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Fishers, Neo-Cortex, The Killer Claw. What wasn’t in Ghostwalker.

What didn’t get into my new book Ghostwalker: Tracking a Mountain Lion’s Soul through Science and Story? A lot of fascinating information trackers, researchers, and others told me just couldn’t squeeze into the narrative. Here are some excerpts from interviews with trackers and a researcher I interviewed.

From Jim Sullivan, Sonoma County Tracker:

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Our language causes us to think that when you say something you really ‘have’ it. It’s always in flux. I’ve studied lots of science, and one thing that’s really important to understand is that things don’t follow laws. Laws are like a grid we put on it in order to understand what’s happening. Not necessarily the way it is, it’s how it moves.

I’ll tell you a little about my teaching in my class. I teach a traditional native  style tracking. The native trackers tracked in sacred time and I started asking myself what that meant and what their spiritual life was like. What I understand about it is to make it into a spiritual practice and a meaningful part of your life, you got to look at tracking as a metaphor. So all the different things you do in tracking actually took place at a time when our neo-cortex was forming 2 million years ago. Our brain is designed to work that way because it came into being in order to solve tracking problems. You know how in tracking you have the four views? You have the eagle’s view, then you have the standing view, the kneeling view, and you are also instructed to go around the object so you can see it from different lights. That’s a metaphor to learning anything. A way of expressing it is that you have to look at everything from all the different sides. Most people tend to have kind of a laser focus. They know one version of it real well and then they speak with authority about it. But you’re not really an authority until you know all the main opinions. So that’s how I look at tracking. Even applying that to mountain lions. Things change depending upon your point of view, and also your presence and also other presences. When you make statements about wolves are a certain way, bobcats are a certain way, you have to do that, but it’s just a grid you’re putting on what the animals are actually doing. Takes the edge off it.

Matt Nelson told me how they set traps and tracked on Mark Elbroch’s Colorado study:

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It was pretty neat. We would set these traps where the cat had to set its foot exactly where you wanted it. It would jerk a little cable snare tight around its wrist and the cat was stuck there. One of the neat things about these methods nowadays is they have transmitters on them, both cage traps and snares. So as soon as that animal was captured, we’d get a signal on our radio and we would hustle in there and minimize the time that animal was trapped. Those were the three methods: Hounds, cage traps and snares.

The sooner we could get cameras into a kill, the more information we could get. We’d try and recognize the GPS data. We got pretty good; we knew the cat was on a kill the very next morning. We’d hike in there real quick. Typically you never saw the cat. But what we started doing was we started sneaking in. Real quietly and just trying to see them. And sure enough, we started seeing them. We’d watch a mama creep out with kittens and sneak away from us. Then we’d go back to the GPS data, and you’d see she had walked out a little ways, wait for us to leave, then walk right back down to their kill, the next hour. GPS collars are very accurate within a meter, but hand-held ones are not that good. Every time we walked into a kill was a tracking adventure. We’d find where the animal came in, and try to read the story of the kill as best we could depending upon what kind of sign there was. Then we’d piece it all together amongst ourselves. It was a lot of fun. I learned a lot in those months. Science is invasive. Darting an animal and collaring it is extremely invasive. Mark’s idea was if we’re going to be invading an animal’s life this much, let’s get all we can. Let’s make it pay as best we can to honor the cat.

I worked one winter and part of one summer. Obviously the snow holds tracks, but sometimes we were in waist deep snow and its not easy. In the summertime, if the substrate was good, we’d go out, take numerous GPS points from where the cat had been the previous day. We’d start at one point and trail the animal, and if we ever lost it we’d know know where to pick it up at the next GPS point. Sometimes you could follow an animal a great distance if the substrate was good and the conditions right. GPS was back up in case we lost the trail.

Jim Halfpenny, mammalogist and tracker from Gardiner Montana told me lots of great tracking stories:

My real interest in cougars started in 1982; I got called into Nederland, CO. A bear had mauled a horse inside the town of Nederland. Forest Service called me and I went in and looked at it. I looked around a little bit and I said This is not a bear that mauled a horse. It’s a cougar. Which really shocked people; a cougar in the middle of town. On the edge of the horse there were five claw marks, and Forest Service said it has to be a bear it has five claws. On a cougar, the dew claw doesn’t show on a print and it’s not bone attached, it’s tendon attached. It’s called the killer claw because it will wrap around something. If you ever have a house cat wrap around, you’ll get five marks. And the claw marks were thin not fat. Hey guys, I’m sorry. Cats leave five claw marks, you don’t realize this. I went home that night and started thinking about it. What is a cougar doing in a town? That’s what started a project.

Research ecologist Peter Stine based out of Northern California worked with Carl Koford who did some of the original estimates on mountain lion populations in the 1980s using track lines. Koford drove hundreds and hundreds of miles of dirt roads around the state to determine tracks per linear mile. Here Peter talks with me about fisher populations in the Southern Sierras and mountain lions:

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We started the study because the fisher is a forest carnivore, and the assumption is that fisher population are affected by forest management. We wanted to better understand how many fisher are there and how they are relating to their habitat. There’s a detailed study that was started just south of Yosemite. To cut to the chase, turns out the number one cause of mortality is predation and mostly mountain lions. Typically it appears they’re killing them but not eating them. Why and what’s the impact of predation on the fisher population? Fishers in the southern Sierra are very rare. They were petitioned for listing as an endangered species but that petition was ultimately denied. But the point is they’re rare and apparently declining, and predation by mountain lions appears to be a pretty significant factor. This prompted some more detailed work that’s going on right now in the Sierras to look at the whole predator complex in the Sierra Nevada and predator relationship to one another. Mountain lions much prefer deer over other prey species. The big question is: Is there enough deer in the Sierras for lions or are deer populations declining or at a low level because of forest management and densification of forests.? Does that have an influence on mountain lions and their behavior towards other predators?These are all questions that are important for us to understand, especially if we are going to address fisher population in its apparent imperiled status. Data we have on fisher is that they like closed forest, they like multi-layered canopy, they need den sites and rest sites distributed across their home range which is quite large. We don’t still understand what a healthy viable landscape should look like when you consider both fisher habitat requirements and other species like spotted owls, how that juxtaposes with resilient forests that have experienced frequent fire and that you’d normally consider to be a heterogeneous landscape that has dense forest and patches of opening which presumably based on everything we know was what forests looked like prior to heavy influence from European people.

There’s so much more great info I can share in future posts from interviews for Ghostwalker that I could not include in the book. Stay tuned.

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Predator control: Does it really work?

A few weeks ago our local Wyoming Game & Fish ungulate biologist held a public meeting to discuss the startling decline in our mule deer numbers. We’ve had several hard winters in a row, the worst being 2016-2017, a winter snowpack that locals hadn’t seen in over forty years. That winter was so difficult on our mule deer that as spring emerged, the amount of dead deer across the landscape was phenomenal. I hiked areas where every quarter mile I’d see a dead deer. And so it was a feast for emerging bears. The video below was taken mid-April 2017, just as bears were leaving their dens. This bear is so well-fed he looks like he’s going into hibernation, not coming out of.

 

Even this winter, although our snowpack was light December and January, February was intensely cold, with few days that cracked zero. The word from Game and Fish is that our herd objective (3 hunt areas) is 4000-6000 but the estimate is 2,900. An adjacent herd (6 hunt areas) objective of 9,600-14,400 is estimated at 6,900. And, according to G&F, the decline began even two years before winter 2016-2017.

 

Mule deer

Mule deer with fawn

Since I was snowed in and could not attend the public meeting, I spoke directly with the G&F biologist Tony Mong. Hard winters, and especially 2016, was acknowledged to be a major factor in the decline. I also found out that these two herds have never been robust, for reasons scientists have only recently discovered why—long migrations. In the last few years, these deer have been radio-collared as part of the Wyoming Migration Initiative. Researchers found they undertake a very long migration twice yearly into and out of the Park, among the longest in Wyoming mule deer herds. That alone takes its toll. I asked Mong if there had been a study on the low doe/fawn ratio to determine all factors. “Not yet.”

The following week I saw snowmobile tracks behind a locked Forest Service gate (foot traffic is allowed, though not vehicular traffic) that leads to winter elk habitat. I followed the tracks and found Wildlife Services (WS) was laying out bait on a small private inholding that’s surrounded by Forest Service lands. This is high country with windswept meadows, an area that bull elk especially like to frequent during winter months.

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Some friends that were shed hunting told me WS was baiting for coyotes, then planned to return and helicopter shoot them. These efforts to kill coyotes in this area will continue on foot through June, although our deer leave the valley late April/early May for their migration. The WS coordinator for Cody told me a dozen coyotes were killed by helicopter last week.

Coyote hunting

Coyote hunting ground squirrels

Concerned, I again spoke with Mong. He told me G&F usually likes to do controls where deer drop their fawns, but these deer fawn in the Park or in wilderness so they cannot do controls there. This was their best shot, literally. Who was funding this? Not Game and Fish. Private sportsmen organizations, at least one of them from Pennsylvania.

Mong’s explanation made no sense. These coyotes weren’t even the ones living in the fawning areas, so why the effort for little to no return? Even the WS chief told me they might save 20-40 adult deer this year from predation out of the 2,900 in the herd.

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Coyote on wolf-killed elk carcass

Coyotes in Wyoming are considered predators and don’t come under the purview of G&F, but under APHIS, Department of Agriculture. That means they are the easiest targets. Next though on the predator list, would be mountain lions and their three year review is coming up this year with the G&F Commission. The zone that encompasses both herds has a consistent yearly quota of 20 lions and is supposed to be a  “Source” zone for lions, which means exactly what it says (Source, Sink, and Stable are the three types of management for mountain lion zones in Wyoming). And I have to wonder if what’s next will be hunters crying out for more wolves to be killed in our zone which is a trophy hunt area next to Yellowstone?

 

Obviously there are a lot of factors that control deer populations, weather and habitat probably being the most significant. As these deer migrate into the Park, surfing the spring green wave, quality of habitat is of special importance. One biologist reminded me how the ’88 fires created lush habitat for deer and elk. Now, thirty years later, young trees have crowded out many of those areas. And massive beetle-kill has created forests of impassible downed timber.

Beetle kill

Beetle-killed white bark pines dead on high trail in the valley

Panthera Teton Cougar Project recently published a timely study on this subject. Mark Elbroch and his team looked at how age structure in mountain lions determines food preference. The PTCP found that younger lions tend to specialize on smaller prey and deer. While cats five years and older specialize on elk. His conclusion:

Since younger cats specialize on deer, rather than elk, heavily hunted populations of pumas may put more pressure on deer populations than an un-hunted population with a higher average cat age. (Elbroch’s emphasis)

Another long term study was done in Idaho from 1997-2003 where researchers systematically targeted removal of coyotes and mountain lions in order to grow a mule deer population, one which had similarly low doe/fawn ratio as in my area. The study increased hunting on lions and coyotes, employed WS to kill coyotes winter through spring, targeted coyote killing in fawning areas, and decreased human hunting on deer. In other words, it was very intensive as to predator control along with other factors analyzed. Their results in a nutshell:

Our experimental efforts to change mule deer demography through removal of their 2 top predators had minimal effects, providing no support for the hypothesis that predator removal would increase mule deer populations…Population growth rates did not increase following predator reduction as predicted.

Isn’t it time we applied hard science to agency decisions when it comes to predators instead of bowing to non-scientific, knee-jerk reactions as a public relations ploy for pleasing the hunting community that agencies are “doing something”? Interestingly, I met with our Wildlife Services director to ask about the scope of this project. He acknowledged habitat and weather were actually the foremost critical factors in ungulate population numbers. “But unfortunately, predators are the low-hanging fruit.” His words, not even mine.

How the Eastern U.S. Puma was exterminated

This excerpt, edited out of the final version of my new book Ghostwalker: Tracking a Mountain Lion’s Soul through Science and Story, is a quick history of how the mountain lion was exterminated from the eastern U.S. due to attitudes brought by European settlers.


Europeans had long since removed their own top predators, and from the beginning of stepping foot on new soil, they carried with them an attitude of removing wolves, bears, and cats in the New World as well. With their arrival, a dark chapter began for the mountain lion, and all large predators, in North America.

As early as the late 1500s, barely a century after the Spanish stepped foot in the Americas, Jesuit priests in California were offering a bull for the killing of a cougar.  The first recorded cougar bounty on the East Coast was in 1680 and by 1742 Massachusetts followed suit. In early America, these new inhabitants feared and loathed lions, wolves and bears. Stories were spun that cougars were malevolent, evil, even supernatural beings that killed wantonly. Europeans brought their pigs and cows into the New World under a silent compact that they would flourish. And indeed the domestic animals did thrive, in the marshlands, in the oyster beds of coastal New England, and in the newly cleared forests. Euro-Americans left behind a homeland where African lions had been exterminated centuries before, and wolf extermination began in earnest after the Black Death in the mid-1300s. By 1684 in Scotland, and 1770 in Ireland, wolves were gone, while the rest of European wolves quickly followed. Now the colonists were confronted with a wide new array of predators, and their stance was stanch that extermination without mercy was their God-given right.

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Wolves, who traveled in packs, and howled across the countryside, were easily spotted by men who carried with them the folklore and prejudices from the old country. Because of this, they received the most visible and ongoing persecution. Cougars, on the other hand, with their secretive, surreptitious nature, received less attention in lore but were persecuted and eliminated none the less. A story from Jon Coleman’s Vicious illustrates not only the settlers relentless cruelty towards wolves, but also their attitude towards all predators, from the largest to smallest meso-predators such as raccoons and fishers. On the Maine coast in the 1660s, a group hunting for waterfowl along the beach happened upon a wolf. Their dogs, led by a large female mastiff, chased after the wolf up the coastline and pinned it down by the throat.

“The hunters bound the animal’s paws and carried him home swinging ‘like a calf upon a staff between two men.’ That night, they unleashed the predator inside their living room. The beast sank to the floor. No biting, no snarling, he just slouched there, staring at the door. The men tried to rile him up with the dogs, but the pack was listless and uninterested, too worn out to care following that afternoon’s long chase. Their evening’s entertainment ruined, the hunters took the wolf outside and crushed his skull with a log.”

Individuals in early America who took matters into their own hands, enjoyed weaving tales that celebrated their valor, and manhood, while also characterizing the animals they killed as vicious and aggressive to bolster their reputation. As more people arrived with their livestock, individual efforts were soon not enough. Circle or drive hunts soon emerged in eastern frontier towns. These drives killed many more animals in a shorter period of time with less effort. Some of these drives were duly recorded.

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In 1753 citizens of three surrounding villages in Massachusetts combined forces to rid the forests of wolves and other predators. In 1810 in Vermont, a large group of men, women, and children used an ever enclosing circle to capture and kill six wolves. Local papers and fliers announced these drives, asking citizens to turn out with the hopes of killing sheep-eating predators. These early hunts laid the groundwork for the ritual of circle hunts throughout New England. The preferred method was a ringleader would send out an invitation to the men living in the surrounding areas. A description of one of these drives included over 400 men, advancing to the center “under the direction of the local militia officers. When the hunters could hear the shouts of their cohorts across the circle, their commanders ordered a halt….the best marksman among them, entered the ring and killed the wolves and foxes trapped there. The farmers scalped the wolves and marched to the town clerk’s office to collect the bounty.” Just as colonists came together for barn raising, and other tasks done as a community effort, the circle hunt became part of the communal tradition: first build the cabin, then clear the woods of predators

A vivid accounting of a circle hunt took place in the woods of Pennsylvania in 1760. Black Jack Schwartz organized two hundred townspeople into a drive so wide it practically encircled the entire county. Men armed with guns, fire, and noisemakers created a circle thirty miles in diameter, slowly driving all the game towards the center, then began shooting indiscriminately for several hours. A few terrified animals escaped the ring, yet the final tally revealed a slaughter of 41 Panthers, 109 wolves, 112 foxes, 114 mountain cats, 17 black bears, 111 buffalo, 98 deer, and more than 500 smaller animals. The animals were skinned, the bison tongues taken, and all the carcasses were heaped in a pile “as tall as the tallest trees” and burned. The stench was so dreadful that settlers vacated their homes for over three miles. Black Jack’s reputation with the Indians of the area, who only killed game as needed for food and clothing, was so unpopular after the drive that he was ambushed and killed while on a hunting trip. The last of these drives was held in 1849 in Pennsylvania.

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On the Pacific coast, the Spanish tradition of roping grizzlies and pitting them against bulls for sport is well-documented. These bull-bear fights included betting and even after-church festivities in arenas built specifically for the sport. In California Grizzly Storer and Tevis describe a bear-panther fight near Big Sur that took place after California was admitted to the Union. The gold rush brought in hundreds of thousands of new settlers, and with the arrival of these new residents, grizzlies were being killed in greater and greater numbers. The Spanish bull-bear spectacle continued for a few years until the dearth of bears caused the sport to dwindle. The event in 1865 was described by a young Frank Post who witnessed the event when he was only 6 years, yet never forgot it.

“The lion, which seemed to have no fear, leaped onto the bear’s back and while clinging there and facing forward scratched the grizzly’s eyes and nose with its claws. The bear repeatedly rolled over onto the ground to rid himself of his adversary; but as soon as the bear was upright, the cat would leap onto his back again. This agility finally decided the struggle in favor of the lion.”

The old growth hardwood forests of the East were cleared so quickly that by 1800 residents of the Hudson Valley in New York worried about the scarcity of firewood. By the mid 1800s, from 50% to 90% of the eastern landscape had been cleared for agriculture. Game were so diminished that even by 1639 hunting seasons were closed. Between habitat and food loss, along with human persecution, cougars were effectively eliminated east of the Mississippi River by the mid- to late 1800s. The rugged, arid West and Southwest remained as the only suitable hiding places and cover for mountain lions.

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Cats in an ancient labyrinth

Here’s another excerpt that was cut from the final draft of Ghostwalker

Comb Ridge rises dramatically in the Utah skyline of desert. A geologic fold, the impressive eighty mile north-south ridgeline rises slowly from the east to a steep, formidable drop-off on its western side. Only a mile wide, the eastern approach contains deep canyons harboring ancient dwellings. These prehistoric homes lie under overhangs, fill canyon recesses, and are stuffed into cliff niches. Then there are the most obtuse communities where no entry can be found, except by rope ladders that long vanished with the desert elements. A hike into these canyon ruins reveals 1000-year-old dried up corn cobs, enormous metates, pottery shards, and walls spattered with clay-red handprints where women once ground corn into meal. Locals tell of an ancient highway that connected Comb Ridge to Chaco Canyon, two hundred miles away. There are stories of footholds etched into the western cliffs, enabling athletic Puebloans to climb the ridge, and complete their journey on the road to the sacred lands beyond.

I spent two months hiking Comb Ridge, and other canyons. One of the largest, Mule Canyon, is a wide valley wash surrounded by sheer sandstone cliffs. Mostly an open, sunny, easy hike, the few ruins are hard-to-spot since they hang far up the canyon walls. I was following a bobcat, his prints easily visible along the sandy canyon bottom.

 

Bobcat prints in sand

Bobcat prints in soft sand

He was on a direct route, according to his tracks, probably returning from a nightly hunt. The tracks engrossed me for over a mile, when suddenly they veered off to the right, into a narrow steep ravine. As I changed course to follow them, I looked up, and higher than I could climb, was my bobcat, sitting unperturbed amidst the alcoves of man-made walls and rooms. This large habitation, unoccupied since the 12th century, accessible only by rope or ladder, was now home to this shadowy predator, the perfect apartment for this nimble animal as a safe-house from humans.

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The apartments were inaccessible by foot

____________________

Frank C. Hibben, author of the colorful and captivating Hunting American Lions, was given a grant from Southwestern Conservation League to spend a year studying mountain lions. Although Hibben documented prey and collected scat, researching lions in the 1930s mainly meant hanging out with professional lion hunters and going on hunts for control kills. In his book, Hibben tells of riding with his houndsman Giles Goswick, deep into the canyons of Arizona tracking a cattle-killing cougar.

The cougar was a skilled stealth artist, following narrow ledges along gulches with steep overhanging cliffs, perplexing the dogs who kept losing track of the animal. Following their lead dog through a narrow ravine, Hibben and Giles scrambled over centuries old fallen trees and canyon pools, with the barking of dogs echoing down the canyon. As the canyon walls became steeper, the chasm grew dimmer, the mysterious noises along with the din of barking grew louder, the little gulch grew eerier.

Canyon Moab

The canyon walls grew steeper as the echoing of dogs grew louder

Giles stayed ahead, concentrating on trying to find a lion track in the patches of sand on the canyon floor when suddenly Hibben shouted to him “Look up there—to the left. Up there in that shadow,” pointing and waving his hand. Giles undoubtedly thought Hibben had seen the lion on an overhang, but instead he found, shaded by the overhanging cliff, two caves, one above the other, with fragments of man-made adobe masonry and mortar housing a window cut-out.

Canyon in Moab

“Look up there—to the left. Up there in that shadow,” Hibben shouted.

Even with all the excitement of their lion chase, the dogs still howling in the distance, the men stopped to examine this ancient ruin. They surmounted a low ledge and stood at the lower cave entrance. Fragments of walls and partitions still clung to the cave floor.

habitat in Bears ears

They surmounted the wall and stood at the lower cave entrance.

 

Fingerprints of the long-dead builders were outlined in the mortar where they had pressed it hard between the stones. The usual pack rat occupants were making the cave their home, but perched on top of the rat’s stick and cacti mounds was a yucca sandal with the ties and strings still intact. There was even a visible hole in the heel of the sandal. Yet it was the cave fifty feet above this one that had the startling discovery. Not big enough for human habitation, as their eyes became accustomed to the shadows in this darkened environment, this small arched opening of the cave had sticks protruding outward in all directions. The ‘sticks’ were bound with bands of dark material, rings of blue and yellow color, with feathers on their ends.

Cave in Blanding

Yet it was the cave fifty feet above that had the startling discovery

 

“Giles! They’re arrows,” Hibben exclaimed, while Giles was already pulling out his lariat rope that he carried around his waist. Deftly, Giles threw his rope, barely reaching the lowermost of the protruding shafts, and three arrows fell at the men’s feet. The arrows were preserved perfectly by the dry climate—wooden arrows fitted with three feathers and a notch for the bow string. Maybe two or three hundred of these arrows protruded from the small opening above.

Koda in ancient cave dwelling

For a few moments, time stood still

For a few moments, time stood still. The men forgot where they were or why they were there, when suddenly the barking of the dogs brought them back. The cougar that had led them to this place had been forgotten momentarily. Carefully, they placed the arrows and the sandal on a ledge in the lower cave, to remain in situ, and as they looked up, they saw the dogs had treed their victim, who was hanging from a gnarled spruce limb at the end of the canyon.

Hibben ends his story by saying “The long-deserted cliff house in the narrow canyon with the ceremonial arrow cave above it created an atmosphere of antiquity which was not ordinary background for any cougar. Perhaps this lion was the reincarnation of one of the old cliff dwellers prowling yet the tumbled masonry and the dark caves of his forefathers.”

hands painted

 

 

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.

bobcat tracks

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.

Bandelier

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.

Stone Lions

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.

Bandelier

Remains of Yapashi Pueblo

Stone lion Shrine

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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