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.

None will admit he was wrong. This is the West, where a man has the right to take care of his property the way his daddy and granddaddy did. And that means shooting lions, wolves, bears, eagles and anything else that might eat livestock; and deer, elk or anything that might compete for livestock forage.

"Over the years in here, you could give a ticket to 90 percent of the ranchers and hunters for doing the same thing Larry was doing," says Bill Workman, a rancher who, in an earlier era, made a good living as a lion hunter.

Ranchers especially hate lions because lions are the most efficient cattle killers of all. And although mountain lions are not endangered as a species in Arizona--or in most of the West--there are laws to keep ranchers from hunting them to extirpation as they did wolves and grizzlies over the last century.

Even with the law in place, however, 181 to 325 mountain lions have been legally killed for each of the last 40 years. For the last 25 years, the overwhelming majority of those lions have been killed by sport hunters.

How many lions are taken illegally is anyone's guess. But even though prodigious numbers are killed in Arizona every year, it has not hurt the overall mountain lion population.

Game wardens, biologists and wildlife advocacy groups all agree that lions, like deer and elk, should be hunted in order to keep their populations in control. Because they are so territorial, increases in their numbers will push them into less and less suitable habitat.

That's starting to happen in California, where mountain lions are a protected species. Juvenile males looking for territories have started to work their way down into suburban areas where they have tangled with humans and their pets; last year, a jogger was killed in a lion attack.

Mountain lions like the high, brushy chaparral, as on the Beeline Highway, where deer--their preferred diet--are plentiful. They like it even more when it includes a free beef buffet. If a rancher shoots a lion there, two more may move right in to compete for that territory. And if he shoots those two, two more may move in like junior executives cutting throats for a newly vacated corner office.

Arizona mountain lions take more cattle than mountain lions in other Western states. And although biologists don't understand all the reasons, it's partly because of the climate. In many states, calves are born at lower altitudes, down below the snow line, and by the time they move up to summer pastures, where the lions are, the calves are larger and less vulnerable to attack.

In Arizona, however, in those areas where cattle graze year-round, cows drop their calves right in lion country. And rather than follow the advice of lion biologists and keep their cattle in safer pastures during calving season, ranchers would rather try to drive the lions out of their natural habitat.

So they kill them--which only opens up territories for new lions to move into. Ranchers excuse such measures as their right to protect their property on their land.

Except that these are public lands, U.S. National Forest land, your land, that the ranchers lease and exploit for their own profit. One of the ranchers in question has so damaged the riparian area around Sycamore Creek that the Forest Service has decided to remove his cattle from it.

Instead of issuing warnings to the rancher, however, instead of simply ordering the cattle off, the Forest Service wants to spend more than a quarter-million dollars to fence out the offending cows--which is like having the landlord step in and graciously redecorate your apartment after your dog chews up the rug.

Ranchers would also expect that gracious landlord to exterminate neighborhood critters who might feed on their animals. They see it as an absolute right, and if the government won't--or can't--keep down the lion population, they'll do it themselves.

"I think it's 'how much can you take before you break,'" says Sandy Eastlake, a spokesperson for the Arizona Cattle Growers Association.

It's a nice piece of rhetoric. But the truth is, although ranchers are required to prove depredation before they kill a lion or a bear, they can justify it with circumstantial evidence weaker than what the State of California has against O.J.

The state and federal government make ample provision for ranchers to destroy predators, and even provide services to do it for them, but because of their inbred distrust of government in general, ranchers do not use them.

Just across Four Peaks from the Beeline ranchers, cattle growers in the portion of the Tonto National Forest that lies in Gila County, for example, have told Animal Damage Control, a federal agency that does nothing but kill predators and agricultural pests, not to come into their area.

Nevertheless, the general consensus among ranchers and game wardens is that there are far more lions taken than are reported to the Game and Fish Department.

In 1993, only 38 mountain lions were legally killed in Arizona under the depredation laws. Hendrix killed 20 himself in five months between November 1993 and March 1994. How many other lions were killed illegally by other hunters hired by other ranchers?

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