Backyard Mountain Lions

You have, no doubt, heard that Brian Kertson, DFW’s carnivore research scientist, will be at Ellensburg’s Hal Holmes Center Monday evening. At 7 p.m. he will be talking about backyard cougars. This is fascinating stuff. You are invited.

You may recall Project CAT (Cougars and Teaching) – the early-21st-century alliance of Cle Elum/Roslyn Schools, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, Pacific NW Center for Spatial Information and a handful of other high-profile partners. Evelyn Nelson, Super of the school district at that time, grew up in a hunting and outdoor-oriented family in Carson, down along the Columbia. With a long-burning desire to get kids hooked on the outdoors, she grabbed the chance to partner with Fish and Wildlife biologist Gary Koehler to start Project Cat and immerse her students in science and nature.

Over several years, Project CAT put Upper County K-12 kids at the front of research into the relationships between people and cougars. Brian was one of the grad student researcher involved with Gary Kohler and other biologists. A great deal of the CAT research involved remotely tracking and mapping cat movements. There was (and still is, really) no shortage of cats in the Upper County.

As it all came together, Gary or students would find a track and the Montana “cat tracker” contractor’s dogs would find the cougar, which ended up wearing a rather sophisticated geographic positioning system (GPS) collar. That collar stored the cat’s location as it went about its life. Periodically, the data in the collar was downloaded to a computer, and students would map a particular cat’s schedule and locations, plotting its range and paths.

Other groups of students worked on most everything from track or prey identification to necropsies. (One seventh grade class cleaned and reassembled the complete skeleton of a collared young male which apparently died from injuries inflicted by an elk or two.)

From several handfuls of collared cats, as hoped by Superintendent Nelson, those Upper County kids learned some things.

A typical male cougar’s summer territory covered 136 square miles, with three females occupying 50-60 square mile ranges generally within his. On average, there was one dominant animal per 46 square miles. With near-constant dispersal of young adults, one or more transient cats were regularly moving through the Upper County. (Two young cats actually traveled south to the Columbia River Gorge and back – several hundred miles.)

Using that GPS data, the kids plotted lion kills, identified prey species and age, and knew how much time the cat spent feeding; 60% of prey animals were deer and 40% were elk.

It turned out that cougars DID take deer and elk in people’s backyards, but they didn’t hang around, sitting and waiting; they were always moving through their home ranges. Interestingly – and no surprise – it was obvious that, if people FED elk and deer, or created a sanctuary, they greatly increased the odds of having cats in their backyards and neighborhoods.

The kids’ GPS data showed lions all around us – in the hills and in our backyards. In fact, if you’ve been hiking in the hills or woods, you likely have been seen or watched by a cougar.

Cats are several million years old, and in the last 200,000 years cougars have become highly evolved predators. Pound for pound, they kill bigger prey than any other predators (a 100 pound female lion will take down a 500 pound elk). By the way, cougars don’t chew; their carnassial (adapted for shearing) teeth bite off chunks of flesh for swallowing.

Although the odds of a run-in are very small, most problem cats will be young vagrants looking for territories. Rules of engagement are simple: stop, stand tall and don’t run; pick up small kids; don’t break eye contact; be as large as possible (wave arms, hold up branches or coats); back away; pick up sticks and stones and fight back if attacked. Carry pepper spray. (Remember, Teddy Roosevelt called the cougar the greatest coward among the predators of North America.)

Funny thing about lions and people. Colorado wildlife buddy Bob Hernbrode often spoke of people and bears. Hear his words with [lion] replacing “bear.” “People who live in [lion] country will almost always tell you so. While it is sometimes presented as a warning, it is in reality an effort to describe some ephemeral value of the land. Most people will never see a [lion] in their mountains, yet the mere possibility of doing so imparts some vital uncertainty, mystery, danger, a need for respect, and greater depth to the landscape. We need [lions] in our mountains.”

We know a great deal about the backyard cats of Paradise. Brian Kertson has carried his work and research into the heavily-populated west side of our state. Thus, Monday night’s talk.

See you Monday evening at the Hal Holmes Center.

Written by Jim Huckabay. Posted in Uncategorized

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