Trail of an Apex Predator

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Click to view this article in the Winter 2017 issue of ADVENTURESS magazine.

 

By Jana Waller

His eyes glared in my direction as if to warn me of his wrath. Standing a mere 10 yards below, my eyes were locked on his, feeling his presence as a top predator in the Montana mountains.

Perched high above in the snow-covered ponderosa, the cat warned us, with numerous fierce snarls, that we were intruding on his turf. The hounds feverously barked below as the cat’s eyes moved from mine down to the dogs and back again. Staring into the eyes of a large, male mountain lion is nothing shy of bone chilling.

I am blessed to live among some of our country’s most spectacular wildlife in the Bitterroot Mountains of Montana. From elk and mule deer to grizzlies and wolves, the plethora of animals found under the big sky of Montana is nothing short of a North American safari.

The mountain lion, one of the most misunderstood apex predators, is a mysterious creature of beauty and brawn that roams the Bitterroot Valley in abundance. Lions are reclusive, solitary and generally nocturnal predators. Many people will never lay their eyes on a mountain lion in the wild and therefore presume their numbers are sparse – but that couldn’t be farther from the truth.

According to Montana’s Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP), the mountain lion populations on my home turf are plentiful. So much, in fact, that the FWP set a goal in 2012 of “reducing mountain lion abundance by approximately 30 percent over a three-year period.” (Lion Progress Report http://fwp.mt.gov). One of the main goals of getting the lion population under control is to reduce elk calf mortality, and thus, enhance elk populations. It’s simple – when there are too many predators, the ungulate populations suffer.

One person who has spent countless hours observing mountain lion behavior and their effect on the environment is our good friend and outfitter Ben Wohlers, owner of Painted Rock Outfitters. Ben has been cat hunting since 1995 and has treed more than 300 lions throughout his hunting career. His hounds are proven detectives, finding lions on even the oldest of clues.

Ben has one pawn in this game, other than his hounds, that fuels his success with catching cats… the “Catmobile,” as I like to call it. His 1997 Jeep Cherokee has been personally modified to the specs of a Sherman Tank. Well, not exactly, but this decked out Catmobile can literally climb mountain switchbacks in three feet of snow, which allows Ben to cut more tracks and find more cats.

Jim Kinsey, Skull Bound TV’s executive producer and cameraman, and I planned to head into the hills to look for a cat with Ben when our schedules aligned in early February. With fresh snow in the forecast, I knew we could get a call at any moment. That call came at 3 a.m. sharp as my phone’s ringer broke the morning silence. We stumbled around to get dressed and head out the door to meet up with Ben and his hounds down in the valley.

A fresh snowfall is preferably the best time to hunt lions. These hungry carnivores are always on the move in search of a meal, crossing logging roads and highways as they prowl for their next dinner, leaving a trail of scent for the hounds to follow.

The Jeep’s headlights led the way into the canyons, but visibility was limited with the deluge of snow that was continuing to cover Montana. Every so often, Ben would slow down to a stop, lean his head out the window and direct his handheld spotlight on a set of tracks.

“What do you have?” I asked, straining my head from the passenger seat.

More often then not, Ben responded with “a deer” or “coyote.” Once the snow starts to fill in the track, it can be tough to tell without closer inspection.

After a couple of hours of driving up the thick, powdered roads, Ben got out of the Jeep to inspect a set of tracks crossing down over the rocky ridge.

“It’s definitely a mountain lion track, but it’s a young one, small in size,” he explained.

The dogs rustled in their boxes in the cab, anticipating the exciting chase. Since Montana regulations state you can’t release the hounds until daylight, we decided to continue looking for other tracks until sunrise.

The 35-inch tires plowed through the thick snow as we continued to look for any signs of a cat. Huge lodgepole pines lined the road, their limbs blanketed in white. The sky began to brighten with the morning sun bouncing off the glittering trees.

Suddenly, a flash of movement from 30 yards off the road caught our attention. Ben stopped the Jeep, and we got out to investigate. As we trudged off the road, it became apparent we stumbled upon a fresh kill.

The dirty, matted-down snow was covered with fur, and a half-buried leg bone revealed the victim to be a young elk. Jimmy was rolling his video camera to capture this concrete example of predation. The flash we had seen was the attacker.

“A big tom, according to these tracks,” Ben said. “Let’s collar the dogs, and go find him!”

All four dogs are collared with a GPS tracker, allowing Ben to determine not only the direction of the cat, but also how far the dogs have gone and when the cat is treed or bayed in the rocks. Like greyhounds taking off from the gate, the collared hounds raced off down the drainage until they were out of sight, their barks echoing off the canyon walls. We jumped back in the Jeep and followed the GPS back down the logging road.

“They should be just around this corner,” Ben exclaimed, watching the blips on the Garmin.

Unlike most mountain lion hunts, the dogs had actually treed the lion a mere 20 yards from the road! I’ve been on other hunts where the cats go into the most steep, treacherous spots that can take hours to climb. This was a piece of cake… or so we thought.

The hounds jumped at the base of the ponderosa pine, barking profusely at their would-be chew toy that was perched 50 feet above. We could see the large cat standing on two limbs, his enormous belly bulging with elk. He was fixated on the dogs until I moved up the slope to get a better view.

That’s when our eyes met. There are few things in this world that compare to staring into the gaze of an alluring mountain lion. It’s one of the few moments in a hunting situation where you can slow down and appreciate the beauty of the animal close up. If you’re lucky enough to get that close to other animals in the wild, it’s rarely an eye-to-eye encounter. His stare was menacing and almost hypnotic.

The video camera continued to record, capturing some incredible footage as Jimmy set up two point-of-view cameras on the ground. Like having houseguests for a week, the cat apparently had enough of the chaos and leapt from the tree, landing on all fours in a pillow of fresh snow approximately 30 yards from where I stood.

With a good head start, he darted off through the jagged rocks with the hounds quickly trailing. It wasn’t long before the cat was back in another pine perched high on an icy ridge with the dogs standing guard below.

We dug our boots into the ice-covered ridge, exhilarated and exhausted with every step. Inch by inch, we crept up the hillside, my Mathews Jewel strapped to my backpack so I could use both hands to climb. Ben reached the tree and began to tie up the baying hounds.

This time the lion was much closer to the ground, a mere 10 yards above my head, sitting in the ‘V’ of the tree. I took a moment to calm my breathing and slow my heart rate down while unstrapping my bow. The low growl from the cat conveyed his returned distain for the dogs and our presence, making this second encounter all the more intense.

After nocking an arrow and clipping on my release, I steadied my feet in the snow. With a verbal, “Ready when you are” command from cameraman Jimmy, I drew back my bow and centered my pin on the lion. The arrow flew true, and the big tom let out his last snarl, slumping out of the tree and into the snow below.

I stood there in amazement, soaking in the compelling emotions of an exhilarating hunt and a sense of deep appreciation for this apex predator. From his sharp claws to his deadly canines, I couldn’t help but examine every inch of him. I wrapped my arms around his waist to lift him for the classic cat pose, feeling nothing but sheer respect.

There’s no denying mountain lions are a beautiful, majestic creature that have a special place in our ecosystem. But like all predators, when they are overpopulated, other species will suffer. That night we dined on lion steaks fresh off the mountain and toasted with a clink of our glasses, “To an amazing, successful hunt and to the future of healthy elk herds in Montana.”

Jana Waller of Montana is host of Skull Bound TV, a hunting and fishing adventure show on Sportsman Channel that ties in to her painted and beaded skull business. Teaming up with leaders in conservation, Skull Bound TV is “Bound To Make A Difference” in showing viewers that hunters are true conservationists. As previously published in Bowhunting World Extreme.