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Blane Klemek: The elusive mountain lion

I cut the big cat's tracks on the way up a snow-covered mountain slope while hunting mule deer in the Colorado Rockies. Pausing to catch my breath and to examine the tracks laid neatly in the snow, I looked around ­-- ahead, in back and all about me. Was the cat close, I wondered? I couldn't know, but the tracks seemed fresh, and so I followed.

Curious and hopeful that maybe this time I would observe my first wild mountain lion, I climbed higher, following the tracks, picking my way through the dark timber of the north facing slope, keeping my eyes and ears keen for any movement or any sound. Somewhere, or so I believed, a lion was nearby and possibly aware of my clumsy yet methodical pursuit.

At one point, I emerged out of a dense stand of Douglas fir onto a rock outcrop that afforded a commanding view of the steep drainage below, and so I paused to gaze at the sight. The big cat, I surmised, must have thought the same thing as it approached the vantage, because, as it was most clearly evidenced in the snow, the cat had sat down to face the same view.

As I examined the imprint of his rump in the snow and his large front paw-prints on both sides and forward of its posterior impression, I couldn't help but think that the mountain lion had arrived at this spot to sit and take a look, just like me, at the creek below and the opposite mountain ridge for signs of game.

Based on the animal's posture, it was evident that if the cat was knowledgeable of my presence, it was unconcerned. I would have to wait, as it turned out, for yet another time to possibly observe with my own two eyes a mountain lion in the wild.

It is believed that the majority of mountain lions that occasionally wander into parts of Minnesota are cats -- 2½-year-old males -- that have drifted from the Black Hills of South Dakota or the Badlands of North Dakota. It is also believed that some mountain lions observed in Minnesota and other atypical locales are captive cats that have either been purposely released by their human handlers or are escapees.

Mountain lions are the second largest wild native cat in the Western Hemisphere. The jaguar, rarely seen north of Mexico, is larger, although recent sightings of a lone male jaguar have been confirmed in Arizona's Santa Rita Mountains. Male mountain lions can be as long as nine feet, which includes its 3-foot long tail, and can attain a shoulder height of about 30 or more inches. While records exist of 200 pounds and heavier individual male mountain lions, males typically weigh from 150 to 180 pounds. Females are somewhat smaller.

Deer are the number one prey of mountain lions. An adult lion will kill one deer every seven to 10 days and consume around 50 deer per year. These "long-tailed cats" are very proficient hunters. Like most wild cats, with the exception of African lions, mountain lions hunt in solitude and do not form prides. The only time mountain lions hunt together is when a female takes her kittens along to teach them the skills they need in order to survive on their own.

Housecats hunt mice in the same manner a mountain lion hunts deer. The big cat stalks its prey upwind, walking, stopping, and watching and listening. Once a deer is observed, the mountain lion lowers itself close to the ground and slinks forward, shoulder blades protruding above its back, its belly scraping the earth as it moves and the tip of its tail twitching to and fro.

Once the cat is within two bounds or less, usually about 15 to 30 feet, the mountain lion will gather its hind legs underneath its belly and spring forward. In a common kill technique, the cat is upon the deer's back in as little as two or three bounds, holds itself securely with all four feet and bites the deer's neck vertebrae.

Once the prey is killed, the lion feasts on internal organs first, forsaking the stomach and its contents, then feeds on the muscle tissue. The cat will also bury and cache its prey until the carcass is consumed or it becomes too rancid.

I've hunted deer and elk in two different western states -- both with plenty of prime mountain lion habitat. Next month will mark my eighth western hunting trip. Maybe this hunt will be when I at last catch a glimpse of a mountain lion in its natural habitat. Tracks and sign are one thing, but to observe one of these great cats, however fleeting it might be, would be a privilege.

And while mountain lions do occur in Minnesota from time to time, they will undoubtedly always be a rare occurrence despite abundant habitat and game. In fact, even throughout their principal range of western United States where lions and prey and preferred habitat are plentiful, few people ever observe mountain lions, as I've come to know and appreciate.

Regardless of whether or not I ever see a mountain lion in its natural habitat, we should all be thankful that they do exist—living, hunting; wild and free -- as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.