Mountain lions starting to appear in Sublette

SUBLETTE COUNTY – Mountain lions have the deserved reputation of being silent, stealthy and nearly invisible. They are common throughout Wyoming lion; harvests during hunting seasons across the state attest to that.

We might hear bloodcurdling screams in the wilderness, see eyes reflected beyond a campfire or find a waylaid elk ripped open beside a creek where it went to water.

People who see one often have a flash moment before it disappears just as quickly; they are seldom seen unless they cross paths with humans. Hard to believe for an animal that fully grown can weigh 90 to 150 pounds with a tail one-third of its 7- to 8-foot length.

Even as Wyoming Game and Fish large carnivore supervisor Dan Thompson calls the very large cats “ubiquitous,” it was only recently his whole family saw one on a road trip.

“We saw one a couple of weekends ago west of Meeteetse,” he said. “It was a very rare sight for the whole family to see together.

And yet, mountain lions are out there in Sublette County, even in Pinedale, according to Game and Fish. Mountain lions, pumas, cougars – whatever you call them – were predators in Wyoming until 1973 and are now managed as trophy-game animals.

Male adult

On Wednesday, June 8, a man living along Pine Creek called Pinedale Game Warden Jordan Kraft about a dead deer on his property that was buried and covered with surrounding grass and vegetation.

He thought it might be a mountain lion’s cache. When Kraft went to check it out, he flushed a sleeping adult mountain lion that fled its day bed and disappeared. By the spot, the warden found a mule deer doe and two fawns freshly killed by the creek and then buried. The mountain lion had fed on them in the past 24 hours.

Kraft said the animal did nothing aggressive.

“However due to the close proximity to surrounding residences and the cache being just outside of city limits, and the likelihood the lion would return on multiple occasions for several feedings, a management decision was made to attempt to capture and relocate the lion for safety concerns,” he said.

After neighbors were notified, large carnivore biologist Clint Atkinson set a trap that night and the mountain lion was caught and “processed” Thursday morning, June 9. Kraft explained that the lion was immobilized with wildlife drugs so it could be aged, assessed for condition and marked with identifiers.

It was a 3- to 4-year-old adult male in good condition, they determined. The lion was fitted with a GPS collar and relocated outside of the Pinedale Region; the deer carcasses were cleared from the property. 

‘Little’ kittens

This wasn’t the first time this year locals and mountain lions crossed paths. Three months ago, four motherless kittens were seen huddled under the porch of an Upper Green house closed for the winter.

Jeanine Esterholt grabbed her camera and drove up to watch them, sitting in her car and waiting to see if the mother came back to them.

“Everyone was willing to let them sit and see what happened,” she said, noticing “every little bone in their bodies.”

Wildlife photographer Elizabeth Boehm also took photos, noting even that young they were much larger than a house cat.

No one knows if the mother abandoned them or was killed but Thompson said no one reported harvesting a female lion in that area, which is mandatory. Lions can breed throughout the year.

Trail cameras never showed a female coming back to them, Pinedale large carnivore biologists Clint Atkinson and Ken Mills captured them and assessed their health. They were about 3 months old, one male and three female kittens, all underweight and too young to survive on their own. They appeared to have just been weaned.

“One was in pretty rough shape and we brought it to Lander to assess its condition,” Thompson said. “They were too young to put back in the wild on their own.”

Thompson said Game and Fish prefers to release animals back into the wild, and the 25-pound kittens ate a roadkill deer and improved quickly. Bear Country USA was actively seeking two mountain lions for their Black Hills drive-through wildlife parks, which provided a solid destination for two, and other two went to a “recommended and trusted” North Dakota zoo, he said.

How many?

The question of “how many” mountain lions are in Wyoming is one that Game and Fish isn’t actually trying to answer.

“We don’t count mountain lions; we estimate the density of mountain lions,” biologist Justin Clapp said. “We don’t document them in Wyoming, it’s a large state and large areas of contiguous habitat. … You are correct in assuming mountain lions are around but rarely seen and they can occur anywhere throughout the state,”

With the state divided into 32 hunt areas, mountain lions are managed by surveying harvest reports and adapting quotas, based on age sex, and number of animals harvested. The goal is “to sustain mountain lion populations in their core habitats with umbrella guidelines.”

Every three years, the trophy-game animals’ hunting strategy is reset on Sept. 1 by looking at the previous three years of harvest data, according to Clapp, in May during the Pinedale public season-setting meeting.

Successful hunters must report their takes, which are inspected for sex, age, lactation status and location. Hunters are also surveyed about “selectivity” – some will not take an adult female especially with kittens. Some want an older animal and let a young one go. Did they hunt with an outfitter, and did they use hounds. About 90 percent are chased and treed by dogs that are not allowed to run lions out of season, he said.

There are three major parameters to assess local trends, Clapp said. They are mortality density, percent of female adults harvested and the adult females’ average age.

If a local population is pressured and older lions are removed, average ages get younger, even to subadults. Three years old is about average in many areas, added biologist Dean Clause, and there are “pretty impressive” 5-year-old males in stable populations.

Conflicts, collars

“Mountain lions are commonly collared for a variety of projects and the (Game and Fish) monitors mountain lions with radio collars in Wyoming,” Clapp said.

Domestic livestock conflicts are dealt with quickly and “offending animals are usually the ones that return to feed on a carcass” or the problem animals are tracked back from the scene.

Thompson doesn’t recall any Sublette County conflicts over the past decade; former trapper Zach Turnbull removed one under a storage area “that was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

“People don’t really report seeing them except for conflict situation, which is rare,” Thompson said.

In January, one that began frequenting Lander was removed out of caution.

As for the adult male lion removed from Pine Creek property last week – his new GPS collar will record where he travels next.

© 2022-Sublette Examiner


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