BVC's ED, Stephen Capra recalls seeing a mountain lion in Otero Mesa. Otero Mesa is now threatened by hardrock mining, but NM Wild is working to protect this desert grassland and the wildlife who call it home.
“Sometimes the magic of a place speaks to you in unexpected ways. Such was the case on my first visit to Otero Mesa in December 2002. I was there with a friend for a four-day trip to get a sense of this landscape and whether it was worth protecting.
It is in such a setting that land can often literally speak to you. On this trip, the grassland of Otero Mesa would reveal many aspects of itself. There was the powerful sky that brought morning from the grasps of night, the sunsets that came early and brought forward the evening chill. There were the herds of mule deer near Rough Draw, the sky-filled dance of Mexican free-tailed bats in the evening, and the prairie dogs and burrowing owls that brought such life during the daylight to this wild landscape.
What I could not have predicted was what happened the last day as we drove across a great swath of the core grassland.
Somewhere near Shiloh Draw, as I looked out into grass and creosote, appeared a mountain lion. This lion was healthy and sporting a rich winter coat. He looked directly at me and then began to run. At first I thought he might just jump in the car, but he chose to run along our slow moving vehicle. He then glanced back after passing us for what seemed like an eternity and then bolted across the grassland, with Alamo Mountain as a backdrop.
With my heart still pounding hours later, I climbed up on a small ridge where I could get cell phone coverage. I remember clearly calling my then executive director and relating the story. I told him that we must protect this place and about how magical my days there had been. He told our members the story later that night at our annual holiday party. As I lay in my sleeping bed watching the night sky fill with stars, I dreamed of protecting a place that had revealed its beauty over four days in December.”
Mountain lion kills at park
When the lion season ended March 31 in the Black Hills Fire Protection District, GF&P reported that the harvest was 61. The quota was a maximum of 100 lions or 70 females. There were 26 males and 35 females taken.
Lindbloom said the population estimate will be revisited and data from the season will be studied.
The impact of snow on the hunting season will be considered, too.
A common theory this year linked a lack of snow to a harvest that was lower than expected.
But Lindbloom noted the Rapid City weather station had 18 snow events a year ago, when 73 lions were taken in a shorter period of time. There were 26 snow events in the same time span this year.
Lindbloom said there are a half-dozen weather stations in the Black Hills, and information will be gathered from them as part of the study.
Commissioner Barry Jensen of White River said it is too early in the post-season analysis to make predictions about the lion population.
“This year is really a pretty interesting year for the mountain lion study. I think it will stimulate a lot of questions from hunters and people interested in that,” he said.
Jensen also wondered whether “turning 4,000 people loose” is the right way to hunt lions.
Traps catch lion, then ranger on Glacier Park boundary
By TRISTAN SCOTT Missoulian
WEST GLACIER — A mountain lion caught recently in a wolf foothold trap set on the southwestern boundary of Glacier National Park was turned loose by state wildlife officials, but the National Park Service employee who discovered the animal and reported it to game wardens was caught the following day when he sprang a second trap in the same area.
The seasonal employee discovered the trapped mountain lion Jan. 19 along the Middle Fork of the Flathead River just outside of the park boundary, which is defined by the high-water mark on the north side of the river. The park employee was conducting wildlife research and reported the trapped cougar to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks officials.
Erik Wenum, an FWP wildlife specialist, responded to the scene near Harrison Creek and darted and released the mountain lion. He also issued a trapping violation to the trapper for exceeding the amount of exposed bait permitted as an attractant. According to the state’s wolf trapping regulations, no trap may be set within 30 feet of an exposed carcass or bait that is visible from above, a measure intended to minimize the number of raptors unintentionally caught in the traps.
FWP Warden Capt. Lee Anderson said the park employee returned to the area with a park ranger the following day and, while attempting to show the ranger where the incident had occurred, accidentally sprung another trap, which caught the bottom of his heel. The employee, who was wearing waders, was not injured.
“He was able to pop his foot out of the trap and it wasn’t a major incident,” Anderson said. “It was in an area right along the boundary of the park where trappers can legally trap.“
Glacier National Park spokeswoman Denise Germann said a National Park Service investigation into the trapping incident is ongoing. She could not comment on the findings of the investigation, but said it will determine whether or not the traps were indeed set outside of park boundaries.
Germann said that while the park recognizes trappers’ legal right to trap along the park boundary, there is a concern for visitor safety.
“Visitor safety is always a concern to us, but we understand and respect that trapping is a legal activity outside of the park boundary,” she said.
Unintentional captures by wolf foothold traps are not unusual, and Anderson said he could think of four instances this wolf trapping season in which mountain lions were caught in the Flathead Valley. It is also not uncommon for bobcats and coyotes to be captured unintentionally in wolf sets, he said.
Recognizing the problem of unintentional captures, FWP adopted an 8-pound trap pan tension requirement this wolf hunting season to minimize non-target captures of smaller carnivores like lynx, which is federally listed under the Endangered Species Act, as well as marten and fisher.
In Montana, wolf trappers are required to report unintentional captures, and the animals are required to be released.
Anderson said wardens typically use a catch-pole or tranquilizer dart to subdue a trapped mountain lion while they assess its overall health and check for foot damage before releasing the animal.
As of Tuesday, hunters had killed 110 wolves in Montana this wolf hunting season while trappers have killed 67, exceeding the number killed last year.
Study providing information on
And in the WWF study, only one collared lion moved from the Bears Paw to the Little Rockies. Yet Jorgensen sees places like the refuge as important to the Eastern Montana lion population.
“When you get those long dispersals, places like the CMR can be a source” for a broader population, Jorgensen said.
No easy task
So far, finding, darting and collaring cougars in the CMR Refuge has been difficult. In the first season the crew, which includes houndsman Grover Hedrick and his dogs, were plagued by deep snows and cold, making travel difficult. The second year, there was hardly any snow and the crew only had nine days in the field. So far, the crew has collared nine lions. And despite the loss of some of the collars which held information in the units, CMR biologist Randy Matchett said the work has been a success.
“It’s pretty interesting that one left here and went to North Dakota,” Matchett said of a young male that migrated 230 air miles south (see story in Outdoors). “It’s pretty interesting the number of litters these guys have found.
“We’ve seen a real similarity to lions elsewhere in how they use the timber a lot, although they do seem to use more of the open habitat.
“It’s interesting how they go back and forth across the river, that doesn’t seem like a barrier at all.”
The mountain lions also seem to be adaptable in their choice of prey. When the study began, the researchers found the lions were mainly eating whitetail deer. But disease crashed the whitetail population and pushed the lions to the next most common ungulate food source in the area — elk. A large contingent of the refuge’s elk population gathers during the fall breeding season on a section of the river bottom where they aren’t hunted.
“There was an old male we had collared who spent all of September right across the river from the elk viewing area,” Powell said. “He knew what he was doing.”
"Old" is a relative term in the mountain lion community, especially in hunted populations where cats around 2 years old make up the majority of the harvest. On the refuge, the researchers documented a 7 1/2-year-old male. One female in the Garnet Mountains lived until 13. But 2 to 3 is the average age.
Lions do grow fast, though. At only 2 1/2 years old, a mountain lion averages about 130 pounds.
“They’re on milk for less than a month and then they’re on meat the rest of their lives,” Powell said.
Within a year, about half of the kittens are dead, either killed by other cats or dead from sickness, starvation, vehicle collisions or killed by hunters.
“It’s hard out there,” Powell said.
So maybe a group of six Montana mountain lions traveling together is a way to ensure survival in a harsh world. Maybe when they aren’t hunted, there is less pressure to disperse. Or maybe there’s such limited hunting territory for them on the prairie that lions from the same mother are more likely to bump into each other and travel together, even if it is only for a few weeks or so in the winter.
Researchers in the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge may never find answers to such questions. But just documenting the pride of mountain lions has already added to the limited knowledge of cougars in a prairie landscape. Perhaps the three that were collared, along with six others, can provide some answers.
“We stopped trying to tree and follow the snow tracks of the cats but are following the three collared cats by telemetry and satellite locations,” Powell said. “We know the three collared cats are still traveling together today.”