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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Cougar Stories

I’ve become fascinated by cougars. Maybe because they are elusive, secretive, more akin to a ghost than an animal of flesh and blood. Which of course, begs the question: How do you get people to care about and protect an animal that they never see, nor probably will never see in their lifetime?

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Mom and six month old kitten

Visitors to Yellowstone National Park can be almost guaranteed, if they are persistent and patient, to view wolves and bears, elk, bison, and bighorn sheep. But only the rare individual will have the opportunity to see a cougar in the Park. They’ve been spotted at Calcite Springs, hanging on the basalt walls and occasionally through a scope from the Hellroaring overlook. Usually the Park sightings are called in by wolf watchers. Once radioed around, tourists hear about it through the airwaves, then flock to those locations. Sometimes the cat might be hanging out, either on a kill or just sunning himself, for hours.

In all my winter tracking I’ve done, I’ve never seen a cougar. In fact, the people I know who have seen cougars, it’s usually from the car when a cat suddenly runs across the road at dusk.

I sat down with Jim Halfpenny for an interview about cougar tracking stories. Jim is a famous tracker who lives in Gardiner, Mt. As a Mammalogist and expert tracker, he has worked all over the West and Canada. His puma tracking includes the deserts of Arizona and Utah as well as the mountains of the Greater Yellowstone.

Jim used to live and work in Colorado. His interest in cougars began in 1982 when the Forest Service called him in to investigate a bear-killed horse within the small town of Nederland CO.  Jim told them “this is not a bear that mauled the horse. It’s a cougar” The Forest Service thought the kill was made by a bear because there were five claw marks on the horse’s neck. If you look at a cat paw, there are four claws and a dew claw high up, like on a dog.  On a cougar print, the dew claw doesn’t show and it’s not bone attached, it’s tendon attached. But Jim knew that dew claw, called ‘the killer claw’, would show on a kill because it wraps around it’s prey. Thus the five marks.  Jim asked himself “What is a cougar doing in a town?” and so began a research project.

cougar print

cougar print has only four paws showing. Dew Claw doesn’t show

Cougar print

Big cat print

I asked Jim if he had tracked cougars without dogs and still seen them. “Oh, many times. I’ve hardly ever used dogs. He told me several of those stories but two stand out.

“I got a phone call from a woman when I lived in Boulder. There was some snow on the ground but it was thin, only about 2 inches. I followed the tracks, and soon I was about 50 yards from the back of this cougar. He looked up and his face said ‘Who are you, what are you doing following me?’

That cougar took a few strides and disappeared but I observed he was cutting a big letter ‘C’; so I cut across the ‘C’, and began following his tracks till they suddenly disappeared. I looked around. No tracks. And then I looked up and there he was, in the tree, looking at me. I got some good photographs of him in that tree.  I’ve got more photographs in the wild than anybody not using dogs or set cameras.”

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Puma uses his vomeronasal organ on the roof of mouth to pick up smells better

Halfpenny told me another great story from the Boulder era. “I got a phone call from a woman who said she watched a cougar kill a deer from her window. It was three in afternoon went I got there. I found that deer and chained it to a tree. Then I did a necropsy on it and saw it was pregnant. I walked one hundred steps off the carcass and sat down. Pretty soon that cougar returns. He’s knows I’m there, and begins trying to pull that deer away to a hidden spot. And he’s pulling for all he’s worth, but that deer is chained to the tree. The cougar looks like ‘What! I don’t understand this. I just killed the thing, and I can’t move it!’

“I watched that cat way into the night, filmed and photographed her. After dark, in came mature kittens. Our crew took turns watching from Friday 3pm to Monday 3pm. Over that time we had foxes, coyotes, domestic dogs and the cougar. It was as if all these animals were waiting on the edges to come in. There were multiple cycles of this.”

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Cougar caught on camera

Most of us will never see a cougar in our lifetime, even if they are living right around us. I intend to write more about cougars with the hope that people will know them and feel the urge to protect them.

 

Cougar ah-ha moment

An ah-ha moment. I might have read about it, studied it, even thought I totally digested the information. But then, out of the blue, everything comes together and sinks in bodily. I ‘grok’ it, or understand something so thoroughly that the I become a part of the observed.

And this is exactly what occurred last week while hunting around for new lion scrapes.

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Cougar scrape. The depression was made with the cougar’s back legs pushing back

I wandered into a small meadow above Dead Indian canyon, the river 200 feet below. This field narrowed into a jumble of massive boulders that funneled to a cliff overhang. Noticing an animal route that looked easy, I descended a rib of rocks into a small U-shaped gulch near the river. I know this canyon. It’s a wonderful hidden gully that the river carved out ages ago, but is now overgrown with Limber Pines and Douglas firs. Bears use this corridor, as do cougars. There’s an old Indian lean-to and a trapper’s whiskey-still was once hidden here.

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Ancient native lean to by river

Today I had approached from the north side of the river, yet the approach to this canyon from the south is extraordinary. Two massive shelves of rock form a tunnel less than six feet wide. Water collects in this tight space, and the passage is overgrown with dogwoods and rose bushes.

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Entrance to the hidden passage

It’s too wet to enter except in the fall. I noticed this anomaly and decided to explore it several years ago in late September. At the entrance, a muddy print of a grizzly greeted me. Obviously, this hidden tunnel was known to the wildlife. I pushed through brush for about fifty feet, the fissure of rock opening just a few feet above an unusually easy crossing of Dead Indian creek.  That’s where I saw the Crow shelter. I crossed the creek, and it was then I discovered the U-shaped gorge.

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Dead Indian creek at the crossing

Today I was looking for other animal routes, specifically where cougars might pass from low to high above. Walking along the cliff escarpment I noticed an opening that might be easy to navigate. I followed the narrow passage uphill and 3/4 of the way up, under a large tree, was an old puma scat and scrape. Once at the cliff edge, back into the light, I noticed another scrape. This was obviously a cougar common route.

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Route from below to above for animals

So, what about that ah-ha moment? I traversed back to the large fields leading to the car, then decided to take a last side trip to look for mountain goats. They winter in these canyons and I usually spot them clinging to narrow shelfs and rock ledges.

Mountain goats

Mountain Goats on the cliff face

Walking the cliff edges, I came to a steep gully that dropped 1000′ down to Sunlight Creek. It would not be a trip I’d want to take, but animals could do it. And there, at the opening to the narrow defile, under a large Douglas Fir, was a scrape. And then it hit me. Scrapes are placed at corridor routes!

Of course, I’d read this. In Cougar Ecology & Conservation Kenneth Logan and Linda Sweanor write:

Male cougars seem to scrape throughout their territories. The scrapes are usually located along cougar travel routes, such as ridgelines, canyon rims, drainage bottoms, under large trees and ledges, and at kill caches.

And my notes from Toni Ruth’s cougar class in Yellowstone last year noted the same. But now I had the information viscerally, and will never forget it.

Female cougar

Female cougar checks out a scrape

 

 

Cougars, Thieves, Politics

Personally: After a several month hiatus healing from a surgery, I finally went out to check my trail camera. I walked a mile or more from a road, through heavy terrain, then dropped down into a hidden gorge where an ephemeral lake sits in an open meadow surrounded by thick forest. My camera was in the forest, in thick brush, focused on one tree. I choose this tree because, since its a large douglas fir, cougars have repeatedly made scrapes under it. Male cougars like to choose these kinds of trees with little snow underneath in the winter to mark their territory and scent for a mate. A scrape is just where the cougar pushed the dirt into a pile with his back legs, then sprayed a scent mark.

Cougar

Cougars have a vomeronasal organ on the roof of their mouths. This cougar is opening is mouth to uptake the scent of a scrape into that organ. Your house cat will do the same thing.

I’m telling you all this to illuminate that there is NO way a casual hiker (and no one hikes here in the winter) would ever come across my camera. So again, the trail camera was attached to a fallen log about 10′ from a tree, within a thick grove of trees that sat near a 500′ cliff in a very remote location. The camera also was chained and locked to the log.

But when I arrived, the camera was gone. Obviously stolen. I considered it for a moment and my conclusion is this: Cougar hunters have been out in force this year. The only person who would know where to look for a cougar scrape, or care, would be a hunter. Most probably he was either out scouting with his dogs and the dogs came upon the scrapes under the tree; or the dogs were actually chasing a cougar, which got away down the cliff edges, but the dogs found the tree. Upon seeing the camera, I can’t imagine this man would have a tool with him to cut through a thick bicycle chain, so he had to return later with the tool to steal my camera. Either he stole it just because he wanted it, or he thought it belonged to another hunter getting an ‘unfair’ advantage to see if a cougar was regularly returning to scent the area. I could see recent scrapes there. Maybe he even killed the cougar up that tree, and since all the snow had melted, and its been months since I’ve been to the camera, there were no fresh tracks.Cougar

More than angry, I’m disappointed at the ethics of this crowd. I personally do not consider cougar hunting ethical, and this kind of behavior might just go along with the mentality of shooting an animal that’s been followed then treed by your dogs.

Politically: There are some even nastier things going on in Wyoming that I hope will not come to fruition. Wyoming HB0012 has been filed to allow trapping and snaring of mountain lions  –  Introduced by Jim Allen (outfitter), Hans Hunt, Eli Bebout, and Larry Hicks. The bill may be brought before committee as early as February 8, 2016. As of now, mountain lions are hunted only with dogs in Wyoming, but this bill, if passed, would allow the use of snares and traps. This would mean indiscriminate catches, such as females, females with cubs, and cubs. Houndsmen who hunt are interested in killing large males, and in general do not kill females, especially ones with cubs. Wyoming Untrapped is asking people to contact their representative to protest this bill. On their website there is a list of ‘talking points’ as to why this would be very bad for cougars, as well as for our state. This takes our state backward into the 19th century, instead of using the best predator science for management in the 21st century.

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Kittens could be indiscriminately trapped

Cougar Talk: In 2006 a cougar hunter’s dogs running after a cougar came upon a pack of wolves that had killed an elk and were feeding upon it. The pups were eating the elk while babysitter wolves were standing guard. When the pack of dogs charged in, the wolves were simply defending their kill and so one of the dogs was killed while the others ran back down to their owner.

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I had heard about this incident, and finally looked it up in the local paper. January 2006 was when it happened. Cougar hunting season goes from September through March, but in general it begins when the snow is thick, because its easy to find cougar tracks.

For years I never saw cougar hunters, yet in the last few years there’s been more and more each year coming back to hunt here. After the $3500 dog was killed the houndsmen stayed away. So what’s changed? We have two wolf packs here and they roam the valley and the surrounding hills. Why have the hunters gotten bolder? Do they just no longer care? Do they figure they’ll shoot if they see a wolf (wolves are back on the endangered list in Wyoming and even if there was a hunt, the season would be over December 31). One man who doesn’t hunt cougars, just ungulates, told me he thought they are not bringing their expensive dogs. I don’t know if that’s true, but I am sure curious why they are back without a care in the world for their dogs.

Cougar

Cougar caught on my trail cam

For those who don’t understand how these hunts work, the dogs are fitted with GPS collars. The hunter usually drives along the roads until he scouts a track in the snow. Then he unleashes the dogs. The dogs will ‘doggedly’ follow that scent until they come upon that cat. Cats don’t have large lungs. They are ambush hunters, not coursing hunters like wolves. So although they can run for a time, eventually they’ll tire and climb a tree to escape the dogs. A great strategy if there wasn’t a person with a gun coming. With the new technology of GPS, hunters only have to wait till their GPS shows the dogs are in one place. That means they’ve treed a cat. Given a cougar’s terrain, the hike could be rugged and a few miles. But the dogs will keep the cat in the tree. At this point all the hunter has to do is shoot.

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A treed cougar by hounds. You can see the dog’s GPS collars

Toni Ruth, a world renowned cougar expert, describes mountain lions as ‘the Clark Kent of the animal world’. And cougar hunting with dogs certainly demonstrates that. I’ve never heard of a treed cat, dog or no dog below, that jumped from that tree and attacked its pursuer.

Cougar Talk, just a bit more:  Cats and wolves have a long history. A 13 year study in Jackson just finished up and looked at this relationship. An excellent NGC show called Cougars Undercover with Mark Elbroch, study manager, described some of the findings. One thing they found is that over time, with the wolf reintroduction and cougars having to adapt, the female cats with kittens, usually solitary, began grouping up so they could defend their kills better. In addition, in the last few minutes of the show, Elbroch says that the reason they found cougars are in decline in the Jackson area didn’t have anything to do with wolf competition which is what they assumed. But instead with overhunting, quotas that were unsustainable for the population.

Although cougars have competition with wolves, they also have competition with other cougars, especially dispersing young males. Last year I found a dead cougar, killed by another cougar over a deer kill. I brought the skull to our local museum where it was cleaned and labeled. Here is the finished museum skull. You can see the puncture wounds from the other cat’s canines.IMG_1036