The barks of her rescued hound dog, Thor, let Michelle Peziol know that my Dad and I had arrived at the Teton Cougar Project office in Kelly, Wyoming. It was a cold, sunny morning and Michelle, a Project Manager with TCP, waved through the office door and invited us inside. The office was covered in photographs, charts and lists of data of the local Mountain Lion populations. Big computer monitors on the tables showed maps with hotspots and pinpoints of the lions being studied. We sat down and talked to Michelle about the work the TCP team is doing and I was so excited to be there.
The month before, I had written a post on Facebook about Mountain Lions. I talked about meeting Steve Winter at the Por el Planeta Nature, Wildlife and Conservation Photography Competition in Mexico City, and about all of the work Steve has done on the world's big cats. I talked about how important it is to have empathy for big predators and that many may be misunderstood. My friend Lisa Robertson from Wyoming Untrapped saw my blog post and sent it to Mark Elbroch, Science Director of Panthera's Puma programs, like TCP. Mark invited me out for a day in the field to investigate kill sites. I couldn't believe it!
Talking with Michelle was an incredible experience. She was so nice and very smart. I learned about the technology that TCP uses to study Cougars, and how they track them using GPS collars. Some of these collars are heavy, and newer, lighter models are needed to help, especially with grown kittens. Some of the collars even drop off automatically after a year or so. We looked at the monitors and saw the paths that some Cougars had taken in the past week. Mostly they circled around in a territory, sometimes stopping to sleep. But other paths showed a lot of time spent in a very small area. Michelle was pretty sure those areas were kill sites, where a Cougar had taken down an elk or deer and was feeding.
It was hard to talk about the Mountain Lions and not feel emotional about their situation. Recently, I had seen a documentary on National Geographic about some Cougars in this area of Wyoming. They are called F61, F51, and M85. F61 and F51 are mothers, and M85 is a male. The documentary is based on these three mountain lions, and how successful F61 was in raising her two kittens (more on her later!). However, F51 and M85 have a different story. F51 was known as the “hippie mom” and was known for being a very loving and energetic mother. F51 had just lost 2 kittens, so due to stress, she started moving her remaining two kittens. She entered an area which used to be occupied by M29, a male, but this Cougar had been shot by hunters, and another male, M85, was now in his territory. As soon as their paths crossed, F51 was assumed to have attacked M85 possibly in defense of her kittens, and the bigger, stronger, male mountain lion killed her, leaving her two kittens orphaned. Michelle told us some more information about what happened to these two kittens and their fates. F51’s two kittens struggled to survive with many threats including wolves, bears and humans. They split up for awhile and they lost each other for about 2 weeks, until eventually reuniting. Unfortunately, one kitten died of starvation, while the other one survived for longer, feeding on grasshoppers, rotten carcasses, and really anything she could find, until one day she found a porcupine. She successfully killed this porcupine, but some quills found their way into her body, and eventually killed her. This story broke my heart. F51 had three litters in her lifetime. Two kittens from her first litter may still be alive. All 7 kittens from her last two litters died before they became adults.
As I was walking around the room, my eye caught a poster hanging up by the back door. It was the Teton Cougar Project family tree, and it was color coded, noting all of the Cougars studied since 1993. Red meant predation, or killed by another mountain lion or any other animal, blue was unknown, white was still alive, and the last color was orange. Orange meant killed by humans. Michelle explained that there are many different challenges that Cougars face: weather, hunting, wolves/bears, etc. I learned about how hard it is for a Cougar kitten to survive to adulthood. In fact, TCP's studies show that Cougar kitten mortality is higher than was thought before. I can't believe how difficult it must be for the people who work so hard studying these animals to find out that they were either killed by hunters or died of other causes. I tried to keep my mind off of this.
Michelle noticed that F61’s tracking collar had shown a lot of activity in a certain area, and we decided to go outside to check it out. It would be a long drive and hike, so I had to be prepared. We drove for awhile and then got out to snowshoe a couple of miles up into the mountains. On the way to the “kill,” we stopped at some older Mountain Lion cached kills from 9 months, to a year ago. These kills were an elk calf, and a white-tailed deer. Michelle found the white-tailed deer kill due to its white tail sticking out of the ground. However, the only things left of these two carcasses now were an elk calf leg, and some deer hair.
During our hike, Michelle told me about all of the wildlife she has seen in this area, including wolves, foxes, coyotes, bighorn sheep, elk and many species of raptor. Above us, a bald eagle perched on a cliff. I could see some elk high up on a snowy hillside. Ravens called back and forth in the cottonwoods behind us and I wondered if they had found something. There were animal tracks in the snow all around us. As we kept snowshoeing, Michelle spotted a cross fox trotting up on the cliffs above. I stopped and took some photos, and the fox moved on. It was my first time seeing a cross fox!
To get to the second old kill site, we had to climb higher. The 9 month old elk calf carcass was on a high slope a little ways from where the cross fox was. It was buried in snow. Mountain Lion kills are very important to many other scavengers including coyotes, foxes, wolves, bears, martens, ravens, magpies, eagles, and even smaller animals. Looking up at the hillside I could imagine the Cougar leaping down from a rock onto this elk calf. Just like the last kill site, there was a hill nearby, something the Mountain Lion can use to its advantage when hunting.
Michelle used her GPS to pinpoint the activity of F61 again. She pointed straight up. We drank some water and started climbing again, this time up a steep slope covered in rocks and snow. From here we could see the entire valley, the forested hillsides and the river flowing and winding way below. We stopped on a ridge and noticed a trail of tracks in the snow - there was a mix of wolf, fox, and coyote tracks, but no sign of Mountain Lion tracks. From there, we looked straight down at a pine forest, and the GPS led us right down there. After sliding over small pine trees, falling a ton of times, and getting snow in my back, sleeves, and gloves, we finally made it to the bottom, where we found even more activity. We started to see bits of hair scattered in the snow, until Michelle pointed to an elk calf carcass less than 100 feet away. It was pretty cleaned out, resting in a small gulley surrounded by brush. The head was intact along with the legs and hide. Some ribs had been broken off and taken away. The Cougar had probably eaten the organs first, followed by the muscle. The blood is an important nutrient source, too.
We noticed where F61 had first cached the elk, scraping sticks and snow into a pile on top of it, and then where she had dragged it further down the slope. As I walked closer, we found magpie tracks, fox tracks, and coyote tracks. I even found some marten scat. But what really caught my eye was this huge, disgusting, brown lump next to the carcass, frozen to the ground. It was the rumen from the elk's stomach. Michelle explained what this was and how it contained all of the grass and vegetation the elk ate. I was so curious and disgusted, that I kept asking questions about this lump. She said how it was inside the elks stomach, and how it was basically a huge scat...and that was the end of that conversation! Michelle also talked about how bears scavenge on these “lumps” and thats why bears may smell so bad. She also said how Mountain Lions don't smell bad because they sleep on sage or pine, and so they may smell like a Christmas tree. :-) Michelle had to fill out a sheet asking what the habitat was, what animals scavenged on it, what trees were around the elk, and how much of it was eaten. All of the muscle and organs were gone, so the rest was just a little meat, bones, and hair. F61 had left it about 3-4 days before we got there.
We searched around the kill site and found lots of clues, including some Mountain Lion scat, but I wanted to find a print. The snow was deep and it was shadowy, so it was difficult to find some. But luckily, we had Michelle with us. Michelle is an expert tracker. She was the first woman in North America to score a 100% on the Tracker Certification! Woohoo!! Michelle spotted some prints and we followed them for a bit. It was amazing to see how close the tracks came to trees and brush, and Michelle explained how big cats "slink" their way through the woods, using obstacles as protection and screening. Leaving the site, we saw more wolf tracks surrounding the area. Mountain Lions and wolves usually keep their distance, but wolves may try to drive Mountain Lions away if they ever cross paths. We headed back out after I took one last look around, trying to imagine what happened here to this young elk right around Christmas day. Maybe the Cougar had jumped out of a tree? Maybe it lay hidden in some deadfall, waiting for the elk to pass? Maybe it was a wild chase down the hillside?
As we slid down another snowy hill leading us back to the river, there were a couple or ravens and an eagle sitting on something that looked really small from where we were. The ravens were up in a tree and the eagle was standing on the thin ice right next to the rushing river, sitting on some kind of meat. As we got closer, the eagle flew away, letting us get close to the mysterious carcass. Thoughts ran through my mind.. Beaver? Otter? Nope. It was another elk. But, not a kill of wolves. This elk had drowned in the river and became frozen on the riverbank. The circle of life continued deep in the Gros Ventre backcountry.
After eating an entire pack of Honey Stingers for energy, we snowshoed back to the truck, listening to Michelle tell more stories about her awesome experience with Cougars. I kept looking above me in the pines across the river, and the rocky cliffs above me, hoping and wondering if F61 or another Cougar was up there somewhere, sleeping, or watching us. I wondered if it had kittens that were playing somewhere nearby, their spotted coats hopefully keeping them safe from predators. We spotted some mule deer crossing the river below us, but that was it - no more wildlife to be seen. Pretty soon I was folded up again in the back seat of the truck, on our way back to the office. I had a lot of information to think about, and I knew that night I would dream of Mountain Lions. I was tired.
I have a lot of respect for people like Mark, Michelle and their team that work so hard, every day, to collect data about an animal that not enough facts are known about. The longest running Mountain Lion project, TCP provides critical information on Mountain Lion survival, breeding and mortality and most importantly through their video and photo captures, data on the social behavior of these predators. The more we can learn about Mountain Lions, the more we can help protect them and make sure that they have a future.
Thank you, Teton Cougar Project for this awesome opportunity and I hope that you can continue adding to your Cougar "Family Tree". I will see you soon!!
For more information on the Teton Cougar Project, please visit these links. I hope that you will take the time to learn more about these amazing creatures, and support TCP with their important studies: