Erin Brown, Munds Park’s Wildlife Manager
Talks frankly with Munds Park about why dangerous animals need captured & the importance of keeping wildlife wild.
Nature lovers move to Munds Park because they enjoy the woodlands and all that goes with it—including mountain lions. They are majestic animals, and it’s exciting to catch them on our cameras and share the excitement on social media. Introduce a momma and her three cubs, and that adds to the thrill.
We featured mountain lions last month because they were on everyone’s mind, and it was an excellent opportunity to learn about them. After all, if we live in the mountains, we should learn about neighboring wildlife and how to co-exist.
Our feature noted interesting facts and basic safety guidelines. One of the main points was that mountain lions don’t like people, and their favorite times to hunt are dusk and dawn. Well, our mountain lion and her cubs enjoy the Park any time of day. There were several daytime sightings, including one significant moment, captured by Bob Kelly, Momma strolling through the Park mid-day without concern.
That, my friends, is a game changer.
Arizona Game and Fish (AGFD) requested help from our community and asked for sighting tips. Unfortunately, this request was met with resistance, anger and a lack of understanding.
Now, when I say lack of understanding, I am including myself. I’ve been learning about mountain lions right along with you. This is new territory for many of us. And frankly, some who think they know... really don’t. So when the controversy over capturing the mountain lions stirred, I knew it was time to call the experts.
Erin Brown, Wildlife Manager for AGFD, has been Munds Park’s Wildlife Manager for 14 years. Erin came to Flagstaff from Michigan armed with a bachelor’s degree in biology, a cardboard box, a bicycle, and deep respect for the outdoors. She slugged it out at Taco Bell until she could reach her goal, working for AGFD.
Becoming a Wildlife Manager takes dedication and a sincere love of animals and the outdoors. The process to join the AGFD team is demanding.
Before applying, applicants need a bachelor’s in biology or a related field. The application process includes an interview, extensive background check, psychological assessment, medical exam and a physical fitness evaluation. Once candidates make it through the initial evaluations and accepted into the program, the real fun begins.
Each Wildlife Manager goes through a 24-week law enforcement academy—The same training and academy Coconino County Sheriff Deputies and Flagstaff Police undergo to become a state-certified officer. Wildlife Managers are sworn Arizona peace officers with statewide jurisdiction.
Once the law enforcement training is complete, AGFD put recruits through thirteen weeks of specialized training on enforcing wildlife laws. After that, they receive an additional ten weeks of field training working under the wings of a seasoned Wildlife Manager.
They are dedicated, well-trained Arizona wildlife and land advocates.
The mission of AGFD is to conserve Arizona’s diverse wildlife and habitat for over 800 species. They ensure their numbers are sustainable and their habitat is protected and healthy. In addition, they work to make outdoor recreational areas and residential areas safe for humans and wildlife. They do this for us and future generations.
Unfortunately, when wild animals cross over into human territories, the job of the Wildlife Manager gets difficult.
Erin explained, “As urban communities are developed, we tend to have more interactions. Not only that, our view of wildlife has changed. Now people tend to consider wildlife the same way they see domestic animals. People want to feed them, get close to them, and some even bring them in as pets. They are not our pets—not even close. But because generations are far removed from wildlife, folks are just not viewing wildlife as they should, and it’s becoming more and more of a problem.
Communities like Munds Park have existed for a long time. Wildlife has always been on the fringes and should stay there. There is plenty of habitat for all our wildlife species. It’s not natural for wild animals to wander into communities. While we will occasionally see and interact with wildlife, we should not allow that to become the norm. Wild animals need to stay in their habitat. It’s better for them and us.”
Feeding wild animals, intentionally or unintentionally, is a big problem and a big draw for our wild neighbors. It’s the main reason wild animals will come into an urban setting. Every time a bird feeder is hung too low, feeding and attracting squirrels, feeding pets outside, feeding feral cats, letting domestic animals roam, and not correctly storing trash all attract wildlife. When prey animals are fed, their predators will roll in. When dangerous predators roll in and stay, it’s a problem and requires Game and Fish to respond.
Game and Fish follow specific policies for handling wildlife interactions. These policies are based on decades of scientific research regarding wildlife behavior and they are:
Category Four is a sighting. Game and Fish will note an animal has been observed in the area, and no further action is needed.
Category Three is a nuisance animal with non-repetitive behavior. For example, the animal got into somebody’s garbage one time. A Wildlife manager will offer education and help folks learn how not to attract animals to their home. If they need more support, they may visit.
Category Two is a potential threat. This would include multiple incidents in an urban setting, wildlife that is normally active from dusk to dawn is active during daylight hours, repetitively using human food sources, creating property damage, being injured or confined, or a female with young.
Category One is an immediate threat. The animal has threatened or attacked someone. Or, it’s been previously relocated and back to cause trouble, or tried to enter a dwelling or entered a dwelling. Animals also fall under Category One if they display signs of illness that can be transmitted to people.
If interactions with an animal become Category One or Two, the department considers the animal a public safety threat. Category One wildlife are generally lethally removed. For ill animals, there is no “live animal” rabies test available. Rabies tests require a portion of the brain or spinal column and therefore wildlife is killed and submitted for rabies testing so victims of wildlife attacks can use the results of the rabies test to inform their medical treatment. For Category Two wildlife, they can sometimes relocate it. In other cases, like all mountain lions, adult male bears, and adult coyotes, they are often lethally removed.
The scientific literature suggests adult males of many species are more aggressive and territorial and it has been shown adult males are more likely to return to the area of capture post-relocation and therefore not relocated. Juvenile wildlife and adult females aren’t as territorial or aggressive.
In the case of mountain lions, both males and females are lethally removed because of their territoriality. When relocated, conflict may occur in the release area, often resulting in severe injury or death of one or both mountain lions.
Our mountain lion and her cubs started as Category Four with just several observations. But because the sighting moved from camera captures in the night hours to several daytime sightings, including one human and cub encounter, they were moved from a Category Four to a Category Two threat at the beginning of February.
Game and Fish have no choice but to take action in the interest of human safety.
Erin noted, “Lethally removing an adult female mountain lion and her three cubs is not in anyone’s best interest. That’s why we decided to contract with Wildlife Services and try to relocate them to a Wildlife Sanctuary. We can’t let her stay here, getting comfortable, because we don’t want anyone hurt. So removing her is the only way to go.”
Social Media Armchair Quarterbacks
When the Pinewood News was asked to solicit tips through social media to help Game and Fish track our mountain lion and her cubs, it was mainly met with anger and distress. No one wants to see harm come to these beautiful animals, but ignoring the science and the nature of the animal puts our community at risk.
I asked Erin to correct or clarify anything she saw on social media. Here is what we learned.
The snow is too high for the cubs, and finding food is difficult.
False. There’s plenty of habitat and prey species in the forest for mom and her cubs. She must teach her cubs to hunt in the woods as nature intended. The snow is high and challenging, but mountain lions naturally live in snow country and adapt. This mom simply found it convenient to hunt here.
Further, if mom is allowed to stay, she will teach her cubs that hunting among humans is normal. Once the cubs move out, they may find another neighborhood to call home—putting the lions and the community at risk.
If you choose to live in the forest, you choose to live WITH the forest. To the people complaining about the lion, please move because you’re not wanted here.
False. Erin explains, “They were here first is not a valid case. We are here and have been—For decades. We are here and we have children. We have pets. And for parents, if they had to worry about a mountain lion living here or their child being safe, they will choose their child.
Think about it. When kids get scared, what do they do? They run. That is the worst thing you can do when facing a mountain lion. Running triggers their prey response, and an attack would be imminent.
That’s why I said earlier that the longer she is here, the more interactions there will be, and the chance of one of them going bad is good. You just need a child to run, or if a dog on a leash comes around the corner and barks, that’s nothing but bad news.
To provide for human safety, we must encourage wildlife that we are here, and it must return to its habitat. And leaving it alone doesn’t convince it’s unwelcome.”
Lots of people tried to tell people politely…. To shut up. No one seemed to have gotten the hints… next time we will be more direct and spell it out…..
False. Keeping quiet or bullying your community to “shut up” and not report sightings may hinder AGFD and put your community at risk of a serious incident. Let AGFD, trained and dedicated experts, determine the correct action.
Don’t allow people to deter you from doing what is right, and call AGFD with sightings at (623) 236-7201.
Game and Fish lethally removed a black bear from Munds Park about five years ago.
True. Erin remembers this incident and stated, “That decision absolutely came down to public safety. We received several reports. The first few reports were Category One, just some sightings. Then moved to Category Two after the bear became a nuisance. Then we got the call that it tried to enter someone’s cabin. That was our cut-off.
We did not have a choice. Public safety is our number one concern. We understand bears’ behavior, and we know this bear has learned to enter homes. If we had let the bear live and relocated it, it would do it again, jeopardizing the safety of the people we are here to protect.
Everybody wants a scenario where the animal lives, but sometimes it’s just not possible.”
After dedicating her life to wildlife conservation and serving Munds Park for over a decade, I asked Erin how the negative comments about AGFD on social media made her feel.
She said, “We use our training, experience, and department science-based policies to guide us—I know I do my job well.
So when people go online and say we’re doing a terrible thing by not relocating the mountain lion, all I can do is try and educate them. Because of my training and expertise, I know what a mountain lion’s behavior would be if I relocated it. I know what could happen if she were allowed to stay too long. So negative comments don’t get to me. I see them as an opportunity to educate.”
I asked Erin if she could ask the community to do one thing to help AGFD with their mission, what would it be?
“It’s critical to keep wildlife wild. That is the number one goal. As I explained, Arizona has plenty of habitat for all our wildlife. Allowing wild animals to become comfortable in urban areas increases the likelihood of a dangerous encounter and typically does not end well for the animal.
Everyone should remove outside food sources, water, and shelter that attract wildlife. Outdoor cats are considered urban prey species. If I had my way, I’d tell everyone to teach the cat to use a litter box and keep them indoors.
Properly manage your garbage. If you feed your pet outside, pick up the food. Close-off access to areas under your porch or cabin; Javelina love living in these spaces.
We also highly recommend not feeding wildlife. In bigger counties and in the city of Flagstaff, it’s illegal. Feeding wildlife is never, never beneficial. You only attract them to an urban community putting them and your neighbors in danger.
Feeding birds is okay. We ask that bird feeders are at least five feet in the air so animals can’t get to the feed. If the feed spills or gets knocked over, go out and clean it up.”
What’s next for Momma & her cubs?
AGFD is going to hang back a bit. Typically, their hound’s noses work better with fresh snow, and tracks are easier to see, so they may return after the snowstorms. They are really hoping Momma and the cubs move back into the forest.
In the meantime, AGFD want residents to haze Momma and her cubs. She must be convinced she doesn’t want to be here and move back into the forest. This is the best case scenario.
How to haze a dangerous animal?
Open windows and yell at them.
Set off your car alarm or honk your horn.
Use your hose and burst them with water during the spring and summer months, but stay safe and close to your front door.
Use a soda can filled with pennies. You can shake, rattle, or even throw it at the animal.
Use a blow horn.
Do not release dogs on them. Dogs will make them aggressive.
Remember, mountain lions typically do not want to interact with humans. As long as you don’t run and trigger her prey response, you can yell and stand tall to convince her you are scarier, and she will probably believe you. Unfortunately, as they get habituated to human movement around them, they tend to lose that natural fear.
No one in the Park wants any animal lethally removed, but if we continue to feed and attract them to the Park intentionally or through laziness with our trash, this will be the reality. Because folks, the safety of our community comes first.
Do the right thing and call Game and Fish at (623) 236-7201 with sightings of any dangerous or nuisance animal and keep you, your family, and your neighbors safe.