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    A COMPENDIUM FOR THE DRY GARDEN

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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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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

More on Mountain Lions

A few weeks ago I attended Toni Ruth‘s Cougar Class in Yellowstone National Park through the Yellowstone Association.  That class gave me some extra hints about tracking cougars.  I had a sense where to find tracks in my area, but identifying scraps, and finding lays and dens was another thing.  Applying what I learned, I headed out and found a kill site.  I’ve found them before, but Toni suggested that cougars usually bed down close to their kill (if its a large kill they might want to eat some more later), and also usually have a toilet within 300 feet or so.

Once I found this young deer kill in a rock crevice, I began investigating for a bedding site and a toilet.

Cougar deer kill dragged to rock crevice

Cougar deer kill dragged to rock crevice

Within 50 feet of the kill, I found the toilet.  Cats are extremely clean and meticulous.  They tend to use the same area to defecate and then make sure to cover it each time.  This toilet had obviously been used for years.  I knew the area and there’s a ravine about 300 yards to the east.  I’d found lots of cat kill evidence there before so this was a good place for this cat.

Then I began looking around for a bed site.  The toilet was on the flats, but the kill had been dragged below to a small cliff area.  I began investigating the rock edges.  Toni had pointed out how the cats she collared in Yellowstone were traveling at the base of very high cathedral-type cliffs.  I figured this cat might be doing the same.  And lo and behold I found a very nice small cave–big enough for a cat to bed down in.  Toni had told me that when I find these, to crawl inside and look for ‘guard hairs’, the white hairs on the belly of the cat.  They apparently shed easily.  Following her instructions, I found several white hairs.

Cougar bed site

Cougar bed site

Judging from the location, knowing that deer had been killed for many years in the nearby ravine, I hypothesized that this was a bed site that cat (or other cats) frequented. Toni said that cats use bed sites over and over, and that multiple cats will use them.

I returned a few days later with a trail camera and set it on the small cave.  I anticipated that if I got anything, it might be months of waiting.

Another thing I learned from the class was that a better place to site a trail camera for lions is a scrape.  This is because male lions use scrapes (a scent mark) to communicate a lot of information, especially to find females.  And a lot of other animals will visit these scrapes.  Dan Stahler who visited the class for a morning had a video of a grizzly bear taking a full days nap on a cougar scrape!

So today I went to put my camera on that scrape I found.  I stopped to check the bed site cam and look what I found.Cougar

Cougar exhibits a flehmen response

Cougar exhibits a flehmen response

Cats, including your common housecat, have what’s called a Jacobson’s organ on the roof of their mouth.  This puma was smelling what had taken place in his bed site (myself as well as my dog had been there when we placed the trail cam), then drew that scent up into the roof of its mouth for a better smell. The Flehmen response is similar to smelling but the vomeronasal organ is interfacing separately with the brain. It is usually employed for detecting sexual pheromones from the urine but may also be used for supplemental analysis of any interesting smell.

I asked Toni in her seven years of cougar studies in YNP, how many times she saw mountain lions (not counting the collaring done with dogs).  Her reply–3 times!   I still have yet to see a cougar despite all this tracking.

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

 

 

Ode to a Wyoming Spring

Yesterday I took a short hike on the Clark’s Fork plateau.  And I was again reminded that there is nowhere like the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and the Northern Spine of the Rockies where one can experience what I did in just a few hours in the lower U.S.  Frankly, it was a magical excursion.

I began my hike on a well-known trail that falls just 45′ down to the vast plateau above the rocky cliffs of the Clark’s Fork.  Within moments I came across cougar tracks in the melting snowfield.  After a following the tracks a few steps, the elusive cougar  disappeared.

Left Hind cougar

From the parking area above I’d spied a few elk, so I knew some were around.  But as I rounded a bend in the treeline, there was a small herd of about 75 elk in the meadows near the cliff edges.  Elk disband into smaller and smaller herd sizes as spring nears, until soon they disappear to calve and head into the high country.  The elk spied me and Koda, and were a bit skittish but quite curious.  As they ran one direction, then another to follow our movements (I was headed away from them and already at quite a distance), their hooves pounded on the frozen earth an ancient, but familiar hollow sound.

elk

I watched the elk briefly as they watched me, but I was headed for the river.  Within moments I spied fresh wolf tracks, 2 sets, as well as a lone coyote, on a sprint down to the river too.  I began following them as they lead me down the narrow gully that meets the river’s edge.

Two wolves side trot down the road

Two wolves side trotting towards the river

The wolves sidetracked up to a small meadow for a view and I did too.  From there, I glassed around, probably doing what the wolves did with their own eyes and good sense of smell.  Just a ravine away, there was a large gathering of birds on a melting ice field.  I detoured that way and watched them for a while.  Thousands of birds were gathering in trees, taking time for a drink.  Their chirping sounded like crickets, which I knew weren’t out yet because it was about 37 degrees.

After following the canine tracks down to the river, and seeing they’d crossed over, I made my way slowly to the cliff edge.  I wanted to spy for mountain goats that frequent the Clark’s Fork cliffs in the winter.  There is a special look-out area, where the meadows give way to trees, that soon fall precipitously over the 1000′ edge.  As I neared the trees and cliffs, I heard that strange ‘cricket’ sound again.  The flock had flown here and they were flying everywhere, from tree to tree, around the cliffs, thousands of birds.  These were Bohemian Waxwings and maybe there were beginning their migration north.  Beautiful birds, a bit smaller than robins, they caught my eye and senses.

Bohemian Waxwing

Whatever they were up to, the sheer force of their presence and numbers was magical.  The sun beat down through the trees.  I stood and allowed the new spring sun to warm my body, closed my eyes, and listened to them.  As I became quiet, they grew less concerned about my presence and became more active, flying all around me.  I felt like I was receiving a tiny bit of what America might have looked like hundreds of years ago–when wildlife was so abundant that this ‘small’ flock of a thousand birds or so was common.

What a wonderful two hour hike.  Only in a place like the Greater Yellowstone.  I was reminded of how precious, fragile, and necessary this place is.

The Tipping Point

Everything is up for grabs now relative to climate.   Climatic tipping point talk is abuzz about the scientific community.  All our efforts to save species have a large ‘unknown’ given rapid ecosystem changes due to climate instability.  The tipping point, researchers say, may be within just the next 10 years.

For the last several years, I’ve taken to setting up my trail camera all summer in the little forest by my house.  The forest is home to 7 springs that emerge from the limestone underground rivulets hidden deep within the abutting mountain.  These springs flow into private lands, much of which is soggy and marshy.  The forest also is a lively travel corridor.

Spring area, one spring

In previous summers I’d pick up my trail camera chip every few weeks.  Mostly I’d see deer, a few coyotes, and an occasional black bear.  By fall, the grizzly activity increased.  But this summer–the hottest on record and with an even hotter heat index making almost every day unbearable–activity has increased dramatically, and of course, always at night.  I’ve had scores of black bears, cougar, a boar grizzly, and even a moose a few weeks ago.  Given that moose go into heat stress at temperatures above 57 degrees, and anything above 80 degrees is unsuitable for them without refugia, I wondered how this poor moose was coping. (notice the temp and time!)

These animals would normally be higher up this time of year.  But my theory is that the constant heat and drought has forced them lower.  Of course, this is not the case across the board or we’d be seeing a lot of wildlife in the irrigated areas.  But I take this as a sign of the future–as we use diminishing precious water to irrigate pasture or grow crops, we’ll see more wildlife seeking refuge closer to us.  As prey move in, so do predators.  As forests die and meadows dry, animals will seek food and water wherever they can find it.

Couple that with the sad state of food for grizzly bears.  Today I took a long hike up the back side of Windy Mountain, once a stronghold for Whitebark pine nut food.  The trail begins around 8,400′ and heads up to 9400′.  I can say with confidence that 99% of all the mature Whitebark Pines are dead throughout that ecosystem.

Dead Whitebark Pine forest

The only good news is that there are young seedlings in many areas, especially on the north-west slope in a large burn area.  But these trees won’t bear for at least another 30 years–if they survive the dramatic shifts in climate.

A friend told me not long ago that all the still affordable lands are high up in mountainous territory.  These are the areas, he said, no one wants to live in because the climate is too harsh.  Real estate in places like Oregon, Washington, the Southwest, and California is beyond pocketbook reach anymore.  But evidence points to humans heading into the mountains in the Altithermal, a period of drought and dryness after the glaciers melted.  Animals, as well as people, may be heading higher up sooner than later.

 

More cougar photos

This cougar is still hanging around.  This series shows her coming directly to the trail cam and marking right in front of it.  I suspect it’s the red infared light she’s reacting to.