Idaho History July 21, 2019

Wilbur Wiles

(part 2)

Big Creek / Edwardsburg

Picture of Wilbur taken by Hilda Hansen in the 1950s / 60s
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Wilbur Wiles


Wiles, Wilbur V. (103) from Big Creek, Idaho passed away Wednesday, April 17, 2019 at VA Medical Center. Life Celebration July 27, 2019 at The Big Creek Lodge.
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c. 1954


Left to Right: Ross Gieling, Harry Sargent, Wilbur Wiles C. 1954

source: Sandy McRae courtesy Scott Amos
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Wilbur Wiles and Maurice G. Hornocker

Stalking the Mountain Lion – to Save Him

Article and photographs by Maurice G. Hornocker, Ph.D.
National Geographic Society November 1969

Sharpening his skills, a cub cuffs his litter mate in mock battle. As an adult, the mountain lion – also known by such names as panther, puma, and cougar – hunts with cunning, strength, and agility. Yet man’s encroachment on his wild domain takes alarming toll. To help save the species, the author – leader of the Idaho Cooperative Wildlife Research Unit – set out to bare the secrets of the big predator’s solitary way of life.

Still panting from the chase through the snow of Idaho’s Salmon River Mountains, I pulled the gun out of my backpack. The barrel stung my hands in the cold, and my breath frosted the breech as I sighted into a fir tree 30 feet away.

“Careful!” gasped my companion, Wilbur Wiles. “Don’t rush!”

Poised on a branch, staring down at her pursuers, was our target – a hundred-pound mountain lion.

We had struggled after the lion on snowshoes all morning, and now her baleful gaze was fixed upon us, anticipating our next move. Wilbur’s two redbone tracking hounds bawled in a frenzy of excitement at the base of the tree.

When the big cat shifted position on the branch, I held my breath and fired. The lion jerked at the shot, bolted headfirst down the trunk, and then leaped far out over the clamoring hounds. She hit the ground, bounded down a steep brushy ravine, and was gone, the dogs in barking pursuit.

“You hit her!” Wilbur shouted. “She won’t get far!”

We knew the lion couldn’t escape because my gun had fired not a bullet but an aluminum dart containing a tranquilizing drug. It would, in a few minutes, render the animal completely manageable. The drugging was part of a long-term study of the mountain lion (Felis concolor), one of America’s most mysterious and fascinating animals.

For five years, starting in 1964, Wilbur and I have tranquilized, examined, weighed, marked, and released 46 different lions, many of them again and again, to learn about their lives, their movements, and their habits. We have trekked more than 5,000 miles, much of the time on snowshoes, to follow the big cats deep into the Idaho Primitive Area, a 1.2-million-acre federal preserve of wilderness just south of the Salmon River in the central part of the state.

Once at home across the continent, the mountain lion now hangs on in areas where man rarely ventures. Zoologists estimate 4,000 to 6,500 roam fastnesses of the western United States; 100 to 300 prowl Florida’s Everglades. For his study, the author chose a 200-square-mile region in the Idaho Primitive Area. The team trekked more than 5,000 miles, searching for the lion in winter months.

Snowshoes ready and tracking dogs at his heels, Mr. Wiles slogs across a snowy slope.

Flashing Claws Wound a Pursuer

“I hear the dogs!” Wilbur yelled. That meant they had caught up with the lion and were holding her at bay.

I half-climbed, half-leaped off the rocky outcrop where I had fired the shot, and we plunged into the ravine after the dogs. Fighting our way through hip-deep snow, we finally reached the two hounds, Red and Ranger. One was baying at the base of a cliff; the other was about 15 feet above him on a ledge, barking at the mouth of a small cave.

“The lion must be up there in the cave,” I said to Wilbur. “I don’t think she’ll come out, but she may.”

I slipped off my pack, caught Red, and tied him to a tree. Afraid that the more aggressive Ranger would enter the cave and be killed, I climbed to the ledge and crawled out on it to snap a chain on the still-baying hound.

A low growl came from the darkness of the cave. Backing slowly away, I led Ranger along the ledge and down to the ravine’s brushy floor. As I tied him, I noticed that the side of his head and one of his ears were covered with blood. He had barely escaped death from a swipe of slashing claws.

All our experience with mountain lions, before this incident and since, has indicated that they rarely attack men, but almost invariably try to escape instead.

Not sure my shot had taken effect, I loaded my dart gun before climbing to the cave again. I also took a flashlight with me.

Cautiously I lifted myself over a rim and peered inside – to see the lion crouched a few feet away. The amber eyes glared out at me. When I turned on my flashlight, however, I could see that her gaze was unsteady, that saliva was dripping from her lips. Both were signs that my shot had gone true and the befuddled female was under the delayed effects of the tranquilizer.

Benevolent hunter, the author loads a tranquilizer dart after spotting the mountain lion cornered in a rocky niche (below).

Each wool-tufted dart slips into a shell for firing from a specially designed gun. When the drug takes effect, the still-conscious but indifferent lion will allow himself to be examined, weighed, and tagged – another step in a five-year-old study of North America’s great cat. In the rugged mountainland of Idaho, Dr. Hornocker and his assistant Wilbur Wiles have recorded the hunting, traveling, and social habits of 46 individual mountain lions. Wilbur Wiles Author Maurice G. Hornocker © N.G.S.

Lioness Awake During Tagging

“She’s ready to handle,” I called down to Wilbur. “Come on up.”

While Wilbur struggled up to the ledge with the marking kit, tape measure, and weighing scales, I crawled into the cave and, gripping the big animal by the scruff of the neck and a foreleg, laboriously dragged her to the cave’s entrance.

We weighed her (104 pounds) and took a series of measurements: her length, nose to tip of tail (6 feet 3 inches); her standing height at the shoulders (2 feet 6 inches). We marked her with numbered metal ear tags and with brightly colored plastic ear streamers. In addition, we slipped a collar bearing a colored, numbered pendant around her neck. Finally, we tattooed both ears, using a clamp that left numbers permanently etched on her skin – just in case the other markers were lost.

Throughout the process, the female remained awake; she managed to stand, peered about, and even tried to walk away. All the tranquilizer did was make her groggy, so we could work on her without fear that she would attack. When we finished, we half-pushed, half-led her back into the warmth and dryness of the cave and left her there. The drug would wear off in another 20 minutes or so with no ill effects.

The primitive area was ideal for our study. Remote and roadless, it sustains a healthy lion population relatively undisturbed by human intrusion, partly because its granite crags and deep-slashed valleys represent the greatest topographical relief in all of Idaho. Place names reflect the plight of early settlers in this harsh country: Disappointment Creek … Starvation Creek … Hungry Creek.

To get the most seclusion, I had chosen the Big Creek drainage – a territory of about 200 square miles in the middle of the primitive area. This wilderness became our laboratory for concentrated research.

We worked during the winter, from late November to early May. The tracks were easier to follow in the snow, and deep snow at higher elevations confined the lions and their prey – mainly deer and elk – to a smaller sector of their total range.

Shadows were deepening by the time we had finished examining the mountain lion and returned her to the cave. At least five miles lay between us and our camp at Waterfall Creek, at the eastern edge of our study area.

It was long after dark when we arrived at camp. Men and dogs had to be feel and equipment cleaned for the next day. At midnight, when we crawled into our down-filled sleeping bags, I wondered which lion or family of lions we might capture tomorrow – and thus fit another piece of information into the puzzle of their life history.

Mother and cub take to a tree

Frightened by pursuing hounds, a lioness scrambled 60 feet up this pine, leading her cub who climbed to a branch even higher.

Frenzied baying of Ranger, one of two redbone tracking hounds on the research team, trees a big cat for the tranquilizing gun of Mr. Wiles (above). Barking dogs so terrify mountain lions that they have been known to leap to limbs 18 feet from the ground. In their eagerness to get to the cats, the hounds sometimes suffer cuts from slashing claws.

Mountain lions may breed at any time of year. After mating, the male goes his way, and some 90 days later the female gives birth; she may produce as many as six kittens in a single litter. To the mother alone goes the responsibility of protecting, feeding, and training the young.

Snug in a den, the mother suckles her cubs and affectionately eyes their early antics – spitting, growling, hissing, scratching, and tumbling about. When the rambunctious youngsters grow older, the mother takes them, one at a time, on training hunts.

Both male and female mountain lions stake out their own hunting territories, marking boundaries with mounds of pine needles or brush scented with urine. Offspring strike out on their own at about two years of age, seeking a private range for forays as lone hunters.

Project Sparked by Grizzly Study

My interest in the mountain lion began during my long association with Drs. John and Frank Craighead. John was my adviser when I attended the University of Montana, and I worked with them both on a study of grizzly bears in Yellowstone National Park.

Experience gained on that difficult and demanding research project seemed to make a thorough study of the mountain lion a fitting sequel. I was enthusiastic, therefore. when officials of the Idaho Fish and Game Department and the University of Idaho asked me if I would conduct such a project in their state.

Dr. Ian MacTaggart Cowan of the University of British Columbia was interested in the research, and with his enthusiastic support a United States-Canadian cooperative project was arranged. Other organizations, notably the American Museum of Natural History, the Boone and Crockett Club, and the New York Zoological Society, helped from the beginning. The research is currently being carried out at the University of Idaho under the auspices of the Idaho Cooperative Wildlife Research Unit, which I have served as leader since January 1968.

Range Once Spanned Two Continents

The need for a scientific study of this animal and its relationship to its environment was obvious. The “American lion” once ranged over much of North and South America. In this country. records show that it lived in nearly every state and the District of Columbia.

Indeed, the lion formerly had the widest distribution of any single species of mammal in the Western Hemisphere. And it was, and is, the most adaptable. Lions were found in mountains, deserts, coastal forests, subalpine forests, swamps. and in prairie environments, from British Columbia in Canada to Patagonia near the tip of South America.

From all those wanderings came the mountain lion’s many names: cougar, a French corruption of a Tupi Indian word: puma. from the Incas of Peru; catamount (from cat-a-mountain), a twangy New England expression; panther, the Greek word for leopard: painter, a U. S. colloquialism for panther; and leon, used through much of Spanish America.

Big Cats Flee From Barking Dogs

Because it sometimes killed livestock, early settlers regarded the big cat as an enemy to be destroyed at every opportunity. Even Theodore Roosevelt, an avid conservationist. wrote of the “big horse-killing cat, the destroyer of the deer, the lord of stealthy murder, facing his doom with a heart both craven and cruel.” In fact, individual animals sometimes learn to kill domestic stock and must be destroyed. But as a species, the lion poses little threat to the livestock industry.

Indiscriminate killing, aggravated by a now-disfavored bounty system, has taken a fearful toll. Today, lions in the United States are confined largely to rugged mountainous areas in our Western and Southwestern States. The New York Zoological Society. in a recent report, placed the total in the West at between 4,000 and 6.500 – and there is evidence that the number may be dwindling even further. since 1965, however, five Western States – Colorado, Washington, Utah, Nevada, and Oregon – have classified the mountain lion as a game animal and offered it some protection. The same is true in British Columbia.

Mountain lions are extremely secretive; they have aptly been termed the “ghosts of North America.” Now they inhabit rugged, inaccessible wilderness country. They cannot be observed from a distance or from a blind, as can many other wild species, and certainly they cannot be approached readily, as can some of the big cats in Africa and Asia. Only by tracking the lions long distances on foot, much of it on snowshoes, and by capturing and recapturing them, could we learn the facts of mountain lion life.

In preliminary investigations in Montana, I satisfied myself that the big cats could be followed and captured alive with the aid of trained hounds. Lions have an inherent fear of dogs – barking dogs – and while adults are apable of killing a single dog quite easily, they will climb a tree to escape this noisy tormentor. Though they can outrun the average dog for short distances, they are no match for his staying power in a long chase.

Kodachromes by Wilbur Wiles and Maurice G. Hornocker

Armful of defused dynamite, a 52-pound lion kitten rests placidly in the author’s grip. He lugs it to a nylon net for weighing on spring scales hung from a tree.

Formidable weapons in the lion’s arsenal, the powerful jaws of this adult male can snap the neck of a deer with a single bite. The canines of an enormous 227-pounder killed by Theodore Roosevelt in 1901 measured 1 1/2 inches long.

Search for a Skilled Woodsman

With the means of capturing and handling the lions worked out, I turned my attention to finding an assistant. I realized that this choice could make or break the project. He had to be a man accomplished in woodcraft and willing to share weeks and months of loneliness and hardship.

Early in my search I heard of Wilbur Wiles, whose skill as a woodsman and lion hunter was common knowledge in central Idaho. I decided to seek him out.

In July 1964, I headed my pickup truck east from the mountain resort of McCall, which was to become my home, into the jumble of rugged ranges. My destination was Wilbur Wiles’s home near Big Creek Ranger Station, where he had a small opal mine.

It was late in the day when I reached Wilbur’s cabin. A tall, slender man in his late forties opened the door at my knock. Almost before I could introduce myself, he said, “C’mon in. The coffee’s about ready.” Over steaming mugs of it I outlined my ideas for the study. He enthusiastically agreed to assist me, and we talked far into the night, making plans for the first winter.

Five long winters of study have gone by since that initial meeting with Wilbur Wiles. Our preparations for each season have been arduous. Because we had to work on foot, we set up several camps along Big Creek and its tributaries. Wall tents sheltered us at Rush Creek, Cave Creek, and Waterfall Creek. Beside Coxey Creek we renovated a dilapidated cabin once used by prospectors. Wilbur’s own cabin on Monumental Creek was our other camp in the upper Big Creek watershed.

We made our headquarters at the Taylor Ranch, a 65-acre private property on lower Big Creek. That way we could cover the entire study area, and never be more than a few miles from a camp when darkness fell.

I flew winter supplies and research equipment in ahead of the snow each year, landing at Big Creek Ranger Station and the Taylor Ranch. Wilbur used three packhorses to carry the tents, stoves, pots and pans, tools, and sleeping bags to the campsites.

Earmarked for study, a lion wears a tattooed number. Metal ear tags, colored ear streamers, and numbered collars may fail to provide permanent identification; some lions marked one winter lost all tags by the next.

Drowsy under examination, a mature female has her feet measured by Mr. Wiles. The team kept careful records of size and weight as they captured and recaptured the same cats.

The feet of mountain lions, like those of their domestic cousins, are well padded for silence when stalking their prey. Often they place their hind feet in the imprints of their forefeet, thus lessening the possibility of snapping a twig or dislodging a stone.

Frozen Meat Supply Prepared

Every year we laid in more than a ton of dog food, caching it carefully against weather, rodents, and marauding bears. We put dried foods in waterproof bags and hung them from poles tied between trees, buried canned goods to prevent them from freezing, and stored cords of firewood.

In late autumn of each year, we shot two deer and an elk and distributed the meat among the camps; wrapped securely in canvas, it would hang frozen through the winter, ready to be thawed whenever we needed it.

By the end of our fifth season, the story of the mountain lion was taking form. We found that the population was stable and that no more than 10 adults were full-time winter residents in the 200-square-mile study area. Of the 36 other lions we studied, 27 were kittens and 9 were transients. Every year two or three new litters, numbering two or three kittens each, were born.

The resident adults were firmly established on territories, and each had a home range to which it confined itself. The data suggest that this winter home-range size varies from 5 to 25 square miles for females; males utilize an area of 15 to 30 square miles.

Each winter half a dozen additional lions might enter the study area, but not to stay. Wandering lions of both sexes appear to know when they are in another lion’s home ground. The resident scrapes together leaves, twigs, or pine needles into mounds four to six inches high, then urinates on them, to make sight and scent markers delineating its territory.

We found such “scrapes” under trees, on ridges, and at lion crossings, where the markers act as traffic lights on regularly traveled paths. Whenever we tracked a newcomer to one of the scrapes, the trail showed that the lion had abruptly changed its course, knowing that another lion or family was in the vicinity, and retraced its route for two or three miles before trying a different area.

I call this cooperative behavior “mutual avoidance,” and believe its purpose is to protect the mountain lion as a species. Because they are solitary predators, lions have to depend on their physical well-being, their agility, to survive; consequently, fighting in defense of their territory, as do some gregarious species such as wolves, is a luxury lions cannot afford. An injured wolf may survive because he is a member of the pack; an injured solitary lion most likely would starve.

Our technique of capturing and recapturing individual lions, combined with tracking them for hundreds of miles, told us many things about the habits of these great predators. We found that mature females averaged about 100 pounds and males in the neighborhood of 150. The males varied more in weight; the lightest male we weighed was 130 pounds; the heaviest, 181.

Crouched at cliff edge, a tagged lion appears resigned after his ninth capture. Winterized with the warmth of his luxuriant fur, he will brave the iciest streams in pursuit of prey. In summer the cougar sheds this thick pelage in favor of a sleeker, cooler coat.

Power in motion, a mountain lion lopes through the snow. One of the fastest animals for a short stretch, the cougar reaches blurring speed almost the second he springs. His stealth and powerful leap enable him to bring down animals the size of elk. Deer and elk provide the bulk of his winter food in the Idaho Primitive Area, but he also dines on snowshoe hares, wood rats, mice, squirrels, and porcupines – quills and all.

Adults Scorn the Social Life

We learned that mountain lions are strictly solitary creatures, with social tolerance being exhibited by males and females only during the brief breeding periods, and by females and young during the longer period of juvenile dependency.

The big cats, like their small domestic cousins, are capable of breeding at any season of the year. In central Idaho, however, breeding is limited largely to winter and early spring. A male and female will pair and remain together for two weeks or perhaps longer. They then part, and the male plays no further role in the family life.

After a gestation period of about 90 days the spotted young, numbering one to a maximum of six (the largest litter we observed was three) are born in a cave or in a den under a windfall. They are helpless at birth, but grow quite rapidly. The mother brings food to them in addition to providing milk.

I am not certain when they leave the den in which they were born, but it is probably at about two months of age. After this they may utilize different temporary dens and caves while the mother forages for food, but they never again depend upon a home den.

Drugging Can Be Deceptive

Our work was not accomplished without incident. Once we had completed the arduous physical task of tracking down, treeing, and drugging an animal, we usually had to climb to it, tie a rope around a back leg, and lower it to the ground. At first I had experimented with immobilizing drugs, but these presented too much danger to the mountain lions – immobilized cats fell from the trees and were subject to injury. The tranquilizing drug I settled on merely calmed the animals, instead of immobilizing them, and they remained in the trees.

Sometimes it was difficult to tell if a cat actually was drugged and safe to approach.

Usually they gave some telltale indication – drooling, jerky head movements, unsteady eyes—but sometimes we were fooled. Early in the study, in an unnamed valley adjacent to Cave Creek on the northern side of the study area, we treed a large tawny male in a half-rotten fir that leaned far out over a cliff. I fired a drug-laden dart into his hip and after ten minutes or so was sure he was ready to lower to the ground.

Strapping on the tree-climbing spurs, I began to approach him. Fully occupied with climbing, I could not keep watch on the big cat 30 feet above me. And I tried not to notice the cliff face that fell away below.

I could hear the lion breathing as I got near. Just as I started to glance up, Wilbur shouted, “Watch out, he’s coming down!”

By hugging the trunk, I managed to move to my left at his warning – only to find myself staring into the face of the lion no more than three feet away. He had half-slipped, half-leaped to a lower limb while I was climbing. I stared into his chilling, amber eyes, then realized that his gaze was unsteady. The animal was partially drugged.

I dug a spur into the tree and pushed myself up. At that, the big cat literally dived down the trunk, tearing off chunks of bark with his gripping claws. He sprang from the tree and sailed like a huge flying squirrel seven feet long onto the snow at the cliff’s edge. With another bound, the lion swung into a labyrinth of rocks behind us.

“Turn the dogs loose,” I yelled to Wilbur. Red and Ranger lined out on his trail, and soon their baying told us they had treed him again. Later, as we worked over the cat now fully drugged by the dart, Wilbur chuckled, “Looked as though you two were trying to stare each other down.”

Docile as a lamb, a drooling 151-pound cat swings down from a tree after receiving a tranquilizing drug some ten minutes earlier. Mr. Wiles, wearing tree-climbing spurs, attached the rope, looping it over a limb, and literally pushed the animal off its perch. Now he moves at top speed to prevent injury to the lion, controlling the rope with one hand and lowering the big male to the ground in a matter of seconds.

Herds Benefit From Predation

One of the important objectives of our work has been to determine the effects of lion predation on their main sources of winter food – in this area, elk and mule deer. By examining carcasses and bones, we have found that the lions kill a greater proportion of the young and the very old – the easiest prey. Seventy-five percent of the elk killed were under 1 1/2 years of age or over 9 1/2. Sixty-two percent cent of the deer were in these age classes.

This information indicates that lions cull the poorest specimens from herds – the infirm and the aged – with the result that the strongest, the best examples survive. Further, the very young and the very old are the first to show the effects of malnutrition, and our studies revealed that half of the animals killed by lions were suffering nutritional deficiencies, and thus were more vulnerable.

Our painstakingly established facts – a stable lion population, increasing elk and deer populations, overused winter food supply for elk and deer, particularly the most important plants (bitter brush and mountain mahogany) – allow us to reach but one conclusion: Lion predation is beneficial to the herds in such an environment. Grazing animals tend to increase in numbers to the point of eating themselves out of food; when this occurs, catastrophic winter die-offs result. Many years are required to restore the vegetation and, in turn, the animal populations.

Predation by mountain lions may not be able to control or hold down these populations, but it is an age-old force which tends to lessen the frequency of violent fluctuations in the number of animals the lions prey upon.

The lions’ predation has one other effect; it keeps the deer and elk herds on the move, a desirable result when food is scarce on the limited winter ranges. When a kill is made, the reaction of a herd is striking, as we have often seen. The deer and elk immediately abandon that area and move to new feeding grounds, reducing the chances of their eating themselves out of available food.

Not all lions are winners in their encounters with deer and elk. When you consider the relative sizes of an elk, which may weigh as much as 1,000 pounds, and a lion, it is not surprising that some attacking lions are injured, even killed.

In December 1967 near Rush Creek, ‘Wilbur came upon a female which had been injured by an elk. Tracks showed that she had stalked a herd of four or five elk before attacking what was probably a young bull. The two had skidded down a steep slope and crashed into a tree. The elk escaped. When Wilbur treed the female, she had blood on her mouth and head from the collision, but appeared to be all right otherwise.

Three weeks later he captured her again, about four miles away beside Big Creek. It was obvious something was wrong with her. She was terribly thin and could hardly climb. Wilbur drugged her and took her from the tree. To his horror he found that she had a broken jaw and that her lower canines had been torn out. In addition she had severe puncture wounds in a shoulder and hind leg from the elk’s antlers. For three weeks the animal had suffered and starved. He had to shoot her to end the suffering.

The lions hunted as much in daylight as they did at night, if not more, and their diet was not limited to big-game animals. From their droppings, we discovered that they killed and ate snowshoe hares, wood rats, mice, squirrels, raccoons, coyotes. and, in one case, an entire meal of nothing but grasshoppers! So it became increasingly apparent that the lions, like most predators, were eating what was most easily obtainable.

Twin Cubs Join Family Circle

Polka-dotted kittens, 1 1/2 months old, romp with the author’s daughter Karen. The Division of Wildlife Services office in Boise, Idaho, presented the two males to the Hornocker family to aid in the lion research. Named Tommy and Flopsy, the orphans flourished on a diet of baby formula and, later, horse meat. Distinct spots and tail rings last about four months.

Rumbling purrs greet Karen as she pets Tommy and Flopsy. At 15 months of age their spots barely show. The “talk” of the kittens helped the author discover how mountain lions communicate in the wild. Various whistle-like sounds, resembling bird calls, indicated alarm or pleasure.

While in the field, I ordinarily called my wife Shirley in McCall about every two weeks by radiotelephone. She surprised me on one call with the announcement, “We have two baby lions!” The state office of the Division of Wildlife Services, United States Bureau of Sport Fisheries and Wildlife, had presented them to us for study.

The kittens, both males, grew and flourished as Shirley fed them baby formula, oatmeal, and vitamins. Our three daughters promptly named the orphans Tommy and Flopsy (preceding pages). After they reached 2 1/2 months, we moved both of them into an outdoor enclosure and changed their diet to raw horse meat, hide, and bone.

Tommy and Flopsy taught me how mountain lions communicate. They started using different whistle-like sounds to greet me or call each other. A warbling note was a greeting: a piercing one, an alarm; and short, intense tones meant “Come here!”

I am certain lions “talk” in the wild by means of these whistle-like sounds produced with their vocal cords. It had been a mystery to us how pairs or families, hunting together, could separate – one dropping into a basin, the other circling a ridge – and then join each other at some seemingly predetermined spot to continue the hunt. Since Wilbur and I first recognized this sound, we have heard it in the wild a number of times. The captive lions did not “scream,” and we have never heard anything like a scream in the wild. Lions make many sounds similar to those of house cats but, of course, much louder.

Next Goal: To Wire Lions for Sound

One day last April we climbed out of a canyon and, unshouldering our packs, leaned back in the soft sunshine. Spring had come early this year to the primitive area, and our season’s work was coming to an end.

The south-facing slopes were green with new grass, and far up the ridge we heard the hooting of a male blue grouse. High above a cliff across the canyon, a pair of ravens courted. diving and rolling over and over against the azure sky. The golden eagles that had soared in courtship on bright February afternoons were now nesting, and soon steelhead trout would enter the stream to spawn, ending their long journey up the Columbia, Snake, and Salmon Rivers from the sea.

As we dropped off the ridge into our lower Rush Creek camp, I found myself looking forward to next season’s work. I hope to attach tiny radio transmitters to our established residents and follow them throughout the year. For while we have learned much about these great animals in winter, we need to learn more about them and their year-round relationships with other species. As Wilbur put it, “The more a man learns, the more he learns he doesn’t know.” And we need to know in order to preserve and manage this splendid animal – an integral and important part of the wilderness environment and a true vestige of primitive America.


source: 1969 National Geographic (10 meg file, article starts on page 4)
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Wilbur Wiles

(1916 – 2019)

RIPWilburWiles2-aWilbur Vernon Wiles died peacefully at the Veterans Administration’s Willow Hospice in Boise, Idaho on April 17, 2019. He was 103.

He was predeceased by his wife, Katie Thrall Wiles; his parents, Roscoe and Flora Schuldt Wiles; his sister, Eunice Wiles Rounds; and his brothers, Oliver Wiles and Billy Wiles. He is survived by his sister, Geraldine Wiles Rippel of Des Moines, Iowa, and by several nieces and nephews.

Wilbur was born in Goodell, Iowa on January 19, 1916, the second of five children. He grew up on the farm homesteaded by his grandfather, Roscoe Sr. Wilbur hiked the woods, trapped and hunted, and dreamed of the West.

As Wilbur was beginning high school in 1931, way out in Idaho the Forest Service was in the process of placing special protections on a vast and wild landscape of canyons and forests, rivers, mountains and high basins, designating it the Idaho Primitive Area. Young Wilbur Wiles did not know it then, of course, but this area would become his home for 80 years.

By the time he graduated from Goodell High School in 1934, Wilbur had made enough from selling mink and muskrat pelts to buy a Model T Ford, in which he immediately lit out for the West. For the next few years Wilbur worked construction and logging jobs in Wyoming, Idaho, and other parts of the Northwest, exploring as far as Alaska and Mexico. In 1938 he discovered the tiny settlement of Big Creek, Idaho, consisting mainly of a ranger station and a rustic hunting lodge on the western edge of the Primitive Area, about 20 miles and a high mountain pass east of Yellow Pine. He moved into an abandoned miner’s cabin on lower Monumental Creek, a place even deeper inside that wilderness. Later he built a cabin in the area adjacent to Big Creek known as Edwardsburg. He obtained a pack horse and hounds, and established trap lines covering at least 120 miles in several directions. He became proficient in mining and prospecting, and worked at the Snowshoe Mine, Stibnite, and a tungsten mine he developed on Elk Creek Summit. And he hunted cougars, for which, at the time, the state paid a handsome bounty. When he was in his 60s, he discovered and later patented a small opal mine that still exists in the upper Monumental Creek drainage.

In the spring of 1941 Wilbur snowshoed over Profile Summit to Yellow Pine, caught the mail car to Cascade, and volunteered for the United States Army. Eight months later, he found himself in the wartime Army, which is what he anticipated and why he enlisted in the first place. After a couple of years as an instructor on the small arms firing range, he was sent to England to prepare for the epic invasion of Europe. Wilbur went ashore on Omaha Beach on June 9, 1944. Attaining the rank of sergeant, he participated in the breakout near St. Lo, endured the Battle of the Bulge in the Ardennes Forest, and fought through to the Elbe River where Soviet and American forces linked up in April 1945. He helped liberate two concentration camps. In his later years, incredulous to learn about the existence of Holocaust deniers, he said, “Well, they don’t know what they’re talking about. I know the Holocaust happened because I saw it. I saw what the Nazis did.” The Army awarded Wilbur Wiles the Bronze Star for bravery. Honorably discharged in October 1945, he made straight for Big Creek.

In the summer of 1964, Wilbur opened his cabin door to the knock of Maurice Hornocker, who also was raised in Iowa and had roamed those Iowa hills, but had come west to study under John Craighead at the University of Montana. After twelve years in Montana, Hornocker was pursuing his PhD in wildlife biology at the University of British Columbia. He doubtless captured Wilbur’s interest that summer day when he described the audacious doctoral project he had devised: tracking and marking cougars in the Idaho Primitive Area to determine their population densities, territories and interactions with their prey base. Hornocker had no experience capturing cougars, and little with the extended periods of self-supported back country travel that would be required in such rugged country, much of it in winter. He didn’t know the territory. His inquiries about who he could hire to track, tranquilize, collar, measure, and release the big cats led him directly to Wilbur Wiles. Their ten-year effort together pioneered new techniques and understandings in wildlife management; it resulted in a PhD dissertation and several scientific papers, a 1969 National Geographic story, and a career for Dr. Hornocker as a world-renowned expert on large predators. And Maurice and Wilbur became best friends for life, a fact probably more significant to them than the scientific discoveries they made. Dr. Hornocker refers to Wilbur as his mentor, and credits him with the success of the cat study. Maurice, now 88, was at Wilbur’s side the day he died.

Later in life, Wilbur married Kathryn Thrall, a widow with her own back country roots. Wilbur was devoted to Katie, and acceded to her need to spend winters someplace with milder winters than Big Creek. For a number of years in the 80s and 90s they lived part-time in Boise and later in Arizona. Wilbur continued to keep a fifth-wheel trailer in Arizona after Katie died in 1997, and drove himself from Big Creek to Arizona every October, back north again in May, until he was 101. He never looked as old as his age in years, always staying fit, walking the mountains and working his Big Creek garden. Young friends witnessed him, at 85, walking 26 miles in one day on the Big Creek trail. And this despite the fact that, eleven months before, he had broken both ankles—and had been hospitalized for the first time in his life—due to a fall from his cabin roof. The photo here is Wilbur at 95.

Wilbur Wiles was a straightforward and quiet man of natural-born integrity. Although he is the subject of a Forest Service biography and has been featured on Idaho Public Television’s “Outdoor Idaho” and Boise’s KTVB News, he never sought any kind of notoriety. He never was a big talker about anything. He seemed surprised when asked how he wanted to be remembered, saying simply, “Why, just as I am!”

A celebration of Wilbur’s life is being planned for late summer 2019 at his cabin in Big Creek, the date to be announced [July 27 at the Big Creek Lodge]. Wilbur’s friends thank the staff at the Veterans Administration’s Willow Hospice in Boise for the outstanding, truly excellent care they gave Wilbur in his final months. Contributions in Wilbur’s memory can be made to Idaho Public Television.

source: Published in Idaho Statesman on Apr. 21, 2019 [h/t B]
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1979 Wilbur Wiles and Big Jim Collord Back Country Pioneers

On the Golden Bear gold vein, down Big Creek, September 1979 Big Jim Collord and Wilbur Wiles
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Remembering Wilbur Wiles

Boy, talk about the passing of a generation and time . . . A man who actually lived not just in the woods, but in the remote Idaho backcountry most of his life, living off the land – hunting, trapping, mining, and later working indirectly for National Geo. His mentors, friends, and acquaintances were authentic Thunder Mountain miners, original backcountry forest rangers, homesteaders, and the most recognized figures of the backcountry. Of course he did not like himself to be placed in the latter category. He served his country in WWII, not because he had to, but because he wanted to, and always down played his participation in D-Day and later the liberation of camps. He never entered the computer age, rarely used a telephone, and when I last visited with him at his home in Big Creek (August 2017) he preferred to get his news on the am radio. And best of all, he was a man of great integrity who valued the intangible things in life, such as friendship and nature, above anything else – it always appeared to me he wanted for nothing and his life was completely fulfilled. It is certainly rare anymore to meet people who simply judge and accept a fellow human being based on his or her word. He will be well remembered and missed!

– From pilot/author Richard Holm on the passing of Wilbur Wiles
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Cabin in Big Creek / Edwardsburg

photo shared by Marcia Franklin courtesy Jim Collord

Link to Wilbur Wiles (part 1)

Link to more Big Creek / Edwardsburg stories

page updated October 12, 2020