Photo safari trip leader Brent Paull’s game plan for last Thursday happily went out the window.
A traveling wildlife guide from Tulare, California, Paull had just wrapped up leading three West Coast photographers on a three-day Yellowstone National Park tour. The group rolled into Jackson in the late afternoon to round out their week in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, pulling in around 4:15 p.m to the parking lot of the Super 8 Hotel.
Greeting the bunch was “a line of 150 photographers” immediately across Highway 89. Naturally, they moseyed over with their cameras to see what was up.
“We haven’t actually checked in yet,” Paull said. “We just got out of the car and walked across the street.”
Even as sunlight faded, there was no mistaking the critter centered in the viewfinder of Paull’s long-lensed camera, mounted on a tripod on the sidewalk next to the Maverik convenience store. In the frame was a mountain lion, tucked into the base of a juniper tree on High School Butte.
Social media had already tipped Paull and his clients off to a cougar visible somewhere in the Jackson area, but they had no idea the big feline was sticking tight to the slopes just across the street from their hotel.
The close encounter thrilled Springfield, Oregon resident Jim Woodward — one of Paull’s clients.
“This is my first cougar,” Woodward said. “It’s amazing. We just drive in here to the motel, and there’s a cougar on the hillside. Well, that’s convenient.”
For almost a week the buzz around Jackson has been about a mountain lion drawn down to the base of the butte towering above town and staying put to dine on a mule deer carcass stashed by a rock retaining wall above South Park Loop Road. Word spread quickly after the secretive cat was first sighted, and by early Wednesday afternoon dozens of onlookers had assembled to lay eyes on a cougar, a rare sighting anywhere in the world let alone in view from your gas pump.
Peak cat activity, at least in the light, came that first day.
“Here it comes, here it comes, here it comes!” Bridger-Teton National Forest wildlife biologist Jason Wilmot exclaimed from the driver’s seat of his pickup truck. “It’s moving.”
The apex feline predator took a few big bounds and bombed the hillside, sending magpies fleeing from the remains of the deer carcass, which partially protruded from the snow. On Wednesday the awe-inspiring behavior repeated itself a handful of times: The mountain lion would linger upslope obscured by the branches of the nearest juniper tree, and then, seemingly annoyed, scamper downhill to send scavenging corvids skyward.
“He came down the hill pretty hot,” Jackson resident Jenn Hunt remarked that first afternoon.
Resident Nina Lenz, seeing her first lion, was jubilant.
“It’s my birthday!” Lenz blurted while clapping. “And I saw it!”
Such was the mood midday in the parking lot of a west Jackson gas station.
But the chance at seeing the native big cat on the move proved fleeting.
In the overnight hours last Wednesday, the cougar took the initiative to fully cache its carcass, covering it entirely in snow. With ravens and magpies out of the picture, the cougar appeared content napping in the trees and sagebrush during nearly 10 daylight hours in subsequent days, padding down only to chew off pieces of frozen venison once the sun had set.
Photographers and inquisitive spectators dwindled as the days passed, though even through to Sunday night a dozen or so folks remained with their cameras fixed on the obscured, lethargic cougar lingering in the trees and waiting for darkness.
“This has been the name of the game,” bundled-up Victor, Idaho, resident and avid wildlife photographer Jack Bayles said from the seat of a lawn chair. “We’re all disappointed how good she’s been at caching [the deer]. There were a hundred crows through here today, but none of them actually touched down.”
The lion, Bayles explained, hardly budged during daylight hours for three straight days, though there were a couple of exceptions, including one feeding foray around dawn. Out on a walkabout much higher up High School Butte on Sunday morning, the cougar was also observed spooking a herd of mule deer, he said.
Speculation has run rampant over what to make of the cat.
Some theorized that it was the same animal seen in February 2018, photographed feeding on a deer next to the “Welcome to Jackson, Wyoming” sign just south of Smith’s. Late Sunday a former employee of the defunct Teton Cougar Project who lingered on the scene wondered and hoped that it was a dispersed offspring of one of her old research cats, F61.
Wildlife officials, who didn’t intervene by moving the carcass, said they were not too concerned with the cat and its proximity to a crowd. The Wyoming Game and Fish Department dispatched employees on occasion to check in, but the agency didn’t maintain a presence at the scene.
“Obviously, the priority for us is public safety, and we don’t view it as a public safety issue really,” Game and Fish spokesman Mark Gocke said. “The cat’s been keeping to itself for the most part, and it seems like everybody’s staying at a safe distance.”
Gocke said that because the cat isn’t “marked” — wearing an identifiable tracking collar or ear tags — it’s difficult to say anything about its life history with certainty. While not exactly routine, the animal’s presence right at the edge of town on a slope that holds mule deer in the winter isn’t shocking, he said.
“We have good lion habitat all around us,” Gocke said. “I’m sure they’re around more than we know. They’re just so secretive.”
When lions do come within eyeshot of roads and developed areas, a carcass, which can sustain a cat for a week, is often the reason. Such was the case in March 2018, when a cougar fed on a downed bull elk carcass about 500 yards off of the National Elk Refuge Road across from Miller Butte. Dozens of viewers turned into hundreds, fueled by the cat’s snowballing presence on social media, which attracted wildlife watchers from afar.
The Elk Refuge also was host to Jackson Hole’s most famous visible mountain lion, a cat nicknamed “Spirit.” In 1999, the lioness denned with her three kittens on the southeast corner of Miller Butte near the road. The weekslong show inspired the formation of a Jackson-based advocacy group the Cougar Fund and a book, “Spirit of the Rockies: The Mountain Lions of Jackson Hole,” along with ample press from national media.
This go-around at High School Butte, Jackson Hole wildlife filmmaker Jeff Hogan was a mainstay at the scene. A cinematographer who has left remote cameras at many mountain lion kill sites, he was glad the public has had a chance to see what he has observed many times.
“I think everything that cat is doing is completely normal behavior,” Hogan said nine hours into filming on Thursday. “The only thing that’s kind of unusual is that we spotted her. If that kill was behind one of those junipers up there, we’d never even know that cat was there.”
Some folks surmised the cat looked unusually thin and bony, but to Hogan’s eye the animal looked to be in good shape.
“She looks frickin’ great,” he said. “She’s a gorgeous, sexy-looking cat.”
Determining sex of a mountain lion from afar isn’t easy, but the crowd drifted toward dubbing the cat a female.
“It’s definitely a female,” wildlife photographer Savannah Burgess said. “The facial features, the ears make it a female.”
Burgess said she sent images to former employees of Panthera’s Teton Cougar Project, who confirmed the hunch.
The most faithful photographers staked out to see the Maverik lion adapted to its behavior, becoming nocturnal themselves. Burgess was among those who got in the habit of waiting around well into the evening to see the cat feed. Luckily, its presence coincided with a full moon, helping with visibility.
“It’s cool to see all the behaviors,” Burgess said on-site Sunday while the cat was still in hiding. “She’ll unbury the carcass and lick the meat and shake the hair off of it. You can see how strong of an animal she is when she’s pulling at that frozen carcass. Her back legs come off the ground!”
As the skies darkened Thursday, Paull and his clients were also readying to linger along the Maverik sidewalk into the winter night. Their bags were still packed and loaded in their vehicle, parked in the Super 8 lot across the highway and its stream of vehicles. Mountain lion in view, they had no intention of leaving.
“We’ll stick it out,” Paull said. “These cameras all shoot at 200 or 300 thousand ISO. You can shoot in complete darkness. It doesn’t mean the picture is good, but a picture is a picture is a picture.”
Gary Kunkel, one of his clients, chimed in: “And it’ll be of a lion.”