Mountain Lions, Face to Face
Most People Never See One, Then Some Do—Up Close and Personal
BY DAVID S. LEWIS
A friend confided recently that not long ago she and her then fiancé stumbled into a life and death confrontation. The two had driven as far as the road will go up Mill Creek in the Paradise Valley, 29 miles south of Livingston, turned around, and on the way down about half way to the bottom pulled into the Snowbank Campground. They parked their car in the parking area and walked into the campground, where more than a few campers were cooking food and, well, being happy campers. It wasn’t long before Kim, my friend, felt something she will never forget and that she explained in detail. It was that strange inexplic-able feeling that something or someone was watching her, and the hairs literally stood up on the back of her neck, she said, just before she turned and raised her gaze to an elevated spot nearby. There, on high, eyes belonging to a large male mountain lion only 25 feet away drilled into hers, honed like a laser and not relenting. The cat, muscular and quite large, was crouched low in stalking mode, she said, with his ears turned back and his tail slowly twirling to one side behind him as if signaling deadly intentions coursing through his brain.
Kim said she froze, amazed and terrified by the sight of the big cat hovering and ready to pounce. She alerted her fiancé, but due to the upward tilt of Kim’s eyes he looked much farther in the distance, searching for the cat, and then Kim said, No, right there.
She’s not sure which expletive then slipped from his lips. Fill in the blank yourself, and Kim slowly pulled a long “Navy Seal” knife from the sheath on her hip and handed it to her partner, all the while her mind rushing as she imagined her own death—the cat pouncing and tearing her apart. Slowly, she then picked up a good size rock and held it in her hand, even as the cat’s eyes, she says, remained locked upon her, never straying, his attention riveted. The fiancé then told Kim, Do what I do, and performed the recommended maneuver—raising both arms above his head so as to appear larger than he was. Kim did the same thing, startling the cat, and then the fiancé’s husky southern voice bellowed a loud shout—Haaagh, get on out of here!
In that instant, with the object of his attention no longer appearing as prey, the startled cat jerked and quickly retreated in motions that covered a goodly distance in a split second, but he remained there, still watching from farther away. Only two minutes had passed, Kim guessed, minutes that seemed like forever.
Facing the lion, Kim and her fiancé began slowly walking backward like zombies in a horror movie, keeping their eyes on the cat, and certainly not turning their backs and running so as to provoke his chase response.
Safely away in the parking area, though not all that far from the danger zone, they came upon three “stoners” casually walking toward the campground and the big cat that would blow their minds a good deal more than the doobie they had just smoked. Kim and her fiancé tried to warn them, saying there’s a great big cat over there, but in their euphoria the stoners laughed it off and proceeded on their way. There voices though could soon be heard from a distance (Oh, sh---) as Kim and her fiancé jumped into their car, drove off, and soon alerted the forest service. They were told that, indeed, a “rogue cat” had been reported in the area.
That event happened in 2006, and not much has changed since then. About 50 mountain lions roam the Paradise Valley area, wildlife officials told us, and a few thousand across the state. They are highly reclusive creatures, but do not confine themselves to high elevations. Just two years ago we published photos of a young cat in the lower Pine Creek area, and we’ve received reports of lions descending the Wineglass, near houses, people, and pets.
If you’re smart, well informed regarding how not to appear as prey, and face to face with a lion, you will act as Kim and her fiancé did that day, never turning your back, raising your arms high, spreading a jacket or coat above you as you do, and shouting so as to spook the cat. If attacked, fight like hell, they say, don’t run. Use a stick or rock, or better yet discharge a sidearm. Trouble is, cats stalk from behind, in which case your best defense and alarm system may be your psychic awareness or mental alertness—as that chill shoots up the back of your neck with the feeling you’re being watched—indeed, stalked.
In reality, mountain lions are simply cats. They behave like all other cats, chasing what moves, that which flees from them. They are incredibly swift, agile and powerful, but can retreat as quickly as they pounce.
Norm Colbert, who chases and trees lions in the Fishtail area for sport, told us just recently that the cats he trees, and then photographs, run when he and his dogs pursue, finally taking refuge up a tree after it tires of the chase. Mountain lions, unlike dogs, are not built for endurance running, but can sprint lightning fast in short bursts and cover a great distance in just a few seconds, as a means of defence.
Colbert compared the abilities of a mountain lion (he’s chased about 150 in the last 15 years since arriving in Montana from Georgia) to those of a house cat. “A house cat can lunge in one leap from a floor to the top of a refrigerator,” he said, “and mountain lions do the same thing only in much greater distances because they are so much larger.”
Colbert told us that in his experience a mountain lion can also lunge from high in a tree to the ground from an elevation of 40 feet, and then bound across terrain or snow in 25 foot leaps, covering an amazing distance almost instantan-eously. Dogs in pursuit, of course, cannot accomplish this, but they can relentlessly chase, all day if necessary, and so these big cats simply climb a suitable tree, snarl their displeasure at those below, then wait until the time is right to slip away.
Norm Colbert spoke about other amazing capacities of mountain lions. Repeatedly, while chasing them near Nye, Montana, he has found that the big cats enact a specific complex maneuver (for an animal) to throw off pursuing dogs tracking their scent. Running ahead, the cat turns around and doubles back, placing its paws in the exact same tracks it left as it advanced.
“They’ll run,” Norm said, “hundreds of yards up a hill, they’ll turn around and come right back down, and never miss stepping outside of the tracks they laid on the way up.”
Norm said lions will perform this deception even in the dark.
“You’ll see the toe prints,” he told us, “going one way and the other [from both directions]. And if there’s dry ground, they’ll jump over to it, and go the way they actually want to go—they naturally lay down back tracks all the time,” he said. “You’ll see the dogs run one way, and then come back the other way. Kevin [the photographer] and I have actually stood there and watched the cat looking back [waiting to see if the dogs turn around], when the lion had gone a different way.”
Mountain lions, Norm told us, behave in different ways depending on circumstances. When chased, lions flee until they can find refuge or elude their pursuer, relying on their almost unfathomable quickness and ability to climb. Safe in a tree or other high place, they eventually become calm, and may even sleep, even with trackers and dogs below (once the dogs have calmed down). Norm said that he has never felt afraid when treeing lions due to this predictable behavior and the many times he has observed it. He did, though, have second thoughts once after Kevin Hanly left with the dogs, and it was just Norm and a lion above in a tree. That cat could, after all, easily take his life, one reason he carries a sidearm on such adven-tures (though a sidearm may be no match for the amazing speed of a pouncing lion determined to kill). But Norm said that when he encountered a lion on the ground, as he (Norm) happened to be walking by, the lion was crouched as if ready to pounce.
Norm Colbert’s experience, then, leaves us a valuable lesson—Don’t act like prey. Instead, Act like a predator, be proactive. Predators and perhaps adversaries of all kinds sense the difference and behave accordingly.