Wednesday, December 3, 2008

The Curious Case of the Yellowstone Tiger

Sometime during the summer of 1999 a visitor reported to the Grant Visitor Center he had seen a tiger in the area. I suppose they could have laughed in the man’s face, but they did the right thing and reported it to Resource Management by using the Rare Animal Sighting form. Tigers are not native to Yellowstone, or the Rocky Mountain region, or North America for that matter, but we had to take the report of a tiger running around Grant Village with some seriousness.

The likelihood that it was actually a tiger that the visitor saw was almost nil. However, he could have seen a cougar, a very similar animal in many ways. They are approximately the same shape with long tails. The average weight of a tiger is 540 pounds, says Google. The average weight of a cougar is about 100 pounds. But if the cat wasn’t standing next to a man, or a horse or a car, how can you judge scale? And besides, if it really was a tiger, maybe it was a tiger cub. It would not be the first time a exotic animal had been abandoned in the park. People do strange things and someone could have decided their tiger cub was too rambunctious and needed the freedom of the wide open spaces of Yellowstone. If they couldn’t find water buffalo, maybe they could try out American Bison. So, we tried to find the visitor but had no luck. He had left the park and his whereabouts were unknown.

Now, in the U.S. Government, you can’t just ignore reports like this. First, a tiger would be exotic and not allowed to roam the park. And, if you ignore a report of a tiger running around Yellowstone, however unlikely, and later it kills a busload of tourists, you are in deep trouble. It would probably be the last Rare Animal Sighting form you would ever look at.

It was probably a cougar, perhaps sighted in bright sunshine with lodgepole shadows across it’s flanks. However, cougars in Grant were almost equally as rare as tigers. None had been seen there, ever, as far as we knew. Cougars are not rare in Yellowstone, but are rare in the Grant Village area because deer are present in pretty small numbers. Deer happen to be the cougar’s primary source of food, and where you find cougars you usually find lots of deer, and vice versa. Deer don’t hang around Grant because it is not particularly prime deer habitat due to the heavy timber and heavy snow in winter. They migrate into Grant in summer but in small numbers. It is prime elk habitat, but cougars aren’t big enough to take down a medium sized elk. So Grant Village has almost no cougar sightings.

But again, the report had to be taken seriously. If a cougar was in Grant village and was bold enough to be seen by a visitor, it might be sick or wounded. A vulnerable animal like that might attack kids or small adults around the village. Our sub-district ranger made the only call he could. He sent Resource Management out to find evidence of a tiger. Or a cougar.

Off we went to look for tiger tracks, a first for me. If we perhaps found cougar tracks, that was equally important to report. Because if a cougar attacked a visitor, and we had let this report sit in the basket, someone would pay with their job. I went out with absolutely no hope of finding a tiger track, but had some hope of finding the track of a cougar.

We started on 1167 Creek because it was the closest creek to the sighting. (Where it got that name, I don’t know.) It was a creek bed we knew well because, once a week, all summer long, we walked it, along with four other creeks, with the purpose of counting spawning cutthroat trout. We counted spawning trout with a hand held counter, we also noted bear tracks (which we measured and guessed at the species, grizzly or black), bear scat, wolf and coyote scat, fish carcasses, wolf and coyote tracks, and any other fish predator tracks. We measured the water flow and the water temperature, judged the clarity of the water, measured the air temperature, weather conditions, and a bunch of other factors. After all, we were supposed to be scientists.

So we knew where to look for tiger tracks and where not to look for tiger tracks. A tiger or cougar would need to drink, so we went to the creek’s sandy bends and carefully examined the sand. Before long, BINGO, we came across a cat track. We looked in our books and determined it was indeed a big cat (for the Rockies), not a wolf. But, it was nowhere near the size of a tiger track, or a lion for that matter. But it was definitely a cat track. Probably a cougar, but maybe a tiny tiger. We broke branches and framed the print and put a couple of large sticks over it to protect it for awhile. We hustled back to the ranger station and made our report. The sub-district ranger made the difficult call to ask for a team with dogs to run down the cat. Classic cover-your-ass.

The cat, whatever it was, was long gone by the time the team showed up. I showed them where we found the print and they agreed it was feline. But the dogs never caught any sniff of a cat. We never learned what the critter was, and no tiger sightings were made known to us for the rest of the summer. No doubt, it was a cougar. But who knows? What I do know is this. I am probably the only National Park Service Ranger ever sent out to look for the track of a tiger.


Anonymous said...

Great story! We do indeed have a neighborhood cougar, though we've never seen him/her/it a few neigbors have. The homeowner's association puts out annual "rules of engagement" should you happen to bump into a "cat" while out jogging. I solved that problem by making a commitment not to jog. They told us you're supposed to still up tall, make eye contact, and speak loudly. "Baaad kitty!". The local bobcats are almost domesticated (but I wouldn't try to pet one).


Peggy said...

You know, it occurs to me that every profession has some element of cover-your-ass involved. Working in retail, you always had to take every complaint seriously, even if the customer insisted that the laminated wood cutting board she was returning and you were now holding (in many pieces and very dried out) never went through the dishwasher. It is possible (wink) that she got an extremely substandard product and, besides, you want her future business. Last night, Tony got a call from a known drug seeking mother about her 14 year old daughter who had aches and pains associated with the flu. She was pressuring Tony to prescribe a narcotic for her daughter's symptoms. As a physician, Tony has a daily challenge and always has to play both sides for the health of the patient and besides, he doesn't want to get sued. He also doesn't want a drug seeker to have more drugs. It's a tricky world.