Walking alongside cold-water mountain creeks during my recent Colorado mule deer hunting trip, I couldn't help but think from time to time that I wasn't the only hunter hunting deer. And I'm not referring to my human competitors either.
To be sure, there are black bears, coyotes, and bobcats - all of which can and do prey upon deer for food - but, there is only one mountain predator that hunts deer almost exclusively; one that is rarely seen, though they thrive amongst the rocky outcrops, the steep timbered slopes, and dark draws that lead down to the deepest drainages. Indeed, it is the mountain lion.
I have never had the privilege of observing a mountain lion in the wild. The day will come, I hope, when I at last do, and I know I will relish the experience. As such, I have had the good fortune of walking in the lion's lair where they hunt and rest. I'm certain of this, because I have seen their great tracks, deep in the soft mud along those same creeks that I, too, have hunted beside.
Last month I encountered lion tracks adjacent to Thomas Creek once again. It evidently is a favorite drainage for the big cats, as the area always has plenty of mule deer to hunt. Most of the time, as is the case with all cats, domestic or wild, the mountain lion had placed each of its back feet directly into the tracks that its front paws had just made. The front tracks of the cat were wider than my own hand.
While Colorado supports a thriving population of mountain lions across the Rocky Mountains, lions do occasionally show up in Minnesota - just how many is unknown. Even so, no matter where mountain lions exist, observing one of these extraordinary cats is a rare event. In those regions of North America where mountain lions and people coexist, many people live their entire lifetimes within prime mountain lion range without ever observing the reclusive cats.
It is believed that the majority of wild mountain lions wandering into parts of Minnesota are transitory sub-adult male lions coming from areas such as South Dakota's Black Hills and North Dakota's Badlands. Additionally, some of the confirmed lion observations in Minnesota and other atypical locations or former lion range, have been cats formerly held in captivity and subsequently released into the wild by their human handlers.
Mountain lions are the second largest cat in the Western Hemisphere. The jaguar, though rarely seen north of Mexico, is larger. Male mountain lions can be as long as eight feet in total length, which includes its three-foot long tail, as well as reaching a shoulder height of about 30 inches tall. While records exist of 200-plus pound individual male lions, weights typically range from 150 to 180 pounds. Females are somewhat smaller.
It should come as no surprise that mountain lions should find parts of Minnesota's remote and wild areas suitable as they pass through. After all, with plenty of dense forest and water, not to mention a healthy deer herd, the few mountain lions that do stray into Minnesota would be able to exist for a time without many people ever noticing.
As already mentioned, mountain lions prey on deer for food. An adult lion will kill one deer every seven-10 days and consume around 50 deer per year. The long-tailed cats are very proficient hunters. Like most wild cats, with the exception of African lions, mountain lions are solitary hunters that do not form prides. The only time mountain lions hunt together is when a female takes her kittens along to teach them the hunting skills they'll need to learn in order to survive on their own.
Mountain lions are obligate carnivores that prey on a wide variety of wildlife, which include everything from mice to moose - basically anything that they can catch and eat. However, their primary prey is deer. The big cats' menu also includes small and large rodents from voles, porcupines and beavers, as well as rabbits and hares and larger ungulates such as bighorn sheep and elk.
And though mountain lions are large and important predators, they are often not the apex predator throughout much of their range. In regions where mountain lions coexist with brown bears, wolves, jaguars and alligators, mountain lions must compete with these predators for food and space. In some cases, the mountain lion becomes prey for these predators.
Here in Minnesota, bobcats are the most common and abundant wild cat. Canada lynx also inhabit parts of the state, although in far fewer numbers, in the northeast. And mountain lions, although exceedingly rare - indeed, it is believed that no breeding population exists in the state - are also observed once in a while in Minnesota.
Along with all that is wild in this great state, mountain lions are one of three wild cats that have been observed in Minnesota. And while chances of seeing this exceptional wild animal in Minnesota remains minimal, the possibility, though very remote, does exist as you get out and enjoy the great outdoors.
Blane Klemek is the Bemidji area assistant wildlife manager, DNR Division of Fish & Wildlife. He can be reached at email@example.com