North America and the pumas of South America are thriving, re-wilding entire continents.

Two centuries ago, the mountain lion’s range spanned from coast to coast in North America. However, the big cats were exterminated from most of it by government-supported campaigns that relied heavily on poisoned baits and bounty hunters. As the decades passed and attitudes toward meat-eating wildlife changed, mountain lion numbers started to rally across the western states. Now Puma concolor is the most widespread large mammal in the western hemisphere. The resurgence of this apex carnivore through the late twentieth century stands as one of the most remarkable wildlife comebacks in U.S. history.

“They are beating the odds, and their success provides a remarkable opportunity for wild nature to regain a toehold and to shape possibilities for the persistence of natural systems,” Williams writes. “They are hope for those of us who believe our future will depend, in large part, on finding the wild.”

Williams has worked with biologists in Patagonia on a variety of wildlife conservation projects. In the second half of the book, Williams takes readers to that far southern range as he joins researchers in ecosystems where the puma’s neighbors include pampas cats, kodkods, maned wolves, guanacos, vicunas, flamingos and condors.

Williams has been exploring the similarities between Patagonia, Chile, and Northwest Montana, working with their land and wildlife managers to explore the parallel and promote large-landscape conservation and park creation.

Participating in an exchange with Cristian Saucedo, an internationally known scientist and the conservation director of Conservacion Patagonica, which promotes the creation of new national parks, Williams has learned that although the two landscapes contain few of the same species, the ecosystems share a history of human pressure — of ranching and restoration, of predators bedeviled and brought back from the brink of extinction, of research and recovery, and of national parks in creation.

“Path of the Puma” doesn’t sugarcoat the risks of predators living among humans — mountain lions live at the intersection of human landscapes, livelihoods and lifestyles — but it points out the critical role predatory species play in the natural world. One example Williams points to is the threat that predator-less deer pose to humans as overpopulated herds are responsible for the spread of tick-borne diseases and collisions with vehicles.

Williams explains the balance of an ecosystem, telling readers to “think about carnivores … but most importantly think about their prey, and the grass the prey need, and the soil the grass needs. Conservation happens best from the ground up, when the whole system is intact.”

The book celebrates public, protected lands, praising wildlife advocates, hikers and hunters, anglers and philanthropists, and biologists who fought and advocated and lobbied for the creation of protected lands where wildlife can thrive.

Williams highlights the effectiveness of wildlife corridors in Montana — the underpasses, culverts, and bridges that connect habitats for lions, grizzly bears, caribou, wolverine, and other species in the northern Rocky Mountains.

With a wide release coming in October, “Path of the Puma” hits the road in September as Williams sets out for a book tour, which he’ll kick off at the Patagonia outlet store in Dillon on Sept. 18.