Houndsmen and their canine counterparts play critical role in cougar conservation in Montana.
BY JESSIANNE CASTLE
The percussion of barking dogs rang across the landscape, echoing off the rock outcropping ahead. I could hear their distinct voices, Bay’s throaty bellow and Rooster’s sing-song howl. My husband, Ryan, was already up there and I didn’t want to miss those first moments at the tree. I sprinted uphill, cursing the head cold wreaking havoc on my nose and chest, slowing me down.
A few steps farther and I heard the crack of branches and a cacophony of barks. The cat jumped, I thought, scurrying faster. But then I stopped, the barks getting closer all on their own.
That’s when I saw her.
The mountain lion dove down the hillside above me and I realized I stood directly in her path. My feet froze, my heart pounded, as boundless eyes and tawny fur rushed toward me. I watched her fly, hardly touching the snow-covered ground. She was coming so fast, all I could do was watch. In the last moment, I remembered to step aside as she barreled past. I’m sure I could have touched her had I reached out a hand.
Seconds later, the dogs came bellowing behind with Ryan quick on their heels.
“She jumped,” he said, and together we skirted down the hill to find her again treed by the dogs.
Ryan made quick time loading his gun with a carbon dioxide cartridge and biopsy dart. He brought it to his shoulder and aimed steady on her hip. With a loud punch, the dart shot some 30 yards up into the lodgepole pine; it found its target in the muscle and quickly fell to the ground. The lion didn’t even move.
We scrambled to the base of the tree and found the orange dart settled in the snow, a tiny sample of muscle tissue and hair safely trapped inside.
This pursuit was part of a follow-up study near Phillipsburg, Montana, conducted last winter by biologists for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. Wildlife managers were interested in further understanding mountain lion behavior and population estimates in Granite County, and Ryan was one of five houndsmen hand-picked for the job.
Assigned to a specific area each day of the study, the handlers were tasked with tracking mountain lions and collecting tissue samples for later DNA analysis, or aiding biologists with radio collaring.
The mountain lion dove down the hillside above me and I realized I stood directly in her path.
Lions are like secrets—seldom are they seen or heard. They are stealthy, hiding amid trees and tucked into dark corners of rocky cliffs. Unlike elk or wolves, they’re exceedingly difficult to spot from the air, and seeking a lion without dogs could turn into hundreds of miles on the trail as dispersing males—young adults leaving their mother’s territory—have been known to travel as far as 500 miles in search of a new territory.
For these reasons, many researchers looking to better understand the mountain lion work closely with houndsmen and houndswomen.
Dan Stahler is a wildlife biologist in Yellowstone National Park who oversees the park’s wolf, elk and cougar projects. He has managed the cougar program since 2014 and wants to know how many cats there are in the park’s northern region, what they eat, and how they’re responding to wolves and changing elk numbers.
Using cutting-edge GPS technology, the cougar team is learning about the energetics of mountain lions and wolves with iridium accelerometer GPS collars. These units are used to detect kill sites and record habitat use, and also identify behaviors like resting, traveling, hunting and feeding.
The collar measures the animal’s body position along its three main body axes—vertical, horizontal, and forward and back. This activity data can be compared with results from captive cougar studies to measure caloric expenditures, allowing biologists to study the energetic costs of being a wild carnivore.
“If we have baseline information on their basic energetic requirements, we can monitor that and see how they respond to broad spectrum changes in environment, climate or human impacts,” Stahler said.
In addition to predicting an individual’s response to change, GPS collaring and DNA sampling is allowing Greater Yellowstone biologists to place family groups on the map and understand how they disperse, better predict what wildlife corridors need to be conserved, and count how many cougars are on the landscape.
As an alternative to dogs, biologists can also capture lions with snares or box traps, but Stahler said he still prefers hounds. “I’ve found it’s a very safe, effective way to capture,” he said, adding that traps can catch the wrong animal—and with the high density of carnivores in Yellowstone, a trapped animal can quickly become a target.
“There is certainly some level of stress and energetic costs that a lion experiences during the chase from dogs and humans,” Stahler said. “This is the case for any animal that experiences potential threat from an encounter with a predator or competitor who disrupts normal activities and behaviors.”
Stahler added that the actual time a cougar is chased—from the time the hounds catch up to it to the time when it climbs a tree—is relatively short. And once treed, he said, the cats tend to resume normal breathing rates and take on a relaxed body posture.
“Tens of thousands of years of interacting with competitors like wolves has likely shaped this adaptive response from treed cats,” Stahler said.
This unique relationship between scientists and a dedicated user group is played out across North America, and the scientists, as well as the people running their dogs, describe the partnership as transformative.
“I’ve always found that I learn a lot from the houndsmen. They have their pulse on what’s going on in the local environment,” Stahler said. “I really enjoy that relationship with these salt-of-the-earth people who are also passionate about wildlife. We all have the same end goal. That is to live and recreate in a place where we can enjoy wildlife.”
Ryan has been trailing cats in Montana’s Gallatin and Paradise valleys for nearly six years, averaging between 20 and 30 treed mountain lions each year. In that time, he has harvested just one. “I do it for the dogs,” he said, adding that pursuing cougars is a small glimpse into the wild that few have the opportunity to see. “It’s the only way you can follow in the footsteps of a wild animal, a predator, and be a part of what it’s done.”
Dave Ausband, a carnivore specialist for Idaho Fish and Game, described the skill it takes to work with dogs, calling it a lifestyle rather than a hobby. He said biologists need the skill of a good hound handler.
“It’s not like snowmobiles and trucks. We don’t just have hounds sitting around the office that we use,” he said, adding that dogs can track this species that has evolved to be nearly scentless, even if there isn’t a physical paw print in the snow or mud. “Humans are going to have a hard time finding a lion hiding in the brush.”
Somewhat unique among state agencies, the large carnivore section of Wyoming Game and Fish is able to keep dog work in-house. Dan Thompson, the carnivore supervisor, is one of several biologists who answer to the houndsmen call.
Thompson grew up in Iowa, where he got an early exposure to running coonhounds in his youth. But it wasn’t until he came to Wyoming and was working on his Ph.D. that he first got a taste of chasing cats. His doctoral work looked at the ecology of cougars in the Black Hills of Wyoming and South Dakota, and hounds were a necessity.
“We’ve got a lot of things changing—increasing [lion] distribution across North America, and we’ve got an increase in the number of wolves. Any information on mountain lions can help us understand how to better manage them,” he said. “For their work and compassion, nobody does more for the mountain lion than the houndsmen. They want to see lions on the landscape.”
Pursuing cougars is a small glimpse into the wild that few have the opportunity to see.
A cat of many names, the mountain lion, cougar or puma is often recognized by biologists as a conservation success story in North America. After Puma concolor was nearly eradicated in the U.S. by a bounty system in the first half of the 1900s, numbers are steadily increasing. In Montana alone, wildlife officials estimate there are between 5,000 and 6,000 lions roaming the hills and forests.
This conservation success is largely due to houndsmen, says Jim Williams, the FWP regional supervisor for northwest Montana and the author of the new book Path of the Puma. Williams has over 25 years of experience working as a wildlife biologist, specializing in pumas—his preferred name for the cats—from Canada’s Yukon Territory to Tierra del Fuego in Argentina and Chile.
Williams said houndsmen fought the bounty system and later advocated for mountain lions to receive game animal status, which put a season and regulations on their harvest and gave law enforcement the authority to prosecute poachers. “The houndsmen have been integral to the recovery of the mountain lion,” he said. “They live for their hounds and the mountain lions.”
The story doesn’t end when lion numbers increase, though. It carries on for perpetuity, and it is the management decisions that are made today that could influence the species’ trajectory in the future.
Jay Kolbe, an FWP biologist in White Sulphur Springs, Montana, is the main author of the state’s new mountain lion monitoring proposal, which is available for public review until January 11.
This new plan would incorporate advanced modeling projections and annual mountain lion surveys in order to precisely predict the number of mountain lions in Montana. If approved, contracted houndsmen will conduct routine surveys in various areas of the state and collect muscle tissue samples with biopsy darts. This tissue sampling would be used to identify cougars using DNA, indicating travel patterns and ensuring they aren’t counted twice on census reports.
Montana is the first state to develop such a comprehensive monitoring strategy, Kolbe said, though he added that Washington state is developing something similar, and he hopes neighboring states will be inspired to adopt comparable plans.
“Before now, we had no effective and accurate method to estimate mountain lion population trends,” he said. “Wildlife is managed in trust by the state agencies. We have a responsibility to ensure that those species under that trust are managed sustainably.”
A freelance writer and Bozeman native, Jessianne Castle enjoys telling the stories of the West.