It was a cougar conga line, the tracks of six mountain lions in the snow all following the same path until a juniper tree blocked the route. Then the six cats split and went around the tree in separate paths, leaving distinct individual paw prints.
Cougars are normally considered to be solitary, especially adult males. Yet on the northern side of the 1.1-million-acre Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge in northeastern Montana, researchers in December found evidence that an adult female was traveling with three 2 1/2-year old sub-adults that were her offspring as well as her two newest kittens. The biologists were able to collar all three of the sub-adult cougars — two males and a female.
“We think this is two generations of the same mother traveling together,” said Doug Powell, a field biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who is helping with a multi-agency cougar study in the CMR, where lion hunting is not allowed.
“We’ve never seen that before,” he said. “We can’t say if it’s because they aren’t hunted or not.”
The unusual cougar behavior is one discovery during work that's attempting to find out more about how cougars use the Breaks prairie habitat. Specifically, the study is seeking information on lion movements within and possible dispersal between the Missouri River Breaks, Bears Paw and Little Rocky mountains; a description of their habitat use and selection; estimates of mortality rates and causes; and what proportion of cougar home ranges are within the CMR.
Since research began on the refuge in winter 2010-11, wildlife biologists have already discovered that the cougars that have migrated to the broken prairie landscape along the Missouri River have a lot in common with their mountain brethren in some ways, yet they differ in others.
The study comes on the heels of research conducted nearby in the Little Rockies and Bears Paw mountains that is providing a more detailed picture of cougars in Eastern Montana’s isolated mountain ranges and the steep, sparsely timbered draws of the Missouri River Breaks. The first study ran from 2006 to 2010 and involved the World Wildlife Fund as well as the Chippewa Cree Tribe. The study found that nine of the 14 mountain lions collared — six females and eight males — were killed by hunters, and another two died of natural causes for an 80 percent mortality rate. The study also defined the size of the animals’ home ranges and the characteristics of the habitat they selected.
“In a lot of cases the prairies have been tamed and the residents have no predators to fear,” said Dennis Jorgensen of the World Wildlife Fund.
Mountain lions had been exterminated from the prairie until Montana dropped a bounty on the animals in 1962. In 1971 the state designated cougars a game animal and began managing them as wildlife. With their resurgence on the landscape, residents of the Rocky Boys Reservation became concerned that the lions would dine on livestock.
“We wanted to see if that fear was founded,” Jorgensen said.
The study that Jorgensen oversaw documented no livestock depredation by the collared lions.
“The cougars are probably faring more poorly than the livestock,” he said. “We’re losing a lot of those animals.”
Moving to the CMR
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, along with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, stepped in after Jorgensen’s study ended.
“We wanted to see if the refuge is a source population for the Little Rockies, or the other way around,” Powell said.
Such behavior wouldn’t be unusual. In another study, conducted by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks in the Garnet Mountains of Western Montana, it was shown that nonhunted populations of cougars could be a source of mountain lions for hunted areas.
“So far, we haven’t had a (collared) cat disperse from the refuge to the Little Rockies,” Powell said.
And in the WWF study, only one collared lion moved from the Bears Paw to the Little Rockies. Yet Jorgensen sees places like the refuge as important to the Eastern Montana lion population.
“When you get those long dispersals, places like the CMR can be a source” for a broader population, Jorgensen said.
No easy task
So far, finding, darting and collaring cougars in the CMR Refuge has been difficult. In the first season the crew, which includes houndsman Grover Hedrick and his dogs, were plagued by deep snows and cold, making travel difficult. The second year, there was hardly any snow and the crew only had nine days in the field. So far, the crew has collared nine lions. And despite the loss of some of the collars which held information in the units, CMR biologist Randy Matchett said the work has been a success.
“It’s pretty interesting that one left here and went to North Dakota,” Matchett said of a young male that migrated 230 air miles south (see story in Outdoors). “It’s pretty interesting the number of litters these guys have found.
“We’ve seen a real similarity to lions elsewhere in how they use the timber a lot, although they do seem to use more of the open habitat.
“It’s interesting how they go back and forth across the river, that doesn’t seem like a barrier at all.”
The mountain lions also seem to be adaptable in their choice of prey. When the study began, the researchers found the lions were mainly eating whitetail deer. But disease crashed the whitetail population and pushed the lions to the next most common ungulate food source in the area — elk. A large contingent of the refuge’s elk population gathers during the fall breeding season on a section of the river bottom where they aren’t hunted.
“There was an old male we had collared who spent all of September right across the river from the elk viewing area,” Powell said. “He knew what he was doing.”
"Old" is a relative term in the mountain lion community, especially in hunted populations where cats around 2 years old make up the majority of the harvest. On the refuge, the researchers documented a 7 1/2-year-old male. One female in the Garnet Mountains lived until 13. But 2 to 3 is the average age.
Lions do grow fast, though. At only 2 1/2 years old, a mountain lion averages about 130 pounds.
“They’re on milk for less than a month and then they’re on meat the rest of their lives,” Powell said.
Within a year, about half of the kittens are dead, either killed by other cats or dead from sickness, starvation, vehicle collisions or killed by hunters.
“It’s hard out there,” Powell said.
So maybe a group of six Montana mountain lions traveling together is a way to ensure survival in a harsh world. Maybe when they aren’t hunted, there is less pressure to disperse. Or maybe there’s such limited hunting territory for them on the prairie that lions from the same mother are more likely to bump into each other and travel together, even if it is only for a few weeks or so in the winter.
Researchers in the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge may never find answers to such questions. But just documenting the pride of mountain lions has already added to the limited knowledge of cougars in a prairie landscape. Perhaps the three that were collared, along with six others, can provide some answers.
“We stopped trying to tree and follow the snow tracks of the cats but are following the three collared cats by telemetry and satellite locations,” Powell said. “We know the three collared cats are still traveling together today.”