Cougars are one of the most elusive big game animals, rarely seen and rarely killed without the use of hounds. Some of the big cats have been spotted in subdivisions south of Ketchum, while outdoor lovers can spend years hiking the mountains and never see one.
News that cougar numbers are dropping as a result of human encroachment and competition from gray wolves raises the question: How healthy is Idaho's population of "shadow cats"?
Hard to say, according to state biologists.
"We don't have an estimate for the number of cougars out there," said Craig White, a biologist with the Idaho Department of Fish and Game.
The cats are so elusive that they are hard to track and therefore to count. They're solitary prowlers prone to hiding in trees and avoiding open space.
Ed Mitchell, spokesman for the department, said he's never seen a cougar, despite having spent much of his life outdoors.
"They see us, we don't see them," he said. "They're so elusive. Dogs can find them, but with people it's a chance meeting."
Mitchell said much of the data the department has are based on the number of cougars killed by hunters each season. This year, hunters have been busy, killing five of six allowed female cougars in the Sun Valley Zone. The zone covers the Big and Little Wood River basins, as well as the South Fork of the Boise River.
Fish and Game Conservation Officer Lee Garwood said that number is high for this time of the season.
"Most years, we wouldn't start to approach that until March," he said.
Judging by the calls he's received and the harvest numbers, Garwood said the cougar population is likely holding steady in the region.
"There's a little fluctuation from year to year, but I don't think I can say they are up or down a whole lot," he said.
His feeling is corroborated by White and regional wildlife biologist Hilary Cooley.
"It peaked, then it stabilized," White said.
Cooley said that while solid numbers are almost never available, more general conclusions can be reached.
"There are definitely some trends," she said.
Cooley said Idaho cougar numbers peaked in the mid- to late-1990s, but now are dropping nationwide. Fish and Game biologists say the downward trend is due to loss of habitat.
Randy Smith, regional game manager for the department, said that in Idaho, cougars are also feeling pressure from reintroduced wolves, which compete with them for the same prey base.
"We've seen instances of a pack of wolves where they have pushed mountain lions off of kills that they have made," Smith said.
Cougar hunter John DeLorenzo, a teacher at the Mountain School near Bellevue, said he hasn't seen as many cats out recently, which he attributes to the presence wolves.
"There's a downward trend," DeLorenzo said. "They're sometimes killing them, but more displacing them."
White said that while the department isn't sure how common it is for wolves and cougars to kill one another directly, there is a degree of competition.
"There's just more mouths out there to feed with wolves on the scene," White said.
However, Cooley argues that wolves have more of an impact on where cougars choose to roam, rather than reducing total numbers. Mountain lions are infinitely adaptable, she said.
"They can occupy anywhere," she said, adding that if they are facing competition, "It's not that difficult for a cat to shift ranges."
That's fortunate for the cats, because biologists agree that development is encroaching on the habitat of deer and elk, prey on which cougars rely.
"As we lose habitat, and we are, we're reducing the capability of the land to support as many mountain lions," Smith said. "We're certainly feeling some of the pains of increased growth and development."
However, with more than 400,000 acres of designated wilderness in Idaho, cougars still have a great deal of land to occupy.
"We have plenty of habitat in Idaho," White said.
Cooley agreed, but said development shifts cougar home range, which takes time for the animals to adjust to.
"It takes the animals a little time to figure it out," she said. "In those areas where there is [new] low-density housing, you have more conflicts and they start gaining a bad reputation."
Smith said one of Fish and Game's goals is to work with municipalities to manage development.
"It's on our radar every day, trying to manage our population growth in such a way that we maintain habitat for wildlife," he said.
Cooley said that for the moment, cougar populations are secure.
"Development in Idaho in general is not a big problem," she said. "I think they're doing well."
Katherine Wutz: email@example.com
Stalking a stalker
Hunting a cougar is no easy feat; it requires the correct snow conditions for tracks to show up, snowmobiles to cover wide ranges of land to find fresh tracks and hounds to catch the scent and follow the cougar.
Hunters must then snowshoe through the backcountry behind their dogs, hoping the dogs catch the scent and manage to tree a big cat.
"Sometimes they can find the lion, but 50 percent of the time, they don't," said John DeLorenzo, cougar tracker and teacher of wilderness skills at The Mountain School near Bellevue.
Even if hunters find a mountain lion, DeLorenzo said, killing it is not always the main goal. Often, the hunters shoot pictures rather than bullets or arrows, saving the photos for posterity.
"If it's an exceptionally large male, then we may harvest it," he said. "But most of the guys I hunt with don't even want to kill them anymore."
The quota for female cougars is six in the Sun Valley Zone. Last year, 12 cougars total were killed in the zone. This year, five female cougars have been killed, and the harvest of one more will end the season for the zone.