Winterkill and the Web of Life Made Seen


Everything must eat.

One gray morning, my wife and I skied into the hills behind our home in northwestern Montana. We chatted away the first half mile, the trail climbing through dense timber. Then, as the forest opened near a hilltop, a raven chased a magpie across a glade. A moment later, Barbara spotted two bald eagles atop trees in the same area. We stopped moving and realized the normally quiet woods were alive with ravens, hollering like monkeys.

Something was dead up ahead. We veered into the forest, where everything changed once we left the trail. Our senses sharpened. The raspy calls of magpies went eerily silent. The eagles backed off a little, flying to other trees. Trickster ravens tried to lead us away from whatever they were feeding on, leapfrogging between trees ahead.

Then Barbara pointed her ski pole at a big cat track. It was crisp, but headed away. We slowly skied on, looking in every direction like wary deer. Near a big cedar, we found snow stained the color of watermelon and clumps of deer hair.

Not far away, we came to the kill site, a blood-stained depression in the snow, surrounded by a mishmash of tracks. Behind a nearby Douglas fir, we saw where the mountain lion inched toward the deer, each foot placed silently atop frozen snow. Then, in a flash, it pounced, probably seizing the neck from behind.

It happened fast. There was no fight, no tumble through the snow. In that one sunken depression, a life quickly ended. And a meal was secured.

But the lion didn’t feed there. It stood for a few minutes as the deer bled, then dragged its victim away.

We cautiously followed the trail of hair and occasional drops of blood as it passed through low willows, over snow-covered logs, across shallow tree wells. The kill must have happened hours earlier, near dawn, when the snowpack was frozen. Even when it was lugging the deer, few of the lion’s footsteps broke the snow.

After nearly the length of a football field, we reached the secluded cache, tucked into a clump of saplings. It was not pretty: A young deer lay on its side. Its bright red ribcage was open and vacant, but for a pool of crimson, still warm-looking blood. The head, with hair so neat that it looked combed, was twisted backward on a broken neck. The nose was concealed in snow, but the ears were oddly erect, as if frozen in the moment when the deer realized something was wrong.

The snow was flattened with lion tracks and stained with a blend of blood, urine, and scat. A single set of lion tracks led away, toward thicker woods.

We didn’t linger. We skied back to the trail, then watched the birds reclaim the site. I was sad for the deer, knowing it was feeding with its mother just that morning. Yet as a predator myself, I was happy for the lion. The hard work of hunting was over for a few days. I could appreciate the earned meal, even the swift efficiency of the broken neck.

We returned the next day. The ravens were still there, a raucous mob playing among the trees. But the deer, so near to life yesterday, was now just a carcass. Its ribs were faded maroon, and its hair had lost its luster.

There were no new lion tracks, but a fox had been by. Its tracks interwove on the snow with those of magpies, ravens, and eagles. I thought about how far the deer was spreading. It was now in the bellies of ravens, magpies, a fox. Somewhere, perhaps clear across the valley, its energy fueled the spread of an eagle’s wings. It had become the lion, too, and would soon power the search for another deer.

But that’s not all. A coyote would eventually arrive and tug away a leg. Mice would chew the bones. In summer, the pine saplings would stretch upward, boosted by the mix of flesh and scat. Beetles and ants would prosper, too, then get licked up by a bear. It was all connected, a web woven by a mountain lion’s hunger.

Environmental coverage made possible in part by support from Patagonia. For information on Patagonia and its environmental efforts, visit www.patagonia.com. Photo by Martin Cathrae/Flickr

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