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Originally published February 17, 2011 at 9:20 PM | Page modified February 18, 2011 at 11:32 AM

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Rare photo shows 8 cougars on game trail

Using a camera triggered by a motion-sensor device, a hunter captured a rare sight: eight cougars huddled together on an Eastern Washington trail as if attending some big-cat block party.

Seattle Times environment reporter

They don't exactly hunt in packs, don't travel in herds and aren't typically thought of as communal beings.

The image of the mountain lion as a stealthy, solitary beast is woven into the fabric of the American West.

And yet there they were on a game trail in Eastern Washington — eight creatures famous for being loners, all huddled together as if attending some big-cat block party.

Brad Thomas captured the images a few days before Christmas on a trail camera, triggered by a motion sensor, set up on private land in Douglas County. He submitted a disc of photos to cougar experts with the state. After reviewing and discussing the images among themselves, the biologists declared the pictures extraordinary — a rare glimpse of fellowship among the West's common but elusive mountain lions.

"The pictures are 100 percent legit," said Jon Gallie, the assistant district biologist with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife in Wenatchee.

Thomas initially set the cameras up along an old cattle trail to get pictures of deer and bobcat. What he mostly captured instead were cougars — first one, then two and eventually many more.

"I was tickled pink," said Thomas, 54, a Chelan County resident. "I'd never even seen a cougar."

Cougars — males in particular — are highly territorial and typically roam alone. But it's actually not unheard of for female parents and offspring to coexist. It's been documented here and in the Rockies by experts using radio-collared cats and global-positioning systems.

What is exceptional, however, is humans witnessing such behavior — even if only virtually.

"It's a pretty outstanding thing to see, even for those of us who do this for a living," said Gary Koehler, a carnivore specialist with Fish and Wildlife.

The only similar image Koehler could recall was one from the 1960s of seven cougars crossing a bridge over the Stehekin River.

Washington state is home to some 2,000 to 2,500 cougars. Gallie said interactions between them are most common in winter, when heavy snows push prey such as deer downslope into narrow valleys, forcing predators to hunt in evermore confined spaces. The heavier the winter, the more "piled up" creatures get, he said.

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Gallie's best guess is that the photos show a female cougar with her three kittens and a daughter from a previous litter with her three kittens. Females sometimes set up home ranges near their mothers and have occasional rendezvous.

Beyond that, neither Gallie, Koehler, nor other wildlife biologists could say with any certainty what was happening in the pictures.

"We don't know if this was a chance event, or something they communicated," Koehler said. "Perhaps it's like bumping into your neighbor when you go out to get the mail.

"We're starting to discover that they're just more social than we once thought," he continued. "Not like African lions, of course. But they do a lot of communicating."

Just Thursday, in fact, Koehler and other researchers were tracking an adult male cougar in the Blue Mountains in southeast Washington as part of a study. They came across scraped-up piles of twigs and grass, covered with urine.

"It was like a giant 'No Trespassing' sign," he said. "They were probably just advertising their presence."

Craig Welch: 206-464-2093 or cwelch@seattletimes.com

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