From the Field

The Mountain Lion in the Window

November 30, 2017

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The subject of the message was: OMG! Mountain Lion Kitten in Window Well!!!!

After checking to make sure it wasn’t some very clever phishing attempt, I clicked the link open and there it was. Seven seconds of, yes, indeed, a mountain lion kitten in a window well.

Of course, I had questions. So many questions.

Where is this? When is this? Whose window is this? How did the kitten get in the window well? How did it get out? And then the one I should have asked first, wait, where, exactly, is mother mountain lion?

Happily, Conservancy staffers Charles and Jolynn Messerly, who posted the video to an internal TNC message board, had the whole story. Well, they had the story up to a point, but we’ll get to that in a minute.

Where + When

Where: The Conservancy’s Matador Ranch in the grasslands of north central Montana

When: The Sunday after Thanksgiving

Whose Window: Charles and Jolynn Messerly’s, ranch managers who live on the Matador Ranch with their three daughters

As Jolynn and Charles graciously told the story when I pretty much called out of the blue to pepper them with questions (see above), they first became aware of the mountain lion kitten when their dogs started barking.

“We think the mother mountain lion has a deer kill near the creek that’s fairly close to our house,” said Charles. “She and her kittens – they usually have two with them – were probably crossing nearby and somehow this kit and the mother got separated.”

Mountain lion kitten in the woodpile (taken from a distance) © Jolynn Messerly/TNC

Jolynn brought the dogs in and then she and Charles kept an eye on the kitten from the house, hoping the mother lion would come back. The kitten took up a position on the woodpile nearby and, well, seemed to be perfectly relaxed there for most of the afternoon.

When the mother mountain lion failed to reappear, they called the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks who sent a biologist to the ranch.

From the Woodpile to the Window Well

“It was when the state biologist tried to catch him [the kit] that he got from the wood pile to the window well,” says Jolynn. “He was a fighter and did not want to be caught.” Because it was too late to take the kitten down to the creek closer to the suspected deer kill, the biologist kept the kit overnight and returned in the morning to release him.

“We took him down to the creek,” says Charles and released him there.

It’s been four days and they haven’t seen any more sign of him, or the mother lion. Of course, says Charles, that doesn’t mean they’re not there.

“I really just feel like there’s got to be a deer kill [nearby],” he explains, and he’s been looking for it for the past few days. “I’d hoped I could find the mother and the kitten together. There’s quite a few mountain lions around now – getting more all the time. Our deer population on the ranch has gotten a lot better and that’s bringing the cats. The biologists were confident the mother mountain lion and kitten would find each other again.”

The Privilege and Responsibility of Living with the Wild

Living on Matador Ranch the Messerly family is used to seeing and living close to some of the northern Great Plains’ most iconic animals – black-footed ferrets, mule deer, prairie dogs, pronghorn, sage grouse, and, yes, mountain lions.

All those animals – and the grassland habitats they depend on – are kind of the point of Matador Ranch, after all. Their presence means the conservation practices at Matador and the surrounding ranches (read about that work here) are working. Mountain lions at Matador are a good thing because it means the big predators are returning to some of their historic ranges in the plains.

Still, even for the Messerly family, a three-month-old(ish), fifteen-pound(ish) mountain lion kitten pawing at the window of their daughter’s bedroom is a little more up close and personal than they’re used to.

“Yeah,” says Charles. “That was a first. He startled our daughter when he dropped down into the well, and then she wanted to open the window.”

Well, of course, she did. Just looking at the video, I want to open the window. But girls raised on a working ranch and nature preserve in the Montana grasslands know better than to open the window to a mountain lion, no matter how cute his paws and ears are. It’s something I think a lot of us forget.

Me as much as anyone because I keep thinking “kitten” and forgetting “mountain lion.”

Girls raised on a working ranch & nature preserve in Montana know better than to open the window to a mountain lion, no matter how cute his paws and ears are.

@ccbyington

But as Charles pointed out, “He may look cute and cuddly, but he’s still a lion, still a wild animal.”

I grew up in Florida where alligators and venomous snakes are part of the everyday outdoor experience and you learn to be vigilant without being afraid. I don’t want to live in a world without mountain lions, or grizzly bears, white sharks, water moccasins or alligators, for that matter. So if this is what it takes to share the world with the wild – vigilance, a knowledge of its ways, and, finally, a willingness to leave the window closed, and let animals (even the cute and cuddly ones) be what they are without regard to my sensibilities – then I can live with it.

I can live with the mystery of what happened to the mountain lion in the window.

Mountain Lion, not the one in the window © Paul Berquist
Cara Byington

Cara Byington is a science writer for The Nature Conservancy covering the work of Conservancy scientists and partners, including the NatureNet Fellows for Cool Green Science. A misplaced Floridian living in Maryland, she is especially fond of any story assignment involving boats and islands, and when not working, can be found hiking, kayaking or traveling with her family and friends. More from Cara

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3 comments

  1. As neighbors of the Messerly family I can attest to the spurt of lion numbers in our area in the past few years. So far the dogs keep them at bay… most of the time.