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Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Cats on my mind

Yesterday evening, the wind still howled and blew a steady stream of snow off a peak. The blowing snow glowed in the setting sun. We enjoyed a beautiful sunset hike but I found myself obsessing over keeping the dogs close by after all the recent mountain lion signs.

A cougar is like a light breeze in the country. At first, you're not aware it's there. But as you slowly become more attuned, you begin to feel it on the back of your neck.
- John Seidensticker.

This quote could have been written specifically about me. This winter, I've run across many lion signs, including tracks and scat, and I've even seen a lion in a secluded wild place. On last evening's hike with the dog pack, I felt paranoid about keeping S right next to me. When S went to the vet for his most recent check-up, the vet spent a long time talking about how to prevent S from becoming lion food given his deafness and hints of senility. The vet alluded to having lost more than one of her canine patients to lions.

If you don't see any cat sign, you've got some. If you see some cat sign, you have quite a few. If you see a lot of cat sign, they're everywhere. - Steve Knick.

That particular quote tells me that lions are everywhere in my neighborhood.

On this calm bluebird morning, I started my ride with the two younger labs. Having R with us adds a certain excitement. He's the quintessential full-grown puppy - streaking from one side of the trail to the other, from behind me to ahead of me, and covering about ten times the distance that I do.

R finds bones around every curve in the trail. When others start using our trails this spring, they're going to wonder why so many deer and elk legs hang in trees. The reason is not that lions stored them there - the real reason is that I put them there, out of R's reach. Otherwise, he sprints along carrying them and threatens to stick them in my spokes. Also, I have to admit that the number of bones, and the fact that R finds them just off the trail, is adding to my disquiet about lions.

After I dropped my dogs off, I headed eastward - which meant that some of the trails that I rode were pretty civilized. I started up one of them, and a hiker stopped me to tell me that her husband saw a lion up the trail recently. She thought that I shouldn't go all the way to the top alone, or if I did, I should try shouting as I rode to scare away the lions. Well, if I didn't go anywhere that a lion had been spotted recently, I wouldn't go out at all. And, if I shouted all the time, I'd lose my voice. So, I stayed alert, but quiet, and did the ride that I had planned. I saw no signs of lions - although in the terrain along this trail, like in the photo to the right, almost any tan-colored creature could hide among the boulders completely invisible to me.

I did see a birdwatcher near the bottom of the trail. We chatted about the mountain bluebirds that we both saw today. He had a big spotting scope and was watching a pair of Golden Eagles nesting on a cliffside. I saw them swooping in the air - what majestic animals. I was surprised that they were already building a nest but hatchlings of huge birds like Golden Eagles must need a long time to develop into independent birds before next winter.

From the top of the trail, I enjoyed solitude and stupendous views.

I dropped down into 'Wildcat Alley' or the alternative universe where it remains winter for at least a month longer than the surrounding area because the trail is cut into a mostly north-facing slope. When I tried to ride this trail a couple of weeks ago, mushy deep snow covered the trail. Today, the snow drifts were frozen solid and my Fatback magically floated over them. Southish facing sections had exposed rock and dirt. Amazing - in March. On the right below, the ledge trail is bathed in sun and, off in the distance, smog covers the plains. I was glad to be up in the mountain air.

A bobcat and a fox had traveled the trail since our light snow yesterday. Both followed it for long sections, carefully staying in my previous tire tracks for the snowy parts. They each stopped to drink from a thawing spring - clearly the biggest attraction for wildlife along this trail. Then, before the trail reached civilization, they each veered off following rabbits tracks. The tracks in the right photo are bobcat tracks, using a 'direct registering' walking gait - meaning that the hind paw stepped almost exactly into front paw track. Due to the imperfect placing of the hind paw, at first glance, the track impressions look too long to be from a bobcat. But, I found some places where the bobcat changed direction (e.g., in the photo), and the single paw tracks made the identification definitive.

Believe it or not, male bobcats regularly kill and eat both Mule Deer and White-tail deer, according to "Bobcat: Master of Survival" by Kevin Hansen. They prey on young deer and does in poor condition although a few cases of bobcats killing bucks have been documented. They particularly focus on deer as prey when there's deep snow. The bobcat stalks bedded-down deer. Once he's close to the deer, the cat leaps onto its neck, trying to either deliver a killing bite to the base of the skull or to bite the front of the neck, crushing the trachea or cutting major blood vessels. People have observed deer fleeing with an attacking bobcat hanging from their necks.

Only male bobcats kill deer. Male bobcats weigh on average 20-22 lbs whereas females weigh half as much. Not only does the larger size of male bobcats make killing deer more feasible, but it also makes it possible to defend the carcass from other predators.

Today, I kept noticing a creepy tingling in my spine as I rode along 'Wildcat Alley' and repeatedly glanced over my shoulder. I need to remember that the lion experts have been telling me for years that numerous cats live among us. The only change is that I now truly believe it because I've been seeing signs with my own eyes.


  1. Hi KB, S is a lucky boy that you are taking this so seriously. That would be a horrible way to go :(

    Have you thought about keeping him on an retractable leash?

    As you have probably gathered, I'm a huge believer in keeping dogs leashed when in the woods. I always hike the Monkey on a retractable leash (I use regular 6 foot leashes on the Gups or my skijoring set up). It gives her more freedom to sniff and explore (16-26 feet radius, depending on which one I use), but it keeps her completely safe. The woods are the perfect (and probably only) place where using a retractable leash makes sense. Just a thought to help you enjoy your walks more :)

    By the way, I had NO idea that male bobcats could actually take down ungulates! Amazing!!

    Give the punks a squish from me :)

  2. Sue,

    Thanks for your ideas. We've really thought about all the possible ways to protect S.

    We have thought about leashing S, but it doesn't seem necessary because we've made a couple of changes that've made a big difference. My brother and his wife (S's first humans) trained S to walk directly behind them on trails. S was very good about this but started wandering last fall when the senility signs started. When we got him on an anti-senility drug, he almost completely stopped wandering.

    We also now have him wearing loud bear bells so that if he does leave his post directly behind us, we hear it right away.

    The problem is that S doesn't like being on a leash and expresses his displeasure by pulling backward, which hurts my back. If our current methods stop working, however, a retractable leash is a good idea. We've only tried a fixed length one.

    I was also astounded about bobcats killing ungulates - but the evidence seems really strong showing it to be true!

  3. I guess it would be hard to explain to emergency workers that you wrecked because your dog stuck an elk leg through your bike spokes as you were riding...

  4. I figured you'd tried just about everything and I wondered if your back issues would prevent leashing as an option. It sounds like he's doing great now, though, thanks to the drugs.

    I'm so glad they are helping him so much...what a joy that must be!

    By the way, I keep laughing at what other hikers are thinking about all of the random bones hanging out in trees :D

  5. Nightmares. Seriously. Nightmares about mountain lions. I'm brave. Not that brave.

    Then, again, our trash guys took a photo of 6 mt lions together near a neighbor's house last summer. So, even in our own yard, we're not entirely safe.

    P.S. Dog-Geek made me laugh with the spoke comment.

  6. Dog-Geek made me laugh out loud thinking of that particular conversation. I hadn't thought of how ridiculous it would sound!

    Rox - Six mountain lions together in your neighborhood. That's outrageous. Whew. I've decided to deal with my fear by educating myself - so I have two new books about mountain lions to read. We'll see if it works.


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