Mountain Lion at Evening
It’s early evening. A shrieking rhythmic bird call from a few miles away reverberates along the lakeshore, standing out from the birdsong and breeze like nails on a sky-blue chalkboard. I’m a frequent visitor to this corner of Montana, not yet fluent in Nature’s Flathead Lake dialect, but I catch the drift. Some sounds have a universal meaning.
There aren’t many birds that can call loud enough to broadcast an SOS for miles. I have seen the Canada Geese nesting nearby this time of year. They mate for life and are fiercely protective of their young. I’m guessing that a predator is threatening or has taken a mate or chicks
I listen for a few minutes. The call moves slowly around the shore, coming this way. Death on the move, translation “Danger!”
A dog starts frenzied barking next door. Kids yelling. Geese, dog, people — all sounding the same alarm. I hear a man call the dog. More yelling, coming closer.
I see a large shadow, an animal in the dense thicket across from our screen porch. It is not a deer. Maybe it’s a large fox? It disappears into the brushy center of the overgrown tangle of bushes and trees.
Then I hear the man yelling “Good boy, go get ‘em !”
A dog appears, racing around the thicket, directly in front of where I am sitting. The man follows, walking into the yard, onto my family’s property. In Montana, crossing someone else’s property line also crosses an unspoken boundary.
My alertness shifts from observer to readiness.
I say to him, without preamble, “What did you see?” He’s startled, didn’t see me sitting on the porch a few feet away.
He says “A huge mountain lion! Must have been 200 lbs! Did you see it?”
“Nope.” I lie.
I don’t trust him and that’s a fact. Haven’t since I heard his first yell.
The dog barks at the thicket. The man says “Do you see it, boy? Go get it!”
He carries nothing to protect himself or the dog. No gun, no bear spray; not even picked up a stick or rock. In other words, he appears to have weak instincts. I do not. I’ve spent the last few years prodding and sharpening my inner Voice.
Now I’m on defense. Two animals are threatened by this clueless two-legged. Almost no dog wins a fight with a full-grown mountain lion.
I’m watching the dog’s body language before I say anything more. He is not a hunting breed obsessed with scent, trained to corner prey. He knows the cat is there, yet he dances around the perimeter of the thicket. He is more interested in the game of chase with his owner than a confrontation with a large mountain lion. Smart dog.
The dog turns and races away. The man follows. A pickup truck drives by, people inside yell to the man, “Did you find it?”
See? I knew there was a reason I didn’t want to tell him I saw the cat enter the thicket on our property line. I’m glad it wasn’t a bear, they aren’t good at hiding. They come out swinging when threatened. This being Montana, there is likely a rifle in that truck.
“No!” he bellows across the lawn. Of course they haven’t seen the cat again. They were all making enough noise to scare off a deaf elephant let alone a mountain lion.
Voices fade as he disappears around the other side of the thicket, heading back to where he started.
My uncle is a retired forester, veteran, and lifelong woodsman who sometimes works for private landowners, many of them wealthy newcomers to this area. A couple of weeks ago he came across a mountain lion “kill” near here. A kill is prey the cat has killed, not a dead mountain lion. More woods vocabulary.
He said the kill was a large dog. The remains were scant, so the only reason he knew for sure is that he found the collar nearby.
Unlike bear kills, mountain lions don’t leave much behind. They often bury the carcass or drag it off for their cubs. The cubs will also help mama bring down a maimed animal and sequester it for a snack later.
My uncle called the number on the leash tags. The dog had been missing for a week or so.
I sit on the porch for a few minutes, very still, watching the thicket. I wish I could tell you I saw the mountain lion emerge, but I did not. It likely stayed hidden until long after dark.
The goose abruptly stops its incessant calling. Loss and loneliness fill the silent pulse in the air for a few fading beats. The night rises in the cool darkening woods.