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News
12/21/2015

Lions still lurk in Buffalo Valley

The following story by Mike Koshmrl is reposted from the Jackson Hole News & Guide.

If not for a wolf pack attacking a horse in a Buffalo Valley pasture, the mountain lion now known as F72 could have come and gone without cougar researchers ever having known.

But late last week three wolves got into Jack Hatch's horses, maiming one badly, and the houndsman grabbed his dog and followed the lobos' tracks to "see where they came from."

Along the way he caught a lion track -- a rarity in the region these days -- and followed it onto a high ridge.

"Then the wolves got on top of the lion track," Hatch said.

It was getting late, and Hatch had to pick up his daughter. He gave up the pursuit.
But where Hatch left off, a team of biologists with Panthera's Teton Cougar Project regained the trail.

Two nights had gone by since the mountain lion had passed through the pasture, and Saturday at dawn Connor O'Malley and Jeremy Williams were creeping along in a pickup truck, on the lookout for cougar tracks. Anything big and round with short strides warranted a stop and closer look.

"It's so easy to miss the cat tracks," O'Malley said. "You see elk, elk, elk, wolf, wolf, and the cat tracks somehow slip through."

On that day O'Malley later discovered he had unknowingly driven by two sets of hard-to-see lion tracks.

Luckily, it didn't matter.

Miles away Cougar Project leader Mark Elbroch and hired houndsman Boone Smith were hot on the trail of a female lion.

Elbroch encountered a bed that was depressed and crusted in a way that suggested she had slept there the night before. Bounds in the snow show where she had sprung, unsuccessfully, at a fleeing elk.

At one point the cougar biologist came across a porcupine, or at least what was left of one.
Photo of porcupine quills.
"She went up right after it and knocked it right down," Elbroch said. "There was blood on each roll, and it was so steep the porcupine kept going.

"This is all written in the snow," Elbroch said.

Next to the prickly rodent's carcass were smaller cat tracks. Teton Cougar Project's target had a kitten.

At about noon, five hours into the chase, Elbroch radioed that he had spotted two cats. It was uplifting news for a team that knew the odds of a capture had just gone way up.

A new trackable mountain lion in Buffalo Valley would be a huge coup for the Kelly-based nonprofit research group, which hasn't collared a cat that has stuck around the drainage for years.

Two of Smith's hounds, Kilo and Lucky, were put to work next and let loose once the lion's kitten was separated for safety. At the same time the rest of the bunch, including O'Malley, Williams, Michelle Peziol and Jennifer Feltner, went scrambling to catch up on snowmobiles and reunite with a kit that carried gear for tranquilizing, testing and collaring the lion. Sam and Jake Smith, Boone's father and son, went along to help.

By 2:45 p.m. the adult cougar had been treed for the third time. Perhaps 20 feet off the ground, she looked anxious and was eyeing an escape route.

The big cat didn't bother descending from the perch but rather impressively launched herself onto a snow-covered hillside and bounded out of view.

Photo of trackers walking up snowy hill."Here she comes," Elbroch said. "Damn."

The hounds, which had been tethered to trees, were set free, and the chase started back up.

But the cat was tired, and 10 minutes later she was up a tree again, this time maybe 30 feet high and with few large support branches beneath her -- less than ideal capture conditions.

Noting that the terrain and trees nearby were similar, Elbroch made the call to attempt to tranquilize the cat.

"Let's work it," he said.

With urgency the team sprang into action, readying equipment for the capture.
Ketamine, a hallucinogenic anesthetic, is the drug that's initially used to immobilize a lion.

Once it sets in Smith ordinarily climbs the tree with gear and lowers still-awake but delusional cats down by hand.

But it was cold in the Buffalo Valley on Saturday afternoon, and though the first ketamine dart connected it had frozen and failed to fully dispense.

Minutes later a second dart whacked the cat's haunches, causing her to drop from her perch and hightail it for a fourth time.

"Grab the darts," Smith said. "Find out what we got."

The second dart fully dispensed the drug.

"We got a dose and a quarter," he said.

A young mother


Hearing word, the squad of scientists and lion trackers packed up and followed her tracks, hoping to find the female cougar as quickly as possible. With the cat incapacitated, the dogs were kept tied up.

Elbroch and Smith reached her first. She was on the ground, squirming in a ketamine stupor. Approaching from her backside, Elbroch unloaded a syringe of sedative into the cat to push her toward slumber.

A few minutes later she was still twitching. Boone Smith used the experience to teach his 10-year-old son, Jake.
Photo of sedated lion in tarp with researchers around.
"A lot of times females with cubs can fight the drug harder, just 'cause they're moms," Smith said. "You know how mom's kind of tough sometimes? It's the same thing."

Elbroch used the occasion to train more junior members of the Cougar Project research team. O'Malley, Williams, Peziol and Feltner took center stage while the immobilized cat was being examined.

The biologists inspected its body to make sure the 30-foot drop caused no damage. Almost immediately they found porcupine quills imbedded in the cat's chest and paws -- evidence of last night's dinner.

"Who wants a quill that was in a mountain lion?" Elbroch asked.

Over the next 45 minutes the sleeping lion was subjected to an array of tests. Blood samples were taken, limbs were measured, paws were inspected and she was weighed in at 79.2 pounds. All the while her temperature was monitored to make sure the chase hadn't caused her to dangerously overheat.

By checking gum recession around the feline's canine teeth, the team aged her at 2 1/2 years, a true youngster for a mother cougar. She got a name, too: F72.

All in all, Elbroch said, F72 "looks great."

"She's healthy," he said, "and she's just getting started in life."

Because of budget constraints the cat received an older, recycled version of a Meridian GPS collar that weighs about 1.4 pounds, about 40 percent more than a new model.

"It's not too heavy," Elbroch said, "but it's heavier than I'd like."

The day's light was beginning to dim by the time a drug was administered to reverse the tranquilizer. The ketamine, to the surprise of the biologists, had not yet worn off.

It took another 20 minutes or so before Elbroch and Feltner, who stuck around, watched their new research specimen shake the drug and scamper off.

The capture of F72 brings Teton Cougar Project up to seven research cats. Just as importantly, she expands the geographic reach of the team's monitoring to the Buffalo Valley, a former lion stronghold.

"This is the first cat caught in the Buffalo Valley that might be resident there in five years," Elbroch said. "We caught an ancient female up there. Almost dead on her feet and she had hardly any teeth left.

"She had an 18-inch tail and no ears, she had been so badly frostbitten," he said. "That was the last one, and before that it had been a couple years."

Hatch -- the local houndsman who first caught F72's tracks -- blamed wolves for the near disappearance of the cougar in his corner of Jackson Hole.

"You don't hardly find a cat around here anymore," Hatch said. "This used to be full of cats right here, but wolves wiped them out.

"Usually they steal their kills, and they end up starving to death," he said. "If that female gets knocked off of two, three kills in a row, she's going to starve to death."

Photo of lion in snowy pine tree.

Wolves and hunting


A decade and a half of Teton Cougar Project data confirms that wolves have taken a toll on lions, especially young ones, Elbroch said. But hunting, he said, has had a larger effect on overall mortality.

"The synopsis version of what's happening on the landscape is that cats are way down," Elbroch said. "Adults are primarily killed by people, small kittens are primarily killed by wolves, and kittens old enough to run up trees are primarily dying from starvation."

In the few days since F72 was captured she has returned to the porcupine kill site, the collar data told the team. Otherwise, she has been on the move in the wooded hills of the vast Leidy Highlands.

In coming days and months the collar will also lead the Cougar Project to kill sites and help biologists understand how F72 is a making a go of it. One day, perhaps, the device will also tell the researchers how she dies.

Although Elbroch admittedly pulls for his cats, he has a bleak prognosis for F72.
"She's in the toughest spot possible to survive," Elbroch said.

Based on her age -- the equivalent of a human teenager -- it's the lion's first winter on her own, he said. She lives in a valley with deep snow, little game and lots of competing wolves and grizzly bears.

"If that's not hard enough, she now has to care for and feed another mountain lion, who will be increasingly growing and demanding," Elbroch said.

"Life is about as hard as it gets for F72."







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