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THE LION STING

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"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.

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.

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Michael Kiefer