By DANIEL MCKAY
Even in his earliest days, the big cats of the Americas have captivated Jim Williams.
“When I was a wee lad, one of my movies as a kid was called ‘Charlie the Lonesome Cougar,’ and it was about a mountain lion in Oregon in a logging town, and every since I’ve been fascinated by them,” Williams told the Pilot. “They’re just incredible to me.”
Since that boyhood fascination, Williams went on to make a career out of his love for big cats and conservation as a whole. Now the Regional Supervisor for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, Williams recently published “The Path of the Puma” with Patagonia Press, which weaves the conservation work he and others have done for the cats in Montana and in South America — notably in the Chile, Argentina and Paraguay areas — with personal tales revolving around the animals.
“Mountain lions are an incredible species. They’re the most efficient large carnivore in the Americas, and they’re distributed from the southern tip of South America all the way up to central Canada,” Williams said. “The three themes of the book are tolerance for large carnivores, habitat conservation and the value of science and education. Kind of weaving them together in magical places.”
Between watching “Charlie the Lonesome Cougar” and publishing his own book, Williams has enjoyed a long career based in conservation and wildlife.
Originally from Iowa, Williams found his love for wildlife after moving to San Diego and spending time in and around the Pacific Ocean. After undergraduate studies at San Diego State and Florida State Universities, Williams moved to Bozeman to pursue his master’s degree at Montana State University.
In Bozeman he studied mountain lion ecology in Montana’s Rocky Mountain Front and since has focused on wildlife conservation in a variety of forms.
From 1999 to 2013 he served as Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks’ Wildlife Manager before moving to his current Regional Supervisor role.
All along the way, getting people to care about their big cat neighbors was a priority, he said.
“As much as I’ve done other things, mountain lion conservation work has kind of defined my entire career. The significant caveat, is that unlike most traditional researchers who are fascinated by cats, I love people. So my entire career, I’ve firmly believed in local conservation. If local communities care and are involved, mountain lion conservation, and other species, will be durable. It will last,” he said.
That attitude has been pervasive in Williams’ career.
He recalled many cold mornings spent patching up fences and explaining the delicate lives of mountain lions and other animals with Montana ranchers. Further south, he had the same conversations with ranchers whose own livestock were affected by the neighboring pumas.
In either case, explaining the need for conservation and bridging the concerns for both wildlife and humans has been the priority.
“It’s one thing to just study a species and publish in a journal and you hope that someone uses that data. My career really has been spent more taking that data and working to communicate it to local communities and trying to make conservation durable,” he said. “People and pumas, that combination really has defined my career.”
And while mountain lions enjoy a protected game animal status here in Montana, things are different further south.
Williams says for pumas in the Patagonia region, they’re either protected on national park land or unprotected on private land, with no middle ground regulations.
However, he said the conservation work going on in the area is a great case of people coming together to protect wildlife in whatever ways they can.
“I wanted to really celebrate some of the fantastic work that’s being done down there. And they don’t have the resources we have up here. Their greatest asset is passion down there, as well as intellect, and they’re doing some amazing things on very little,” he said.
When it all comes down to it, the species being protected aren’t the ones in charge of their fate.
“People are the most important part of conservation,” Williams stressed. “Right or wrong, it’s up to us whether these species remain on the landscape.”
“Path of the Puma” releases on Oct. 9. For more information, visit https://pathofthepuma.com/.