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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.


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.


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.


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 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.


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

The Mysterious Cougar

I find cougars fascinating.  The perfect predator, they are so large yet rarely seen.  In fact, if you do see one in your lifetime, consider yourself lucky.  I’ve tracked cougars around here many times, but never seen one. I’ve seen their kills, and other sign, but never a real live cougar.

A long term major study is taking place around Jackson, WY, called The Teton Cougar Project, sponsored by Panthera and Craighead Beringia South.

Cast of cougar prints--right side is rear on top, front on bottom.  Cougar was going at a fast trot.  Left print is a direct register

Cast of cougar prints–right side is rear on top, front on bottom. 

In a 900 square mile area, the project estimates there are around 15-20 resident adult cougars and these numbers have declined in the last 7-8 years.  Complete project data should be out soon when the study finalizes.  But some interesting tidbits they’ve found has been the social nature of cougars.  Previously thought to be solitary animals, with males and females coming together for only a short time to breed, the Cougar Project has documented, through VHS and GPS collars, females with young kittens helping feed orphaned yearling kittens as well as adult females spending time together.  They’ve seen males who not only know where the females are at all times, but pay visits when not mating.  Truly, the fabric of cougar society is complex, with a lot more communication and interaction than previously thought.

One of the major reasons for the Jackson study was to find out how three top predators are defining territory and their interactions–grizzly bears, wolves, and cougars.  It seems the cougars have been suffering losses of kittens to wolves.  And having to share their kills.  A recent National Geographic show called Cougar vs. Wolf featured cougar tracker Boone Smith looking for cougar/wolf interactions in the Bitterroots of Montana.  According to the documentary, Smith found cougars would win out defending their kills when the number of wolves in any pack (or interaction) was low.  A single wolf, or a small wolf pack, tended to leave cougar kills once the cougar showed up.  Not only that, but dead wolves killed by cougars have been found in the Jackson Hole study as well as the Bitterroots.  Smith shows a wolf killed by a lion in the NG show.  If you haven’t caught these two shows,  I highly recommend them.Cougar paw

Cougar hunting goes on during the entire snow season here in Wyoming, from September 1 through March 31, until the area quota is filled.  Some areas have unlimited quotas.  I called WG&F and asked how they set their mortality limits.  The answer proved that it’s vague.  When a hunter kills a lion, he or she is required to present the pelt and skull to the department.  At that time they determine the sex and take a premolar tooth to determine the animals age.  From this data, somehow they are extrapolating population sizes in each zone.  cougar teeth copy

Given the secretiveness of lions and the necessity of collaring in order to obtain the data of the Jackson thirteen year study, I highly doubt that a premolar check is going to give the required full data for setting kill quotas.  I tried doing a rough square area count.  For my zone, I came up with approximately 3000 square miles and the quota is 20 lions.  The area north of Jackson, zone 2, is roughly 2000 or 2200 square miles with a quota of 5, and now at the end of the season, is still one short at 4 killed.  Wyoming Game and Fish is helping fund the Jackson study.  From this study they now have a good idea of the number of lions in that area, and the quota is 1/4 the amount of my area.  A lot of my area, zone 19, borders the east side of the park, but more than half is in the desert which is in the wolf predator (or shoot on sight) zone.  Cougars might be more abundant. Still, doing the math used by Panthera of 15-20 resident cougars in 900 sq.miles, that means 1/3 of the adult cougar population is being hunted and killed every year!

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

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

I’d like to learn more about cougars.  I know where to reliably find tracks in the winter in my area.  I’ve tried to study how to identify the signs of a cougar kill.  I’ve heard people say ‘”Found a dead deer killed by a cougar near such and such a place”; but just finding a dead deer (cougars main prey is deer in the summer; and deer and elk in the winter) does not qualify it for a cougar kill.

When I go out to the area where I know I’ll find tracks, I spend time looking in obvious places for a kill.  Cougars like to drag their kills into brushy or more hidden areas.

Cougar dragged this kill to the forest edge where Koda now is enjoying it

Cougar dragged this kill to the forest edge where Koda now is enjoying it

They tend to cover their kill and continue to return till its gone.  Sometimes they just eat the internal organs.  A few tell-tale signs are the way the hair on the prey is taken off.  A canine will just rip the hair, tearing it away with skin attached.  A cougar shears the hair, making it look like the animal received a scissor-like haircut.

Haircut look.  Hair is sheared off.

Haircut look. Hair is sheared off.

A few days ago I found a dead elk. It had been killed in the open and dragged under some nearby trees.  I checked the skull and found two puncture wounds. All the evidence pointed to a lion kill.

Look closely on the left lower side of the photo and you will see 1 large and 1 small puncture hole

Look closely on the left lower side of the photo and you will see 1 large and 1 small puncture hole

I returned to a drainage where in the past I’d seen lion tracks.  I followed it until I came to a 1400′ drop down into the canyon.

What was the cat doing down here

What was the cat doing down here

I had wondered if the lion, whose tracks frequented this drainage, had a den here, but I saw no sign.  What was he doing down here?  There were no deer or elk in this area.  If I walked along the canyon edge, a precipice jutted out where I’d seen mountain goats a lot (but not today).  Could the lion be hunting them? When more snow melts and I can follow a steep trail to the precipice safely, I’ll go back and see if I can solve the mystery of the cougar.