Mountain Lions and Wolves Face Off
Fierce Predators Fighting to the Death and Causing Controversy
With more wolves roaming the tri-state area than have been seen in decades, and thousands of mountain lions competing for the same territory and prey, it stands to reason that the two predators cross paths. Wolves, more over, have turned up dead lately, with puncture wounds in their skulls, leading some experts to conclude that mountain lions have taken to killing wolves, and raising the specter of fierce combat between two of the West’s most aggressive and formidable wild predators.
The dead wolves with puncture wounds in their skulls, several of which were fitted with radio collars, also raise the question of how exactly it is that mountain lions are killing wolves. Wolves, after all, travel in packs, while mountain lions habitually flee from packs of dogs, seeking high ground, as has been shown repeatedly as lion hunters chase the big cats until they seek refuge in a tree or some other high place inaccessible to canines.
For a lion to kill a wolf then—in a flurry of claws, snarls growls and blood, what must truly be an awesome spectacle—the lion could conceivably stalk and kill a wolf from behind, pouncing as it does upon other prey, or compete with the wolf over a kill. Such deadly confrontations, though, until relatively recently were unknown, perhaps owing only to the virtual removal of wolves from lion habitat since they were hunted to near extinction beginning in 1916. More over, accor-ding to Pioneer sources, far more wolves are roaming the tri-state area than official statistics reveal, allowing for a greater likelihood that the two predators cross paths, compete for game, and enter into fierce combat.
Norm Colbert, who lives near Nye, Montana, and tracks mountain lions extensively, has been living in that area of the Absaroka mountain range since wolves were reintro-duced into Yellowstone. He told us his observations are that wolves are capitalizing on the big cats.
“The wolves are taking a lot of lion kills,” Colbert told the Pioneer. He said that within a day or two of the lion taking its prey, which they often partially bury, planning to return to the site, wolves are stealing the cats’ kills. This would happen after a lion conceals a dead carcass with brush, earth or leaves, an easy meal for a hungry wolf, and the potential scene of deadly combat between the two predators.
Two radio-collared wolves found dead earlier this year in the Bitterroot Valley region of western Montana were killed by mountain lions, according to Liz Bradley, the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks wolf biologist who radio-collared the wolves. Bradley told the Associated Press that last year she also found two dead wolves in the Bitteroot bearing severe puncture wounds in the dead animals’ skulls, which she said points to a mountain lion kill.
Like other large predators, mountain lions and wolves are not considered traditional enemies that engage in epic battles over prey or territory, but since the reintroduction of wolves in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming in the 1990s, evidence of these cat-and-dog fights in the wilds of the northern Rockies keeps emerging.
Bradley found the first wolf she believes was killed in the Bitterroot area by a lion in 2009, but said she wasn’t aware such kills were happening anywhere else but the Bitterroot. (Four of the five wolves that Bradley thinks were killed by mountain lions were fitted with radio collars.)
Some of that conflict has been researched by the Hornocker Wildlife Institute, a nonprofit organization affiliated with the University of Idaho, in the first-ever documented study of wolf and mountain-lion interactions. In 1993, known for its work conserving mountain lions and other predators in North America, the Institute began their study of gray wolves that had migrated naturally from Canada into Montana. The wolves situated themselves in an area of prime mountain lion habitat along the North Fork of the Flathead River just west of Glacier National Park. Biologists put radio collars on dozens of mountain lions in order to follow their movements, and also studied tracks in the snow to learn more about the interactions between lions and wolves.
Toni Ruth, the Institute's study project leader, told the Seattle Times that wolves and grizzly bears cause mountain lion deaths to a greater degree than was previously thought. Over the course of the study, it was determined that wolves killed three mountain lions, a grizzly killed another, and three more were killed by other lions. Ruth said that when wolf packs encountered lions, the cats were generally chased off or killed.
It remains to be explained, then, how a lion would stand its ground and kill a single wolf, rather than flee, as is its common practice.
Lions killing wolves then, and wolves killing lions, raises questions as to why and how these animals fight to the death and which prevails in the struggle to survive.
Wolves, like hounds used by hunters to chase mountain lions, can run extremely long distances, exhausting a lion, which is built for short, quick sprints and leaping. And so the lion’s means of survival, when confronted by a pack of canines, is often to run and then find high ground or a tree that dogs (including wolves) cannot reach.
Yet, while a lion finds temporary safety in high places, it can lose in the long run. Wolves commonly drive lions away from their kills, usually deer or elk, and the lions are then forced to make additional kills in order to survive, a scenario that can lead to their demise.
“In one tracking sequence in fresh snow, wolves chased a lion from a kill site, in and out of cover, and treed the lion,” Ruth told the Times. “The wolves went back up to the kill site, and later the lion went back to the site but there was nothing left.” (Grizzly bears are also believed to take kills away from mountain lions, and wolves).
Seven cats, in all, observed during the study, were found to have starved to death. The starvations most likely result from lions being driven from their kills, even as the cats burn energy and calories that are wasted when they are driven off by other predators. The other predators also decrease the prey that is available to the lions.
It stands to reason, and experts may agree, that mountain lion populations increased beyond their historic numbers across the West in part because of the wholesale destruction of wolves decades ago. But in areas where wolves become re-established, lion populations will probably be reduced, and some prey populations, such as deer and elk, will also decrease. Studies indicate that wolves will probably displace lions from some ecosystems, sometimes even pushing the cats into areas filled with people.
“Mountain lions are able to cope with human areas, which wolves stay away from," Ruth said. And across North America, even in places like Los Angeles and Seattle, mountain lions are making urban appearances. In certain areas, including near towns and population centers in Montana, Colorado and California, lions have increasingly appeared in areas with humans, even attacked or killed humans, and pets also, perhaps more so when the added pressure of wolf packs drives them to find new prey upon which to feed.
At times, wolves confront lions, or vice versa, and then combat ensues, a scene that would involve extremely fierce fighting if the lion or wolves did not yield. Still, on other occasions (as reported by officials), lions have killed single wolves, leading one to wonder just how it is that such kills take place, in that wolves travel in packs, and because lions flee from packs of dogs (wolves or hounds), although a stray wolf could conceivably be stalked and killed by a lion if the lion perceived the wolf as prey—stalking it from behind. (In recent years, with the explosion of mountain lion populations in the West, the big cats have killed all manner of creatures, including dogs, lamas, and on various occasions, people. Some of these episodes have occurred in Montana. In March 2012, for example, a large male mountain lion killed six lamas in Birdseye, Montana. The cat was then shot by game officials.)
Norm Colbert said, though, that he does not believe claims that mountain lions are killing wolves in the Bitterroot.
“I am screaming BS on that,” Colbert said. “The dead wolves in the Bitterroot had puncture wounds in the skull.” He said that wolves and dogs bite the heads of adversaries during deadly encounters, while mountain lions bite at the base of the neck.
“I'm one hundred percent sure it was wolves killing wolves [in the Bitterroot],” asserted Colbert. “I'd bet my life on that one. Wolves fight and kill each other…there is no wolf-killing lion.”
Colbert is something of a wildlife expert, his classroom being the great outdoors and extensive personal experience. As a sportsman, he chases lions in the wild near his home, and has in a single season treed (and often video taped) more than 20 lions, a sport he has pursued for 15 years (killing only one lion), one that has given him first hand experience of the behaviors of both mountain lions and wolves.
Colbert has reported wolf numbers in his area far in excess of official estimates, contradicting what could be wildlife officials’ outdated data, and his contradictory assertion that lions did not kill the wolves in question, could resolve some of the issues involved—the unlikely prospect of a lion killing a lone wolf (when wolves travel in packs), and lions being likely to flee from such packs.
Colbert occasionally stages trail cameras near wolf crossings he encounters, but has yet to capture any actual wolf-lion interactions digitally, though he has seen the evidence of wolves seizing lion kills.
As for exactly what is happening in Montana when lions and wolves face off in the wild, questions remain unanswered, the saga continues, and those who know best are not saying—lions and wolves.
Pat Hill wrote much of this story.