“We’re up to our necks in mountain lions,” said Terry Thompson, communications manager for Idaho Fish and Game’s Magic Valley region.
A series of mountain lion attacks on household pets in the Wood River Valley near Ketchum and an isolated killing of a dog in Cascade have caused the usually solitary and unseen species to take center stage in Idaho this winter.
On Jan. 3, a mountain lion killed a dog in Cascade, roughly 80 miles north of Boise. After the pet’s body was discovered the next morning, IDFG, a houndsman and a local hunter with a valid mountain lion tag began hunting the mountain lion, which was then rousted from its daybed a short ways from where the pet’s carcass had been cached. After a short hunt, the mountain lion was treed, shot and killed and since then, incidents have stopped in Cascade.
But in the Wood River Valley, a narrow and scenic area roughly 125 miles east of Boise that is home to large populations of elk and deer and several resort towns, mountain lions have been reported on 80-plus occasions since Dec. 5, an unusually high number.
“A lot of them are not sightings, they’re paw prints on the front porch, finding them in their backyard,” Thompson said.
On Jan. 30, a large adult mountain lion was euthanized in Hailey, just four days after Fish & Game officers had to dispatch another adult female lion in Ketchum.
Thompson said the mountain lion in Hailey “was a very large male, 100 to 120 pounds, estimated at 5 to 6 years old.”
The male lion was moving through a subdivision right around the time school buses were dropping off children. IDFG officers tried unsuccessfully to haze it away from the area before euthanizing it.
Mountain lions can grow up to 175 pounds and 9 feet long from nose to tail tip, according to the National Parks website.
The big cats can take down elk and deer, with deer being their preferred food source.
But mountain lions also feed on smaller creatures such as mice, squirrels, skunks and birds. Household pets can become part of that diet as well.
“When a mountain lion is doing lion things in lion country, we leave it alone. However, there are times when a mountain lion’s behavior presents a potential risk to people and pets,” said Jennifer Jackson, IDFG’s communications manager for the southeast region of Idaho. “In those circumstances, we can often remove that risk by trapping or darting a lion and relocating it to a more remote area.”
Jackson said they relocated a mountain lion that was in the Lava Hot Springs area a few weeks ago.
“That particular lion had been presenting some challenges to homeowners as it was coming in to eat domesticated ducks and chickens,” Jackson said. “As its behavior became more brazen, we responded by relocating the lion to appropriate habitat with less potential for conflicts with humans.”
Jackson said they also relocated a mountain lion that showed up in a park in Banida, a community in Franklin County, last July.
Jackson said the rich wildlife resource in southeast Idaho includes mountain lions, and there are occasional sightings around town and reports from people who recreate in the outdoors.
“That being said, encounters with mountain lions are pretty uncommon,” she said.
Jackson says they haven’t noticed any unusual trends in mountain lion behavior here, certainly nothing like officials are seeing in the Wood River Valley.
WOOD RIVER BLUES
Starting in early December, the number of mountain lion sightings skyrocketed, with up to five reports a week coming in from people who saw the apex predator in or around human living spaces, said Mike McDonald, the regional wildlife manager for IDFG in the Magic Valley. Four dogs were attacked and three were killed, and an unknown number of house cats have been preyed upon by mountain lions in the Wood River Valley.
What’s strange about the attacks on domestic pets, other than their frequency, is the timing. Most mountain lion incidents involving pets happen later in the winter season, toward late January or early February when the going gets rough as the elements and pressure of finding prey worsen for the feline predators.
“It’s a little bit unusual, and the number of observations are unusual,” McDonald said.
Thompson said part of the reason people have been reporting so many more sightings of mountain lions is because of new home security systems like Ring, which take motion-activated video that can capture the elusive creatures.
“People are now finding out, whereas before they would sleep through the night, that a lion would walk through their yard,” Thompson said.
Mountain lions are strongly territorial animals, and, combined with an open breeding cycle — females can give birth to cubs at any time of the year —it can cause issues like the ones happening in the Wood River Valley, IDFG Public Information Supervisor Roger Phillips said.
Cubs stick with their mothers for over a year after they’re born before looking to find their own territory. Because of the mountain lions’ breeding cycle, cubs leave their mothers throughout the year as well.
When young cougars try to find their own territory, they have to deal with bigger mountain lions already established in their area.
“The boss of the block is the older male. He’ll run off the younger males, and the younger males will disperse out and get into trouble,” Phillips said.
The reasons mountain lions have been so active in the Wood River Valley recently are still unclear to IDFG. Whether the animals are getting into conflict with humans because of development into wilderness areas traditionally home to deer, elk and lions, or just because it’s simply good habitat space for the carnivores, is part of the conversation, McDonald said.
“We’ve seen some growth and development in the Wood River Valley, some of which has encroached on wild lands, and some of those places are exactly where we’re seeing some of this occur,” the regional wildlife manager said.
“But that isn’t all of it. … There’s real healthy deer and elk populations, and cats being an obligate meat-eating predator, they’re likely going to track the availability of the prey, so it would make sense that lion populations would also be healthy,” McDonald said.
Another activity potentially attracting mountain lions is a history of deer and elk receiving supplemental winter feeding from residents in the Wood River Valley. With people artificially creating areas where deer and elk congregate, the potential for predators such as mountain lions to show up in response is high, McDonald said.
“It was a lot more prevalent 20 years ago,” he said of the supplemental feeding. “We’ve been pretty successful in Blaine County working with leaders and eliminating a lot of that winter feeding up there.”
But the habit for big game animals was formed, creating a lot of resident deer, elk and also mountain lions.
Where there are resident deer and elk and also resident human beings, then problems begin to arise, McDonald said.
“What’s more concerning is the cats are in this residential area, and cats don’t view humans as a threat,” he said. “(Humans) are part of their home range, with houses and cars and pets and deer and elk, and some of these cats have appeared to have adapted quite well to living in close proximity with humans.”
A WESTERN PROPOSITION
Other western states like Colorado and Montana have also dealt recently with cougar issues. Colorado has had a string of high profile incidents involving mountain lions in high population areas like Boulder, or, in Montana, making their way into office space in Helena.
“This isn’t new to the West. It’s been an issue in western states and it’s played out in a similar fashion in a lot of ways,” McDonald said.
And in the Wood River Valley, living with mountain lions is going to continue to be part of the landscape.
“Cats have been there since before we showed up,” McDonald said.
Yet he hopes these kinds of mountain lion interactions aren’t going to continue.
“Is this the new norm? I hope not. This might just be a blip on the radar screen, the one time the stars align,” McDonald said. “Hopefully, it reverts to something more normal.”
For more information about mountain lions and what to do during an encounter, visit https://idfg.idaho.gov/sites/default/files/brochure_living-with-mtn-lions-2016-m.pdf.