Big Cats Are Back
The big cat's tracks were easy to follow as Pom slid noiselessly along on his skis. What had started as just another winter day of coyote hunting on skis for the Colorado rancher changed in a hurry when he cut the fresh tracks of a large cougar crossing the head of a valley high in the mountains northwest of Granby Colorado. Pom was one of the best coyote hunters I ever met and annually took fifty to a hundred coyotes all by spotting and stalking on cross country skis. Pom was only about five foot four and maybe a hundred and thirty pounds soaking wet but was as tough as any old time mountain man and a deadly shot. He won many a turkey shoot with the same restocked model 70 Winchester .220 Swift he used to thin the coyote population a bit each winter.
Pom would drive to a chosen spot and then take off on his skis cruising the ridgetops and slopes glassing for coyotes or fresh tracks. If he spotted coyotes he'd ski silently as close as he could get and then put it to them. If he located tracks in fresh snow he'd ski along them until he spotted the coyote or jumped him and then make the shot. When Pom jumped a coyote he'd drop prone with his skis or backpack for a rest and wait calmly. He knew from experience that a departing coyote's curiosity would get the best of him sooner or later and the canny canine would stop for a look back turning broadside in the process. A standing shot at three hundred yards is far better than a running shot at fifty and Pom was a master of patience. When he killed a coyote or two he'd skin them on the spot, roll the hide on a rope around his waist and keep on hunting.
The fresh cougar track skirted the upper end of several valleys and knowing a cougar had exceptional eyesight Pom used his binoculars and followed the track with his eyes when he could. After following the tracks for several miles Pom topped a ridge and glassed the track below him. The track disappeared behind a ledge of rock and didn't reappear on the far side so the skiing coyote hunter slid noiselessly closer to the cat's apparent lay up. He was fifty yards uphill and upwind when the cat bounded out of his lair and headed across the valley. Pom admitted to being a bit more excited than with a coyote but he waited and when the cat stopped at two hundred yards and looked back, the mountain marksman dropped him in his tracks.
This is the only case I know of where a predator hunter actually beat one of the big, elusive cats at his own game, stalking. Twice I've followed fresh cougar tracks through pristine snow for miles and both times the cats spotted me and played, "cat and mouse," with me until I wore out and gave up. The tracks in the snow showed where the cats lay on a ridgetop or rocky promontory watching me approach until I got with a few hundred yards. Then they simply meandered nonchalantly a quarter mile or so and pulled the same tactic. No panic, no rush and obviously in complete control of the situation.
I've raised several cougars and believe their phenomenal eyesight is equal to that of the pronghorn antelope and their mental acuity at interpreting what they see exceeds that of all their prey species. It's a good thing most cougars are shy and reclusive by nature or there would be a lot less human encroachment on their habitat.
Cougar, mountain lion, catamount, puma, panther, painter, call them what you want but the big cats are back and then some. The cougar population has exploded throughout most of their historical range much to the detriment of the western mule deer and blacktail populations and in some areas even the much larger elk are showing the impact of the burgeoning cat population.
When I moved to Pagosa Springs, Colorado in 1970 I spent many a winter day chasing bobcats with my Plott hounds and during the first ten years or so managed to locate a cougar track or two each winter and treed, photographed and released several medium sized toms. Today there are fifteen to twenty cougar taken from this same area EACH YEAR with four or five killed on the highway by cars. This is not an isolated occurrence! The same tremendous increase in the mountain lion population is being felt in most of the western states and serious human-cougar encounters are becoming more and more common as the population grows and more people are building homes in cougar habitat. There have been several people killed by cougar and numerous non-fatal attacks on people in the past few years and cougars killing livestock and pets is becoming commonplace in many areas. We've just seen the tip of the iceberg and things are going to get much worse before people realize that the big cats need to be managed like any other species and kept within reasonable limits.
The Colorado Division of Wildlife won't give an estimate of the cougar population within it's borders but a conservative estimate by several knowledgeable individuals puts the population at approximately three thousand. Hornocker's mountain lion/cougar study in Idaho showed the average cougar killed one mule deer per week or fifty deer per year. That means that Colorado's cat population is taking 150,000 mule deer from a total estimated population of 300,000 deer. Hunters presently harvest between 40,000-50,000 per year. In 1963 Colorado's deer harvest was 147,000 mule deer so the cougar has replaced the hunter as the number one predator on the Colorado mule deer population.
A more recent study on cougar in California, where hunting them has been banned entirely for twenty years, showed the west coast cats were killing a deer every 1.9 days and in many areas had virtually decimated the blacktail deer populations. The California bighorn sheep had to be declared an endangered species to give the state a legal right to control the overabundant cat population that brought a healthy bighorn herd to the brink of extinction within a relatively short period of time.
When you also have peak populations of hungry coyotes, black bear and bobcats munching mule deer on a regular basis the cause of the mule deer decline across the west should be pretty obvious. It darn sure isn't two-legged predators.
Dick Ray, owner of Lobo Outfitters in Pagosa Springs, Colorado, and full time lion hunter, feels that pressure from other predators and scavengers is causing the big cats to kill on a more frequent basis today than they have in the past. Dick and I have shared a number of lion chases together and it used to be, when you found a fresh lion kill it was generally a partially eaten deer carcass covered by raked up pine duff, sticks and leaves. In most cases the satiated cat would stay in the vicinity of the kill until the carcass was consumed, before hunting again. Such isn't the case today.
With the proliferation of the protected scavenger birds such as ravens, crows and magpies, a fresh cougar kill is located by the keen eyed birds within a short time and their raucous racket soon attracts the attention of opportunistic coyotes that key on the boisterous birds to locate carrion or kills. (Every magpie may not have a lion or coyote following it, but you can bet every coyote or lion has a magpie.) The constant harassment by a few determined coyotes quickly drives the frustrated cat from it's fresh kill. Under the onslaught from coyotes and flocks of voracious scavenger birds, within forty eight hours or less the only thing left at the site of the cougar kill is a few scraps of hide and scattered bones, forcing the cat to kill again.
If you've ever dreamed of going on a cougar hunt, the time has never been better and you can rest assured that by removing a mature cougar from the population you'll be doing your part to help manage and restore the western deer populations.
Tracking and stalking a cougar as it courses the mountains and foothills on it's hunting forays is, without doubt, the toughest challenge a hunter can undertake. A mature cat can cover twenty miles in a twenty four hour period over and through the most inhospitable and roughest terrain imaginable. You don't have to be crazy to attempt such a hunt but it probably wouldn't be a detriment if you were! Don't attempt this venture alone, take your wife with you and even if you don't track down a cougar you'll show her how miserable and tough hunting can be and she'll probably pay for your next hunting trip.
Calling cougar with a predator call is definitely a workable method for taking a cougar. Calling will work in any section of the country and you don't need snow to be successful. Each year a number of callers working fox, coyotes and cats get surprised by the sudden appearance of a hungry cougar. The main drawback to calling cougar is their relatively thin population density and the penchant for traveling great distances through rugged and remote reaches of the country. Getting within hearing range of a cougar is the key to successfully calling them so an intimate knowledge of the country you are hunting and haunts and habits of the local cougar population is of the utmost importance. To my knowledge I have never called in a cougar even though I have tried on several occasions when hunting in Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas where there was supposedly a high density of the big cats. A persevering hunter could combine tracking a cougar on fresh snow with calling when at least you'd know there was a cat somewhere ahead of you that might hear your calling.
The big difference in trying to call in a cougar with a predator call is, time. Typical of most cats a cougar hunts by stealth and is unlikely to come romping in to the sounds of your calling with a total lack of caution. This is probably a good thing 'cause having a hundred plus pounds of hungry and overenthusiastic cat come flying over a bush, landing on you, might be detrimental to your health. Even if the cat realized his mistake and didn't hurt you he'd probably cause you to hurt yourself.
I've talked with several callers that have called up cougar and they recommended calling for at least an hour from each calling stand. There's a fine line between choosing a calling location where visibility is adequate to allow spotting an approaching cat before he sneaks in on you, locates you and disappears without your knowledge of having been in a close encounter, and country that's broken enough for a cat to feel comfortable approaching a critter already in the clutches of another predator. A cougar's sense of smell may not rival that of a coyote or fox but get careless about the wind and you'll never see your quarry.
Another recommendation from successful callers is to use a predator call with a raspy voice or tone to imitate a larger prey animal in distress such as a deer or elk. A mouse squeak or cottontail squall won't reach as far in rugged canyon or brush country and is less likely to appeal to a predator the size of a mountain lion.
The most successful method of hunting cougar is using a pack of well trained cat hounds to trail and tree or bay the lion. For most hunters, this means hiring a professional guide that specializes in such hunts. A quality mountain lion hunt will run from $1500 to $3000 for a six day fully guided and outfitted hunt. I've had several of my friends bring their coonhounds and bobcat hounds from the Midwest to Colorado to chase lions and they've taken several cats and had some rather exciting and long winded elk chases with their dogs. Don't knock hunting behind hounds, especially for an animal with the attributes of a mature cougar unless you have tried it. One of the easiest hunts I've ever been on has been a cougar hunt and without a doubt one of the most exhausting and toughest hunting experiences I've encountered has also been on a cougar chase.
In the first case a rancher called and informed me a large tom mountain lion had killed a colt behind his barn the previous night and asked if I'd bring the dogs and try to catch the cat. By the time I got to the ranch it was nine o'clock in the morning and even with the six inches of fresh snow I figured we might have a long chase. The cat had eaten part of the colt and it's tracks led down into a rocky canyon behind the barn. The country behind the canyon was rugged, roadless pinyon and juniper covered canyon and rimrock country that continued for miles. I led my two best cat dogs to the tracks leading from the corral and Susie, my lead dog immediately let me know she could catch the colt killing cat so I cut her and Zero, my best fighting and tree dog, loose on the track. The rancher and I were still debating whether to saddle horses for the chase or head after the dogs on foot when the two hounds started barking treed. We could see them and the treed lion on the far side of the canyon less than three hundred yards from the barn.
The cat had eaten it's fill, dropped into the canyon and bedded under a ledge within two hundred yards of the barn. The dogs were almost on top of him when he jumped, ran a hundred yards up the hill and treed in a fifteen foot high cedar. Cougar hunting with hounds, a piece of cake!
The very next cat hunt lasted THREE DAYS, covered fifteen miles through crusted snow, slippery slopes, and rocky canyons that left my companion and I with blistered feet, raw shins, numerous rock and stick bites. The dogs were bloody footed, hoarse voiced and totally exhausted when they finally treed the medium sized tom on a ledge above the Colorado River. We'd tied the dogs back away from the ledge and my plumb tuckered and somewhat cantankerous companion was checking my .22 pistol, in preparation for the final shot, when the infernal feline bailed off the ledge and plunged thirty feet into the river. We watched in awe and disbelief as the indomitable feline swam to far side of the steep walled gorge worked his way up a seemingly unclimbable rock wall and walked out of sight on the far side. When my chagrined companion quit swearing at the cat and me he promptly swore off hunting with hounds in general and cat hunting with me in particular and so did I. My vow of abstinence lasted until I found a huge lion track pockmarking six inches of fresh, new snow.
Cougar are without doubt the epitome of the predator species, fascinating creatures, the embodiment of the spirit and aura of vast, rugged and uninhabited places. Magnificent animals that deserve our best efforts at wise management so that future generations may have the opportunity to follow their tracks in a fresh fallen snow, shiver in anticipation and apprehension trying to call one in, or listen to the exhilarating sounds of hounds baying treed among the rimrocks.