Editor, and Jennifer and John:
Congratulations and good work on the Town Crier column. The James Reserve is highly esteemed and the column should be well received.
I was particularly interested in the comments about the relationship between lions, deer and the flora. We see many Lemon Lily flower buds that are eaten by deer (as much as one-third in some years in some places). I have written about this delicate balance. If the deer population is fixed and the Lemon Lily numbers are high, the percentage of flowers eaten remains low. However, if the deer population increases and/or the Lemon Lily population decreases, that percentage could change and result in a slow, downward spiral for the Lemon Lilies. Perhaps this is already occuring.
I remember visiting the wolf reserve near Julian. They spoke about the beneficial effect on the flora following the introduction of wolves into Yellowstone. It wasn’t so much that the wolves were eating a lot of elk, reducing their numbers, but it changed the behavior of the elk. They were always on the move looking over their shoulder for the wolves, so to speak, which reduced the amount of time spent foraging in any one area, preventing over-grazing, which is the same relationship you describe between lions and deer.
We never see mountain lions on our forays into the San Jacintos, but we are aware they are there. While conducting the Lemon Lily survey in 2009, we saw a badly decomposed deer carcass in Tahquitz Creek. One in our party speculated that it had been killed by a lion and dragged into the creek in an attempt to keep the meat fresh in the cold water. Do you know if that is a documented behavior of lions?
Glad to see that you found the column on mountain lions interesting. I myself found your observations regarding the Lemon Lilies and they being eaten by deer interesting. It is this type of relationship you outlined that is the true basis of my assertion that top predators like mountain lions are indeed the shepherds of nature. The many past experiences where we have purposely reduced or eliminated mountain lions, wolves and other large predators have taught many of us their true value.
I and many have written extensively on the impacts of the lack of predators. In Yellowstone, we were indeed the first to document that the return of wolves changed elk behavior and we predicted the changes we are now seeing there.
It is the basis of this work that we formulated the concept of the landscape of fear where, as I pointed out in the column, prey, such as deer, alter their use of the landscape based on the fear of being killed. What this does is to basically provide safe areas for favored plants, such as the Lemon Lily, where they can survive. Without this landscape of fear, deer can roam the landscape like cows, searching for the food they prefer, leaving the plants, such as exotics, they don’t care for. The result of this is a major decline in these preferred native species.
This is the situation in the East where wolves and mountain lions have been absent for more than 100 years. In the South, the ginseng industry is declining because deer are getting to them before humans can. In fact, the whole Eastern forest ecosystems are in danger because deer love the seedlings of many of the major tree species, halting recruitment and thus threatening regeneration.
Foresters have particularly significant problems with deer regarding reforestation efforts. The people of the West need to visit Eastern forests just to appreciate the value of having mountain lions and now wolves on the landscape.
As for your specific question regarding whether mountain lions might “cache” a deer in the water, I have not heard of this before. Usually, the major concern of lions regarding their food is to hide it from other animals. such as coyotes. and so they normally drag it under a tree and bury it. Although I have not heard of it, however, it does not mean it is not possible. Lions are very adaptive and possibly in the dry, southern areas, it is something they might do. As they do leave distinct signs when they kill a deer, it is possible many times to verify that they did kill an animal.
I hope I have provided you with additional information on how important predators like mountain lions are to the maintenance of biodiversity, especially for many flowering plant species, and again appreciate your interest in the column. Feel free to contact me in the future and we can discuss this even more.