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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.

Bandelier

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.

TrishCarneyBAPP small.jpg

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Mountain lions, the ghost of the Americas

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

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

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

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

Cougar kitten

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

F51 and her kitten from Panthera’s Jackson Teton Study

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

F51 in her den in the Jackson WY study

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

Collaring a mountain lion in the Bay Area studies

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

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

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

Grizzlies and other wild news

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

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

GhLrg2lines

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

“His cowboy boots are probably still sitting there.”

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

1643:092517:50F:0000:CAMERA1:2

Missing Mama Grizzly

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

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

Grizzly Cubs 2 years old

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

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

1455:092617:59F:0000:CAMERA1:2

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

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

Grizzly print

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

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

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

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

Grizzly habitat SW 1860

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

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

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

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

1401:092517:50F:0000:CAMERA1:2

 

 

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

 

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?