Why Are Mountain Lions Killing Wolves In Pacific Northwest And Will It Start Happening In Wyoming?

In what appears to be a growing trend, wolves are getting killed by mountains lions in the Pacific Northwest. That's not happening in Wyoming where wolves are still king.

Mark Heinz

December 19, 20224 min read

Mountain lion v worlf 12 19 22
(Cowboy State Daily Staff)

In the eternal canine vs. feline struggle, mountain lions in Washington and Oregon have been scoring kills on wolves, but don’t count on that happening too often in Wyoming. 

Killing between the species is rare here, and mountain lions remain below wolves on the pecking order, Dan Thompson, a large carnivore specialist with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, told Cowboy State Daily.

Bad Cats In The Northwest

In what appears to be a growing trend, wildlife agents last month discovered the remains of a wolf thought to have been slain by a mountain lion in Oregon near the Washington border, according to reports. 

The wolf’s skull appeared to have been pieced by a big cat’s fangs. The wolf was thought to have been a member of the Grouse Flats Pack, which lives primarily in Washington, but occasionally makes forays into Oregon. 

At least four radio-collared wolves from Washington are known to have been taken out by mountain lions in the past nine years, and those are just the cases that wildlife agents can confirm. 

The slain wolves were all apparently caught alone, because there are no known instances of mountain lions trying to take on a wolf pack, researchers say.

Meanwhile, over a monitoring period stretching back 18 years, it’s thought that fewer than half as many wolves have been killed by mountain lions in the Rocky Mountain region of Wyoming, Montana, Idaho and Colorado, researchers claim. 

Wildlife agents aren’t sure what’s tipping things away from the status quo and more in favor of mountain lions in the Northwest. 

Wyoming Mountain Lions Not Wolf-Slayers

Wherever mountain lions share territory with wolves and/or bears, the cats typically end up being the bottom-rung species, according to wildlife researchers Mark Elbroch and Anna Kusler.

This can frequently be to a mountain lion’s determent, sometimes even driving them to starvation when wolves and bears lay claim to better territory and more prey, they said. 

The presence of wolves has in some cases forced Wyoming mountain lions to change their ways, Thompson said. 

“Wolves are a more territorial species than mountain lions and we have documented some behavioral and distributional shifts of mountain lions in areas of high wolf density,” he said. “Mountain lions are subordinate to wolves.”

The big canines and felines rarely tangle in Wyoming, he added, but when they do, it’s usually over food. 

Treeing Cats Is Nothing New

Wolves and mountain lions can both be legally hunted in Wyoming. 

In core habitat adjacent to Yellowstone Park, wolves may be hunted only during designated seasons and within bag limits. Elsewhere in the state, they may be killed on sight at any time, with no bag limit.

Mountain lions are hunted throughout the state according to the regulations of set hunting seasons and bag limits. They may also be hunted with hounds in Wyoming. 

Hound hunting for big cats usually involves the dogs being set loose to track a mountain lion in hopes that they will eventually drive it up a tree, allowing the hunters a chance to catch up and make the kill. 

In that case, the cat’s instincts are playing in hunters’ favor, Thompson said. Mountain lions long ago learned to climb trees to escape wolf packs. 

“In an evolutionary ecological sense, there is a reason a mountain lion can still be treed by most domestic dog species,” he said. “That has their defense mechanism from canids for thousands of years and it is still used to this day.”

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Mark Heinz

Outdoors Reporter