Wolves are a controversial topic. Protect them or exterminate them; rancher rights versus wildlife preservation are generally at odds when it comes to discussing these apex predators. 

However, in Washington state, cougars are on the ranchers’ side, it seems. In the last decade, cases of cougars killing wolves have been popping up, much to the mystery of game wardens and biologists. 

Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) staff have so far recorded six collard wolf killings since 2013—almost 30 percent of the 21 documented natural wolf mortalities in the state.

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The WDFW collars wolves much like other mountain states; last year Wyoming Game and Fish collared 50 for observation and research. Wyoming G&F allocated 47 wolves to be hunted to stabilize the wolf population. They assumed permitted hunting, not cougars on the prowl. 

However, Washington is still trying to stabilize and recover its wolf population, so it was a surprise when the sixth collared wolf was found with cougar teeth punctures in its skull. 

In a WDFW news release last October, wolf biologist Trent Roussin said the incidents are so unheard of that he reached out to other Northern Rockies states that have participated in over 20 years of wolf recovery to ask about the phenomenon.

“It was uncommon enough that when staff started asking about this, most biologists who studied wolves and cougars couldn’t think of an instance of a wolf being killed by a cougar,” Roussin said. 

Except for a few cases in Montana, according to Liz Bradley, a Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks wolf biologist. Bradley reports that “she has discovered five wolves killed by mountain lions in three years—all bearing the characteristic canine punctures in their skulls betraying the identity of the perpetrator.”

Cougars have the hunting advantage one-on-one, but as wolves are pack animals, cougars are often wolf prey. Wolves help keep the cougar population in check by hunting kittens; apparently, now the cougars are fighting back. 

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