The other day I took a hike to a high place where the ancients once hunted bighorn sheep. Although we still have bighorns around the valley, I’ve never seen one in this location. The escarpment rises to a series of wooded shelves, a layered cake of pines and firs. Three or four of these terraces and then the mountain rises vertically towards formidable buttresses of limestone.
Warning, some graphic photos below of the dead cougar
In my wanderings upwards I came to a narrow passage of rock and tree with deer hair strewn around the ground. I recognized the way it had been plucked as typical of a mountain lion. Next to all the fur I saw a winter killed carcass with the rib cage sticking out. With all the fur, my mind instantly went to a deer kill, but I soon saw something unexpected–a long tail! Here was the carcass of a cougar, a small one, no bigger than my 90 pound dog. All the meat and innards were gone, but the hide remained, as well as the head and tail, intact.
After turning the carcass over and examining the skull remains and the teeth, I took the entire scene into account. I was standing on top of a flat closet-sized piece of ground, hidden amongst the trees and with a nice view below. About 10 feet to my right was the remains of a cat covered carcass–all fur and brush. Cats are neat animals and even once all is eaten, the small remains of what’s left are covered. I brushed the mound with my foot, but nothing was left.
So here were the clues: 1. A cat had been here long enough to kill a deer, pluck its fur, and cover it and 2. a young cat, either a disperser or one that had lost its mother and was on its own, had been killed right next to deer kill and 3. the cougar smelled bad enough and was fresh enough that this all happened this winter sometime.
I pondered the scene. Few animals eat predators. I once saw a dead coyote that had been kicked by an elk and died in winter. I watched that carcass and nothing ate on it until it thawed enough for birds to get it. I figured the cougar was scavenged by birds such as bald and golden eagles and magpies and ravens.
My hypothesis of the crime scene goes as such: Since I know that not only was the kill done in winter so no bears were out, there also are no bears this high up with nothing to eat. We have several wolf packs here, but they tend to follow the elk. This cougar was either displaced off of his kill by a larger male cat, or wandered into the kill and then was taken out by the other cougar. Dispersing males have a hard time. Big male cougars will keep their territory under control and will kill young males. I concluded this is what happened.
I wanted to know more. A friend gave me the number for a woman who has worked with the Panthera project out of Jackson, WY and now works with Craighead Beringia. We had a long discussion about many things ‘mountain lion’, but she told me one interesting new development from the 13 year long project.
The project is very interested in the interplay between cougars and wolves. In the Jackson area, their prey overlaps more than I’ve noticed in my area. Probably because in winter the National Elk Refuge has around 6000-7500 elk. Where I live east of the Park, my basin welcomes about 1500-2000 head of elk from the Lamar herd. I’ve noticed here the cougars kill mostly deer, while the wolves take elk. Over in the Jackson area, cougars were being displaced from their kills by wolves frequently. That meant not only did they have to kill more, but that left kittens vulnerable to starvation. But cougars are smart and they’ve lived with wolves for thousands of years and so are either developing or remembering an interesting strategy. Mothers with kittens are teaming up with other mothers with kittens at a kill. So if a wolf pack shows up, instead of one cougar there might be six. Remember kittens can stay with their mother for 12-18 months so they can be formidable foes as well.
One last cougar item. Last week I was in a different area that deer use as a pass through in the winter. It’s a narrow valley, mostly meadows with few rocks or cliffs. In a large meadow, under some sparse pines, I found a very fresh cougar kill with tracks leading up to it. Only the heart had been eaten and the kill sparsely covered. When I mentioned to the Beringia representative that I’d never actually seen a live cougar, she said that next time I find a fresh kill I should camp out there overnight. Good idea!