BLUE MOUNTAINS, Oregon – Elizabeth Orning’s tone wasn’t exactly blasé in her October email — more like matter-of-fact, as if she were inviting me to have coffee at The Beanery.
“So I have a den of cougar kittens to go in and collar this Friday,” her message read. “Short notice, but if you want to come out for that you’re welcome to.”
“Ohmygosh!” I blurted loudly from my desk in the attic of Adams Hall, causing my office mate to startle and swivel around in his chair. With agitated fingers, I speed-typed my answer. “Absolutely! I’ll rearrange my schedule.”
For Orning, a Ph.D. student in the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife at Oregon State University, tracking and studying cougars and wolves in the wild is what she does all day long; hence, the tone of everydayness in her message. But for me, as a science writer whose No. 1 professional interest is wildlife, the chance to see the cryptic carnivores in their native habitat tugged at me the way deep powder tugs at a downhill skier or Class V rapids beckon to a whitewater kayaker. Within minutes, I was on the phone making arrangements for the 345-mile trip from Corvallis to La Grande. And by day’s end, I was checking off a mental packing list (sturdy boots, insulated pants, wool socks) based on Orning’s warning, “It’s been dropping below freezing here overnight.”
Wolf Packs and Wild Cats
It all started last summer when I decided to write a story about Oregon’s resident gray wolves, which were getting lots of press because of the state’s pending decision to remove them from the endangered species list. Now that wolves and cougars were once again sharing the pine forests of the Blue Mountains — “The Blues” of northeastern Oregon — scientists and wildlife managers have been eager to discover how the two big meat-eating species are coexisting, and what impact this recently reestablished “carnivore guild” is having on prey animals such as elk and mule deer. I had reached out to Orning and her faculty adviser Katie Dugger, assistant unit leader for the Oregon Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit, asking if I might tag along one day in the Mount Emily Wildlife Management Unit to observe Orning’s fieldwork for a long-term, multiagency study being conducted by OSU and the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) in cooperation with the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla.
The researchers were willing, but not terribly encouraging about what I might see. “Most of it is not glamorous in any way,” Orning cautioned. “Mostly, we’re looking at predation sites (leftover bones, hooves and hair where prey animals have been killed). It can be quite physical over challenging terrain. I can’t make any promises about seeing any wolves or cougars.”
No problem, I told her, trying to sound youthful and energetic, tough enough to take on any degree of physical challenge. I promised to keep my expectations low.
That all changed in a heartbeat the morning I opened Orning’s “den of cougar kittens” email. During my 10 years on the Terra magazine team at Oregon State, my work has brought me into proximity with a number of wild species, most of them aquatic. At the Oregon Hatchery Research Center in Oregon’s Coast Range, for example, I stood hip-deep in Falls Creek cradling a massive, muscular, migrating Chinook salmon in my arms while fisheries biologists weighed it, measured it and clipped its fins before releasing it upstream to spawn. Another time I sat in a tiny observation blind with researchers who were recording the nesting behaviors of Caspian terns, lured to an artificial island in the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge by fake bird calls and plastic decoys. I’ve waded in the Marys River with fisheries biologists who were surveying baby lampreys with electro-fishing gear. I’ve fought nausea in choppy surf at Oregon’s Redfish Rocks marine reserve to witness researchers surgically implanting rockfish with electronic tags for monitoring. I’ve even voyaged to Mexico’s San Ignatio Lagoon with OSU marine mammal researcher Bruce Mate where, bobbing in a small skiff, I reached down and touched a baby gray whale in its birth waters. Years later, I can vividly recall the texture of the whale’s skin, soft and rubbery, like a neoprene wetsuit.
This time, I would be venturing into a mountainous wilderness where large carnivores hunt and mate and raise their young. Cougars and wolves embody wildness in a way few other animals do. The chance to be in their territory, to walk in their footprints, seemed like returning to some ancient place where big predators and humans were habitat mates. With a shivery spine, I began counting down the days.
Howling Hounds and Squirming Kittens
It was 30 degrees Fahrenheit and frosty the morning photographer Jim Yuskavitch and I met up with Orning and her team at the Pacific Northwest Research Station in La Grande. We piled into two white Ford pickups, one driven by expert houndsman Ted Craddock, whose highly trained pursuit dog Spur was crated in the truck for the journey. Orning got behind the wheel of the second truck and we headed out. She knew exactly where she was going. That’s because earlier, she had created a “cluster map” of the mother cougar’s recent movements based on locations from the cat’s GPS tracking collar, which had been placed around her neck a year and a half before. The locations were densest in the draw of a small creek, a place the cougar had returned to again and again over the past several weeks. The evidence strongly suggested a den.
It wasn’t long before we pulled off the highway and climbed out. Craddock released Spur from his crate and leashed him. Meanwhile, Orning was picking up the mother cougar’s signal on her radio receiver. The cat was nearby, undoubtedly watching us. Following Orning, we bushwhacked into a steep, wooded ravine of pine and larch, stepping over sofa-sized boulders and towering mounds of blow-down. At the bottom, where the creek gurgled prettily, Spur suddenly let out a fearsome howl. He had scented the cougar. His keening yowl, which he carried on the whole time we were in the ravine, ensured that the big cat would keep her distance.
After that, everything happened fast. Orning, who had been listening intently, detected a chirping, mewling sound from the slope above us. “There they are!” she said. She charged uphill with the sure-footedness of a deer, her teammates close behind. I struggled along at the rear, slipping and sliding on the loose rock. Just as I reached the others, Orning came rushing toward me, her hands snugged around a thick-furred, brown-and-tan cat with dark-blue eyes, rounded ears, outsized paws and prominent claws. “Lee, we need another animal handler!” With that, she thrust the 5-pound, 5-week-old kitten into my hands.
I sat on the ground holding the squirming kitten while Craddock stood nearby with his howling hound as Orning and her teammates — two trained animal handlers from ODFW — weighed and measured the three tiny cougars, tattooed their ears for later identification, and placed VHF collars around their necks. After about 30 minutes, we returned the litter mates to their den in a dense stand of Ponderosa pine, where their mother would quickly reclaim them.
Bubonic Plague and Other Perils
Back in the truck, Orning cautioned Jim Yuskavitch and me about diseases wild animals can carry. “Like what?” I asked. “Oh, bubonic plague, for one,” she said. “It’s extremely rare. But if you start to notice any symptoms like fever or swollen lymph nodes, be sure you go to a doctor right away.” I felt a fleeting spasm of alarm, then pushed the warning to the back of my mind. I forgot about it until a few days after I got home. On the radio, I heard a news story about a girl in Eastern Oregon who had just been diagnosed with plague. I did a quick check of my lymph nodes. No swelling. Knowing that plague is treatable these days, I stashed my worries. For a wildlife writer, I decided, the miniscule chance of contracting plague was an acceptable occupational hazard (along with the lesser perils of seasickness, coldness, dampness, thickets of briars, acres of mud, sore muscles, leaky hip-waders and general discomfort).
The truth is, I spend most of my professional life writing in the attic of Adams Hall, a pretty safe place despite the HVAC issues. (I once saw a list of dangerous occupations; “editor” was ranked at the very bottom for danger.) Oregon State’s wildlife researchers, on the other hand, daily brave some of Earth’s wildest, riskiest places so the rest of us can have critical knowledge about our fragile and wondrous planet. For you and me, our greatest risk is eye fatigue from reading their astounding stories too late into the night.
For an in-depth story about Oregon State University’s research on cougars and wolves, watch for the Winter 2016 issue of Terra magazine, out in February.
Lee Sherman Gellatly is associate editor of Terra magazine.