You come home from work and call for your house cat. Nothing.
You check the kitchen, the bathroom, the TV room. Nothing.
You wonder, did it get out? Is there a window open?
After an hour, you find it — sleeping under a sweater at the back of your dresser drawer that you’d left open just a crack.
Now take that cat, make it at least four times larger, and place it in 3,471 square miles of dense forest, swift rivers, vibrant hot springs, vast boulder fields and as many hiding spots as there are leaves on the trees.
That’s the world of cougars in Yellowstone. These large cats — also known as mountain lions, pumas and panthers — have the largest distribution of any land mammal in the western hemisphere. And just like house cats, they are masters of secrecy.
“On a base level, cougars are interesting in that they’re different than a lot of mammals. They’re cryptic, they’re secretive. They stay hidden,” said Colby Anton, a cougar biologist and instructor for Yellowstone Forever.
This January, Anton is teaching Cougars – Yellowstone’s Seldom Seen Carnivores, a classroom and field course that will introduce participants to Yellowstone’s most elusive large carnivore.
Searching for signs of cougars in winter
Winter is the easiest time of year to find signs of cougars and follow their tracks, and that’s exactly what participants will be doing in Anton’s class.
“Nothing fast or off-trail,” Anton said. “But we’re going to go where cougars are going.”
For larger mammals in Yellowstone, a popular method of research is to collar and track the wildlife as they move about the ecosystem. For cougars, that method proves to be difficult, impractical and invasive.
Take, for example M198, a cougar who’s collar sent out an alert to Yellowstone’s park biologists in 2017.
The alert either meant the cougar hadn’t moved in a while — potentially a sign of injury or death — or that the collar came off.
Anton joined lead cougar biologist Dan Stahler and wildlife biologist Nathan Varley to see what had happened to M198, and it was a little like searching for a house cat buried in your dresser drawer.
They used signs of the cougar to track and eventually located M198, who’d likely been killed by a fellow cougar. Listen to the full story of the search for M198 on the park’s Telemetry podcast.
Dan Stahler: “Colby, it’s too bad we don’t have a more recent track on him, Colby. He’s either down low or he’s tucked in a rock in the boulder field which let’s hope isn’t the case. Who knows Colby, we might get lucky… There are lots of places a kitty could tuck away up here.”
What to expect
The field seminar is one of Yellowstone Forever’s most challenging — and rewarding.
Anton recommends that participants be prepared to spend about half the day walking outside. The other time will be spent in the classroom discussing a range of cougar ecology topics, including population dynamics, predator-prey relationships, carnivore competition, disease ecology and ecophysiology. See the full field seminar description.
“Winter is the easiest time of year to find the signs that these creatures have left behind,” said Anton. “Class participants will walk away with a greater appreciation and admiration of this animal that we mostly overlook.”
Anton’s Cougars: Yellowstone’s Seldom Seen Carnivores seminar will be held Jan. 24-29 at the Lamar Buffalo Ranch. Register here.