I had paused on an old logging road, shortly after crossing what looked to be a wind-blown mountain lion track. The wind was blowing hard through the trees, scattering the recent snow off branches heavy with new snow. As I surveyed my surroundings, movement in some thick young pine-tree growth and a brown splotch caught my eye just downhill.
As low to the ground as the brown was, I figured a fawn would step out from behind the trees as it wandered uphill toward me. I shouldered my rifle, wondering if I should fill my doe tag. But as I looked through the scope, the tawny movement didn't seem very deer-like.
So I wasn't entirely surprised when a mountain lion stepped out from behind a 4-foot tall ponderosa pine only about 10 yards away. Intent on its task, it was sniffing the ground and had not yet seen me. It looked about 6-foot long from nose to tail. I've had such close encounters with black bears before, but never a lion, and like then I didn't know whether to be excited or concerned for my safety. I was no longer at the top of the food chain.
With my .270 rifle shouldered I looked away from my scope at the lion and said in a conversational tone: "Hey cougar, scram." The lion didn't seem at all startled to suddenly see me standing there with a rifle aimed in its direction. One good leap and it could have been atop me. One shot and I could have killed it. Instead we called a truce. It turned and ambled down the hillside in no big hurry. I continued my walk. We'd interrupted each other's hunt. And it maybe explained why I wasn't seeing many deer.
I wasn't really nervous about the cat looping back to check me out or pursue me for dinner, but I checked my back trail just in case. We never saw each other again.
Although I've spent years roaming the woods, that was my first mountain lion encounter. And it came only a week after I had written a story about one hunter's run-in with a cougar. That tale ended with the cougar being shot after bounding after the hunter and his son in the Elkhorn Mountains, near Boulder. Only shortly before that, a young hunter had shot a lion after a close encounter in the Anaconda area.
Apparently we are not the only ones seeing cougars this year. Mountain lion sightings are up in the Sheridan area and one was recently spotted in Livingston prompting the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks Region 3 office to put out a news release reminding folks about how to act when confronted by a cougar.
In case you've forgotten or didn't know, here are the agency's recommendations:
- Do not approach a lion - most mountain lions will try to avoid a confrontation. Give them a way to escape.
- Do not run from a lion - running may stimulate a mountain lion's instinct to chase. Instead, stand and face the animal. Do not turn your back. Make eye contact. If there are small children nearby, pick them up if possible so they don't panic and run. Although it may be awkward, pick them up without bending over or turning away from the lion.
- Do not crouch down or bend over - a person squatting or bending over looks a lot like a four-legged prey animal.
- Appear larger, raise your arms. Open your jacket if you are wearing one. Throw stones, branches, or whatever you can reach without crouching or turning your back.
- Wave your arms slowly and speak firmly in a loud voice. The idea is to convince the mountain lion that you are not prey and that you may be a danger to it.
- Be vocal, talk calmly and regularly.
If a lion attacks:
- If you are unarmed, you can use bear pepper spray to deter the lion. Many potential victims have also fought back successfully with rocks, sticks, caps, jackets, garden tools and their bare hands. Since a mountain lion usually tries to bite the head or neck, try to remain standing and face the attacking animal.
- If you have a firearm, and know how to use it safely and effectively, Montana law allows you to kill a mountain lion to defend yourself, another person or a domestic dog. If you do kill a lion in self-defense you must report it to FWP within 72 hours.
- Defend other people. If you need to defend others, be aggressive.