The Deadliest Elk Hunter
by Ty Stockton
Pound-for-pound, the cougar may be the fiercest carnivore walking the earth today.
The tall grass exploded in a flash of movement too quick for the cow elk to follow. Before she could flinch, the hunter was airborne, springing onto the cow’s back, its teeth clamping to the vertebrae below her ears. It was all over in a matter of moments. Neck broken, the cow was already being dragged away before the hoofbeats of the retreating herd fell silent.
And the cow elk outweighed the hunter by more than 400 pounds. The hunter, as you may have gathered, was a mountain lion. Pound-for-pound, the cougar may be the fiercest carnivore walking the earth today. African lions and Asian tigers kill animals half again larger than themselves by mass. North America’s lion dispatches prey five, six, even seven times its weight.
Mountain lions aren’t trophy hunters, nor do they kill only the sick and the weak. They take what’s available. If the prey at hand is a mule deer doe, they take the doe. If it’s a bull elk, they take the bull. If it’s a porcupine, they just might take that, too. Dan Thompson, a large carnivore biologist with Wyoming Game and Fish says cougars are notably tough, adaptable and opportunistic. He says in many parts of Wyoming, lions seem to favor mule deer as their primary quarry. “It makes more sense for them to go after that size prey,” he says. Yet there are exceptions.
“We have areas in the Greater Yellowstone area where elk are the primary prey species for lions, likely proportional to the amount of elk on the landscape,” he says. “We see larger size prey taken in the winter, and female cougars are more likely to feed on yearlings or calves if they can get them.”
Lion hunters have also noted some cats just seem to prefer elk even where deer are plentiful.
“Certain individuals, like larger toms, might key more on elk, especially in the winter months,” Thompson says. “Many would argue that particular cougars are in fact picky.”
A healthy adult cougar may consume a deer a week on average. That robust appetite keeps wildlife officials in many western states vigilant about managing puma populations. Hunter-based lion management has proven its worth for sustaining both predator and the prey populations.
“We have a pretty rigorous management plan in Wyoming,” Thompson says. He describes it as a progressive plan that’s based on research, input from wildlife managers, hunters and ranchers, and other factors. Most of the Rocky Mountain states allow wildlife officials to easily increase lion harvest efforts in areas with higher cougar densities and back off where they could stand to have a few more. Adjustments to the harvest quotas can have rapid results. Most litters are born in late summer or early fall, but mountain lions are able to breed at any time of the year. Female lions generally have three kittens in a litter on average, though usually only two of those kittens survive.
Still, if each female in a hunt area is able to bring up two more lions, the population can increase fairly rapidly—about twice as fast as bear populations, for example, as sows generally raise two cubs every two years. Most females have home ranges of 50 to 70 square miles, with toms claiming territories almost twice as big. Lions are almost certainly the most lethal elk hunter in the woods, but because they are dispersed sparsely across large landscapes, their impacts on prey populations tend to be moderate.
Having a passionate and effective base of lion hunters is key. In areas with well-managed populations, elk, deer and lions can all thrive. In Wyoming in 1995, hunters killed 105 cougars and 17,695 elk. In 2000, lion harvest rose to 186. It jumped to 286 in 2010. Meanwhile, Wyoming’s hunters killed 25,672 elk that year.
Montana saw similar results after it began managing the cats. It may seem counterintuitive, but 20 years after Montana stopped treating the animals as vermin in 1978, with no regulation on the number killed, hunters killed eight times as many lions. During that same time, the state’s elk population grew steadily. In 1995, Montana was home to roughly 95,000 elk. Today there are 150,000. Biologists also say the area where lions can be found has increased dramatically. A 2001 study by Shawn Riley and Richard Malecki noted that from 1960 to 1995, cougars nearly tripled their distribution in Montana, and eight of 11 other states experienced similar increases.
Where wolves are not a major presence, hunting opportunities have generally increased for lions and elk. In places with high wolf densities and dwindling elk populations, lions can definitely exacerbate declines and make recovery slower.
Mountain lions are elusive animals, and accurate population counts are difficult. Biologists use harvest as a prime indicator of population—a coarse measure for sure, but effective. With the improved management of these cats, your odds of sighting one are getting better. Chances are you won’t, though. Despite the fact that adult toms range from 140 to 180 pounds, and females run 80 to 120 pounds, they move silently through the underbrush on fur-covered feet, and when they get close enough to attack, they do it like a laser-guided missile.
It’s a good thing cougars prefer four-legged prey to the bipedal variety. Lion attacks on humans are extremely rare. National Geographic notes that there are on average only four attacks a year in the United States and Canada combined. Most of those attacks involve children or solitary adults in areas where little or no lion hunting is allowed.
If you find yourself threatened by a cougar, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks recommends that you act aggressively. Their advice: Stand up tall to make yourself look bigger, talk calmly and in a normal tone of voice, and don’t run away. If the cat attacks, do not play dead. Fight back by kicking, hitting or using bear spray.
Mountain lions are secretive creatures that quietly go about their business behind the scenes. They are challenging and thrilling animals to hunt, and sightings of them or their tracks can make any outing all the more memorable.
Ty Stockton writes from Cheyenne, Wyoming, where he and his wife are raising two young boys. He has produced daily Great Outdoors radio segments for the Cowboy State News Network for the past seven years. Before that, he helped edit Wyoming Wildlife, Wyoming Game and Fish’s magazine for four years.
Editors’ note: Later this year, we’ll compare lion and elk populations—as well as lion attacks on humans—in Wyoming, where lion hunting with hounds is legal; Oregon, where lion hunting is legal but hound-hunting is prohibited; and California, where lion hunting has been outlawed since 1990.