The Mysterious Cougar

I find cougars fascinating.  The perfect predator, they are so large yet rarely seen.  In fact, if you do see one in your lifetime, consider yourself lucky.  I’ve tracked cougars around here many times, but never seen one. I’ve seen their kills, and other sign, but never a real live cougar.

A long term major study is taking place around Jackson, WY, called The Teton Cougar Project, sponsored by Panthera and Craighead Beringia South.

Cast of cougar prints--right side is rear on top, front on bottom.  Cougar was going at a fast trot.  Left print is a direct register

Cast of cougar prints–right side is rear on top, front on bottom. 

In a 900 square mile area, the project estimates there are around 15-20 resident adult cougars and these numbers have declined in the last 7-8 years.  Complete project data should be out soon when the study finalizes.  But some interesting tidbits they’ve found has been the social nature of cougars.  Previously thought to be solitary animals, with males and females coming together for only a short time to breed, the Cougar Project has documented, through VHS and GPS collars, females with young kittens helping feed orphaned yearling kittens as well as adult females spending time together.  They’ve seen males who not only know where the females are at all times, but pay visits when not mating.  Truly, the fabric of cougar society is complex, with a lot more communication and interaction than previously thought.

One of the major reasons for the Jackson study was to find out how three top predators are defining territory and their interactions–grizzly bears, wolves, and cougars.  It seems the cougars have been suffering losses of kittens to wolves.  And having to share their kills.  A recent National Geographic show called Cougar vs. Wolf featured cougar tracker Boone Smith looking for cougar/wolf interactions in the Bitterroots of Montana.  According to the documentary, Smith found cougars would win out defending their kills when the number of wolves in any pack (or interaction) was low.  A single wolf, or a small wolf pack, tended to leave cougar kills once the cougar showed up.  Not only that, but dead wolves killed by cougars have been found in the Jackson Hole study as well as the Bitterroots.  Smith shows a wolf killed by a lion in the NG show.  If you haven’t caught these two shows,  I highly recommend them.Cougar paw

Cougar hunting goes on during the entire snow season here in Wyoming, from September 1 through March 31, until the area quota is filled.  Some areas have unlimited quotas.  I called WG&F and asked how they set their mortality limits.  The answer proved that it’s vague.  When a hunter kills a lion, he or she is required to present the pelt and skull to the department.  At that time they determine the sex and take a premolar tooth to determine the animals age.  From this data, somehow they are extrapolating population sizes in each zone.  cougar teeth copy

Given the secretiveness of lions and the necessity of collaring in order to obtain the data of the Jackson thirteen year study, I highly doubt that a premolar check is going to give the required full data for setting kill quotas.  I tried doing a rough square area count.  For my zone, I came up with approximately 3000 square miles and the quota is 20 lions.  The area north of Jackson, zone 2, is roughly 2000 or 2200 square miles with a quota of 5, and now at the end of the season, is still one short at 4 killed.  Wyoming Game and Fish is helping fund the Jackson study.  From this study they now have a good idea of the number of lions in that area, and the quota is 1/4 the amount of my area.  A lot of my area, zone 19, borders the east side of the park, but more than half is in the desert which is in the wolf predator (or shoot on sight) zone.  Cougars might be more abundant. Still, doing the math used by Panthera of 15-20 resident cougars in 900 sq.miles, that means 1/3 of the adult cougar population is being hunted and killed every year!

Was this a cougar scratch that was next to a stashed kill?

Was this a cougar scratch that was next to a stashed kill?

I’d like to learn more about cougars.  I know where to reliably find tracks in the winter in my area.  I’ve tried to study how to identify the signs of a cougar kill.  I’ve heard people say ‘”Found a dead deer killed by a cougar near such and such a place”; but just finding a dead deer (cougars main prey is deer in the summer; and deer and elk in the winter) does not qualify it for a cougar kill.

When I go out to the area where I know I’ll find tracks, I spend time looking in obvious places for a kill.  Cougars like to drag their kills into brushy or more hidden areas.

Cougar dragged this kill to the forest edge where Koda now is enjoying it

Cougar dragged this kill to the forest edge where Koda now is enjoying it

They tend to cover their kill and continue to return till its gone.  Sometimes they just eat the internal organs.  A few tell-tale signs are the way the hair on the prey is taken off.  A canine will just rip the hair, tearing it away with skin attached.  A cougar shears the hair, making it look like the animal received a scissor-like haircut.

Haircut look.  Hair is sheared off.

Haircut look. Hair is sheared off.

A few days ago I found a dead elk. It had been killed in the open and dragged under some nearby trees.  I checked the skull and found two puncture wounds. All the evidence pointed to a lion kill.

Look closely on the left lower side of the photo and you will see 1 large and 1 small puncture hole

Look closely on the left lower side of the photo and you will see 1 large and 1 small puncture hole

I returned to a drainage where in the past I’d seen lion tracks.  I followed it until I came to a 1400′ drop down into the canyon.

What was the cat doing down here

What was the cat doing down here

I had wondered if the lion, whose tracks frequented this drainage, had a den here, but I saw no sign.  What was he doing down here?  There were no deer or elk in this area.  If I walked along the canyon edge, a precipice jutted out where I’d seen mountain goats a lot (but not today).  Could the lion be hunting them? When more snow melts and I can follow a steep trail to the precipice safely, I’ll go back and see if I can solve the mystery of the cougar.

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2 Responses

  1. Thanks, Leslie, I tend to follow the wolf issue, but did not know of the mountain lion policy in Wyoming at all, so I found this both interesting and disturbing. As always well thought out and researched.

    The one time I saw a mountain lion in the wild, right here at the house, it was very unexpected, and exciting. One of my top wildlife experiences.

  2. Thanks for following! Cool about your sighting.

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