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A new friend of mine, Pete Abdu, who also worked on the Teton Cougar Project, is doing some amazing work with remote cameras … check out his blog and website!
Check back often or subscribe to get his latest shots.
Thanks for the amazing work Pete!
We got some nice plaster casts of some lion tracks that were baked into some clay by a river at the bottom of the Red Hills in the Teton National Forest. These tracks were sighted in April, and they are still there today with very little sign of deformation.
This past Spring the male lion, who possibly laid the tracks that are shown cast in plaster above, died a mysterious death. He was in his prime, being 4 or 5 years old, but he succumbed to what was likely a virus. His skull was recovered and folks here have been processing it for preservation.
It’s been a while since my last update, and since then I’ve actually moved north from the high deserts and mesas of Western Colorado to the Grand Tetons region of Wyoming, to help out on some other cougar studies with the Teton Cougar Project.
My last day in Colorado was July 28th, and it became a day to remember.
Despite having pumas collared with GPS and radio collars, it is NOT easy to spot one. Generally they are active at night and keep to pretty remote and rugged places, so even if we know a relative location, they seem to always know we’re coming and they either move away or stay hidden well out of sight. Understandable, especially in a place like Western Colorado where many people still consider them varmints and will shoot them illegally (but that is a topic for another blog). I had prepared myself before even starting to help on the project that I wouldn’t see a lion, but I was still a bit disappointed that it hadn’t happened.
That day I had my Jeep all packed up and ready to go, but as we were preparing to head into the Rockies I took one last look at the data from the pumas’ GPS collars in hopes that perhaps one of them had crossed a road that we’d be leaving on, in hopes of seeing some tracks. Amazingly, it turned out that not only had an adult female couger (know as P10) and her kittens been right on a dirt road by BLM land, there was a cattle pond nearby and I suspected there was a kill site less than 100m off the road in a dry stream bed. And, it was right on the road that took us on a scenic tour of the area, a round-about way of getting to the highway.
My intention was to hunt for some tracks along the cattle pond on our way out, and sure enough two of the pumas had come to the water to drink the night before. It was exciting to get some tracks in a mud substrate, as most of the tracks I’d seen there in Colorado were on pine needles or shale/rock-covered soil – usually just round impressions in the ground as opposed to detailed tracks.
As we drove on, I recognized the area where I suspected there to be a kill from the night before, and my instinct told me that we should check it out. It was so close to the road, there was NO way my curiosity could let this one go.
We bushwhacked through some head-high sage bushes and descended into the dry stream bed. Initially we headed in the wrong direction, but our intuition directed us to quickly turn around and start scouting the other direction. We moved along the stream bed, to our left was a lot of dense vegetation, and to our right the top of the stream bed stood about 8 to 10 feet above us. Not necessarily the ideal spot to be for a quick exit, but there were two of us and it was the middle of the day. I did not expect to see anything other than a dead, partially eaten and cached animal.
We wound through the twisting bed for a bit until finally I spotted some tracks and my girlfriend smelled the unmistakable smell of a dead animal wafting in our direction. We were close.
We moved slowly and cautiously, listening and checking the ground for cougar tracks and sign of a chase or struggle. The smell was getting much stronger, and as we came around another bend suddenly I heard a sound which I instantly recognized. I had been helping evaluate video from remote cameras for this project, so I had the pleasure of seeing many lions eating their kills. The sound I was now hearing was the sound of a cougar crunching on ribs or bone of some sort. It is a pretty distinctive sound.
I had my girlfriend move in front of me and nudged her forward. Just kidding. I had her come close and behind me – we took two steps and it happened.
The lion saw/heard us at the same instant we saw/heard it … from a distance of no more than 20 feet. It had been mostly obscured from sight by the dense foliage on our left, and we had approached quietly from downwind. It instantly vanished in a stand of even thicker trees and plants just behind it, and we stood frozen in our own tracks.
I quickly surveyed the area and realized that it was best to stand firm for a moment, then slowly back away and up the bank behind us. Which we did. Fairly promptly. I was bummed that I didn’t get a chance to get a picture, but utterly grateful for the chance to see a puma in the wild – especially that close!
I suspect that the cat we saw was one of P10’s year-old kittens, who are now actually just about adult-sized, based on GPS data that I checked the next day. It looked like mom was just a few tens of meters away resting when all of this happened, and the other kitten was likely right there too.
Seeing an animal that large move so quickly and silently was awe-inspiring and absolutely wonderfully beautiful. Such a gift.
May cougars always have a place to roam, good luck to you P10 and kittens!
Mom, maybe it’s better you don’t read this one.
A couple of weeks ago, we descended into a canyon to check out a likely kill site by a female puma known as P8 (based on GPS info that we received from her collar) . It was a fairly gnarly descent, in my view, and during it I was introduced to some new terms such as “cliffed-out.” My mantra for the day (and every day now, it seems), is “don’t look down.” Which, as it turns out, is a good practice in life. Unless scouting a path (while not moving), staying present and considering the step in front of you as you take it is the surest way to stay upright and in one piece.
We had two or three portions of the climb down that mandated we pass bands of predominately sheer cliff, as opposed to the steep crumbly sedimentary slate rock that constitutes most of the canyon walls. It’s the kind of stuff that trickles down below you as you move, making sounds like glass breaking. It’s the stuff that holds oil in a solid form that makes this region popular with the oil and gas industry. The loose rock is also tricky to negotiate when considering that a slip and corresponding slide means you could end up at the top of one of the sheer cliff bands … then promptly at the bottom of said cliff band. It wasn’t so bad once we found some spots on the cliff bands that offered some handholds and step-downs, but certainly a fall would have been … uhh, bad. It was not the most comfortable hike I’ve ever done.
NOW it is fully apparent why pumas are called “mountain lions.” Not that I really needed any clarification.
This was a short video I took after climbing back out …
After getting down to what indeed turned out to be a kill site (a fawn, one of two we found halfway down this canyon), I took a picture of the first cached fawn (lions often cover their kills with surrounding debris to hide it from scavengers, keep bugs away, and slow decay – which is called caching – as they will sometimes come back to feed on it, sometimes many nights in a row).
I took the pictures above at 1:38pm MDT.
A few days later I was reviewing the data from the GPS collar on the lion P8 from the day we were at the kill site, and I realized that her collar sent a location signal at 1:30pm MDT – 8 minutes prior to when I took the picture – at a location 3.5 METERS FROM WHERE I TOOK THE PICTURE.
It’s pretty likely that cat was 12 – 15 feet from me when I took the shot. At the very least, we spooked it from its nap spot by the kill and just didn’t see it move away as we approached, but I think that unlikely because it was probably more than 8 minutes for me to cautiously approach the kill site, get out my camera, etc. If it moved while I was at the kill site, I probably would have seen it if it was that close by.
After investigating the first kill and taking the pics, we then walked a bit further down the canyon where we found a second fawn kill, and it was at that point I think the cat took advantage of our turned backs and bolted up the other side of the canyon – because at 2pm it’s GPS location was at a point that was almost 800 meters away. Straight up the other side of the steep canyon, which was steeper than the side we descended. Amazing!
It leaves me envious and astounded at how stealthy these cats are, and this incident was a good reminder to stay alert – and also that, in all likelihood, any of us who hike in lion country have probably been seen by a lion without us ever knowing. Given the number of lions out there and the very small number of encounters with people, it’s a good indicator that generally their first instinct is to run and/or hide from people. They excel at both.
The quest to see one of our lions live and in person (from a distance) goes on!
I’m happy to report that the Pine Ridge fire nearby is now contained, but not before burning over 13,000 acres. We had a bit of humidity and an overcast day today, no rain, but it was a nice break from the 100 degree heat and helped reduce the fire risk a bit.
Yesterday there was a new fire in the other direction in the valley over the ridge from us, this one was encompassing 130 acres but is already 25% contained. We remain on high fire alert, no fireworks in Colorado on this July 4th.
It’s been an exciting (and HOT) few weeks so far, after spending last weekend in Denver (the one place in Colorado – at least this past weekend – hotter than here in Western CO, peaking at more than 105 F Saturday and Sunday) I returned to even more excitement. It seems some of the lions have decided to study us. This morning we found lion tracks from three lions IN OUR DRIVEWAY, they probably were within 60 feet of the house. It was a female with two of her kittens (now about a year old, so they are almost her size) – perhaps she was giving them a lesson about humans?
The irony is that we cover 100’s of square miles, maybe more, tracking these study pumas. Some days we drive more than an hour just to get to a spot to BEGIN a hike to access an area that they’ve been frequenting. The irony doesn’t stop there though. This is one of the lions for which we need to upgrade her collar because the GPS signal does not function (different from the one we tried to snare my first night here). Ha! I think she’s rubbing it in.
All of Colorado is in an extremely high fire hazard alert, but most of the big ones are far away to the East on the other side of the Rocky Mountains … until today. As we traveled out to investigate a kill site on some BLM land, one of our trackers caught site of smoke on the horizon. We could see flames from four miles away on the section of BLM land that we driving, so we called it in to 911 and apparently we were possibly the first to spot the fire. We did our lion investigation, and by the time we were driving out they had 65 people fighting the fire on the ground and at least one plane overhead. Roads were shut down, and it had grown quite a bit since when we first saw it. Luckily our house is almost 15 miles away and there is at least one large shale mountain with little or no vegetation on it separating us. Of course, this is oil/natural gas country, so maybe the mountain itself will burn (joke).
The other day we had done some puma trailing over some challenging terrain not too far from the same area we were in today where the fire is burning. We backtracked one of the females and her two cubs into some old burn areas. Beautiful country … fire is a natural part of this place. We often see trees that have been struck by lightning, and evidently that is what started this fire. It burns fast with the juniper and pinyon pine releasing thick black smoke as their pitch gets consumed.
I still haven’t seen a live bear here yet, but they are all around. We found some really nice tracks on the road the other day, a nice layer of fine dust allowed us to spot them as we drove.
I say no, at least not directly. How would I know?
Because I snared myself!
The team does its best to ensure the safety of the animals and minimize stress. The snares have sensors on them that emit a radio signal if they are tripped, and we have team members stay up all night to monitor them. If something was snared, we would have headed out in the night immediately to tranquilize the lion and put a new collar on her.
It is obviously a stress on the animal, but the information gained from this nuisance to the lions might very well help contribute to saving their species and the landscapes in which they roam.
I hope so.
After a turbulent night of high winds in my tent, I awoke to find that P12 had eluded the snares. We hiked up to retrieve them so no other animals would get caught in them, and it was fun coming into the snare area because we get to put our tracking skills to the test to see who came to visit the area during the night.
It turned out that nothing appeared to come into the snared area other than some magpies that were happily feeding on the young elk. As we were taking them apart, one of the team members found a track that we overlooked about 3 meters from the snared area – it was a badger track! I wouldn’t have expected to see badger sign up on top of the ridge that we were on, but evidently they are fairly common here. After we cleaned up the snares and worked to leave no trace of our presence, we decided to trail the badger tracks.
It was tough terrain to track on, the steep sides of the ridge are crumbly dusty pieces of shale rock with some more solid rock and soil interspersed. It was a great challenge, and we were able to follow it for a few hundred meters across the slope where it appeared to have been foraging. As the tracks turned uphill, we found a new trail across it – a lion! Most likely it was P12. It was fresh from the night before (some of her tracks were on our own from the last evening), and we followed them down towards the snare site. She got within 75 meters of the snares, then left the area.
And when I say left, I mean she left. When we checked her GPS data the next day, it showed that she had made a journey straight to the northeast of 15km or so that night to an area that she often frequents. She eluded the team again.
She’s become the white whale for this team of Ahabs.
Day one started off with no delay, I arrived just in time for us to check the GPS data on the pumas that are currently collared for this project. We discovered that there were two kill sites by a lion that needed a new collar, a female known as P12, just one valley to the south. This was an exciting prospect because she is in need of a collar “upgrade,” and evidently she spends a lot of time in areas that are not accessible to the team. So her appearance nearby meant the possibility of capturing her for a new collar.
Kill site one, the first one I visited (!), was right in a creek bed near the road at the bottom of a valley and easily accessed. We first found the scant remains of what turned out to be two fawns that had not yet been born, with just five legs and a placenta left. Not far away was the doe, with some meat still remaining and very little evidence of caching (pumas often return to a kill site for days to feed on it, and in between they sometimes cover it with debris from around the area to deter scavengers).
Wildlife forensics in action.
After her feast she evidently took some time to rest very close by …
Next we checked to see if P12 was still in the area using the telemetry equipment – we didn’t hear her nearby though so we proceeded up to her next kill site which was part way up a mesa. This time of year the pumas kill often, as food doesn’t stay edible as long in the summer heat and the black bears and other scavengers are quick to find and partake in their meals. My sea-level lungs were working hard hiking up to the kill, now having less O2 at an elevation of over 5000 at the valley floors – especially hard because we hiked up twice because the decision was made to set snares to capture her by this kill. It was a large male elk fawn which had barely been eaten and killed just the night before.
The decision to attempt to snare her here was made because there was a lot of meat left on the fawn and it was likely she was now resting on the mesa above us (out of our view hundreds of feet above with rocks blocking the radio signal from her collar from reaching our antenna) – but there was a good chance she would return here to feed. So the process of setting snares and creating a cubby (area that contains the bait, in this case her own cached kill, that is only accessible by moving through openings that have snares) commenced and lasted a few hours.
Once we were done setting up, we rushed back to our headquarters at sunset to get our camping gear so we could stay out to monitor the snares (they have sensors which send a radio signal to our telemetry equipment indicating a sprung snare).
That night just after I set up my tent during a delightful warm evening, a wind storm appeared out of nowhere and started blowing with at least 60mph sustained winds. My tent started to blow away despite having a bunch of gear already inside it, and I spent my first night in my tent with it undulating around me like an amoeba in the crazy winds.
I wouldn’t trade that day for anything.