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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

 

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A Mountain Lion’s Penchant for Coyotes

Toni Ruth conducted the second of three major cougar studies in Yellowstone National Park. The first Yellowstone cougar study was led by biologist Kerry Murphy between 1987 and 1996, pre-wolf days. Ruth’s study took place after the wolf reintroduction in the Park and her aim was to understand how wolves might be affecting cougars, since their prey overlap. Working under the auspices of the Hornocker Wildlife Institute/Wildlife Conservation Society, Ruth radio-collared eighty-three cougars between 1998 and 2006. Trudging through the deep Yellowstone snow, Ruth found that cougars were killing mostly elk, the major prey during the winter months in the northern area of the Park. But a few of Ruth’s collared lions also became experts in killing other animals as well as their primary winter diet of elk.

lion

One surprise from the study was a collared lion who had a penchant for coyotes. The study was monitoring a female lion who had two seven-month kittens traveling with her. The wolves had made a kill in the Sluice Creek valley, which they’d subsequently left a few days earlier. When this female lion approached the kill site, the researchers wondered what she was doing. “That’s pretty risky behavior. She must not be doing too well,” they thought. The following day the researchers, monitoring her collar activity, noticed she brought her two young kittens to the kill site. “What is she doing?  This is crazy behavior because the wolves may not be at the kill, but they certainly aren’t too far off either.”

When the researchers approached the kill site to their surprise they found two dead coyotes. Analyzing the snow track evidence, Ruth determined that this cougar never did scavenge on the kill. Instead, she just hung out to the side of the kill, ambushed the coyotes, and then went back to retrieve her kittens to feed on them.

That same female repeated this behavior from under the Lamar Bridge. The lioness sat on the south side of the bridge, watching a group of coyotes on the opposite bank up the hill. With the river frozen, she emerged from behind a tree, crossed the river and went into a stalk. As she inched closer, she ambushed one coyote, drug it under the trees where she cached it. She then returned with her kittens to feed on her kill.

These kinds of stories and more will be in my upcoming book Ghostwalker: Tracking a Mountain Lion’s Soul through Science and Story due out in 2018.

cougarcoyote

 

Kill Cougars to Grow More Deer?

Don’t you think that if you’re going to go out and kill cougars, you should know some basic biology and facts about your quarry?

I had an upsetting and disheartening encounter today with some ‘cat’ hunters. For the last week I’ve been walking a forest service road that goes up a wide valley. Yesterday I saw snowmobile tracks. This morning, two young men were returning on this road from the treed area higher up. They were carrying a rack from a large bull elk on their snowmobiles. The elk had been killed about a mile up the road. Elk season is closed, so this was either a winter kill or a predator kill. It was their tracks I saw yesterday, where they’d taken a snowmobile looking for cat tracks. They spotted the kill along the roadside, and saw cougar tracks feeding on it. This morning they returned with their dogs, treed the cat, while their sister shot the young female cougar.

I ran into these two young men and spoke with them for a while. They were pleasant, but seemed to know nothing about mountain lions, and from the course of my conversation, they certainly didn’t respect the animal. Our conversation went something like this:

“You know” I told them, “when you kill one female, you’ve killed several other cats as well, because females are either traveling with kittens, pregnant, or in heat.”

“We tracked her for two days so she had no kittens.”

(Note: two days is an exaggeration. I was up that road at 11 a.m. yesterday and saw the snowmobile had been up and back already. Then they were out this morning when they killed the cat)

Mountain Lion or Cougar mom with young cubs, Western U.S.

“It’s true,” I replied. “She could be a young disperser, but she also might have young kittens with her that she’s stashed.”

“No, she couldn’t have had kittens. There were no other tracks around this elk.”

“Kittens eight weeks and younger stay at a den site while the mother hunts and goes back to them to nurse.”

“But lions only give birth in September. It’s January now.” One of the young hunters replied.

“Nope.” I told him.” They can give birth at any time of the year. Once their kittens disperse they go into heat. And kittens stay with their mom for 15-18 months. Even once kittens start to travel with her, up until around six months old the mother stashes her kittens while she makes a kill, then she comes back for them to feed on it. So you might not see tracks in that case either. And kittens can’t reliably climb trees till about 5 or 6 months old.”

“Really?! They can’t climb till six months?”

Then the other young man chimes in…”Well if we kill more cats, that’s good. We want to get rid of them all. They kill deer and we want more deer.”

two cougars, mom and kitten

Mom with 8 month old kitten

I was getting pretty tired of attempting to educate these guys on lion biology 101.

“That’s plain ole not true. They’ve done studies on that since the 1980s and habitat is what grows deer, not less cougars. Look up the science. Your logic has long been debunked.”

“If that’s not true, why would Game and Fish issue two tags for this area?”

“Now that’s a good question. Talk with the state legislature.”

One of the young men told me there’s “tons of cougars here.”

“What’s ‘tons?'” I asked him, for which he had no answer. I told them lions have low densities across huge territories.

“Well, there’s a lot more now. There’s too many and they need to be managed so there’s less.” He replied.

Cougar Kitten 1:2016

Cougar kitten 5-6 months

I’ve just finished writing a book about mountain lions (which will be out sometime in 2018). The book, called Ghostwalker: Tracking a Lion’s Soul through Science and Story, discusses all the latest science in Yellowstone, Jackson, Montana, and California. I speak with scientists, conservationists, trackers, state game managers, as well as houndsmen from Montana. The houndsmen I spoke with were old timers who never used all this new technology such as GPS on their dogs. They all were highly educated about mountain lions. And they all respected and honored the animal. Several, such as Boone Smith and Grover Hedrick, worked with biologists on lion studies. The young men I spoke with this morning represent a group of cat hunters who should not have been given cougar licenses. They were not properly educated.

My blog post today is not a discussion on whether or not to have mountain lion hunting. This is a discussion of how to work “in the better.” The “best” would be no lion hunting. As biologist Colby Anton who is working on the current Yellowstone National Park mountain lion study told me, ““It’s kind of nice that people don’t see cougars, and that is why [Yellowstone] doesn’t have a management program for cougars—we don’t have to manage cougars, they manage themselves.” Yet, living in Wyoming, we need to be realistic. We need to work “in the better” in places like Wyoming where I live. Wyoming isn’t about to follow in California’s footsteps anytime soon with a voter referendum to place lions as a “protected species.”

So what are a few “betters” we can begin with?

Wyoming Game and Fish 2015 tally shows that houndsmen fulfill their lion tag in three days or less. Why is that? It is because of easy road access. The fellows I spoke with today spent a few hours, at best, over the weekend, driving up a road on a snowmobile, putting their dogs out with GPS collars, then treeing the cat. Not only did they learn nothing about tracking a cougar and the habits of cougars, but they are only interested in a dead lion, not in the life of the lion.

Wyoming 2014-15 ML Harvest data

Wyoming Harvest Data Mountain Lions 2014-2015

Elk and deer descend in the winter. Easy winter road access means lion sink zones (a sink zone is a term that indicates a declining lion population vs. a source or stable population). Look at this map produced from a study by Dr. Toni Ruth in Yellowstone. The dark areas are sink habitat, which correspond with drainages where there is easy road access.YNP Cougar survival souce sink chart RUTH

One change Wyoming must make is to consider road density. Gary Koehler, wildlife research scientist with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife from 1994 to 2011, has suggested managing hunt areas based on road density and snow conditions. More road access means easier hunter success. By distributing the hunter harvest over a wide area, hunters are not necessarily attracted to areas where it’s easiest to get a cougar.

These young ignorant hunters also made me think that Wyoming Game & Fish should be requiring every houndsman to take a class on basic mountain lion biology that is science based. Wyoming Game and Fish doesn’t subscribe to ‘kill more lions, grow more deer’, so they should put that science out there for every houndsman to hear.

WY 2007-2014 harvest data

In addition, all the Montana houndsmen I spoke with told me that they wanted a ZERO quota on females. In order to maintain a stable or source lion population, females should not be hunted. Wyoming doesn’t separate their quotas by sex, but Montana does. Wyoming recently made a change that cougars traveling together cannot be shot, but that didn’t protect this young female.

My hope is that my new book, Ghostwalker, will help to not only educate but also give people a glimpse into the secret life of these animals and their complex social systems. You only protect what you know and love. Let’s give lions a better chance.

cougar kittens 2:2017

Two Cougar Kittens around 5 months old early February 2017. These kittens should have dispersed by now. Was one of these killed by the hunters today?

Advocating for Lions, Bears and Wolves

cougar track with penny

As wolf hunting re-emerges this month in Wyoming, and grizzly bear hunting is now being considered with their new delisted status, I thought it was a good time for a blog post on how Game and Fish Agencies are influenced in their decision processes. So called ‘non-consumptive users’–those who do not hunt nor fish (or rarely so)–have no real voice in state wildlife management because they are excluded from being a funding source. Few people understand the mechanics of wildlife management. To that end, this blog post is a short excerpt from my upcoming book on mountain lions, with the working title Thinking Like a Mountain Lion: Tracking a Lion’s Soul through Science and Story.  Although the excerpt references lions, the fundamentals apply to all wildlife, including trophy game animals like bears and wolves.

As a simple introduction to the post below, one has to understand the hierarchy of wildlife management. Under United States common law, the people own the wildlife, while the states hold them in trust for citizens. The lines of jurisdictional authority are complex and highly political. But, in general, state legislatures pass wildlife laws, state game commissions interpret the laws, and the state wildlife agencies implement and enforce the laws. The governor usually appoints state wildlife commissioners for a set period of time, which means they are not elected by the public, and therefore do not have to be responsive to the wide range of public opinions on mountain lion management. The commission establishes hunting seasons, harvest quotas, and management actions. Mission and mandate statements for these state commissions are broad, allowing them to accommodate non-scientifically supported decisions, such as drastically reducing cougar numbers in order to enhance deer populations for recreational hunting. These kinds of decisions fit neatly in with where the majority of the funding for these agencies comes from—hunting and fishing licenses. In other words, non-consumptive users, people who just like to watch wildlife and take photos, have little say in state wildlife management.

I first met David Mattson through his advocacy work for grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone. What I didn’t know then was that he had also participated in over ten years of research in the Southwest focused on puma ecology and puma-human interactions. Both of these experiences with megafauna have shaped his observations on state predator management and its interactions with the public.

Mattson points out that although changes in attitudes towards predators have been incorporated into state game agency policy, the essential structure and funding of the agencies themselves has not changed. What he calls the “utilitarian/dominionistic” worldview has dominated these wildlife agencies since the early 1900s, where domination and utilitarianism is the goal. Over the last forty or so years, a new approach among the public has emerged which values nature for its intrinsic beauty, focusing on ecological connection, scientific advancements, and the idea that humans have a moral responsibility to protect the earth and its wildlife. These two stances are diametrically opposite, creating increasing public demands on the agency management.

Yet, only one set of people holds power over wildlife decisions. Wildlife commissions and employees in wildlife management agencies, are almost all self-identified hunters and supporters of groups that support hunting. Funding sources for these agencies comes primarily from hunters, trappers, anglers, and gun owners through licenses sales and other fees. In Wyoming, for instance, 80% of their Game and Fish funding is from sales of hunting and fishing licenses. North Dakota’s entire budget for wildlife management is sourced from these user fees. The Pittman-Robertson (or Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act) places an excise tax on the sale of firearms, ammunition products, and archery equipment. This act gives additional monetary support to wildlife agencies to the tune of millions of dollars a year from lethal weapons sales. The funding bar is heavily weighted in favor of hunting opportunity.

Mattson writes that having a homogeneous group in charge of wildlife issues makes for a uniform world-view, one that tends to be sympathetic towards that particular constituency—the hunting crowd becomes the ‘in-group’ with preferential treatment, with livestock growers a secondary component.

Wildlife are considered public trust assets. What that means is that they are owned by no persons, but held ‘in trust by governments for the benefit of present and future generations.” This idea dates back to the Magna Carta in England, and was enshrined into law by the Supreme Court over 150 years ago. The public trust doctrine provides a framework for which state and federal governments can protect, conserve, allocate and control wildlife for the benefit of the public.

Over the last forty years, increasing urbanization has made “the internal world of the utilitarian/dominionistic subsystem increasingly out of sync” with the decline of hunters, notes Mattson. This has threatened the revenue stream for Game and Fish agencies, perplexed them as to how to understand and reverse these declines, as well as challenged their traditional values and identities.

The other side of the coin is what Mattson calls the ‘out-group’, those who have no real voice in wildlife management.  These include non-hunting environmentalists, animal welfare groups such as The Humane Society, and what is commonly referred to as ‘non-consumptive’** users, those who like to take photographs and watch wildlife. This group is excluded from decision-making because they have no access to agency budgets through fees, the legislature, nor to the commissions who are appointees by the Governors rather than elected officials. These outsiders’ perspectives are not shared by those who have dominated this arena of wildlife management for the last hundred years.

Mattson argues that the incompatibility of these two perspectives, and the fact that only one narrow view holds all the power over what should be a representative and democratic agency, is the main obstruction to reform in management.

“Mountain lion management will continue to serve a narrow set of special interests organized around hunting as long as revenues are primarily hunting related, commissioners are deeply imbued with the ethos of hunting, and management agencies are dominated by a hunting culture. This is not to say that hunting is intrinsically bad, but rather that any policy process that patently serves narrow special interests while marginalizing all others is fundamentally incompatible with a liberal democracy grounded in civil discourse.”

So how to move forward. No one person has the answer, but a good beginning is represented by groups like the one Sharon Negri participates in with a variety of stakeholders in Washington State. Or the Predator Policy Group in California that Rick Hopkins sits on with three consumptive, three non-consumptive, and three Ag users, with himself as the science advisor. They are responsible to consider predator reforms and suggest new language or regulations that the Commissioners might adopt. Shrinking hunter-dollar revenues, even as the number of wildlife watchers and non-consumptive users is growing, is beginning to push agencies to come to the table to find new funding sources. These new funding sources must include all users—whether something like a tax on photographic equipment and wilderness gear, use fees, lottery proceeds, or even general tax dollars—that could be worked out by these consensus groups. Additionally, public awareness of how these agencies currently operate, what their policies are, how they are funded, and what voices they are excluding is essential. When Texas Mammalogist Jonah Evans said to me “if the public knew the trapping policies on mountain lions they’d be outraged”, he was right. I asked a few Texans if they knew that cougars have absolutely no protections in their state and they were more than surprised at that news.

To begin the conversation, all interests need to come to the table. Again, Mattson sums it up very succinctly. “Moving beyond the current paradigm will likely require diversifying revenues so that no one interest group has a lock on agency financial well-being, diversifying commission membership to represent the full spectrum of ways that people value animals such as mountain lions, and diversifying the cultures of management agencies and the academic institutions that train prospective employees.”

Wildlife agencies are waking up, but letting go of control is not easy to relinquish. Yet on the other side, conservationists and animal rights advocates need to come to the table in good faith, with an open mind. Democracy isn’t about getting everything one side wants, but about listening, honoring and respecting the interests of others, and coming to policy decisions that not only take all stakeholders into account, but, in this case, the lion’s future as well. Shifting the conversation from ‘resource’ to ‘intrinsic value’ and the ecological benefits of lions, as well as other predators, is a good starting point. The prioritization of establishing stable, self-sustaining lion populations needs to be a first topic of conversation not only amongst western agencies, but where lions are absent or struggling to exist in the eastern half of the country.

State wildlife management amounts to only one piece of this multi-pronged approach. Corridor identification and protections (such as freeway overpasses or land purchases), preserving large tracts of habitat for a species that follows migrations of prey, banning rodenticides, public education programs, elimination of predator programs like Wildlife Services, funding and educational help for non-lethal livestock protection programs, developing risk maps for livestock owners—the to-do list is long.

NOTES

1. Mattson, David J. “State-Level Management of a Common Charismatic Predator. Mountain Lions in the West.” Large Carnivore Conservation, Chapter 2, University of Chicago Press 2014.

2.The term ‘non-consumptive user’ has recently been coined as a label for all those enjoyers of wildlife and the natural environment that do not hunt nor fish. But it has been pointed out to me during my research for this book that it is a faulty and misleading term, as we are all ‘consumers’ in one way or another–whether we eat animal products, use ATV’s, horses or bicycles which mar the landscape, or just hikers who make noise and disturb wildlife in their native habitat. As humans, we plough through the landscape, leaving a wake of invisible disturbance that interferes with the daily habits of wildlife. A better term for those who do not hunt nor fish, but enjoy the outdoors needs to emerge.

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.

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