Cougar and wolves battle in the Bitterroot

There might be an unusual amount of wolf/mountain lion conflict along the Idaho-Montana border-

Liz Bradley, a wolf manager for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks has found an unusually high number of wolves killed by cougar in the Bitterroot Mountains near the Montana-Idaho border from Lolo on the north to near the Idaho border on the south. Note that the irregular state boundary jogs from n/s to e/w at the southern end of the Bitterroot Range. Her observation of this goes back to 2009 and is mostly based on radio collared wolves.

Competition between the two large carnivores is well known. Numerous stories have been reported over the years in the northern rocky mountains. Studies in the Big Creek area of central Idaho showed that the wolf packs tended to push cougar out of the prime areas for their prey into the rough, less desirable country.

The story is important because too many people believe that predation on deer and elk is strictly additive by each type of predator, but in fact the two compete. When you add bear to the mix things are even more complicated, and bear are usually present. Studies of what killed the elk in various parts of western Montana have, in fact, generally shown that wolves fall behind cougar and bear as the cause of predatory death.

Wolf predation tends to cause a bigger stir among humans because it isn’t as quick as a cougar kill. There is more blood on ground and the wolves don’t bury their prey.

Perry Backus in the Ravalli Republic (reproduced here in the Missoulian) gives the full story on the Bitterroot.




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  1. SAP Avatar

    I love this kind of surprise (I doubt those wolves feel the same way). On further reflection, there are certain types of terrain that clearly favor mountain lions, and other terrain that favors wolves. I was aware of how these differences played out as far as these predators hunting ungulates; it never occurred to me that the same differences would help cats kill wolves. Clearly, terrain that favors a cooperative coursing predator like wolves would make cats highly vulnerable. It makes sense that the converse would be true as well.

    1. Ralph Maughan Avatar
      Ralph Maughan

      The Bitterroot with its forests and cliffs reminds more more of cougar country than wolf country, but it is not all the same. We would need to see the localities where the wolves were killed.

  2. Larry Thorngren Avatar

    If four out of five of the cougar-killed wolves had collars, then it seems that there are many other non-collared wolves that have been killed by cougars and have not been found.
    The other possibilities are that a radio collar attracts the attention of the cougar or being handicapped by a radio collar makes the wolf more susceptable to predation by cougars.
    I would like to know how many of the killed wolves were recently collared and might still be at less than 100% due to the effects of the immobilizing drugs and dart wounds.

    1. Jon Way Avatar

      Highly, highly unlikely that the collar facilitated a cougar killing a wolf. Collared wolves have no problem killing prey (at least compared to uncollared ones) so this is highly unlikely and the drugs wear off in 4-6 hours so that is highly unlikely as well.

    2. JB Avatar

      “The other possibilities are that a radio collar attracts the attention of the cougar…”

      Another possibility: Extremely small sample size (i.e., n = 5)!

  3. Mike Avatar

    Bitterroot Country is pretty neat. Like Ralph says, you don’t get as many of those alpine vistas, but it’s such a dense, sprawling landscape.

    I imagine Bitterroot wolves and cougars run into each other quite a bit at the edges of meadows.

  4. Savebears Avatar

    When was the last time any of you were in the Bitterroot?

    1. Jerry Black Avatar

      FYI…..the West and East sides of the Bitterroot River are completely different. The west side (Bitterroot Mtns) is rugged, forested, lots of small streams and very rocky. The east side would be a desert if it were not for the “big ditch” providing water for all the irrigation and even then the ranchers suck the streams dry in the summer. The mountains to the east (Sapphire Mtns) are considerably lower and between the river and the Sapphires are the cow farms, hay fields and some orchards.
      Lots of wolves have been killed on the east side….the packs on the west side are more difficult to find, but with trapping, it will be a different story.

    2. Nancy Avatar

      Interesting question SB. Why do ask?

      1. Savebears Avatar


        Because I want to know if those offering an opinion have actually been in the Bitterroot in the last couple of years, that is all, I was down there yesterday and see quite a bit of change going on.

        1. SEAK Mossback Avatar
          SEAK Mossback

          I’ve always had mixed feelings about the Bitterroot. It’s in an awesome location and I always wanted to dial back time to before the knapweed and ranchettes. However, I eventually accepted it as the “Commoner’s Montana”, as opposed to what’s portrayed in that glossy magazine (Big Sky?) with all the Sotheby’s real estate adds and intact huge ranches bought up by movie stars and magnates. My mother had an original 1879 map of Montana Territory on the wall, and even that showed that dense concentration of towns in that one valley compared with just a few scattered across the rest of the territory. So, I could sit in that great log restaurant way up on the mountainside and look down on the evidence of 50,000 people in the valley, and say “It is what it is (I just hope it doesn’t spread).” My personal experience with just about everybody in Hamilton was great, although a read of the paper indicated there were definitely some problem residents out there.

        2. Nancy Avatar

          Kind of like Bozeman?

          1. Nancy Avatar

            Or as a friend likes to call it ” The Bozone”

            1. chukt Avatar

              I first heard the term “Bozone” in the 80s.

              Recently heard a new one for me…and laughed.


    3. SEAK Mossback Avatar
      SEAK Mossback

      My folks used to live in Hamilton and I’ve been around there a bit — mostly day hikes. I always wanted to do a longer one, and my interest has been rekindled by IDhiker’s trip accounts. I hiked across in the vicinity of Lost Horse Pass a few years ago just to understand how those two Airforce guys, from Malmstrom I think, managed to get so completely lost on what should have been a very brief hunt. The evidence in their camper indicated they had arrived and set out on a brief evening hunt, which shouldn’t have extended much more than a half mile, because the legal territory they could hunt as Montana residents was just one side of a small mountain. The Airforce came in and did a long, extensive search and turned up nothing, and eventually winter settled in. The following year, an outfitter found one of them sitting under a tree something like 25 miles down the Selway with casings from his last cartridges laying spent beside him. A few months later, he found the other under another tree a half mile away. Looking at that mountain from both sides, and the way the respective creeks came away from it in a very similar way, it seemed reasonably plausible that initially they thought they were heading down the one into Montana with the road. It’s one place where the old Lower 48 rule of “When lost, always walk downstream — you’ll find civilization” didn’t work, at least within the distance they were prepared to travel. It did seem like pretty good cougar country.

    4. Mike Avatar

      Summer of 2011. I camped in the Selway-Bitterroot. Great area, a bit iffy on some of the folks.

      How about you?

      1. Savebears Avatar

        If you are addressing me Mike, I was in the Bitteroot on Friday and Saturday. Spring 2012

        1. Mike Avatar

          Did you get a chance to get into the wilderness?

          1. Savebears Avatar

            I did not get to do any hiking if that is what you mean, but I did get to spend some time at three different campgrounds teaching 6th graders about the wilds and wildlife safety, and spend some time with my wife’s cousins and uncles.

      2. elk275 Avatar

        Mike, everywhere you go people are “iffy”, when was the last time you looked in the mirror?

        1. Mike Avatar

          Sorry, Elk. I don’t much care for inebriated people packing heat.

          I think most would agree.

  5. Robert R Avatar
    Robert R

    I know of two different houndsman that have lost dogs because the lions would not tree. The one man lost three dogs and the other lost one with one severally injured. They both believe theses lions had been harassed by wolves.

    1. Jay Avatar

      Or hounds.

      1. Sabrina Leigh Avatar
        Sabrina Leigh


    2. Jay Avatar

      So riddle me this Robert–how much sense does it make for a solitary lion to respond to being harassed by wolf packs by not going up a tree and staying on the ground where it very likely would get killed by those very same wolves? On the other hand, cats would learn after being treed time after time by houndsman that it’s not worth the trouble of climbing a tree to get away from a couple or three piss-ant hounds.

      Just another example of scapegoating wolves by hunters.

  6. Ken Cole Avatar

    One of the very first wolves killed after the reintroduction in Idaho was killed by a mountain lion in the bitterroots too.

    1. skyrim Avatar

      #163 as I recall. A stunning male who was destined for Alpha status. An average quality image of this big boy graces my home.

      1. skyrim Avatar

        woops! #163 was not an Idaho wolf.

    2. Ken Cole Avatar

      We were both off. It was B4F and it was killed east of Missoula.

      1. Harley Avatar

        The wolves listed on that link, were some of those from the documentary Living With Wolves by the Dutchers?

        1. Harley Avatar

          Or was that Wolves At Our Door?

        2. aves Avatar

          No, the wolves from the Dutchers film were captive wolves and socialized to people as pups.

          1. timz Avatar

            And became known as the Sawtooth Pack
            and dwelled at WERC for many years.

  7. john Avatar

    The landscape plays a major role in both predator’s hunting tactics and dominance over the other. Similar to tigers in the Amur region (Far East Russia). Where there’s dense forest, tigers eliminate wolves but open forest, there are plenty of wolves but no tiger. Cougars cannnot completely eliminate wolves because they are not as big as tigers. I’m curious, with all this new imformation, what kind of data do they have in the southwest of competition between wolves, cougar and jaguar. With the mixture of terrian suited for all predators, I wonder the outcome of that scenario.


Dr. Ralph Maughan is professor emeritus of political science at Idaho State University. He was a Western Watersheds Project Board Member off and on for many years, and was also its President for several years. For a long time he produced Ralph Maughan’s Wolf Report. He was a founder of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. He and Jackie Johnson Maughan wrote three editions of “Hiking Idaho.” He also wrote “Beyond the Tetons” and “Backpacking Wyoming’s Teton and Washakie Wilderness.” He created and is the administrator of The Wildlife News.

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