Pic Of Eight Cougars In Basin Confirmed

Well, damnit, Landers beat me to the story on the eight cougars photographed at night on a trail cam in the western Columbia Basin around last Christmas.

The Spokane Spokesman-Review outdoor columnist has a huge ol’ write-up in his column today about the truth behind the images.

For a couple of weeks now I’ve been getting the images along with the story that the cats were on a dead cow somewhere in Moses Coulee, but was pretty skeptical.

Once upon a time we hunters traded baseball cards — things with verifiable facts — but these days we swap whatever comes through the Internet.

Take the pics of that giant bear shot in the strangely mossy Saddle Hills of northern Alberta last September (actually shot on Afognak Island, Alaska, in 2007 and debunked here).

And then there’s the pic of the glowing-eyeballed cougar sneaking up on the elk hunter (Scott Sandsberry at the Yak Herald-Republic puts the smack down on that tale here).

Nonetheless, I began to look into all those big cats.

In emails late last week, a pair of WDFW biologists couldn’t confirm where the images were taken, the dead cow or the authenticity of the images themselves, but they did have some interesting things to say about the unusual gathering:

Rich Beausoleil, WDFW bear and cougar specialist:

If it isn’t a “photoshopped” photo, the only thing that could be plausible is that it is a mom and her kittens and her daughter and her daughter’s kittens.  Females usually take over part of their mom’s home range when they mature. Males never do; they travel about 100 miles away when they are about 16 months old (survival is about 50%).

David Volsen, WDFW district wildlife biologist:

What you are seeing in the image is a family group (mother and kittens), and a second family group that is most likely a daughter of the other female.  It is not unusual to acquire images of family groups like this, and given the now common use of trail cameras, these images (and their distribution on the internet) make it appear as though we are being overrun by cougars.

The kittens appear to be roughly 6 months old, which coincides with the known peaks in cougar breeding.  While they appear large, they are still kittens, and almost completely dependent on their mother.

Washington leads the western states with our research of cougar populations and cougar social structure.  From this work we have learned that cougars have a very highly defined social structure in which adult males control large territories and exclude other males, but allow females to occupy smaller territories within the male’s home range.  Often the females within a male’s territory will be related; mothers and daughters.

Because cougars feed on deer, their seasonal home ranges shift to follow deer as deer get concentrated onto winter ranges during the winter.  As deer get more concentrated, so do cougars, but only the females and kittens. The adult males continue to defend those very large home ranges, excluding other males. During winter we can and do get images of cougar family groups because litters are timed to overlap the period when food is most readily available.

But even with the abundance of food during winter, most of the kittens will not survive.  It is common for as few as one or even none of  kittens to survive from a litter. Young adult (teenage) cougars, both females and especially males, disperse and search out territories of their own.  During this period many will be killed by other larger adult cougars in territorial disputes. So in the end, what appears to be an abundance of cougars in your backward, turns out to be a one-day snapshot of a balancing act that has been occurring within cougar populations over thousands of years.

Landers fleshes out the rest of the story in a pretty good article.

As for the area being overrun with cougars, the 2007 season was the most recent that WDFW reported any killed in that game management unit (Moses Coulee), a male and a female. Two were also reported in 2006 and 2004, and one in 2001. Hunting season runs through March 31 in the unit, and is open for any weapon type. There are large areas of BLM land above the lower coulee.

UPDATE FEB. 18, 2011: The Seattle Times put this story on their front page today and KXLY did a piece on it last night.

UPDATE FEB 21, 2011: KING 5’s Gary Chittim did a story on the use of game/trail cams,


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