Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Cougar Wrangler: Put That on My Resume

Herding cows, herding cougars - it's all the same thing, right?

by Merri Melde and Karen Steenhof
Wednesday February 21 2018

Cougar in my yard, was the subject line of the email in my morning inbox, with an attached photo of a young cougar curled up and snoozing under my friend's camper under her barn roof.

O.M.G. I've seen 5 cougars in my life, the last one being two years ago, just a quarter mile up our own crick. They seem to be my spirit animal.

I'm on my way! I emailed back, throwing coat and hat over my P.J.s, grabbing camera gear and coffee and roaring off down the road.

Karen lives on the outside edge of a tiny development way outside a tiny town in Owyhee County, SW Idaho. Read: on the edge of the wild. Very low population. No children in the area. Often, in the spring and summer, more cows than humans. A few horses, chickens, goats and turkeys in the 'neighborhood.'

Karen was eating her breakfast just before sunrise and looking out her front window when she saw an animal pacing back and forth in front of (and inside) her front gate. At first she thought it was the local feral Siamese cat, but another glance revealed a much larger animal with a much longer tail. She realized then it was a small cougar. The young cat moved to a spot up against her barn.

Only Karen and I would do something like this: Karen threw some frozen mice under the camper in case the cougar was hungry, but it did not seem interested. She opened the gate so the cat could escape if it wanted to. Karen and her 95-year old mother could step out of the tack room and observe the cat from about 15 feet away (keeping the tack room door open in case a quick retreat was necessary). But the kitty was not aggressive.

Karen called her nearest neighbor to let her know that there was a cougar in her yard. The neighbor reported that another neighbor farther down the lane had seen a “big cat” near his chickens the night before and had chased it with his ATV. Karen’s closest neighbor had locked up her goats to protect them overnight.

When I arrived, the young cougar was still curled up snoozing, sleepily opening an eye or two at us while we gawked at it. A fence separated us, but we could walk within 10 feet without bothering it. Karen had done some Google research, and determined from the size of it, the spots it had, and the still-blue eyes, that it was probably between 4-6 months old... probably closer to 6. It was old enough to have been weaned but not old enough to be independent of its mother. Some young kittens stay with their mother for as long as 2 years.

We gawked and gasped and stood in awe watching this beautiful creature. It wasn't a threat to anything, and Karen’s horses weren't at all worried, so we left it.

A dusting of snow from the night showed little tracks across her yard, and back and forth at the driveway gate (as if the cougar wanted to get out - we'll see later that they either couldn't, or did not want to jump fences).* Before I headed back home, I looked at tracks outside the place, and while there were no big cat tracks, many, many little cat prints went up and down her long fence line to the BLM (as if it or they wanted to get in). I told Karen, "I bet you there's at least one more cub around." I expected mama was around somewhere too, keeping an eye on things… I sure kept my eyes out for her!

Now there are two, was the subject line of my afternoon email. Karen and her mother had been checking on the cougar periodically from the horses’ field across the fence. When they went out shortly after lunch, they saw a second, similar sized cougar stretched out underneath the camper. Later both kittens were curled up together up against the barn, basking in the warm sun. Karen and her mother were almost certain that the second cat had not been anywhere around there before. It must have come in through the open gate to join its sibling while no one was looking.

I raced over again, and caught a glimpse of the two of them before pulling in her driveway. Karen met me outside and we walked around to look at them… and only one was laying there.

Since adult male cougars are larger than females, we will, for the purpose of this story, apply the same to these young-uns, and call them Brother (the larger, and less wary one) and Sister (the smaller, more wary one).**

My motorized arrival was too much for Sister cougar cub. She had gotten up and left, squeezed through a gap between the barn and the fence, and started walking/trotting across the horse pasture away from the barn. Brother was sitting up watching Sister leave, and finally decided to get up and follow her, though he was in no hurry, as he'd been having such a fine nap in the sun and was rather reluctant to leave that spot.

Karen's two older horses were entirely unconcerned with a cougar slinking/walking/trotting away across their pasture. They wanted cookies from us. Heck, we see these guys all the time, Simon nudged me looking for treats. I am guessing, that like some young mammals, young cougars do not give off the same scent as adult cougars do.

As we watched, Sister scooted on to the corner of the paddock, and was boxed in at the corner of the fence. Karen’s property is surrounded by no-climb fence, and the next field is surrounded by hog wire fencing - big enough for rabbits to squeeze through, but not cougars (even young ones). Brother strolled after her, pausing several times to look back at us and his cozy nap spot, Hmm, nap spot, Sister, nap spot, Sister… guess I better go keep an eye on Sister.

We followed them both, as they moved from the horse pasture into Karen’s 1-acre pollinator garden - a Wildlife Habitat Improvement Project (WHIP) designed for birds, bees, and butterflies - not cougars!

Within 20 feet of the corner of the WHIP garden we saw both cats, well camouflaged in the waving golden grass. Brother just sat watching us, while Sister was worried. We were too close for her comfort, and she jumped up and ran along the long fence line away from us. Halfway down was a gate; the next pasture was also all hog wire, but it was right next to the BLM fence line. I said "Let's open that gate and haze them into the next pasture." It had to be like herding cows, right?

So while Sister kept running along the fence line, leaping over tumbleweeds and looking for a hole in the fence, and Brother just waited in the corner, we walked to the gate and swung it open. We swung back around wide to haze agitated Sister back up the fence line and through the gate; then we swung back around Brother (who had been bored-ly watching his silly Sister), and he strolled on to and through the open gate.

Us two Cougar Wranglers now had our two cougars in the last pasture before the BLM… but there was no gate directly onto the BLM; the cougars would have to be driven back down the long fence line to a gate down at the far northeast end. Both cougars walked the short west fence - Brother walked and Sister trotted, back and forth, looking for a hole. She could have easily jumped the hog wire fence, but I am sure Mother cougar had drilled into her, Don't you EVER go jump a fence young lady, you hear me?

The cubs moved to the southwest fence corner, and we figured, just like cows, we'd use the fences to haze them toward the far northeast end and the gate. Easy with Sister - she wanted nothing more than to be far, far away from us. She took off down the south fence, looking and hoping for a hole to squeeze through, leaping over tumbleweeds in her way. Brother, bored, possibly embarrassed by drama queen Sister, laid down in the corner. I want my nap back. Just like a tired calf on a cattle drive.

Well. I tried hazing him like I would a cow. Edged closer, flapped my hat and hollered at him, "Git up cat! Move it! Hep! Git up!" Brother sat there looking at me. I looked back at him and edged closer and flapped my hat. "Git up!" Brother pinned his ears and hissed, No.

"OK!" I backed up a step. "You can sit right there as long as you want, you're the cougar!" The cougar cub was not big enough to eat me, but he was, after all, a cougar.

Brother went back to ignoring us, watching his silly Sister, and finally decided, OK, he'd head off after Sister - who was still rather agitated in that she'd gotten to a pile of prickly tumbleweeds in the southeast corner of the fence, and couldn't figure out what to do next.

We pushed Brother down the long south fence line (letting him go at his own pace), and when he got to the corner where Sister was confused, he turned at the east fence, like a good cow, walked up it, swung out around the inward-opening gate, and strolled right on out. Sister just decided to hunker down into the tumbleweed corner and hide.

In fact, as we were watching Brother walk out, we weren't sure where Sister went. We walked back to the corner of the fence, but only saw the pile of weeds. It wasn't till after Karen walked along the outside of the fence line that she saw Sister hiding in the tumbleweeds, and heard her growl and hiss when Karen got too close. I crawled to the outside of the BLM fence and tossed a rock, then a stick into the tumbleweeds to try to scare her out, but no, she wasn't moving.

So we left, hoping Sister would eventually find her way out the gate that Brother had walked out - she'd watched him from her hidey-hole, so you'd think she'd figure it out.

Karen’s mother had been watching all the activity with binoculars from her apartment above the barn. We joined her and watched the activities continue.

Brother walked on out the development's fence line onto the BLM, and then turned back along the south fence line toward Sister's pasture. Sister came out of tumbleweed hiding, and started trotting along the correct east fence line – but just could not figure out how to swing wide around the inward-opening gate to get out. She'd turn and run back when she got to the gate. Back and forth she went, stopping short of the gate, looking for a hole in or under the fence, putting a paw on the fence, but she would not try jumping over. And we were afraid if she did, she might get a leg hung up in it. "Shoot!" we said. "Let's go back and swing that paddock gate outward and try once more to haze her out."

Out we went, with Brother now sitting patiently outside the BLM fence watching the Sisterly shenanigans. I swear he had a sigh on his face. We swung the gate outward - easy peasy exit now - and swung out wide in the pasture to get around Sister and haze her out. When she saw us, though, she dove back into her tumbleweed corner.

I climbed the far fence and tried my best cow hazing technique. I took off my coat, and as I approached the weed/cub corner, I started flapping the coat loudly and hollering, "Git up cat! Mooooooove it! Out!" and the cub miserably and scared-ly hunkered down hoping she could just disappear. She would not budge. However, the flapping finally did scare Karen’s 29-year old gelding. (Flapping coats are much scarier than cougars, you know).

So we gave up and left it to cougar fate - either Sister would figure it out or she wouldn't.

Karen and her mother continued to watch from the loft apartment. Not too long after I had taken off, Sister cougar left her hiding place in the tumbleweeds and headed back west to the hog-wire fence, where, as a last resort, she tried to go over it. She had difficulty scrambling over it but seemed relieved to be back on BLM land with her sibling. They strolled off together into the sagebrush.

They, and Mother cougar, haven't been seen since by us humans. We are hoping that the mother is still alive and that she joined up with the cubs later the same night. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for all of us.

And that, my friends is how you herd (or don't herd) cougar cubs. And you can put that on my resume.

And here's a video of us herding Brother cougar. Sister cougar is hiding in the fence corner of the tumbleweeds where Brother stops near the end

And you can see a gallery of more of my Cougar shots here:

*According to some Fish and Game people, they said lions of any age don't like to climb fences, especially chain link, although they were surprised the cubs didn't try to jump the fence.

**This size difference does not necessarily apply to young cougar siblings. It could have just been different growth rates.

***Yes. The entire time we were outside, we were continuously alert for Mother cougar. She could have been watching us from a hiding place across the lane, or blending in with the golden grass on the hillsides.

****Also, Fish & Game peeps thought the cubs had just been separated from the mother, and predicted that if the mother was dead that the kittens would be back. (So far they haven't been.)