In the United States, we generally think of wolves and cougars as apex predators that stay out of each other’s way. Historically, that has seemed to be the case, but recent findings may point to something incredible: cougars are hunting wolves in Washington State!
Competition and Rising Tensions
The United States is having a bit of a renaissance when it comes to apex predator expansion back across historically established ranges. Essentially, large predators who were once hunted and pushed away by humans are now protected and beginning to occupy the lands that they used to, most notably, the wolf and the cougar.
Cougars used to live across the entire United States but were extirpated (pushed out) when colonists killed them to protect their herds of livestock. Wolves faced a similar fate, only instead of just being pushed west like cougars, they were pushed north into Canada. As environmental programs have been enacted, both of these incredible predators have started to retake their old territory lines… and some of them have started to cross. When territories cross and similar prey sources are targeted, it becomes a matter of time before apex predators begin to clash.
Washington State Is Currently Ground Zero for These Wolf-Cougar Interactions
One of the most recent interactions between wolves and cougars occurred back in November when a biologist noticed that one of their tagged wolves hadn’t moved for a while on the map. Heading out to investigate, the biologist found a wolf skull with massive puncture wounds caused by a 400-pound-per-square-inch bite. The answer? A cougar was targeting wolves.
The “crime scene” was on a logging road amid tall trees in a hilly forest, a prime ambush location for a cougar. Generally, cougars and wolves don’t interact intentionally, but they will sometimes get into scuffles over recently killed prey. In this situation, that didn’t seem to be the case.
Although a pack of wolves can bring down prey like moose, a lone wolf isn’t a real threat to a prowling cougar, especially if the cougar has the drop on the wolf. In the case of the logging road attack, the ground cover and dense forest allowed the cougar to kill the wolf without much issue.
What Happens Next?
Currently, there have been at least five documented cases of a cougar killing a wolf in Washington, with more potentially going undocumented. Although wolves are threatened in many places, the number of them being killed by cougars isn’t enough to cause real long-term damage to the populations.
In fact, both populations are likely to rise around the country as territories continue to expand and inevitably cross. Cougars don’t go out of their way to hunt wolves, but if they feel like their hunting grounds are threatened or that a wolf pack is competing too heavily, it does seem like they won’t hesitate to thin things out a bit.
In other states, these events aren’t happening nearly as much. Washington seems like it will be a hotspot for these events as populations grow and predators compete for similar prey sources like deer. In the meantime, scientists will likely keep a close eye on their tagged wolves. If one of those dots on their maps stops moving for too long, it won’t be a mystery anymore as to what caused it!
The photo featured at the top of this post is © Holly Kuchera/Shutterstock.com
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