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Wednesday, March 2, 2011

"In like a lion..."

We had a nice thaw just the other day, so I am not sure that we can say that THIS March has come in like a lion, but that old expression gives me the perfect transition to talk about my recent trip to Montana to learn about mountain lions. Meet Jay Tischendorf. Jay offers a workshop on mountain lion tracking, ecology and management through his educational entity AERIE. The course began on February 1st in Great Falls, Montana and we spent four very full days in the field identifying tracks from lions, lynx, bobcat, coyote and domestic dog. I learned a lot and feel much more prepared for the next time someone presents me with tracks they found in NY that they believe came from a mountain lion. In fact today, the USFWS issued a formal statement regarding their five year review of the Eastern cougar.

It said, in part: "The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) conducted a formal review of the available information and, in a report issued today, concludes the eastern cougar is extinct and recommends the subspecies be removed from the endangered species list."  

Jay photographing male
cougar tracks (Montana, 2/11)

I was struck by how easy it was to find lion tracks. We went to four different locations and each time, we came across at least two different trails. I asked Jay how he had discovered such rich sign, assuming he was going to tell us about his years of dedicated searching that led him to these special locations. Instead he sheepishly admitted: "These are the only canyons plowed in the winter." The trails were obvious and readily available for all to inspect. And I should note that this was AFTER the hunting season, so we had fewer lions than even a few weeks earlier. There is simply no way to hide a population of lions; their sign is just too easy to find and distincitve to identify.

Male mountain lion track, Montana
 We were able to compare tracks from similar species. We compared lion to lynx. We spent over an hour at a dog park looking at various tracks and learned the obvious and subtle differences between dogs and cats. We measured. We made plaster casts. We laid out wire rods to measure angles. It was very thorough and enjoyable.

On tha last day, I told Jay I needed some proof that I was actually present at these tracks. I had taken all the photos up to that point, but what could I do to document that I was there in person? Jay took a few photos of me posing next to a set of mountain lion prints, but I was afraid that just wouldn't do it. Then I had an idea. The conditions were such that we had a frozen layer of snow under a lighter layer of snow. This provided nice clear tracks, but also made it possible for me to actually chisel a track out of the snow to hold. We used some of Jay's spray wax to add contrast and I had my proof!

JVN holds lion track. Photo by
Jay Tischendorf

I have never seen a mountain lion in the wild. Laura and I camped in Zion National Park for Thanksgiving in 1989. It snowed a good inch the first day and when I woke up in the morning, I found lion tracks crossing (but showing no interest in) our tracks about 100 yards from our tent. I HAVE been up close and personal with captive mountain lions. We used to take the nature photgraphy classes to a place in Canada that had captive native wildlife. About the only species we couldn't actually go into the pen with was the cougar. The shooting was great though and I have managed to publish a few of my nicer pictures from those days. Here are three of my personal favorites:

Danika, age 4 (Massey, Ontario)

CUTE: One summer, Laura, Danika and I went up by ourselves to this establishment. It was nice to see the animals at a different time of year and even nicer to share this adventure with my family (they had heard all the stories...). Danika was four and it just so happened that her pre-school teacher had just given each of them a single-use camera with the assignment to take pictures of interesting things. Here she is taking a photo of a mountain lion cub. She also took photos of bobcats, fox, wolves, and a moose. When the photos were returned to the students, there was a note from her teacher that said: "What are these animals and where did you take these pictures?" :)

NOT SO CUTE: Everyone has to eat and since this is NOT a Disney movie, the predators at this place actually ate meat. Wilson, the owner, would buy the day-old chicks from a nearby egg farm (they only needed female chicks to replace their laying hens and would destroy the males). We would then feed these frozen chicks to the mountain lions, one at a time. This was a special treat for them only when photographers were there. You could get the lions to move to where you wanted them by launching some food in that direction. The encloser featured some interesting boulders, a rock face, some logs, etc. and this allowed some variety in our photos. One year, we brought a student that had a pitching arm like a pro and he could get those chicks to wherever we wanted them. That got me thinking about how good the lions would be at catching their food. So we instructed Justin to throw them just out of reach so the lion would have to lunge for it. Here are the two best photos I got of that experience.

Mountain lion feeding (Captivity)

Mountain lion feeding (Captivity)

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