An Elusive Breed: Lions And Lion Hunters

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Though many lion hunters in Montana covet a trophy mount or lion pelt, nearly 90 percent come home empty handed. Over 5,500 mountain lion licenses were sold in 2001, while about 500 lions were harvested. Why?

"The hunt for me, and for others I know, is about putting the lion in the tree, not necessarily about killing a lion," said R.C. Carroll of Clinton who has hunted lions for over 20 years and killed five or six big cats in that time.

Carroll, a veteran fire supervisor with the U.S. Forest Service, said he hunts primarily to see these powerful, reclusive felines in their own world and to relish the sight of his dogs "chasing" lions.

Carroll isn't talking about a winded lion flying pell-mell ahead of a pack of hounds. In reality, the dogs may follow the lion's scent for hours, sometimes into the next day, before getting close enough to begin the "chase." FWP biologists say mountain lions are not equipped for long, sustained running. Typically a mountain lion bolts up a tree a short time after the hounds come up on it.

Cal Ruark, a rancher near Hamilton who has hunted lions since 1964, calls the mountain lion a living legend of the West. "A big tom lion track still makes my heart tick, even though I rarely kill one," he said. Ruark is also actively involved in protecting lions as a resource.

"Mountain lion hunters are among the strongest advocates for the lion as a species. Over time they come to know and appreciate the big cats in a way no one else can, " said Rich DeSimone, an FWP wildlife biologist and researcher who has radio collared 69 lions in the past five years and pursued over 100 lions as part of his research.

Raurk has observed females with young put the kittens up a tree and continue on, luring the dogs away. In nearly 40 years of hunting, Raurk has never had a lion turn on him or his dogs.

Shelby resident Jay Hould, however, did encounter a lion that refused to tree. Hould was tracking with two of his dogs and wasn't carrying a gun. He spent a tense couple of hours while the dogs and lion faced off. Finally, the lion bounded up the tree and Hould leashed his dogs and moved off.

Houndsmen and women and their hounds must stay in shape year round.

In retirement, Don Clark, 57, who has hunted lions for over 30 years, went from two to six dogs. He runs two dogs at a time nearly every day in the winter, putting in 10-hour days. He prefers to use hound retrieval collars on hounds he releases to further ensure he can recover them.

Hounds will tree a lion and maintain as many as 40-80 barks per dog per minute until their barking drops off to only what is needed to keep the lion in the tree.

According to Mable Deane, of the Montana State Houndsmen Association, there are six main breeds of hounds used in Montana: black and tan, bluetick, English coonhound, redbone, plott and treeing walker.

"A friend with hounds took me cat hunting in the late 1960s," said Don Clark. "He gave me a hound puppy and I was hooked. Thirty some years later I have six walker hounds from the same genetics as my original dog."

Clark said he never tires of the excitement of spotting a lion track in the snow or treeing a lion with his dogs.

In 1971, 51 mountain lions were harvested, compared to 508 taken Dec. 2001-April 2002. FWP research now underway will help biologists to better estimate the number of lions in a specific area and to set quotas.

Mountain lions, once considered predators, were reclassified as big game animals in 197l in Montana. Mountain lion licenses were 25 cents in 1971, the first year they were issued. Today, a resident lion license is $15 and a nonresident lion license is $320. Lion hunting licenses must be purchased by Aug. 31 of each year. Statewide 2002 fall hunting season without dogs was Oct. 27-Dec. 1. The winter lion season is Dec. 2-April 14, 2003. The fall season harvest is deducted from the winter season quota.