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Great description of a cougar attack on elk

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Joined: 02 Sep 2006
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Location: Minneapolis. MN

PostPosted: Tue Nov 13, 2007 7:33 pm    Post subject: Great description of a cougar attack on elk Reply with quote


This is an old article from Inside Outside magazine. Not sure if it ever ran here. But here it is. Makes you wonder what mayhem must ensue when a ML attacks an animal bigger than the ML.

A Detective Story
© October/November 2004 - by David Petersen
The sleek and lethal mountain lion, Felis concolor, also known as cougar, puma and panther, and scary by any name. While bears can be furtive hunters, in comparison to cougars they’re big fat oafs. Cats, limited to a specialist carnivore’s digestive system rather than a generalist omnivore’s teeth and gut like bears, have to work a lot harder than bruins for a living. Their work is death and they’re built to glide like ghosts and sprint like cheetahs. Seldom seen but often watching, it’s their invisibility that makes them spooky.
The first week of September last year — the opening of archery elk and deer seasons here in Colorado — my cantankerous pal Tom Beck and I packed a camp into in the Lizard Head Wilderness, not far from Telluride. The second morning there, when Tom and I returned from our separate daybreak hunts in a cold steady rain, my soggy friend asked if I’d seen the elk remains along the creek, just a few hundred yards from camp. I said no. "Big bull," said Tom. "Nice antlers. You might want to pack ’em out."

After a late breakfast beneath a plastic tarp strung between trees to keep the worst of the rain off, we grabbed our cameras and walked to the kill site. Tom, a retired large-carnivore biologist of some renown, had only gotten a shadowy glimpse of the remains in the drizzly half-light of dawn as he’d hiked past, headed out to hunt and with no time to fool around. He’d returned by a different route and now was anxious to analyze the scene to see what could be learned.

The once and former wapiti’s remains lay in a small dark hollow traversed by a well-used game trail terminating at a wildlife watering hole in the rushing creek. Most striking were the antlers, a heavy 6x6 rack still attached to the skull. Tattered velvet still encased much of the rack and the top few inches of the four upper tines — that is the top two tines on both sides — were broken off and lying nearby. The skull, like the rest of the huge corpse, had been picked and gnawed quite clean; bones were scattered everywhere, many of them bright red with rain-freshened blood; others were partially covered with dirt and leaf debris, though in no orderly manner. Elk hair lay here and there in clumps, but no hide, not a shred.

What had happened here? What or who had killed and eaten this giant beast?

For the next several minutes I poked around, playing wildlife detective. Tom, who is a wildlife detective, did the same. We worked largely in silence, thinking our private thoughts. Judging by the exceptional size and symmetry of the antlers, whose opulence suggested a healthy, well-fed animal, starvation or disease seemed unlikely culprits. Strengthening that assessment, the forage in that high wet place (11,000’ ASL) was magnificently rich and varied since no domestic sheep or cattle had come blasting through to chew it down to dirt.

When had the wapiti died? Since the antlers were fully developed but still soft and brittle (as evidenced by the broken tips) and remained sheathed in velvet, the bull’s death could be timed to early or mid August, just two or three weeks before, since elk antlers predictably harden to the consistency of bone and the velvet sloughs off around mid-month. So, it had been a big, healthy animal in the prime of its life and the fattest time of the year. No hunting seasons were on when it had died, and given the seclusion of the place and the fact that the antlers had not been taken nor the carcass apparently butchered (no saw or knife marks on the major bones), poaching could be ruled out.

And that’s about all I could surmise, particularly since a litany of hungry mouths had come and gone, diminishing and scattering the evidence while covering and otherwise confusing one another’s tracks. Apparently and predictably, scavengers included coyotes, which eat small bones and hide, hair and all. While I would normally expect a bear or bears to find and feast on such a treasure, a lack of bear scat (they almost always crap near where they eat) cast doubt in this instance. Obviously, the usual array of bone-picker birds had fed here — magpies, ravens, vultures and eagles, any or all.

Neither starvation nor disease, nor likely human caused. Predation of course is a constant in the wilds, but didn’t strike me as likely in this instance since bears have an abundance of vegetation to graze on in this season, are inept hunters and it’s the rare black bear who’s big and confident enough to take down a mature bull elk of 600 to 700 pounds. Even less likely, seemed to me, was the possibility of a cougar tackling a well-armed beast several times its own modest weight (here in Colorado, 130 pounds on average, with a record of over 200). While lions do kill starvation-weakened and snowbound elk in winter, deer are the cougar’s primary year-round prey.

All of this — my reasoning and the evidence to support it — I laid out for Tom, who confirmed my guesses right down the line ... until I ruled out lion.

"OK," he began, pointing back up the hill, away from the creek, to where the game trail descended into the hollow. "Your elk came down the trail to water. Your lion was waiting in ambush. Big fight." Here my mentor in the ways of wild death made a sweeping motion with one arm, pointing in turn — tap, tap, tap — to the hoof-churned ground, broken tree limbs, smashed and flattened brush.

"Big fight. Lion kills elk. Eats his fill. Buries the remains for later."

Tom then turned and walked a few steps and stopped and stared at the ground at his boots, where lay what suddenly seemed an obviously raked-up pile of dirt and forest debris that I’d stupidly overlooked. "Elk remains were buried here. Scavengers came along later and uncovered the carcass, fed and scattered the bones around."

At this juncture I returned to the skull, which remained attached to the upper section of spinal column with its heavy vertebrae. Lions typically attack deer from above — seizing the victim by the scruff of its neck or biting into the base of the skull, riding like a rodeo cowboy, working to crush the spine for instant paralysis while ripping at the throat with big, deadly, scimitar dewclaws, known in the trade as slashers. Aware of this, I searched for tooth marks along the top of the spine and back of the skull. There were none.

Reading my mind, or at least my actions, Tom enlightened me further with "That’s how lions kill deer, but not adult elk, since their backs are too high to leap on. And especially not mature bull elk armed with antlers they can sweep behind them to knock an attacker off. To take down an animal this size, the lion would seize it from below, by the throat, either biting into the jugular or clamping down on the windpipe. The elk would have bucked and whirled, trying to shake the lion loose. Hanging by its teeth and claws, suspended between the elk’s front legs, the cat would be safe from the antlers, and, if it was agile and lucky, could dodge the front hooves as well, which are an elk’s primary defense against predators. Sooner or later, if the prey can’t shake its attacker loose, it will lose enough blood, or have gone long enough without being able to breathe, to weaken and go down, making it easy for the lion to finish it off. It’s the same technique smaller African cats like leopards and cheetahs use to bring down their bigger prey."

"How do you know all of this?" I heard myself asking, not doubting but just curious.

"The research literature," Tom replied. "Eye-witness reports. Necropsies of lion-killed elk carcasses. And one more thing ..."

Wearing a satisfied smirk, detective Beck walked over and touched each of the four broken-off antler tips: tap-tap, tap-tap. "If this animal had just laid down to die, say from starvation or disease, these tips wouldn’t be broken off. If it had been shot or forced down by a weight on its back, say a lion or bear, it would have fallen to one side, breaking the tines only on the down side, if any. The fact that the broken tines are at the top of the antlers and on both sides suggests that the head went down hard while the animal was running, the tops of the antlers dug in and inertia caused the victim to flip ass-over-teacup, breaking the tines and possible the neck as well. That’s consistent with a heavy weight hanging on from below.

"Of course," my clever friend concluded, "I could be wrong."

For the remainder of our time in that wild place, which had suddenly gotten a lot wilder, my walks morning and evening, coming and going alone in twilight or full dark, felt like real adventures. Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset dubbed the hunter "the alert man," and that is certainly true. But humans evolved not only as predators, but prey as well. I thrive on both feelings when out there in the woods, hunted as well as hunter. The doubly alert man.

Thank you, comrade lion. As Kipling’s jungle boy Mowgli would have it, We be of one blood.

David Petersen is the author of such acclaimed books on elk and hunting as Elkheart:A Personal Tribute to Wapiti and Their World, and Heartsblood: Hunting, Spirituality, and Wildness in America.
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