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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



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