Chapter 14 in Colonel Craig Boddington’s outstanding book, Fair Chase in North America, is titled, “The Great North American Cat”.
His first sentence reads as follows:
“The cougar is America’s most misunderstood game animal.”
It is a statement with which I wholeheartedly concur. Known variously as a catamount, puma, panther, painter or mountain lion, the cougar — much like the polar bear — has in recent years been made into an iconic symbol of our vanishing wilderness: portrayed as a noble creature fighting to survive the destruction we humans have visited upon its environment. Unfortunately, that is a rather distorted view of the facts — which is not surprising, since it is promoted by the more radical environmentalists, as well as most of the acolytes of the new, modern religion of political correctness. These are often the same people.
Unlike the situation with cougars, which are impossible to do aerial surveys on for any kind of population count, polar bears live in a habitat that makes census counts from the air quite easy by comparison. In the case of the great white bears, the survey data generated since the turn of the millennium clearly shows that their numbers are sustaining healthy increases in most of their historic range. That is especially true in nearly all parts of Canada’s Northwest Territories — which, ironically, is the only area of North America that has allowed any sport-hunting of the bears since the early 1970’s. This fact may seem ironic to the reader and perhaps difficult to comprehend, but it becomes immediately understandable when two additional facts are laid on the table:
(1) The overwhelming majority of bears taken by hunters are males.
(2) Large adult male bears kill several cubs and smaller adult males every single year.
With cougars, you have a very different set of factors that have contributed to the significant increase of their numbers in recent years throughout most of their historic range west of the Great Plains. The animal, by nature, is exceedingly shy and secretive. During the first several hundred years of the White Man’s presence in North America, cougar attacks on human beings were virtually unheard of. It used to be that a hunter could spend a lifetime of autumns out in the field and never even catch a glimpse of a lion. Nowadays, however, stumbling across one in the woods is becoming rather common throughout most of the Rocky Mountain West. More alarming is the hard fact that cougar attacks against people are no longer rare, isolated incidences. Household pets, young children and women joggers are becoming periodic targets — from western Montana to western Washington; from the mountains of Colorado to the suburbs of Los Angeles. Human deaths are now occurring in a way they never used to and the stage is set for many more in the years ahead.
A good friend of mine is the well-known wildlife photographer, Chuck Bartlett. Several years ago, Chuck was photographing Roosevelt Elk one day in the rain forests of the Olympic Peninsula when a cougar came out of nowhere and gave him the fright of his life. He had his camera attached to a tall tripod and was bending over it about to take a picture. A slight sound he heard directly behind him caused him to glance over his shoulder — just in time to see a mountain lion in midair, about to take him to the ground. He had only a fraction of a second to spin around and interpose the tripod between himself and the flying cat that had just launched itself off the top of a bank. Evidently, its unexpected collision with the stout, metal tripod caused the cougar enough discomfort that it just kept running and did not return to attack again.
Why has this sort of thing been happening with greater and greater frequency in recent years? There are, of course, several contributing reasons (such as suburban sprawl and shrinking habitat), but the fact remains that cougar numbers out West are going up — not down and the overriding cause of increasing lion attacks is that they are no longer being hunted enough by sportsmen, especially via the time-honored method of hound-hunting. Wild dogs chasing wild cats long predates human history, but man learned many centuries ago that trained canines were the only means by which he had any realistic chance of catching up to a wily wildcat.
For the better part of twenty years now, it seems that hunting lions with dogs has been regarded by the public at large as unsporting. Sadly, this misconception has been embraced by a number of hunters, as well. Hunters who have never hunted cougars themselves and who have “bought off” — unfortunately — on the uninformed propaganda put out by the anti-hunters. As a result, animal-rights groups have succeeded in pushing some state legislatures into curtailing severely the hunting of lions: either by drastically shortening the seasons or by eliminating pursuit with hounds altogether. In other states, legislatures and government agencies have been circumvented by animal-rights organizations that managed to collect enough signatures to get initiative petitions on the ballot at election time. Then the voting public has unwisely decided — in several states — to substitute its judgment for that of the game biologists and wildlife professionals.
It’s not, of course, that the voters don’t have the right to make such decisions under our federalist system of States Rights; it’s just that the general public doesn’t have access to the knowledge, scientific data and larger overview required to manage the different game species in such a way as to keep their numbers in balance with their available habitat. The other important balance that must be maintained — through enlightened wildlife management — is that between the predator animals and the animals of prey. Neither balance can be achieved or maintained without the other. It is always a complex, two-headed challenge for the wildlife professionals and that is why game management “by ballot box” is nearly always a bad idea.
California is undoubtedly the very worst example of such ballot-box “management” gone bad. Back in 1971, voters in that state decided cougars were “endangered” and put an end to all types of hunting for them. The ban is still in effect today and no Californian can even bring across the border (“import”) a dead lion legally taken in some other state! At the time the ballot initiative passed, the state’s population was estimated to be around 2000 of the big cats. The results were predictable — and have proven disastrous.
In his 2004 book, I believe Colonel Boddington puts the issue into proper perspective with some fascinating statistics:
“Today, the estimates range from 5000 to 7000 [cougars] and beyond and many experts feel these are conservative figures.
“Given the chance, a cougar might eat and kill a deer per week. Certainly, 40 a year is not an exaggerated figure. In a recent season, California deer tag returns indicated that the Sportsmen’s harvest was a mere 30,000 deer. In the same year, some 70,000 deer were reported killed on roads and highways. Depending on how conservative you want to be, California’s cougars killed from 200,000 to 350,000 deer that year — if they could find them. The Golden State deer herd was never estimated at much more than 750,000, so it doesn’t take a mathematician to figure out that the cougar’s harvest is not sustainable.”
The Colonel’s bottom line is this: “Cougar depredation is at an all-time high and so are man/cougar encounters.” He then goes on to explain why it didn’t need to be that way and why hound-hunting for mountain lions is the only management tool that offers any chance of restoring California’s deer population to anything like its former good health. The reason is quite simple. Cougars are the most elusive, large animal on the continent. Aside from encounters produced by hound-hunting, it is almost impossible for any hunter to strike out into lion habitat alone and actually find or see one. When the rare, accidental sighting occurs, seldom is there time for the hunter to shoulder his rifle and get off a shot at the flash of tawny fur.
Actually, finding lion tracks in lion country is a fairly common occurrence — especially with snow on the ground. Sometimes you come across their scat or the remains of an old deer or elk kill. Due, however, to the fact that they travel so constantly, over such vast expanses of terrain, most of the tracks you find are several days old or older. When a fresh track is found by a houndsman (or a track that appears to have been made overnight), then the table is set for the chase — providing the track looks large enough to be that of a mature male.
Very few houndsmen or cougar hunters are willing to take the life of a lioness. They realize that — just as is the case with bears — when you remove a female from the overall population, you do significant damage to that population. They also know, conversely, that the killing of an adult tom is going (over time) to contribute to a very real increase in the numbers of cougars. The reason this is true for both the bears and the big cats is simply because every year the males of both species kill several cubs (or kittens) — AND as many smaller adult males as they can manage to catch. In neither case do the boars or toms appreciate having competition for food sources — nor competition for breeding rights, once the mating season arrives.
When it comes to man’s hunting of lions with dogs, the chase itself is everything. Once in a great while, it will prove to be a quick, easy matter, but most of the time the chase is exhausting — more for the man, I think, than for the beast. The kill — if it takes place at all — is usually an easy shot and anticlimactic. However, this method of hunting does allow for great selectivity in several ways and female cougars are seldom shot by accident just because the hunter is unable to sex the animal.
Getting to the treed catamount is the real challenge for the hunter. Because he is seldom in the same physical condition as the houndsman, the chase for him is often a gut-busting experience that can cause a single day’s weight loss of several pounds. Some hunters find they’re really not “up to it,” once the chase gets underway in earnest. Lion country is almost always steep and rocky. Deep snow often makes the going extremely tough and slippery. Your quarry may outsmart the dogs and give them the slip or the cat — once treed — may leave the tree before you ever reach it (IF you reach it at all). Sometimes, it is the dogs who leave the tree, with the cougar still in it, because they give up waiting for the hunters to catch up with them. It seems that the list of things that can go wrong on a lion hunt is almost endless. The best way to sum it up is that the use of dogs doesn’t make cougar hunting easy; it just makes it possible.
As one who has been on at least a dozen such hunts in my lifetime, let me assure the reader that catching up to a record-book tom is one of the most difficult challenges I’ve ever set for myself. Seldom did I and my guide (houndsman) end up beneath a tree with a lion in it. Sometimes we would lose the hounds for hours on end, as the cat led them on a merry chase over one ridge after another. One day, I remember that night actually came and went before we finally located the dogs the next morning. More than once, I recall the dogs getting confused by the circles the lion was running and they started following his scent-trail backwards until they suddenly landed in our lap — with no small amount of consternation and embarrassment.
My first successful cougar hunt took place in Stevens County, in northeastern Washington, during December of 1988. Redfern Guide Services was the name of the outfitter and I recall how much he loved his hounds and the music they made whenever we found a good, fresh track worth turning the dogs loose on. Each of his three dogs had a very distinctive voice. As long as he could hear them, he could tell you exactly what was going on between them and the lion. If the warm trail all at once turned into a hot one, when the cougar was jumped from its bed, he could tell you that instantly. When the cat finally treed, he would know that immediately, as well. If the cat left the tree and the pursuit resumed, he could tell you that, also.
Everything came together for me at last on the fifth day of the hunt, but the chases we got going on Day #2 and Day #4 left me not only struggling for air, but also gasping in amazement at how our quarry had managed to outsmart the hounds and get away. It was late morning of the second day when we came across a set of fresh lion tracks, which crossed the old logging road we were traveling. Nearly a foot of new snow blanketed the ground. My guide got out of the truck and carefully measured both the width of the front paw and the length of the animal’s stride. “Forty-five inches!” he declared, with some real excitement in his voice. “We’ve got ourselves a big tom here! Let’s get out the hounds and see if we can catch him.”
Even before the little doors to their dog-boxes were opened up in the back of the truck, the hounds began yelping in excited anticipation of the chase. Once their master directed their noses to the fresh tracks, they were instantly off to the races. Within less than a minute, they were out of sight as they charged up the mountainside. Their constant baying, however, allowed us to hear them and follow their progress — at least until they crossed over the top of the ridge, high above us. Having to fight the fresh snow and the steep incline, we took over an hour to reach that ridge crest. It may have taken the dogs all of four or five minutes! Despite the subfreezing air temperature, I’d never felt so overheated in my life. Nor wetter, for that matter!
Once on top of the ridge, we were hoping, of course, to hear the steady barking of the hounds somewhere off in the distance. What greeted our ears, instead, was total silence. We stood still and listened for a long time. Finally, we heard two or three yelps that seemed born of frustration — perhaps no more than 300 yards distant. Continuing to follow the tracks in the snow, we soon found all three pooches hung up on the edge of a long, rimrock cliff. The entire story could be read in the snow. In his flight from the hounds, the large male lion had not hesitated for an instant when he reached the lip of the rimrock. He had just sailed off the top with one, long bound and landed in the soft snow some 30 feet below. Needless to say, none of the dogs was willing to take such a leap. Since the cliff extended in each direction nearly half-a-mile, his pursuers had not been able to find a way down. “Just as well,” I remember my guide saying. “There are no roads off that-away, anyhow. Let’s head back to the truck and see if we can’t locate another fresh track.”
Two days later, shortly after noon, we did come across another impressive set of fresh cougar tracks, but this old tom was even more clever than the first one had been. When — after three hours of trying my best to keep up with my patient guide — I finally joined him on the third ridgetop, he greeted me with a big grin. “You hear that music over yon? Gus and the others have him treed down there in that forested hollow about 500 yards from here.”
I nodded silently, as I fought to catch my breath — grateful that the last push was going to be all downhill! Minutes later, under the canopy of the big woods, we arrived at the old fir tree which had three excited dogs under it, bellering their hearts out and bouncing up and down as if they were on pogo sticks. There was absolutely no doubt those hounds were convinced that the lion was hiding somewhere above them in that tree! Search as we might, however, my guide and I were not able to find him. We both circled the tree several times, but could not spot a head, a tail or any patch of fur.
Finally, after 15 minutes of growing frustration and scratching of heads, my guide made a much wider circle around the base of the tree and discovered the answer to our puzzlement. Roughly 45 feet from the base of the fir, began a set of departing cougar tracks which we had not noticed earlier. Our careful study of all the tracks in the vicinity of the tree led to only one conclusion. The incoming lion had left the ground at high speed and used the trunk as a spring-board to carom off it at a 90-degree angle and continue his flight. The escape maneuver had obviously worked to a tee, because the hounds had only followed the cat’s tracks as far as the tree and they just assumed — once they got there — that he was “treed” somewhere above them. By then the hour was late in the afternoon and my houndsman decided not to put the dogs on the “new” set of tracks. He knew our quarry probably had a big head start.
In light of all the difficulties and disappointments experienced during the first four days of the hunt, I was really not expecting that everything would suddenly come together perfectly for me on Day #5. A third set of fresh tom tracks was located early in the morning and in less than 30 minutes my guide informed me that his hounds were barking “treed.” Within an hour after their initial release, I found myself standing beneath a rather small, non-evergreen type of tree and looking up in awe at the biggest “putty-tat” I had ever laid eyes on — outside of a zoo. No more than 15 feet off the ground, the beautiful tom was gazing down at me with total serenity and a look of seeming indifference on his bewhiskered face. It was almost as if he wished to pose for the several photographs I proceeded to take. The hounds continued to bark, but the cougar — evidently feeling completely safe where he was — barely condescended to look in their direction. “Proud Disdain” would have been a perfect title for his portrait.
Eventually, it was time to put an arrow on the string. Once all three dogs were tied up (in order to protect them if the cat were to come out of the tree with any fight left in him), I drew back and sent an arrow into the wild yonder, but it first passed through the lion’s abdomen. That is not where I had aimed my shaft, but a small branch deflected it just before it reached its target. Instantly, the lion was out of the tree and headed for the next county. He would not go far.
Within seconds, the dogs were back in pursuit and a scant 75 yards away the stricken cat zipped up a huge ponderosa pine tree. Once my guide and I got ourselves over there to join the excited hounds, I forced myself to relax and catch my breath a bit before nocking a second arrow.
The big fellow was now at least 50 feet off the ground, out on a thick limb, staring down at us and offering a much smaller target than before. My next shot required bending over severely backwards and shooting the arrow almost straight up. My aim was a few inches off and the arrow stuck in the limb directly under the lion’s rib cage. He immediately let out a snarl, displaying the lethal fangs for which he is so universally feared by all the animals of prey.
My third and final shot was on the money. Transpiercing the chest cavity from below, it soared skyward — ultimately to land only 30 yards from the base of the ponderosa. Maybe five seconds elapsed, at most, before the cougar lost his grip on the limb and I suspect he was already dead before he reached the end of his 50-foot fall into the snow.
Handshakes and backslaps were quick to follow, but then the work began of getting my big tomcat back to the truck. My guide estimated his weight at around 130 pounds. Most of the route, fortunately, was downhill and the snow made the job much easier than it would have been without it.
As for my dream of putting a cougar “in the book,” this one came up just a trifle short. A few months before the hunt, the Pope & Young Records Committee had raised the entry-minimum for the species from 13-inches to 13-and-a-half (The score is arrived at by adding skull length to skull width). My first lion was later scored at 13 and 4/16ths. Even though he wasn’t everything I had hoped for, I was very happy with my Washington tom. I was especially happy, however, at having had the overall experience of a successful chase, for a change. It had proven really exciting and was unlike any other experience I had ever had before in the world of hunting.
I also felt good about the fact that I’d done my small part to protect or increase the deer population in eastern Washington. Since people almost never get to see cougars, unless attacked by one, why not do what you can to make it possible for everybody to see more deer? In case the reader may be wondering, cougar meat is some of the best-tasting wild meat there is! Driving home, I began salivating at the thought of adding 50 pounds of steaks, chops and ground round to my freezer. It was going to be Sooooo good! And I knew the fresh protein would nourish dreams of hunting for an even bigger lion one day.
The BAREBOW! Sagas – Adventure and Misadventure in the Wilds of North America
Dennis Dunn doesn’t just tell hunting stories; he shares his dreams, his victories, his disappointments, his wisdom and he teaches from his knowledge and experience. The BAREBOW! Sagas will not only acquaint you with the sweet taste of success and the bitter agony of defeat; they will convince you that well-regulated hunting sustains the use of wildlife and gives the animals increased value to justify their conservation and preservation. In this series, Dennis takes you along on his quest for the North American Big Game 29 Super Slam. A bow, a string, an arrow – no trigger, no peep-sights, no pins – just fingers, guts and instinct. That’s hunting BAREBOW! To learn more about Dunn’s award-winning book (from which the above story was taken), or to order a copy of BAREBOW!, you may visit the author’s website at: www.barebows.com.