There is a certain wuss factor at play identifying as a cat person rather than a dog person. When it comes to domesticated pets, canines are associated with tricks on command, undying loyalty and Lassie-like smarts. Felines, meanwhile, get pegged as languid and apathetic. Dogs are everywhere, especially in Montana. Cats hide under beds. Boastful moments can be hard to come by for the cat crowd.
That is, unless you look to a handful of cases in the Bitterroot. The most recent occurred in May, when Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks biologist Liz Bradley found one of her radio-collared wolves half-eaten and covered with woody debris in an area west of Sula, near Warm Springs. Clumps of fur littered the site and the radio collar was oddly unattached to any part of anything. Amid the carnage, Bradley found the wolf's head and a clue to what had happened.
"Mountain lions have a distinctive kill pattern," she says. "For a lion, one of the things they do is approach from behind and bite through the top of the skull or the back of the neck to kill other animals. We found a single puncture wound going through the wolf's skull. You'd normally think of two puncture wounds, but the second canine [tooth] in a lion is usually going through the orbital."
This wasn't the first time Bradley had come across such a grisly scene. The May kill mirrored another in January west of Lolo, and a third from 2009 in the West Fork drainage. All were attributed to mountain lions, and Bradley suspects two other radio-collared wolves found dead in 2010 resulted from conflicts with lions over territory or food. In each case, Bradley discovered similar puncture wounds and hair-plucking around the point of entry, a meticulous step taken by lions before they consume the meat. She also noticed two of the dead wolves had been cached, the un-eaten portions of the carcass buried and saved for later, another common characteristic of a lion kill. Bradley cautions that these instances are "unusual," but make no mistake: The lion proved king, affirming its standing among western Montana's most vicious megafauna.
Mountain lions have long lived at the top of the food chain in the Rocky Mountain West. Before European settlement, the big cats were the most widely distributed land mammal in the western hemisphere, ranging from northern British Columbia to the southern tip of South America. Hunting, loss of habitat and prey decimation forced the animals primarily to the western states, but legal protections have helped keep numbers high. Since the Montana Legislature classified the cats as game animals in 1971, lion hunting has been regulated and the species has regained most of its historical range in the state.
Mountain lionsalso referred to as catamounts, cougars and pumasare known for being adaptive to their environment. Fiercely territorial, they are brutally efficient hunters who typically feed on deer and elk. They possess powerful limbs and can leap as high as 15 feet and as far as 40. A typical adult male weighs between 85 and 125 pounds, and stretches up to 8 feet long from head to tail. Despite being significantly smaller than their preferred prey, it's not unusual for one cat to bring down a 400-pound elk. They're also one of the few predators unafraid to take on porcupines.
For all the lion's notable hunting skills, it still shares some characteristics with its domesticated brethren. Both attack the same way: in crouching position, with tail erect. Lions also avoid eye contact and, if noticed, dramatically feign disinterest. Like house cats, cougars prefer to be alone and stay close to established territory. Males keep within a 100-square-mile "home range," and remain solitary except during courtship. For this reason, human encounters with Montana mountain lions are rare. Wolves, it seems, are not so lucky.