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Students study mountain lions

A three-year study is underway to determine the relationship between mountain lions and their prey. A three-year study is underway to determine the relationship between mountain lions and their prey. Courtesy photo/ Cassity Bromley

Bumping over seemingly endless rutted four-wheel drive trails, hiking in rugged country or chasing baying hounds describes part of the work to capture and study mountain lions north of Lovell.

The goal of a three-year project is to determine the relationship between mountain lions and their primary prey, mule deer, and possibly bighorn sheep and wild horse foals. The ultimate objective is sustainable populations of the deer, sheep and wild horses and their top predator, mountain lions, in the Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area and vicinity, said Linsey Blake in her thesis proposal.

Blake is pursuing her master’s degree in wildlife biology at Utah State University in Logan.

Blake’s partner, Jenny Dowd, has a master’s degree in wildlife biology and may pursue her doctorate in the future, she said.

The study area encompasses about 600 square miles, sprawling across Bighorn Canyon Recreation Area, Custer National Forest, Bureau of Land Management land and north to the Crow Indian Reservation, Blake said as she negotiated the pickup across an unnerving track masquerading as a road April 21.

“This population of lions hasn’t been studied before,” Blake said.

The Park Service wants to know how many lions it has and their impact on sheep and possibly wild horses, Blake said.

Blake said she has been here since January. So far, three lions have been captured and collared. She wants to catch and collar at least two more.

Lions are captured with snares and traps after hounds tree them, Blake said.

Once cornered, the lions are immobilized. Then the age and sex are recorded.

Captured lions are fitted with GPS/VHF radio collars. GPS will transfer the lion’s location via satellite for recording every three days, and the VHF will provide real-time signals of the felines’ locations.

So far, the kill sites they have located were of mule deer and two coyotes, Blake said.

Like lookouts, mustangs guard the approach as Blake edges the truck to a rocky halt where snow prohibits further wheeled travel. Blake and Dowd don packs and set a brisk pace up a canyon of sparse pine and thick juniper.

Within minutes, they find a kill site.

It would appear that the evidence at the old kill site is sparse. A tuft of coarse hair from a mule deer and lion scat in lying on the ground in twists like spent charcoal are all that remain. But, the scientists nonetheless unearth clues to lion behavior.

Judging by the scat, the site is around 35 days old, Dowd said.

A part of the study is mapping areas of horizontal visibility.

Fire suppression can reduce an ungulate’s horizontal visibility, Blake said in her paper.

In other words, if trees and shrubs are not allowed to burn, potential prey will be unable to discern a predator lurking in the vegetation.

At the site of the old kill, Blake and Dowd are testing the theory that lions prefer areas of low horizontal visibility, Dowd said.

Acting the part of the mountain lion, Dowd stands in the shelter of a juniper while Blake circles the perimeter.

Dowd has a compass to mark every 20 degrees and Blake, a range finder to record distance from the “lion.”

Like kids playing Marco Polo, Blake at times hidden in the trees and brush, calls out so Dowd can mark her location on the compass.

In the narrow, juniper-choked gully, Dowd would be tough to spot. It would be equally tough for an ungulate to spy a lion waiting patiently in ambush.

The lion can simply bide its time.

Imagine a lion crouching, perhaps for hours, for the unwary to wander near their brushy hideout. It’s like visiting the furtive world of the hunter and hunted sometimes seen on TV nature channels, or, for a very few, in the wild. It’s simultaneously fascinating and frightful.

And they can take their prey whenever they want. “It’s pretty amazing,” Dowd said.

It is cold in the canyon. Pallid clouds swarm the ridge, and a few paltry snowflakes collide with noses as a reminder of winter’s dogged hold on the land.

Disregarding a drop in temperature, Dowd and Blake continue their triangulations, with eagerness typical of wildlife biologists in the field.

They want to collar the lions to understand their home range. Female lion territory will overlap, but males will protect their domain for attainable prey and the availability of females, Blake said.

“They’re very territorial,” Blake said.

Lions can be removed, but it is likely that another male will take its place, Blake said.

“This information will be an asset to managers, who will be able to more fully assess benefits of management options including habitat improvements,” Blake said in her paper. “Additionally, this information will add to the body of literature concerning cougar predation patterns and kill rates, particularly in relationship to bighorn sheep, feral horses (mustangs) and mule deer.”

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2 comments

  • posted by John Larson

    May 13, 2011 11:46 pm

    I'm looking forward to see the end result of your 3 year study. This study sound very interesting. I've heard multiple views from people about the mountain lion and their impact on game animals as you mentioned. Here in Nevada, hunting season for Cougars, is 24-7 all year long. They are very good eating! Surprisingly, they are like pork with out the fat. I've found remains of many bighorn sheep that we've been trying to reintroduce that were killed by cougars. good work, keep it up! Thanks John L. Minden, NV.

  • posted by Fern Steve Hammond

    May 08, 2011 8:33 am

    Great work Linsey and Jenny and good luck on your master’s Linsey. We're proud of you. Fern & Steve H.

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