Posts Tagged ‘Teton Cougar Project’

Another capture season has come to an end on Panthera’s Teton Cougar Project.  It was a challenging year but we were able to put out a few new collars and recollar some cats whose collars fell off over the past year.  Our method for finding mountain lions is the same as mountain lion hunters – we split up and hike, drive or snowmobile looking for tracks.  Snow makes this much easier but anyone who tells you snow tracking is easy may only be looking at clear tracks.  The right snow conditions can make picking a cougar trail out of the tracks of wolves, deer and elk very challenging.


Generally cougar tracks are big and round and their strides are short. This makes them stand out compared to snow trails of ungulates BUT when there is a light crust on top of the snow, cougars will keep their toes tightly together and take longer strides, making the trail look more like deer or small elk.


From above this looks like a hoof…


But if snow conditions allow you to peek inside you will see the toes and fine claws of a mountain lion.


Sometimes you are forced to rely on how the animal is moving to identify a trail – cougars love sneaking under low-lying branches and they “lurk” through the landscape. They travel from tree to tree, wrapping around the trunk, under branches and through thick bushes. Wolves, elk and deer cruise in more of a straight line.


Can you pick out the cougar trail among the tracks of dozens of elk? It is the one on the left sneaking under 1-2 foot high branches.


M85. It is amazing how relaxed all cougars are – but especially M85 is when he is in a tree. He is only 10 or 15 feet away from me when I took this picture.


He took the drugs very well. Safety of the cat as well as the team is priority in these situations. His eyes are covered to help cool his adrenaline and he is covered in snow to cool his body since his temperature was slightly high.


Very interesting callouses on his feet. I haven’t seen this before and I’m curious about what would cause this. He didn’t have these on his toes last year when we caught him.


His front feet were similar but not as dramatic as his hind foot.


Dew claw on the front foot.


He is an extremely healthy looking cat. One of his canines showed some damage which is expected being around 7 years of age.


His new collar will last 2 years before it automatically falls off which means we will likely never catch him again.


Heading home, best of luck to M85. There are still several months left in the cougar hunting season and a big male like him is highly sought after but he is a smart old cat – lasting 7 years is very unusual for a male in our study area.


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We lost another kitten. This one to starvation. Her mother was killed and this kitten survived for over 3 months on her own, scavenging, possibly killing birds or squirrels, but she didn’t make it (her sister is still out there). Learn more about these cats at facebook.com/tetoncougarproject. I took this opportunity to look at her teeth. At 9 months old her adult canines have still not fully erupted – making it very difficult to kill any prey of significant size.


An awesome view of a cougar tongue. This is the tool they use to scrape all the meat off bones, as well as clean themselves and their kittens.


Yellow-bellied marmot tracks.


Got to ride in a small 4-seater plane over the Tetons and Gros Ventre. The purpose was to relocate two mountain lions via telemetry. We found them deep in the Gros Ventre. Here is a backside view of Sleeping Indian (or sheep mountain) with the Tetons in the background.


Yellow-warbler nest with eggs.


Mysterious probing… lots of raven tracks around and curlews in the vicinity.


“High-stepping” curlew tracks. This is a breeding dance of the curlew.


I believe this is sage grouse scat. They are abundant in this area and in the next picture you can see leaves of sagebrush in the broken open scat. Sagebrush creates oils that are toxic to the good flora in animals stomachs. Somehow sage grouse, jackrabbits, and pronghorn are able to eat it.


Little bits of sagebrush leaves in the scat.


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December 15th marks the beginning of the Gros Ventre closure and the end of our capture season.  We recollared three cats, uncollared one cat and put a new collar on a big male that we found cruising through the study area.  Catching mountain lions consists of scouring the landscape, finding a fresh track, following the trail until you know the cougar is close, releasing barking dogs that send the cat up a tree, tranquilizing the cat while its in the tree, safely lowering it down, taking measurements, blood samples, putting on a collar, reversing the drugs and watching the cat walk away.  It is an intensive effort!  We spent 6 days trying to catch up to another male that we never did reach.  We hiked 12 hours each day over mountains, deep snow, into the dark but never could catch up to him.  It is hard work but also really fun to get to be part of the capture team and to spend all day following tracks of mountain lions.  It is also awesome to spend time with the houndsmen and watch the dogs do their thing.  Check out Boone Smith on NatGeo Wild.  He has a variety of TV projects and is a member of the Smith family – a fourth generation houndsman.  We are really lucky to get to work with him and his family.

Here are some pictures from the past month of adventures.


This is a fun random thing that you might find in elk country. It is a chunk of ice that gets compacted in the hoof then falls off. These weird ice chunks may stick around long after the tracks have blown away.


Nice badger track in the snow.


Curious cats. Here are the tracks of F109 checking out an old back country cabin.


People wonder if the cats get beat up during the capture process. F47 went and killed this adult moose just a few days after we recollared her. Its the first time we’ve documented a female cougar killing an adult moose on this project. I guess she is feeling ok!


Water shrew tracks. Like a normal shrew but much bigger.


Cool imprint of a raven landing.


Big scrape from our new big male, M85.


M85. This was a wild capture. Out until 3am in -20 degree weather.


Tracks of F51 on the left with one of her kittens on the right.


Beautiful day in the Gros Ventre.


Otter sliding on the snow.


Tracking trick shots. From left to right: coyote, wolf and red fox.


Sunrise in the Gros Ventre.


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An exciting moment with the Teton Cougar Project – I was out for a routine hike checking a kill site of F51 but I couldn’t find anything… it was thick downfall and I started snooping around peaking into tunnels through the logs when I noticed 4 tiny breathing fur balls: cougar kittens!  F51 had unexpectedly dropped four kittens and I found them when they were less than 3 days old.  I took this short video on my phone – check it out!  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5OdJ-Vj92KY&feature=youtu.be

Make sure the volume is up so you can hear them purring and doing this crazy coughing thing.  Sorry about the text and low-quality but we had to do that for copyright reasons.

We were especially surprised by this discovery because F51 currently had a 10 month old kitten, Lucky.  Normally the kittens don’t disperse and live on their own until they are 18 months old but apparently she kicked Lucky out early.  We think she is too young to be killing deer so she must be living off grouse and snowshoe hare.  Pretty crazy!  We got a glimpse of Lucky yesterday and she looked a little skinny but quite healthy overall.


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I’ve been volunteering with the Teton Cougar Project for a week now and have already seen 12 kill sites, many beds, and hiked over 40 miles.  Its been intense!  But I’ve learned a lot and seen a ton of cool stuff.  Here are some pictures…


Big mule deer cached by F109, one of my favorite cats.


Road-killed grouse foot.


Dr. Elbroch has an amazing track cast collection.


Cliff swallow egg.


Badger hole.


Pronghorn foot.


Pronghorn killed by M68.


Track of M68. We just returned from a 4 day road trip finding all of the recent kills from dispersing young male, M68.


Here is where M68 sat and looked out for miles into the desert sagebrush, from the top of a ridge.


Michelle, standing near one of M68’s bedding areas.


Little rock overhand where M68 bedded. From here he had an endless view into the sagebrush desert.


Full moon in the desert.


I’ve always wanted to find where a cougar scratched a log… here it is! They do this to stretch, sharpen their claws and maybe scent mark too. They are just big house cats.


Close-up of the scratch. You can see some hairs stuck in there too.


View from one of M68’s beds.


A recent burn where M68 hunted for a couple days (unsuccessfully). There was a ton of deer and elk sign in here though.


Uinta ground squirrel tracks.


Badger tracks.


We use the teeth to record what age the deer was that was killed. This is the jaw bone of a yearling mule deer.


Bears foraging, flipping over rocks.


Hiking back from one of M68’s kills.


Magpie cough pellet.


Snowshoe hare killed by a cougar. Amazing how the skull is perfectly skinned.


Here a woodpecker pecked into the bark to reach a grub.


The remains of a fawn killed by a cougar.


Fresh wolf tracks.


Back to the Tetons and back to studying our local cats. This was a nice moment from my drive home from the office the other day. Beautiful landscapes full of wildlife seem to be everywhere here.

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