Out of Bounds

Living in Wild Places

Critters aren’t concerned with our gangster garb. They just need space to live. We’ll save space for wildlife or lose it.

By Rob Breeding

I recently retweeted a meme I found amusing. It featured a closeup of the business end of a great white shark sporting what appeared to be a toothy, mischievous grin. 

Below, the text read: Dear Humans, the ocean is not “shark infested.” It’s our home. We live here.

Funny yes, especially because the shark seemingly mugged like a naughty school boy. I tend to think great whites don’t have much naughty in them. They seem super serious to me. It’s the “Jaws” effect, I suppose. That movie forever reframed the way we think about sharks.

The meme amused, and also reminded — our play spaces, as well as our living spaces, are the existence spaces of wild animals. And since most of us love having wild critters nearby, even the large predatory ones — though not quite so nearby, preferably — we need to manage the impact of our footprint.

Last week a mountain lion crashed through the basement window of a home in Great Falls, after it was first seen under the deck outside. When FWP responded the lion inadvertently made its unwelcome entrance. Wardens tranquilized the lion, eventually putting it down due to injuries and FWP policy, which doesn’t allow for relocations.

Lion proximity is a regular feature of life in the West, though we humans are mostly unaware. If there are deer around, you can be reasonably sure there are lions as well. I never saw a lion in the southeast neighborhood of Kalispell proper when I lived there, but any time I walked late at night I interrupted the nightly shrub trimming of resident whitetail. Plant life in that vicinity was always kept well groomed up to deer-browsing height.

How often area lions follow deer into urban residential neighborhoods in Kalispell is unclear, but it won’t be a surprise if one invades someone’s basement man cave at some point. Hopefully, it won’t interfere with a crucial fourth quarter on game day.

My one encounter with an urban lion happened in Arizona and was brief and uneventful, other than that it happened just a few hundred yards from my home in a place my then young daughters often played, running about in exactly the sort of erratic way that often elicits a predatory response from mountain lions. 

The girls never again played in that stand of Gambel oak, only walking through it under close adult supervision thereafter. 

Those oak trees were in a spot frequented by deer, both mulies and diminutive Coues whitetail, funneled there by still intact corridors reaching the nearby National Forest. That land was in every sense those lions’ home, where they lived, though from a habitat standpoint it was increasingly marginal. That oak stand was probably a wildlife sink, meaning a place animals died at a rate faster than the population could sustain itself through natural reproduction.

Those corridors allowed replacement deer to wander down from the forest to fill niches left behind by deer killed in car collisions or by the lions that followed the deer to suburbia’s edge.

And there lions linger, unseen as they watch us. Humans must not be the most lip-smacking potential meal tromping through the woods. Lion attacks remain a rarity, despite the predator’s almost ubiquitous presence in our playgrounds. Our species must give off some seriously unappetizing vibes for attacks to be so rare. Surely, we’re an easier target than full-grown elk.

Montana is going through one of those migration waves that periodically slam the state. I body surfed into Montana as part of the “A River Runs Through It,” wave in the early 1990s. The latest invasion seems partially inspired by “Yellowstone,” an apparent remake of “The Godfather,” though trading double-breasted suits and fedoras for Carhartts and cowboy hats. 

Critters aren’t concerned with our gangster garb. They just need space to live. We’ll save space for wildlife or lose it.

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