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THE LION STING

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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.

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Michael Kiefer