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.

"We go to all this trouble both trying to protect wildlife and give ranchers the freedom to protect their private property, and they won't take the very legal opportunities they have to do that," says Gordon Whiting, a rancher who sat on the Game and Fish Commission when the depredation laws were written.

"I don't question that they've got lion problems," Whiting says of the Beeline ranchers. "But they didn't report because they don't trust the Game and Fish Department, and they're wrong. They're carrying on an activity that could have been legal if they'd done it properly. Instead, because of their own rationalizations or opinions, they just decided they were going to take care of it themselves."

Until very recent history, large predators such as the wolf and the bear and the cougar--which is the standard term for mountain lion in most parts of this country--were considered lurking and bloodthirsty varmints.

Now that they have long disappeared from much of the country, they have been reinvented as noble, almost cuddly symbols of vanishing wilderness. Despite whatever human characteristics we wish to superimpose upon them, they are species following their own ways and rhythms, as different from each other as they are from us.

Because wolves and grizzlies were successfully eradicated from most parts of the United States in the first half of this century, there seems a general assumption that mountain lions are threatened, as well. They are not, by the grace of their secretive nature.

Wolves run the same routes so regularly that they wear paths into the ground, and all animal-control hunters from earlier generations needed to do was to estimate when they would reach an area and lay traps or poisoned meat along the wolf runs. Bears are scavengers, also prone to eating poisoned carrion.

But mountain lions are picky eaters and don't scavenge. They mostly eat meat they've killed themselves, and unlike their African cousins, they don't live in large prides, but rather slink solitary through remote and rocky country, especially in the chaparral, the brushy grassland buffers between the desert and the high pine country. They are especially prevalent in Aravaipa Canyon near Safford, and in the mountains just north of Phoenix.

"There's not a harder animal to study," says Stan Cunningham, a Game and Fish biologist who has tried. "You can't drive up in a Land Rover and watch them," as an earlier generation of biologists did for the Serengeti lions. And generally the only time biologists see mountain lions is when they are under stress--treed by lion dogs or caught in traps.

They are so hard to spot that biologists can spend hours staring at thickets where they know they've cornered a radio-collared cat.

"A mountain lion is nothing but a hundred-and-fifty-pound housecat," Cunningham says. "They're just as arrogant. They're not afraid of you; they're not all that interested in you because they don't recognize you as prey."

Though they would prefer to eat deer, they do, however, recognize calves as prey.

"You've got a brown-and-white animal that makes a hell of a lot of noise when it's looking for its mom," Cunningham continues, "that really doesn't hide because we've bred all the hiding genes out of them. Whereas the deer is hiding under a paloverde tree, the cows tend to congregate in wash bottoms and ridge tops, which is the same area where lions primarily move."

Furthermore, cows give birth at a time of year when the deer population is particularly low--deer give birth later in the spring--so lions are hungry, and presented with newborn calves. And cougars are as efficient as they are opportunistic; unlike most predators, they catch almost everything they set out to catch.

"Once they're triggered to kill, they go on a feeding frenzy," says Harley Shaw, a biologist who has written extensively on mountain lions. "There are many, many documented instances of them laying down 60 to 70 sheep at a time, more than they can possibly eat. I think once they get their blood up, they have a hard time shutting down."

It's no surprise, then, that ranchers and shepherds saw them as an enemy. Until 1970, not only could ranchers shoot any lion they saw, but they were paid a bounty by the state to do so. In that year, however, the legislature redefined the mountain lion from a predator to a big game animal.

While that meant the state no longer paid a bounty for mountain lions, ranchers could still kill animals that preyed on livestock, and needed no more proof than to fill out a card and send it to the Game and Fish Department.

Few did. Game and Fish statistics for 1970 show 278 lions taken because of depredation; the next year, when the new law was in effect, there were none reported at all, and ever since, the most reported in any single year was 65. For most years, it was 25 or fewer.

No one has suggested that lions have killed fewer cattle--or that ranchers have killed fewer lions--since 1970. And no one particularly cared until sometime in the late 1980s, when Arizonans read about a rancher named Eddie Lackner.

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