Requiem for a Mountain Lion

Photo: US Fish and Wildlife Service.

Last Saturday, an emaciated mountain lion (50 pounds underweight) killed a mountain biker on the foothills of the Cascade Range near North Bend, Washington, a small town not far from Seattle. The city’s name is an anglicization of Chief Si’ahl, a Suquamish leader best known for what was likely an apocryphal speech addressed to the territory’s governor Isaac Stevens that warned about the threats to mother nature and native peoples posed by capitalist development. It was occasioned by the 1855 Treaty of Port Elliot that Stevens forced on them at the point of a gun:

Your dead cease to love you and the homes of their nativity as soon as they pass the portals of the tomb. They wander far off beyond the stars, are soon forgotten, and never return. Our dead never forget the beautiful world that gave them being. They still love its winding rivers, its great mountains and its sequestered vales, and they ever yearn in tenderest affection over the lonely hearted living and often return to visit and comfort them.

Day and night cannot dwell together. The red man has ever fled the approach of the white man, as the changing mists on the mountain side flee before the blazing morning sun.

American history is replete with stories of Indian removal and species extinction. After all, they go hand in hand. Perhaps the first occurrence was in upstate New York in the Catskill Mountains, an area I am intimately familiar with. I grew up in Sullivan County, the home of the Borscht Belt in the southern Catskills. While I loved the countryside growing up, there were hardly any Catskill mountains to speak of. We were blessed by the presence of the Shawangunk Mountains that I could see from our living room window. After graduating high school, I entered Bard College and eventually lived in a dorm that overlooked the Catskill Mountains proper just across the Hudson River.

The river, of course, is named after Henry Hudson who had been hired by English merchants to discover a Northwest Passage to India. He never got around to that but made some important discoveries in the Northeast, including Hudson Bay and the Hudson River. After Dutch colonists began to settle along the river, they gave the area a name: Kats Kill. While mountain lions (the Kats that roamed the area in abundance) can certainly kill as indicated by the North Bend incident, the word is Dutch for river. For example, the Beaverkill is a legendary trout stream in N.Y.

This year the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declared that the east coast mountain lion is extinct except for Florida. The cause is obvious: destruction of their habitat. These solitary animals require large, unmolested hunting grounds that have been disappearing across the entire east coast. Indeed, these gifted hunters were the targets of ranchers and farmers who considered them a nuisance, just like wolves. A combination of habitat loss and rifles removed them from the Catskills. Perhaps the mountain range should have been renamed Killscats.

The word Shawangunk was a Dutch transliteration of the Munsee Lenape word Shawankunk, which meant “in the smoky air”, a reference to the mist that blanketed the mountains. We can assume that the Shawangunk Mountains were home to the mountain lion, just as they were to the Munsee Indians.

In the late 17thcentury, British colonists ethnically cleansed the Munsees from their villages in the Shawangunk and Catskill Mountains. Like the city of Seattle, their name crops up in a couple of cities. Monsey, N.Y., now a predominantly orthodox Jewish settlement in Rockland County just north of New York City, was originally home to many Munsee Indians. It is likely that many of them ended up in Muncie, Indiana, where they ended up after being driven from their homeland. Ironically, Muncie was the prototype for Robert and Helen Lynd’s “Middletown: A Study in Modern American Culture” that depicted the city as the prototypical “red state” locale. The Lynds, of course, were the parents of long-time revolutionary Staughton Lynd, who would certainly have found the Munsees more civilized than the colonists who expelled them.

Finally, it should be noted that the Munsees were a subgroup of the Lenape Indians that were dominant in New York and New Jersey. Another subgroup lived on the island my high-rise occupies, namely Manhattan that was an anglicization of the Lenape word Manna-hata that meant island of many hills. The first reference to the word was found in the log of Robert Juet, an officer on Henry Hudson’s Half Moon that explored the river in his name. The Manhattan subgroup was called the Canarsees that supposedly sold the island to Peter Minuit for $24 in 1626. As should be clear, the Lenapes had no concept of private property and thus had little grasp of what this transaction meant. And even if they did, a blunderbuss would have sealed the deal.

Unlike the eastern United States, mountain lions can be found throughout the West and even near major population centers like Seattle. Indeed, half of Washington State is considered mountain lion habitat. But the same “development” that drove them into extinction in the east threatens them now in Washington according to the state’s Department of Fish and Wildlife. They estimate that there are 1,500 but declining due to increased trophy hunting and habitat loss. Even with forty years of “protection” as a regulated game animal, such numbers represent a downward spiral headed toward extinction.

Media reports on the mountain biker’s death have largely been focused on how atypical the attack was, reassuring readers that it was okay to hike, bike or camp in areas that used to be their exclusive hunting grounds. Instead, the hunter became the hunted. In 1996, Washington State banned the use of hound hunting for mountain lions, a progressive measure whose purpose was defeated by a relaxation of hunting laws. The season was extended by six months, the bag limit doubled, and the quota of licensed hunters expanded past the 1,000 limit. Soon, there were 60,000 hunters all eager to remove the “pests” from civilized society, with their appetite for ranch animals.

When a rifle could not do the job, the loss of habitat due to “development” was certain to succeed. Experts believe that they need at least 850 square miles of uninterrupted habitat in order to persist with only a low risk of extinction. But habitat fragmentation is going to increase as long as unbridled capitalist development continues apace. In its inexorable drive to turn the natural world into fodder for the industrial machine, capitalism undermines its own viability.

On the food chain, the mountain lions have evolved to consume ungulates like the white-tailed deer. When mountain lions die off, the numbers of such beasts grows uncontrollably. When they do, they can consume the vegetation that grow naturally along the foothills in places like the Pacific Northwest and are a natural block to mudslides. Engels warned about unintended consequences in “The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man”: “When the Italians of the Alps used up the pine forests on the southern slopes, so carefully cherished on the northern slopes, they had no inkling that by doing so they were cutting at the roots of the dairy industry in their region; they had still less inkling that they were thereby depriving their mountain springs of water for the greater part of the year, and making it possible for them to pour still more furious torrents on the plains during the rainy seasons.” This irrational use of natural resources, including the destruction of animals at the top of the food chain like mountain lions or wolves, poses the same kind of threat.

One imagines that the mountain lion once flourished in the foothills around North Bend, where the mountain biker was killed. Where they flourished, you could reasonably expect that native peoples would also flourish.

The town was once home to the Snoqualmie Indians who had lived there for thousands of years. In 1855, they signed the Treaty of Point Elliot that was also signed by Chief Si’ahl and representatives of five other bands. In the 1850s, white settlers began seizing Indian land despite the Nonintercourse Act of 1834 that prohibited such incursions. When Indians retaliated, the whites punished them through overwhelming force just as occurred throughout the rest of the U.S.

Using the authority of this treaty imposed by force, the aforementioned Isaac Stevens set about forcing the various Indian nationalities into reservations. Before the colonists imposed their will, the Indians had been used to dealing with the Hudson’s Bay Company that was incorporated in 1670 as a direct result of Henry Hudson’s discoveries. It exchanged manufactured goods such as steel knives for the pelts that native peoples procured. Despite being colonists, the British were more honest than the Americans that came to dominate the Washington territory in the early 1800s.

Chief Si’ahl’s speech, whatever its provenance, was arguably a true reflection of the sense of fatalism that suffused the Indian population of Washington State. Near the conclusion, he says, “And when the last red man shall have perished from the earth and his memory among white men shall have become a myth, these shores shall swarm with the invisible dead of my tribe, and when your children’s children shall think themselves alone in the field, the store, the shop, upon the highway or in the silence of the woods they will not be alone. In all the earth there is no place dedicated to solitude.”

Ironically, the entire human race now faces conditions in which all could perish from the earth. An article produced in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS) on Monday concludes that human beings amount to less than 1% of life on earth but have destroyed half the plants and more than 80% of all mammals. It states that “Over the relatively short span of human history, major innovations, such as the domestication of livestock, adoption of an agricultural lifestyle, and the Industrial Revolution, have increased the human population dramatically and have had radical ecological effects.” Incredibly, 36 percent of the remaining mammals are human and 60 percent are livestock—meaning only four percent are wild.

No matter how much these trends point to a breakdown and extinction not only of the mountain lion but all life on earth, the capitalist class has its hands on the throttle—full speed ahead. Much of the left is correct in identifying the capitalist class as largely responsible for these problems but there are larger questions about the long-term viability of civilization that need to be addressed. To a large degree, there is a kind of techno-optimism that lingers on in our ranks, largely inspired by Marx’s breathless paean to the bourgeois revolution in the Communist Manifesto.

There is no question about the astounding changes that capitalism has produced in the past 170 years when the manifesto was written but to assume that our future can be ensured through technical means alone is foolhardy. Despite my long-term adherence to Marxism, I have a strong affinity for the writings of the anarchist Edward Abbey. Abbey has been dismissed by some Marxists as an enemy of progress but in many ways that progress—if unexamined—will lead to our ruination.

Reflecting the bias of their day about history moving forward inexorably through the introduction of new technology, late 19thcentury Marxists simply assumed the working class taking possession of such tools as the steam engine could usher in the new age of communism. However, to assume that we can continue to exploit natural habitats to keep the industrial machine going without consequences will be our undoing.

I doubt that any socialist living today can project into the future the type of system that allowed people like the Munsee or the Snoqualmie to co-exist peacefully with the mountain lion but on a global basis supporting billions. However, unless we break the hold of the capitalist class on working people, especially their ideological control, we face a doom as certain as the mountain lion.


Good morning, Mr. Proyect,

A couple points regarding your Counterpunch Puma Requiem.

The place name Shawangunk originally did not refer to the Ridge. The name first appears on land deeds near the current location of the Watchtower Complex, on a rise overlooking the Shawangunk Kill at the end of Old Fort Rd. in Wallkill. This was the site of the final engagement of the Second Esopus War, September, 1663, when the Dutch marched down from Kingston, burned a Munsee fort/village under construction, and killed most of the Natives. Ray Whritenour, the Lenape linguist with whom I consulted in my research on the etymology of Shawawangunk, believes “in the smoky air” may be a kind of elegy for the dead by the surviving natives who sold those lands to Europeans twenty years after the massacre. It does not refer to misty conditions on the Ridge, as there are other Musee words to describe such conditions. The name spread to adjacent land deeds and finally the Ridge during the 18th century.  Shawangunk appears nowhere else in Lenape place names.

Mountain lions did not disappear from the East Coast due to habitat destruction. Like many of the Natives, they were hunted down/out for bounty. Simultaneously, their primary prey, deer, were wiped out by market hunting. New York State reintroduced white-tailed deer from Michigan.

Certainly, habitat destruction is part of the pressure facing pumas. However, they have recolonized to the edges of and even within every major city from Rapid City, SD west to Seattle (see Kertson’s research and Large Carnivore Lab/WSU) and south to San Diego. One male has been living famously in Griffith Park in Los Angeles for five years. I have tracked pumas five miles south of the San Francisco city line three miles west of SF Intl. Airport, in the parks above Berkeley and Oakland, and in the suburbs of Silicon Valley (see UC Santa Cruz Puma Project). 

Puma conflicts with pets and livestock, and human predation incidents like the one last week (the first death by puma in the US in 10 years, just the 4th since ’98), have been dropping statistically for twenty years, even as pumas have recolonized the exurbs. 

The longer pumas coexist with us, the smarter they get. 

There is more habitat cover and now far more prey for pumas to thrive on the East Coast. Our habitat analysis for Adirondack Park (3 x the area of Yellowstone) estimates that the Daks could support as many as 350 pumas. And based on California habitat use/recovery, we believe New York State can support as many as 1,000 cats.

With compliments,

Christopher Spatz
Cougar Rewilding Foundation
Rosendale, NY

Louis Proyect blogged at and was the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviewed films for CounterPunch.