Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Predators clash above Elkhorn

Fracas between wolves and mountain lion creates stir in Sun Valley neighborhood

Express Staff Writer

A 2-year-old mountain lion believed to have been killed by gray wolves lies in the snow near Sun Valley’s Elkhorn neighborhood early Monday afternoon. A follow-up necropsy found multiple puncture wounds consistent with a wolf attack on the predator’s hindquarters, back and neck areas. Photo by Willy Cook

An age-old conflict between two formidable foes ended with the death of a well-traveled mountain lion in the foothills above Elkhorn this week.

The epic fight likely occurred Sunday night, Hailey-based Idaho Department of Fish and Game Conservation Officer Lee Garwood said as he ran his hand through the cougar's matted fur just after noon on Monday.

"There's still some warmth," he said.

According to Garwood, the confrontation likely pitted the solitary, 2-year-old male cougar against an unknown number of wolves from the Phantom Hill pack. Tipped off by nearby residents, the seasoned officer found the crumpled remains of the big cat near the carcass of a cow elk it had likely been feeding on before its fateful encounter.

Only a few hundred yards from where Garwood stood was the first of several large homes in the lower end of Parker Gulch.

The southwest-trending valley drains the rolling sagebrush- and conifer-dotted foothills that merge into the rugged Pioneer Mountains, Sun Valley's scenic backdrop.

Though he isn't entirely sure because of the numerous tracks that cut up the hillside where the cougar came to rest, Garwood is fairly certain how the lethal scene played out. It likely began with the cat's discovery of the elk carcass on the partly snow-covered hillside.

Preoccupied with the large source of protein, the cat may never have known that members of the Phantom Hill pack had discovered it until it was too late. It may have simply been a case of bad timing, Garwood said.


That the pack was in the vicinity is certain. Over the weekend, Sun Valley residents were treated to a scene reminiscent of Yellowstone's famous Lamar Valley. No more than a mile from the Bluff condominiums on the eastern edge of town, spectators watched the almost all-black wolf pack feeding on the remains of another elk through binoculars and spotting scopes.

Less than a mile separated that site and the spot where the pack came across the cougar—an easy high-ridgeline jaunt for the wolves.

The significance of the find wasn't limited to the rarity of inter-predator conflict. Garwood and another Fish and Game conservation officer, Rob Morris, had had contact with the same cougar just months ago.

In early January, Garwood got a call from Gimlet resident Lon Stickney. Looking out his window, Stickney had spotted his two 60- to 70-pound dogs in the fight of their lives with a snarling male cougar, the same one found dead in Elkhorn.

The officers relocated the cougar in the Little Wood River drainage north of Carey, on the opposite side of the rugged Pioneers. That means the cat made its way back from the south to the north side of the range—a straight-line distance of perhaps 30 miles over windswept ridges and 10,000-foot passes—in the weeks since the Gimlet encounter.

At the time, Garwood suspected that the cougar was searching for a new home range when it came across the dogs.

A necropsy on the cougar showed no malnourishment. It had elk hair in its stomach and healthy fat reserves.

"It was living pretty well," Garwood said.

The investigation also proved the extent of the predator's injuries. Garwood said numerous puncture marks were visible on the cat's hindquarters and on its back all the way through to the spinal cord. But it was two deep bite marks on the cat's neck that were likely fatal, he said.

"That's a tough fight. He had been bitten a bunch."

Garwood wasn't alone as he loaded the cougar up. Drawn to the scene were Sun Valley Mayor Wayne Willich and two police officers.

Willich has repeatedly voiced concerns about the presence of predators drawn to the hills above his city by wintering elk. On Monday, he grilled Garwood with questions about the impact of these predators living so closely with city residents.

Willich said he's already been brought up to speed on the habits of wintering elk.

"Now I need to start learning about cat biology," he said.

But Garwood cautioned Willich against assuming numerous cougars live nearby.

"There's not one up behind every tree," he said.

But, Garwood said, what may soon begin to happen in this part of Idaho is inter-pack conflict as wolves fill out available range.

"They're driven to hold that territory," he said.

Garwood said the fight proves that the Wood River Valley is an urban blip in the midst of a wilderness.

"We live in wild Idaho," he said.

Jason Kauffman:

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