The Excitement of Photographing Cougars

By Dave Webb
Photos by David Marchant

David Marchant likes to photograph cougars. He spends hour after hour patiently seeking the big cats, hoping to get close enough for a great picture. And he often succeeds, as you can see from the photo at right, which appeared on the cover of Utah Outdoors magazine.

He looks for the big cats in the foothills east and west of his Orem, Utah, home. "Most people don’t realize there are so many (mountain) lions in the hills above town," David said.

He picks a likely spot and just sits there quietly, watching for signs that a cougar is in the area. Sometimes he’ll sit almost motionless all day, barely taking time to eat. He carries a spotting scope and uses it to investigate any unusual movement or pattern in the brush. He’s learned to see the cats, which are so shy and well camouflaged that most people never see one in the wild.

"I was out spotting for deer one day and happened to see a lion out on a ledge. That’s all it took. It was so exciting, I kept coming back looking for more. I figured seeing that cat was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, but I started seeing more. I started staying out all day and I started seeing them often."

Since then he’s seen cats hundreds of times. He’s learned their habits and uses that knowledge to get into position for great photographs. He’s seen cougars chase and take down deer on several occasions. Once he saw a cat take down an elk.

He travels alone on most of his viewing trips. "Other people get tired and cold after sitting in one spot for five or six hours," he said. And other people tend to be noisy. If you’re noisy you probably won’t see a cat.

He doesn’t wear camouflage clothing or use odor-masking scents or worry about any of the stuff on the market to help sportsmen get close to animals. "The lions definitely know I’m there," he said. "But since I sit there so quietly for so many hours, they don’t seem to care."

David says the best time of year to view cougars is during the later fall, when snow first starts sticking in the foothills. "After a storm they seem to like to move around and check things out. I see them a lot the day after a storm." A snowy background makes it easier to spot the cats and also makes it easier to see their tracks.

He sees many cats through the winter months, and fewer during the summertime. During the summer the lions follow the deer herds up into the mountains, making it harder to find them. Also, David’s job keeps him busy during the summer. He works for Valley Turf in Lehi and so winter is the slow season.

"This warm weather is killing me," he said. Normally by November business has slowed down and David is up in the hills, kicking through the snow, looking for cougars. "I can’t wait for a snowstorm," he said.

"The best way to find cougars is to watch the deer," David said. "If there are deer in the area, there will be cougars nearby." If the deer become nervous there is a reason, he said. Perhaps a person or a dog is approaching the area. Or, perhaps they sense a cougar in the brush. Sit quietly and watch the places where a cougar could sneak up on deer.

"Some reports suggest cougars are becoming more aggressive," David said. "I don’t think so. I think they’re just the same as they have always been. It’s man that has changed. We’ve invaded their space. Look where people want to build new homes. It’s on the hills, in the middle of the deer winter range. Right where the cougars live."

David does not hunt the cougars, but says he thinks some hunting is probably good to keep numbers in check. "I’ve never had any desire to kill one," he said. "I personally would never shoot one."

Most of his photo opportunities come when he is seeking the cats alone, without the help of dogs. But recently he teamed with friends who peruse cougars using dogs. He says it is much easier to get close to the cats–safely–using dogs. Much easier to get dynamic photos.

He’ll join the chase with dogs occasionally. But, more often, he’ll be out sitting on a ridge quietly watching a nearby deer herd. Quietly watching for an eye to blink or a shadow to move. He’ll carefully position himself and then let his shutter click. He’ll go home with a trophy and the lion will continue stalking the deer, never realizing anything has happened.

David’s mother, Marie, is encouraging him to exhibit his photographs. "It has only been within the last few months that we have persuaded David to share his pictures," she said. "It has become our great obsession to introduce him and his extraordinary pictures to the world for all who love the outdoors."

David’s photos will probably be displayed in several shows and exhibits next year. They are also thinking about marketing limited edition prints and allowing the images to be used on calendars and other products.

(This article was published in Utah Outdoors magazine, Dec. 1999)