Cat trackers follow cougar’s trail in Gardiner
When a mountain lion was spotted in Gardiner Jan. 8, a local resident phoned naturalist James Halfpenny for assistance.
Halfpenny, a well-known wildlife expert and author of several field guides to animal tracks, runs a private wildlife and education center, A Naturalist’s World, based in Gardiner. He studied mountain lions extensively in the Boulder, Colo., area beginning in the 1980s. His research is documented in the book, “The Beast in The Garden,” a 2004 book about the mountain lion’s return to suburban neighborhoods and a fatal attack that occurred in nearby Idaho Springs, Colo., in 1991.
Halfpenny and his wildlife ecology class — 16 students and an instructor from the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater — followed the cat’s tracks around Gardiner on the morning of Jan. 8.
They did not see the cat, also known as a cougar, Halfpenny said, but the group did collect hair samples and make plaster casts of the animal’s tracks. Halfpenny saw tracks in his own yard.
Based on the size of the tracks — which can span 4 inches across in a full-grown male — Halfpenny surmises the cougar was a young female.
Also on Jan. 8, local hunter Brad Shultz heard about the cougar sighting on his way to a plumbing job in Gardiner that day. Shultz tracks and trees mountain lions with dogs. He brought one of his hounds to Gardiner and went for a walk above the Gardiner Rodeo Grounds, located at the northern edge of Gardiner.
His dog treed two mountain lion kittens. Shultz estimated they were about 35 pounds each. Shultz circled around the tree and found a half-eaten deer carcass.
Halfpenny said there was no conclusive proof the two kittens were the offspring of the mountain lion, and Shultz agreed, but suspected the kittens were related to the adult.
Halfpenny has lived in Gardiner since 1992, and said he has never heard of a mountain lion sighting in Gardiner. He surmises the adult cat wandered into town lured by the scent of deer, a key food source for the cat — and maybe some garbage smells.
“It was probably just curiosity,” Halfpenny said.
Halfpenny said it’s a “good thing” the kittens were treed.
“They learned town is not a place to be,” he said.
If you encounter a cougar
Halfpenny has a seven-point program he presents on cougar proofing one’s self, home and property. He presented the program in Gardiner Saturday evening to 73 people.
Halfpenny has studied the research on cougar attacks. Since 1890, there have been 100 documented attacks in North America, with about 30 fatalities.
Cougars prey on animals smaller than themselves, so in a cougar encounter, it’s important to make yourself look large, Halfpenny said.
“Make yourself look bigger and convince them you’re not a prey item, but a danger to them,” he said.
Don’t turn your back on the cougar, don’t crouch, run or play dead. Don’t make sudden movements — fleeing may trigger a predatory response, he writes in a handout for his presentations.
If the cougar becomes aggressive, yell at it, throw things, stay standing and fight back.
Halfpenny will present his program again on Wednesday at 7 p.m. at his Track Education Center, 7 Jardine Road in Gardiner. The presentation is free.