• Now Available! Buy all 3 books in 1 for only $6.99 and save $2!

    A COMPENDIUM FOR THE DRY GARDEN

  • Koda’s Blog

  • Recent Posts

  • Tracking Footprints

  • Archives

  • Top Posts

  • Pages

Cougar Stories

I’ve become fascinated by cougars. Maybe because they are elusive, secretive, more akin to a ghost than an animal of flesh and blood. Which of course, begs the question: How do you get people to care about and protect an animal that they never see, nor probably will never see in their lifetime?

mom-and-kitten

Mom and six month old kitten

Visitors to Yellowstone National Park can be almost guaranteed, if they are persistent and patient, to view wolves and bears, elk, bison, and bighorn sheep. But only the rare individual will have the opportunity to see a cougar in the Park. They’ve been spotted at Calcite Springs, hanging on the basalt walls and occasionally through a scope from the Hellroaring overlook. Usually the Park sightings are called in by wolf watchers. Once radioed around, tourists hear about it through the airwaves, then flock to those locations. Sometimes the cat might be hanging out, either on a kill or just sunning himself, for hours.

In all my winter tracking I’ve done, I’ve never seen a cougar. In fact, the people I know who have seen cougars, it’s usually from the car when a cat suddenly runs across the road at dusk.

I sat down with Jim Halfpenny for an interview about cougar tracking stories. Jim is a famous tracker who lives in Gardiner, Mt. As a Mammalogist and expert tracker, he has worked all over the West and Canada. His puma tracking includes the deserts of Arizona and Utah as well as the mountains of the Greater Yellowstone.

Jim used to live and work in Colorado. His interest in cougars began in 1982 when the Forest Service called him in to investigate a bear-killed horse within the small town of Nederland CO.  Jim told them “this is not a bear that mauled the horse. It’s a cougar” The Forest Service thought the kill was made by a bear because there were five claw marks on the horse’s neck. If you look at a cat paw, there are four claws and a dew claw high up, like on a dog.  On a cougar print, the dew claw doesn’t show and it’s not bone attached, it’s tendon attached. But Jim knew that dew claw, called ‘the killer claw’, would show on a kill because it wraps around it’s prey. Thus the five marks.  Jim asked himself “What is a cougar doing in a town?” and so began a research project.

cougar print

cougar print has only four paws showing. Dew Claw doesn’t show

Cougar print

Big cat print

I asked Jim if he had tracked cougars without dogs and still seen them. “Oh, many times. I’ve hardly ever used dogs. He told me several of those stories but two stand out.

“I got a phone call from a woman when I lived in Boulder. There was some snow on the ground but it was thin, only about 2 inches. I followed the tracks, and soon I was about 50 yards from the back of this cougar. He looked up and his face said ‘Who are you, what are you doing following me?’

That cougar took a few strides and disappeared but I observed he was cutting a big letter ‘C’; so I cut across the ‘C’, and began following his tracks till they suddenly disappeared. I looked around. No tracks. And then I looked up and there he was, in the tree, looking at me. I got some good photographs of him in that tree.  I’ve got more photographs in the wild than anybody not using dogs or set cameras.”

img_0002

Puma uses his vomeronasal organ on the roof of mouth to pick up smells better

Halfpenny told me another great story from the Boulder era. “I got a phone call from a woman who said she watched a cougar kill a deer from her window. It was three in afternoon went I got there. I found that deer and chained it to a tree. Then I did a necropsy on it and saw it was pregnant. I walked one hundred steps off the carcass and sat down. Pretty soon that cougar returns. He’s knows I’m there, and begins trying to pull that deer away to a hidden spot. And he’s pulling for all he’s worth, but that deer is chained to the tree. The cougar looks like ‘What! I don’t understand this. I just killed the thing, and I can’t move it!’

“I watched that cat way into the night, filmed and photographed her. After dark, in came mature kittens. Our crew took turns watching from Friday 3pm to Monday 3pm. Over that time we had foxes, coyotes, domestic dogs and the cougar. It was as if all these animals were waiting on the edges to come in. There were multiple cycles of this.”

cougar 9.03

Cougar caught on camera

Most of us will never see a cougar in our lifetime, even if they are living right around us. I intend to write more about cougars with the hope that people will know them and feel the urge to protect them.

 

Cougars, Thieves, Politics

Personally: After a several month hiatus healing from a surgery, I finally went out to check my trail camera. I walked a mile or more from a road, through heavy terrain, then dropped down into a hidden gorge where an ephemeral lake sits in an open meadow surrounded by thick forest. My camera was in the forest, in thick brush, focused on one tree. I choose this tree because, since its a large douglas fir, cougars have repeatedly made scrapes under it. Male cougars like to choose these kinds of trees with little snow underneath in the winter to mark their territory and scent for a mate. A scrape is just where the cougar pushed the dirt into a pile with his back legs, then sprayed a scent mark.

Cougar

Cougars have a vomeronasal organ on the roof of their mouths. This cougar is opening is mouth to uptake the scent of a scrape into that organ. Your house cat will do the same thing.

I’m telling you all this to illuminate that there is NO way a casual hiker (and no one hikes here in the winter) would ever come across my camera. So again, the trail camera was attached to a fallen log about 10′ from a tree, within a thick grove of trees that sat near a 500′ cliff in a very remote location. The camera also was chained and locked to the log.

But when I arrived, the camera was gone. Obviously stolen. I considered it for a moment and my conclusion is this: Cougar hunters have been out in force this year. The only person who would know where to look for a cougar scrape, or care, would be a hunter. Most probably he was either out scouting with his dogs and the dogs came upon the scrapes under the tree; or the dogs were actually chasing a cougar, which got away down the cliff edges, but the dogs found the tree. Upon seeing the camera, I can’t imagine this man would have a tool with him to cut through a thick bicycle chain, so he had to return later with the tool to steal my camera. Either he stole it just because he wanted it, or he thought it belonged to another hunter getting an ‘unfair’ advantage to see if a cougar was regularly returning to scent the area. I could see recent scrapes there. Maybe he even killed the cougar up that tree, and since all the snow had melted, and its been months since I’ve been to the camera, there were no fresh tracks.Cougar

More than angry, I’m disappointed at the ethics of this crowd. I personally do not consider cougar hunting ethical, and this kind of behavior might just go along with the mentality of shooting an animal that’s been followed then treed by your dogs.

Politically: There are some even nastier things going on in Wyoming that I hope will not come to fruition. Wyoming HB0012 has been filed to allow trapping and snaring of mountain lions  –  Introduced by Jim Allen (outfitter), Hans Hunt, Eli Bebout, and Larry Hicks. The bill may be brought before committee as early as February 8, 2016. As of now, mountain lions are hunted only with dogs in Wyoming, but this bill, if passed, would allow the use of snares and traps. This would mean indiscriminate catches, such as females, females with cubs, and cubs. Houndsmen who hunt are interested in killing large males, and in general do not kill females, especially ones with cubs. Wyoming Untrapped is asking people to contact their representative to protest this bill. On their website there is a list of ‘talking points’ as to why this would be very bad for cougars, as well as for our state. This takes our state backward into the 19th century, instead of using the best predator science for management in the 21st century.

cougar-kitten-250

Kittens could be indiscriminately trapped

Cougar Talk: In 2006 a cougar hunter’s dogs running after a cougar came upon a pack of wolves that had killed an elk and were feeding upon it. The pups were eating the elk while babysitter wolves were standing guard. When the pack of dogs charged in, the wolves were simply defending their kill and so one of the dogs was killed while the others ran back down to their owner.

IMG_1040

I had heard about this incident, and finally looked it up in the local paper. January 2006 was when it happened. Cougar hunting season goes from September through March, but in general it begins when the snow is thick, because its easy to find cougar tracks.

For years I never saw cougar hunters, yet in the last few years there’s been more and more each year coming back to hunt here. After the $3500 dog was killed the houndsmen stayed away. So what’s changed? We have two wolf packs here and they roam the valley and the surrounding hills. Why have the hunters gotten bolder? Do they just no longer care? Do they figure they’ll shoot if they see a wolf (wolves are back on the endangered list in Wyoming and even if there was a hunt, the season would be over December 31). One man who doesn’t hunt cougars, just ungulates, told me he thought they are not bringing their expensive dogs. I don’t know if that’s true, but I am sure curious why they are back without a care in the world for their dogs.

Cougar

Cougar caught on my trail cam

For those who don’t understand how these hunts work, the dogs are fitted with GPS collars. The hunter usually drives along the roads until he scouts a track in the snow. Then he unleashes the dogs. The dogs will ‘doggedly’ follow that scent until they come upon that cat. Cats don’t have large lungs. They are ambush hunters, not coursing hunters like wolves. So although they can run for a time, eventually they’ll tire and climb a tree to escape the dogs. A great strategy if there wasn’t a person with a gun coming. With the new technology of GPS, hunters only have to wait till their GPS shows the dogs are in one place. That means they’ve treed a cat. Given a cougar’s terrain, the hike could be rugged and a few miles. But the dogs will keep the cat in the tree. At this point all the hunter has to do is shoot.

2014-idaho-extreme-cougar-hunt-104

A treed cougar by hounds. You can see the dog’s GPS collars

Toni Ruth, a world renowned cougar expert, describes mountain lions as ‘the Clark Kent of the animal world’. And cougar hunting with dogs certainly demonstrates that. I’ve never heard of a treed cat, dog or no dog below, that jumped from that tree and attacked its pursuer.

Cougar Talk, just a bit more:  Cats and wolves have a long history. A 13 year study in Jackson just finished up and looked at this relationship. An excellent NGC show called Cougars Undercover with Mark Elbroch, study manager, described some of the findings. One thing they found is that over time, with the wolf reintroduction and cougars having to adapt, the female cats with kittens, usually solitary, began grouping up so they could defend their kills better. In addition, in the last few minutes of the show, Elbroch says that the reason they found cougars are in decline in the Jackson area didn’t have anything to do with wolf competition which is what they assumed. But instead with overhunting, quotas that were unsustainable for the population.

Although cougars have competition with wolves, they also have competition with other cougars, especially dispersing young males. Last year I found a dead cougar, killed by another cougar over a deer kill. I brought the skull to our local museum where it was cleaned and labeled. Here is the finished museum skull. You can see the puncture wounds from the other cat’s canines.IMG_1036

Visits to a Cave

Several years ago I found a natural rock cave.  There was a lot of evidence this cave was used by cougars for many years, probably as a day bed.  The shelter is high up within a steep ravine.  Vertical cliffs complete the backdrop. I’ve always been curious who visits this cave.  So this May I put a trail camera on it.  I plan to leave the camera up through the fall but today I went to check what’s been happening.  Despite having to sift through hundreds of squirrel and packrat photos, the cave smells attracted lots of other visitors.Black Bear

Marmot

Elk

Another cougar

Cinnamon Bear

Cinnamon bear

Cinnamon Bear coming out of cave

Cinnamon Bear coming out of cave

Can you find this visitor

Can you find this visitor

Cougar

Cougar

Grizzly Bear

Grizzly Bear

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.

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!

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.