THE LION STING
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.
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?
"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.
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 is 53 years old, six feet tall, but as lean and gnarled as a pion 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.
"I still get pissed off about that," Cunningham says.
Above all, Hendrix had an uncanny feel for animals. He could ride a mule from daylight to dark in places where most ranchers would get off and lead. And he doted on his lion dogs.
His diary is full of entries about the hounds. They have names like Snuff and Yankee. He writes about the day Alkali learns to swim, about Bronca's first lion. A week's entries fret about how one Saturday Bronca got lost on the trail and how he spent the next four days tracking before he found her.
As a hunter, Hendrix is highly skilled and intuitive. Mountain lions are extremely hard to find. Of the 200-some lions legally killed every year in Arizona, almost all are taken by sport hunters. And if 200 seems a large number, consider that the Game and Fish Department issues 3,000 to 8,000 lion tags to hunters each year. Fewer than 7 percent actually shoot one lion, let alone 20.
Hunting with dogs is far and away the most efficient way to track lions, but it requires that the hunter build a dog pack, putting together those dogs that can best find a scent with those that can best tree a lion.
The hunter, of course, is the pack's alpha male. He takes the dogs through the terrain lions like best; they sniff silently until they strike a scent, then bark information to each other as they follow it.
"A lion can move out faster than a pack of hounds can trail them," says Ron Day, who was a lion research biologist before he was a law enforcement officer for the Game and Fish Department. "But by their nature, they're curious, and they're arrogant. They'll sit on a bluff or underneath a tree and watch the dogs down below them."
Curiosity kills big cats, too.
The Aravaipa study that centered on Gordon Whiting's ranch--the results of which have not yet been released--tracked 29 lions over 1,500 square miles. What Stan Cunningham learned, he claims, will lose him friends among both ranchers and environmentalists.
"From a strict biological point of view, predator control doesn't work," he says. "They have been killing lions in that valley since 1890, 15 to 20 lions--a third to half of the lion population in the valley--for at least the last 40 years. What we found in Aravaipa was almost immediate replacement of that individual by another lion."
From a short-term economic point of view, however, it does work. If a rancher can kill enough lions right before calving season, he might buy enough time to allow more of those calves to grow large enough that lions won't take them. One of the Beeline ranchers had been telling his friends that Hendrix's work there had tripled his calf crop.
But does the world exist to make money for ranchers? Larry Hendrix thought so. Once over a campfire, he expressed his doubts to Stan Cunningham that anyone really cared if they killed every single lion in the state.
Cunningham shot back, "Larry, you don't spend enough time in Phoenix or Tucson. Ninety percent of the state lives in those two cities, and I guarantee you, most of those people give a shit if you kill any."
Hendrix refused to believe him.
Who can say how long Larry Hendrix may have been illegally killing lions on behalf of ranchers?
Ron Day, the Game and Fish undercover investigator, first heard that Hendrix might be bounty hunting in the Globe area in March 1989, when he received an anonymous tip through the department's Operation Game Thief program. The informer said that Hendrix was living on a ranch, that he had shot eight lions for $300 each, and that in the two years prior, he had shot another 30.
"I just couldn't prove it at the time," Day says.
Then, that fall, Hendrix turned up on the Beeline.
Game warden Carl Lutch was driving down the Beeline Highway into town when he noticed a hunter unloading dogs from a trailer, figured he was lion hunting and stopped to check his tags. It was Hendrix.
"He was real cooperative and friendly," Lutch remembers, and all his papers seemed to be in order.
According to Hendrix's diary and to statements made by the ranchers after he'd been arrested, Hendrix had met with several ranchers in December 1993 to discuss lion problems and what Hendrix could do about them.
Although it is unclear exactly who attended the meeting, the three ranchers named as conspirators in Hendrix's indictment apparently did. Together, they control all of the national forest land between Scottsdale and Four Peaks and from Saguaro Lake to the Mazatzal Mountains, an area that comprises 42,000 acres.
Bill Guilliam had recently obtained grazing rights for one allotment along the Beeline, which he bought from John Whitney III. Whitney and his cousin Kelly Hughes had raised the eyebrows of environmentalists on earlier occasions, Hughes for killing bears illegally, and Whitney for his poor stewardship of the land.
It is on Whitney's land that the Forest Service wants to build the fence. A 1994 environmental assessment of Whitney's allotments done by the Forest Service showed much overgrazing and severe cattle damage to Sycamore Creek. Forest Service plans call for approximately $261,000 in improvements to keep Whitney's cattle out of the riparian area. Whitney will have to pick up part of that tab, but the Forest Service's clemency has angered environmentalists.
"Here's a guy who's been a poor steward, and they're going to spend taxpayers' money on this person so he can keep 450 cows out of there," says grazing activist Jeff Burgess, "when it wouldn't cost anything to tell him to keep the cows off there and say forget it. Sometimes, I think the Forest Service should be suing them instead of investing in them."
The third rancher, Kelly Hughes, had been cited in 1990 for killing two bears and failing to report it. When confronted by Game and Fish officers about the ranchers' meeting, Hughes said he "was happy to pay [Hendrix] a little bit of money" for killing lions because "the damn things eat you out of house and home year after year after year."
If, in fact, mountain lions were taking Hughes' calves, he had not reported the losses to the Game and Fish Department so that he could take care of matters legally.
Still, in the alleged December meeting of the ranchers, Hughes was more gun-shy than the others. He later told investigator Carl Lutch that he wanted all of them to purchase lion hunting tags so that when Hendrix killed a lion they could put a tag on it as if they had hunted it legally. The other ranchers voted him down and told him to keep everything quiet.
In late 1993, enough rumors about Hendrix were flying around the Tonto National Forest that Ron Day and his boss Ray Kohls wanted to start an investigation. In February of the following year, Day and Lutch took up their surveillance, following Hendrix's silver pickup truck, watching him saddle his mules and unload his dogs and head out for the hunt.
They followed him on 19 days and watched him shoot two lions, and on April 11, 1994, they arrested him.
Among Hendrix's belongings was his diary; Day and Lutch followed its descriptions, tracking the tracker, sniffing the air for the unmistakable odor of decomposition. They found six dead cats.
According to the diary, Hendrix had been paid $12,500 by the ranchers, some of it labeled as guide fees. Three lions had been killed on Hughes' land, nine on Whitney's, five on Guilliam's. But the ranchers had been smart enough to pay Hendrix in cash, and to date, the investigators have not found enough of a paper trail to press charges against them.
Larry Hendrix refused to speak to New Times.
Those who know Larry Hendrix feel certain he won't talk to the authorities either. His friends have raised questions as to whether he is guilty of anything other than choosing bad employers. That he openly hunted roads close to the Beeline and that he kept such complete records of his kills in his diaries, they argue, imply that he didn't think he was doing anything wrong.
"As far as I'm concerned, it's the ranchers' place to report it," says Hendrix's friend and fellow lion hunter Bill Workman.
Or perhaps the blatant hunting was a sign of Hendrix's arrogance.
"I can assure you that Larry believes he was absolutely right in what he did," says Stan Cunningham. "He doesn't believe every lion should have to be reported to the government. If he believes he was saving the ranchers money, then he believes he was doing the right thing."
Ron Day's pickup truck lurched and rumbled down a dirt road through Kelly Hughes' grazing allotment. Day wore a baseball cap over his close-cropped hair. He held an empty tomato-paste can on the seat between his legs, and he would occasionally raise it to his lips to spit tobacco juice into it. And all the while he talked about how many ways the ranchers could have legally killed the lions on their ranches.
"One solution could have been to contact hunters and say, 'I've got lion problems up here, can you come up and do some hunting?'" The guides could bring out-of-town hunters with lion tags and shoot all the lions they wanted.
Day pulled to a stop at a creek bottom, jumped down from his truck and ducked under a low canopy of sycamore branches. Alongside the stream, someone had piled deadfall trees into a V that dead-ended at a tree trunk. Polished white cow bones hung from wires on the lower tree branches. This had once been a bear trap; the bruin would be lured in by the fresh meat hanging from the wires and step into a steel trap hidden beneath.
Day drove another mile down the road, parked again, and slid and scrambled down a steep hillside, then ducked under the barbed wire fence that marked Bill Guilliam's allotment. Alder Creek ran at the bottom of the hill; Day followed it, looking for whatever was left of the first lion he and Lutch had seen Hendrix shoot.
He pointed to the juniper on a bluff ten feet straight above where the dogs had treed the lion. Then he shuffled through the leaves and underbrush across the creek to look for bones. All that remained were the vertebrae and a couple of ribs, picked clean but still connected from neck to tail tip, and a mat of lion hair that clung to the dirt floor beneath the trees.
The creek burbled over the river rock; it was a beautiful place to go back to the soil. And certainly another mountain lion was already working the pastures up above.
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