Mountain lion death in Yellowstone

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Posted by Granite Head ( on 15:13:34 01/27/19

This shot is of one of the very few moments over the couple of hours I watched this lion when it attempted to raise its head or move its body. Most of the time it lay nearly unmoving, with only its flank heaving up and down with labored breaths.

On the morning of January 8, 2019, near the top of a small rise about 1/8 mile west and across the road from Soda Butte Cone, an emaciated and moribund mountain lion was spotted. Over the two-plus hours I watched it (with a small crowd of onlookers that included Rick McIntyre and other members of the Wolf Project team, and eventually, about four official vehicles-worth of park enforcement staff) it lifted its head three or four times. At one point it managed to change its position but after that effort its head went back down and its eyes closed again. As can be seen in these photos, it was extremely thin, and its eyes glazed and unfocused. Eventually the rangers asked us all to back away and blocked the road. At this point I could no longer directly observe what was going on but I could hear when the rangers attempted to haze it with a cracker shot or a beanbag in hope of rousing it enough that it might make it up and out of sight over the rise. The purpose was to mitigate the potentially dangerous situation of people and cars not quite off the road on that icy curve, while leaving the soon-to-be carcass for the carrion-eaters to benefit from. The lion did not respond. They fired some kind of louder round, the concussion which caused the snow to loosen and the lion to slide a few feet down hill. The process confirmed that the lion had little life left. They finally ended its suffering with one well-aimed shot and recovered the body. The ranger whose truck-bed they put it in parked at the Footbridge pullout about ¾ mile to the west, and allowed us to view it. Park staff (of the enforcement team, wildlife staff are furloughed under the government shutdown in effect) opined it was a female cat. However, another informed opinion, by a highly experienced wildlife professional, is that the lion was an elderly male. The person who shared this with me also saw the lion after it died (exactly as I did), but did not examine it, as he is not an authorized park employee. His intuition is based on the size of the lion, and the shape of its skull/face. Having had a chance to research it a bit myself now, I believe that the distance from the base of the tail to the dark circle of fur, which covers p3nis sheath, is such that it is highly likely a male. Beyond that, confirmation of the lion s secks, age, disease status, and presence or absence of physical trauma, will have to wait until the animal is necropsied. The cat s secks is relevant to the bigger picture because a minimum number of breeding females is required for species success in any given area, such as the greater Yellowstone region. One male can father many kittens, but several females are required to realize his impact on population numbers. This individual was past the point where it could reproduce, of course.
It was obvious the cat had not eaten in days, its flank was completely sunken in. It had porcupine quills in its face and on its shoulder. My feeling is that only an adult animal so debilitated that it could not successfully hunt bigger game deer and bighorn sheep being examples that are abundant in the area where the lion died would attempt to eat a porcupine. [I've since been enlightened that even healthy lions sometimes eat porcupines, but it's very risky as an embedded quill can cause serious if not deadly infection.] One of its canine teeth was broken off, maybe long ago. Other than the tiny entry point of the bullet, there was no obvious sign of trauma (vehicle impact being the suspected proximal cause of mortality). Regardless of possible recent trauma, clearly the cat was on the verge of starving to death. It s possible it was very elderly and/or suffering from cancer or other wasting disease. Lions in this part of the country have been found to harbor bubonic plague and pneumonic plague; both can be transmitted to humans and, if untreated, can cause feline and human death. The body has been put in a freezer until the park cat specialist Dan Stahler returns from furlough and determines whether to conduct a necropsy. I hope he will, given that big cats, while not endangered, are scarce and seldom observed in Yellowstone.
This is the second lion to die in the last week; the other one was killed by wolves. Was it also in extremely poor condition for that to be possible?

As every one of the witnesses said, "I have never seen a lion in the park before. This is not the way I wanted my first sighting to happen."

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