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    A COMPENDIUM FOR THE DRY GARDEN

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Following a lion to find a kill.

A few days ago I found a pile of freshly collected dirt and pine needles under a large fir. It had the obvious signs of the only animal around here that covers its scat–felines.  I pushed aside the dirt and found cougar scat, so fresh that it was obvious this cat had just killed and eaten.

cougar scat

Fresh Cougar Scat

In researching my book, Ghostwalker, expert cougar biologist Toni Ruth described to me a typical lion-kill scene—the cougar will drag his kill usually under a tree and cover it. This aides in hiding the smell to keep scavengers away and helps keep it fresh. A deer can take several days to consume. The cat eats, sleeps and sets up a latrine nearby.  Sometimes cougars will just eat the organs and leave. They need the nutritious organs since they lost the ability somewhere in evolutionary time to convert carotenoids like beta carotene into Vitamin A.

cougar kill

Buck in velvet killed by mountain lion. Lion covered the kill after it had entered through the rib cage and eaten the organs

Armed with this knowledge, I began hunting around in an ever-widening circle looking for the kill site. Yet I found nothing.  Giving up, I walked into the nearby forest where a light wet snow still covered the ground from the previous evening. There I found the cat’s prints. I backtracked the cougar, who had crossed through several properties. I found the kill, a young buck, close to a garage whose owners are absentee most all the year.  I could see the cat had entered through the rib cage (typical) and only eaten out the organs so far. I ran home and placed a trail camera at the kill site.

My home is amongst a small cluster of 6-9 acre properties, all bordering National Forest. The valley is a patchwork of a few large ranches interspersed with public lands. Most everywhere one looks is National Forest. A few miles directly west are the Absaroka mountains, the border of Yellowstone National Park. Deer are getting ready for their annual walk-about, following the green-up to the high country of Yellowstone. They are a bit late this year as it’s been cold, green-up a bit late, and the snows still deep where they are headed, so bucks and does are still hanging around, many close to homes.

Sunlight in winter

The Basin in early winter from the pass. Public lands in all directions.

Another neighbor who owns a large horse ranch told me they’d spotted a young grizzly scouting their hay fields not far from this cat’s hidden kill. It got me wondering if the bear would bounce the cougar off his kill. Cougars are subordinate predators, and bears kick them off their kills 50% of the time. A bear can smell a carcass up to 20 miles away. I was betting on the bear.

Grizzly

Young grizzly in the meadows by my house

But I had other questions. First, this cougar seemed to be acting somewhat like cougars that live in urban-wildland settings–its latrine was about 1/4 mile away and not used over and over; it was coming and going to its kill, returning only under cover of darkness. With most homeowners gone in early spring, I believe this cat would have acted different. But this is Memorial Day weekend, and some of the nearby vacation homes are occupied. Even the usually vacant property where the deer stashed the kill, the owners had come out from the east coast for the weekend. Additionally, noise factor on the dirt road for the holiday weekend was spooking the cat.

So I asked myself “Would this cat return to its kill to finish up or just be satisfied with the organs it already ate?” “Would the grizzly bear overtake it?”  I waited a few days and went to retrieve the memory card in the camera.

3:45 a.m. First visitor: A lone coyote stays for about 15 minutes

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First visitor to the kill site

4:30 a.m. Cougar shows up. Leaves 40 minutes later

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9:28 p.m. Cougar returns. Leaves and comes back at 2:15 a.m. next morning.

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cougar burying kill

Here the cougar is re-burying it’s kill with its back legs.

So after the initial kill and eating the organs, this cougar has returned three times over the course of two nights. The bear apparently has moved on down the valley, more interested in grass and grains than meat. If this was fall, that bear would have definitely been on the carcass during hyperphagia. Today was warm. This carcass was buried in a wet swampy area amidst trees. The flies were on it, but there is still plenty of meat. So now I wonder if that cougar will return again, even with the flesh beginning to spoil a bit. Or will the bear be back? Coyotes for sure, and maybe some wolves will come by as they are feeding pups now.  I added another camera that takes video, so, To be continued…

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Reviewing my photos. 3rd day and it is warm (63 degrees). The cougar wasn’t able to cover the carcass very well due to location and there are flies on it, but still plenty of meat.

 

 

 

 

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Spirit of the Mountain

I’m not, in general, a ‘cat person’.  First, I’m allergic to cats.  And more than that, I’ve never understood cats, their aloofness, nor their behavior.  But it seems the tables have turned for me, because I’ve become fascinated with the wild cats around here–bobcats, cougars, and the illusive lynx.  Bobcat sign has become quite rare these days with the heavy trapping.  Bobcat pelts sell for up to $1000. And good luck seeing a lynx or their tracks.  One old timer tells me she saw one several years ago by my mailbox, but I haven’t heard of any reported sightings around here. But cougars seem to be abundant.

I put my trail cam on a ‘scrape’.  Males will mark their territory with scrapes, usually under a big old conifer.  Its also a scent post to attract females.  If you can find a scrape, that seems to be your best bet of seeing cougars, as well as other animals.  The study that’s going on in Yellowstone Park had footage of a grizzly bear lounging on a cougar scrape for a full day!

Actually, I placed two cameras on this scrape but the movie one malfunctioned, so I put together a ‘video’ from the stills of my Reconyx. You can see exactly how this big male makes a scrape by twisting his hind back and forth.

This male, it turns out, was accompanied by a female.

male and female cougar

male and female cougar

First the male marks, then the female came and scented it using her vomeronasal organ located on the roof of her mouth.  Those of you who have cats, have seen your pet smell something then raise their head to take the smell into that organ.

Cougar taking a scent up into its vomeronasal organ on the roof of its moutn

Cougar taking a scent up into its vomeronasal organ on the roof of its moutn

 

Female cougar checks out a scrape

Female cougar checks out a scrape

Without trying much, I seem to be running into cougar sign.  Maybe the class I took with Toni Ruth in January helped key me into how a cougar thinks, what it does, and where it goes.

I’ve seen many old cougar deer kills that have been neatly covered, but nothing is left except the legs which they don’t eat.  Cats are always very neat and tidy.  They drag their kills to cover, like under a tree or hidden behind rocks is typically where I’ve found them.  And they pile brush up in a circle to cover their kills.  This keeps them fresh and reduces scent.  Also, the hair of the deer is plucked.  Bears will cover their kills but they are messy and use a lot of dirt and sticks.

Old cougar kill.  There is nothing left here but the cat piled it up neatly

Old cougar kill. There is nothing left here but the cat piled it up neatly

On a short hike in a distance valley miles from where my trail cam sits,  I found a fresh deer kill with snow tracks leading to it.  I’d never found a fresh kill and I knew that this lion was somewhere in the neighborhood, probably watching me. But I wasn’t worried about the lion.  I was worried about bears, so instead of investigating I scouted the entire area first, then backtracked.  Bears will defend a found carcass while I knew that a cougar would not.  All that had been eaten was the heart, and the kill looked hastily covered.  Possibly Koda and I had disturbed the cat, although maybe not because it was the middle of the day. You can see the puncture wound at the neck in this photo.  I hoped to catch a glimpse of the cat, but no luck.  I asked Toni Ruth in her five years of studying cougars at Yellowstone National Park, how many times she saw one, apart from when she used dogs to track and collar them.  With thousands of hours of tracking in the field, she’d only seen them three times in five years!  I myself have never seen a cougar, only their sign.

Cougar killed deer.  You can see the puncture wound at the back of the neck

Cougar killed deer. You can see the puncture wound at the back of the neck

Although cougars have large territories, my trail camera sits in a valley far from houses.  A nice plus today in retrieving my trail cam.  As Koda and I were almost to the car, I heard a Great Gray Owl.

Fresh prints in the snow lead up to the kill

Fresh prints in the snow lead up to the kill