Apologies to the Tin Man, Scarecrow and Lion, but when walking a trail in the La Sal Mountains, “Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!” just doesn’t work. Hence, the “pika” substitution. And though the Wizard of Oz characters feared those creatures, we use the chant to invite their presence.
Out of the three, mountain lions are the least likely to be seen by a hiker. Maybe some tracks in the soft mud or a rare skeleton discovered away from the trails. I have yet to see a cougar in the wild. Some people might argue that that is a good thing, and depending upon the circumstances, I might agree. There is always a chance that the cat’s response might not be to flee, and it will mistake my “deer in the headlights stare” as an opportunity to pounce. But, as a naturalist, the desire to view wild critters far outweighs the fear.
That doesn’t mean that I want to be “Grizzly Man” or think that I’d like to pet a wild cat. My respect for them keeps me at a safe distance, but still fuels my desire to observe them. And if you have ever seen one in the wild, you have my envy.
Mountain lions, also known as cougars or pumas, may stretch 6-9 feet in length and weigh 70 to 190 pounds as adults. Their large thick tail, tipped in black, may be seen twitching and flicking like a house cat’s tail, as it hangs over a rock outcrop or drapes over a tree branch. These powerful predators prey primarily upon deer, but will consume a variety of creatures from mice to mountain goats including rabbits, birds, bobcats, beavers, elk, bighorn sheep, and even porcupines.
Similar to bears, cougars will use overhanging banks, caves, the hollow of a large tree, or holes beneath large windblown trees for dens. But unlike bears, mountain lions do not hibernate in winter.
Whereas mountain lions are rare to see, black bear sightings are more common in the La Sals. There is a healthy population of bears in the forest, and chances are you will discover one of their more common calling cards during a hike: scat piles. Bears tend to use well-traveled paths to their favorite feeding areas; hence, the abundance of scat.
It is amazing that such a large creature gets by on a diet of berries, plants, roots, nuts, insects, and carrion. Of course, they are attracted to human garbage or food left out at campsites. But the saying “A fed bear is a dead bear” holds true when bears become habituated to raiding campsites, trailers or cabins in search of food. Some bears get relocated, but their memories get them back into trouble. Always, always keep a clean campsite and reduce the opportunities for bears to get into trouble – they are a little bit like teenagers in that category.
Whereas a cougar might bolt at the first opportunity, black bears may hold their ground and check out any intruder. Adults sometimes stamp out a warning or give a “huff” to indicate their displeasure at being disturbed. They may even charge if you stand still – black bears see this as a failure to understand their warnings and as a challenge to their territory. A slow retreat on your part might be the better part of valor.
Sandwiched in between the bears and cougars, is the last of the three – the pika. This small member of the rabbit family occupies rocky talus slopes. Known as “rock rabbits,” pikas feed on grasses and forbs, hauling mouthfuls from nearby meadows up to their rocky domains. Here they spread the vegetation out to cure before storing it in “hay piles” for the winter. Like cougars, pikas do not hibernate, but feed upon these plant piles during the winter. Of course, they may also tunnel through the snow to forage on plants.
As you walk by a rocky slope listen for the high-pitched “pee-ka” calls originating from the rocks. Be patient, for pikas may “bounce” their voices, and not appear where it sounds like they should be. They may also be hidden beneath a rock or blend into their surroundings due to their coloration, but their movements will betray their presence as they scamper on furry soles across the slopes.