Initially, just one adult lioness padding apace with a single kitten stepped into the frame of Jackson Hole resident Tiffany Smith’s Nest home security camera.
Then a second kitten followed, and then a third — still totally normal. The fourth young cougar of the clan that stepped into the frame was a relative rarity. And the fifth? That made the litter extraordinarily large for a mountain lion, experts say.
“It’s extremely rare,” Wyoming Game and Fish Department large carnivore supervisor Dan Thompson told the Jackson Hole Daily. “And it’s a pretty amazing thing to see.”
Four-kitten litters have been documented with some regularity, but to Thompson’s recollection five-kitten litters are hard to come by in Wyoming. A six-cougar family was once spotted in the southwestern part of the state, and another had been previously verified in Jackson Hole.
The third such six-cat clan was documented just this week roaming through large-lot residential areas west of Jackson.
Wyoming Game and Fish received reports and a couple of home videos surfaced of the six–deep cougar clan in the Indian Springs and Ely Springs neighborhoods.
The sighting, reminiscent of a pride of more-social African lions, predictably went viral online. After Christina Atkinson posted several videos from her friend Smith’s home camera, they attracted hundreds of thousands of clicks.
The average number of kittens born to a Jackson Hole female mountain lion is three, based on data from the former Teton Cougar Project, a research outfit that studied cats in the eastern half of the valley from the early 2000s until 2017. Mark Elbroch, who led the project before it relocated to Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, said nine cases of four-kitten litters were noted out of 34 litters the project’s biologists monitored in the den. There was a single five-kitten litter recorded, born in 2011 to a lioness with the research number F51.
“I’m not trying to take away the excitement,” Elbroch said, “but I don’t think we know how common it is for a mountain lion to have five kittens.”
Five kittens, he said, is generally considered the upper end of what a mother mountain lion is capable of bearing, though a video recently emerged of a Montana cat toting six kittens.
Mountain lions can and do adopt orphaned kittens, so although it’s likely, it’s impossible to say if all of the kittens caught on video this week were born to the adult female in the video.
“Did she adopt one or two?” Elbroch asked. “We just don’t know the origin story.”
One of F51’s young ones from the previous five-kitten litter, he pointed out, was adopted by another cougar, F61, presumably after dispersing. Three of the five kittens survived until they were old enough to set out on their own, which is at 18 months on average.
Elbroch and Thompson’s age estimates of the caught-on-camera kittens varied slightly, but they guessed that the five kittens were between 4 and 6 months old. As the kittens grow, the two biologists agreed, the mother cougar will become a busy lady, having to hunt to feed six mouths.
“Once they get to that 8- to 10-month zone,” Thompson said, “they’re usually cleaning up kills pretty quickly.”
Elbroch’s take: “They’ll be voracious. It’s going to be a lot of work.”
Wyoming Game and Fish isn’t taking any type of action with the lion family unless it sticks tight to residential areas, spokesman Mark Gocke said.
“We have had lions that show up near developed areas, and it’s not terribly uncommon,” he said. “They just move on. We don’t have any reason to think that’s not what’s going to happen here.”
Elbroch said several of his research cats ventured down to Snake River riparian area west of Jackson — near Indian Springs and Ely Springs — which is great winter habitat.
“You’ve got a lot of deer and elk that come into the river bottoms, tons of porcupine,” Elbroch said. “And people in that area are relatively tolerant of cats, and that’s important.
“I hope people celebrate the sighting,” he said, “rather than worry about it.”