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    A COMPENDIUM FOR THE DRY GARDEN

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More cat stories from Ghostwalker – Lynx, Bobcat, and Snowshoe Hare

Another story that was cut from the final version of my new book Ghostwalker, Here is one about lynx and their prey, snowshoe hares.

Today was a beautiful clear day, seventeen degrees when I started out on a snowshoe trek.  I’d heard from my friend Don that while hunting up Reef Creek last October, an area closed in winter except to foot traffic, he’d seen so many snowshoe hare tracks they were like scribbles in the snow.  Most winter visitors head farther north to the Beartooth Mountains to snowmobile, so this off-limits trek is a quiet respite.  Being a north-facing slope, the road had accumulated over three feet of snow.  A recent snowstorm left the snow soft and snowshoeing was a workout.

These “reefs” are a series of layered limestone plateaus. The access road climbs along the far edge of the two benches, winding to the second reef, where a maze of old logging roads carve even higher up into the mountains. Spring through fall, this is a wet place, as hidden springs run underground, emerging through the cracks in the limestone.

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Limestone reef

With deep snow, it’s a heart workout in my snowshoes, through thick forest on both sides, to reach a sharp turn in the road where a locked gate accesses a telephone line service road. I know that after I pass this first bend, the climb steepens, hugging layered slabs of limestone cliffs on one side, with a vertical drop on the other, until I reach the second reef. Don told me this second reef was where he saw the hare runs. I’m thinking of heading there, until I see the road is blocked farther ahead by an avalanche of snow at its most narrow juncture. I decide to explore the first reef that lies beyond the access road, but while snowshoeing back down to the gate, I’m hit with an explosion of hare tracks. Snowshoe hare tracks are exciting because they are so big, and testify to how well adapted these animals are to snow-covered habitat. Their oversized hind feet are generously covered with fur, and where I’m sinking they are having a party in the snow.

snowshoe hare tracks

Snowshoe hare tracks

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What’s interesting to me is not just these tracks, but their feeding evidence. This mountain has experienced a lot of logging as well as fire activity, resulting in numerous copses of young spruce. The evidence testifies the hares are standing on their feet, chewing off the lower tips of spruce branches. Nipped twigs and gnawed off branches are strewn everywhere underneath these groves.

Several summers ago, I saw a woman juggling armloads of equipment walking to the forest across from my home. We chatted for a while, and I asked what she was doing. She told me she was an independent contractor doing a job for the Forest Service.  “I’m working on a vegetation study.”

The Forest Service, she said, was using her information to understand if this was good lynx habitat. I knew the Shoshone Forest Service was working on their twenty year management plan at that time, a massive undertaking that revisits guidelines for everything from timber to grazing, oil and gas, to wildlife issues. I asked her how her work was helping the Forest decide management for lynx; what was the connection between our local vegetation and the meat-eating lynx? The connection, it turns out, is the hare; that speedy animal that the well-adapted lynx prey on.

Lynx, being listed under the Endangered Species Act as a threatened species, needed proper consideration and protection in the Forest’s plan. It wasn’t clear exactly how this woman was measuring good habitat with her surveying equipment by tying flagging of various colors to trees.  But that conversation piqued my interest in lynx. So I’m heading up to Reef Creek on this February day to investigate—are there any lynx here along with these hares?

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Lynx

I’d occasionally seen snowshoe hare in the forest she was surveying, as well as few tracks in other locations around the valley. We also have white-tailed Jackrabbits, and their tracks are very similar in size to snowshoe hares so easily confused. Today though, this higher elevation spruce forest was clearly snowshoe hare habitat. After a few hours of exploring for tracks, the only other spoor I saw came from coyotes. With increasing access roads and snowmobiles trails, coyotes are having an easier time venturing farther into deep snow areas of the winter backcountry where snowshoes live. One theory goes that coyotes are competing with lynx for food by reducing the snowshoe population. Less snowshoe hares, less lynx.

Lynx are made for snow with their huge paws, and the Yellowstone region is at the southern tip of their historic range, which made them uncommon historically in the Park. But there have been several sightings in the last fifteen years, mostly through confirmed tracks. A set of tracks was found in 2014 near the northeast entrance, just a skip and jump over the mountains from Reef Creek. In fact, looking on the Park’s website, they have a map with some red dots indicating confirmed DNA lynx evidence. There are only two measly dots in my valley.

Truthfully, I wasn’t sure if I could tell a lynx from a large bobcat, which I’d seen many times, hanging out in trees along my driveway or hunting in the neighbor’s yard. Anecdotally I’d also heard that our mail lady, who lived here most of her life, (which immediately qualified her, in the mind of the local gossip machine, to be able to discriminate between a lynx and a bobcat) had seen a lynx at my mailbox. Maybe a case of mistaken identity, but maybe not.

bobcat tracks

Bobcat tracks

Those nipped buds and twigs, along with the large tracks, in a dense yet young spruce/fir forest, educated me about proper lynx habitat. Ten miles up my dirt road, heading west just a few miles from the Yellowstone Park boundary line, in an area that like Reef Creek had experienced burns and logging in the 1940s and 50s, has similar habitat. The following spring I looked around and sure enough, lots of snowshoe hare evidence there as well. So we have hares!

Hare populations, like other rabbit populations, run in cycles. Dr. Charles Preston at the Draper Museum, when I asked him what caused these cycles, joked that if he could figure that out he’d die happy. These boom and bust cycles regulate the rabbit populations, and with it the bobcat and lynx as well. Yet nature always throws a wrench in the works, and I’d read that in some southernmost hare populations, like the area around Yellowstone, these cycles don’t occur, but instead the hares remain stable at low densities. Maybe this might explain the persistent low population of lynx around here?

Even with all my exploring, lynx tracks weren’t forthcoming. Yet I did begin to consider the three cats that live here, their interactions, and what kinds of ‘cat fights’ might ensue. Lynx and bobcat obviously share similar food preferences. Mark Elbroch says that makes it difficult for them to share similar habitat.

“Where they share range, lynx typically stick to the higher elevations, where deeper snows give them the competitive advantage, and bobcats take control of the lowlands, where they assume the dominant role and exclude lynx through aggressive interactions.”

Elbroch also goes on to say that they occasionally hybridize. My winter explorations of the valley’s higher elevations had borne this out. Although I wasn’t seeing lynx tracks, the hares seemed to be living higher up, in densely wooded areas, whereas I knew cottontails filled the plateaus in the lower end of our valley at 6500’. Since I’d seen bobcats (and not lynx) with my own eyes, I decided to begin my quest for their tracks in winter, with the intention of understanding their habits.

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Mountain lions, the ghost of the Americas

Ghostwalker: Tracking a Mountain Lion’s Soul through Science and Story began with a mountain lion track in the snow. After six years of tracking lions and following them on trail camera set-ups, I hungered for more information on these elusive animals. So I began interviewing dozens of people including trackers, biologists, conservationists, wildlife managers and even houndsmen, those who hunt mountain lions using dogs. Slowly a fuller picture emerged of this secretive predator. I never suspected my curiosity would turn into a book.

Below is an excerpt from the first chapter The Quiet Rapture of Observation along with some photos from the book and others not in the book:

On a cold wintry day in 1999, on the National Elk Refuge outside the town of Jackson, Wyoming, a local townsperson spotted something unusual moving in the cliffs beyond the grasslands where the elk were feeding. He pulled out his binoculars for a closer look, and to his surprise and amazement, there was a mountain lion with three kittens resting high up in an alcove, almost at the top of the plateau. The outcrop, called Miller Butte, was perfect protection, not only from humans, but also from a new immigration of wolves that was storming the valley like a rising sea, returning to the area for the first time since the 1920s.

It didn’t take long for the townspeople to learn of the cat family. During those first days, a dedicated few from town parked on the road, set up their spotting scopes and chairs in sub-zero temperatures, relishing this fortuitous event. It’s rare to see a mountain lion. Here was a chance to view a mom with her kittens—a wild cougar family—and spend hours delighting in their antics.

Cougar kitten

By the end of that first week, the rest of the world was showing up. They came in droves, more each day; a sign that read “Parking for Mountain Lions” suddenly appeared along the Elk Refuge road beside a specially plowed parking area. Photographers and nature lovers from across the globe poured into Jackson Hole for this rare sighting. For long periods, mom would disappear, only to return to gather up her kittens. Nine times over the course of their forty-two-day stay, she moved the family elsewhere to feed on a kill. The crowd grew anxious. Would the lions return to their makeshift den site? These were older kittens, and at seven months, they were no longer nursing. Soon they would grow beyond the age where they would wait, hidden, while mom traveled to make kills, returning only to gather them and take them to feed. Soon they’d be traveling with mom full time, learning the skills they’d need to feed themselves. Then one day, nearly six weeks after the lioness and her family was spotted, she and her kittens were gone, as quickly as they had appeared. Jackson resident Lisa Robertson voiced what all these newly converted local and national mountain lion supporters felt: “It was magnificent in every way. I’ll never forget it as long as I live. I wish it would happen again.”

F51 and her kitten from Panthera’s Jackson Teton Study

The sighting of this wild family left Jackson residents awed and aware. People who had never thought about mountain lions before were now questioning what might happen to the Miller Butte lions. What were the hunting regulations and the quotas?  Could the kittens be killed? And what about female lions—were they fair game for the hunt? Four months after the arrival of the lions, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s annual lion-hunting quota went up for review. The Department changed the quota in the Jackson hunt area from five mountain lions to twelve, citing growing reports of an increase in lion sightings. Quotas in most other areas around the state were doubled as well. The Department felt there were too many lions, but in a local newspaper interview, even the Agency admitted that “it is virtually impossible to get an accurate count of an actual lion population.”

F51 in her den in the Jackson WY study

The public voiced concern: there was not enough data on lion numbers; non-hunters, so-called non-consumptive users with just cameras and scopes, had no real voice in the decision process; and females with dependent young, like the Miller Butte mom who left her young to hunt, could be legally killed by hunters. The Miller Butte sighting spurred a budding awareness resulting in increased advocacy for Jackson’s lions. Tom Mangelsen, world-renowned wildlife photographer, and Cara Blessley Lowe, filmmaker and author, launched The Cougar Fund, a conservation organization, the first of its kind in Wyoming to focus solely on mountain lions. And with funding from the Hornocker Wildlife Institute, a sixteen-year project studying the mountain lions of Jackson Hole began in 2000.

Collaring a mountain lion in the Bay Area studies

We value what we know and love, yet a lifetime spent in the mountains or desert does not guarantee even a sighting of the black tip of a lion’s long tail. So how can we learn about an animal that is as invisible as a ghost?

Cougars or Pumas are revered in South American lore. A rock cougar paw of the Incas

Photos used with permission from Panthera’s Teton Cougar Project and Felidae’s Bay Area Puma Project.