I remember well my first encounter with a wild cat. I was sitting in a deer stand beneath a cross-country powerline, at the edge of a meadowed thoroughfare the whitetails frequented. Dusk was settling in—nearly time to go—as the trees opposite me began to rustle. With a few minutes of legal light left, I readied my trigger finger; but instead of a deer, a bobcat exited the woods. I was shocked. This—I had not expected. I watched as the cat looked left, then right, then straight at me, making eye contact. There was no reason I should have been noticed. I hadn’t made a sound, hadn’t moved in nearly three hours save the scanning of my eyes and the slight rise and fall of my chest with every breath. Still, I had been found. The cat ambled slowly but with purpose toward the ladder that connected my seat to the ground, stopping a few meters away. He or she never broke eye contact. Neither did I. I’m not sure why. Instinct, perhaps. I would learn many years later from a man who had stared down a mountain lion from a meter away that you never break eye contact with a big cat in the wild. Never. I have no idea how long we sat there together. Minutes? Seconds? Hours? It was fully dark when the animal turned to leave—so dark I had lost the pattern of its coat in the shadows. I never saw where it went; but I’ve been enamored with wild cats ever since.
The landscapes that have shifted and morphed and been politically bordered into what is now the state of Utah has been populated by wild cats since at least 40,000 years ago. During the Pleistocene Epoch’s last ice age, the infamous saber-toothed cat roamed Utah’s glacier-clogged crags. Bones of the saber-toothed species known as Smilodon have been unearthed in Utah, most notably from the Silver Creek site near present-day Park City. Smilodon, with its legendary curved, saber-like canine teeth, was a fearsome hunter of ancient Utah’s mega fauna like the mastodon and wooly mammoth; but when the glaciers receded and the Earth began to melt, the mega fauna couldn’t adapt, so Smilodon had nothing to hunt.
Smilodon gave way through the millennia to the smaller but no less impressive cats that occupy Utah’s crags and hills today—the bobcat, the Canada Lynx, and, of course, the famous mountain lion.
It hasn’t been too long since that spring evening in the canyons of southern Utah. We had just rappelled into a small grotto where, at the bottom, there was an ephemeral pool. The sand was already wet with little droplets along the edge, a footprint here and there leading away—the way we would take—down the only path toward home. We chattered more loudly, making ourselves known, as we proceeded. Then we’d grow quiet again, eyes sweeping here and there, secretly hoping we would get a peak of the lion as it sauntered away from us. We never did, but it was there.
I’m Josh Boling, and I’m Wild About Utah.
Photos: Courtesy US FWS
Big cat track photo courtesy and copyright Josh Boling
Audio: Includes audio from North Sounds, Inc.
Text: Josh Boling, 2018
Sources & Additional Reading
Golla, Julie M., “Urban Bobcat (Lynx rufus) Ecology in the Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas Metroplex” (2017). All Graduate Theses and Dissertations. 6857.
Bauman, Joe, Ice Age in Utah, Deseret News, Dec 3, 1997, https://www.deseretnews.com/article/598582/Ice-age-in-Utah.html
Larese-Casanova, Mark, Mountain Wildlife Field Book, Utah Master Naturalists, https://extension.usu.edu/utahmasternaturalist/files/UMNP_Mountains_Wildlife_Book_booklet.pdf
Fossils on Reclamation Lands Provide a Glimpse Into the Past, https://www.usbr.gov/newsroom/stories/detail.cfm?RecordID=57996
Ice Age Animals of Utah, Utah Geological Services, A division of the Utah Department of Natural Resources, https://geology.utah.gov/popular/general-geology/ice-age/ice-age-animals-of-utah/
Strand, Holly, Mountain Lion, Wild About Utah, Mar 4, 2010https://wildaboututah.org/mountain-lion/
Greene, Jack, My Cougar Encounter, Wild About Utah, Jan 16, 2017, https://wildaboututah.org/my-cougar-encounter/
Murie, O. J. (1982). Animal Tracks. Peterson Field Guides. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin. https://www.amazon.com/Peterson-Field-Guide-Animal-Tracks/dp/061851743X