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Cougars and Wolves-A puzzle

Finally time to post a cougar entry.  Days have been warm, so when we’ve had snow, it melts off quickly.  But I’ve had two interesting cougar tracking experiences.

Several days after a very nice snow I ventured out to an area where I’ve seen cat tracks many times.  Its a landscape full of boulders with low cliffs easily passable for humans–perfect cougar tracking.  I headed straight for some high cliffs where I found cougar tracks last year, and lo and behold, there were fresh puma tracks.  Because the terrain is fairly easy, I was able to follow these tracks for over an hour, mostly up, down and over boulders.  A coyote occasionally mirrored this cougars’ trail.

Left Hind

Nice front print

Right front (Rt.) Left hind over front foot (lt) cougar

Right front (Rt.) Left hind over front foot (lt) cougar

Moving with an easy gait, occasionally jumping high up on a boulder or down into a gully (where I had to go around.  Following a cougar isn’t easy), the cougar stopped on a rock at an overlook to size up the terrain.  All this indicated that this cougar was relaxed.

DSCN1154

I’d seen wolf tracks when I began early on, but not coinciding with my cougars tracks.  Yet suddenly the wolf pack’s tracks appeared atop a ridge, fresh as the cougars’.  The wolves and the cougar headed down a narrow path to a ravine below, where I lost the cougar tracks in an array of wolf tracks.  I searched everywhere but the plethora of canine tracks obscured all other sign.  What were those wolves doing? There was no sign of a kill in the area.  Usually Koda is pretty good at finding carcasses when I can’t.  I even went back on another day, combing the area for a kill, but nothing.

Cougar paw

cougar teeth

Anesthesized cougar teeth

A few days ago I hiked up the mountain behind my home.  A series of terraces stair steps up the mountain side.  It’s a north facing wooded area and some of the shelfs are quite steep.  I climbed fairly high when I came across a fresh cougar track.  The cat scrambled to the next level, the final mesa before the mountainside turns to scree.  It’s an area full of large boulders.  The cougar easily and deftly walked up the slope toward a giant granite boulder which she jumped on top of.  Yet what caught my attention were the wolf tracks that ran right in front of the boulder and over the cougar tracks–same freshness.  Here again were cat and canine tracks together.

Again losing the cat tracks, I followed the wolf tracks back to the woods by my house.  There I found not only cougar and wolf tracks, but a deer kill already picked over by birds, probably from the night before.  Did the cougar kill the deer, only to be driven off by the wolves?

So, this leaves me with more questions than answers.  Do wolves keep a pretty good bead on cougars?  Cougar kills are easy food for other predators and that’s why they take time to cover their kills.  But what were those wolves doing around that cougar on my first tracking excursion?  What kind of competition are those wolves presenting to that cougar?  And it also lead me to think about people who hunt cougars with dogs.  Eight dogs have been killed by wolves in Montana this year while hunting cougars.  Are those dogs more susceptible to being caught and killed by wolves because they are following cougars?  There have been a series of dogs lost in Sunlight over the years, some for a few weeks, yet all the lost dogs have turned up, not killed by wolves.  Yet a few years ago a hound hunting cougars was killed by the wolf pack.

I am curious about the relationship between cougars and wolves, two top predators competing for similar prey.

 

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3 Responses

  1. This was an excellent read! Like you, it brought a lot of questions to my mind. And your added information about dogs being killed by wolves, especially if with a person hunting for cougars, does lead one to wonder what is going on. I’ll be interested in any follow up information you find, or discover about these observations.

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  2. There was a television documentary that aired last week about the relationship between wolves and cougars in the Rocky Mountains. It first aired in 2012 on one of the Discovery Networks, so this was the 2nd time I’d seen that episode.

    Wildlife biologists were concerned because cougar populations were remaining stagnant in Montana (I think). There seemed to be a dearth of young cougars and surviving kittens. The narrator implied that wolves may be the reason for the population stagnation.

    The documentary showed biologists tracking a few cougars.

    The narrator never did come to any conclusion, but none of the cougar kittens the biologists followed survived for very long. They didn’t find out what was killing the cougar kittens.

    I suspect it was male cougars killing the kittens, not the wolves. Cougars generally limit their own populations.

    Wolf predation on kittens, subadults, and adult cougars has been documented, but I think male cougars probably are a bigger cause of mortality among young cougars.

    Cougar predation on wolves has also been documented, but never on pups…just the adults.

    (I have 2 female cats. They are very protective and courageous mothers, but this 1 feral tomcat eventually kills just about every kitten they ever produce.)

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  3. Thanks Mark, I did catch that show. That study is being done in WY in the Jackson area on the other side of the Park from me. It was very interesting and made me wonder if there is a decrease in cougars in my area. WY had a hunt quota of 20 cougars in this hunt zone which extends quite a ways. 21 have been killed so far. It is a very large area that includes the mountains butting up against the eastern side of the Park and the basin as well.

    The study area for that NG show noted only 9 cats in a 150 sq. mile area. The usual for WY is 3-5 cats per 40 sq. mi. although the Yellowstone area is significantly less with 1-3 cats.

    Few people hunt cougars up here anymore because of the wolves, which I think is a good thing. Because its been known for a long time that toms kill kittens, I would bet that they are taking that into account in the study. But you are right, the show left us all hanging. It presented a lot of questions and no answers.

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