BIRDSEYE — The mountain lion’s first known llama kill occurred under the cover of darkness, on a Wednesday night in late February. By the time the 175-pound lion was shot and killed four nights later, six llamas were dead. The lion also is a suspect in two additional llama deaths.
It’s a case that puzzles Kraig Glazier, a federal agent who does predator control for Wildlife Services, a division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“When they kill something like that, more often than not they eat part of it, but this
wasn’t eating any of them,” Glazier said. “Usually, the damage I see with livestock is it’s either a young juvenile delinquent seeing how to do it; or it’s a female teaching her young; or an old one going downhill looking for groceries.
“But this was a big healthy mature male lion and I have no idea why he made the kills.”
The assaults on the llamas started Feb. 22 at Perri and Jeff May’s house off Birdseye Road. She looked out the window of her log home on Thursday morning and saw that one of her four llamas was lying on the ground.
“She was right in front of our barn, in full view of the house, and I immediately knew she was gone,” Perri May said. “She was eviscerated; something had torn open her abdomen. I thought that maybe she got sick and laid down, passed away and perhaps a dog got into her.”
Then a second llama was found dead the next morning.
“Jeff called Fish, Wildlife and Parks, who immediately referred us to Kraig,” Perri May said. Wildlife Services handles possible livestock predation cases.
Glazier immediately knew a lion was responsible.
“Even though the tracking conditions were extremely poor, it was evident from the kill pattern and the little feeding pattern that it wasn’t a wolf but a mountain lion,” Glazier said. “This one was 20 yards from Birdseye Road and the lion had pulled the llama under the fence where there’s an old bus stop shelter where kids can wait for the bus.
“And sure enough, you could see where the llama ran and there were large puncture wounds under his throat. But the lion didn’t really feed on it. Maybe a car spooked him.”
The Mays had called their neighbor John Northey, who owns about two dozen llamas.
“That’s when I looked in my corrals and thought something was wrong,” Northey said. “I found that I had three of them down.”
They alerted additional neighbors. Perri May said they were torn about how to proceed.
“Kraig discussed it with Jeff, and he said we should kill the lion. Jeff’s immediate reaction was no,” Perri May said. “Then Kraig said it was just going to keep coming back.”
With two children ages 7 and 9, the Mays’ fears for the children’s safety outweighed their concerns about sharing the neighborhood with the lion.
“I’m an environmentalist, a conservationist who is respectful of Mother Earth and Montana’s native wildlife,” she said. “It was just awful, but there was an imminent threat to our children and our animals’ safety.”
Northey said he also had mixed emotions, but feared for the safety of renters on his property, including a 4-year-old boy.
“I was worried about the behavior pattern of the animal, since it wasn’t feeding on its kill,” Northey said. “I asked Kraig if it was dangerous, and he told me if I go down to my corral at night I’d better be packing iron. He said if the cat had killed something, it would defend the kill and take me down.”
It wasn’t a good area to use tracking dogs, so Glazier set traps for the big cat and installed motion detectors that could notify him remotely if something was at the May or Northey residence.
Then he got into the cab of his truck and waited.
Mountain lions usually are most active at dawn and dusk. By 1:30 a.m. Saturday, all was still quiet so Glazier went home.
When the Mays awoke Saturday morning, a third llama was dead.
“We were down to one and we were flipping out,” Perri May said. “I spent almost two hours trying to get a halter on her and she was totally wigged out. I walked her over to John’s, thinking that if she were left by herself she was completely vulnerable and maybe there’d be safety in numbers.”
The trap remained empty Saturday night, and all the llamas made it through the night. Glazier was questioning whether the lion would return, but left the traps in place.
He got a call from Jeff May about 9:15 p.m.
“He said he had a spotlight and could see eyes down by where the last llama was killed, but he didn’t know if it was the lion,” Glazier said. “I got out there, identified it and shot the lion from their deck. It was a really large one.”
Northey said the lion had dew claws the size of his pinky finger that were sharper than knives. Lions jump on their prey, hanging on with the dew claws, then use their jaws to crunch the head or trachea to make a kill.
For Northey and Perri May, the shooting left them with a sense of relief mixed with remorse.
“I love my llamas and raised them from babies,” Northey said. “Yet when I found myself down on the ground with it, I kept petting that damn cat. It was just a reflex action. It was absolutely beautiful.”
Wildlife managers are not surprised to see the mountain lions in the area, because Helena is prime mountain lion habitat. Usually they coexist with livestock without a problem, but when large predators prey on livestock, wildlife managers can remove them. If they are causing problems or are too comfortable around people, FWP game wardens usually handle those situations.
Dave Loewen, a game warden with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, said the agency hasn’t had a rash of mountain lion and human encounters, but oddly enough he shot and killed a mountain lion near the Blue Cloud subdivision the day after Glazier took the one near Birdseye. The lion shot by Loewen had killed two house cats.
“That one was in close proximity to the subdivision and near a school bus stop and where people collect their mail,” Loewen said. “But I think the two incidents were coincidental things that happened in a short period of time.”
Still, he adds that the same morning he removed the lion, FWP had a call from people saying they saw a lion in the South Hills of Helena near Gold Rush street.
Jenny Sika, a Helena-based FWP wildlife biologist, said she also thinks what some might see as an increase in mountain lion sightings also just might be coincidental, but she and other Region 3 biologists are gathering information to try to get a better perspective of what’s going on with the historically secretive predator.
“Mountain lions are hard to get numbers on,” Sika said. “The department is working on a modeling project … that will help us monitor lions on the landscape.”
Reporter Eve Byron: 447-4076 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Follow Eve on Twitter at IR_EveByron