The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) last week reported evidence that cougars are killing wolves in Washington.
By using radio collar data, WDFW staff were able to track wolves. When a collar gave off a mortality signal, officials discovered the dead wolf was indeed killed by another predator.
WDFW Wolf Biologist Trent Roussin found one dead wolf in a steep canyon that was thick with trees. Signs pointed to the wolf being attacked while traveling down an old overgrown logging road. The fight appeared to have ended about 100 yards downhill.
The necropsy conducted by Roussin revealed that the wolf’s skull was pierced by strong feline teeth.
Wolves were pushed to near extinction in the early 1900s. In Washington, the wolf population didn’t start to make a recovery until 2008. Because of this, WDFW did not have many years of data to see if cougar attacks on wolves were common, so the agency had to ask the other states, which have had wolf populations for a longer amount of time, if wolves come in conflict with cougar populations.
“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, four wolves that were collared have been killed by cougars. That’s twice as many wolves killed by cougars than the entire Northern Rocky Mountain Region. There was one other case where an uncollared pup was killed by a cougar.
“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.
WDFW also documented a wolf attack on a moose this year in the Smackout territory of Stevens County. At first called in as a cougar kill, Roussin found a wolf carcass next to a fully consumed cow moose carcass. A wolf pup carcass was also found near the kill.
Roussin said he believes the adult female wolf was killed by the moose after it had attacked it along with the pack. Even after the female was killed, the pack stayed and was feeding on the moose when a cougar came in — which initiated the call saying it was a cougar moose kill. The cougar may have killed the wolf pup while attempting to claim the carcass.
Cougars and wolves compete for many of the same prey — moose, elk and deer — and their habitats overlap in North America. WDFW says cougars aren’t so much hunting wolves but competing for food with them.
“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,” WDFW wrote in a press release. “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.”
Wolves, however, tend to hunt in packs, while cougars hunt alone — negating the one-on-one advantage. Wolves also have success targeting kittens or six-month-old cats that are slow to climb trees and are not fully coordinated.
Because of this predator interaction, WDFW continues to analyze data from its “Washington Predator Prey Project,” which is a five-year research project which began in the winter of 2016-2017. Find more information at https://wdfw.wa.gov/hunting/management/predator-prey-study.