SPOKANE, Wash. - A Wenatchee hunter has a right to be proud for his photo showing a pride of mountain lions on the Douglas County ranch where he has permission to hunt.
The black and white trail-cam image, which shows eight cougars in one spot, has gone viral on Northwest websites and e-mail lists since he first released it to acquaintances on Christmas Day.
- Wildlife enthusiasts were in awe of the scene, which few people will see in their lifetimes.
- Alarmists were ready to take up arms against the lion onslaught on the central Washington deer population.
- Skeptics assumed it was just another Internet hoax - at best just a hungry pen of cougars in a zoo.
- But a Washington Fish and Wildlife Department biologist who received a CD of this photo and all of the hunter's remote camera cougar images raised his eyebrows and called it, "a magnificent one-time observation; not unheard of, but it's very rare."
"Cougars are notoriously territorial," said Jon Gallie, the state wildlife biologist in Wenatchee. "Seeing eight in one spot is a wildlife jackpot."
"I'd like to say I knew what I was doing, but I just got lucky," said Brad, the hunter who asked that his last name be withheld. "I was trying to get photos of bobcats.
"But this is the second year I've had a (motion-activated) camera in that location and I've got images of some coyotes, about five deer and one skunk, but I can't tell you how many pictures I have of cougars - a lot."
Most of the e-mails circulating say the cougars were congregating to feed on a dead cow. But the hunter and Gallie both confirmed there was no carcass in the area.
"The ranchers had carcasses in other areas near Moses Coulee, but they said no cougar tracks were in the snow around them," Gallie said.
Coyotes, eagles, ravens and magpies clean up carrion pretty fast, but cougars generally like their meat a little fresher.
Brad said the camera was mounted on an old cow trail along a rimrock cliff. "It's the first wide spot in the trail with a view of the huge valley below," Brad said.
"It's a perfect place to stop and scan for prey below," Gallie said, noting that 300 to 500 deer might be wintering in a five-mile stretch of that valley when forced down by snow.
"That's why the cougars were there," Gallie said. "When the snow clears up at higher elevations and the deer disperse, you won't see that many cougars in one area again.
"The kittens might have been sitting up there sometimes while their mothers were down hunting," he added, noting other images of a smaller group of cougars.
Gary Koehler, the WDFW carnivore specialist and world-class authority on cougars, said the photo of eight cats likely includes two adult females and their litters.
"We and others have documented two related females converging with their litters on occasion," Koehler said in an e-mail. "This is likely a result of a female with her current litter and her female offspring from a previous litter and her kittens.
"Female offspring often set up home range adjacent to their mother and, as demonstrated from radio GPS marked animals, these adjacent females may get together along their home range boundaries with each's litter.
"In fact it has been documented where kittens from one female may join up (adopted) with the other litter; and perhaps, as has been documented, go back to their original litter when the mothers join up at some time."
Gallie said the photo of eight cougars has caused a buzz among hunters that the hills are full of cougars devouring deer.
"We've been going to sportsmen club meetings to try to explain that isn't the case," he said.
WDFW studies verify that only half of the cougar kittens born each year survive to be a year old, he said.
Of the kittens that live to their first birthday, only about a third survive to be 2 years old, he added.
"The photo does not mean there are eight cats in that area each killing a deer a week. The mothers still kill only about one animal a week, but when there are three mouths to feed, something's got to give. The runt doesn't eat as much, and eventually doesn't make it."
Brad said he'll go a couple of weeks without a getting a cougar photo on the camera and then a cougar will suddenly show up one day. All of the photos are automatically time-stamped.
The only photo as interesting as the image of eight cats occurred when he went back after Christmas to check his camera again.
"The first picture is of me leaving the camera after setting it up two weeks previous," he said. "The next image is of a cougar coming down the same trail in my tracks just minutes after I'd left."