Thursday, March 16, 2006


Cougar

It rained all of yesterday and the sky was overcast this morning, fog hanging on the mountains. We were just settling down for a brief shuteye after lunch when Mija bounded from the bed barking. We heard a commotion and joined her at the back door. East Corazone had clearly come under attack. We heard heavy artillery explosions and small arms fire coming from the mountain whose top third was enveloped in clouds. Suddenly we saw sprays of dust where the explosions had hit. The clatter continued downslope with dust spouting into the air. This was our first experience of a rock fall on the mountain and it was impressive and unsettling. The explosions ceased and the dust settled. Our first thoughts were that it was nice not to have been hiking on that particular slope at the time.

Just downslope and into a side valley this attack was undoubtedly followed by a startled mountain lion. About a quarter of a mile from here we have one of the big cats hanging out. We haven’t seen it yet but we’ve seen several sites it uses to deposit its scat, and there’s no mistaking mountain lion scat for any other around here. Coming on really fresh scat makes those small hairs on the back of your neck stand up and take notice.

Our neighbor has heard the cougar (another common name here) on occasion. They sound like a woman in high distress - wailing and carrying on. No one has been bothered by them down here on the Ranch but in the adjacent Big Bend National Park a hiker had a tussle with an old and ill lion a couple of years back. The guy sustained some scratches but got away. Healthy lions usually do not go for people in areas where they have plenty of habitat with lots of food (other than human). When they are crowded in a small range, there can be trouble.

There have been lion attacks on bikers and joggers recently in Southern California. A study of the maps and characteristics of the areas show serious human encroachment on habitat. These lions were hungry and some humans, especially bikers and joggers apparently, looked like good prey.

We suspect our cougar friend often travels through our property as they have a fairly wide range. In the dark we keep an eye on Mija just in case. But during the day we don’t bother, Mija has quite a capacity for hearing and smelling and seeing things that we don’t notice. And she’s not foolhardy.

Like many other species of large mammals, the cougar has been continually driven into smaller areas, becoming locally extinct in spots as bounties were levied to rid cattle areas of "varmints". Here we seem to have plenty and they are rarely hunted.

We have seen bobcats and occasionally get reports of other cats in the area: maguey, jaguarundi and even ocelot. There have been very rare reports of Mexicans wolves or lobos. The rare cats and the lobos are thought to range up from Mexico, only miles away. We hope to see one of these animals stalking a rabbit down the arroyo someday.

Our rockslide was the first since we’ve lived here. We enjoy speculating on the cause. Perhaps a whirlwind added the last straw to a finely balanced rock. Or maybe an Aoudad, introduced from North Africa to this area years ago for hunting, took a wrong step, putting it’s 350 pounds where it shouldn’t have. Then again, it might be that our lion friend walked up to a rock and gave it a nudge, just to surprise us.

Whatever the cause it was a reminder that there is a massive amount of potential power just a few hundred yards from our verandah.

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