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More cat stories from Ghostwalker – Lynx, Bobcat, and Snowshoe Hare

Another story that was cut from the final version of my new book Ghostwalker, Here is one about lynx and their prey, snowshoe hares.

Today was a beautiful clear day, seventeen degrees when I started out on a snowshoe trek.  I’d heard from my friend Don that while hunting up Reef Creek last October, an area closed in winter except to foot traffic, he’d seen so many snowshoe hare tracks they were like scribbles in the snow.  Most winter visitors head farther north to the Beartooth Mountains to snowmobile, so this off-limits trek is a quiet respite.  Being a north-facing slope, the road had accumulated over three feet of snow.  A recent snowstorm left the snow soft and snowshoeing was a workout.

These “reefs” are a series of layered limestone plateaus. The access road climbs along the far edge of the two benches, winding to the second reef, where a maze of old logging roads carve even higher up into the mountains. Spring through fall, this is a wet place, as hidden springs run underground, emerging through the cracks in the limestone.

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Limestone reef

With deep snow, it’s a heart workout in my snowshoes, through thick forest on both sides, to reach a sharp turn in the road where a locked gate accesses a telephone line service road. I know that after I pass this first bend, the climb steepens, hugging layered slabs of limestone cliffs on one side, with a vertical drop on the other, until I reach the second reef. Don told me this second reef was where he saw the hare runs. I’m thinking of heading there, until I see the road is blocked farther ahead by an avalanche of snow at its most narrow juncture. I decide to explore the first reef that lies beyond the access road, but while snowshoeing back down to the gate, I’m hit with an explosion of hare tracks. Snowshoe hare tracks are exciting because they are so big, and testify to how well adapted these animals are to snow-covered habitat. Their oversized hind feet are generously covered with fur, and where I’m sinking they are having a party in the snow.

snowshoe hare tracks

Snowshoe hare tracks

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What’s interesting to me is not just these tracks, but their feeding evidence. This mountain has experienced a lot of logging as well as fire activity, resulting in numerous copses of young spruce. The evidence testifies the hares are standing on their feet, chewing off the lower tips of spruce branches. Nipped twigs and gnawed off branches are strewn everywhere underneath these groves.

Several summers ago, I saw a woman juggling armloads of equipment walking to the forest across from my home. We chatted for a while, and I asked what she was doing. She told me she was an independent contractor doing a job for the Forest Service.  “I’m working on a vegetation study.”

The Forest Service, she said, was using her information to understand if this was good lynx habitat. I knew the Shoshone Forest Service was working on their twenty year management plan at that time, a massive undertaking that revisits guidelines for everything from timber to grazing, oil and gas, to wildlife issues. I asked her how her work was helping the Forest decide management for lynx; what was the connection between our local vegetation and the meat-eating lynx? The connection, it turns out, is the hare; that speedy animal that the well-adapted lynx prey on.

Lynx, being listed under the Endangered Species Act as a threatened species, needed proper consideration and protection in the Forest’s plan. It wasn’t clear exactly how this woman was measuring good habitat with her surveying equipment by tying flagging of various colors to trees.  But that conversation piqued my interest in lynx. So I’m heading up to Reef Creek on this February day to investigate—are there any lynx here along with these hares?

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Lynx

I’d occasionally seen snowshoe hare in the forest she was surveying, as well as few tracks in other locations around the valley. We also have white-tailed Jackrabbits, and their tracks are very similar in size to snowshoe hares so easily confused. Today though, this higher elevation spruce forest was clearly snowshoe hare habitat. After a few hours of exploring for tracks, the only other spoor I saw came from coyotes. With increasing access roads and snowmobiles trails, coyotes are having an easier time venturing farther into deep snow areas of the winter backcountry where snowshoes live. One theory goes that coyotes are competing with lynx for food by reducing the snowshoe population. Less snowshoe hares, less lynx.

Lynx are made for snow with their huge paws, and the Yellowstone region is at the southern tip of their historic range, which made them uncommon historically in the Park. But there have been several sightings in the last fifteen years, mostly through confirmed tracks. A set of tracks was found in 2014 near the northeast entrance, just a skip and jump over the mountains from Reef Creek. In fact, looking on the Park’s website, they have a map with some red dots indicating confirmed DNA lynx evidence. There are only two measly dots in my valley.

Truthfully, I wasn’t sure if I could tell a lynx from a large bobcat, which I’d seen many times, hanging out in trees along my driveway or hunting in the neighbor’s yard. Anecdotally I’d also heard that our mail lady, who lived here most of her life, (which immediately qualified her, in the mind of the local gossip machine, to be able to discriminate between a lynx and a bobcat) had seen a lynx at my mailbox. Maybe a case of mistaken identity, but maybe not.

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Bobcat tracks

Those nipped buds and twigs, along with the large tracks, in a dense yet young spruce/fir forest, educated me about proper lynx habitat. Ten miles up my dirt road, heading west just a few miles from the Yellowstone Park boundary line, in an area that like Reef Creek had experienced burns and logging in the 1940s and 50s, has similar habitat. The following spring I looked around and sure enough, lots of snowshoe hare evidence there as well. So we have hares!

Hare populations, like other rabbit populations, run in cycles. Dr. Charles Preston at the Draper Museum, when I asked him what caused these cycles, joked that if he could figure that out he’d die happy. These boom and bust cycles regulate the rabbit populations, and with it the bobcat and lynx as well. Yet nature always throws a wrench in the works, and I’d read that in some southernmost hare populations, like the area around Yellowstone, these cycles don’t occur, but instead the hares remain stable at low densities. Maybe this might explain the persistent low population of lynx around here?

Even with all my exploring, lynx tracks weren’t forthcoming. Yet I did begin to consider the three cats that live here, their interactions, and what kinds of ‘cat fights’ might ensue. Lynx and bobcat obviously share similar food preferences. Mark Elbroch says that makes it difficult for them to share similar habitat.

“Where they share range, lynx typically stick to the higher elevations, where deeper snows give them the competitive advantage, and bobcats take control of the lowlands, where they assume the dominant role and exclude lynx through aggressive interactions.”

Elbroch also goes on to say that they occasionally hybridize. My winter explorations of the valley’s higher elevations had borne this out. Although I wasn’t seeing lynx tracks, the hares seemed to be living higher up, in densely wooded areas, whereas I knew cottontails filled the plateaus in the lower end of our valley at 6500’. Since I’d seen bobcats (and not lynx) with my own eyes, I decided to begin my quest for their tracks in winter, with the intention of understanding their habits.

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Bay Area Mountain Lion Stories

The creation of a book requires a lot of writing, as well as pruning. Sometimes those tossed passages are difficult to let go of. As I prepare to give several talks around the Bay Area, I thought I’d offer a few prime pieces from Ghostwalker that I hated to cut. This one includes a story told to me by a friend who lives in Marin County.

Home range sizes were still perplexing me. In my valley next to Yellowstone Park, deer and elk move elevationally winter and summer, with predators following. Fawns and calves born in the spring are taken advantage of by cougars, as well as bears and wolves. As the seasons progress, although young fawns and calves are too swift for bears, cougars easily prey on them. Also, such small prey can be eaten in one sitting, helping to avoid kleptoparasitism. As the game follows the green-up in the high country, they disperse, making for larger cougar home range sizes.

In the Bay Area, excellent forage and warm weather had deer staying put. Cougars didn’t have to travel. Looking at Rick Hopkins study of the Diablo Range, an average home range for a male was around 60 square miles. The Santa Cruz study was documenting similar male home range sizes. Marin County habitat is a mix of what’s found in the Mt. Hamilton and Santa Cruz Mountains—conifer forest mix, and large swaths of oak/woodlands. I can testify that the deer population is large and healthy, along with feral cats, raccoons, opossums and other small prey. I spent a lot of time as a landscape designer thinking about deer, rodent, and raccoon proof strategies for homeowners.

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Researcher Zara McDonald with cougar kitten. McDonald heads up the Bay Area Puma Project

I asked the same question to Bay Area Puma Project biologist Courtney Coons and she approached it from a different angle. “I think it’s quite disturbing. Why is it that just in this little strip [of the South peninsula], where the human population is quite dense, we see a ton of pumas, maybe six or seven? And we’ve had females with kittens in the south peninsula too. While maybe three males, at most, and no females with kittens, in the North Bay. I think that’s something we need to figure out.”

What makes for good habitat? While Marin has some of the best connected pristine habitat in the Bay Area, pumas are just not using it much. Are there too many people biking and hiking as the playground for San Francisco weekend warriors? Or, an alternative idea Courtney has, is that corridors in the south bay are easier to spot, while corridors from Marin to Sonoma are just not easily found. Using Google Earth, Courtney shows me large stretches of ranchlands, land with no cover that cougars would have to cross to disperse. Although young dispersers don’t know where they are headed, they do know the difference between cover and no cover. Coon says “we have two criteria for good lion habitat: deer and cover.”

Map of Bay Area

Unlike Los Angeles, the Bay Area has a lot of potential for lion “meet and greet” corridors. That is what researchers are exploring.

Although researchers are loathed to use undocumented ‘sightings’ as evidence of cougars, over the years there have been many such reports in Marin before camera work was taking place. I lived in Lucas Valley for almost twenty years. The valley corridor (no relation to George Lucas although his Skywalker Ranch is located farther up the valley) and surrounding hillsides are oak woodland habitat. As one travels west up the valley, the fog belt begins and with it the Redwoods and douglas fir forest. Most of the surrounding hills are protected open space, while the more populated basin, a mix of housing developments, single homes, ranches, and state park, feeds all the way to Point Reyes Station and Nicasio, including north to Petaluma. Continuing west to the ocean is the large swath of Point Reyes National Seashore. Central Marin consists of hills and valleys—people live in the valleys while the hills are mostly protected. It’s a nightmare for cell service.

Lucas Valley was named after the rancher that owned these lands. In the 1960s he sold to developers who divvied up the lowlands, while a farsighted group of homeowners raised enough funds to purchase the surrounding hillsides. Once purchased, they gave it to the county Open Space District to manage. A perennial stream, named Miller Creek, runs through the valley. When I lived there, I heard tales of trout runs and arrowheads in the 1950s. When nearby Miller Creek Middle School was being built, a Miwok Indian camp was unearthed along with a large shell midden. The archaeologists put up a chain-link fence to protect it from school kids and pot-diggers. Now it’s a large lump of weedy dirt, waiting for later exploration, sitting beside basketball hoops. When new buildings were going up at George Lucas’ Skywalker Ranch, the crews uncovered Indian burial sites. Obviously, this was a favored valley for thousands of years.

The local elementary school is also adjacent to Miller Creek. During the dry season thirsty deer come to drink and the predators follow. It was at this time of year, during the mid-90s when I lived there, that my neighbors saw cougars. Cougar alerts for the school were commonplace. A neighbor looked out the kitchen window and in the atrium, was a large cougar. The cat entered from the open roof, found what must have looked to him like a hole leading to a sunny cave, so he jumped in. The owner called the district office, who tranquilized and moved the cat. During the time I lived in the valley, I probably heard about five reliable reports from friends who spotted cougars. Possibly many of those sightings were the same cat.

My friend Arjun Khalsa told me a story that took place in 2009. Arjun lives in a typical housing development at the mouth of Lucas Valley. A maze of streets and middle-class single-family homes, many of the houses, including his, abut protected hills of grassland dotted with mature oaks. An avid birder and naturalist, Arjun was walking the hills behind his house on a daily basis with binoculars and a tape recorder, observing multiple generations of white-shouldered kites. On one of these walks, Arjun ran into two women who told him about several long-tailed weasels occupying one of the bluffs. Since the hill was along Arjun’s path, he inspected it more closely, yet saw nothing unusual within and around the thick grasses.

One morning on his walk while looking for the birds, on the hill above is a large cat, staring at Arjun and his dog, Merlin. By comparing the size of the cat to Merlin’s sixty-pound frame, Arjun can tell this cat is at least one and a half the weight of Merlin, and several inches taller. “It’s kind of a charged moment”, Arjun tells me, as “the cat turns around and saunters away from me, exposing very large pads on the bottom of its hind feet, and a big sweeping tail slowly going back and forth, left to right, in a fluid, confidant slow motion that was almost hypnotizing as he walked away.”

Cougar

Lion in east Bay

Through his binoculars, Arjun watched the big cat head directly for the same hill that the women told him weasels lived on. He followed the cat, staying far behind, yet all the while watching through binoculars, until the cat turns and stares directly at him. At that point Arjun returns home, calls the ranger, describes what he saw and the ranger verifies he saw a lion.

The following day Arjun heads back to the bluff where the cat had disappeared. He’s been there many times before, but today was unique, for the entire hill, all of the soft dirt and grass within a patch of fifteen or twenty feet, was ripped up. And scattered over the area was brown fur, weasel fur. With the grass and the dirt exposed, Arjun could see little tunnels all around.  At that moment, says Arjun, “it was absolutely clear to me that this lion had been looking back at me and saying ‘this is my dinner dude, and you are staying away from here.’”

Here is a link to all my presentation in January around the Bay Area. The first of many will be held at the REI in the Marina. Hope to see you at one of my events!

Leslie Sleepy lion

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sacred Sites and Mountain Lions

In the course of research for my new book Ghostwalker: Tracking a Mountain Lion’s Soul through Science and Story  I learned of an unusual site in New Mexico’s Bandelier National Monument named Shrine of the Stone Lions.

Stone Lions

recumbent stone lions surrounded by a wall of stone with east facing door

There are few examples of cougar rock art throughout the Western states, although more exist in the Southwest. But Bandlier’s Lion Shrine is not really rock art at all, but two recumbent lions carved out of individual pieces of volcanic tuff. The carvings lie side by side and are close to life sized figures with a crude wall of boulders encircling them. To keep them off the grid of people’s attention, the National Monument doesn’t even refer to the lions on their website. Local tribes consider The Stone Lions a sacred site. Pilgrimages are made even today by Cochiti and Zunis, who leave offerings around the shrine. Although it’s not known exactly what these unique carvings represent, speculation is this was a hunting shrine for ancient Puebloan peoples. Not too far from this site, another single lion shrine lies outside the Park, its location on an obscure mesa kept highly secret. Like the Shrine of the two Stone Lions, this is also a recumbent lion surrounded by a stone circle. Several years ago, the University of New Mexico used a helicopter to remove the lion and deliver it to the Maxwell Museum. Amid loud protests, the carving was returned to its original site, although the tail is now missing.

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One of several canyons that needs to be descended and ascended on the 13-mile round trip hike

With finalization of Ghostwalker’s manuscript, I had a strong impulse to make the pilgrimage myself to the carvings. The hike seemed to embody the completion of my journey with the lion’s tale, but also a spiritual celebration of the animal. A final and fitting end to the book’s story.

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Walking inside one of the many canyons on the way to the Shrine

I was in SW New Mexico last March for several weeks exploring the Gila, so on my return to Wyoming I traveled to the town of Los Alamos which is near Bandelier. Since the exact location of the Shrine is not on the Park’s website, I went to their visitor center the day before to inquire as to how to get there. The Park employee told me they no longer reveal anything about the location because the Puebloan peoples do not want others making non-traditional offerings or desecrating the site.

 

Since I had a rough idea of where to go, I boarded the dog in Los Alamos and took off for the rugged 13-mile hike. In the process, one has to descend through several canyons and no water along the way. I took several quarts of water and stashed them for the return trip. I’m not a strong hiker, so I considered this a long arduous hike and prepared some minimal items in case I had to stay overnight.

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Looking inside from the door

The Shrine sits about a mile from a ruin named Yapashi Pueblo, considered at minimum over 1000 years old. Anyone visiting this site must approach it as you would any ancient temple or church–with respect, honoring, and never take anything from the site. A wall of large stones set upright ring the carvings with a door facing east. The carvings themselves are so old and weathered that one can barely make out the lions. In fact, I read one account that believes one is a lion and the other might be a jaguar. At the time of the carvings, both animals lived in the area. Offerings of turquoise chips laid over the carvings are the visible sign of native pilgrimages.

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Remains of Yapashi Pueblo

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Good view of the remains of the wall enclosure

The visit to the Shrine of the Stone Lions felt like the final chapter of all my efforts in writing Ghostwalker. I spoke with dozens of individuals, conducted over fifty interviews, and read mounds of newspaper clippings and scientific articles. Yet the hike and visit to the Shrine captured my initial impulse–the respect and love for this magnificent, powerful animal.

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Mountain lions, the ghost of the Americas

Ghostwalker: Tracking a Mountain Lion’s Soul through Science and Story began with a mountain lion track in the snow. After six years of tracking lions and following them on trail camera set-ups, I hungered for more information on these elusive animals. So I began interviewing dozens of people including trackers, biologists, conservationists, wildlife managers and even houndsmen, those who hunt mountain lions using dogs. Slowly a fuller picture emerged of this secretive predator. I never suspected my curiosity would turn into a book.

Below is an excerpt from the first chapter The Quiet Rapture of Observation along with some photos from the book and others not in the book:

On a cold wintry day in 1999, on the National Elk Refuge outside the town of Jackson, Wyoming, a local townsperson spotted something unusual moving in the cliffs beyond the grasslands where the elk were feeding. He pulled out his binoculars for a closer look, and to his surprise and amazement, there was a mountain lion with three kittens resting high up in an alcove, almost at the top of the plateau. The outcrop, called Miller Butte, was perfect protection, not only from humans, but also from a new immigration of wolves that was storming the valley like a rising sea, returning to the area for the first time since the 1920s.

It didn’t take long for the townspeople to learn of the cat family. During those first days, a dedicated few from town parked on the road, set up their spotting scopes and chairs in sub-zero temperatures, relishing this fortuitous event. It’s rare to see a mountain lion. Here was a chance to view a mom with her kittens—a wild cougar family—and spend hours delighting in their antics.

Cougar kitten

By the end of that first week, the rest of the world was showing up. They came in droves, more each day; a sign that read “Parking for Mountain Lions” suddenly appeared along the Elk Refuge road beside a specially plowed parking area. Photographers and nature lovers from across the globe poured into Jackson Hole for this rare sighting. For long periods, mom would disappear, only to return to gather up her kittens. Nine times over the course of their forty-two-day stay, she moved the family elsewhere to feed on a kill. The crowd grew anxious. Would the lions return to their makeshift den site? These were older kittens, and at seven months, they were no longer nursing. Soon they would grow beyond the age where they would wait, hidden, while mom traveled to make kills, returning only to gather them and take them to feed. Soon they’d be traveling with mom full time, learning the skills they’d need to feed themselves. Then one day, nearly six weeks after the lioness and her family was spotted, she and her kittens were gone, as quickly as they had appeared. Jackson resident Lisa Robertson voiced what all these newly converted local and national mountain lion supporters felt: “It was magnificent in every way. I’ll never forget it as long as I live. I wish it would happen again.”

F51 and her kitten from Panthera’s Jackson Teton Study

The sighting of this wild family left Jackson residents awed and aware. People who had never thought about mountain lions before were now questioning what might happen to the Miller Butte lions. What were the hunting regulations and the quotas?  Could the kittens be killed? And what about female lions—were they fair game for the hunt? Four months after the arrival of the lions, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s annual lion-hunting quota went up for review. The Department changed the quota in the Jackson hunt area from five mountain lions to twelve, citing growing reports of an increase in lion sightings. Quotas in most other areas around the state were doubled as well. The Department felt there were too many lions, but in a local newspaper interview, even the Agency admitted that “it is virtually impossible to get an accurate count of an actual lion population.”

F51 in her den in the Jackson WY study

The public voiced concern: there was not enough data on lion numbers; non-hunters, so-called non-consumptive users with just cameras and scopes, had no real voice in the decision process; and females with dependent young, like the Miller Butte mom who left her young to hunt, could be legally killed by hunters. The Miller Butte sighting spurred a budding awareness resulting in increased advocacy for Jackson’s lions. Tom Mangelsen, world-renowned wildlife photographer, and Cara Blessley Lowe, filmmaker and author, launched The Cougar Fund, a conservation organization, the first of its kind in Wyoming to focus solely on mountain lions. And with funding from the Hornocker Wildlife Institute, a sixteen-year project studying the mountain lions of Jackson Hole began in 2000.

Collaring a mountain lion in the Bay Area studies

We value what we know and love, yet a lifetime spent in the mountains or desert does not guarantee even a sighting of the black tip of a lion’s long tail. So how can we learn about an animal that is as invisible as a ghost?

Cougars or Pumas are revered in South American lore. A rock cougar paw of the Incas

Photos used with permission from Panthera’s Teton Cougar Project and Felidae’s Bay Area Puma Project.

Grizzlies and other wild news

The second edition of The Wild Excellence is out.  With ten new photos and updated information on grizzly bears, I’ve included below a piece from the new preface. Order direct from Amazon and tell your local bookstore to please order from their distributor for in-stock local availability.

In October 2018, my new book on mountain lions, Ghostwalker, will be available.  Ghostwalker: Tracking a mountain lion’s soul through science and story is an account of my personal journey to understand as much as possible about this elusive, secretive animal. To that end, I conducted dozens of interviews–with cougar researchers, conservation organizations, wildlife managers, houndsmen and trackers. You’ll find the latest, cutting-edge research explored in the book. More info to come later.

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Below is an excerpt from the new preface of The Wild Excellence.

“His cowboy boots are probably still sitting there.”

 

Jim was relating the story of J. K. Rollinson, the first Forest Service Ranger in the valley where I live. Rollison helped build a government cabin in the Beartooth Mountains in 1908. My new friend Jim, a slight man in his mid-80s yet still in excellent shape, had guided me the week before to another historic Beartooth site—a crumbling stockade from the 1860s hidden within a copse of spruce. Jim grew up in the Big Horn basin where he worked in an array of outdoor jobs throughout his life, including with the Forest Service. The cabin, he said, if it’s still there, was at Sparhawk Lake.

 

I knew the Beartooth Range pretty well, but hadn’t heard of Sparhawk. Jim said the lake was named after Ranger Frank Sparhawk. Sparhawk, along with Rollinson, used the cabin as a summer refuge while overseeing livestock operations in this high alpine environment. The small cabin saved the rangers a ten-mile rugged horseback trip from the Crandall Ranger Station. I was curious if any remnants were left. Pouring over a map, I found the tarn not far from Sawtooth Lake, a large body of water wrapped at the base of a mountain bearing the same name. A rough dirt road off the main highway leads to Sawtooth’s lakefront. The road is in good shape for the first mile and a half, then turns into a rocky, rutted mess. I pulled off where the road loses its shape and walked the final two and a half miles to the lake.

 

Spruce and whitebark pine forest, interspersed with verdant meadows of high alpine wildflowers, make this scenic dirt access road a popular weekend ride for off-road vehicles. The course is along a ridgeline overlooking a U-shaped wetland of marsh and lakes. The adjacent eastern ridgeline, visible at times from the Sawtooth road, is also a popular route. Called the Morrison Jeep Road, it’s an historic trail used as a connector route from the 10,000 foot Beartooth Plateau down to the desert mouth of the Clark’s Fork Canyon. The local ATV club was anxious for a loop trail joining Sawtooth Lake with the jeep trail. To accomplish that, the Forest Service would have to build a new road into and through the marsh up to the opposite ridgeline. That was another reason I wanted to walk this road. I had to see what kind of habitat damage that would create.

 

A few hundred yards before the final approach to Sawtooth Lake, I encountered a parked Toyota 4-Runner with Montana plates. That last stretch is too rough and eroded for even the toughest vehicle. I also heard gunshots. It was early September, not yet hunting season, but these fellows were using trees for target practice on the far side of the lake. I couldn’t see them, but sure could hear their antics. No one else was around, and thankfully the route to Sparhawk was in the opposite direction.

 

A small jewel hidden within dense tree cover, I found the remains of Sparhawk’s cabin by the side of the lake, along with a Forest Service plaque commemorating his service. Only the log outline of a tiny cabin, but no cowboy boots, remained. I ate lunch, then returned the route I came.  Walking the road back up the steep hill, I found the 4-Runner still parked on the small knoll. From this point, the road opens into a meadow edged with dense tree cover on its far side. Breaking the forest’s silence, a deep sonorous barking suddenly roared through the trees. I stopped and listened. The mysterious low-pitched “honk” came again, then again. I looked across the meadow just in time to see a large grizzly bear running through the woods, followed by a tiny cub. The barking continued and another cub ran to catch up with her bear mother. These little cubs, born last winter, referred to as cubs of the year or COY for short, were incredibly cute. All this raucous was far enough away, with me downwind, that I wasn’t afraid. Mom was headed for the lake at a quick clip. The barking continued, like an old man with a wheezy cough and a megaphone, and after a few minutes a third cub appeared.

 

Mesmerized by this scene, I momentarily forgot about the men still down by the lake who were probably fishing by now. Instead I reflected on the increasing use by grizzlies of this alpine area. The Beartooths are good habitat with intact whitebark pines—now a rarity in the rest of the ecosystem due to widespread beetle kill. Females who eat whitebark pine nuts are known to have larger litters. Here was a successful grizzly mother utilizing these resources.

 

When the bears were out of sight, I remembered the men. No chance for me to let them know those bears were on their way towards them. The quartet of bears would be at lakeside before I could even turn around. Hopefully the men would not run into them, or at the very least keep their cool….

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Missing Mama Grizzly

Last October our game warden was hunting in my valley when he was bluff charged by a sow grizzly bear.  This bear had three cubs of the year (COY) by her side. She first gave a bluff charge, but then turned around, huffed, and came at the warden again. It was then that Chris Queen discharged his hunting rifle and killed her. After some deliberation about what to do with her young, small cubs, the Wyoming Game and Fish decided to let nature take its course, giving them a slim chance to make a den and survive the winter.

Grizzly cubs stay with their mother for about 2 1/2 years. Born blind and helpless in the winter den, cubs need to learn everything about bear survival from their mother. What foods to eat and where to find them. One fall I was in Tom Miner Basin. A pair of two year old grizzlies were roaming together. I was told they’d lost their mother the previous fall, but somehow managed to survive the winter and thrive through the summer. COY surviving without their mother is a rare event.

Grizzly Cubs 2 years old

Tom Miner basin. Two cubs that survived when their mother was killed the previous year

When I heard about the sow’s death, my heart ached. I knew that bear. In fact, I’d just observed her and the cubs the week before. She was ambling across a pasture while the cubs pranced and played behind her. A few years ago, I watched her with two two-year-old cubs cross a meadow on the opposite side of the road. Every spring I would drive up the nearby drainage across from these meadows and find her tracks with cubs in tow. Little Sunlight, where the warden killed her, was not far from the area I’d observed the family. These were her haunts.

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Mama grizzly with her three COY in September shortly before she was killed

I wondered if those cubs survived. The Game & Fish said they counted them in their tally as dead bears. How many bears died in a previous year would determine how many could be hunted in the following. I’m sure they ear-tagged them though. My plan was to drive up their mother’s favorite drainage and see if I could either spot the cubs, or at best, locate their tracks. Mom always walked down the dirt road, then veered off into the meadows at a predictable place. Since I saw her there (either by sight or by sign) early spring and late fall, I thought maybe she tended to den in that area so the cubs might too. At the very least, I felt this was an area the cubs knew. To my disappointment, after an extensive search, the only tracks I could see were the faint sign of an adult male. That doesn’t mean the cubs didn’t survive, but the odds are low.

Grizzly print

Male griz about 12″ long and 5″ wide. He’s traveling towards the left of the print.

Just last week a person shot and killed a female sow in what they said was self-defense. She had several cubs with her. There was no mention in the article of the hiker carrying bear spray. It also appeared he was hiking alone, so his story can never be verified.

Last week I attended the very important Wyoming Game and Fish commission meeting. After hours of public comment, running 5:1 against a hunt, the commissioners voted unanimously within a few minutes to let the first grizzly hunt in the lower 48 in over 40 years proceed. We all knew the outcome of that vote before we even attended. Regardless, it was important we be heard. A spokesman for the tribes read a comment. The tribes requested that instead of a hunt, those bears be transferred to various tribal lands. If the Wyoming Game & Fish along with residents who say “have a hunt to reduce bear numbers” really believe that meme, then why not transfer bears to other areas where they once lived instead of killing them for trophy.

I was in Silver City, New Mexico last month. One of the last grizzly bears was killed in that area in the 1930s. An extensive study was done in the 1970s to see if the Gila National Forest would still support a small population of grizzlies. The study concluded that although there had been fire suppression which hindered some of their food sources, grizzlies could survive there. Since that time fires have come to the Gila and opened up the habitat. With livestock protections, grizzlies could once again roam the Gila National Forest and surrounding areas. The tribes could be the catalyst who help expand grizzlies into areas where they once lived where habitat is still suitable.

Grizzly habitat SW 1860

Yellow indicates grizzly range in 1860 in northern Mexico and SW USA

Wyoming has it backwards. The state feels it has to hunt the bear to reduce conflicts and bear population. Instead, they should be ramping up their efforts to teach people how to live around grizzly country, like carrying bear spray and protecting food sources. Plus they should cooperate with the tribes, transferring the 2018 hunt quota of 23 bears to tribal lands.

As William Wright so succinctly put it over a hundred years ago:  “grizzly bears are minders of their own business.” We can honor that bear temperament by leaving them be.

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Tired COY leans on Mama. I still haven’t seen any signs of the COY this spring

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Pumas leave their mark

Here’s a sequence at a scrape I put together. It is believed these linear impressions, made by males using their back feet, are intended to mark territory as well as attract mates.

Biologist Max Allen and his colleagues worked on analyzing puma scrapes in California’s Santa Cruz Mountains and Mendocino County. Allen put up trail cameras on puma scrapes, hoping to find answers to research questions. How are cougars using scrapes to communicate? Why do they go to such elaborate means, rather than simply urinating as canines do? After analyzing more than one thousand videos of scraping behavior, he concluded that lions could distinguish not only the freshness of scrapes, but also the individual lions who made them. This knowledge is only an icebreaker; biologists are still in the dark as to what information cougars learn from scrapes.

In this video, you can see how a male makes a scrape. A few evenings later several coyotes come to investigate. They leave their own calling card. Then a female cougar arrives to smells the scrape.

 

Interestingly, Allen, who was working in northern California where the top predators are cougars and black bears, discovered foxes were routinely cheek rubbing on puma scrapes, and doing this more frequently on the fresher ones. Cheek rubbing releases chemicals from the sebaceous gland, allowing animals to deposit their own scent, but it can also be a way of accumulating scent from the object rubbed. Since the fox cheek-rubbing visits didn’t correlate with fox breeding season, or with how recently other foxes had visited, Allen believes foxes were applying puma scent for protection from larger predators like bobcats and coyotes. In other words, foxes, being the crafty animals they are, were attempting to disguise themselves as pumas.

Here in the Yellowstone Ecosystem where cougars are subordinate to wolves, black bears and grizzly bears, red foxes don’t use this camouflage technique since smelling like a cougar might be an attractant, not a deterrent.

fox

But cougar researcher Mark Elbroch discovered a different unique behavior of Yellowstone’s crafty red foxes. Elbroch wonders if foxes might be following pumas around in wintertime, since foxes seem to locate a cougar kill so quickly. On the Panthera Teton Cougar Project in Jackson Wyoming, with the advantage of G.P.S. collars, Elbroch might, for instance, see a cougar make a kill at 4:00 a.m., and he would be at the site by 8:00 a.m. When the crew arrived, there’d be a fox on it already. Foxes take great risks, he told me, and, incredibly, they are rarely killed.

Research on cougars in Yellowstone National Park used trail cameras on scrapes. Dan Stahler, project manager for the current Yellowstone cougar study, has video of scores of other animals investigating these scent marks, including a grizzly bear that laid down on the scrape and napped for the day.

If you’ve enjoyed learning a little bit about cougars (sometimes called pumas, mountain lions, panthers, and many other names), then look forward to my new book that will be published in 2018 called Ghostwalker: Tracking a Mountain Lion’s Soul through Science and Story.

Ghostwalker_Poster