Lori Iverson has a new appreciation of what the phrase "going viral" means.
On the morning of March 29, the outdoor recreation planner for the National Elk Refuge in northwestern Wyoming posted seven photos on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's flickr site — a website to share photographs. The photos showed two young mountain lion cubs stuck atop a tall, wooden buck-and-rail fence with a group of five coyotes, ears perked, watching and circling menacingly below.
Iverson had captured the photos the night before on the refuge, just before sunset. Within 72 hours after they were posted on flickr, the images had collected 2.6 million views. Yahoo, NBC and Fox picked up the photos, too, so she has no idea how many other people have viewed the shots.
"It's a way to reach people very quickly," Iverson said she now realizes.
Iverson had gotten a tip that there were two juvenile cougars on the refuge eight days earlier. They had been seen dining on an elk carcass by a fellow Fish and Wildlife Service employee. She asked the employee to give her a heads up if the cougars were seen again.
Eight days later, she got a call at about 6:30 p.m. that the young lions had been seen atop the fence.
"I pretty much dropped everything and went right away," she said.
Within 20 minutes, after stopping at the office to pick up her Canon PowerShot camera, she was at the site and snapping photos.
"I didn't immediately see the coyotes," she said. "I saw the cats on the fence."
The photos show the cats near each other atop the large wooden fence where it crosses a small stream. The two are huddled together on the top two rails.
Sheltered from obvious view, Iverson was able to get reasonably close to take the shots. The cats seemed fairly relaxed until the coyotes moved closer.
"As the coyotes moved in, I could see the cubs' ears flatten," she said.
Her photos show the coyotes running in and the cougars' body language changing as they flatten themselves closer to the rails as if to hold on, hide or in preparation to jump down. The coyotes closed to within a few feet of one of the cubs, who clung to the opposite side of the fence, moving to a vertical position to keep a better eye on the canines. The cubs were on the same side of the fence as Iverson, the coyotes were on the opposite side.
Iverson could only speculate as to the reason for the standoff. The coyotes could have been staking a territorial claim to a carcass the cubs were feeding on. As to why there were so many, she noted that the refuge is a scavenger-rich environment in the winter, supporting everything from coyotes to ravens, eagles and lions that congregate around the refuge's elk in hopes of dining on winterkill carcasses.
Iverson said she had no idea whether the photos would turn out, and she added that she probably missed many shots because she was so awestruck watching the drama unfold that she would stop photographing to simply observe.
"It was really exciting to witness something like that, to see the interaction between wildlife," she said.
The cubs are estimated to be about 5 to 6 months old. In some of the photographs, you can see dark spots on their fur. The spots help camouflage the animals from predators when they are young and defenseless. Although it varies by animal, they typically begin losing their spots by about 6 months old and weigh in the range of 30 to 40 pounds. But spots can still be present at 8 months. The kittens are often weaned off their mother's milk when they are 2 to 3 months old.
The location of the cubs' mother is unknown. Even when the cubs are young, the mothers must continue to hunt to eat. When the kittens are 7 to 8 weeks old, she'll begin bringing home meat to feed them. Mother lions are known to leave their cubs at a kill site as they search for the next meal, and sometimes she may be gone for days. Young cougars may stay with their mother for a year to a year-and-a-half before venturing off on their own.
Iverson said she is being discreet about the location of the cubs to discourage other photographers. The cubs were photographed in a part of the refuge that is closed to the public. She worries the attention drawn to the animals may encourage trespassers.
The refuge covers 24,700 acres of intermountain valley in the Jackson Hole area of northwestern Wyoming. The refuge is within Teton County and is bounded on the south by the town of Jackson, on the east by the Bridger-Teton National Forest, and on the north by Grand Teton National Park.
Because the photos were also posted on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Facebook page, Iverson said she and the Service's regional Facebook coordinator put together a general reply to the queries — there was no way she could answer them all individually. The comments ranged from awe to questions about why Iverson didn't intervene to protect the cubs and why there were so many coyotes.
The sudden social media fame has been a learning lesson for Iverson, as well as an opportunity to educate the public. She's hoping something positive comes out of the incident.
"I have one secret wish. We do frequently post photos to our flickr site," she said. "Please visit it and come back often."