Hidden among the populous elk and deer that people using local trails might glimpse is a more intimidating animal: the mountain lion.
With mountain lion sightings on the rise in the Wood River Valley, the big cats have been making headlines this past fall and winter. From being spotted in backyards, to attacking pets, mountain lions appear to be encroaching on human settlements.
“If mountain lion prey have found such comfort being in and around Wood River Valley, it makes sense that mountain lions would find comfort as well,” photographer and part-time Ketchum resident Matt Benjamin speculated, adding that he “defer[s] to experts.”
In the early morning Saturday, Benjamin’s remote wildlife camera captured what appears to be a mountain lion and her two kittens. The black and white image is not very clear, he admitted, but he noted that if you look closely, you can see three pairs of eyes shining behind long stalks of grass.
The image was taken on Benjamin’s property, near St. Luke’s hospital on the east side of the valley.
This isn’t the first time Benjamin has captured mountain lions on camera—far from it.
“Especially in the last, maybe, two months, I’ve gotten two to four pictures of mountain lions per week,” he said.
Benjamin has had multiple wildlife cameras installed on his property for the past few years but, “this is the highest frequency” of mountain lion shots that he’s captured.
Idaho Department of Fish and Game spokesman Terry Thompson said this has been “a very high year” for reports of mountain lion sightings in the valley.
Benjamin said his cameras have photographed a mother with two sub-adults (over a year old), and another mother with four kittens from this year.
He said his cameras have captured various species over the years.
“We get tons of elk—sort of the common herd that works its way from Gimlet up through Elkhorn—deer, coyotes, fox near the river,” he said. “In the spring we get geese nesting. But for me, the most exciting stuff is the mountain lion.”
With a spate of mountain lion encounters over the past couple of winters that resulted in officials’ euthanizing cats that posed a threat to the community, Benjamin expected to see fewer mountain lions on his cameras.
“Two or three were taken out … and in less than a year, the vacancy is immediately filled again,” he said.
The cameras that Benjamin uses are hunting/wildlife cameras with built-in motion sensors. They can take both night and day images, with an infrared flash for nighttime shots “so as not to spook or disturb the wildlife,” he said.
Benjamin’s cameras are also connected to cell service, where he’s notified of an image through an app on his phone.
“One personal spook I got was when I was out on the river from my house doing astrophotography pretty late at night in the Dark Sky Reserve,” he said. “I was taking photos and my phone blips [with a notification from his wildlife camera] that there’s a mountain lion near me.
“I had no idea that the mountain lion was out, right there—I didn’t hear or see anything. It certainly makes me a little more skittish doing nighttime photography. Now I’m more aware of my surroundings.”
Many of us are unaware of just how close we are to mountain lions. Benjamin’s property, where these photos were shot, isn’t far from state Highway 75, and even he was surprised by the number of mountain lion pictures he’s captured so close to human activity.
“As much as we think of mountain lions as being solitary, they’re not shy. They’re definitely not domesticated … but they seem to be comfortable 200 to 300 yards away from the highway,” he said.
He said the sheer number of mountain lions in the community “goes against my preconceived notions.”
“It’s surprising to me that there are so many mountain lions in such a small area, but with prey numbers on the rise, I would expect seeing mountain lion numbers rising with them,” he said.
With the number of mountain lion sightings increasing, it can be disconcerting to learn that these large felines are all around us. But, as Benjamin said, we should come to “expect wildlife at our doorstep.”
“Generally, all of us that visit or live in the Wood River Valley—we love the fact that you can go a mile out of town and not see anyone. There’s such easy access to wilderness … that it might be startling,” he said. “I want to remind people of the reciprocity of wildlife—it might be spooky, but you’re in wild Idaho.”