NatGeo Wild’s Big Cat Week: Cougars Undercover

Big Cat Week, Cougars Undercover
Big Cat Week, Cougars Undercover

Its Big Cat Week on NatGeo Wild, and one of the headliner films is Cougars Undercover, a dramatic film following the lives of two mountain lion families in northwest Wyoming. The stars of the film are F51 and F61, adult female mountain lions studied by Panthera’s Teton Cougar Project, an ongoing work addressing diverse ecological questions that began in late 2000. F51’s mothering style is described as “like a hippie mother, just providing lots of love, but not necessarily all the sustenance they need [her kittens],” while “super mum” F61 comes across as a sleek, stern, and extremely competent provider. Read a review of the film in the Wall Street Journal, or watch a clip from the film here.

We, at Panthera, are thrilled for the opportunity to highlight the challenges wild mountain lions face in rugged western landscapes. They are a species that receive little conservation attention, and a species often maligned and misunderstood. We hope the film begins to paint a new picture of what mountain lions really are. You can still catch the film in the coming week if you missed its original debut—air times can be found here.

The film was a collaborative effort between the BBC, NatGeo Wild and Panthera, but in the end, it was professional filmmakers that told the story. And they did a wonderful job of it, relaying the intensity of mountain lion lives, and even some of the melodrama of the characters that follow them. Nevertheless, there are several additional points we would like to provide, as background information for viewers. Several of these are born of questions we have received since the release of the film.

F51, an adult female mountain lion wearing a satellite GPS collar, and 2 of her 4 kittens born in 2013. Photograph by Mark Elbroch / Panthera.
F51, an adult female mountain lion wearing a satellite GPS collar, and 2 of her 4 kittens born in 2013. Photograph by Mark Elbroch / Panthera.

Collaring mountain lions. We do not capture and handle mountain lions lightly, nor for no reason. Every research project weighs the conservation questions driving the research, with the various methods that yield different types of data. Nearly everything we know about some animals, for example gray squirrels and pronghorn, we have learned through direct observation in natural settings. Other species are difficult to watch in the wild because they prefer dawn and dusk to day, structured habitats to wide open spaces, and they wander vast areas too difficult to monitor all at the same time. Or worse, they stalk prey, so utilize cover and camouflage to make themselves invisible.  Wild cats, mountain lions among them, do all of these things to avoid our notice. They live like shadows in between us, and for these reasons GPS collars are exception tools in studying these magnificent, elusive creatures.

Most importantly for our work, GPS collars provide us “fate data.” The collars allow us to find mountain lions that die, and to determine their cause of death. We can, for example, tell you the leading cause of death for kittens less than 6 months old in our study area is wolves, and that the leading cause of death for adults is human hunting. This is essential information in creating effective conservation strategies to aid the local population. Please refer here for a more developed discussion and question/answer section about collars and catching cougars.

F51 and her female offspring, F70, seated near an elk cow killed by F51. Photograph by Mark Elbroch / Panthera.
F51 and her female offspring, F70, seated near a cow elk killed by F51. Note the collars–a tiny hand-sewn, stretchy collar for F70, and an approximately 475-gram GPS collar for F51. Photograph by Mark Elbroch / Panthera.

Feeding orphaned kittens. Studying wildlife is a privilege. It is a privilege to engage with wild animals, to handle and touch them, but also a privilege carefully managed by State wildlife agencies—a privilege that can be taken away should a researcher violate the rules governed by their research permits. In general, permission to conduct wildlife research includes stipulations that the researchers avoid any “interference” with their study animals. For example, we must release mountain lions exactly where we catch them—we do not have permission to transport them to other sites. In addition, we do not have permission to provide supplemental feeding, nor in general, would we want to. Our goals are to study natural mountain lion behavior, including how often they feed and what animals they eat.

But we are not heartless—we are more attached to mountain lions than most people. When F51 was killed, we were so certain of her kittens’ demise that we made special requests to support them through supplemental feeding. Time and again, our requests were denied. State managers preferred to allow nature to play out on its own (Please try not to villainize State personnel—their response was reflective of the general mindset of State agencies throughout the country). When F75 finally died of starvation, we were not only granted permission to feed F99, but State personnel provided the meat and participated in its distribution. This was a wonderful effort by the Wyoming Game and Fish Department to listen to their community and to act in compassionate fashion—and they should be commended for it.

F99 was fed four times, and thereafter she survived on her own. Why these details were omitted from the film, we cannot say. We did detail bits of their story in various CatWatch blogs: “Orphaned Cougar Kittens and Their Inspiring Will to Survive” and “Fumbling Cougar Kittens.”

F75 lying intimately across her sister, F99. Photograph by Jeff Hogan / Hogan Films.
F75 lying intimately across her sister, F99. Photograph by Jeff Hogan / Hogan Films.

Mountain lions kill each other? This is very near the title of the original blog in which we discuss and ponder the horrific encounter between F51 and M85 (also in the film). I’ll not repeat everything I wrote there, but with further reflection, the encounter may have been an indirect effect of human hunting. M29, the father of F51’s kittens, was shot and killed. M85, the neighboring male, began to probe west into M29’s former territory, where he met F51. To our knowledge, F51 and M85 had never met before.

I’d emphasize that F51 appeared to attack M85, based on evidence in the snow, not the other way around. Our research has shown that males are hardly ever aggressive—only in rare territorial disputes with other males. Males generally don’t have to be aggressive—their size and strength deters actual physical competition and hostility.

Remote camera technology. As you watch the film, appreciate that the overwhelming majority of the visual imagery used to weave the story was captured with motion-triggered cameras. We’ve spent years testing and building HD cameras (and have lost count of the monumental failures in our adventures). Jeff Hogan, the cameraman for the film, had  been working on similar challenges, and we worked together with Pete Abdu, another experimental camera maker, to create the cameras we currently use—this film is a debut of our refined methods and the amazing insights remote cameras have provided us into the secret lives of mountain lions. No doubt, these methods could be applied to so many other species as well.

Three cougar kittens defending their positions around a beaver carcass. Photograph by Michelle Peziol / Panthera
Three cougar kittens defending their positions around a beaver carcass. Photograph by Michelle Peziol / Panthera

With that, we hope you catch Cougars Undercover during Big Cat Week or sometime beyond, if you haven’t done so already. Its an amazing portrayal of the dramatic lives of mountain lions, much of which was previously unknown until quite recently. We’d like to extend special thanks to Roger Webb, David Johnson, Anna Place, and Janet Vissering (and their extended teams) from the production side for their generous support and making such a beautiful movie. We hope its enjoyed by many.

And if you are interested, follow updates on F61, who still prowls her territory, “Frostbite” (F61’s female offspring in the film), and other cougars on our Facebook page. We’ve also recently launched an internet portal to share more mountain lion images and videos—called the “Cougar Channel.” Check it out to watch more wild mountain lions acting naturally.

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Changing Planet

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Mark Elbroch has contributed to puma research in Idaho, Colorado, California, Wyoming, and Chile, and lots of other carnivores along the way. He earned his PhD at the University of California, Davis, where his dissertation research focused on puma ecology in Patagonia in the presence of endangered humeul deer. He has authored/coauthored 10 books on natural history (http://www.amazon.com/Mark-Elbroch/e/B001ILHI96) and numerous scientific articles published in peer-review journals. Mark is currently a Project Leader for Panthera, a US-based non-profit that conducts science to promote wild cat conservation worldwide.