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.

Cougars, Pumas and Mountain Lions in Yellowstone National Park

I just completed a fabulous Yellowstone Association class in Yellowstone National Park at the Lamar Buffalo Ranch.  Renowned Puma expert, Toni Ruth, led the three day seminar.  After an initial morning of introduction to the cat family, we went out looking for the elusive cat and her sign.  If you come to a cougar class thinking you’ll see a cougar, then you’ll be highly disappointed.  But you might see some sign.

Our outing on day one consisted of snowshoeing down into a steep canyon. We saw no cougar sign, but did find some bear beds.  Toni pointed out what kind of areas we might find scraps.  Scraps, usually made by males to mark territory and also to signal females, consist of a cougar scenting while pushing backwards with his back feet, not unlike a dog might do.  Usually about 12″ long with two distinct marks and a pile at one end.

Where a Scrap might be under a large conifer

Where a Scrap might be under a large conifer

Early the following morning, some of us went out to Slough Creek to find wolves.  Lots of howling and some coyotes and eagles on a kill made it all worthwhile.

Hearing wolf howls

Hearing wolf howls

On the second morning, Dan Stahler spoke about the Yellowstone Cougar Project. During the ‘pre-wolf’ days, over 80 cougars were tagged in the park. Using this as a baseline, Toni Ruth did a cougar study in the park from 1998-2005, tagging 83 cougars of all ages.  During this period, wolf and elk densities were high.  Since 2005, there hasn’t been a study in Yellowstone National Park regarding pumas.  In 2014, Dan began a five year cougar study. This study should reveal some interesting data since elk densities are now much lower.  As wolves, bears and cougars compete for the same food, it will be interesting to see how these top predators deal with one another and their prey base.

Collecting cougar scat the scientific way with tweezers

Collecting cougar scat the scientific way with tweezers

Toni pointed out that cougars need to make a kill approximately every 7 days. Wolf packs need to kill every 3-4 days.  But wolves are feeding an entire pack, whereas cougars are feeding only themselves.  Cougars with kittens would need to kill more often.  Therefore, cougars kill more often than wolves.

One rumor I hear a lot in these parts is that hunting will control cougar numbers.  In fact it is just the opposite.  Adult males are very territorial, with an average territory of 462 sq. miles (220-704 sq. miles) Dispersing juvenile males need to find their own territory and can have a hard time at it.  If they are in another adult males’ territory, they can be injured or killed.  Adult males that have secured their territory will be known to the females in the area.  These females will tolerate them on a kill, and even around their kittens, which may most likely have been fathered by them.  But dispersing males are what are really the threat to females with young, as they might kill the young in order to bring the female into estrus. Therefore, when hunters are killing trophy adult males in an area, they are changing the social structure and creating a constant turnover of young males.  Interestingly Toni pointed out that in her personal experience, houndsmen who have assisted scientific collaring ‘hunts’ (where cougars are tracked by dogs but instead of being killed, they are fitted with GPS collars and released for study purposes), wind up learning so much about cougars that they abandon hunting them.

Cougar hind track measuring 2.75 x 3.25

Cougar hind track measuring 2.75 x 3.25

I asked Toni about the method Wyoming Game & Fish use to set cougar hunting quotas.  WG&F takes a tooth from hunter kills and ‘ages’ it.  Toni said that unless methods have greatly improved recently, tooth aging is not reliable and cannot accurately age a cat.

After an extensive hike with little results on the second day, we spent the entire last day hiking down to and along Hellroaring Creek.  Finally we had the luck we were hoping for.  Some cougar scat and good tracks!  While we were trying to measure the tracks, three bison were trying to stroll down our trail. Never mess with bison; so we gave them the room they wanted and lost our cat tracks.  Toni said since we were backtracking this cat, he was probably watching us the whole time.

Our class!  We had fun.

Our class! We had fun.

Finally, I put this little video together from stills from my trail camera.  I also recorded the sounds separately on a Zoom recorder in front of my house this January.

Cougars–Ghost of the Mountain

With this post begins a series on cougars and cougar tracking.

The first cougar print I ever saw was at a tracking class around Davenport near Santa Cruz CA.  Davenport is an ocean town, backed by rolling hills and wild lands.  After a morning of tracking lessons, the group split up into smaller bands and we walked around the edges of a large field.  In the middle of a dirt two-track road was one cougar print.

cougar track with penny for reference

cougar track with penny for reference

When I lived in Marin County, my neighbors and friends had plenty of cougar sightings.  With a plethora of deer and no hunting, along with a lot of preserved lands up and down the coast, Marin has its share of wildlife, including cougars.  But its still rare to see one.

I lived in a subdivision that abutted a large swath of open space.  Thirty years ago, the early residents had the foresight to purchase the hills behind their new homes to preserve forever.  They gave the management of these lands over to the Marin County Open Space District.  Once on a trail in these hills, you could literally walk to the ocean about twenty miles away through vast expanses of preserved lands and ranches.  From the Golden Gate National Recreation Areas north to Sonoma County, here is where cougars roam.  IMG_3259

Marin County.  Gateway to lots of hiking, Mt. Tamalpais, Muir Woods.

View looking over the vast protected hillscapes of Marin that stretch all the way to Sonoma County.  This is good deer and cougar country.

Although I walked those hills almost daily, and for years, I never once encountered a lion.  In September, the driest month of the year, the deer would come down from the hills to the perennial stream that ran alongside Lucas Valley Road where I lived.  And the lions follow the deer.  It was at this time that most sightings occurred.  One day a neighbor who lived next to the Open Space area, told me she was washing dishes in the kitchen when she looked out her window and saw a cougar.  Another friend was walking his dog and saw a lion.   Another friend told me her son was hiking on Mt. Tamalpais when he spied a cougar on a rock above him, watching. Sadly, I never had the pleasure of seeing one.

Because of the extraordinary amount of deer in Marin, cougars are living close to people.  California voters outlawed cougar hunting in 1996, yet there has never been one incident in Marin of a cougar attacking a person.  In July of this year a Marin county man was attacked in a remote area of the Sierra foothills by a cougar.  He was alone, in his sleeping bag, awakened by a large paw on the side of his head.  He survived.  This is such a rare incident.  One sound theory to explain this attack is that the man’s snoring sounded like a wounded animal to the cat.

California does give out kill tags to people who claim livestock loss from cats.  But you have to ask yourself:  other states have a hunt on cougars in order to limit their numbers and protect people.  Yet in a state as big as California, these kinds of attacks are incredibly rare.  From 1890 to the present, only 19 verifiable cougar caused deaths have taken place in all of North America–one of those was in California in 2004, the only death since California’s no hunting law began, with an estimated 4000-6000 cats statewide.

Cougar Town

Somehow it just works this way.  I dream up an animal I want to study and know more about, then decide to try and track it.  But it just doesn’t work as I plan.  This winter it was martens, yet I didn’t see one track.  But instead of the animal I had in mind, another one presents itself.  This time its cats, and not just little cats, but cougars.

Remember I saw that mountain lion track, tried to follow it, but lost it pretty quickly.

cougar track with my measuring tape

Yesterday I went back to the area and ran into two older cougar deer kills.  Today I went with my camera to record them and inspect them better.  First I headed to a small rock ledge where the cougar obviously dragged his kill.

Cougar dragged kill to this site

What was left was a lot of fur and the rumen, still perfectly intact.  What I discovered is that cougars open the carcass and remove the rumen like a surgeon.  When you find a canine kill site, the rumen remains are scattered and opened up.  Canines tear their prey apart messily.  Cats are very methodical.  Cats are unable to synthesize vitamin A, so they must get it from the internal organs of their prey, what they gorge on first usually.

Kill site where cougar surgically removed rumen before eating

This site had absolutely no bones, only tons of plucked hair, the rumen, and a large pile of scat.  There was a cache mound but only hair underneath.

Cougars use their lower incisors to shear fur from skin

Cougar scat at a kill site, very meaty smelling

I headed for another site I’d seen yesterday where a male fawn was killed.  It’s near a meadow, so I assumed the fawn was killed in the meadow and dragged to this secluded spot in the trees.  Again the rumen and testicles this time, still intact from over the winter, the fur plucked and a very few bones–mostly the skull which was split in two.

Deer paunch surgically removed

Now after I left this spot I’d found yesterday, I ran into three more old stashed kills in the same general area.  Wow, cougars are an efficient killing machine.  All these other sites were old and had one thing in common that was interesting:  all the sites had a lot of plucked hair and had covered mounds.  Underneath all these covered mounds was only hair, no bones or carcass.  I assumed that this was where the carcass was first dragged to, then plucked.  The carcass was moved after that for a second feeding, but only after the original area was covered.  I am perplexed why the site with no carcass remains anymore still needed to be covered.  If the carcass with covered, then re-visited and consumed, it would seem unnecessary to then re-cover it.  Under all these mounds, only fur.  A mystery yet for me to solve.

One site had scratch marks on the ground (you can see the mound and in front of it the area is clean where the cat scratched with its back legs.  There were scratch marks in the dirt that are visible too).  I understand that mostly it’s males that scratch like this.

Cougar kill that was dragged under this tree and then covered


In middle of photo are cougar scratches. mound behind full of hair

A tree in this cache circle had these marks on it that were old–are these cougar scratches?

Was this a cougar scratch that was next to a stashed kill?

Not too far away Koda found a leg here or there.  I found the hide scattered as well.  This was an older kill, not this winter, so scavengers probably already got to it long ago.

I found several other sites like this, all in a fairly small radius–all around a rocky rise.  How exciting this was to explore this cougar(s) territory and see his tracks.  I learned a lot just reading, exploring, observing, tracking.  I went home with the desire to find a good cougar video, but just couldn’t find any; then by serendipity, I turned on the Monday night National Geographic Channel featuring Wild America with an hour feature on cougar tracking!  What a great cougar day.  Now I hope to see one of these beautiful elusive  animals some day.



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