They don't exactly hunt in packs, don't travel in herds and aren't typically thought of as communal beings.
The image of the mountain lion as a stealthy, solitary beast is woven into the fabric of the American West.
And yet there they were on a game trail in Eastern Washington — eight
creatures famous for being loners, all huddled together as if attending
some big-cat block party.
Brad Thomas captured the images a few days before Christmas on a
trail camera, triggered by a motion sensor, set up on private land in
Douglas County. He submitted a disc of photos to cougar experts with the
state. After reviewing and discussing the images among themselves, the
biologists declared the pictures extraordinary — a rare glimpse of
fellowship among the West's common but elusive mountain lions.
"The pictures are 100 percent legit," said Jon Gallie, the assistant
district biologist with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife
Thomas initially set the cameras up along an old cattle trail to get
pictures of deer and bobcat. What he mostly captured instead were
cougars — first one, then two and eventually many more.
"I was tickled pink," said Thomas, 54, a Chelan County resident. "I'd never even seen a cougar."
Cougars — males in particular — are highly territorial and typically
roam alone. But it's actually not unheard of for female parents and
offspring to coexist. It's been documented here and in the Rockies by
experts using radio-collared cats and global-positioning systems.
What is exceptional, however, is humans witnessing such behavior — even if only virtually.
"It's a pretty outstanding thing to see, even for those of us who do
this for a living," said Gary Koehler, a carnivore specialist with Fish
The only similar image Koehler could recall was one from the 1960s of seven cougars crossing a bridge over the Stehekin River.
Washington state is home to some 2,000 to 2,500 cougars. Gallie said
interactions between them are most common in winter, when heavy snows
push prey such as deer downslope into narrow valleys, forcing predators
to hunt in evermore confined spaces. The heavier the winter, the more
"piled up" creatures get, he said.
Gallie's best guess is that the photos show a female cougar with her three kittens and a daughter from a previous litter with her three kittens. Females sometimes set up home ranges near their mothers and have occasional rendezvous.
Beyond that, neither Gallie, Koehler, nor other wildlife biologists
could say with any certainty what was happening in the pictures.
"We don't know if this was a chance event, or something they
communicated," Koehler said. "Perhaps it's like bumping into your
neighbor when you go out to get the mail.
"We're starting to discover that they're just more social than we
once thought," he continued. "Not like African lions, of course. But
they do a lot of communicating."
Just Thursday, in fact, Koehler and other researchers were tracking
an adult male cougar in the Blue Mountains in southeast Washington as
part of a study. They came across scraped-up piles of twigs and grass,
covered with urine.
"It was like a giant 'No Trespassing' sign," he said. "They were probably just advertising their presence."
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