I have enjoyed tracking since I was a little girl. With the remarkable diversity of habitat in the 9 acres of Maine land that I grew up on, I was fortunate enough to get practice from an early age. With the help of my woods-wise family, I came to know cat from dog tracks, weasel from hare tracks, and deer from moose tracks. In 9th grade I did a science project comparing the diversity of tracks present near a small brook versus the larger Marsh Stream less than a mile away. I made plaster casts of tracks I found and even brought in baggies of scat to class, much to the disgust and intrigue of my classmates.
I hope the above introduction might serve to demonstrate the giddiness I would feel when discovering a new track in my adulthood. Last week, with the help of other woods-wise folks I tend to surround myself with, I discovered a track that I have never before seen, nor expected to ever see. Living in snowy Jackson Hole, Wyoming within the boundaries of Grand Teton National Park and just a 15 minute walk from Bridger-Teton National Forest, I am privileged enough to see a variety of tracks daily–from bison, moose, and elk to ermine, pine marten, and coyote. But this track is one I was surprised and intrigued by.
My partner in crime (well, in school, work, and life in general for the past several years), Joe, was out fishing as he does usually a minimum of once per week regardless of the weather (not ice fishing, open water fishing– wherever he can find open water in these subfreezing and often subzero temps…). In warmer months, I fish with him; however, when it gets to freezing temperatures, I do not feel inspired to stand in or around not yet frozen rushing water for some reason. I often will go explore in the area while he fishes, but this particular day he went on his own. When he returned, he said he found a variety of neat tracks and that we should go back with my camera and a measuring tape to figure them out.
So we returned to the riverside and this is what we found:A set of tracks traveling along the river with a straddle no wider than 9 inches and a stride (the back print of one set of tracks to the back print of the next set of tracks) of about 110 inches. A big animal for sure. The tracks themselves were very round and only showed claw marks on the iciest spots. One of the four toe prints seemed bigger than the rest. All these clues led us to believe that the animal that left these tracks was a Mountain Lion. Upon further research and consultation with a couple of our teachers, Kevin Taylor and Doug Wachob, we concluded that they were indeed Mountain Lion tracks!!
Because cats have retractable claws that they keep retracted when walking so as not to make them dull, one rarely sees cat tracks with claws showing. If you see more oval-shaped prints with claws always visible, you know you’re not looking at a cat track. However, sometimes cats will stick their claws out for extra traction in particularly icy conditions, which is exactly what we witnessed here. The roundness of the track, the distance of the stride, the lack of claws showing, and the one toe looking slightly bigger than the others leading to an asymmetrical looking track were all the clues we needed to determine that this was most likely a Mountain Lion track.
While I have known that Mountain Lions live in this area, they are probably the most elusive creature I have ever lived near. Seeing their tracks was a special treat for sure! Now I just need to see one in person…from a safe distance with my camera (and pepper spray) at the ready.