As hunting season sets around southwest Montana, hordes of camo-clad Bozemanites take to the mountains in search of prey. Amid all the birds and grass-eating ungulates, one game species stands apart. This creature is different. It seeks flesh, not flora. It bears claws rather than hooves to help secure its sustenance. It doesn’t run when confronted, but stands its ground, calm and unafraid. It is a predator of the highest order—a cool, confident killer. And it feeds only on the young.
This mysterious mammal is the cougar, rare and beautiful beast of the mountains. Feared by many, revered by some, tamed by others, this slinky feline offers an exciting hunt, rarely disappointing the hungry hunter looking for intense and unforgettable action. Bagging one of these elusive animals can be the experience of a lifetime—many hunters claim they’ve learned more from a single cougar than from all their other prey combined.
Identification and Range
The Montana cougar is an attractive animal: clean, well-groomed, with a lustrous coat overlying a lithe, healthy body. It is usually between 40 and 50 years old, and like most cats, it moves with an elegant gait and a smooth, confident demeanor.
Strong cougar populations exist in Bozeman and Belgrade, with occasional appearances around Livingston, Three Forks, and West Yellowstone. Big Sky has a sizeable nonresident population, whose numbers fall off dramatically in spring and fall, when the lusty lions migrate back to their home range.
Cougars typically travel solo, but some gather in “power pairs” or mingle in groups of three or four. To distinguish between a cougar and a common she-cat, look for wrinkles around the eyes, a more pungent aroma, and vivid coloration around the cheeks, eyes, and lips. The cougar is also known to emit a deep, throaty growl when aroused.
In other areas of the country, cougars tend to possess a certain plasticity around the face and chest, and a taut hide that accentuates ample mounds of flesh. Around Bozeman, these features are seldom seen. Expect a more natural appearance, with the cougar’s face and physique chiseled to mammalian perfection by decades of fresh air and vigorous outdoor activity.
Behavior and Habitat
Like many predators, cougars are bold, self-assured creatures who know exactly what they want—and they usually get it. They feed exclusively on young males in prime physical condition. A cougar's victims are typically under 25, as they find older males’ bulging midsections and sparse cranial pelts unappealing. Cougars generally feed and then continue hunting; like most cats, they enjoy the hunt as much as the slaughter. Always on the prowl for fresh meat, they seldom come back to the same kill.
Cool and cunning, a cougar exudes freedom and feminine power. Her first kill usually comes immediately after her kittens have left the den, or when she catches her mate in another cat’s lair. Once she tastes blood the first time, her appetite becomes ravenous. Normal she-cats often transmogrify into cougars after a sudden, unexpected severance from their long-term mates.
The best places to find cougars are damp, dimly lit watering holes in and around the Gallatin Valley. In the summer and winter seasons, cougars roam the Big Sky area en masse. During the day, they can often be found dozing under artificial lights or stretching languidly on padded ground with other she-cats.
A Montana cougar is not to be taken lightly. She is a skilled and savvy hunter with no peer in the feline world. Though she can seem indiscriminate in her choice of prey, there is actually a clear method to her predatory madness. Always hungry but seldom desperate, her every move is calculated and controlled. Observe her carefully and proceed with caution.
Despite the risks, it’s best to go it alone. A cougar’s binocular vision is designed to focus on a single object; multiple options may confuse and disorient her. Never approach a cougar from behind, lest she spook and stop feeding for the night. Angle in from the side, gliding slowly into her peripheral vision. Make eye contact and smile, then coyly look away. This triggers the predatory instinct.
When addressed, speak in shy, timid tones. Try to seem vulnerable, yet still physically strong and virile. Cougars are extremely visceral creatures who enjoy overcoming resistance; act too eager or submissive and she’ll pass you up for a more challenging victim. Watch your back, as you may find yourself being stalked by a rival cougar. If both animals engage in a cat fight, they’ll have no energy left for feeding.
At the right watering hole, at the right time of evening, a lucky hunter may find success by playing possum. Visibly consume copious fermented fluids, slump over, and remain still. Cougars are opportunistic animals; a particularly hungry specimen may drag you back to her lair for an easy meal. Just be prepared for an awkward and painful case of “cougar arm” in the morning.
The best hunting takes place between dusk and midnight, when their appetites are strongest. Cougars are the most experienced predators in the forest, so always use your head. You cannot outsmart a cougar. Rather, try to understand the creature and identify her needs. Remember that above all else, a cougar revels in the hunt. Lure her in, keep her interested, and at the right moment, entice the pounce. Expect to suffer claw marks.
Walter Lewis is an experienced cougar hunter, entering dozens of cougar dens and mounting trophies throughout his house. Contact him at [email protected]