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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.

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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….

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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

 

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

 

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.

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

Lions on the Edge in Texas

I’ve been digging into everything about mountain lions, talking with biologists, houndsmen, trackers, and conservationists. In the predator war that began with settlers moving West, bounties were placed on mountain lions in all the Western States. Cougars had already been eradicated in the Mid-West and East. The arid, broken country of Western deserts and steep terrain of rugged mountains saved the Western cougars from disappearing completely. The actual total number of cougars killed through bounties and government agents is unknown, but just to blow your mind, here are a few estimates from state bounty records (after records started being kept): California 1,754; Montana 1,897; Oregon 6,752; Washington 3,143; Utah 3,895; Idaho 1,407; Animal Damage Control 1937 through 1970-7,255; Arizona 7,800. Remember these are just numbers of cougars killed while states had bounties.

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This infamous photo of the severed heads of 11 mountain lions was taken by an outraged employee of the Arizona Game and Fish Department. These animals were among 24 lions killed by the federal agency Animal Damage Control (now called Wildlife Services)

Then in the 1960s and early 70s, a sea change occurred, or as Rupert Sheldrake might call it, morphic resonance. Western states eliminated the bounty, and over the course of just a few years, states changed the status of the mountain lion from predator to game animals. That monumental change created hunting seasons, quotas, and fines on poaching for lions. The lion population began to grow again.

The one exception to this Western metamorphose was Texas. Granted, Texas does have the least amount of public lands of all the Western states, a measly 2%. Yet forty years later, Texas still classifies mountain lions as non-game unprotected animals, able to be killed year round regardless of sex, no bag limit, trapped, snared, shot or poisoned.

So what is with Texas? Still living in the 19th century, is Texas just slow, maybe ten, twenty years from now they will follow the rest of the West? Or does Texas have some kind of immunity to the morphic field?

Texas cougar

To find out, I called Orie Gilad, a biologist who did a study on cougars in Texas about 10 years ago, and maintains the Texas Mountain Lion website, that has all the current Texas lion information. Just like the website says, the picture is grim. Lions are few in Texas because Texans like to kill them. Lions in Texas are immigrating from Mexico and a few from New Mexico. West Texas is difficult, hard scrabble desert where generational ranching families try to make a living with sheep and goats, as well as cattle. Although lions and sheep are generally a recipe for loss, old prejudices against predators in the ranching community die slowly. In West Texas, this may mean one funeral at a time. If lions head east, towards mid and east Texas, they are quickly picked off. Game farms where deer are hunted for profit will not tolerate a lion on their ranch. The main areas where lions are tolerated are Big Bend National Park  (because it is a National Park and no hunting is allowed), some private ranches, some ranches in Western Texas that have been abandoned by families who no longer want to tough ranching out, and oddly enough, Jeff Bezos Space launch site, Blue Origin, almost 300,000 acres where no hunting is allowed, though Bezos isn’t doing that because mountain lions are endearing to him, yet protection it is.

three cougars

Besides excessive killing of lions, a new potential threat to the few lions left in west Texas is Trump’s border wall. Trump wants to build a 30 foot concrete wall. Animals like coyotes which can usually dig under a fence can’t dig under a concrete footing for a 30′ wall. And although lions are great jumpers, the usual is about 20′ from standing. If a wall like that becomes a reality, cougar immigration will stop, which would spell the end of the Texas mountain lion population.

Every three years representatives from western states, including researchers and biologists, gather for a Mountain Lion Workshop to share new science and talk about management. Missing is Texas. Why? Because research is just not going on there. In the past, some has gone on in trickles, mostly in Big Bend. But Texas does not even show up at the biggest, baddest, cougar conference among cougar scientists and managers!

I asked Orie Gilad if there was any hope in Texas’ future for lions, besides old ranchers dying. She mentioned that there is a young persons, and artists, immigration surge. Education, she says, is key, and so her website. If mountain lions are to survive, and someday thrive, in Texas, they will need all our voices.

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The Ghost Walker

What if you could hike into the British Columbia Selkirk range, and find a place where no hunters, trappers or people ventured all winter long. Where wolf packs, mountain lions, wolverines, elk, moose and deer were abundant. You then packed in, by canoe, a store of supplies for your winter stay of six months, then carried these bit by bit to a wide meadow edged by timber you had scoped out beforehand. Before the snows arrived, you’d build yourself a small cabin, reusing mostly old timbers from an ancient miner’s cabin. Then you’d explore the countryside before the snows set in, and build yourself two or three shelters in various parts of your new found wilderness where you could spend the night if needed after spying on mountain lions for several days.DCIM100MEDIA

 

This is exactly what R.D. Lawrence, Canadian naturalist and writer did in the late 1970s. His goal? To study pumas in a direct and deep way. In order to make sure he had located an area where there were pumas, he first hired a small plane to fly the countryside, while he leaned out the side door, using his binoculars to spy at least one big cat that had its territory there. When he spotted one, he took out his maps, charted a course and territory, and spent an entire winter living on just the rations he took into the wilderness, and his wits. He tracked and trailed mostly at night using moonlight. He’d take a pack and spend days and night beyond his small cabin he built, using the lean-to shelters he stashed around the mountains.

Thompson Cabin

He found an old miner’s cabin and used the wood to construct his own shelter

And during the course of the winter, he found a male tom and a female. He watched the male many times make kills, then sat 100 feet away while the cat fed. He heard the female caterwauling in the night when in estrus, calling for the tom. He found the female’s den, climbed to a hill with a week’s worth of food, then sat and watched her three kittens play outside the den.

cougar-with-kits

One night, after trailing the tom cougar for hours in moonlight against snow, then watching him unsuccessfully make a kill, a fierce storm came barreling in. Lawrence was fighting the wind and blinding sting of the snowfall, trying to make it back to his cabin. The storm grew wilder and he was tired and cold. He decided he needed to make a shelter quickly by digging in the snow. He searched for an appropriate spot and found a small rise where he could make what he thought would be a snow cave. As he began digging, the snow fell away and a small cave was revealed. So relieved to find such a perfect shelter, he left his pack and crawled inside, when he suddenly felt some breathing in the back of the cave. He flashed a light, and found he was inside a grizzly den, with a bear that was waking up and angry to be disturbed.

Grizzly Bear

This is a wonderful book of what are now bygone days. Today its hard to find anyplace in this crowded world where not only such a wealth of wildlife lives, but lives undisturbed all winter long. And the world of the traditional naturalist, living in the field, using traditional methods of observation, stretching the limits of his or her human endurance, has been replaced by the techno-gizmos of GPS collars and computers.

Well written, engaging, I recommend Lawrence’s The Ghost Walker for every wildlife lover’s library.