Saved by the Bark

Pat McKernan's Surprise Encounter with a Big Cat

It was a snowy, but very peaceful mid-February morning in the Bridger Mountains just north of Bozeman, Montana. Suddenly, the quiet outside our mountainside home was shattered by the frantic barking of dogs in the trees a short way up the slope from our back door. This was unusual because we live quite far from any other homes, so we went to investigate. Fortunately, we had the foresight to take two cameras with us. We arrived to find two large hunting dogs barking hysterically and actually trying to climb up the trunk of a very tall tree. Glancing up, we were surprised and delighted to be looking straight into the mesmerizing eyes of a beautiful mountain lion! It felt safe watching from close-up because we knew the lion wouldn’t come down from the tree until the dogs were gone. The cougar seemed so  safe up in the tree that it actually took a short nap – despite the dogs' constant barking.

After about 30 minutes, four hunters (two men and their wives) arrived. They’d hiked through deep snow from the Sypes Canyon trailhead (Gallatin National Forest) about 3 miles away, where they had released the dogs. We were extremely upset when we realized that their intent was to shoot and kill such an amazing animal. At that point, we told them that they were on private property and that we wouldn’t allow them to shoot the lion. They had no choice but to chain up their dogs and leave in great disappointment. We moved back towards the house and watched for a long time to make sure the hunters didn’t return. Later, we went back to the tree and were very relieved to see fresh cat tracks leading into the deep forest, in the opposite direction that the hunters had taken. We were lucky to have been around that day to experience the tremendous privilege of being in the presence of such a majestic wild animal and to know that we were able to save its life!

- Pat McKernan lives near Bozeman and has been a long-time supporter of The Nature Conservancy in Montana.

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