This article appeared in the third edition of Trouble magazine:
Going On a Lion Hunt
By Matt Witt
“Going on a lion hunt! But I’m not afraid! Cause I got my guns! And my bullets at my side!” – Scoutorama.com
“Going on a Lion Hunt” is a children’s activity used by Scout troops, summer camps, and others. I remember it from when I was a kid. Children get in a circle. The adult leader starts a call-and-response chant about going to hunt a lion. The kids call out that they are not afraid since they are bringing their guns on the hunt, and then they act out overcoming obstacles like muddy terrain, a river, a cave, and more.
“For those who long for rugged beauty unspoiled and untamed by man, Sycamore Canyon Wilderness is one of the few places in the Southwest that can lay claim to such a lack of man's accomplishments. This area is home to black bear and mountain lion as well as a number of less celebrated but just as notable creatures.” – U.S. Forest Service
One morning in the Sycamore Canyon Wilderness south of Flagstaff, Arizona, my brother, his son, and I encountered an older man in hunting clothes talking to someone by two-way radio.
Soon, we realized that the side of the hill ahead of us was crawling with hound dogs – running, sniffing, and baying.
At first, I was hesitant to approach the man. I live in Oregon, where armed men not long ago took over a national wildlife refuge for more than a month, trashed it, and threatened its employees, yet the leaders walked away scot free. The rural part of the state where I reside is increasingly plagued by armed groups that espouse a mixture of white male supremacy and hostility to public lands. Asking even innocent questions of strangers with guns could be a mistake.
But then again, the old man could be like a former neighbor of mine in rural Virginia. That neighbor hunted because he didn’t have a lot of extra money and counted on five deer per year as part of his household’s food supply. Although we didn’t hunt ourselves, we were willing to let that neighbor cross onto our land when he needed to fill his freezer.
So after a few minutes my brother and I asked this man what he was doing.
“Nothing gets the blood pumping more than coming up on hounds that have bayed or treed a mountain lion!” – Arizona Guided Hunts Outfitters
He said he was serving as the base for a group of men who were following ten hounds he had provided to them.
When he didn’t reveal more, I asked, “Are they tracking a mountain lion?”
“Correct,” he said.
When I asked how he knew the cougar was in the area, he said he had found a deer it had killed and eaten, and the dogs had followed the big cat’s scent from there.
We saw that he was closely monitoring a GPS device that received signals from transmitters attached to each dog so he could tell the men the hounds’ locations.
“Is the idea that the hounds will tree the cougar?” I asked.
“Correct,” he said.
If the hounds got close enough to the lion, ancient instinct would kick in from the time, long ago, when cougars had to fear packs of wolves. The terrified lion would climb a tree, knowing the hounds couldn’t do the same. Eventually, the men would arrive where the baying hounds were gathered and shoot the motionless cat at close range.
“I don’t know if we’ll get this one,” he said. “It’s a runner.”
“5 day Guided Mountain Lion Hunts are $5,000.00 per person. Weapon types can be archery, muzzleloader, centerfire rifle or centerfire handguns. Weapon choice is not as critical as other big game hunts.” – Arizona Guided Hunts Outfitters
“5 Days Any Legal Lion $5000. These hunts are conducted on side-by-side's or 4wheelers.” – Killer Lion Hunts Guides
It seemed the man wasn’t eager to share much more information, so we didn’t ask about the financial arrangement between him and the men who were following his dogs. But when I got home I searched online for the going rate. At $5,000 per person, this apparently is not a hobby for the Walmart worker who makes $11 an hour, or for teachers or health care workers or Uber drivers or anyone else who lives on a budget.
“Mountain lion hunting is meeting the Department’s management objective of… providing recreational opportunities for 6,000 hunters per year.” – Arizona Game and Fish Department
“As long as the mountain lion hunters are walking into the wilderness and are not using any mechanized form of transportation and no motorized equipment, they are legal under the Wilderness Act.” – U.S. Forest Service
According to the Arizona Game and Fish Department, “About 850 livestock operators presently graze 56,000 cattle on public lands in Arizona.” But protecting ranchers’ profits isn’t a significant reason for killing mountain lions. Only an average of 27 of the big cats are killed in Arizona each year because a rancher claimed a case of “cattle depredation” – less than one-thirteenth of the average annual “harvest” of lions in that state by “hunters” seeking “recreational opportunities.”
“Trophy hunters have killed approximately 29,000 lions in the U.S. in the last decade.” – Humane Society Report, “Cecil 2,” 2016
“Since 1890, there have been 29 fatal attacks by mountain lions on humans in North America.” – Arizona Game and Fish Department
My brother, his son, and I left the old man and continued hiking. We could still hear the hounds’ baying and see their movements. I wondered if this might be my long-awaited chance to see a mountain lion. A few years ago, I came across fresh prints in newly fallen snow not far from my Oregon home. And my son and daughter-in-law saw one calmly walking through the woods only a couple hundred yards from our house. But I never have had that good fortune.
I found myself imagining the big cat racing across this Arizona trail in front of us, and wondered if we would try to use our hiking poles to fend off the dogs long enough for the cougar to escape, and what sort of confrontation that might create with the gunmen. That didn’t happen, of course, as the lion seemed to be getting away without our help.
During our time in the area, we climbed to the top of massive red rock formations caused by powerful natural forces over millions of years.
We walked on an iced-over stream that reflected reds and yellows coming from steep and narrow canyon walls.
We trekked for miles through clumps of giant old trees – pinyon, alligator bark juniper, oak, sycamore, and more – and wondered what will happen to them and other living things there as the climate continues to get hotter and drier.
“The southwestern United States is expected to become more prone to droughts with climate change. The resulting loss of vegetation will not only impact herbivores like mule deer; their main predator, mountain lions, might take an even larger hit.” – NASA
In our visit to red-rock wilderness we had gone on our own kind of hunt. But contrary to the old kids’ game, we were afraid – not of the lion, but for our common future.