Curious about cougars

By on July 16, 2014
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F109, a female mountain lion, nursing three 3.5-week-old kittens. Photo: Mark Elbroch/Panthera.

Jackson Hole, Wyoming – Few people have close encounters with mountain lions. But when they do, people listen. If I want to impress someone at a cocktail party, I tell the story of the cougar I saw attacking a deer on Saddle Butte two years ago. Moments after I heard the deer’s last cry, a kitten came down to feed on the carcass, which had rolled into a tree well 200 yards away from me and my dog.

Just last month, my daughter’s 13-year-old friend was on her bike on the Elk Refuge when a cougar crossed her path. While these cunningly dangerous cats do occasionally attack people – usually children or solitary adults—statistics show that, on average, there are only four attacks and one human fatality each year in all of the United States and Canada, according to National Geographic.

Hearing about sightings like these in Jackson often fosters myths, such as “the population is on the rise” and “they are forming prides.”

Are Lions forming prides?” I asked Teton Cougar Project Leader Mark Elbroch.

No, he said. And in fact the number of mountain lions is dwindling. But there is more and more evidence that these elusive animals are much more gregarious than wildlife biologists ever thought.

“Our results highlighted the notion that solitary cougars are associating, and potentially interacting, on the landscape with regularity and predictability,” Elbroch wrote in a paper published last week, one of several national studies documenting kinship in an animal known for its anti-social and antagonistic behavior.

“This is one of the real distinctions between science and story telling and I’m a fan of both,” he said. “Someone says I saw three lions on a hill, one female two males. Now you have to figure out, do all mountain lions do this or did you witness something rare? We are reserving judgment until all data comes in.”

Prides of lions in Africa are formed to help felines protect each other and help raise young. Whereas when mountain lions come together, it is usually to mate or fight.

For biologists, pride is a term for a cooperative species, and mountain lions don’t cooperatively hunt, raise young or defend resources, Elbroch said. But as these solitary predators get collared, tracked, and videotaped more frequently, there is evidence to the contrary.

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A mother mountain lion in an intimate romp with a large (19-month-old) female offspring. Photo: Jeff Hogan/Hogan Films/Panthera

Hope for lost kittens

Research documenting mothers that adopt young that aren’t their offspring give hope to the slim possibility that the nine-and-a-half-month-old kitten seen wandering along the road in the Gros Ventre Range last week may survive.

Known as F51, he is the last known survivor of a cat made famous by Disney’s American Cougar film. Elbroch, who talked to Wyoming Game and Fish about “subsidizing” the kitten to keep it off the beaten path, said it was miraculous that the kitten survived the winter, surviving by feeding off elk and deer carcasses.

Now the concern is that she is coming too close to the road, and people, even though the conflict between people and mountain lions has more to do with the animals attacking livestock than people. “They are more than just killing machines,” Elbroch said. “They are creating biodiversity by redistributing food with kills.”

In the end, after talking it over with Game and Fish the kitten was thrown a bone, literally.

“We didn’t want to do anything that would disrupt the natural ecosystem,” said Dan Thompson, large carnivore supervisor with Wyoming Game and Fish. “We put out some road kill in a safe place to get the animal away from the road.”

He called the decision, which some wildlife advocates would condemn, “tricky.”

“You don’t want to play God,” he said. “I also think it is important to let Mother Nature take her course.”

Mothers working together

While evidence that mountain lions are working together to survive is not new, it is becoming more compelling.

Derek Craighead, who started the Teton Cougar Project with Dr. Howard Quigley under Craighead Beringia South, said female lions like F51 gave them pause.

“One of the things that made us realize that cougars are more social than we originally thought was three or four years ago when a female was shot up the Gros Ventre,” Craighead said. “Another female adopted her two orphaned kittens. We suspected the females were probably related so some of the social interactions documenting social behavior may have a caveat that they are social within the recognizable family.”

But geneticists at the Museum of Natural History, who tested the blood of F51, recently found that the adoptive mother was actually from a very different bloodline from the murdered mother, who was named F1. The plot deepened when F51 abandoned the kittens and was killed by a male mountain lion, orphaning the kittens, eventually adopted by F27.

“The interactions we are most interested in are between the least-related individuals,” Elbroch said.

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Two female mountain lions sharing a meal—they fed together for two days. One had young kittens at the time, that stayed away from the carcass while the other female was present. Photo: Mark Elbroch/Panthera.

Mating prowess: The secret lives of mountain lions

“Mountain lions are so hard to see and so hard to study that new technology is allowing us to see things we’ve never seen before,” Elbroch said. With GPS on radio collars, digital cameras linked to his computer, he can see where the lions are roaming from his desk and go out and track unusual behavior.

“In the field this winter we saw a male with two adult females courting and mating with both at the same time. Maybe this is common. It doesn’t mean it is not happening. That’s what is so exciting – It’s never ending what we can learn,” Elbroch said.

In the spring, Elbroch found that two of F51’s kittens had survived and were sharing a meal together before parting ways and reuniting, lending more curiosity to the social behavior studies and the subtlety of their communication patterns.

Mountain lions don’t roar. They purr, chirp, whistle and scream. They are thought to be solitary except when they spend the first 18 months with their mothers. They begin mating as early as two years old. But we still have a lot to learn about their lives.

Teton Cougar Project studied 68 cougars over the course of 10 years in the southern Yellowstone ecosystem. The most heavily populated range goes from the north edge of town to the north part of Jackson Lake and east to Buffalo Valley, where there are 18 to 22 adult resident mountain lions that give birth to 10 to 20 kittens a year and host a handful of transients, Elbroch said. Between 2007 and 2013, there were .42 resident adults per square kilometers, much less than the national average between 1 and 1.5.

The population was double that when mountain lion studies began in Jackson 15 years ago. Dr. Howard Quigley was looking for a sister site to the Northern Yellowstone Project where the wolf population wasn’t too high. So Quigley teamed up with Craighead Beringia South to form the Teton Cougar Project. Last year, when Quigley joined Panthera, an international cat research organization, the project changed hands. Craighead Beringia South is now focused on projects with golden eagles and ravens, great grey owls, aquatic insects and water toxicity.

Panthera, which is interpreting all the mountain lion data, is considering the impact of recolonizing wolves and other changes in the winter range like declining prey as they ponder why the mountain lion is on the decline in this region.

The mysterious lion with many names – jaguar, cougar, puma and catamount among others – has fostered many myths and legends, both modern and ancient. The story “The Wolf, The Fox, The Bobcat and the Cougar” is a Shoshone Bannock legend that portrays the cougar with human hands and a headdress as the leader of the spirits who set fire to the forest and rid it of the “evil little beings.”

Who knows what they will do next? We can only wait for more research and hope to see one of these bewildering species from a safe distance one day.

The online version of this story has been amended to reflect corrections.


About Julie Kling

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