The article Desert Lion, by NYSOWA member Angelo Baio, was originally published in Universal Hunter Magazine and Houndsman Magazine.
The Catalina’s of south central Arizona, although fairly large in area, is an isolated mountain range cut off from the rest of the state by human development. At one time these mountains enjoyed a herd of wild sheep that even the local inhabitants still reminisce about today. Then, almost without warning, the last wild sheep were seen about twenty years ago. To this day speculation reins as to the cause but in general experts agree that the three main causes are a burgeoning human population, unbalanced fire control practices and an altered environment that favors predators.
After considerable study the Game and Fish Department has taken on the task of restoring the sheep herd. However, and in spite of their best efforts and opportunity being what it was for the areas apex predator, the sheep herd was reduced by more than half in less than forty-five days on what wildlife officials indicated as “documented mountain lion kills.”
Being predators ourselves you must have a certain reverence for our North American big cat for no reason other than the fact it took only a few days for it to take advantage of an opportunity and the bounty laid before it. A University of Arizona study from 2010 indicates that the Mountain lion population is under the same pressures as other species if not more so when humans compressed a lions living space needs know to be as high as 120 square miles, to a fraction of what is believed to be necessary and yet it still thrives.
Living in the desert is undoubtedly difficult with temperature swings in a single day easily ranging 30-40 degrees. There are weeks with blazing hot 100+ degree heat, drought, and cold night temperatures that would make any northerner shiver. This has to intrigue the survivalist buried somewhere in every hunter and for myself adds a level of respect for an animal that can survive it. For this reason I had to learn more about; and hunt the Desert Mountain Lion.
With a solid plan in place I arrived in Arizona and met my good friend Mike Faulkner. As we drove south from Phoenix to a staging area motel with an appointment to meet the outfitter the next day, we got our first glance at the terrain and a breathtaking sunset that lit up the underbelly of the clouds as bright orange as you could imagine. In spite of having hunted the deserts before, I’m still in awe at the beauty of its flat sandy plains with saguaro cactus flanked by towering mountain rock of all colors.
On this trip I chose Andrew Knowlton of Rim Rock Outfitters as our guide. Andrew is a dyed in the wool houndsman with an intimate knowledge of the area and devoted lion hunter. He’s a “no-bones about it” kind of guy that lives for the moments he can spend on the heels of his dogs that he trains 365 days a year and a deep-rooted passion for the traditional approach to the sport. Our instructions were to meet him at the end of the pavement and the foothills of his secret mountain lion hunting range in south central Arizona. He asked us to pledge not to release any further information about his area and we agreed to do so.
When Drew and I first talked I could tell right off that we were cut from the same cloth. He told me that as often as possible he would take his hounds out to track lion to keep them toned and in the spirit for the hunt. Drew also prefers clients who come prepared, those with forethought and appreciation about the process and a sincere respect for the animal.
On our first morning hunt we woke to temperatures in the forties and winds blowing a steady twenty-five miles an hour. We parked at the end of the pavement as instructed and seconds later we can see the headlights of Drew’s UTV peer through the dust as his machine tops a hill towards us. After a hearty greeting we headed back to Drew’s tent camp and were happy to see it was deeper into the backcountry than both Mike and I originally expected.
With no light or sound pollution from the cities the backcountry sky is an eerie pitch black. When I stepped out of the truck I can hear the hiss of the lantern over the wind but delighted to see the warm lantern glow through the tent walls. I could have used my headlamp but I wanted to let my eyes settle into the “woods” and was happy to struggle with my gear using only the illumination from the tent. The mules were tied to the adjacent trailer and other than the familiar “barn smell” and the stamp of a foot, the shadow of a horse like figure is all you could make out. I couldn’t make them out in the dark but tucked under every tree surrounding camp came the low murmur of dogs.
Mike and I looked forward to a cup of coffee and to hear how Drew laid out his plan for the day. Once inside we meet Drew’s partner and mentor Randy Epperson. It took a bit for Randy to warm up to us but we would later find that he is a wealth of knowledge and an invaluable resource to Drew’s operation. We sat for a spell while anxiously waiting for daylight.
That said hunters will always talk shop and Drew relates that he spent the first seven years painstakingly honing his skills before he treed his first lion. Randy breaks out of his shell and chimed in that Drew didn’t have the right hounds and only until he got that combination right did it happen. It suddenly dawned on me; this wasn’t a lion hunt per se’, this is about a sub-culture ruled by men and their hounds. Matching wits with an apex predator, deciphering its habits from footprints and managing hounds to a successful “treed” is the goal.
I will later come to find that these men read tracks like we read a newspaper; focusing on a single animal like an African Tracker and setting out with the his best dogs to locate and tree a specific lion. I realized that although I came out to hunt lion and do my part to restore some semblance of balance to this ecosystem, I was now equally interested in learning the ways of a houndsman.
The conversation started to lapse and Randy brought us back when he pulls out his cell phone showing off a crystal clear picture of a “tom” track he caught on the trail the previous day. We talked a few minutes longer about the prospect of striking track on the lion just enough for the blue-black sky of a sunrise to peek through the tent flaps. With a word from Drew we jumped up with a rush to saddle the mules and start the hunt.
Dead set on using the mules to give us the true western hunt experience didn’t take into account that one mule decided today is the day he will NOT be rode. My buddy unluckily drew the instigator and in seconds he was thrown hard to the ground. Both Drew and Randy were flabbergasted and apologizing up and down. With full daylight conditions we were now running late while Drew tried to mount the mule himself with no success. Knowing we had to get on the trail before the hordes of vehicle traffic ruined the tracks Drew took off on foot with the mule in tow hoping a walk would calm him down. Unfortunately that didn’t work that morning or any other either and we were forced to scout the trails for the rest of the trip in the truck.
Undaunted we packed the dogs in their truck box and set off into some of the most beautiful country I’ve seen in a while. Words can’t adequately explain what the mountains of Arizona look and feel like in person and your mind is accommodated with the prototypical desert you come to expect. However, buried deep into the crevices of the hills is a whole other world and an oasis for game.
Water seeps slowly from mountain rains feeding cattle tanks that are a lifeline for wildlife. Moist soils protected by the tree canopy supports stands of juniper and oak that produce mountains of fall mast such as juniper berries, acorns and grasses. As we walk the drainages there is bear and deer sign in every direction. What seemed like a stark an unforgiving landscape from afar now appeared to support an army of wildlife. These areas were our targets and provided a great place for trail cameras looking for evidence of a lion lying in wait to ambush its dinner.
Drew showed us lion sign called “scratches”, small depressions in the dirt on the sides of main game trails. He explains that the lion scratch is not often seen and not completely understood. A fresh scratch is a lion calling card and indication a lion is using a specific trail. Drew has had some success in capturing trail camera pictures of lion checking mock scratches but none recent enough to be valuable on this trip. After tracking hard but finding limited sign we never got the chance to set out the dogs. Never the less, we learned quite a bit about dry ground tracking and how difficult this sport actually is.
We started early the next day and did so each day thereafter for a few good reasons. First, is the effect that sunlight has on track drying it out and allowing the wind to blow dust covering it up. The second reason is that the area is has quite a bit of human traffic that plays havoc with our efforts. The theory is lion typically roam at night so any sign found in the early morning hours lying atop the previous afternoons human track is most likely the freshest. It is possible a lion can roam up to ten miles in an hour so it’s vitally important to find the most recent evidence you can before setting out the dogs.
On one occasion while driving the road Drew nonchalantly blurts out “bear track” and barely turns his head craned out the window. Mike and I didn’t see a thing and call him out on it. He stops the truck and points to the middle of the dirt road and says, “can’t you see it?”, ” see how the sunlight glistens off the bear’s footprint in the dirt? “ Like a lion, a bear walks the roads at night and leaves the slightest of imprint in the sand. Moisture settles in the print and when the sun shines on it at the right angle you can clearly see the darker outline of the foot against the lighter colored sand of the dry road. The print for some reason retains moisture during the evening and if its fresh, it’s easier to see.
We didn’t find fresh track the first day worthy to release the hounds but did much better the second day. Mike and I rode along with Randy on day two, a man with over thirty years of experience running hounds and tracking lion. This time around, and in a different area, we started finding tracks from multiple lion right off. Randy found a track that looked encouraging and collared his dogs with a GPS/Telemetry unit and set them out immediately into the brush. Randy tells us that tracks themselves emit little scent and the dogs track the scent left behind from a lion’s body as it swipes by grass and brush.
As he set them out and although his dogs are collared for safety reasons, Randy relies on the old fashion way of locating his dogs and their progress t by identifying each of his dog’s individual sound. He says there is a change in pitch and cadence of the bay when a dog is hot on a trail or has treed a lion. As we listen for the dogs in the road Randy points them out by name and claims we need to let the dogs work and hope for a change in their bay before we can follow.
As a little time had elapsed Randy then pulls out a card he carries in his pocket showing relative print size comparison of male and female lion tracks. Holding it up to the track in the road the dogs were let out on Randy thinks the lion is a good-sized Tom. He claims it’s not an exact science but on more occasions that not it has rung true. Unfortunately a good hour went by and the dogs were never able to find the lion with Randy believing the track was too cold.
While we are rounding up Randy’s dogs Drew is on the other side of the mountain checking sign. With poor cell service we get occasional texts and this time he’s setting out his dogs on a fresh track. As time passed we hoped for additional text messages but cell service being what it is in the mountains we hadn’t heard in a while. Concerned, Randy starts to head towards Drew based on a cryptic location bearing figuring we would at least find Drew’s UTV parked on a trailhead.
About ten minutes into the search we strike it lucky and find his UTV parked near a dirt cattle water tank and the dog boxes empty. We don’t hear any sound of the dogs and are about to set out in a probable direction of travel based on sign in the when a call comes in from Drew. He had been frantically texting and calling trying to get us and that the dogs struck a good lion track and after an unusually short chase the lion had treed.
As Drew is speaking with Randy he had been running back to his UTV. We see him top a hill running full out, drenched in sweat and frantic. He yells out we have to roll because the he had bee running more than ten minutes covering at least a mile and didn’t want to leave his dogs on a treed lion unattended. Chaos doesn’t quite describe what happens in the next ten minutes but with nary a missed step we jump in the truck and take off down the road. The dogs in the back sensed what was happening and start bawling while Drew, crammed, into the back seat is pointing the way and trying to relate the story.
Yelling partial directions to Randy over the bawling dogs and not having the exact fix we had put the dogs GPS locator out the window. Pounding every rock and pothole from here to New York Drew added a little more intensity to the mix when he says we need to get to those dogs before all hell breaks loose and who knows what will happen if the lion makes a break for it.
We skid to a stop on the road about 490 yards away and before I can get out of the truck I can hear the dogs down the drainage below us. Drew tries to put the breaks on the chaos and tells us we have to approach the lion as quietly as possible trying not to force it to bolt from the tree. As we fast walk down towards the lion and about one hundred yards out and I could see it in the tree and couldn’t help but to be riveted. As soon as we get within forty yards of the tree the lion jumps higher and further away from the dogs that were clawing up the crooked limbs and getting closer by the second.
I want to say we had it under control but suffice it to say it’s simply controlled chaos. Drew and Randy are grabbing dogs at every angle to tie them off strategically around the tree while one thinks he’s spider man and climbs more than twenty feet off the ground and within ten feet of the lion.
I couldn’t believe what I was seeing and suddenly the dog looses its footing and tumbles upside down some twenty feet twisting and turning until he hits a limb not six feet from the ground that bends softly to the weight and lays the dog down like a new born baby for a nap. Had that dog hit the ground untouched it surely would have been severely injured or killed. The dog rights himself like nothing happened and bolts right back up gives until Randy steps in and pulls him down.
The conclusion of this hunt came as a complete surprise to me and caught both my buddy Mike and myself off guard. It was like slow motion, Drew and Randy are sitting on the ground looking up at the lion, and the younger dogs are milling around and everyone just drinking in the experience. What seemed like hours but in reality was just minutes Drew barks out,” That’s a good lion and you could take him if you want.” All I could do is just stand there, gun at the ready, transfixed on the lion, an animal I really come to respect so much more in these last few days. Honestly, I knew this is what I came to do but I was undecided if I should pull the trigger.
Honestly the rest is a blur. I remember someone asking, “are you going to shoot?”, and the next thing I know and without feeling an ounce of recoil from the gun the lion is on the ground. All I could do is just stand there in awe while Randy and Drew hoover over the lion checking her out. Drew said for sure it was an old mature female, probably seven years or more with three broken fangs and long past her prime. Randy chimes in and claims she’s a little thin and probably never would had survived another season. Among the guys congratulating me I was in a daze at the experience. I placed a LEGACY stone at the base of the tree in celebration of the lion’s life , grateful for the experience with some new friends I gave Randy and Drew a stone that they decided to save as a token of this hunt.
A week later wildlife officials age the female lion at over 7-9 years old. When dressed we found the lion’s stomach was full with the meat from a fresh deer kill and surmise that is probably why she didn’t run. Drew & Randy savor the meat and I was happy to see it was all processed with nothing going to waste. I couldn’t help but wonder how we would have done on a young Tom in his prime that was unfed and full of fight. Could we have measured up?