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More Cougar Madness with Videos

I put together a little video with some fun music of a male cougar looking for a mate.

Examining cougar scat in the Park
Examining cougar scat in the Park

The story goes like this:  I found a scrape several months ago.  Male cougars make scrapes to look for mates but also to mark territory. Scrapes are a good place to place your trail camera because it’s a signal to other cougars to come by and check out what’s going on. Scrapes also attract other wildlife, like canines and bears.  In fact, Dan Stahler, who is in charge of the Yellowstone Park Cougar Research Project, showed us a trail camera video taken at a scrape in the Park in which a grizzly bear took a nap all day on a scrape!

Big Cat Expert Toni Ruth leads a class in Yellowstone.  Here she is collecting cougar hair
Big Cat Expert Toni Ruth leads a class in Yellowstone. Here she is collecting cougar hair

So I put my trail cam out on the scrape and sure enough got some footage.  A few weeks later, the camera took a whole series of shots of this big male making a scrape, and then a female appeared.  When I saw all the activity, I brought a second camera and set it up for video.

What you are seeing in this movie I put together are the stills (taken by the camera so fast that they actually act like a movie), and then at the end the video footage.  Then music thrown in for fun.

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Cougars and other cougars, And wolves

The other day I took a hike to a high place where the ancients once hunted bighorn sheep.  Although we still have bighorns around the valley, I’ve never seen one in this location.   The escarpment rises to a series of wooded shelves, a layered cake of pines and firs.  Three or four of these terraces and then the mountain rises vertically towards formidable buttresses of limestone.Bighorn sheep

Warning, some graphic photos below of the dead cougar

In my wanderings upwards I came to a narrow passage of rock and tree with deer hair strewn around the ground.  I recognized the way it had been plucked as typical of a mountain lion.  Next to all the fur I saw a winter killed carcass with the rib cage sticking out.  With all the fur, my mind instantly went to a deer kill, but I soon saw something unexpected–a long tail!  Here was the carcass of a cougar, a small one, no bigger than my 90 pound dog.  All the meat and innards were gone, but the hide remained, as well as the head and tail, intact.

How I found it
How I found it

Cougar carcass

cougar killed

After turning the carcass over and examining the skull remains and the teeth, I took the entire scene into account.  I was standing on top of a flat closet-sized piece of ground, hidden amongst the trees and with a nice view below.  About 10 feet to my right was the remains of a cat covered carcass–all fur and brush.  Cats are neat animals and even once all is eaten, the small remains of what’s left are covered.  I brushed the mound with my foot, but nothing was left.

Site of covered deer.
Site of covered deer.

So here were the clues:  1.  A cat had been here long enough to kill a deer, pluck its fur, and cover it  and 2. a young cat, either a disperser or one that had lost its mother and was on its own, had been killed right next to deer kill and 3. the cougar smelled bad enough and was fresh enough that this all happened this winter sometime.

I pondered the scene.  Few animals eat predators.  I once saw a dead coyote that had been kicked by an elk and died in winter.  I watched that carcass and nothing ate on it until it thawed enough for birds to get it.  I figured the cougar was scavenged by birds such as bald and golden eagles and magpies and ravens.

My hypothesis of the crime scene goes as such:  Since I know that not only was the kill done in winter so no bears were out, there also are no bears this high up with nothing to eat.  We have several wolf packs here, but they tend to follow the elk.  This cougar was either displaced off of his kill by a larger male cat, or wandered into the kill and then was taken out by the other cougar.  Dispersing males have a hard time.  Big male cougars will keep their territory under control and will kill young males.  I concluded this is what happened.

I wanted to know more.  A friend gave me the number for a woman who has worked with the Panthera project out of Jackson, WY and now works with Craighead Beringia.  We had a long discussion about many things ‘mountain lion’, but she told me one interesting new development from the 13 year long project.  Cougar

The project is very interested in the interplay between cougars and wolves.  In the Jackson area, their prey overlaps more than I’ve noticed in my area.  Probably because in winter the National Elk Refuge has around 6000-7500 elk.  Where I live east of the Park, my basin welcomes about 1500-2000 head of elk from the Lamar herd.  I’ve noticed here the cougars kill mostly deer, while the wolves take elk.  Over in the Jackson area, cougars were being displaced from their kills by wolves frequently.  That meant not only did they have to kill more, but that left kittens vulnerable to starvation.  But cougars are smart and they’ve lived with wolves for thousands of years and so are either developing or remembering an interesting strategy.  Mothers with kittens are teaming up with other mothers with kittens at a kill.  So if a wolf pack shows up, instead of one cougar there might be six.  Remember kittens can stay with their mother for 12-18 months so they can be formidable foes as well.  Left Hind cougar

One last cougar item.  Last week I was in a different area that deer use as a pass through in the winter.  It’s a narrow valley, mostly meadows with few rocks or cliffs.  In a large meadow, under some sparse pines, I found a very fresh cougar kill with tracks leading up to it.  Only the heart had been eaten and the kill sparsely covered. When I mentioned to the Beringia representative that I’d never actually seen a live cougar, she said that next time I find a fresh kill I should camp out there overnight.  Good idea!

Tracking cougars

On Sunday we had a nice snow, so today was the day to go to one of my favorite spots for cougar tracking.  The area is a peninsula of rock, funneling into wooded cliffs that provide a corridor down to the Bighorn Basin–a perfect landscape for the perfect predator.

I started my hike with the intent of exploring an area of cliffs that I’d only approached previously from the western edges.  I wanted to see if I could climb this high viewpoint from a different angle.  Yet I soon was sidetracked by two sets of cougar tracks–a large male and another set, possibly a female.  I decided to backtrack them and see if I could discover more information.  Then, another surprise.  As the tracks led downslope into the trees by the canyon walls, I came upon a set of human footprints–a person with at least one dog.

Cougar sidetracks along a cliff edge where I decided to go around
Cougar sidetracks along a cliff edge. I decided to go around rather than risk falling down the cliff!

There’s been cougar hunters in the area since the start of the hunting season, last September.  Cougar hunting in Wyoming goes from September through March 31st.  Cougar hunting takes place with trained dogs, fitted with GPS collars.  Once a track is located (easiest done in snow), the dogs are let loose and follow their noses.  The dogs tree the cougar; the hunter uses the GPS signal to find the treed cat and then shoots it.  The trophy hunt is done.

So instead of tracking my cougar, I began tracking these human tracks to see if this cougar had been killed.  At times there were cougar tracks alone, other times hunter and cougar together. It was obvious this person was following cat tracks, but these  human tracks looked a day or two old.  Then finally I found what I was hoping for: a cougar track on top of the humans, and the cougar’s track was fresher.  With all the human and dog tracks, I lost my cougar.

Cougar print over a human boot who was tracking him
Cougar print over a human boot who was tracking him

On my return home, there he was. With only his tracks, I was able to follow him through many twists and turns–encountering several scraps.  This male was making his mark and putting out his calling card for a female.

Scrap, around 8" with a pile in the back.  Cougar pushes with his back feet his scent
Scrap, around 8″ with a pile in the back. Cougar pushes with his back feet his scent
Another view
Another view

After a lot of ups and downs, this male disappeared down a deep canyon that crosses the river. Interestingly, a friend told me he chatted with some fellows who’d been driving the nearby highway and spotted a cougar dragging his deer kill.  By crossing the canyon and river, my cougar could make his way up the mountain side.  Maybe it was the male I was following who they saw.  Male mountain lions have an average territory of 462 square miles!

Measuring this print, its shape.  I decide its a male and then confirmed by the scrap it left
Measuring this print, its shape. I decide its a male and then confirmed by the scrap it left
Big cat print
Big cat print

I am still trying to wrap my head around trophy hunters.  Mountain lions are beautiful animals–much more beautiful alive than dead. They move with perfect grace, are the most elusive predator, and left alone (see the results of a no hunting policy in California) will self-manage and have minimal encounters with humans.  We can easily live side-by-side with these predators as long as we do not fragment their habitat and/or protect our livestock wisely.  So why hunt them?

One cat hunter said it was exciting hunting a predator that backtracks and ‘hunts you’.  But that is just imaginary thinking. Toni Ruth describes mountain lions as the “Clark Kent of the animal world”; in other words, very mild mannered.  A cat that backtracks you is simply a curious cat.  And using dogs to find and tree your prey, and then simply taking your shot at a sitting animal is not hunting, but killing.  Very few people eat mountain lion.

When I first moved here, wolves were listed as protected.  A cat hunter’s dog was killed by wolves and the cat hunters stopped coming around.  But this year they are back and don’t seem to care any more about wolves taking their dogs.  The country I live in has no reported incidents of livestock being killed by cougars.  And over-hunting big males leaves a lot of adolescent males running around getting into trouble.  In short, hunting disrupts a tight cat social structure that self-regulates and keeps the cats out of human trouble.

All in all, it was another fine day of cat track hunting.nice cougar track