Hunters in northwestern Montana were treated to quite the rare spectacle early this month: two bull elk (wapiti) stalked by a puma in heavy conifer woodland.

It was only recently that we featured some dynamite pics from south-central British Columbia showing a puma killing a mule deer, but spotting a mountain lion in predatory performance is far from commonplace. Heck, spotting a mountain lion at all isn't easy: the odd backyard visit notwithstanding, these tawny, ropey big cats – the second-largest felids in the Western Hemisphere after the jaguar – are famously phantom-like, and many human residents of cougar country go a lifetime without seeing one.

We don't know the outcome of this Montana stalk: the YouTuber who posted the video, Montana Sportsman, wrote, "Unfortunately, the cat pushed the elk further onto private property and we never got the chance to see them again."

The bulls – one with a significantly bigger antler rack than the other – appear edgy throughout the encounter, staring in the general direction of the puma and ultimately bolting into the timber. Conditions look on the breezy side, so it's quite possible the elk had scented the creeping cat.

Pumas avidly pursue elk across western North America; along with deer, these animals are the big cats' favoured prey in many areas. Mature bull elk, however, are challenging targets. Along with the occasional adult moose, they occupy the uppermost end of the puma prey spectrum, and research suggests large male pumas, or toms, are more likely to attack them than female and subadult cats. (Toms in general seem to hunt elk more frequently than female pumas regardless of age/size class; females, in turn, go after deer more intensively.)

In a classic study of puma predation in central Idaho, Maurice Hornocker suggested a bull's size was one complicating factor for a hungry puma, but, given that some cow elk reach the proportions of younger bulls and are nonetheless readily preyed upon, the hefty tined antlers of a full-grown male elk (a "branch bull") also probably play a role: "Lions must attack the head region of elk to kill them effectively," Hornocker wrote, "and the heavy antlers may be recognised as formidable weapons."

This time of year, bull elk are just past the significant rigours of the rut – an exhausting season for many of them, as they're constantly occupied holding harems of cows, mating, driving off sneaky rivals trying to dart in for some action, and actively fighting other males – and they're looking to restore at least some of their energy reserves ahead of a tough winter. In this diminished condition – and, for that matter, in their distracted state during the breeding season – bulls may be more vulnerable to predation by pumas, as well as wolves and grizzly bears. One study from northeastern Oregon found that most kills of bull elk by pumas (which, again, were primarily toms) took place during or just after the rut.

So who knows whether this puma might have been able to land one of these formidably proportioned elk? In the video, the hunters can be heard speculating the cat might be targeting the smaller-racked, and possibly younger, bull.

Regardless of how this turned out, it seems clear the puma was slinking near enough to assess its chances. In Hornocker's study, he observed an interesting and possibly relevant situation involving a 68-kilogram (151lb) tom puma and several bull elk: "This lion stalked three six-point bulls until he was apparently within attacking distance. He then retreated, circled the three bulls, stalked and killed a yearling bull within 150 yards of the others."

For good measure, here's a foiled puma stalk of a couple elk filmed in Utah last year:



h/t Outdoor Hub

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