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The Heartbeat of Wild Places
February 4, 2024
The Heartbeat of Wild Places
Deep in the wildest terrain in the Rockies, a mysterious discovery tells the story of a battle between Montana's most lethal predators
A mountain lion rises from a stream as he attempts to cache an elk kill under the water. "I tracked this cat the day before and photographed him at sunrise the following morning," says photographer Savannah Rose. "We made eye contact for this brief moment before he settled down nearby to groom his wet fur." Photo by Savannah Rose
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story stated that cougars have jaws that move both up and down and side to side. It also stated that mountain lions shear their prey's fur with their claws. Both statements have been corrected in the text below.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Populations of big cats are declining globally because of habitat loss and poaching, but mountain lion numbers are increasing. They are the most successful large cats in the Americas and live from the Tierra del Fuego archipelago in South America, north to Canada’s Northwest Territories.
Jim Williams, author, biologist and former regional director of Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, says Montana has two to four times as many lions as wolves on the landscape. More mountain lions live in Glacier National Park than Yellowstone proper, Williams says, due to the high white-tailed deer population in Glacier, and wolf packs in Yellowstone have displaced mountain lions from the high, open plains to the northern region of the park where deep canyons and steep slopes are prevalent. “There are 4.9 resident adults per 100 square kilometers in Glacier,” he said. “That's the highest we've detected in Montana.”
The story below happened in Glacier, but could have easily occurred in Greater Yellowstone or anywhere carnivores face off in conflict.
by Benjamin Alva Polley
That winter, I was in the lead. Three other citizen-science wildlife researchers shuffled behind me, cross-country skiing to a remote ranger station, when I discovered a furry limb lying on the frozen lake. It was the leg of some unfortunate—and large—feline, 12 inches long and thicker than any part of my arm, claws retracted, honey fur smattered with small, round cinnamon spots. The severed leg seemed out of place. I didn’t see any copper-colored snow signaling blood, but it was eerie. A dismembered body part will leave that impression.
“[The North Fork of the Flathead River Valley] is one of the wildest, coldest, snowiest, remotest, and toothiest carnivorous places left in the U.S. Rockies.” – Jim Williams
Apex predators often encounter each other and compete for resources deep in the heart of wildness—Montana’s Yellowstone National Park, for example, or here in Glacier National Park on this 2010 trip—places retaining much or all of their carnivorous megafauna. This interaction doesn’t always turn out well for both animals. Wolves and grizzlies are often considered the top predators but aren’t necessarily the best hunters. Mountain lions make for better hunters, but that doesn’t mean they’re the fiercest in fights; their hunting prowess makes them targets for predators in search of a free meal. Yet the public continues to harbor more disdain for wolves and grizzlies than cougars. Staring at that mountain lion’s severed leg, I was reminded that humans are nowhere near the top of this wilderness food chain.
In his book, Path of the Puma, mountain lion biologist Jim Williams discusses how wolves are often made out to be the wild’s top predators, but few are as stealthy as cougars. Mountain lions are cryptic by nature, creatures on the fringe using topography and vegetation for cover. These cats are crepuscular, stalking night’s ecotone of dawn and dusk when prey struggle to decipher the shadowed landscape. They are the ninjas of the forest, meadow and mountain, self-launching missiles that shoot and take down prey species. Lions can leap 40 feet horizontally from a standstill and 20 feet vertically.
Mountain lions strictly eat meat and typically attack from the rear, going for the back of the neck and head, and full-grown cougars can take down mature bull elk, moose, and horses. Their jaws can administer a lethal bite. Nature at its mathematical finest makes it such that the mountain lion’s canine teeth are spaced precisely to fit around a deer’s cervical vertebrae, making the neck snap precisely and quickly. They have a 75-percent hunting success rate, according to Williams, whereas wolves are closer to 15 percent, even as a pack, depending on the prey's health and the number of pack members. “Lions stay invisible, stalk silently, ambush instantly, and go for the soft spots,” Williams writes. “Paws like meat hooks, wrapping the flanks, rake forward to the trachea, away from hooves and antlers, and crush the windpipe. Fast, effective, and deadly.”
I didn’t see any copper-colored snow signaling blood, but it was eerie. A dismembered body part will leave that impression.
Even though mountain lions are such great hunters, they are submissive to grizzlies, wolves, black bears, a pack of coyotes, and wolverines. And they take fewer chances in fights since they don’t have packs to back them up. When wildlife research scientist Dr. Toni K. Ruth led a wolf-lion interaction study in Glacier National Park for the Hornocker Wildlife Institute in the ‘90s, she found grizzly bears can track mountain lions and wolves well into winter, looking for kill sites. “After they have made a kill, mountain lions are constantly on the lookout for someone bigger [like wolves or bears] who might come along and steal their hard-earned meal,” Ruth said in an email. “They are ‘low’ carnivores in the large carnivore hierarchy. It’s one of the reasons they evolved the behavior of caching their kill in between feeding [and] it’s all about concealing/hiding it from robbers.”
And they fight for that meal. National Geographic recently reported that lions are killing more wolves in Washington state, a region in which wolves are now recolonizing. Biologists find this behavior less common in Montana—specifically in Glacier’s North Fork—where wolves have been on the landscape since the 1980s. But it still happens. In either case, it’s not a good bet to tangle with a cougar. “A wolf doesn't stand a chance against a male mountain lion,” Williams said in a recent interview. “But against a pack, a lion doesn’t stand a chance.” They are ninjas, after all, but even ninjas can lose body parts if they’re outnumbered.
Grizzly bears and wolf kills appear similar: they tend to peel their victims' hides and leave them intact. They also scavenge mountain lion kills prompting cougars to cache their prey. Photo by Ben Bluhm
For years, residents of Montana’s Bitterroot Valley complained that wolves were killing all the elk, but a joint study conducted by biologists with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks and the University of Montana showed that wasn’t the case. They radio-collared 286 elk calves, and when they received a mortality signal, they investigated how the animal died.
“Predators have a particular signature on how they kill,” said Mark Hebblewhite, University of Montana ungulate ecologist and one of the study's lead authors. Wolves attempt to trip prey by biting their flanks, belly and neck until they fall, Hebblewhite said, and then go after the viscera, or internal organs. What’s left is a telltale sign. Bear and wolf kills are similar in that the remains of a kill resemble a discarded accordion: the hide is peeled off and intact. Cats, however, are fancy. They don’t like hair in their food, so they manhandle their prey with their meat hooks, use their specialized carnassial teeth to shear the hair, and pluck the fur by the mouthful with their fangs and raspy tongues. The hair falls in piles resembling a barbershop floor.
Mountain lions are the ninjas of the forest, meadow and mountain, self-launching missiles that shoot and take down prey species. They can leap 40 feet horizontally from a standstill and 20 feet vertically.
FWP and UM learned mountain lions were the number one predator of elk calves in their first six months of life, but during the first month after birth, they were primarily killed by black bears. “But during the six months over the winter, it was tied between cougars and wolves,” Hebblewhite said, adding that grizzlies aren’t yet part of the Bitterroot ecosystem. "If they were, they would kill calves that first month of life like their cousins, the black bear.” The study showed that the lion’s share of elk calf predation went to cougars, followed by black bears and canids (coyotes or wolves). Mountain lions, it turns out, are lethal killing machines.
At our remote camp deep in Glacier’s interior, we used headlamps and propane lanterns to heat water for coffee and oatmeal. We jotted down significant sightings, tracks, scat, and kill sites each morning over coffee into a notebook and marked waypoints. This is standard practice for citizen scientists and I helped out with numerous projects like this for a decade and a half. Glacier National Park biologist John Waller sent us on this mission to gather data.
The morning before we found the cougar leg, I walked to an inlet on the lake to collect water for the camp. Glacier-gray clouds hung low. The frozen lake pinged and zinged in sci-fi sounds, ricocheting outward as if to remind us of the deep wildness of this place. According to the late author and cultural anthropologist Richard
Interrupting a discussion over coffee, I shared the wolf sighting and we geared up. We skied the ecotone between the lake and the forest hoping to go unseen as we glided for a closer view. I knew this drainage well and if the lower lake wasn’t frozen, we’d have to hike around rather than ski across. We were sure these massive bodies of water were sufficiently frozen to travel, but the lake deserved respect and caution like everything out here. Fear of falling in is always present when you’re skiing a seven-mile-long lake deeper than the length of a football field.
This valley, former FWP wolf specialist Kent Laudon told me, is cast in a snow shadow each year, prime wintering range the animals have known for millennia. Wildlife migrate here so they don’t have to migrate to lower valleys, Laudon said, like a large pulsating ecosystem in the predator-prey lifelong ebb and flow. Four feet of snow ran up to the lower lake, but within 100 yards along the northern shore, it became diaphanous for the next 15 miles to the upper lakes and beyond. Even during storms, snow gathers high on the ridge but not down low, leaving only a dusting that creates easy winters for many herbivores, and where herbivores gather in numbers, so do carnivores.
The sentinel wolf sensed us once we were less than a quarter mile away, sat on his haunches and then howled. The pack followed suit. The ghostly warning
When we finally turned back for the cabin to prepare for the push to the upper lakes, howls emanating from the bottle-green forest. Boreal chickadee and red-breasted nuthatch calls tugged from the woodland edges. We came across frozen grizzly bear tracks on the shoreline, winter’s temporary time capsule tracking activity. During some winters, especially in this valley, grizzlies can stay awake to compete for the abundance of lion and wolf kills. James Jonkel, FWP’s current bear management specialist, calls them “winter bears” since they’re out and about in the dead of winter in a state similar to walking hibernation. “Here in Montana’s North Fork of the Flathead River Valley,” Jonkel said over the phone, “grizzlies, wolves, and even black bears sponge off the lion kills in mid-February.”
That winter, the Hornocker Wildlife Institute and the University of Montana intensely studied predator-prey relationships in the North Fork. Jonkel tells stories of finding lions killing lions, wolves killing wolves, lions killing wolves, wolves killing lions, wolves killing grizzlies and grizzlies killing wolves. “This is one of the more magical and unique places in North America,” he said.
Returning to the cabin, we grabbed food, water and avalanche gear to conduct a wildlife-tracking survey of one of the upper lakes. On the moraine above the cabin, we skied through an old fire that left behind a mosaic of charred buckskin and verdant green trees from decades prior. We passed stories of animal movements plotted in the snow: coyotes, deer, elk, grouse, mice, moose, mountain lions, pine marten, snowshoe hares, and wolves. Dozens of whitetail deer buck-snorted, stomped their feet, then flagged their tails before bolting as we approached. In the North Fork, a large concentration of carnivores, which Williams dubs a “predator party,” regulates the herbivore numbers and keeps the hooves on the move, those deer and elk that would otherwise browse the vegetation to stubble. “This area is one of the wildest, coldest, snowiest, remotest, and toothiest carnivorous places left in the U.S. Rockies,” Williams, the mountain lion biologist-author, wrote in an email. “The ancient dance of hoof and tooth has been playing out there for millennia.”
The fifth wolf watched us for a while but soon pursued the others. We didn’t notice its injury at the time, how it moved slower than the others.
Two hours later, we approached the upper lake and saw the same five wolves from that morning now resting on the upper lake ice some 100 yards from shore. We crouched behind trees, motionless, as they stood up and chased each other across the lake. The flaxen wolf, hesitant and slower than the others, wouldn’t put weight on its right hind leg. It watched the others trot south across the frozen mass to a group of boulders left by glaciers thousands of years ago, and pull out an old, bleached moose femur like it came from a toy box. With the others in pursuit, one wolf carried the prize back to where they had been resting. Then they halted. They began howling in unison, and started toward us.
We did turn back. We didn’t want to stress them out. The wolves howled and followed about 50 yards behind, escorting us down the drainage, apparently sick of our voyeurism.
Winter nights settle early this close to the 49th parallel and night was creeping on. I knew wolves rarely attack humans, but fear stalks silently in the psyche. They are large, toothy creatures. If they were the bloodthirsty killers some ranchers proclaim and the Brothers Grimm fable forewarns, our four-pack human tribe might already be part of their metabolism. I reminded myself that these tales from the Black Forest were myths, written as cautionary tales to keep children closer to home and for some ranchers to justify killing in the name of. Later that night at the ranger station, the wolves serenaded, barked just beyond the cabin walls, and only stopped near dawn.
The following day was our last before trekking out. We skied back to the lower lake where we’d first seen the wolves the morning before. We found their imprinted day beds cupped on the snowy veneer, then followed their tracks a half-mile toward the shore. That’s when I found the mountain lion’s leg. The paw was as large as my hand, its rough, rubbery pads three-and-a-half inches round.
“The lion probably had no nearby trees to climb with strong enough branches to rest safely on, or it was surprised at very close range,” Williams said after I finished telling him the story. “So, it fought. The lion lost the battle, but not without severely harming the wolf, who now limps.” He said that if the lion felt fear, the wolves may have acted out of it as well: fear of competition and losing resources. At our base level, humans can relate.
Mountain lions can leap 40 feet horizontally from a standstill and 20 feet vertically, and males can weigh up to 200 pounds. Photo by Savannah Rose
“I am still surprised that a particular segment of our population loathes wolves and grizzlies and blames them for declining prey numbers, even when science shows that these two species aren’t the most skilled hunters. That intolerance may be misplaced and it’s not like they should dislike lions instead, but there’s a reason people don’t detest lions,” Williams told me recently over the phone. “They’re rarely seen. They are ninjas.”
Many species benefit from top-notch predators like mountain lions, wolves and bears. Their successes help keep nutrients flowing throughout the ecosystem. Wolves, bears, coyotes, ravens, eagles, jays, magpies, wolverines, smaller weasels, and many others all benefit from the kills lions make. Even plants grow thicker and lusher from the nitrogen released back into the soil from a decomposing animal. The heartbeat of the wild pulsates within this economy of reciprocity.
In this drainage, deep in the mountains, I’m always delighted by clues about how other animal cultures make a living and am fascinated to discover what happens when these top-notch predators encounter one another, especially in winter when the game of survival ratchets its straps. We need places like this that strip us of all vanity and delusion of our species’ grandeur, reminders of our insignificance, showing how everything is a part of this cycle. Every string in the web must be healthy and robust for a functioning ecosystem to run smoothly. And that includes carnivores.
here. Thank you.