The silent predator
Story and photos by Jan L Wassink
Tail twitching slightly, the 7-foot, 150-pound cat lay quietly in the brush watching the small buck deer.
The lion's sharp eyes had seen movement and its keen nose had detected the scent of the deer at about the same time. Moving forward on short, muscular legs and using its supple body to take advantage of every shred of available cover, the cougar inched to within 50 feet of the buck without being detected by the deer's sharp eyes.
Soft, padded feet had allowed the mountain lion to move noiselessly through the brittle grass and leaves without making a sound that could be detected by the deer. Launching itself suddenly on powerful hind legs, the cat overtook its surprised prey with a quick burst of speed and leaped on the back of the deer. Strong shoulders and forelegs helped it strike and hold on to the deer while its needle-like claws dug into the sides and back of its prey.
Long, strong canine teeth and muscular jaws finished the struggle with a swift, bone-crushing bite to the base of the skull, breaking the vertebrae and resulting in almost instant death. After the kill, the cougar dragged the carcass up a steep hill before feeding and then covered carcass with debris to warn other cougars away. If the big cat did not kill again in the next day or two, it would more than likely return to feed on the carcass again before moving on. Cougars' usual prey is deer, but cougars may kill and eat almost anything edible that crosses their path at the wrong time.
Mice, rabbits, bobcats, grouse and elk are all eaten when the opportunity arises. Porcupines also appear to make up a regular part of the diet because many of the lions autopsied here in Montana by game officials have had quills imbedded in their forelimbs. Cougars rarely feed on putrefied meat or on carcasses killed by other cougars.
While many writers credit cougars with choosing sick or weak prey, a study by Maurice Hornacker in Idaho does not bear this out. He found that any deer or elk spotted in a position where it could be stalked was apt to become dinner. He did note that cougars may pass up mature elk in favor of smaller ones. He suspected they may have a healthy respect for the massive antlers which are fully capable of injuring or killing them.
However, cougars can and do occasionally take mature bull elk, and lions doing so have performed a daunting feat of single-handedly dispatching a majestic animal weighing as much as five times its own weight. Cougars are relatively common throughout western Montana and their presence is being detected more and more frequently in the Missouri River breaks and other parts of eastern Montana. Even so, they are seldom seen by anyone without the aid of tracking and hunting dogs. Their nocturnal habits and shy, secretive nature allow them to live at the edge of civilization without being detected. Socially, cougars are loners. Breeding pairs and females with kittens are usually the only cougars seen together.
Each cougar lives in its own home area and very rarely ventures outside that area. These home areas may be as large as 100 square miles but usually include between 20 and 30 square miles. The home areas of neighboring cougars often overlap to a considerable degree.
Even so, meetings between cats are rare and fights are almost unheard of. The cats maintain their solitude through a mutual avoidance system in which they advertise their presence in an area. Throughout their home area, and often near their kills, cougars make "scrapes" of leaves, dirt, fir and pine needles and mark them with urine or feces.
Intruding cats encountering fresh sign detour or otherwise avoid the resident cat. About the only exception to this pattern of nonaggression is a female with kittens faced with an intruding male. The female will defend the kittens with tooth and claw - and with good reason - because males have been known to kill and eat unprotected kittens.
Females may come in heat all year, here but here in Montana breeding most often occurs in winter or early spring. Resident males breed with females that have home areas overlapping theirs. Two or three (sometimes as many as five) spotted kittens are born about 90 days later. The den is usually located in a cave, under a rock ledge or beneath a windfall. The kittens are raised on a diet of milk and meat. After they reach about 20 pounds, the kittens leave the birth den and begin to travel with the mother, taking refuge in temporary dens while she is hunting. The kittens remain with the female for 18 to 22 months while they learn to hunt and kill for themselves. Immediately upon being thrust into independence, the juveniles begin roaming nomadically.
It is these one- to two-year-old lions that account for over 70 percent of the lion/human encounters in Montana during the last several years. Inexperienced at catching prey and excluded by adult lions from the best territories, these juveniles often have difficulty obtaining enough food. When hungry enough, they may be sufficiently motivated to overcome their natural fear of humans and feed on some of the abundant prey often found near human habitations: pet food left outside or the pets themselves; deer or elk attracted to well-watered lawns, tasty ornamental shrubs, hay stacks or other abundant food; or domestic livestock such as sheep, goats, llamas, calves or foals. In one case in Glacier National Park, a child was attacked, but the lion was promptly killed. When notified of problem lions, the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks works with local houndsmen to track and capture or remove the offending lions.
Eventually, if they can stay out of trouble, the juvenile lions find an area of sufficient size, with ample prey and few resident lions, where they can settle down and eventually raise their own young. While continual encroachment by humans into wild areas and our steady rearranging of its natural habitat limit the area available for lions to live, those same alterations often create ideal habitat for increasing deer populations. With more prey available, more lions are able to survive and breed, potentially increasing the number of lions on fewer and fewer acres of wild land. These two opposing factors almost guarantee that we will be seeing increasing numbers of incidents between humans and cougars in the future. Unfortunately, the cougar's secretive habits severely limit the game managers' ability to obtain accurate census information and manage cougar populations.
The public image of the cougar has experienced a total turnaround over the last 30 years. Teddy Roosevelt's description of the cougar as a "big, horse-killing cat, destroyer of the deer and lord of stealthy murder ... with a heart craven and cruel," was typical of public opinion at that time. Cougars were looked upon as competitors and were indiscriminately destroyed by shooting, trapping, poisoning and any other possible means. A bounty of up to $50 per hide was paid in Montana until 1962. Only the cougar's stealthy ways prevented it from becoming extinct.
Researchers have since discovered that although cougars kill a large number of deer each year, they generally do not take enough animals to limit the size of our deer herds. Over time, the public has accepted the cougar as an important and highly desirable part of the Montana ecosystem and cougars were declared to be game animals in Montana in 1971. Hunting for cougars has been carefully regulated in recent years to try to keep cougar populations in balance with available habitat.
Between 50 and 100 lions are taken annually in the state, mainly west of the continental divide. Sportsmen are now allowed to hunt cougars without hounds during the regular big game seasons. Hounds can be used to hunt cougars beginning Dec. 1 and continuing until the quota for each hunting unit is reached or until mid April. Houndsmen can also participate in a "chase-only" season that also ends in mid April.
This chase-only season gives houndsmen a chance to be able to work their dogs without killing the prey. Houndsmen have always been a critical part of cougar management. They are the ones in the field seeing game, and have been an integral part of the cougar studies and continue to work closely with the wildlife personnel. They see many more lions in the wild than any other group of people and probably understand cougar behavior and local cougar population distribution almost as well as the biologists. Many of them rarely actually kill a lion, preferring instead to hunt simply for the excitement of the chase and the enjoyment of working with their dogs.
Still, virtually all lions taken each year are taken by houndsmen, making the quota system the key element in the current cougar management strategy. The current management system appears to be working because game officials believe that the cougar populations in the western and central parts of the state are stable or increasing.