Mountain Lions in Malta-1997



Inhaling the warm, wild scent of mountain lion, I cradled the 40-pound kitten and carefully postholed through knee-deep snow. Out of the corner of my eye I saw the tawny streak of her brother tearing down the trail behind me. The first sight of a mountain lion running wild through the woods will be long remembered. In hot pursuit, the walker hounds quickly treed the male kitten in a pine tree. Simultaneously the mother lion, which had been previously darted with sedatives, jumped from her 45-foot perch in a nearby tree and staggered down the slope, followed by a portion of our team.


With my heavy burden, I slogged to where the male kitten was treed, and with the howling dogs as accompaniment, we began working on the female kitten I carried. We exchanged her collar for an adult collar. She was weighed, measured and photographed. Because she had been captured previously, she already sported a green ear tattoo number. The rest of the team was performing similar activities on her mother a few hundred yards away.




Just as the female kitten and her mother were coming out of their sedation, the male kitten made a spread-eagled leap from his tree and the dogs were released to chase him. On the way down the hill, the hounds encountered the mother who was still groggy from the drugs, and both hounds sank their teeth into her hind quarters. Luckily, two of the volunteers were attending to her and they pulled the dogs from the 100-pound cat without getting bitten or clawed. Mama lion also escaped unharmed except for some pretty unusual nightmares!




 Separated from the mother lion, the dogs charged downhill, finally cornering the male kitten in a gully on a treeless part of the mountain. Dr. John Laundre of Idaho State University (the principal investigator of the EarthWatch project) snared him with the catchpole and injected him with sedative. Because this lion had never been captured before, he received an ear tattoo, radio collar and lost a small chunk of ear to be DNA tested to determine his parentage. He, too, was weighed, measured and photographed. We considered ourselves very lucky to get three cats in one day. The record for an EarthWatch project team is four.


 Our team consisted of 12 people: John and his graduate student, a longtime volunteer from Scotland, a wildlife biologist from Canada, a Dartmouth freshman, an EarthWatch editor, an electrical engineer from Chicago, a historic preservationist from London, an English gentleman/equestrian/retired financial broker, a businessman from Pennsylvania, an Irish computer specialist and me. A cinematographer from the Discovery Channel left early due to equipment problems (and the difficulty of lugging a 70-pound pack of camera gear). Our ages ranged from 21 to 62 and we were comprised of four women and eight men. Perhaps the most colorful additions to our groups were the two local houndsmen, quintessential Idaho cowboys with their dogs, pickup trucks and snow machines.




Our mission was to study the mountain lion (also known as cougar, puma, or catamount) population in a fragmented environment. The study area consisted of the Raft Rivers, Albion, Jim Sage, Cotterell and Black Pine Mountains of southeastern Idaho near Malta. These are small ranges just west of I-84 as it veers south towards Utah. The information from the study will be used to guide hunting and land use decisions.





Because cat hunting is such a popular sport, we rose early to be on the road by 6:00 each morning to get a jump on the hunters. Generally there are two ways to catch a lion. One is to drive up canyon roads looking for fresh tracks in the snow (which haven’t been followed by others) that the hounds can follow. The second is to locate collared cats by radio telemetry, then walk in on them until a track is found that the dogs can follow.








Once we released the hounds on a track there was a mad dash up and down steep canyons in waist-deep snow, over exposed rock cliffs and through tangles of mahogany trees. The dogs chase the cats and we chase the dogs (or more likely follow their tracks in the snow). The goal was to reach the treed cats before the cats jumped down and ran to yet another tree. Some of our chases lasted for hours. I was continually amazed at the dogs’ ability to follow the tracks, even when the cats backtracked through their exact footprints. At times, I wished we were chasing “valley lions” instead of mountain lions. 


I had the rare fortune to utilize a third method of cat tracking. One morning while the two others in my pickup truck were watching out each side of the road for tracks, I spotted a kitten crossing the road in front of us. We immediately released the dogs, which treed the 35-poound kitten within a quarter mile of the truck. When the other vehicles joined us, we sedated her, worked her up and collared her for the first time.



The next day that kitten became the “Judas” cat as we radio-tracked her to locate her mother and two brothers. Thus, we had our second “three cat day”-a definite EarthWatch record. As none of those cats had been previously caught, a valuable new family was added to the study.




 In all, we treed nine cats and collared eight in just six days. One of the treed cats had been recently collared and did not need to be recaptured. We worked up three adult females weighing up to 100 pounds, two female kittens and four male kittens. The only one that eluded us was an adult male. Some of our team members followed a “tom” trail, but when they encountered the skid marks of a carcass, they realized that they were too late. It brought home the realization that we weren’t the only ones out there “hunting” for lions in Malta, Idaho.