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    A COMPENDIUM FOR THE DRY GARDEN

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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

 

 

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.

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