Cougars give as good as they get with Washington wolves

People often talk about wolves being at the top of the food chain when it comes to carnivores, or that they are “apex” predators. Although that is accurate in some cases, in Washington, we are seeing a phenomenon that has been relatively uncommon in other states.

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) radio collars wolves to gather data that will help us learn more about these elusive animals. This is a common practice worldwide with all kinds of wildlife. In Washington, while wolves are recovering, our goal is to have at least one wolf in each pack collared.

When a collared animal stops moving for an extended amount of time, the collar alerts biologists with a mortality signal. Earlier this summer, we received a mortality signal from a collar in the Dominion wolf pack territory. Standard procedure when these signals are received is for a WDFW staffer to follow the signal to its location to assess the situation. When WDFW wolf biologist Trent Roussin tracked down the collar in this incident, he found it on a dead wolf in a steep, thickly treed canyon. His investigation revealed that a cougar killed the wolf.

“From all the signs at the site, it appears the wolf was attacked while traveling down an old overgrown logging road, with the fight ending about 100 yards downhill,” Roussin said.

Roussin’s necropsy (an autopsy on an animal) turned up distinct holes in the wolf’s skull that indicate it was pierced by strong feline teeth.

A biologist points out holes made in a wolf skull by feline teeth

Most of the time you don’t think of cats being able to out-fight dogs. And there aren’t many documented cases of it since wolves started making a recovery in the United States after being pushed to the brink of extinction in the early 1900s. In Washington, wolves only started making an observable recovery in 2008, when the first documented pack was confirmed in Okanogan County. Wolf numbers have grown in the state since then and healthy wolf populations have established in a few areas of Washington. Being in the early years of wolf recovery, WDFW biologists reached out to states that have had wolf populations longer when they first started noticing interactions between wolves and cougars.

“It was uncommon enough that when staff started asking about this, most biologists who studied wolves and cougars couldn’t think of an instance of a wolf being killed by a cougar,” said Roussin. “It was unusual during the first 20-plus years of wolf recovery in the Northern Rockies — Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming.”

Since 2013, WDFW staff have documented at least four collared wolves being killed by cougars. That’s more than has been documented in the entire Northern Rocky Mountains in twice as much time, despite that being a much larger area with many more wolves than Washington. And, it is likely there are more cases that we don’t know about.

“Because we generally don’t find or recover carcasses from wolves that aren’t collared, we can’t be sure how many other wolves have died in a similar manner,” Roussin said.

We do know of one case where a pup that wasn’t collared was killed by a cougar. In early September of this year, U.S. Forest Service employees contacted WDFW saying they had found a cougar kill of a moose in the Smackout pack territory in Stevens County. When Roussin responded, the scene presented a mystery; a real nature ‘whodunit.’ The first thing Roussin noticed wasn’t evidence of a cougar kill but a wolf carcass next to a fully consumed cow moose carcass.

“The wolf had a broken leg and appeared to have been kicked or stomped while killing the moose,” Roussin said.

He also found a second, much smaller, wolf carcass nearby. He initially thought it might be a coyote that was killed trying to get in on the action of scavenging the moose carcass. Further examination proved it to be from a wolf pup. A follow-up call to the people who had originally found the site revealed that they had encountered a cougar near the moose carcass, and it appeared to be defending something.

Wolf pup skull

“They left before they could get a good look at the moose carcass because of how spooked they were from the encounter with the cat,” Roussin said. “Which explains why they didn’t initially notice the dead adult wolf next to the moose.”

Using the reporting party’s observations and clues at the scene, Roussin believes that the adult female wolf was killed by the moose as the pack tried to take down their kill. Even after that wolf was killed, the rest of the pack stayed and was feeding on the moose when a cougar came in and may have killed the wolf pup while attempting to claim the moose carcass.

In this case, it wasn’t just the wolf pup that got more than it bargained for. The moose managed to kill the adult wolf in the struggle, although it didn’t fare any better. Biologists say it is not uncommon for them to see photos or videos from game cameras of wolves with obviously injured or even missing limbs. Although there is no way to document how this happens in every instance, it is safe to say that many injuries to wolves are inflicted by their prey while hunting or during encounters with other wolves.

Because both cougars and wolves directly compete for many of the same prey (e.g., moose, elk, and deer), their habitats overlap in many parts of North America. In most interactions between them, cougars are not so much hunting wolves as competing with them for food. Much like your domestic cat sneaks up on prey such as mice or rodents, big cats pursue prey in a solitary fashion, using the element of surprise. As in the most recent case where the collared wolf appears to have been surprised on a logging road, cougars are known for striking in areas where slopes, trees, boulders, or other cover gives them an advantage. When a cougar successfully ambushes a wolf traveling alone, the fight can be very short, with the cat finishing it with a quick bite to the head.

One on one, a cougar has the advantage but in contrast to how cats hunt, wolves are social animals that live and hunt in groups. Against a pack of wolves, a cougar’s best defense is probably climbing a tree. Generally, according to research in Wyoming conducted by Dr. L. Mark Elbroch, wolves have the best success with and target kittens or cats less than six months old that are still relatively slow to climb and less than fully coordinated.

WDFW is still learning what impact and how wolves interact with other species. Scientists are currently analyzing data from the Washington Predator-Prey Project that studies interactions between ungulates like deer, elk, and moose and carnivores such as wolves, cougars, bobcats and coyotes. The hope is that what we learn from this five-year study will help not only inform decisions that are made on how to best manage each of these species in Washington, but also give us more insight into interactions that have been rare until now such as cougar attacks on wolves.

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The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is dedicated to preserving, protecting and perpetuating the state’s fish and wildlife resources.