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.
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.
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.
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.
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
4:30 a.m. Cougar shows up. Leaves 40 minutes later
9:28 p.m. Cougar returns. Leaves and comes back at 2:15 a.m. next morning.
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…