I have spent a lot of time in the mountains and back country of my home state of Idaho, and also Utah, Wyoming and Montana. I am 71 years old and to my recollection I cannot remember ever having seen a cougar in the wild. I’ve seen bobcats a few times, but never the big cats, the mountain lions, also known as the puma or cougar. A neighbor across the valley hunts them with dogs- just to hear about the energy it takes to keep up with the hounds, I know I could never do that. I’d like to see a cougar sometime, maybe I will, but they are elusive, at least in my experience. I’ve seen coyotes and wolves in the wild, and many foxes. The only other animal I’ve never seen is a wolverine, they too are very rarely seen by humans. It’s interesting to me that a person can spend many many days in the habitat of both the cougar and wolverine, but never see them.
I have two friends that have seen a cougar up close and personal in the wild, because both of these men were stalked by them, and one was attacked and the other was only a second or two away from attack. The only thing that saved him from the claws and fangs was his own rifle, and the other man was saved by the quick thinking and straight shooting of his own son.
I’ve heard it said that cougars and wolves will not attack humans. That may have been the case in the past, but things are different now, at least concerning mountain lions it is, and I’ve heard of a few instances with wolves also. But what I tell here, I know for a fact because I’ve gotten the eye witness account of both of these men. I was approached some years ago by a man here in Star Valley who wanted me to paint a picture of the attack which involved him and his son. I eventually did the painting from his personal account and also from the newspaper article and photos he provided.
Kellen Lancaster and his son Adam were hunting by horseback together one sunny October day on what is called the “south end” which is exactly that, the south end of Star Valley. This country is big, unfenced, wide open country partly timbered, partly open sage, grass meadows and hills, there's springs and creeks, it's good habitat for both deer and elk with plenty of both, and where deer are, cougars are.
They had killed a nice buck near the top of a rocky nob in open country. Timbered draws lay to the west and east, but here there was only sage, grass and a few pockets of aspen. They tied the horses to some aspen trees on the top of the nob, then walked downhill a little ways to the buck and started to field dress the animal.
During the process or shortly after, Kellen was standing up in the sage brush, giving his back a little rest when he noticed a movement in the sage off to one side. He turned his head to get a better look and saw a mountain lion crouched in the shadows of the sage staring at him. Kellen told me that penetrating, totally fixed, blood thirsty stare of a hungry mountain lion is a look he will never forget, and he knew he himself was the object or target of that killer stare. He yelled at Adam, telling him to run to the horses where their rifles were in their scabbards, hanging from the saddles, because a cougar was about to attack. Adam ran as fast as he could to the horses which were only 20 or 30 yards away.
Kellen, keeping his eyes on the cat started to back up or back away from him. As he was moving backward, he tripped on a sagebrush and fell backward to the ground. The lion sprang toward him at the same time, landing at Kellen’s feet, having leaped as far as he could in one bound which was probably about 15 feet or so. Kellen kicked the cougar in the face and crawled backward as fast as he could. The cat pounced again but Kellen delivered a second hard kick under the animals jaw, momentarily stunning him. The cat took a powerful side swipe with his paw, the talons spread and fully exposed trying to rake the flesh of Kellen’s leg. Another quick kick from Kellen sent a spray of rocks and dust into the eyes of the lion, momentarily blinding him. “SHOOT! SHOOT!” He yelled not fully knowing where Adam was, but trusting by now Adam had gotten a rifle. The cat bared his fangs in a blood curdling scream and pounced again, then swinging his powerful forearm and spread paw in another attempt to sink his talons deep into Kellen’s leg. An eternity had gone by, he couldn’t hold out much longer he felt, then fangs or claws or both would have him. Kellen saw an explosion of hair leap off the side of the lion and his body contort, hearing, at the same time the sharp crack of the 30-30 Winchester in his ears, and the cougar collapsed simultaneously landing on his boots and legs, dead as dead could be by a bullet through the heart. Adam was with his Dad almost instantly, helping him to his feet. They held each other for a moment in silent relief. Kellen weakly muttered, “You saved my life.” Adam was a tall, strong, young man, in his late teens or early twenties. A loving, trusting association already between them, now had been forged and welded into an unbreakable bond of the strongest iron. Special tears of gratitude to each other and to God, welled up in the eyes of both father and son. A true life drama had taken place on this hill, never to be forgotten. Kellen told me that they weren’t sure whether the cat had already been stalking the buck when they shot it or whether he had scented it and came afterward, but either way the lion was hungry and wasn’t going to be denied.
My other friend from Wheatland, Wyoming, but living then in Star Valley, just up river from our house, was hunting elk when he felt goose bumps on the back of his neck. He turned to see the same thing Kellen had seen, a mountain lion crouched and ready to spring on him. He wheeled around and fired his rifle point blank killing it instantly also.
Another neighbor, Steve Hutalla, who lived just down river from the man from Wheatland was sitting in his front room one night watching TV, when he saw a movement in the living room window, he looked to see a large mountain lion standing on a hard snow drift which was as high as the window sill, and it was staring at him. I'm happy to say I've never looked out my front room window and seen a cougar on a hard snow drift out there. That's a disappointment to be happy about.