THE LION STING

GAME AND FISH INVESTIGATORS STALKED THE MOST NOTORIOUS MOUNTAIN LION HUNTER IN THE STATE. HE TURNED OUT TO BE A HIRED GUN FOR RANCHERS, AND HE'D KILLED 18 CATS.

From where he stood on the ridge, Ron Day could hear the hounds baying as they lined out on a scent, and he could make out the hunter on his mule ambling across the rocky meadows behind the dogs. He didn't expect to see the mountain lion they were trailing, because mountain lions can slink and fade and vanish into the countryside like flesh-and-bone spirits. Only trained lion dogs and certain lion hunters can sniff them out.

Day, an undercover investigator for the Arizona Game and Fish Department, was shadowing one such hunter named Larry Hendrix. Day had long heard rumors that Hendrix was tracking mountain lions on behalf of ranchers along the Beeline Highway north of Fountain Hills, taking a bounty for each kill.

Day's partner, Carl Lutch, was staked out on another ridge across the valley. Early that morning, they'd seen Hendrix's silver pickup and his horse trailer parked along Forest Service Road 393 north of Sunflower, several miles into the backcountry from the Beeline. Connected by walkie-talkies, they'd fanned out to opposite hilltops to wait and watch.

Just before 3 in the afternoon, as Hendrix and his dogs hustled down the valley, Day and Lutch saw another truck lumber up the road, dragging a dust cloud behind it. Through their binoculars, they could see Kelly and Howard Hughes, the ranchers who grazed cattle on that allotment of the Tonto National Forest, saw them clearly enough to make out Kelly's blue baseball cap and his brother's white cowboy hat.

The Hughes boys--middle-aged men, really--clambered up a rock outcropping midway down to Alder Creek until they got a fix on Hendrix, then they hurried down through the manzanita brambles to join him.

Judging from the frenzied barking of the hounds, they'd treed their lion. Three shots rang out. Lutch sneaked down the outcropping for a closer view, and he could see Hendrix bent over a dead lion in the creek bottom, cutting off strips of meat to reward the dogs and maybe to eat himself. Predators, after all, hunt to eat, even if they relish the kill.

Shortly after 5, after the Hughes brothers had left and Hendrix had loaded dogs and mule into his trailer and rumbled back out the dirt road, Day and Lutch came out from their hiding places and climbed down into the creek to find the dead lion.

It was half-hidden under a sycamore tree. The stomach had been cut open to see if the lion had recently taken any livestock. It was empty.

Now Day and Lutch had to wait ten days to see if Hendrix or the ranchers would follow the law and report the kill.

But they already knew they wouldn't.

It is not illegal to hunt mountain lions in Arizona. More than 3,000 hunters buy lion tags every year. And if a rancher can prove that mountain lions are taking his cattle, all he has to do is notify the Game and Fish Department before grabbing his gun and unleashing the dogs.

But either way, every lion killed is supposed to be reported. Hendrix and the ranchers he was allegedly working for could have stayed well within the law if they had submitted to the state procedure for hunting down stock killers.

The high desert and chaparral along the Beeline is prime lion habitat, and probably contains some of the highest densities of mountain lions in the state. And so it goes without question that the ranchers who graze there lose cattle to them. None of them, however, had complained of lion problems since the spring of 1993, a year earlier.

Instead they had hired Hendrix, a man who is as stealthy and solitary as the animals he tracks--and as arrogant and efficient a hunter, as well--to kill mountain lions as a preventive measure. And that is clearly illegal.

Day and Lutch watched Hendrix shoot two lions. On April 11, 1994, when they brought a search warrant to the trailer where Hendrix was staying, they found evidence of 18 more lions he had killed, one or two of them legally. Hendrix had kept a diary that described each hunt, listed his hunting companions, the dogs he used, the size and sex of his kill. The diary also kept track of who paid him how much and when.

The Maricopa County Attorney's Office charged Hendrix with six felony counts of unlawful taking of big game for monetary gain--one for each of the lion carcasses that Day and Lutch found--and one count of conspiracy to commit unlawful taking of big game for monetary gain. If convicted, he could face ten years in prison.

Three ranchers were named in the indictment but not charged because investigators didn't find a paper trail proving they'd actually paid Hendrix, and because Hendrix, so far, has not informed on them. If the ranchers were to be charged and found guilty, they could lose their grazing permits.

But in all likelihood, they won't be indicted. Hendrix sees himself as a stalwart, Gary Cooper hero, so rather than break the cowboy code of silence, he'll face the judge by himself, and the ranchers will let him hang.

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