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Sunday, March 8, 2009

A lion's territory

Yesterday's snow left a blank slate for animal tracks today. I rolled out the door on my studded mountain bike tires, hoping to avoid the skidding crashes of yesterday. As we rolled along, evidence of the night-time activities of animals abounded. We warmed up by cutting through the level meadow and saw that at least part of the elk herd, a coyote pair, and a bobcat had wandered through. As we headed up to a higher meadow, we saw tracks from a group of mule deer. We then circled through a boulder-strewn Ponderosa Pine forest and saw that a raccoon, a rare animal at our elevation, had waddled along the trail.

Then, it hit me like a jackhammer, the unmistakable tracks of the biggest predator that roams our forest. Our lion had patrolled his - and I do mean his - territory.

The mountain lion tracks met the trail in almost exactly the same place as the last time that I saw tracks near my home. They emerged from a pine-needle carpeted forest with rocky outcroppings as shown in the photo. I always watch those boulders as I ride past because I imagine that animals could lie still among them and watch me glide by.

K and I investigated cautiously, following the tracks a short distance in each direction. Unlike last time, K expressed interest in the tracks, sniffing them, and showing me where they went when we hit snowless patches. In the photo to the right, you can see the tracks in the snow where she's sniffing. Her interest worried me that the tracks might be fresh so we followed them only for a very short distance.

I followed them far enough to see that the lion followed almost exactly the same path as almost 4 weeks ago. I recognized a rotting log that he placed his giant paw on last time and again this time. And a shallow cave that he walked past last time and this time. Lions are said to patrol their entire home range over the course of weeks. Lion hunters use this information to ambush lions as they pass through certain locales at predictable intervals. It looks like our lion passes through our trail system every 4 weeks or so.

The left photo is a close-up of a single track with my 3.5" long handwarmer for scale. Notice that the track is as wide as it is long and has no claws. The right photo is K's comparatively narrow and small paw track.

Below, my foot provides scale for a close-up of a group of four paw tracks. Notice that the lion dragged his paws - that's odd because the snow is shallow, and his gait pattern indicates that he walked at a brisker pace than last time. In the other photo, the lion's tracks are to the left, registering in pairs. My friend's running tracks parallel the lion's tracks. I called her, and she said that the lion tracks were already there when she passed through about 15 minutes before I did. I was relieved because I'd been worried that perhaps the lion had been tracking her. However, we need to be extra-vigilant when we hike this trail with our dogs - it's a trail that we use almost every day and S is particularly vulnerable due to his deafness and stiff joints.

After investigating, K and I rolled on, thinking that our lion experiences were over for today. I pedaled and K trotted up to our favorite peak and saw stupendously beautiful mountains with a completely clear blue sky. Then, I tried riding our favorite forested trail but it had snow-covered ice. A mountain bike tire crossing that stuff is like trying to walk on a linoleum floor covered with ball bearings. I decided it wasn't worth risking another injury so we turned back.We mellowly rolled down toward the meadows. As we descended a loose rocky trail, I spotted two sets of tracks of animals sprinting furiously across our path. We again screeched to a halt to check things out. The tracks dug so deeply into the snow and dirt that few individual tracks were recognizable. I identified one track as elk. The other animal's tracks were huge and were tremendously widely spaced as if he'd flown long distances between touchdowns. After finding a few sets of these high speed chase tracks, I decided that we'd better leave - we were pushing our luck if there was a lion with freshly killed prey in the area.

I read an article (Beier, P. et al., 1995) that monitored lion movements using radio collars. Lions will hide, waiting to ambush prey, for up to 45 minutes at a time. They repeat this up to 6 times all night long, walking about a kilometer in an hour between settling in at ambush sites. They wait to ambush close to game trails where deer and elk will pass close by. I'm guessing that the lions know the 'elk superhighways' as well as I do. If a lion kills a deer or elk, he suspends hunting for 2-5 days and stays in the area to consume it.

Incidentally, I talked with a friend who found a lion-cached elk carcass in the area where I ran into the freaked out elk yesterday (less than a mile from where I saw the tracks today). Apparently, parts of the elk carcass were cached in a tree - a classic lion move. It seems that I'm not the only one finding many more lion signs than usual. I felt worried today - why are there so many lion signs right now? I guess it's that so many elk and deer are hanging around in our forests and meadows. The ungulates seem focused on our elevation - perhaps because we're just a bit below the snow-level where less grass is exposed.

After dropping off K, I did a uninterrupted ride mainly just enjoying rolling along on my bike in comfortable sunshine. I spotted some new tiny clusters blooming flowers on a south-facing dry slope - which was fitting because today feels like spring again.

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