Eli Schaefer from Houghton still can’t believe he was lucky enough to capture video of a cougar killing a deer on one of his trail cameras near Toivola in Houghton County on the afternoon of December 30, 2023.
The dramatic video shows a large male mountain lion after it pounced on and overpowers what appears to be a young antlerless deer and has the whitetail on the ground. The lion quickly grabs the deer by the throat to suffocate it. Based on the short snout on the deer’s head, it’s probably a fawn.
Adult male mountain lions range in weight between 135 to 175 pounds, according to the Internet, so they are easily capable of bringing down average-size deer once they catch them. In the western United States, where cougars are more common, the predators routinely kill much larger elk.
Schaefer not only got video of the cougar killing the whitetail, he got another 10-second clip of the mountain lion dragging the deer away. The camera that took the amazing video was along a runway leading to one of Eli’s deer baits. He said he put a camera in that location to get photos of deer that were visiting his bait.
“It was just dumb luck to have the camera at the right place and right time,” he wrote in response to a message from former Michigan resident Denise Peterson, who now lives in Utah and has been studying mountain lions for years. She congratulated Schaefer on getting the video and pointed out how difficult getting a kill on camera can be.
“That’s the dream shot,” she wrote. “We’ve been wanting to get a kill on camera forever. We’ve got some incredible interactions like mating, adults playing and kittens playing, but a kill is a dream! We’re hoping to film one in person this winter. Came close last winter, but it didn’t quite work out.”
The deer hunter had no way of knowing what incredible video his camera would capture. But that was not the first cougar photographed by one of his cameras. A camera overlooking a deer bait about a mile from where the rare video was taken took a photo of a cougar that may be the same one on October 9, 2023, about 2 p.m. Video of the cougar killing the deer on December 30 was taken at almost 3 p.m.
And two years earlier, Schaefer found the remains of another deer that had been killed and partially eaten by a cougar. There was snow on the ground, and Eli took a picture of his hand next to one of the large cat tracks.
“A couple of years ago, I found a blood trail crossing a road,” Schaefer explained. “There was a drag mark in the snow where the cat dragged the deer. I followed the trail about two miles to a river. What was left of the deer was buried.
“I thought that a cougar was probably responsible for killing that deer, so I didn’t hang around, but I wasn’t sure. When I showed the picture of the track to my friends, they thought it was a big bobcat track.”
The DNR has confirmed cougar reports from Houghton and neighboring Ontonagon Counties since 2011. Three reports were confirmed in Houghton County that year and two in Ontonagon County. Two photos of mountain lions in nearby Baraga County were recorded in 2012. Multiple reports of cougars in those counties were also documented each year from 2019 through 2022.
At least one mountain lion has obviously been in the area where Eli deer hunts for a number of years. After viewing the video that Eli’s camera captured, Denise Peterson in Utah referred to the cat as a male. Schaefer asked her how she knew it was a male.
“There are a couple of reasons I have a very high degree of confidence that this is most likely a male,” she responded. “One is head size. Males typically have larger heads than females. In the first video and picture you sent in particular, I could get a good look at the size of the head. Going off of these and with the cats we see out here, it is more consistent with that of a male.
“Secondly, males typically disperse greater distances than females. In general, males are more likely to travel farther in search of a territory, resources and a mate. There are always exceptions, of course. A few females have been documented in Iowa and Kansas, but more often than not, it’s the males who travel further east. In the cougar study that we work on, we did have two females that traveled into Colorado after dispersal, but for the most part, they didn’t travel too far from where they were born.”
Schaefer said he didn’t find out that his camera got video of a cougar kill until a week after the incident happened. He picked up his cameras after deer season ended and wasn’t in a rush to look at photos and videos from the cameras since he was done hunting. He was amazed when he finally saw the video.
Eli was not successful in tagging a deer in 2023.
“All of the deer were nocturnal,” he said. “It was definitely a tough year. I had deer on camera for a couple of days, and then they would be gone for a couple of days. The cougar might have had something to do with that. I had one or two wolves on camera, too.”