On New Year’s Eve, 2011, my son Chris and I took the hounds into the Owyhee mountains in search of cats. After driving on icy roads for several hours, we finally arrived at our favorite hunting area where we covered every passable mountain road without seeing a track. As we backtracked gloomily along the same roads, Chris spotted something he had not seen before. Further inspection of the road revealed multiple tracks that had not been there 30 minutes earlier. The tracks went from the road straight up a steep hill. After quickly collaring and releasing the hounds, they bounded up the mountain as if running on level ground and soon disappeared over the ridge. Chris and I weren’t so fast, trudging up and over one ridge after another as we tried to ascertain the location of the dogs through a combination of distant barks and GPS data. After about 45 minutes of this, Chris was far ahead of me, and all I could do was follow his footprints in the snow. But for those footprints, it would have been easy to end up miles apart.
After another 30 minutes of following the tracks of Chris and his dogs, I began to hear the dogs baying again, and then I heard Chris yell something about a cat being treed. Although I was exhausted, and somewhat snow-blind because of the now-clear skies and winter sun beating down, I quickly picked up the pace knowing that I might soon be rewarded with a rarity in nature – a close-up view of one of the most elusive creatures in Idaho. As I approached the tree, I could see Chris holding back his two hounds, Tracker and Lilly, now on leashes. Without this restraint, both of the dogs would be franticly attempting to climb the tree, branch by branch, until one of them was within fang and claw-reach of a very mad cougar. In that precarious situation, a lone dog was not going to survive.
Upon reaching the tree, I saw that Chris had a weary smile on his face. “Did we really catch one?” I asked, trying to catch my breath. “Better than that” he replied. I strained to get a glimpse of the beast and quickly caught sight of the familiar tawny color between the dense branches. “Male or female?” I asked. ”Can’t tell,” Chris replied, “can’t you see what we’ve got?” I looked again, circling the tree to get a better look. Suddenly, there it was, something better than I could have imagined. Perched at the end of a large branch, high in the tree, was a spotted cougar cub, approximately two feet long from its nose to the tip of its tail. The beautiful creature was staring down with soulful blue eyes that reminded me of the Puss N Boots character from the Shrek movies. “We got a cub!” I exclaimed. “Actually, we’ve got two of them” Chris replied, “the other one is in a tree back there” pointing to another ridge nearby. I couldn’t have been more happy. Two cubs on New Year’s Eve.
December 31st is not the time you would expect this size of cat to be found. Following a ninety day gestation period, a female cougar produces up to six blue-eyed cubs covered with dark brown spots. Weighing a pound or less, these cubs will nurse for three or more months, but can supplement their diet with meat starting at 6 weeks. This means that a female cougar must kill enough game to supply milk and meat for her kittens. At about six months, the cubs can weigh up to forty pounds and will begin to lose their spots. Judging from the size and coloration of this cub, I estimated that it was less than six months old.
After getting into a position to shoot a few pictures, I could see that the first cub had wet paws and traces of blood around it’s mouth. The cub in the other tree was a little larger, with the blood of a fresh kill very noticeable on its face and neck. As cute and cuddly as they seemed, both cubs had already developed razor-like fangs and claws which they would use if threatened. Because of their size, and the unknown location of their mother, we quickly left the little guys in the trees. Soon, their mews would bring mom back to them when they would likely return to their interrupted meal.
It was a memorable New Year’s Eve for two weary hunters, two faithful hounds, and at least two cougar cubs. I hope they survive the rest of the winter.