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THE LION STING

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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.

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Michael Kiefer