F&S Classics: The 5-Yr Lion Hunt


The nice cat rose, stretched lazily, and moved from the shadow of the tree behind which the low-swinging February solar had disappeared. A couple of steps put it within the daylight once more on the base of a south-facing boulder the place the snow had melted and the thick mat of pine needles was gentle and heat. Right here it lay down as soon as extra, again to the rock, half curled like a contented tabby.

For a number of moments it gazed intently down the steep slope the place, 50 yards away beneath a mass of jumbled boulders—rigorously coated with snow, sticks, and grass—lay the stays of a cow elk it had killed early that morning. Earlier than this kill, eight days had handed for the reason that cougar had fed. It had made a number of stalks, however in every case had failed to finish them. Cougar, in contrast to wolves, can’t outrun their prey. A cougar should get shut, behind cowl, after which—after a brief, quick rush—leap on the startled animal.

The cat was an enormous male. It might weigh near 160 kilos and stand 30 inches tall on the shoulders. It was greater than 7 1/2 ft lengthy together with its 28-inch, black-tipped tail. Its predominate shade was rusty brown, shading to a touch of black alongside its again and fading to white on its stomach. Its head, broad and brief like that of any cat, would have measured 6 inches throughout the highest between the alert, upright ears, 8 inches from nostril to again. There was some black close to the muzzle, with a tuft of 5-inch whiskers on all sides. Its massive, soft-looking, furry ft would go away tracks 5 inches throughout in new snow. Its eager eyes had been yellow, with spherical pupils.

Late the night time earlier than, pushed by starvation, the large cat had come down off the rocky bluffs the place he had for 2 days tried unsuccessfully to stalk a band of bighorn sheep. The sheep appeared at all times to have an alert sentry watching and he had been unable to get shut. He had swung down into the tangled Rush Creek backside the place the snow was 3 ft deep, climbed up by means of the Douglas fir on a north hillside, crossed a ridge, and began round this sparsely timbered south slope.

February 1970 cover of Field & Stream
The paintings on the February 1970 cowl of F&S regarded forward to the spring trout season. Discipline & Stream

Then, far beneath, he noticed the elk. A number of cows and calves, clearly seen within the vivid moonlight, had been searching the mountain mahogany that clustered on the rocky outcroppings, the bitterbrush that grew within the open areas, and infrequently cropping a tuft of grass the place it confirmed above the snow.

Regardless of his starvation, the large cat paused. He should stay unseen. He examined the wind; he should method into it. And, above all, he should plan his stalk in order to intercept one of many feeding animals when it was near some sort of cowl.

Unaware of his presence, the elk wandered backwards and forwards from one little bit of tempting browse to a different. The cougar started his method, strolling softly within the shadow of a tree when it was accessible, utilizing the shelter of a slight melancholy or towering boulder when it was not.

Ultimately he was solely 100 yards away. He paused within the shelter of a cherry thicket, crouching tense and alert as he plotted the possible course of the feeding animals. They had been headed towards a granite outcropping 50 yards lengthy and 10 yards broad with nice slabs and chunks of the grey rock mendacity alongside all sides. On the downhill finish of the rock there was a clump of mahogany. The nice cat began down ever so slowly, his stomach brushing the hard-packed snow. He took benefit of each bush and rock with instinctive endurance. This was the essential a part of the stalk. If he might see the elk, they may see him, too.

At 50 yards he paused once more to see cautiously over a thick sagebrush. A number of of the elk had turned barely away, angling downhill towards a patch of bitterbrush. However one cow was nonetheless headed towards the rocks. The cougar moved forward to intercept her. He was a noiseless black shadow on the snow, mixing with different shadows, shifting so slowly that he didn’t appear to maneuver in any respect.

Ultimately, he reached the rocks. The cow was now out of sight behind them. He crept alongside one facet, aware not solely of his quarry but in addition of the opposite elk past, which could see him and unfold an alarm. He reached the far nook of the outcropping and crouched within the shadow of a boulder beside it. He couldn’t see the cow, however he might scent her. He might hear her tearing the younger twigs off the mahogany. He might hear every step, coming nearer. His muscular tissues tightened.

Lastly he noticed her head and shoulders come across the rock. She was solely 20 ft away. However wait! He should have a transparent path by means of the mahogany. The cow moved ever so slowly. Ultimately she paused past a gap to feed once more.

The nice cat crouched tight and leaped, just like the missile from a catapult, capturing towards the cow elk within the moonlight. She heard him strike the bottom. She began to whirl away however she was too late. In one other certain he was on her. He was on her shoulders, the place a cougar should at all times be to kill an elk.

He threw a muscular forearm throughout her withers and locked his large canines on the again of her neck, The two-inch claws dug into the cow’s powerful conceal and the arduous, thumblike protuberance above his wrist pushed it in opposition to them. His again claws dug in opposition to her close to facet, caught, and pushed him up. He was on her again, his forearms gripping her head and neck, his again claws digging into her sides like spurs.

The elk weighed 450 kilos to the cat’s 160. She might simply leap over a blowdown that was 4 ft excessive and 6 ft broad. She was extremely robust and lively, and killing her would require all of the lion’s power and ability. Cougar are generally fatally injured in encounters with elk, and wholesome animals fairly often escape.

If the cow had been a deer, the large cat might have bitten into the spinal column simply behind her head and killed her simply, instantaneously. However an elk’s neck muscular tissues are too thick, the bones too arduous. Now the cat’s massive enamel gripping the again of her neck gave him buy; they locked him to her. His again legs and claws offered stability and energy to drag again. And the claws of each entrance ft had been already biting into the cow’s face.

All of this took solely a fraction of a second, however the elk reacted immediately, too. She whirled, reared like a bucking horse, and plunged downhill. She hit a rock, slid, fell, regained her ft, plunged by means of a clump of the iron-hard mahogany in a useless effort to scrape the large cat off, and lunged downhill once more. However the cougar’s forelimbs, pulling the cow’s head beneath with super power, succeeded. There was a snap. Her neck was damaged in midleap. She was useless when she struck the bottom.

The cougar fed from a hindquarter, tearing out nice gulps of flesh and swallowing them entire as a result of all of a cougar’s enamel are meant for reducing and tearing—it has no molars. Daylight had come by now and the pale winter solar rose whereas the mountain lion was nonetheless feeding. Happy eventually, with 25 kilos of heat elk meat in his abdomen, the cougar licked his bloody paws and wiped his cheeks. Then he coated the elk rigorously to maintain off keen-eyed ravens and climbed slowly up the hillside till he discovered the south-facing boulder. He curled up within the daylight and went to sleep.

Now and again because the shadow of a tree crept across the hillside the male cat moved into the solar once more. He was content material. Until disturbed, he would stay right here, loafing within the sunshine, curling up into a good, fuzzy ball at night time, till the elk was consumed.

At midafternoon one thing woke the cougar. He raised his head to search for ravens. There have been none in sight. Maybe a coyote was slipping in to feed on the kill. No. It was a sound in contrast to that made by any animal. He heard it clearly now, regular footsteps crunching within the sunwarmed snow. Cautiously, he rose to his forelegs. He noticed the supply. Two males and two canines, nonetheless almost 1 / 4 of a mile away, had been following his personal tracks towards the kill. The hunter was the hunted now.

With no sound, the large cat rose and slipped across the nook of the rock. Utilizing it for canopy, he began strolling swiftly away by means of a patch of bitterbrush. The hunters and their canines got here to the elk. The proof was clear. “A lion kill!” one of many males exclaimed and shortly unleashed the hounds.

They circled the kill, discovered the tracks main away and adopted them to the rock. Right here the recent scent hung heavy within the air and the tracks that led away had been pretty smoking. The hounds broke right into a run, baying always. The boys adopted as quickly as they may. 

The cat was operating now. It had heard the canines. But it surely was heavy with meals, and after a brief dash the hounds gained quickly. Quickly they may see their quarry. Their baying turned wild with pleasure. For half a mile the cougar led them down and across the mountainside. Then, panting, it got here to an enormous yellow pine. With no backward look it ran quickly up the trunk to a big horizontal limb 40 ft above the bottom. Right here it crouched to observe with baleful eyes the quickly approaching canines. On the foot of the tree, they arrange a steady baying. One of many hunters, hurrying with all his power across the tough slope, gasped, “Treed!” to his companion.

On the pine, the 2 hunters eliminated their packs. One in all them took a gun from his. But it surely was not a standard gun. Powered by a 32-gauge clean shotgun shell, it fired a .50-caliber syringe with a barbed 1-inch hypodermic needle on the entrance and a fringed nylon stabilizer on the rear. Within the barrel of the syringe a tranquilizing drug (phencyclidine hydrochloride) was backed by a rubber plunger and a light-weight, self-detonating explosive cost.

Aiming on the cougar’s hip, Dr. Maurice Hornocker fired. The syringe went true. The needle drove into the muscle. The cost contained in the dart fired, pushing the plunger forward and injecting the drug. The opposite hunter, Wilbur Wiles, stated, “Good!”

The lion crouched calmly on the limb, evident on the hunters and their noisy canines. However the hunters had been busy. They took scales, a nylon internet, ropes, tags, climbing spurs, and different gadgets from their packs. Now and again one among them glanced at his watch after which up on the nice cat. Ultimately Wilbur stated, “Ten minutes,” and led the canines away from the tree to tie them whereas Maurice placed on the climbing spurs.

Animals on the bottom will be immobilized and knocked out fully. This gained’t do for cougars, which can be 60 or 70 ft up a tree when captured. In the event that they fell they might be injured or killed. So the drug used and the dimensions dose, which is rigorously adjusted to the estimated weight of every animal, merely calm them. They continue to be acutely aware however will be dealt with safely.

Maurice climbed the tree till he might look straight into the yellow eyes of the large cat—an animal heavier than he was. He tied a rope round it, shoved it off the limb, and lowered it to the bottom. There he and Wilbur weighed and measured it. They connected numbered aluminum tags and color-coded plastic streamers to every ear and put a nylon rope collar carrying a numbered, brightly coloured plastic tag across the animal’s neck, thus ensuring that if one identification mark had been misplaced one other would stay.

Weighing, tagging, measuring, and the cautious examination of the cat that accompanied this, plus meticulously recording every merchandise in a pocket book, took one thing over fifteen minutes. On the finish of this time the cougar confirmed indicators of recovering. The boys stepped again. Ten minutes later, the lion struggled to his ft, regarded round as if puzzled, and walked groggily away. He would stay beneath some results of the drug for an additional half hour or extra, however to inexperienced eyes he would seem fully regular.

A Scientific Hunt

For 5 winters, from late November by means of April, Maurice Hornocker and Wilbur Wiles have studied cougar in a rugged space of 200 sq. miles within the Huge Creek drainage of central Idaho. Every winter they’ve walked from 1,000 to 1,200 miles.

Even on a park path, 1,200 miles is a great distance—thrice the gap from Los Angeles to San Francisco. There was no path for many of the miles Maurice and Wilbur hiked, sporting snowshoes at instances and at others carrying them the place the slope was too steep or the comb too thick to allow their use. They forded icy streams, wallowed by means of deep snow, crawled over logs, scrambled up rocks, felt their means round cliffs, and climbed slopes so steep they may pull themselves up solely by hanging onto the bushes.

In contrast to many different giant animals, cougar can’t be watched from a distance or noticed from a blind. They’re too secretive. Many males who’ve spent half a lifetime in cougar nation have by no means even seen one. The one probability to study their mysterious methods is to comply with tracks within the snow, learning the proof left there and ultimately, often after many arduous miles, releasing hounds to chase the maker of these tracks up a tree or onto a rock ledge. Solely with the help of canines can cougar be captured persistently.

Why trouble? As a result of we all know so little in regards to the massive, good-looking cat and its influence on the prey animals that help it—within the Huge Creek research space, mule deer and elk.

The cougar initially had the widest distribution of any mammal within the Western Hemisphere—from the Straits of Magellan to northern British Columbia and from the Atlantic to the Pacific. It thrived in jungles and on the desert, at sea degree and among the many excessive mountains, within the Florida Everglades and within the rain forest of the Pacific Northwest.

As America was settled, a myriad of legends, tales, and myths sprang up in regards to the cougar. It occupied a outstanding half within the folklore of the frontier as that frontier moved inexorably from the Atlantic Seaboard to the Pacific. But, surprisingly, little or no was really recognized about it. The books are stuffed with conjecture on each part of its exercise from looking to mating and rearing younger.

Lastly, in 1964, an intensive, scientific cougar research was begun on the Huge Creek drainage within the Idaho Primitive Space, 144 million acres of the wilderness that’s important to keep up a lion inhabitants. There are few spots left with sufficient lions to make such a research worthwhile. The research was sponsored by the Idaho Fish and Sport Division; the College of Idaho; the College of British Columbia; and, since January 1968, by the Idaho Cooperative Wildlife Analysis Unit and the U.S. Bureau of Sport Fisheries and Wildlife.

Monetary help got here from the American Museum of Pure Historical past by means of its Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Fund, the Boone and Crockett Membership, the New York Zoological Society, the Nationwide Wildlife Federation, and the Carnegie Museum. And the person chosen to move the cooperative challenge was Maurice Hornocker.

Blue-eyed, dark-haired, slender, and muscular, Dr. Hornocker at 39 gives the look of being as taut as a drawn bowstring and as arduous as a nail. He majored in wildlife administration and ecology on the College of Montana and acquired his grasp’s diploma there. His physician’s diploma got here from the College of British Columbia the place he studied beneath Dr. Ian McTaggart Cowan, one of many world’s foremost wildlife ecologists. His physician’s thesis, naturally, was on cougar. And for six years at Montana he assisted Drs. John and Frank Craighead of their well-known research of the grizzlies in Yellowstone Nationwide Park, Maurice started his work with cougar at Montana, perfecting the method for tranquilizing and capturing them. He took a contract with the College of Idaho and the Idaho Fish and Sport Division in 1964 to conduct the Huge Creek cougar research, and in 1968 was named chief of the Cooperative Wildlife Analysis Unit on the College.

His first break within the research got here when he discovered Wilbur Wiles for an assistant. Wiles had spent twentyfive years within the roadless Huge Creek nation and knew it just like the again of his hand. As well as, he was an skilled cougar hunter. He was a wonderful woodsman, a tireless hiker, and a congenial companion. “Wilbur’s contribution to the research can’t be overemphasized,” Dr. Hornocker instructed me. “Many issues merely couldn’t have been accomplished with out his assist.”

Every fall Maurice and Wilbur arrange camps at six- to eight-mile intervals within the research space and, utilizing pack horses, stocked them with meals, cooking tools, gasoline, sleeping luggage, and different necessities. They may comply with an animal till darkish with the temperature beneath zero. Having meals and shelter inside cheap distance could possibly be vitally essential. And looking day after day for months, as they did, made satisfactory meals and relaxation important

Their headquarters had been the Taylor Ranch on the decrease finish of the research space, 9 miles from the spot the place Huge Creek flows into the Center Fork of the Salmon River. Right here, 34 miles from highway’s finish on the Huge Creek Ranger Station, Jess and Dorothy Taylor guided anglers in the summertime, hunters within the fall, and prolonged limitless hospitality to Wilbur Wiles and Maurice Hornocker.

Cougar Nation

The research space was on the winter vary of the deer and elk which can be compelled down into the Huge Creek valley by the deeper snow at increased elevations. Cougar, after all, stick with their meals provide. Every year when the snow got here, Maurice and Wilbur began looking, rigorously figuring out all of the facet drainages close to one camp, then shifting on to the following.

Once they discovered a cougar observe they adopted it, checking any kills the large cat might need made, observing its motion as recorded within the snow and, if doable, catching it in a tree, on a rock ledge, or in a cave the place the animals often took refuge from the canines. A mean of 4.3 days of grueling looking and monitoring went into every seize. Every time they caught one, Maurice and Wilbur weighed, measured, and tagged it or, if they’d caught it just lately, merely recorded its quantity, situation, and the placement of the seize.

One of many stunning issues revealed by the research was that there was a secure inhabitants of grownup, resident cougars, every with its personal well-established territory which all of the others prevented. Migrant lions, often younger adults searching for territories of their very own, would possibly go by means of, however they didn’t keep. By the tip of the 1966-67 winter, the workforce had caught and marked your entire grownup cougar inhabitants of the research space. No new adults had been caught in the course of the two following winters.

Forty-six lions had been caught and tagged within the 5 years, and 31 of them had been recaptured a complete of 109 instances, making a complete of 155 captures. It was these repeated captures that established the territoriality of the cougar. There was one grownup lion for every 13.3 sq. miles throughout the 200 sq. miles of the research space. Maurice and Wilbur caught one male, No. 3, eighteen instances, at all times throughout the similar space of 25 sq. miles.

Females wander even much less. The biggest space occupied by any feminine was 20 sq. miles; the smallest, 5. Maurice identified, nonetheless, that these signify minimal winter dwelling vary sizes; the ranges may very well be considerably bigger.

I requested him whether or not cougars modified their escape techniques after being caught a number of instances. He stated their response was at all times the identical—they merely did their greatest to run away from the barking canines and when flight failed they treed.

Subsequent I requested whether or not any of them had attacked males or canines. “Not as soon as,” he stated. “In 155 captures, not one lion supplied to assault.”

“Then,” I stated, “they have to be dreadful cowards.”

Maurice corrected me. “There isn’t any such factor as cowardice amongst wild animals,” he stated. “The cougar’s innate conduct is to keep away from males and barking canines. That is the results of evolution. For 1000’s of years the lions that selected to remain and struggle perished; those who ran survived.

“The identical innate conduct controls their perspective towards one another in relation to their territories. They don’t struggle to keep up them; they keep away from one another. The reason being apparent. A lone predator whose life relies on its capability to stalk and kill massive recreation merely can’t afford to threat being crippled in a struggle. Combating might happen at instances, however, in a secure inhabitants, I imagine this can be very uncommon.”

Deer and elk offered almost all of the meals for the lions within the research space in winter. Solely two bighorn sheep kills had been discovered, though roughly 125 sheep had been current. Maurice and Wilbur discovered the stays of three coyotes and one Rocky Mountain goat killed by cougars; rabbits and different small mammals had been additionally included of their eating regimen. Porcupines, which cougar kill and eat repeatedly in some areas, weren’t current within the research space. The large cats killed deer of each sexes and all ages, however they most popular younger elk and prevented mature bulls. It’s simple to know why: Along with his large antlers and up-to-800-pound weight, a bull elk is a formidable adversary.

One of many functions of the research was to evaluate the influence of a inhabitants of lions on a inhabitants of big-game animals. The parable-shattering conclusion was that “predation by lions is inconsequential in figuring out final numbers of elk and deer.” Resulting from a collection of delicate winters, the elk and deer populations elevated steadily in the course of the 5 years. The resident cougar inhabitants, nonetheless, remained fixed. The ratio of lions to deer and elk dropped from 1: 135 in 1964-65 to 1:201 in 1967-68.

The true limiting issue right here, as on most big-game ranges, is meals. There’s considerable summer time forage, however browse vegetation on the restricted winter vary are closely overused. When the climate is delicate, the deer and elk get by all proper; throughout arduous winters, a lot of them starve. This in itself is tragic, however the extreme overuse of the vary damages it to the purpose the place it requires years to get better—and for the sport inhabitants as soon as extra to achieve its former degree.

Younger lions reared on the research space wandered off searching for territories of their very own as quickly as they had been self-sufficient. Two of them tagged right here had been later killed greater than 100 airline miles away—in numerous instructions. The researchers captured one younger feminine in a territory left vacant by the dying of an grownup and imagine she most likely will keep there.

“Territoriality,” Dr. Hornocker wrote in a report on the research thus far, “seems to be the first consider regulating numbers of lions within the Idaho Primitive Space. The variety of adults nicely established on territories remained unchanged from yr to yr, even though 4 to 6 kittens had been born into the inhabitants yearly.”

Many questions on cougar have been answered in the course of the 5 winters of analysis, however extra stay to be solved. Foremost amongst them is: How usually does a cougar kill a deer or elk?

No one actually is aware of the reply, though there was limitless hypothesis on the topic. Barroom knowledge has it that every mountain lion kills a deer per week. Dr. Hornocker’s analysis—following each cougar observe seen for 5 winters and punctiliously recording each kill—signifies that this determine is simply too excessive.

His No. 7C and her three 70pound kittens killed one elk in twelve days. His No. 4 and her three 70-pound kittens killed 4 deer in eighteen days. He gathered proof to point out that in winter the interval between kills of deer by some cats could also be ten to 14 days, longer after killing an elk. And in the course of the summer time cougar eat extra of the small mammals, similar to floor squirrels, which can be accessible then.

However the weak point in all knowledge collected thus far, whether or not by Dr. Hornocker or by the informal cougar hunter is that this: You comply with a cougar’s tracks within the snow and soar it off a kill on which, if left undisturbed, it might need fed for a number of extra days. So it kills one other animal earlier than it usually would have.

Throughout this winter and the following, Maurice and Wilbur will catch each resident cougar within the research space and match it with a collar containing a tiny radio transmitter. Every transmitter will ship a coded sign, and 6 receiving stations on excessive factors will obtain these alerts. There are issues to beat in using radio monitoring tools in such rugged nation and plenty of bugs should be ironed out. However with a functioning system and by making a triangulation from two receivers, the researchers will be capable of inform roughly the place every cat is. If one stays in the identical spot for seyeral days they’ll understand it has made a kill. When it strikes on to renew looking they’ll study this kill, then comply with it through radio till it makes the following.

Utterly undisturbed, the large cats will go about their regular enterprise. Their looking shall be solely pure—and for the primary time ever we are going to know simply what number of biggame animals cougar really do kill in the course of the winter months. This data shall be extraordinarily precious within the administration of each the lions and their prey.

Truthful Sport

Like many different states, Idaho previously paid a bounty, $50, for every cougar. The bounty was eliminated a number of years in the past, however extra of the large cats are killed now by sportsmen than had been taken previously by skilled hunters. Extra individuals with extra time and more cash, and the brand new go-anywhere autos that take many of the work out of cougar looking have all contributed to the change. The identical factor has occurred within the different states which have sufficient mountain lions to justify looking.

A few of them, together with Washington, Utah, Colorado, and Nevada, have responded by giving the cougar recreation standing. British Columbia has accomplished the identical. Oregon has closed the season fully till the Sport Fee obtains extra data. However within the different Western States the place cougar nonetheless happen they’re legally categorized as predators. Any quantity could also be taken at any time and by any means.

Dr. Hornocker has robust emotions on this. “The cougar is a splendid recreation animal,” he instructed me. “It’s one among our most interesting trophies. Sport looking is definite to extend.

“I feel we must always hunt cougar, however we must always handle them like we do different recreation animals, too. If we don’t, the day will certainly come when there aren’t any cougar left to hunt.”





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