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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.

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One Response

  1. Great work Leslie! Relentless curiosity is a gift! And to share the results is a greater gift!!! John M.

    Like

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