FLORENCE – A Bitterroot Valley bowhunter using a remote motion-detecting camera has inadvertently captured some astonishing images of wildlife in the Sapphire Mountains that would make even professional wildlife photographers lick their chops.

Drew Shearer of Florence has been using his Stealth Cam (a type of camera often called a “game cam” or “trail cam” by hunters) for the past few months in the Eight Mile Creek drainage east of town to scout for good places to hunt elk.

The camera, which Shearer often locks to a tree deep in the backcountry, is activated by any significant movement and takes a rapid succession of pictures.

The images that popped up on the screen when Shearer loaded them on his computer back home were incredible.

In one frame, recorded on Aug. 20 at 5:44 in the evening, a family of four mountain lions can be seen lounging lazily by a creek. Three of the big predators are drinking peacefully, and one is lying in a bed of wildflowers, blissfully unaware of the camera recording its every move. The lions hung out at the creek for several minutes as the camera snapped dozens of frames.

Shearer’s wife Jill said she actually saw the pictures on the computer first because he was in another room while they loaded, and she freaked out a little.

“I told him I never want him to take Dakota (the couple’s 2-year-old daughter) out there with him,” she said.

According to Bitterroot National Forest wildlife biologist Dave Lockman, it’s likely that the pictures show an adult female with three older juveniles.

“I can’t tell for sure what age these four lions are,” he said. “Average litter size is two to three, and juveniles usually stay with the female learning to hunt for around 18 months, give or take, so could be pretty much adult size by the time they disperse. Adult lions tend to be solitary, so I don’t think it’s likely you’d see this many together unless there was a family group involved.”

In another group of photos taken on Sept. 28 at about 4 p.m., Shearer’s trail cam captured what appears to be a group of feral horses. None of the horses are wearing a bell and there aren’t any humans to be found. In one of the photos, an elk can be seen peering at the group from a short distance away.

“I did a little digging into this, and they are feral horses, not wild horses,” said Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks biologist Mike Thompson. “People just haven’t kept up with them. They’re property that kind of got let go over time and got established up there. It’s livestock that people let go of. They fall under the jurisdiction of the department of livestock.”

Lockman said it isn’t uncommon for hunters in Montana to encounter unattended horses.

“I used to hunt up the Blackfoot on a mix of Plum Creek and state land adjacent to private land, and there were usually several small groups of horses wandering around out in the forest the whole hunting season,” he said. “But there were signs up around the private property warning you that they were out there, and usually one of the group was wearing a bell, so they were obviously at least semi-domesticated.”

Shearer, for his part, doesn’t have any ambitions of becoming a wildlife photographer any time soon.

“Hell, I usually just delete ‘em if I don’t see any elk,” he said.

Reach reporter David Erickson at 363-3300 or david.erickson@ravallirepublic.com.

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Business writer at The Missoulian.