Spreading Wings of Hope
JACKSON HOLE, Wyo. – Ricky Pires plods through two feet of crusted, powdery snow on the edge of Bridger-Teton National Forest. Flurries fly on the frigid wind as she and her team trudge in the snowshoe wake of a biologist.
They’re searching for cougar tracks in the vast whiteness of the Wyoming winterscape – a far cry from Pires’ natural habitats: the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge in Big Cypress Swamp, the CREW Marsh Trails and the Panther Posse room in FGCU’s Reed Hall, where she and her volunteers educate schoolchildren about conservation and Florida’s endangered cat.
But “Ms. Ricky,” as the youngsters call her, is on a mission to take her message beyond Southwest Florida. A nonprofit group that advocates cougar protection worked with Pires to adapt her program for Wyoming’s native cat. This fall, she heads to Georgia to train volunteers there for a posse program scheduled to launch in 2013. With another prospect in Argentina, she’s opening the door to wider awareness of the need for wildlife conservation – as well as gaining priceless international exposure for the university.
Last spring, FGCU’s award-winning 12-year-old Panther Posse program spawned its first offspring: a Cougar Posse in Jackson Hole, Wyo. Elementary schools around the small valley town tucked in between the Grand Teton and Gros Ventre mountain ranges sent their first classes through the free program in March.
The youngsters learned how to identify the tracks of cougars and other wildlife. They ducked into a camouflage tent to discover how cougar kittens are tracked and studied. They danced a conga line to “The Pink Panther Theme” between learning stations.
“It didn’t take much to get me hooked on this,” says Bari Bucholz, a science teacher at Journeys School, a private K-12 institution in Jackson. “It ties into concepts we are teaching, integrates a lot of different subjects. And it’s the kind of learning where they don’t realize they’re learning because it’s fun.
“It’s kind of a stewardship thing – it ties them to this place.”
Making that connection to the natural world is what everyone involved hopes will inspire children to respect wildlife and practice conservation. If not, the cougar could face the same fate as its endangered cousin, the Florida panther. Licensed hunters can still kill mountain lions for sport in Wyoming and 12 other states, and cougars are often captured and moved without regard for their needs because of public safety fears.
“It will work,” Pires assures organizers in Wyoming. “It’s just going to take a lot of time. If we start now, you won’t have an endangered species.”
Photos offer rare glimpse of cougars
Acclaimed natural history photographer Tom Mangelsen, whose cougar images are featured in this spread, has had his work published in National Geographic, Audubon, Smithsonian and Life, among other magazines. His galleries, Mangelsen - Images of Nature, are located in six states.
In 2000, he published “Spirit of the Rockies: The Mountain Lions of Jackson Hole,” a collection of photographs shot during the unprecedented appearance of a family of mountain lions on the National Elk Refuge in Jackson in winter 1999. His images offer a rare glimpse into the natural life of the elusive predator.
“It was such a great opportunity to see a cougar family as wild as you could get,” Mangelsen says. “They were there for 42 days. Within two weeks, there were 500 people coming and going, hoping to get a view.”
That experience – and the knowledge that mountain lions have few protections in Wyoming and other western states – inspired him to co-found The Cougar Fund in 2001, to promote scientific research and the survival of the species.
The nonprofit organization now has more than 2,000 members in 48 states.
“People are impassioned about it,” says co-founder Cara Blessley Lowe, a writer and photographer based in Jackson Hole and Los Angeles. “We started homing in on the scientific side. Science cuts through ethical and emotional arguments.”
For more information, go to www.cougarfund.org.