Cattin' Around Colorado

If hunting along the West Slope was good enough for a Rough Rider like Teddy Roosevelt, it will be good enough for you too. Mountain lion hunting has seldom been better than it is today. (January 2006)

Photo by Willy Onarheim

It happens often enough: A hard-working man gets promoted and decides to reward himself with a little R&R before starting his new job. On Dec. 31, 1900, Vice President-elect Theodore Roosevelt resigned as governor of New York, packed his winter gear and headed off to hunt mountain lions near the town of Meeker in Western Colorado.

The hard-charging Rough Rider did well by any standard. Exactly how many cats were taken from the area in and around Coyote Gulch remains in dispute, though experts say the total could have been near 20. Roosevelt attributed much of his success to the effectiveness of his guide's dogs. He was so impressed with the tracking and tenacity of John Goff's hounds that on at least one occasion when a particularly nasty cat started getting the best of the canines, Roosevelt himself dove into the fray.

"After a couple hundred yards, the dogs caught him, and a great fight followed," T. R. wrote to his oldest son, Ted, in mid-January of 1901. "They could have killed him by themselves, but he bit or clawed four of them, and for fear he might kill one, I ran in and stabbed him behind the shoulder, thrusting the knife you loaned me right into his heart. I have always wished to kill a cougar as I did this one, with dogs and a knife." (T. Roosevelt's Letters to His Children, J. B. Bishop, 1928.)

Roosevelt returned to the East Coast with a cougar skull more massive than anyone had seen, and eventually accepted one of Goff's hounds as a pet for his son, Archie. The boy and his dog wrecked havoc, chasing each other through the White House. The mountain lion trophy held the informal world's record for several years, and a score of 15 12/16 still gives it a high ranking among entries of the Boone & Crockett Club's record book. Roosevelt was one of the club's founders.

Over a century later, sportsmen looking for a mountain lion hunt worth writing home about should still consider a trip to Colorado. Cougar were once widely distributed across North America, and on this state's Western Slope, they have all the resources necessary to thrive.

The Colorado Plateau dominates the area's geography. It's a high desert environment that includes parts of Utah and New Mexico. The Centennial State's portion has a combination of rugged terrain, sparse vegetation and abundant prey that makes for ideal cougar habitat. Elevation is usually moderate, in the 5,000- to 8,000-foot range. Lofty buttes and mesas are crosscut by deep drainages with steep cliffs, and exposed rock that's often unstable. Cover ranges from piñon and juniper woodlands up high to broken patches of sagebrush and other scrub down low or out in the open.

Then there's what wildlife biologists refer to as "biomass," the amount of food available per unit of area, and for mountain lions, Western Colorado is a virtual smorgasbord. Numerous prey species in truly huge numbers make this locale one big hotspot for cougars.

Conventional wisdom ties mountain lion population and distribution closely to deer: You'll find cougars where mule deer and elk reside, and the more prey, the more predators. If that's true, Western Colorado should have more lions than anywhere.

The Division of Wildlife estimates that the state's mule deer number half a million. Elk add about another 250,000 head. The majority of both species are distributed well west of the Continental Divide. There are also bighorn, pronghorn and substantial populations of livestock. Mountain lions also eat a variety of small game.

The diversity and density of potential food sources helps explain why lions that qualify for the Boone & Crockett records come from all sections of Western Colorado. With so much meat on the ground, you might expect the area to be crawling with cougars -- and you could be more right than you know.

NATURE OF THE BEAST

Dr. Ken Logan, a wildlife field biologist, has been studying Puma concolor in the western United States since 1981 and recently completed a 10-year project in the Chihuahua Desert for the New Mexico Game & Fish Department. In that environment, the prey base was determined to be relatively thin, but Logan's team still recorded the second highest density of mountain lions anywhere in North America: about four adults per 100 square miles. Recently, the Colorado Division of Wildlife hired Logan to conduct the most intensive research into mountain lion population dynamics they've ever done, and he's fired-up to collar some cats.

"What we're after are 'home-grown' facts about the mountain lion population dynamics here in Colorado that the DOW can use for managing mountain lions, particularly through sport hunting," Logan says. "The strategies they're using now are based on sound biological theory, but rely on data from studies done in other states. We expect this research to give DOW a more relevant biological foundation on which to build management strategies.

"Our study is going to gather as much objective, quantitative information as possible, so that anyone interested in mountain lion management can use it to structure opinions and develop policy. Whatever values are incorporated, we want to make sure wildlife management is based on rigorous biological research. We may find out that we've been doing it right all along, but we want to know that from a scientifically-based process of investigation."

Southwestern Colorado in particular has exceptional quality mule deer, and DOW is trying to get their numbers up. What if there turn out to be more lions than previously estimated? Could this be pressuring deer or other preyed-on species such as the desert bighorn, which DOW wildlife managers want to encourage? If so, should there be more lion hunting?

"We're not yet looking directly at the effects of mountain lion predation on mule and elk deer populations, but it's something we hope to include," Logan added. "The subject deserves more research. Mountain lions are opportunistic predators. They seem to kill and feed on prey that's abundant and vulnerable. We've just started the study, so the evidence is very preliminary, but we're seeing that they're killing more elk than deer. That's not a 'result,' it's simply data. But, it's consistent with studies completed elsewhere in North America, such as the central Idaho wilderness. Cougar are perfectly capable of killing even six-point bull elk. They don't do it routinely because other prey (species) are more common and less able to protect themselves.

"As for the second question, it's too soon to tell. The population we studied in New Mexico was not in a hunted area, so the lower densi

ties observed in areas with sport hunting could demonstrate that hunting is an effective way of suppressing mountain lion population below what the environment can sustain."

Logan respects the science of his craft. You won't bait him into guessing how many cougars live in a particular area. "There's a lot of opportunity to learn," he said. "I suspect some things will be similar to what's been learned in research projects elsewhere in western North America. I also believe we could learn some new things, one of which might be that mountain lions exist in higher densities than previously thought."

TALKING THE STALK

No matter how many lions live in Western Colorado, an experienced hunting guide will improve your odds of filling a tag. An outfitter can do a lot to establish an area as hot. Here's a great example:

Dick Ray has been guiding since 1968. A cougar he killed ranks 34th among B&C entries. Dick's son, Mike, now heads their Pagosa Springs-based Lobo Outfitters. The younger Ray must've learned from his old man: Mike got his first cougar at 19, and it qualified for the B&C book. In 2001, they put a client's lion onto the state record, displacing that infamous cougar killed by Teddy Roosevelt in 1901.

A generation's worth of hunting tells a guide something about wildlife trends, and Dick Ray is convinced that cougar numbers are rising. "We used to hunt over in Utah and up in Wyoming, but we don't have to do that anymore. We've got enough lions around here.

"A lot of people don't remember that cougar used to be persecuted in Colorado," said Ray, who sits on the Colorado Wildlife Commission. "They were a considered a nuisance and shot, poisoned or trapped for a bounty. (Cougars were designated a big-game species in 1965.) There's no doubt in my mind that we have more lions today than we had 30 or 40 years ago. There are more big lions being killed than there used to be, too. We have to hunt mountain lions to control their numbers and keep natural resources in balance."

Anti-hunting advocates and others who don't understand the sport criticize the perceived ease of shooting a treed cat, but Colorado's 2004-05 season had a success rate below 25 percent. That's far from a sure thing. In fact, that rate is far less than the success rates for general rifle season deer and elk hunters. The guide has to find a fresh track, the dogs have to pick up the trail, and the lion has to stay treed long enough for the hunter to catch up and get a shot.

Ray offers some perspective: "A lot of people underestimate how difficult mountain lion hunting is. It can be the most rugged hunt you can get in on. Once you set it in motion and you let the dogs loose, you've got to see it through. There are lots of reasons why people who hunt don't kill, and it doesn't have anything to do with incompetence. The dogs might try to head into an area that's too rough for the client. A cougar can lose dogs in steep, rocky country. Or a hunter might look over a treed lion and decide it's not the right one; he snaps a picture and lets it go. That teaches a mountain lion to avoid people and dogs."

Ray cites physical fitness as the most important element in preparing to hunt lions. "It takes stamina to hunt cougar. We've never had a client perish, but we've had some who thought they were going to. Whatever your condition, get in better condition -- and know your limits. On a hunt, you want to press your limits, not find out you're way beyond your ability."

Winter weather and the nature of cougar hunting make proper equipment selection essential. "You need to be prepared to spend the night out, because of injury, inconvenience or you just went farther than you thought. It's the kind of an adventure a hunter needs to be ready for, mentally and with the right gear. We advise our clients to bring rubber boots with leather uppers and thick felt liners, a good daypack, and layered clothing that will keep them warm even when wet. I prefer wool."

Ray finds that many of his clients haul excess firepower. "A lot of guys want to bring their 7mm Mag with a scope. It'll work, but that's the worst thing you could use," he advised. "You're over-gunned and carrying a scope you won't need most of the time. Wet, snowy brush will fill that scope and rifle with a lot of ice. We recommend a substantial handgun -- in a backpack or a shoulder holster. A hip holster gets old if you walk very far."

ABOUT LION SEASON
"There are pros and cons for every type of season structure. Colorado has a separate quota-based season. Arizona hunts year' round with no quotas. They rely on deer and elk hunters to take a large percentage of their lions," said Dick Ray, a member of the Colorado Wildlife Commission, in comparing the philosophical approaches in settling mountain lion season structure.

"Cougars can put an awful lot of pressure on deer and isolated herds of bighorn sheep. If a state needs more lion kills, longer or coinciding seasons can offer more opportunity -- a hunter has a shot at more than one species during his trip."

The downside to no-quota hunting, says Ray, is that some biological data go unkown, such as the number of lions killed and the number of males compared to females that are taken. "There's less selectivity, and you're going to have some crippling and wounding loss," he said. "A lot of hunters talk about going after a wounded lion, but when it comes time to do it."

A problem with year-round hunting is that dogs used to hunt lions might interfere with overlapping big-game seasons. Other hunters might find dogs disruptive, and it's certainly more dangerous for the dogs. "(Quota) hunting with dogs is probably the best way to do it because it's much more selective," Ray said. "You can have a great deal of fun chasing lions, even if you tree and release, there's virtually no crippling or wounding loss; and if you wound the lion and it escapes. The dogs will likely find it again."

Ray is also a member of Colorado's Outfitter Licensing Board and vice president of the Colorado Mule Deer Association. -- Michael Kaffar

What keeps a veteran guide excited about cougar hunting? "Every lion hunt has a unique story," Ray says. "When you go mile after mile, day after day to get a lion, it doesn't have to be a record-book trophy. A worthwhile chase and a representative specimen make the story. And, there's something special about winter hunting. A lot of times, it's just you, the dogs and that lion in places that are crowded during deer or elk season. The area could be overrun with hikers and fishermen in the summer, but in winter, you don't see a soul. So what if it's public ground? Like the man said, 'You don't have to own the land to enjoy the view.'"

FOR YOUR INFORMATION

Mountain lion season runs Nov. 21 through March 31, 2006. Licenses are available and for sale over the counter at license agents throughout Colorado. Quotas vary by unit.

For additional information, contact the Colorado Division of Wildlife, 6060 Broadway, Denver, CO 80216; (303) 297-1192, or go online to

http://wildlife.state.co.us/hunt.

The Colorado Outfitter's Association can be reached at P.O. Box 1949, Rifle, CO 81650; (970) 876-0543, or online at

www.colorado-outfitters.com.

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