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On the hunt for Colorado's most elusive predator
They’re out there, stalking the wilds of Colorado like shadows.
Mountain lions, also known as cougars or pumas, are Colorado’s largest and most elusive predator. Nobody knows how many there are. Should you happen upon one while hiking, it might see you but you probably won’t see it.
“Just to go out and wait for a mountain lion to walk by, you can spend your whole life and never see one,” said Colorado Parks and Wildlife spokesman Michael Seraphin. They’re expert climbers and have learned, with good cause, to fear humans.
Despite the challenge — or maybe because of it — hunting the big cats is becoming increasingly popular in the state. According to the wildlife agency, mountain lion harvests increased from 81 in 1980 to 393 in 2011, the most recent year for which statistics are available.
The popularity, and the fact hunters rarely come near the statewide harvest limit, led wildlife officials in January to extend the season a month, until the end of April. But that might result in just five to 15 fewer cats in the wild.
Because, as hunters will tell you, simply finding a trace of a lion is a matter of luck, since the nocturnal creatures are rarely out in daylight. Tracking it and getting close enough for the kill can take days in a frigid mountain landscape locked in deep snow.
Ups and downs
Dick Ray remembers when there were hardly any lions.
For decades, government hunters were on a push to tame the southern Rockies, bullet by bullet, species by species.
“There weren’t a lot of them around,” said Ray, a hunting outfitter in Pagosa Springs who took his first lion in 1966.
“The wolves went, the grizzlies went, but they didn’t kill all the lions.”
The scarcity of lions meant few people hunted them. In his native Albuquerque, Ray had become enamored with the ability of dogs to pursue wildlife, and he trained three of his own.
Few people even knew there were lions left in New Mexico, but Ray did. He had seen the tracks in the snow and spent much of the winter of 1965-66 on horseback, dogs at his side. He was amazed how the dogs instinctively chased a vicious big cat, and how the cat instinctively fled up a tree.
He took his shot.
“There’s a bit of remorse, but there’s also the satisfaction,” he said. “It was the result of a lot of concentrated effort and years of anticipation. There’s just something mystical about it.
“To this day, I’m enchanted walking on the trail of a lion. When you’ve walked where a lion walks, it just seems like you’re a different person.
“They’re a predator. We’re a predator.”
Hunting is hunting
Jeeps and snowmobiles have replaced horses, but otherwise lions are hunted in pretty much the same way today.
In Colorado, government bounties were abolished in 1965 as attitudes changed about wildlife and the lion was classified a game animal.
The hunting season coincides with the snowy season because tracks in the snow are the main way that lions are caught.
While licenses for some big game are tough to secure, an unlimited number of lion licenses is sold. Seraphin said each hunting area has a limit on how many lions can be taken, so hunters first have to call to ensure an area is open.
Because of the difficulty, most would-be lion hunters hire an outfitter such as Ray, usually at a cost of several thousand dollars.
Ray starts by doing his homework, calling the Parks and Wildlife hotline to check which areas have reached their harvest limit.
Then he finds out where the deer and elk are wintering by talking to other hunters and scouting himself.
If you find deer and elk, you’ll find lions.
Then he has to answer the logistical questions. Is the area private property? Are roads closed? Are snowmobiles allowed?
Once he has answered these questions, and the hunter has completed a mandatory lion-gender identification course, they take to the woods by vehicle, scouting for the two telltale signs — tracks or a lion kill.
Then the chase begins.
It can take days. Sometimes it involves zigzagging up roads, trying to pick up the tracks farther along and hoping it doesn’t snow and hide the trail.
If the tracks appear fresh, the hunters may proceed on showshoes.
Finally, the moment of truth arrives. When the tracks are fresh, the dogs dash off with alacrity. When they find the lion, the lion’s instinct takes it up a tree, though it easily could maul a dog.
More than a few hunters have spent cold nights outside because they released the hounds too close to dusk. It’s illegal to hunt lions after dark, when, as nocturnal animals, they are up and around.
“It’s not like you go in and quit,” Ray said. “It’s a commitment, you and the dogs and the lion. And once you turn those dogs loose, you need to stick with it until the end.”
Tech-savvy hunters track their dogs with radio collars or GPS. A still dog often means it has treed the lion.
In some game-management units, only male lions may be hunted, so the hunter has to identify the sex — no small feat for a well-camouflaged cat 20 feet up a pine tree.
Then the hunter takes the shot.
Experience of a lifetime
“If you don’t find anything, that’s still hunting,” Ray tells clients after a fruitless hunt.
And there are plenty of those. According to Parks and Wildlife statistics, 1,829 hunters went after lions in 2011; 383 were successful.
In a densely-populated area, there might be one lion per 5 square miles.
The state agency monitors kills closely and requires hunters to present the animal for inspection within five days.
For the hunter, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime trophy.
Ray no longer hunts on his own. He figures he has killed enough lions in his time. He enjoys it through the eyes of his clients.
“I’ve been poaching other peoples’ experiences,” he said.
After 47 years, he still feels the mystique of the big cats, a predator that has learned to live side-by-side with humans, and would be on top of the food chain if not for us.
“They are the true free spirit and I think that’s one reason why it’s so intriguing to hunt them,” Ray said.
“An elk will stand around on a winter day and just soak up the sun. The bear, he goes into hibernation.
“The mountain lion, he is only vulnerable because he leaves tracks in the snow.”