Day 1, March 1, 2016 (Happy 144th Birthday Yellowstone National Park)
Through tunnels of time we walked. Passing ancient forests now turned to stone in search of an elusive predator. With senses focused, we checked for sign at every step of our off-the-beaten-path excursion.
With 50-million-year-old redwood trees, some standing and others lying horizontally, encased in Eocene-age volcanic conglomerates, we walked as silently as we could up steep ravines trying not to disturb any nearby mountain lions. The travel was not so hard for us as we were both accustomed to hiking at elevation, but the sheerness of the pitch at times made it difficult. After a few hours at a methodical and slow-pace, we had ascended about 3,000 vertical feet.
This year’s snowpack did not aid with our tracking on this outing as much as we had hoped… A month previous to this day’s hike, snow had helped in finding what appeared to be a mother and kittens in the area of a cavernous cliff face. On this day, the snow line had receded a few hundred feet above that area. There were patches of snow, but in the freeze and thaw had become crunchy islands that we were thoughtfully trying to avoid for fear of letting our presence be known to all in the area.
Up we went, with the weather on the verge of change, the sun broke free of clouds to cast perfect light to the 10,000-foot mountains behind us. A lone wolf howl was carried on the breeze from farther up the creek corridor. As we stopped to listen, we could hear other wolves chime in at slightly different octave levels. Who was this pack of wild canines? Would they have displaced the cougars? Or, do they coexist as they have for many years as top apex predators on the landscape? This interaction of cat and dog in the wilds of the Rocky Mountain Region has been rarely witnessed.
We couldn’t locate any hard, factual clues that told us the cougar family was still in the area… No kill sites tucked into cedar stands, no prey behavior out of the norm, no noticeable tracks in snow, dirt or mud and no sign of scat or scrape… A large herd of elk, mostly cows with a few spike bulls traversed the sagebrush hill above us, some seemed to notice us, but went back to their morning walking/graze session. A few mule deer lay perched on rock outcroppings watching our movements as well, they too seemed to not be too spooked by us.
Back on track with the predator excursion – through out the entire day, while walking on steep terrain from 7AM – 4:30PM (9.5 hrs.), we finally left the area without a single, enticing fresh clue that we shared the day in close proximity of a wild mountain lion. Even though we were certainly in what would appear to be a very cougar-rich type of habitat. We were able to cover some pretty amazingly beautiful landscape and discover a golden eagle nest on a high rocky cliff face. We watched the aerial dance of the two eagles as they soared in the mid-day winds not too far over our heads.
In all, it was certainly a good day out-and-about! It was now time to head home to the family and to prepare for the next day’s cougar-focused excursion.
Day 2, March 2, 2016
Woke to not only my iPhone alarm, but also a crack of thunder from the darkness outside. It was 5:30AM and I knew there was to be a change of weather, but thunder and rain??? After the coffee had brewed I opened the door to a surprise of snow! A bit of dusting had hit the Gardiner Basin but the temperatures were still not so cold.
We took advantage of the newly fallen white powder to help with our tracking of the elusive wild cougar. This time, we drove higher in elevation, to an area that is certainly rich with predators and the general location where I saw my first cougars many years back. Without donning snowshoes, we were fortunate, for the most part of the day to tread lightly across the snowpack without sinking in. We walked through sagebrush fields, mostly covered with crusted snow. The low-angled light of morning sun helped us see the tracks of other creatures that passed by like a coyote, a mouse and the larger tracks of the animal we were hoping to find – the cougar.
There it was, just as we had hoped – recent tracks of a mother cougar and her three, 14-month-old kittens. The tracks were most likely from the day before and as we stopped to take pictures in the pristine snow, other predator tracks were found. Overlaying some of the mountain lion tracks were large wolf tracks. It was an amazing find and fun to imagine what the wolf was thinking while scent trailing a family of cougars. We hoped that the cougars were not too stressed and were farther in advance of the wolves.
We changed our course to follow the tracks… It would be amazing if we were to actually see a cat, but just tracking their sign and interpreting what we found, is in my mind, just as exciting! Once we transitioned from the open snow to a hillside covered with Douglas fir trees we lost the cougar tracks. The wolves were more obvious, but the previous night’s snow and breeze helped cover the cougar sign. The light was flat and made it hard to discern imprints in the snow.
We contemplated where the cougar family might have gone; we looked for sign of prey and interaction of both species. It was a fun walkabout through the woods and open meadows, past glacial boulders left many thousands of years ago. As we approached the edge of high cliffs overlooking the Yellowstone River far below, the sun broke from the clouds and we decided to soak it in with an early lunch break. The view was extraordinary! As the light hit the snow along the bank of the river far below, the shadows that were caught in a linear set of tracks caught my eye through binoculars. It seemed as though a large cougar had walked the rivers edge for a while. A National Park Service study on cougars had captured on a trail camera a large male cougar just upriver two days previous… Might those be his tracks? Could have been, but sadly, no sightings for us during our lunch break.
After hours of walking, another full day had come to an end without catching up to the cougar family or cutting their tracks again. But in all, the excitement of what might be around the next corner kept our enthusiasm high. We were back to the vehicle by 4PM, making another 9-hour day out in the field, posting around, off trail in search of one of Yellowstone’s most elusive creatures.
Day 3, March 3, 2016
With a few hours to give it just one more chance, we met before dawn’s first light. Drove to a spot below snow line where I had crossed cougar kill sites in previous hikes. With a steep ravine dropping down below us, we skirted along deer and elk trails, trying to not knock a rock down which would alert the whole area of our presence.
By noon we had covered a few miles and seen a good bit of country that is rarely seen by human eyes. We did find 3 old kill sites were mule deer had been cached below old Rocky Mountain junipers, covered in duff and sticks. One site was quite interesting! We interpreted from the sign left behind that a cougar had killed the deer and lay nearby, when an unassuming Mountain Cottontail rabbit got too close and the cat caught the rabbit as well. The fur was the only sign the rabbit was even there… Another creature, a coyote had come in, maybe in search of scavenging the cougar’s kill. Sadly, it too met its end with nothing but fur, four legs and a detached head as all that was left for us to find.
Without seeing much for prey animals that morning, on our way back towards the road, we imagined that the cougar had moved out with them, maybe across the road, higher on the hill were snow had melted off. We agreed to loop back towards the truck by arching through some snow patches towards a stand of trees below a cliff face.
Of all the places we could have walked on that hillside, would you believe that we walked to the exact spot a mountain lion had walked just a few hours before us! Well, we did… The fresh tracks of a cougar had crossed an island of snow on a huge sage-covered hill earlier this morning.
It was a great couple days searching for the animal that goes by numerous names, Cougar, Catamount, Painter, Panther, Puma and Mountain Lion. This is an animal that just fascinates me, as we know it is here, but we so rarely see it. To witness the tracks, kills, scrapes and other signs of its presence are almost as amazing to actually seeing it.