I’ve always wanted to live where the wild things are. No, not the Bronx, different wild things live there. I mean closer to nature, at the door to the wilderness. Growing up I was more interested in Daniel Boone than Buck Rogers.
As a teen, I got lucky, when we moved from Brooklyn to West Park, NY. The change from urban, always busy East15th street to almost wild Burroughs Drive couldn’t have been much greater. I could walk out our back door and go five miles through the woods before hitting a road. Not wilderness, but wild enough to feel the woods. Wild enough to know that the timeless rhythms of nature still ruled amidst the oaks and maples.
The move also allowed me the opportunity to work on both a fruit and a dairy farm. A lesson in hard work. The real lesson though was that food isn’t made in some back room at Shoprite or a concrete factory. The food we eat has to be grown or raised. It has to be harvested or, yes, killed. One life feeds another life.
For the most part, people of my generation and certainly those coming after, are very removed from the natural cycle. If they want ‘real fresh’ meat they go to Wendy’s. (It’s never frozen as per the advertisement). To many people, nature is Bambi and Thumper. All the animals living in some kind of vegan, harmonious paradise. The only danger is when “man is in the woods.”
Fast forward fifty some odd years later, Kat and I put New York in the rearview mirror and built a house on the side of a mountain. A mountain in Montana. Even though we are only fifteen minutes from the city of Kalispell and multiple super markets, we are off the beaten path enough so that the thousands of acres of the Salish Mountains and Flathead National Forest are at our doorstep. In my treks around the new neighborhood I’ve come across the tracks of deer, elk and bear. There’s a fox who walks up and down our driveway regularly.
One of our neighbors raises horses. Believe it or not they (the horses) speak to me regularly. Another neighbor has a string of mules. The mules are more stoic than the horses but just as curious about the new people from New York. A couple of days ago the horses and mules were restless. Us humans just went about our day oblivious, but a new neighbor had come in from the back country.
Since moving into the house our morning run has been exchanged for a brisk walk down our driveway and back up the hill, about a mile round trip. On our walk yesterday we notice new tracks. They looked like a cat, not a kitty cat, but a BIG cat. A quick google search confirmed they were mountain lion tracks.
A little further down the road the tracks began to tell a story. There were streaks of blood on the driveway. There was hair, deer hair, on the roadway. Small tufts of deer hair were stuck on a branch. Every living thing has to eat and the mountain lion had dinner during the night. While we slept the lion had killed one of the eight to nine deer that have made our hillside home.
Following the tracks, it was clear the lion killed a deer and then dragged it to a hiding place. A young doe might weigh as much as a big man. I trailed the drag for over a quarter mile before it went up into some thick brush where I decided the better part of valor was to end the tracking right there. I had no desire to be brunch.
Nature is a complicated dynamic. For the cat to live, at least one deer a week has to die. If the cat has a litter to care for, that number goes up. The number of mountain lions in the West is difficult to estimate as mountain lions are elusive, solitary animals. Estimates I’ve found range from 20,000 to 40,000 nationally. If you take a middle approach at 30,000 lions who all eat one deer per week it comes to 1,560,000 deer annually at risk of becoming dinner. Of course, lions don’t eat only deer so some of those might be replaced by other living things.
The image of a Disney like paradise fades when you follow a blood trail. Nature isn’t all birds singing, deer prancing, etc. The reality is that nature is brutally efficient. A whole class of animals depend on the death of another to survive. Mountain lions, wolves (yes, we have those too) are not vegans by design.
The mission of the mountain lion, is to keep the number of deer in check. The balance of nature, you might have heard about it. Too many of either species and the balance shifts.
Is it concerning having this balancing act playing out just down our road? A little. But, to be honest, I felt more vulnerable the last time I rode the subway in New York. We went for our walk again this morning and didn’t see any new activity but that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. The balance of nature continues.
We took precautions on our walk today and the plan for a dog has been sped up. It seems mountain lions have an aversion to our canine friends. That said, I find it’s exciting to watch nature play out in front of you and not on T.V. There’s a cycle here that has been playing out for millennia and, as long as humans don’t screw it up, will play out until the end of days.
The picture above and more info on mountain lions can be found here: http://fwp.mt.gov/fishAndWildlife/livingWithWildlife/mountainLions/default.html