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Cougar Kittens are vulnerable in Wyoming’s hunt

Mountain Lion hunting season began in Wyoming on September 1st, although a few areas are unlimited and/or open year round (areas in gray in table are year round). Most hunters wait for snow in order to find tracks, then release their dogs on fresh tracks. Wyoming has a new law that hunters are not allowed to shoot a cougar that is traveling with other cougars. Supposedly this would prevent killing females with young. But there’s a rub to this rule.

Wyoming harvest cougar

Wyoming 2017 Harvest Data by Area.

First, some cougar biology is needed. Females can come into estrous year-round. If a female loses her cubs, or they disperse, she can and probably will mate. Cubs stay with their mom for around two years, but can disperse earlier than that. It is not unusual for a kitten to disperse at fourteen or eighteen months. Once a female kitten leaves her mother, she typically sets up a home range not far from mom. Females are considered reproductively active adults by two to three years old, while males, because they need to disperse farther and set up their own territory that includes other females, are labeled adults at three to four years of age, but both sexes are capable of breeding around twenty-four months.

Kitten grow fast. Although they weigh little more than a pound at birth, by 6 months they are more than 35 pounds, and by eighteen months a male kitten can weigh 150 pounds, outweighing mom who might be around 90 pounds. But these kittens have a lot to learn in their first year to year and a half.

In the first two months of life, mom finds a log jam, or brushy area and gives birth to very vulnerable kittens, usually 2-4 in a litter. During this stage, she leaves them in this makeshift ‘den’ while she goes off to hunt, coming back to nurse. By two months, the kittens are old enough to start traveling with mom, but cannot hunt yet. Mom will stash her kittens, go hunt, then retrieve them and bring them to eat on her kill. It is only by about 5-6 months old that the kittens travel full time with mom, learning the hunting skills they will need when independent.

two cougars, mom and kitten

Mom with 8 month old kitten

Back to the mountain lion hunting season and Wyoming’s new law. As you can see, Wyoming has no laws about not killing females, nor do they have male quotas and female quotas.

It is extremely difficult to tell the difference between males and females. Research found that 75% of mothers would not be recognized by hunters. So would a law saying hunters cannot kill cougars traveling together protect cubs and mothers? Absolutely not. During the first 6 months of a kitten’s life, he or she is not traveling with mom most of the time. And once kittens have dispersed, mom will be coming into estrous or already pregnant. So, at any time of the year, a female is either with kittens, pregnant, or in estrous.

Conventional wisdom says there is a ‘spring birth pulse’ in the rocky mountains. That might be the ‘usual’, but in the three years that I’ve been catching kittens with mothers on camera, all these kittens were born around September/October.

Cougar kitten 2:2017 single kitten

Single kitten around 6 mos. February 2017. Born around September 2016

That means that while hunting season is on now, a female cougar with kittens would be traveling alone, and so her kittens would die without her.

cougar kittens 2:2017

Two Cougar Kittens around 5 months old early February 2017. Born around October 2016

Research shows that roughly 38-56% of adult females killed by hunters each year are mothers with dependent cubs.  All the lion hunters that I’ve met with who are pushing for ethical reforms are completely against killing females. They want a ZERO quota on females.

Cougar Kitten 1:2016

Cougar kitten 5-6 months old Jan 2016 Born around September 2015

Wyoming needs more reform and there is much more to say about this which I will leave for another post. For now, enjoy this video of a mom with her two eight month old cougar kittens caught in May. Mom is the vigilant one in the middle.

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Wolves, the Winds, and a Spotter Plane

I now have zero tolerance for mosquitos, and my annual visits to the Wind River Mountains for the last several years always come after labor day. Almost every September trip I can remember comes with at least one day of snow but not this year. Although a few nights were in the 20s, the days were warm enough for shorts. But along with warm weather came limited visibility from the fires in Montana, (and throughout the West) meant the craggy flanks of the Continental Divide mountains were barely visible.

This year I picked out a small area where I’d never been–Bald Mountain and Chain Lakes. My other choice was Sweetwater Gap, where I went last year with limited time to explore. Bald Mountain has the easier access via a paved eleven mile road outside of Pinedale to the Elkhart Park trailhead. With the easy access, I arrived at 3pm and hiked five miles to Sweeny Lake. Everyone was pouring out from the Labor Day weekend, most probably coming from popular Titcomb Basin. The trail up Elkhart takes you along a wooded ridge for five miles before it splits to either Titcomb or Pole Creek. An otherwise non-descript trek except for the evidence of beetle-kill. Large pockets of whitebark pines dead–a sad scene in one of the last strongholds for these trees in the Greater Yellowstone.

Sweeny and Miller lakes are in a bowl below the ridgeline and add only an extra 1/2 mile, well worth it especially since there’s no water for five miles till Elklund lake–a popular campsite destination. Sweeny is a gem with no one around and some good camping spots. The full moon rose orange from all the smoke and only a bugling elk broke the early morning silence. These lakes have been hit hard with beetle kill.

Sweeny Lake

Sweeny Lake in the Winds

My base camp destination was Chain Lakes, about another seven miles. The trail is rocky but easy, passing through granite knolls till it reaches the crossing at Pole Creek. Before the crossing I sat down for a snack when a deer suddenly burst down the trail headed for the river crossing, obviously spooked by something. When the deer saw me it did a quick 90 degree turn towards the brush. An outfitter appeared with two mules a few moments later, bound for his wall tent camp to pick up supplies. He’d be the last person I’d see for three days.

Setting up camp on a small rise between the larger upper Chain Lake and the lower, I found that no one had camped anywhere in this valley. There were no fire rings. I believe people see it as a pass through while either hiking further south on the highline trail, or venture into the Bald Mountain areas.

Chain Lake Wind River

Upper Chain Lake from my campsite. Smokey mountains in far back

The following morning I had a wonderful, yet strange and confusing experience. While making breakfast, wolves began howling directly across from my campsite, around 200 yards away on a wooded hillside above where the upper and lower lakes converge. A muddy rock hop stream divides the two lakes which I’d noticed was full of elk and wolf tracks. I ate my oatmeal breakfast on a rocky prominence and listened to the wolves singing, signaling an end to their night hunt. I’ve heard wolves in the Winds before, but never so close and their presence made me happy, signaling the return of the wilds in an area of Wilderness.

Pinedale area is right on the border of the Predator Zone (wolves were just delisted this spring) and I wasn’t sure if I was in a Trophy or Predator area, but knew I was borderline close. Hunting is legal in a wilderness area, and hunting for wolves in the predator zones is legal 365/24/7.

Still basking in the glow of ‘true wilderness’ calls, and the fact that I was the solitary human presence in this valley, twenty minutes after hearing the wolves, I hear another sound–a spotter plane coming into the valley, headed directly for the knoll where these wolves were howling. The plane comes closer and closer, finally to tightly circle over six times directly above the tree tops where I’d heard my wolves howling. I know Game and Fish spotter planes as they collar wolves in January in my home valley. This plane was white, unmarked, single engine with long wings. Who were these people then? The pilot was obviously trying to flush the wolves out of the trees, and also he had to have the GPS coordinates of a collared wolf in order to arrive just a few minutes after I’d heard their presence.

Wolf hillside

Small knoll where wolves were howling

After jumping up and down and yelling at that plane, they left after six tight passes only 50′ above the tree tops. Later that day I headed up the knoll to explore. A few nice small meadows indicated good elk food, lots of stock evidence of grazing of outfitter horses and mules, and…a dead mule about a month old, reduced to bones. This confluence of events confused me even more.

That morning, I headed up to the Baldy Lakes that sit directly below Mt. Baldy. What a beautiful high elevation spot. A series of small lakes leads to a waterfall and a high rocky meadow where a feeder trail merges with the Fremont Trail.

Bald Mountain Basin Wind Rivers

Baldy Lakes

Bald Mountain lakes

Another view of Bald Mountain lakes

I saw a black bear print in a muddy creek crossing on the way up here. Elk, wolves, deer, and a bull moose. Never seen so much wildlife in my Wind River visits over twenty years. After spending a few more days at Chain Lakes, every evening and early morning punctuated with wolf howls, I did an early morning hike out in the moonlight. Stopping for sunrise at Photographer’s Point (still smokey so the mountains looked like a Chinese silhouette painting), I realized in that windless moment why these mountains have such a poetic name. Fremont Creek roared deep below, pouring out from the Continental Divide’s numerous lakes. It sounded like a strong wind in the valley, yet the air was still. The Wind Rivers! I love this place like no other.

After my confusing experience with wolves and a plane, I headed to Jackson to the Wyoming Game and Fish where I spoke with Dan Thompson. I was concerned about poaching (even in the predator zone wolves cannot be killed aerially), or spotting (it is illegal to plane spot for game and trophy animals after July 31 in Wyoming). It turns out that Chain Lakes is barely in the Trophy zone and Thompson later emailed me that his pilot was flying ‘locating wolves to demonstrate recovery’. OK, I understand if it’s G&F doing legal flights, but what do you think about planes low flying 50 feet above the ground, circling in Wilderness during prime hiking season? It was incredibly emotionally disturbing, ruined my own ‘wilderness’ experience which I’d just hiked fifteen miles into the back country for, and seemed so intrusive for these wild animals. In twenty years of hiking and camping in wilderness designated areas, the only other time I’ve seen a plane was a search and rescue mission.

Topping my week off, I spent time in Dubois where I bought a fishing license for the reservation and drove up Dinwoody Creek to see some amazing petroglyphs. Here’s a taste.

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Dinwoody Canyon is beautiful and off-limits to non-tribal members as it is a sacred area. I’ve been to the top at Goat Flat via the Glacier trail, but it is illegal to hike into the valley. Interestingly, several years ago they found a buffalo jump on the high ridge pass at 11,000 feet and speculated that on occasion, when the buffalo ran there, native peoples would spend the winter at high altitude since they couldn’t carry that much meat to the lower elevations.

Dinwoody Canyon

Looking up Dinwoody Canyon towards Goat flat

Tracking a Mountain Lion

A few weeks ago when I was out looking for mountain lion sign, I noticed that a male was making scrapes in a very defined route. I followed through the narrow corridors where he was putting his sign down and came to a rise that looked out over the valley. Just below the viewpoint was another tight drainage. I’d seen this pathway before but never ventured down that way. I knew it went down to a C-shaped plateau that linked the creek, a heavily forested area I’d been to before and had seen lion sign. I decided to return and explore the narrow passage, and see if it was a good corridor for wildlife down to the river.

Last week I made that trip with my trail camera in hand, as well as a GPS. To my surprise, not only was the corridor fairly easy to traverse, but this lion had marked it with scrapes about every 150 feet, and killed a deer along the way. I marked a few of the cougar canyon

scrapes with the GPS as you can see and put my camera on one of them. When I got down to the wooded canyon, the C-shaped plateau is fairly flat, one side which easily leads to the creek while the other is steep and filled with brush. Scrapes (which I did not mark on the GPS) continued all along the forest floor, with several deer kills, as well as two scrapes with a large amount of covered lion scat.

I was hoping to see the male lion on my camera who was responsible for all this marking. I went today to retrieve the photos. It’s only been a week, and although lions have very regular routes (I know I will see him) he may not return this way for 2 weeks or more.

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Black wolf

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Grizzly bear

No cat yet, but bears and wolves.

Mark Elbroch, in puma studies in Northern California and Colorado, found that pumas likely killed more prey when bears are around. The cats are pushed off their kills more quickly, losing precious calories, forcing them to kill their next prey sooner than they might otherwise. The study found that many bears were on a puma kill within just forty-eight hours after the kill was made.

That’s a big bear that was ‘following’ that puma. I retrieved my photos and started up the corridor drainage, with bear spray in hand as the visibility is poor. Halfway I came upon that bear’s day bed, along with a very large scat that smelled terrible. Bear scat usually just smells sweet, from all the grass and plants they eat. But when they eat meat, watch out! The whole zone smelled bad.

Bear Scat

Bear Scat

Bear day bed

Koda by the Bear day bed

Lions in Texas Part 2

I wanted to do another short lion post on Texas. Short because there is literally nothing going on with protections for mountain lions there; hasn’t been since the Mexican-American war. Truthfully, every time I think about the status of Mountain Lions in Texas, it infuriates me. I would hope it begins to infuriate others, especially Texans.

Cougar

I spoke with Jonah Evans whose the mammalogist for the entire State. A study done by Joseph Holbrook in 2011 compared the genetics of South Texas, West Texas, and New Mexico. It showed that cougars in South Texas had decreased by at least 50% historically, were inbred, and generally not doing well.  The Trans-Peco region of West Texas was still holding up o.k. The Trans-Peco region has immigration from mainly Mexico and probably some cougars from New Mexico. It is an area with large ranches, a lot of them older ranchers trying to eek out their living. In addition there are large ‘game’ ranches where people come to hunt deer and exotic species, paying the big bucks. Those ranchers hire trappers to rid the area of cougars who kill their commodity. South Texas by comparison is contiguous with sheep and goat ranchers, easy prey for cougars. Immigration would come mainly from Big Bend National Park.

Texas immigrants

Confirmed sighings of lions in Texas in the last ten years

The reality is that Texas is a state with almost no public lands and where private landowners have a lot of political power. It comes down to a private rancher or landowner who might not care if he has cougars on his property, and so lets them live. This makes for a hodge-podge of lands that cougars move through, some safe and others not.

Mountain lions are considered a nuisance animal–varmit–and can shot anytime, anywhere, without telling anyone. There also are no trapping regulations on cougars. At this point the only reason why Texas has any mountain lions at all is because of immigration from Mexico. cougar print

One thing Jonah Evans mentioned (that I could tell upset him as well) is that the usual trapping regulation for fur-bearing animals in Texas (36 hour trap check) do not apply to Mountain Lions. They also do not apply for bobcats and coyotes. There are trappers out there, he told me, that leave their traps out for a month, big steel bear sized traps, without checking them and it’s perfectly legal.

Cougar

Cougar exhibits a flehmen response

In 1992 the Sierra Club did a campaign for several years trying to bring attention to the plight of the Texas Mountain Lion with the hope of changing their status to trophy game with a legal hunt. It was all over the news, but got no traction. The biologists I’ve spoken with all told me about that effort as if it had been yesterday. Since then, nothing’s happened.

Jonah felt that if people actually knew the status of mountain lions, the trapping that is not regulated, and the shoot on sight policy, they’d want change. As it is, Texas is definitely the Lone Star state, as all the other Western states identify mountain lions at the very least as a valuable animal that deserves game status and regulations.

three cougars

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Lions on the Edge in Texas

I’ve been digging into everything about mountain lions, talking with biologists, houndsmen, trackers, and conservationists. In the predator war that began with settlers moving West, bounties were placed on mountain lions in all the Western States. Cougars had already been eradicated in the Mid-West and East. The arid, broken country of Western deserts and steep terrain of rugged mountains saved the Western cougars from disappearing completely. The actual total number of cougars killed through bounties and government agents is unknown, but just to blow your mind, here are a few estimates from state bounty records (after records started being kept): California 1,754; Montana 1,897; Oregon 6,752; Washington 3,143; Utah 3,895; Idaho 1,407; Animal Damage Control 1937 through 1970-7,255; Arizona 7,800. Remember these are just numbers of cougars killed while states had bounties.

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This infamous photo of the severed heads of 11 mountain lions was taken by an outraged employee of the Arizona Game and Fish Department. These animals were among 24 lions killed by the federal agency Animal Damage Control (now called Wildlife Services)

Then in the 1960s and early 70s, a sea change occurred, or as Rupert Sheldrake might call it, morphic resonance. Western states eliminated the bounty, and over the course of just a few years, states changed the status of the mountain lion from predator to game animals. That monumental change created hunting seasons, quotas, and fines on poaching for lions. The lion population began to grow again.

The one exception to this Western metamorphose was Texas. Granted, Texas does have the least amount of public lands of all the Western states, a measly 2%. Yet forty years later, Texas still classifies mountain lions as non-game unprotected animals, able to be killed year round regardless of sex, no bag limit, trapped, snared, shot or poisoned.

So what is with Texas? Still living in the 19th century, is Texas just slow, maybe ten, twenty years from now they will follow the rest of the West? Or does Texas have some kind of immunity to the morphic field?

Texas cougar

To find out, I called Orie Gilad, a biologist who did a study on cougars in Texas about 10 years ago, and maintains the Texas Mountain Lion website, that has all the current Texas lion information. Just like the website says, the picture is grim. Lions are few in Texas because Texans like to kill them. Lions in Texas are immigrating from Mexico and a few from New Mexico. West Texas is difficult, hard scrabble desert where generational ranching families try to make a living with sheep and goats, as well as cattle. Although lions and sheep are generally a recipe for loss, old prejudices against predators in the ranching community die slowly. In West Texas, this may mean one funeral at a time. If lions head east, towards mid and east Texas, they are quickly picked off. Game farms where deer are hunted for profit will not tolerate a lion on their ranch. The main areas where lions are tolerated are Big Bend National Park  (because it is a National Park and no hunting is allowed), some private ranches, some ranches in Western Texas that have been abandoned by families who no longer want to tough ranching out, and oddly enough, Jeff Bezos Space launch site, Blue Origin, almost 300,000 acres where no hunting is allowed, though Bezos isn’t doing that because mountain lions are endearing to him, yet protection it is.

three cougars

Besides excessive killing of lions, a new potential threat to the few lions left in west Texas is Trump’s border wall. Trump wants to build a 30 foot concrete wall. Animals like coyotes which can usually dig under a fence can’t dig under a concrete footing for a 30′ wall. And although lions are great jumpers, the usual is about 20′ from standing. If a wall like that becomes a reality, cougar immigration will stop, which would spell the end of the Texas mountain lion population.

Every three years representatives from western states, including researchers and biologists, gather for a Mountain Lion Workshop to share new science and talk about management. Missing is Texas. Why? Because research is just not going on there. In the past, some has gone on in trickles, mostly in Big Bend. But Texas does not even show up at the biggest, baddest, cougar conference among cougar scientists and managers!

I asked Orie Gilad if there was any hope in Texas’ future for lions, besides old ranchers dying. She mentioned that there is a young persons, and artists, immigration surge. Education, she says, is key, and so her website. If mountain lions are to survive, and someday thrive, in Texas, they will need all our voices.

cougar

 

The Ghost Walker

What if you could hike into the British Columbia Selkirk range, and find a place where no hunters, trappers or people ventured all winter long. Where wolf packs, mountain lions, wolverines, elk, moose and deer were abundant. You then packed in, by canoe, a store of supplies for your winter stay of six months, then carried these bit by bit to a wide meadow edged by timber you had scoped out beforehand. Before the snows arrived, you’d build yourself a small cabin, reusing mostly old timbers from an ancient miner’s cabin. Then you’d explore the countryside before the snows set in, and build yourself two or three shelters in various parts of your new found wilderness where you could spend the night if needed after spying on mountain lions for several days.DCIM100MEDIA

 

This is exactly what R.D. Lawrence, Canadian naturalist and writer did in the late 1970s. His goal? To study pumas in a direct and deep way. In order to make sure he had located an area where there were pumas, he first hired a small plane to fly the countryside, while he leaned out the side door, using his binoculars to spy at least one big cat that had its territory there. When he spotted one, he took out his maps, charted a course and territory, and spent an entire winter living on just the rations he took into the wilderness, and his wits. He tracked and trailed mostly at night using moonlight. He’d take a pack and spend days and night beyond his small cabin he built, using the lean-to shelters he stashed around the mountains.

Thompson Cabin

He found an old miner’s cabin and used the wood to construct his own shelter

And during the course of the winter, he found a male tom and a female. He watched the male many times make kills, then sat 100 feet away while the cat fed. He heard the female caterwauling in the night when in estrus, calling for the tom. He found the female’s den, climbed to a hill with a week’s worth of food, then sat and watched her three kittens play outside the den.

cougar-with-kits

One night, after trailing the tom cougar for hours in moonlight against snow, then watching him unsuccessfully make a kill, a fierce storm came barreling in. Lawrence was fighting the wind and blinding sting of the snowfall, trying to make it back to his cabin. The storm grew wilder and he was tired and cold. He decided he needed to make a shelter quickly by digging in the snow. He searched for an appropriate spot and found a small rise where he could make what he thought would be a snow cave. As he began digging, the snow fell away and a small cave was revealed. So relieved to find such a perfect shelter, he left his pack and crawled inside, when he suddenly felt some breathing in the back of the cave. He flashed a light, and found he was inside a grizzly den, with a bear that was waking up and angry to be disturbed.

Grizzly Bear

This is a wonderful book of what are now bygone days. Today its hard to find anyplace in this crowded world where not only such a wealth of wildlife lives, but lives undisturbed all winter long. And the world of the traditional naturalist, living in the field, using traditional methods of observation, stretching the limits of his or her human endurance, has been replaced by the techno-gizmos of GPS collars and computers.

Well written, engaging, I recommend Lawrence’s The Ghost Walker for every wildlife lover’s library.

Cougar Stories

I’ve become fascinated by cougars. Maybe because they are elusive, secretive, more akin to a ghost than an animal of flesh and blood. Which of course, begs the question: How do you get people to care about and protect an animal that they never see, nor probably will never see in their lifetime?

mom-and-kitten

Mom and six month old kitten

Visitors to Yellowstone National Park can be almost guaranteed, if they are persistent and patient, to view wolves and bears, elk, bison, and bighorn sheep. But only the rare individual will have the opportunity to see a cougar in the Park. They’ve been spotted at Calcite Springs, hanging on the basalt walls and occasionally through a scope from the Hellroaring overlook. Usually the Park sightings are called in by wolf watchers. Once radioed around, tourists hear about it through the airwaves, then flock to those locations. Sometimes the cat might be hanging out, either on a kill or just sunning himself, for hours.

In all my winter tracking I’ve done, I’ve never seen a cougar. In fact, the people I know who have seen cougars, it’s usually from the car when a cat suddenly runs across the road at dusk.

I sat down with Jim Halfpenny for an interview about cougar tracking stories. Jim is a famous tracker who lives in Gardiner, Mt. As a Mammalogist and expert tracker, he has worked all over the West and Canada. His puma tracking includes the deserts of Arizona and Utah as well as the mountains of the Greater Yellowstone.

Jim used to live and work in Colorado. His interest in cougars began in 1982 when the Forest Service called him in to investigate a bear-killed horse within the small town of Nederland CO.  Jim told them “this is not a bear that mauled the horse. It’s a cougar” The Forest Service thought the kill was made by a bear because there were five claw marks on the horse’s neck. If you look at a cat paw, there are four claws and a dew claw high up, like on a dog.  On a cougar print, the dew claw doesn’t show and it’s not bone attached, it’s tendon attached. But Jim knew that dew claw, called ‘the killer claw’, would show on a kill because it wraps around it’s prey. Thus the five marks.  Jim asked himself “What is a cougar doing in a town?” and so began a research project.

cougar print

cougar print has only four paws showing. Dew Claw doesn’t show

Cougar print

Big cat print

I asked Jim if he had tracked cougars without dogs and still seen them. “Oh, many times. I’ve hardly ever used dogs. He told me several of those stories but two stand out.

“I got a phone call from a woman when I lived in Boulder. There was some snow on the ground but it was thin, only about 2 inches. I followed the tracks, and soon I was about 50 yards from the back of this cougar. He looked up and his face said ‘Who are you, what are you doing following me?’

That cougar took a few strides and disappeared but I observed he was cutting a big letter ‘C’; so I cut across the ‘C’, and began following his tracks till they suddenly disappeared. I looked around. No tracks. And then I looked up and there he was, in the tree, looking at me. I got some good photographs of him in that tree.  I’ve got more photographs in the wild than anybody not using dogs or set cameras.”

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Puma uses his vomeronasal organ on the roof of mouth to pick up smells better

Halfpenny told me another great story from the Boulder era. “I got a phone call from a woman who said she watched a cougar kill a deer from her window. It was three in afternoon went I got there. I found that deer and chained it to a tree. Then I did a necropsy on it and saw it was pregnant. I walked one hundred steps off the carcass and sat down. Pretty soon that cougar returns. He’s knows I’m there, and begins trying to pull that deer away to a hidden spot. And he’s pulling for all he’s worth, but that deer is chained to the tree. The cougar looks like ‘What! I don’t understand this. I just killed the thing, and I can’t move it!’

“I watched that cat way into the night, filmed and photographed her. After dark, in came mature kittens. Our crew took turns watching from Friday 3pm to Monday 3pm. Over that time we had foxes, coyotes, domestic dogs and the cougar. It was as if all these animals were waiting on the edges to come in. There were multiple cycles of this.”

cougar 9.03

Cougar caught on camera

Most of us will never see a cougar in our lifetime, even if they are living right around us. I intend to write more about cougars with the hope that people will know them and feel the urge to protect them.