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Cat Tracking and a wildlife bonanza

The Plateau

I’ve been hiking the plateau for several days now and, wow, what a lot of wildlife activity is going on there.  A few days ago on my first jaunt I ran into a fairly fresh elk carcass.  She was a very large and old elk.  I’d been seeing lots of wolf tracks on the plateau and of course there were fresh tracks leading to the carcass

Rabbit prints with my own footprints too

That same day I realized where all the cottontails are–on Dead Indian plateau!  The cottontails here seemed active and numerous and here I found and tracked a bobcat hunting them.

Several days later I explored a cliff edge on the plateau that looks out over Sunlight creek gorge.  There, on a prominence, were over a dozen Mountain Goats, safely grazing on the edges where no sane predator including humans would go.

But today was a bonanza.  There are plenty of deer on the plateau, and although there are elk tracks and other evidence of elk, I haven’t seen any with my own eyes.  But I do run into deer occasionally.  And with all the granite cliffs and rocks, that makes for perfect cat country.  After scrambling up a huge granite boulder, I saw from afar some interesting large tracks that at first glance could be mistaken for wolf.  But as soon as I got close enough to make them out, there was no question what they were–cougar tracks.  I followed them for a while into a heavy deer area when they disappeared under the blown snow from yesterday.  Some of the tracks were perfect ice.  Seeing those tracks takes one’s breath away.

This track measures 3"x3" approx.

It seemed like this cougar was following me, figuratively not literally.  As I lost the cougar farther back, I began concentrating on my bobcat that I found in virtually the same location as the other day.  He or she was weaving around, obviously hunting again.  Here is a photo of where the cat stopped to scratch in the snow.  

Here is a photo of the bobcat in a sit-down in front of a large sage brush.  Obviously something caught his attention there.

Bobcat sitdown

And there again was my cougar, making the rounds in this area too.  Here are two prints comparing a cougar print with a bobcat, for size.

Cougar hind track measuring 2.75 x 3.25

bobcat track measuring 1.75 x 2"

This rocky area is incredibly active–so much going on.  Partly because it is usually always windswept of snow, it is good ungulate habitat in the winter, which means food for predators.  In the fall bears frequent the area to look for limber pine middens.

It was great fun tracking big and small cats today; and knowing that you’re in the presence of a cougar your heart skips a beat.  Luckily, I have my personal wolf to protect me.

My great protector concentrating on his ball while a buck glides in the background

Mountain goat attacks and other anomalies

Do we usually think of mountain goats as dangerous animals?  Should we put up signs for these goats like I see here in grizzly country, with warnings for hikers to carry pepper spray even when grizzlies aren’t in the environment?

Do we need signs like these for all wildlife?

Today I was at the museum where I volunteer in their natural history lab.  My boss, the assistant curator said “Rocks would have been a good defense.  He should have thrown some rocks.  I always carry one or two when I hike.”  My boss is a seasoned veteran of wildlife, a lifelong hunter and student of nature.

The truth is there are plenty of wild animals that get aggressive given their mood and circumstance.  I’m more wary of moose than mountain lions, or of bison than bears.  Elk or deer in rut can be mighty crazy and aggressive.  Carrying ‘bear spray’ in general is a good idea.  Some people like to carry a gun when they go out.

We don’t really live with wildlife any more.  They are around, mostly in the shadows around cities and suburbs.   Or, when hikers go out in the national forests and National Parks, most trails are so crowded with people we don’t give large wildlife a second thought.  In general, most of us are more aware and know how to handle ourselves in questionable neighborhoods in cities than in the outdoors.  I certainly have more confidence using an ATM in a bad neighborhood than I do in carrying myself and being alert in nature .  In fact, most of the time when I hike with friends in areas other than grizzly country, we all fall into a chatty and fairly unconscious socializing mood.

Living close to Yellowstone, where no hunting has occurred for over 100+ years, animals large and small are easily visible from the road.  And lots of incidents occur every year.  I don’t think it’s because those people forget these are wild animals, I think it’s because they have no idea what is a right relationship to wildlife.

For instance, one early May in the Lamar, the valley looked like the Serengeti, with lots of predators and prey visible.  I watched a wolf fishing in the Lamar river about 100 feet down a hillside from the road.  There were several people watching from the road while this wolf caught a fish, then carried it over to a sand bar a bit further from the road in order to eat it.  A tourist just had to have a better photo, so he ran down the hillside and attempted to cross the shallow river, scaring the wolf away.  Rules say to stay 100 yards from a wolf.  This man was attempting to get within 25 feet!

In that case the wolf ran away and I thought:  this wolf can’t go have lunch at a fast food restaurant like this tourist can.  That man was interfering with this wolf’s opportunity to eat.

So what is the problem here?  The problem is that wildlife have become so abstracted from our everyday existence that they are an oddity, a rarity, something quite out of the ordinary.  And unless we’re wildlife biologists or have made a career of studying animals like my boss at the Draper, most animals are living creatures that we don’t really understand anymore, can’t read their signs and moods, nor can we read our own instincts of what is dangerous and how to defend ourselves in the natural world.  As a culture, as a people, we are several hundred years out of time.