Sunrise in the Gros Ventre Wilderness is one of the most beautiful sights you could ever see, but that particular day in December was something special. We had six inches of fresh snow on the ground and the temperature was a toasty 20 degrees (a 40-degree increase from the day before). We were the first truck on the road that morning and during our 20-mile drive we saw bison, moose, big horn sheep and a small herd of pronghorn fleeing the mountains on their yearly migration to the Upper Green River for the winter. I could tell it was going to be a great day.
After 16 years in the Tetons, we were on our last official puma capture of the project. Capture seasons always provided some of the hardest, most thrilling and memorable times of the year. And on our last outing with houndsmen Boone, Sam and Jake Smith, we were going to capture F47 to remove her collar for the last time.
We were getting close to her last GPS location when I turned on the telemetry, which operates something like a radio station—each collar plays on a different “station,” and I tune into which station I’d like to listen to on a handheld receiver. I was rewarded with a signal on F47’s “station”; the strength of the signal meant she was close. We unloaded from the vehicles, and started hiking up the hill. We soon crossed F47’s trail and our team split up – Anna and I looked for signs of her four kittens while the rest of the team continued on the trail of F47. Anna and I found a bed underneath a spruce tree where F47 had spent the night protected from the storm. I radioed to the others that I believed she was traveling alone since I did not see any signs of the kittens. We trudged through the snow another 15 minutes before we heard the crackle of the radio. Sam announced, “We have a cat in a tree.”
We were only 500 meters away and quickly joined the rest of the team. There was F47, looking beautiful as always, peering down at us 15 feet up a tree. F47 was the first puma that I ever saw in the wild and the one cat from the project that I caught the most glimpses of as I traveled through the forest. After I gave her a quick once over and knew she was healthy it was time to get to work. After so many captures together we knew what needed to be done and we moved quickly and efficiently. As I assembled the darts, Anna started recording data, Connor was preparing the dart gun, Boone was putting on climbing gear, Sam and Jake secured the dogs a safe distance away so as not to disturb F47, and Mark oversaw all operations. I handed the dart to Connor and he delivered a perfect shot to the back thigh muscle. Then we had 6 minutes before the drug took effect. As Boone started to climb up the tree, I could hear Mark’s constant updates on F47 and her behavior, “she is looking at me, she is wobbling, her pupils are dilated, she is resting on the branch above and to your right.” Anna announced that it had been 4 minutes since the drug was delivered, when Boone secured her with safety ropes. Boone and Sam slowly guided F47 down the tree to the ground where Mark delivered a drug to quickly bring about anesthesia.
Once she was asleep, we immediately started recording F47’s heart rate, her respirations and her temperature. Mark removed her GPS collar, and we all stopped to appreciate the moment. So many things went through my head as I assessed F47: how healthy she looked for a 9-year old adult female, the smell of fir trees and elk that I associated with pumas, the softness of her fur and, as I felt for her heart beat, I wondered about her kittens: were they still alive? F47 had the worst luck raising kittens. Her first litter was taken in a forest fire, her second was predated upon by a black bear, and her third litter was picked off by wolves. Mark must have been thinking along the same lines because he said “We need to confirm the kittens are alive.”
That’s when it hit me: without the collar, we would not be able to follow the lives of F47 and her kittens. Mark and I looked at each other, because we both realized that with her collar removed, we would no longer know what happened to F47 or to her kittens. And then another realization, the TCP was ending, and chances were that this was the last time we would ever see F47. A flick of her ear told us it was time to administer the reversal drug and we slowly backed away as she woke up. She quickly sat up for a moment and then trotting downhill, an uncollared puma. We followed her for a short distance to know that she had recovered from the drugs and then we slowly headed back to the truck, each of us quiet with our own thoughts of F47.
F47 was central to our research for many, many years—she contributed so much to our understanding of puma foraging, social behaviors and how difficult it is for females to raise their kittens in this part of the world. We visited her kittens in the den when they were young, and F47 never moved them after we visited. We witnessed her mating with M85 several years ago (from a respectable distance through a scope), alternating with another female F108, in one of the most memorable field experiences of recent years. Long live F47! May you catch many elk and successfully raise your litter to dispersal.
Editor's Note: As Panthera’s Teton Cougar Project in Wyoming winds down over the next year, Panthera’s Puma Program will shift its focus to important puma landscapes in Chilean Patagonia. We’ll continue to update you on continued monitoring, data collection, and publications from this landmark project.