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Saturday, December 17, 2016

A Mountain Lion Kill

The other morning, my friend called to tell me that there was a dead elk on her land. She'd seen the carcass as she drove out for the day and asked if I'd go take a look to see if I could tell what had killed the elk.

I went to have a look. I saw the carcass almost right away based on her description of the location, and I stopped to scan the world around it to see if any predators were around. I didn't see anything scary so I went closer.

It was a cow elk. It was partially covered by snow and debris but the body was completely intact. It was obvious to me that the covering was intentional. Based on that clue, I immediately was sure that a mountain lion had killed her. Then I saw the mountain lion tracks in the snow, confirming my conclusion. It was a fast and precise kill, probably a severed spinal cord, that left no blood in the snow.

I took a few steps backward and again scanned the world around me. Was the mountain lion watching me? Was he nearby? Was he up high in the trees that were next to me? I couldn't see him but I imagined that I could feel his eyes boring into my back.

Seeing no danger, I turned back to the carcass, and my heart broke for the cow elk and her calf. I could see that she was lactating and her calf had been nursing up until the time of her death. I wanted to cry for that calf who surely wasn't too far away and for the mother who surely didn't want to leave her calf behind.

I pushed those thoughts aside so that I could work quickly. I had come prepared with trail cameras to document the predators or scavengers who would consume the carcass. It comforts me to some extent to know that other animals will flourish due to this windfall of calories and nutrition. I quickly set up the cameras, and I departed.

I picked up the memory cards from the cameras yesterday at midday. They told me that the mountain lion who killed the elk arrived a couple of hours after I set up the cameras. I was astounded to see from the trail camera photos that he arrived in daylight because this was a spot very close to a road and houses.

He was very wary, constantly scanning the world around him.

In between his nervous scanning, he started to work on the carcass. First he removed a lot of fur. Then, he had to break through the outer body wall. That takes great strength that you can almost sense in the next photo.

He stopped to scan again. When I saw this photo, I realized that I know this cat. He's been traveling through our area for at least a year. He has a distinctive abdominal bulge that you can see in this photo. I'm not sure what it is - but I do know that he seems as strong and as healthy as ever so it isn't preventing him from hunting and thriving.

This photo gives you a good sense of the relative sizes of the lion and the elk. The elk was at least twice as big as the lion, yet the lion took her down seemingly with ease.

This photo shows you how close to people he was. Do you see the vehicle behind him?

He took a break from eating after a while, and he stopped to pose for my camera briefly as he left to rest.
I also have a camera recording video, and I'll share that video very soon. I think that he'll be working on this carcass for a while if nothing goes awry.

I feel privileged to be able to see this secret life of our forest's fiercest predator. I promise that I'll share more of this episode in future posts.


  1. such an amazing story, so glad you posted this. we have to think about that the lion has a family and he was getting a happy meal for his kids, just like we take ours to the burger place and buy dead cows... my heart would break for the calf to, and it probably became someone elses meal... at least animals kill to eat, not to store it up or sell it and make money.. I wish the human chain could do like the animal food chain.. he sure is beautiful, and a little scary to think how close he is to humans.

  2. Wow, he's a handsome guy. That's a bit worrisome he's so close to the road though. I hate to think of some idiot harming or killing him. Nature is brutal, but it's beautiful at the same time.

  3. What a great find and on a friends property so you can put up cameras and share all the activity around this elk. The circle of life is often cruel in order that others may survive.

  4. Wow, that is intense! Yes, the story of nature is often sad for someone within the circle of life. Great shots from the cameras!

    Your Pals,

    Murphy and Stanley

  5. Oh how amazing. He must have really been hungry to eat so close to human activity. Hopefully he won't be noticed from the road. Yes, it is sad for the cow and her calf - but it illustrates in a painful way the crucial role these predators have in controlling the prey populations. Thank you for sharing this beautiful cat and his behavior.

  6. Great phtos of a magnificent cat. I also would be very wary coming upon a kill. Like you, I'd worry that the predator was guarding nearby.

  7. Powerful on so many levels! Thank you.

  8. Great photos. A totally different world up there. The bulge looks like it could be an umbilical hernia. Quite a big one... if intestines slip through the hole they can cause issues but otherwise he should be ok. :)

  9. Beautiful photos. That was very brave of you to purposefully approach a carcass to install the cameras. I suppose you understand more about mountain lion behavior than I do. I would have been terrified!

  10. Hari OM
    Stunning - a privilege indeed to be able to share land with such as this; sadness yet joy all rolled into one. YAM xx

  11. He is so beautiful! I'm glad we don't have to worry about meeting one of these big cats in our neighborhood though!

  12. We feel privileged to watch along side you...through your pictures.

  13. We agree with Bella, Roxy and Dui. Not sure we could be there in the flesh/furs.

  14. I'm going to send this to my cousin Barb in Northern MN. I know she will find it interesting as I did.

    Thanks for taking us along on your look-see.


  15. Very interesting - we love following the details through your photos. The lion sure is a beauty, and very strong appearing. Hope he stays away from that road.

  16. How cool to see this! I think he has a hernia as I've see that in bulge in horses as well. Can't wait to see more.

  17. right onnnnn this is awesssome ....what a cool looking animal ,,,JAH!!!

  18. I don't know if this will make you feel better or worse, but it's just as likely something took the calf first. Lactation doesn't stop immediately.
    Great images, but for the cat's sake I wish it was staying farther from roads and people.

  19. Wow,, wow wow! Amazing photos!

  20. Wow, what a gift to be able to observe this. For you and for all of us! Thank you. Do you think there was any chance the cow was hit by a car?

    1. There certainly was some chance of that. However, I saw no injuries on the body of the elk, and I saw that the intact body had been covered to some extent with snow that had mountain lion tracks in it. The neck was covered in snow so I couldn't look for the typical mountain lion bite on the neck - but it seemed very likely that the mountain lion had killed the elk to me.

      I agree - what a gift to get to see this! Thanks for your comment.


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