November 21, 2018
Gardiner, Montana

Cougar Count

This cold late November day finds me inside the warmth of our home, sipping tea and tending to a sick child. Just a normal part of being a Dad as we recently traversed the open skies on a jet plane and undoubtedly returned with 1 out of 3 of us catching a bug while on holiday (I’d bet money it was the incessant coughing guy sitting directly behind us)

While she sleeps peacefully on the couch, drenched in the afternoon light warming the house, I look beyond the rays of streaming sunlight, out the western-facing windows to the snow-covered mountains that rise just beyond our town’s edge.

I am reading the recently published book, Path of the Puma, by Jim Williams. This book documents past and present cougar research from the Northern Rockies in British Columbia to the pampas grassland steppe of Patagonia. It’s a great read if you are interested in learning more about the illusive carnivore that is known by many different names. Around here, we refer to them as the “Ghost of the Rockies”, or the mountain lion or cougar. As many people will tell you, this animal has escaped many an keen photographer, wildlife-researcher or general Yellowstone National Park visitor.

This particular animal has held my attention since being just a young boy. I first visited Yellowstone National Park when I was all of 6-years-old (the same age of my daughter). On that fall season family trip I took a souvenir from my national park experience. It was a kid’s comic book titled, The Yarns of the Yellowstone. Little did I know at the time, that this piece of Yellowstone history was put together by my now neighbor here in Gardiner, the colorful character in his own right, Bill Chapman. I have told him many times how that creative, historically-accurate comic book helped establish a love of history, nature and Yellowstone that internally, helped bring me back to work here as an adult. (side note: I found a gently used copy of this comic book on the internet and purchased it for my daughter, in hopes that through her own copy, she will hopefully lust for more of what awaits her in Mother Nature, just out the back door!)

By Bill Chapman, Juniper Studios, Gardiner, Montana

In this comic book, there is a moment portrayed when a city-slicker by the name of Truman Everts gets lost in Yellowstone Country, many moons before this place became a national park. During his distress-filled, 37-days of peril, he encountered a mountain lion that scared him half to death and kept him up in a tree all night long as the fading light of his campfire turned to coals. It was that small, elongated cartoon square, that portrayal of the scary feline carnivore lurking in the campfire light that held my young mind. If you had the chance to ask my parents, they would confirm that we did hear a high-pitched yowl during an intense rainstorm outside the cabin on our last night stay, just beyond the park’s East Gate. I always wondered if that eerie sound came from a passing cougar in the high-country of the Absaroka Mountains…

Image from Yarns of the Yellowstone, Page 8

Now 38 years later, I find myself contemplating my current relationship with this amazing creature. At the age of 44, as I start to gray around my edges, I try to keep young in mind and soul by being physically active in this Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. A place that I so fortunately can call “my backyard” (and literally, my “front yard” as well).  Nestled between two large tracts of Public Land, the little town of Gardiner, Montana is where I call home.

A well known biologist in the world of cougar research, Toni Ruth, was once quoted in an article in Outside magazine where she said, “My favorite thing is simply being out in lion country, tracking a cat, thinking that around the bend I could find a kill or knowing that a cat may be watching me. I find great comfort in this.” Upon reading that quote, I couldn’t agree more with her. I love going beyond the first ridge, off the beaten path and down the drainage in the dark timber to a place that might hold some interesting sign of predator and prey interaction.

These off-trail excursions have opened a door to me that I continue to walk through. Each winter once the snow starts to fly, we here in Montana all know that there is a long season ahead. I jokingly have referred to our calendar year as nine months of winter and three months of visitors. When the white flakes start to accumulate and the big bruins (grizzlies) have gone to their slumbering state, that is when I love to walk the mountains in quiet solitude. Over these many miles and countless excursions I have been fortunate to have watched 28 cougars in the wild. There could be an overlap with a kitten from one sighting that became an adult sighting years later, but that’s not how I count the tally. Each experience and sighting is unique and memorable as a single moment in wildness.

I thought I would recap the sightings here, not so much for posterity, but more so, as I do begin to gray more than just the edges and the years begin to brain fade the times that have past, I will have a recount of these amazing moments. I pondered about how much detail do I put into this list…. Do I share all the finer points or just paint a picture of these sightings for others to get a sense of the setting. Well, here it goes…

The cougar sightings all started way back when I was working as a Resident Instructor for what was then called, the Yellowstone Association Institute. One of my winter jobs was to lead multi-day trips throughout the park with different locations seen each day. On one of the Northern Range days we had planned to ski the 5-mile trip towards Tower Waterfall from Roosevelt Junction. After the ski, as we drove past Hellroaring Overlook in the afternoon, the parking area was overflowing! A family of 5 mountain lions were being seen about 1-2 miles away on a cow elk carcass. It was thought that it was a mother with 3 young and another older cat was in the mix as well. Maybe an older offspring from the mother that she was still tolerating around…. So my first wild cougar sighting was the jackpot of 5 at one time!
(please refer to my blog post titled A RARE OBSERVATION INTO THE WILD – COUGAR & WOLF for more information).

The cougar sighting list continues after being introduced to a gentleman who uses hounds to track mountain lions. The main way to tree a cougar for study or for hunting of the animal is to use dogs. These dogs need to maintain their training and knowledge base even when not for hunting or research, so during the winter tracking season his dogs can chase cougars legally even if the end result is not a cougar being killed or collared. This was a moral dilemma for me, as I didn’t like the idea of putting stress on a cat just to see it up close, but I tried justifying it to myself by realizing that the cat wouldn’t be killed, but hopefully more wary of barking dogs, road crossings and of course, humans. I justified my experience that he was taking his dogs on the track of a cat whether I was with him or not and that the cougar would live to see another day. With that said, the next two sightings are the only two on my list made possible by using dogs to track a mountain lion. These two sighting don’t need much detail other than to say, they were eye opening for me as to how a cougar uses the landscape. Up and down, through one deep drainage, crossing another ridge line…Using the cover of vegetation and steep angles to quickly elude the pursuers. One cat was estimated to be a female of about a 100 pounds. The other was a young cougar that took to a tree for a bit, but eventually made it to the secluded cover of a boulder field where it nestled deep under a massive granite rock.

The next opportunity was another family group, but this time a mother with two young. During a September archery hunt that was focused on Rocky Mountain elk, my hunting partner and I worked our way towards a herd. We were 9 miles up a dirt road and about a mile walk into the timber. With plenty of recent elk sign, he set up about 15 yards behind me to use some vocal calls in hopes of enticing an elk towards me. A bit of time passed in the quiet woods, when a twig snapped over the rolling hill in front of me. I was on heightened alert with all senses tuned into what might be there…. A bull elk? A cow elk? What might it be? Out of the right side of my view a flash of brown streaked past. It was the color of a deer, but made no noise. Immediately after, in the same place the first animal disappeared, two others creatures came into view and headed directly my way. Walking low in a stalking mode, vocalizing to each other, were two young cougars coming in direct with intent! I stood up and called to my friend, “Joe, cats!!!” He responded from his hidden spot with a slightly whispered, “what?”…. I pointed and said loudly, “COUGARS!” He saw what I was pointing towards and the two cats stopped dead in their tracks. Looked around briefly and retreated from where they came. In seconds, the two faded into the underbrush just as their mother had. We recognized that we had called the cougars in, as they thought we were a solitary cow elk or calf…. They were hunting, as were we, but both as surprised to see one another. I checked my range finder to see that the young cougars had been less than 30 yards from me and coming in fast….

The next three were very young kittens, still with blue eyes and noticeable spotted coats. It was winter, maybe February. The daylight is not long at this time of year and as the high plains desert of Gardiner was amidst the muddy season, after a day of guiding I took my dog for a walk above the snow line to lessen the amount of dirt she acquired. I had in mind an open grassy bowl to gain elevation quickly and get some needed exercise for us both. Upon our arrival, the place was loaded with elk and deer, some bedded and others grazing. I chose to conceal us in the timber to still get our exercise and not disturb the animals. The wind was howling from the open grassy meadows towards us, so being downwind, I knew we wouldn’t bump the herds…. Half way up the slope some snow cornice had fallen off the top of a rock outcropping. My curiosity got the better of me as I wondered if an animal had taken a missed step and fallen over the edge. As I peered over the ridge with intense winds behind me I saw to my disbelief three young mountain lion kittens…. They were vocalizing high pitched cries as they meandered aimlessly below me. I quickly backed up and called my dog Sadie who does amazingly great off-leash (doesn’t chase animals). She was unaware of the cats below us and was sniffing intently the snow around us. I clipped on her leash and we backed down the way we came up. To this day, I have no idea where the mother cougar was. Was she stalking the elk and deer opportunities just above us? She wouldn’t have heard or smelled us walking down below in that wind. The sighting was brief, but oh so memorable.

My next sighting was again in winter high above Gardiner. When our dog Sadie was younger and able to cut the distant miles with me in the snow we would start out at first light from the house and meander for 8+ hours, through whatever type of terrain. We would drive to a vantage point where we could first scan with spotting scope or binoculars the space as best as we could before going. Looking for elk or deer, I didn’t want to bump a herd out of their grazing spaces or day beds just because we were walking through. I didn’t see any worries for this mornings escapade, so I shouldered the backpack and we headed over the open sage-covered hills. Hiking straight up keeps the body warm and lessens the chance of crossing other human boot tracks, so whatever we come across will be wild and untrammeled by other humans. We crested the steeps and were nearing the tree line. I heard a branch snap up above us and thought that we might have bumped a solitary bull elk from its bedding spot. Well, we traversed away from the animal that made the noise and angled towards a cut in the mountain. No sooner did we enter the Douglas fir trees mixed with Rocky Mountain junipers then I saw a big mound of snow with a female elk head and ear sticking out from the side of this snowy lump. I then focused on the tracks that had beaten down the snow all around… It was a large tom cat, a male cougar and this was his kill site! It dawned on me that the sound I heard could have been the big cat moving back from us as we unknowingly approached his location. I took note that the likely resident mountain lion had observed the elk herd moving from east to west across the slope and waited in the tree line for this straggling cow to get within reach. Perhaps from a branch in a mature Douglas fir, the cat sprung down and clung to it’s prey. He knocked her down and possibly asphyxiated her quickly. The drag mark in the snow indicated that the big tom was able to take this large animal and pull her 50-60 yards down hill to stash his kill between two juniper bushes. And I just happened to walk upon it…. The next day, with a high-powered spotting scope I scanned that ridge at first morning light. Just to the left of the kill was the individual, the big cougar. Sitting idle in the snow, with bold shoulders ripped with muscle, just glaring down at me. Needless to say, I did not make a repeat trip up there for a few more weeks…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A couple years passed until my next wild cougar sighting. In late October of 2013 during the mid-day doldrums of a back-country rifle hunt in search of elk, my hunting partner and I had split up to cover more ground. We had cell service where we were so we were able to keep in touch. I sat back on a sagebrush hill and used my Nikon 8×42 binoculars to focus on the surrounding hillsides in hopes of finding bedded elk…. I found something, but it assuredly wasn’t what I was looking for. Laying out on a ridge next to a fallen tree was a sleeping cougar… I couldn’t believe my eyes! I texted my friend Matt and we were able to sit and watch this big male stretch, clean himself, re-situate his bedding spot, and spy down upon his surroundings. He eventually stood up and ventured into the drainage of dense timber that separated us from him. As he disappeared from our view, we thought it best to distance ourselves from this now meandering male mountain lion. As we stood to shoulder our packs and rifles, rocks were being rolled down below us and timber branches were breaking. As we strained to see what was happening, it was unbelievable to watch the big cougar in hot pursuit of one of the biggest bull elk I have seen on public lands beyond Yellowstone National Park. This cougar was chasing a rut-weakened bull up the draw away from us, but in plain view for us to bare witness. The cat eventually gave up the chase and the bull stood for a brief moment looking over his shoulder towards our direction in disbelief. His chest heaving in and out, breathing hard… If he could speak, I bet he would have said, “Did you just see that???” And just like that, he was over the ridge and gone.

                                     

 

 

 

 

 

 

Not long ago (from the time of this writing), another family of three was seen on the south slopes of Druid Peak, above the Lamar Buffalo Ranch. It was January and the mother had taken down a full-curl, adult Rocky Mountain bighorn ram. The chase sequence wasn’t witnessed, but a keen observer saw the mother and two young cats on her feeding spot. Well, needless to say, the word got out and all spotting scopes were trained on her spot from every available parking area from the Lamar Valley floor where she was visible. My guest on tour with me was very interested in seeing a mountain lion and this was her birthday trip, so with this knowledge, we drove first thing to the Lamar Buffalo Ranch. We had a wonderful profile view, back-lit by the sky of the mother leaving the kill to head back to the cover of trees. (there is a video of this moment on my Instagram feed if you are so inclined to check out)

One summer day while guiding a private wildlife tour for a couple from England, we took a late morning walkabout near Crystal Creek, across the street from the Slough Creek Campground road. They were both veterinarians and visiting Yellowstone for the first time. I told them about a winter-killed bull elk carcass we could check out. They were both interested in the off-trail excursion, so we went… On our return walk we took a different path through a wooded area along the banks of the Lamar River. We were within sight of the road, but the sound of wind in the trees and the rushing waters obscured our voices. I gave out a yell before entering the woods on the off chance we’d bump a bear from its day bed. Well, that didn’t work very well as we walked up and nearly on to a bedded cougar. He/she was just 26 feet away from us laying in a partial sunny and shaded spot next to the river’s edge. The cougar burst away from us, startling us as much as we did it. All you could hear was a twig breaking as the cat leaped over a fallen tree trunk. All three of us were nearly speechless. I did get a chance to yell out loud, “cougar, cat….mountain lion!!!!”…. It was again a brief but oh so memorable sighting!

The next three were discovered with the help of a friend. He stumbled upon a cougar’s kill site, high up above the Yellowstone River canyon, tucked behind a fallen tree. He noticed kitten tracks in the snow, along side an adult. It turns out there were three, a mother and two young that were feeding on a cow elk carcass. If you have read this far in this post, you will have to talk with me in person to learn more exciting stories about this cougar family. (One piece of the story is this cougar bravely defended her food and her young when multiple wolves tried to commandeer her hard earned kill.)

The remaining sightings were all seen this year, 2018. Skiing in deep snow, through new terrain for me and the dog, we were following deer and elk trails in hopes of finding shed antlers from some high-country mule deer bucks and maybe a bull elk. Well, low and behold, as I watched my dog’s behavior change, she clued into the tracks before I saw them… She was smelling the mountain lion trail that lead to the uphill side of a tree where I believe the cat was bedded as we had approached. As I was watching Sadie the dog, farther up hill and behind her slinked the cat quickly out of sight. It was obvious what I was seeing with that long tail laid out behind the profile of this cougar. Brief but memorable. Wished I had packed my camera…

In late January of 2018, I parked the truck to walk the dog. No more than 40 yards off the roadside, I crossed another set of tracks from a family group of cougars. They had very recently passed by, so we eased gently over to the rocky ridge in hopes that they might still be seen down below us. We waited patiently, listening and looking. As in times past, I have found a cougar or kill site with the help of just one chatty magpie (black and white bird in the Corvid family, related to ravens). I heard one chatting away down below in the juniper thickets. As I found it in my binoculars, just below I saw movement. It was a mother and three kittens. Sadie sat down next to me as we both watched and listened to them just 75 yards below. They were completely unaware of our presence and the young were playing with what I found out later was a segment of old elk hide…. They eventually moved off, no more aware of us than they were. Again, an amazing sight! And again, I should have been walking with the camera…

Over a month later in early March, not very far from that same spot mentioned above, I briefly followed the fresh tracks of a family of cougars. It was awesome to see how they moved through the landscape, unfettered by vegetation, boulders, icy water creeks…. The tracks were recently laid on the snow and I hoped that we might get just a slight glimpse of one before backing off. This was an opportunity where the winds were in our favor, the sound of the river would cover any noise we made and the visibility was good enough that I anticipated we’d see them moving ahead of us, well before they saw us…. The tracks left the creek edge and worked up into the timber, but still paralleling the water. As we followed, I could see in advance that at least two elk bedding sites were disturbed and the cougar tracks lead right to them. As we approached, I turned on my iPhone video to document the tracks of predator and prey in the snow. Up ahead, just 20 yards was a dead cow elk. And just beyond the elk was a young cougar watching us over its shoulder. The cougar moved away and we briefly saw its sibling depart the area as well. I took a few images of the kill site and mentally assessed that the family, just as they did with me on that archery hunt encounter, stalked in silently on the bedded elk. The young approached directly which sent the elk scattering away, but unknowingly for the elk, towards the mother. The predator plan worked perfectly and one elk was taken 30 yards up slope. The drag mark indicated that she was pulled back downhill and not far from her bedding spot. They tucked her neatly at the base a juniper bush for cover and were plucking the fur from her back and haunches as we bumped them from the site. We backed out and were thrilled having the chance to see the Ghost of the Rockies in their element…

                    

So tallied up, that makes 28 cougar sightings. As I type this blog post, the winds are picking up outside now that darkness has fallen. The extended weather looks to bring multiple days of snow to the region… I have high expectations of seeing more mountain lions again this winter season and have vowed to be more diligent about hiking with my Canon camera and telephoto lens.

Stay tuned for more adventures as I experience the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem in the months and years to come…

If you have read this far in the post, I commend you! Thanks for your interest and continued enthusiasm for what I do…

Until the next escapade.