Photography courtesy of Lowell Washburn, all rights reserved.
Few wildlife events have created more excitement than the well-publicized invasion of wild mountain lions into Iowa. So much so, that the excitement has, at times, bordered on near hysteria.
In reality, it isn’t likely that Iowa will ever harbor a viable population of free roaming cougars – even a small one. But it is probable, however, that the occasional western straggler will continue to at least visit our state. Most Iowans will never see one, of course. Even those folks living in areas with high cat densities rarely catch a glimpse.
With fluid-like agility and incredible strength, mountain lions are among the world’ most awe inspiring predators. Like many outdoor enthusiasts, I’ve long relished the thought of seeing an untamed cougar in its natural habitat.
Last week I nearly received that rare opportunity. It happened during an archery elk hunt conducted on the western slope of the Colorado Rocky Mountains. The encounter came as a complete surprise and was certainly not the kind of event I had envisioned.
The episode occurred early on a frosty morning. I was tucked into the low branches of a thick clump of mountain spruce while my hunting partner, Lake Mills Police Chief, Dave Thomas, was “cow calling” thirty yards to my rear. Longbow in hand, the plan was for me to execute a front echelon ambush if a bull responded to the sounds.
I was puzzled when barely into the set, Dave suddenly quit calling and deliberately stepped into plain sight. “We’re shutting this site down – immediately,” he announced.
Here’s what had happened. While Thomas was conducting of a series of calls, the tawny short-eared, cantaloupe-shaped head of a cougar suddenly appeared above the grassy ground cover. After methodically surveying the surroundings, the huge cat slowly lowered itself back to the ground and disappeared. Thomas had rightfully decided that we wanted no part of a scenario where an apex predator was considering something as large as a cow elk to be a viable menu item. I agreed. It’s not unusual for mountain cats to kill and eat large prey; they do it all the time. I have acquaintances in the western Black Hills who have killed 5 cougars that literally came running to the sound of distressed deer calls. The heaviest of those lions weighed in at 127 pounds. Now that’s a big cat! As far as Thomas and I were concerned, this was definitely not the time to be in the middle of a situation where a hungry puma could react to a case of mistaken identity.
Here’s the bad part. Although the cougar had actually been much closer to me than it was to Thomas, I never got to see the puma due to the thick cover I was hiding in. In any event, the high adventure episode provided unexpected excitement and gave us plenty to think about after the fact.