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.

Lackner ran his cattle on public land in Klondyke, a dirt-road backwater in Aravaipa Canyon, near Safford, an area that may have more bears and mountain lions than any other part of Arizona. To protect his livestock, as any rancher of the old school might have, Lackner killed great numbers of both predators.

In 1988, Lackner was indicted for killing nine black bears without reporting it; he lost his grazing rights on one allotment for two years. But even as he was being punished for taking bears illegally, during the next three years, he legally killed or had killed 27 mountain lions.

During that same period, 60 lions were killed in Aravaipa Canyon by Animal Damage Control and other hired hunters and trappers, half of the reported depredation kills for the entire state.

One state biologist (who prefers not to be identified) was so incensed by the numbers of lions killed that he tricked Animal Damage Control hunters into lending him the dead lions' heads, which had been taken by the hunters as proof of the kills. He stacked 16 of the heads in a grisly pyramid, shot a roll of film, then leaked the photos to the press. The public was so outraged that the legislature was convinced to rewrite the depredation laws.

Lackner's neighbor in Klondyke, Gordon Whiting, sat on the Game and Fish Commission in 1990, and spearheaded the rewriting campaign.

The old law did not require that ranchers substantiate their depredation claims. Under the 1990 law, ranchers had five days to inform the Game and Fish Department that livestock had been killed and that they had initiated pursuit of the stock killer. After they killed the offending bear or lion, they had ten days to report it. Although they had to provide evidence that predators were, in fact, taking calves or sheep, the bill writers went out of their way to appease ranchers.

"They don't even have to have solid physical evidence to substantiate depredation," Whiting says. "That's somewhat of a subjective fact." A cow with a full udder and no calf, lion tracks, lion scat with livestock hair in it could be presented as proof that lions were killing calves.

Whiting also made his ranch in Klondyke available to the Game and Fish Department for a three-year study on the interaction between lions and wildlife and livestock.

The Game and Fish biologists had little idea of how to capture lions, however. And so they hired the best damned lion hunter in the state.

Larry Hendrix.

Larry Hendrix is 53 years old, six feet tall, but as lean and gnarled as a pi§on pine. With his bushy red mustache and his deep-set, crinkly eyes, he looks like he should be staring out of a daguerreotype.

Sitting around the campfire, Hendrix liked to tell people that he was born 100 years too late. He has a high, twangy voice, and as one acquaintance put it, "talks all stupid and slow and Southern." But he would also let slip that he had a master's degree in range management and had spent much of the 1970s with the Bureau of Land Management in Phoenix and Safford, working his way up to chief of resources, a position that oversaw the biologists and range staff in that district.

Hendrix came out of the BLM a government hater, managed a ranch near Prescott, ran a firewood business and punched some cattle before settling into a career as a lion hunter. Hendrix trapped lions legally for the Game and Fish Department from 1991 until February 1993.

But Hendrix was not the lonesome and penniless cowpoke he appeared to be. He was a man of some means; a 1980 divorce settlement shows that Hendrix and his ex-wife divvied up more than $30,000 in stocks and CDs and ten pieces of property, including three houses in Prescott, and land parcels in Arizona, New Mexico and Wyoming. Not bad for a ranch hand and hunter.

He now keeps a house in Luna, New Mexico, just over the Arizona state line. Game and Fish investigators expressed surprise over the amount of money he kept in his checking account when they subpoenaed his financial records.

When Hendrix's friends start to describe him, they might as well be singing a Gene Autry tune: a trueblue, outspoken man of his word, a loner who only heads into town to buy a 50-pound bag of dog food, then turns around immediately to spend the evening back at camp.

"He's spent Christmas with my family, and I can tell you he's a man of honesty and integrity," says Gordon Whiting. "He's made some mistakes, but he's not the Al Capone of wildlife. There are some guides out there who have reputations as outlaws, and Larry Hendrix is not one of them."

Stan Cunningham, the Game and Fish lion biologist, however, recalls a side of Hendrix that resembled the character played by Jack Palance in the film City Slickers. Cunningham was a greenhorn when he came to the lion project in Aravaipa Canyon, and Hendrix was quick to remind him of it.

One day, Cunningham had to jury-rig a mule saddle and he knew that Hendrix wouldn't help him with it. Later on the ride, while going down a hill, that saddle slid up to the mule's neck and dumped Cunningham into a bruised heap. Hendrix came up alongside and said, "I bet next time you put it on right," then rode off.

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