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    A COMPENDIUM FOR THE DRY GARDEN

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The Ghost Walker

What if you could hike into the British Columbia Selkirk range, and find a place where no hunters, trappers or people ventured all winter long. Where wolf packs, mountain lions, wolverines, elk, moose and deer were abundant. You then packed in, by canoe, a store of supplies for your winter stay of six months, then carried these bit by bit to a wide meadow edged by timber you had scoped out beforehand. Before the snows arrived, you’d build yourself a small cabin, reusing mostly old timbers from an ancient miner’s cabin. Then you’d explore the countryside before the snows set in, and build yourself two or three shelters in various parts of your new found wilderness where you could spend the night if needed after spying on mountain lions for several days.DCIM100MEDIA

 

This is exactly what R.D. Lawrence, Canadian naturalist and writer did in the late 1970s. His goal? To study pumas in a direct and deep way. In order to make sure he had located an area where there were pumas, he first hired a small plane to fly the countryside, while he leaned out the side door, using his binoculars to spy at least one big cat that had its territory there. When he spotted one, he took out his maps, charted a course and territory, and spent an entire winter living on just the rations he took into the wilderness, and his wits. He tracked and trailed mostly at night using moonlight. He’d take a pack and spend days and night beyond his small cabin he built, using the lean-to shelters he stashed around the mountains.

Thompson Cabin

He found an old miner’s cabin and used the wood to construct his own shelter

And during the course of the winter, he found a male tom and a female. He watched the male many times make kills, then sat 100 feet away while the cat fed. He heard the female caterwauling in the night when in estrus, calling for the tom. He found the female’s den, climbed to a hill with a week’s worth of food, then sat and watched her three kittens play outside the den.

cougar-with-kits

One night, after trailing the tom cougar for hours in moonlight against snow, then watching him unsuccessfully make a kill, a fierce storm came barreling in. Lawrence was fighting the wind and blinding sting of the snowfall, trying to make it back to his cabin. The storm grew wilder and he was tired and cold. He decided he needed to make a shelter quickly by digging in the snow. He searched for an appropriate spot and found a small rise where he could make what he thought would be a snow cave. As he began digging, the snow fell away and a small cave was revealed. So relieved to find such a perfect shelter, he left his pack and crawled inside, when he suddenly felt some breathing in the back of the cave. He flashed a light, and found he was inside a grizzly den, with a bear that was waking up and angry to be disturbed.

Grizzly Bear

This is a wonderful book of what are now bygone days. Today its hard to find anyplace in this crowded world where not only such a wealth of wildlife lives, but lives undisturbed all winter long. And the world of the traditional naturalist, living in the field, using traditional methods of observation, stretching the limits of his or her human endurance, has been replaced by the techno-gizmos of GPS collars and computers.

Well written, engaging, I recommend Lawrence’s The Ghost Walker for every wildlife lover’s library.

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.”

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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.