Expert guides, state big-game managers and harvest statistics reveal some of the best mountains and canyons to hunt cougars in the Rocky Mountain West. (December 2009)
Teddy Roosevelt called it "the lord of stealthy murder." But the name puma, cougar, panther or mountain lion will do.
Jared Wagoner used a bow to drop this Idaho mountain lion. Hunters took 441 lions in the Gem State in the 2007-08 season.
Photo courtesy of Bearpaw Outfitters.
This mysterious predator stirs within the soul many dark emotions and a keen excitement that can only come from a creature near the very top of the food chain.
The big cat's secretive nature and isolated lifestyle make it difficult to determine how many really exist and exactly where they all roam. But wildlife managers throughout the Rocky Mountain West agree that their numbers are at the least stable and, in many cases, expanding.
Regardless of where you hunt, some things don't change.
"The three biggest necessities are food, cover and wild country," said Dale Denney.
Denney is a cougar-hunting guide in Idaho, Utah, Montana and his home state of Washington with 32 years of experience. Having treed 450-500 lions, and with nearly 250 filled tags and a previous world-record Pope and Young cougar to his credit, he's figured out the key patterns.
"Those three factors in a nutshell spell success for cougar hunting. It doesn't matter if it's mountain ranges or canyon country in any of these states," he said.
Ron Thompson, the large-carnivore biologist for the Arizona Department of Game and Fish, said that the lion population in the Grand Canyon State is estimated at 1,500-2,000 animals and is expanding. The highest concentration of cats is located in the central part of the state and is generally associated with high chaparral.
While most hunters fill their tags by using of hounds, Thompson stressed the fact that there are numerous techniques beside the use of dogs that offer good potential for success.
"We have a number of individuals that harvest lions annually with predator calls and calls that imitate lions," Thompson said.
A review of harvest statistics from 2003-07 provided a snapshot of those areas that consistently gave up more cats. The leader of the pack was Unit 23 with a five-year average of 13 sport kills. Next in line was Unit 22 with 10, followed by Unit 33 with 9.6.
Additionally, the GFD is taking a unique approach to cougar control in areas where livestock depredation is a problem or where big-game species, such as bighorn sheep, may benefit from lion population reductions. While the standard bag limit is one cat per hunter per year, there are a few "multiple bag limit" areas where hunters are allowed to take more than one lion.
Mountain lions can be found in most parts of the Centennial State and have an estimated statewide population numbering between 3,000 and 5,000 animals.
"Lions are most abundant in the Front Range foothills and canyons or mesa country west of I-25," said Jerry Neal, public information officer for Colorado's Division of Wildlife. "They are more at home in brushy areas and woodlands than in forests or open prairies. While not as common, lions are also present in the plains areas east of I-25."
Colorado is unique in that it requires all cat hunters, guides, outfitters and houndsmen to complete a mountain lion education and identification course.
The Division's approach is also distinctive because it requests that hunters learn about the management goals within the specific area being hunted and, if compatible with those goals, voluntarily refrain from killing female lions.
Harvest statistics for the 2007 season showed Unit 13 giving up the greatest number of cats: 12. Unit 30 showed nine cats in the bag, while eight cougars were tagged each in units 211, 20, 40, 581 and 70. A total of 295 lions were reported harvested statewide, resulting in a 21 percent hunter success rate.
"Idaho is my favorite state," Denney said. "There is lots of public access, long seasons, good snow and good cougar hunting throughout the state. Just be careful of wolves in all areas."
During the 2007-08 seasons, hunters killed 441 mountain lions across the Gem State and those results are representative of fairly stable harvests over the last three to four years.
Steve Nadeau, a wildlife staff biologist for Idaho Fish and Game, said from a management standpoint, the use of hounds is a "surgical technique" because specific problem animals can be targeted from within the population.
The statewide cougar population is estimated to range between 2,000 and 3,000 animals and has stabilized over the last two to three years at that level.
"There are a few areas where we're trying to increase the population and some areas where we're trying to decrease it," Nadeau said. "But statewide, we're right about at the department's population objective."
Those areas containing the greatest numbers of cats include wilderness areas and the McCall, Salmon and Clearwater areas. The Lolo zone is a region where a decrease in population is desired because of low calf elk recruitment.
Harvest reports indicate that the largest percentage of lions is taken from the Southwest Region, 23 percent, while the Clearwater Region gives up another 22 percent.
Nadeau recommended that hunters contact their local Fish and Game office for tips on the better hound hunting locations within their specific regions.
"Lions may potentially occur throughout Montana," explained Richard DeSimone, a research biologist for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. "Although lion densities are generally higher in the areas of the state with higher percentages of public land and lower numbers of domestic livestock."
The statewide cougar population is estimated to be between 2,000 and 2,500 animals. Regions 1 and 2, west of the continental divide, generally contain the greater populations, while Regions 3, 4 and 5 have more moderate numbers. In eastern Montana's regions 6 and 7, where lands are primarily private and livestock production dominates land use, cat numbers are lower.
"Regions 1 and 2 have abundant public land, good access, and good snow conditions, so there is a high demand to hunt these areas," DeSimone said. "As a result, lion hunting requires a permit. However, for those lucky enough to draw, there is great potential for success."
The top-producing area during the 2008 season was District 100 with a total harvest of 19 cats. District 121 followed closely behind with 15 kills. A combined take of 13 in districts 411 and 412 tied for the No. 3 spot with districts 445 and 455, which also had a combined total of 13 filled tags.
Cougars here, like elsewhere, will not stand up to be counted, but rough estimates put their population at somewhere between 2,500 and 3,000 animals. While those numbers are comparable to many other states, when it comes to hunting possibilities, there is nowhere that offers a more liberal approach than the Sagebrush State.
The season runs 365 days and has a bag limit of two cats per year -- and then the clock resets and the opportunities start all over again. In Nevada, no time is a bad time to have a cougar tag in your pocket.
"Lions are pretty well distributed throughout the state, but the guides seem to have a preference for the area from Ely south to Las Vegas," said Doug Nielsen, the conservation and education supervisor for Nevada DOW's southern region. "Most people don't recognize Vegas for wildlife -- that's wildlife as one word -- but it shouldn't be overlooked!"
Nielsen advised that from 1998 through 2008, the total annual harvest ranged from 130 to 205 lions, but the average across all those years was 166 filled tags. Those numbers tend to be holding relatively stable.
Management Area 6 was the top producer last season where 16 cats were killed, representing 13.7 percent of the statewide sport harvest. Following closely behind was Management Area 11 where 13 sportsmen filled their tags. Among the 29 management areas in the state, these two regions accounted for 24.8 percent of the total cougar take.
All Cougar Management Zones in the Land of Enchantment have seasons that open Oct. 1 and are quota-based, allowing for either a total harvest limit or a female harvest limit.
For example, Zone A has a total limit of 27 lions and a female limit of seven. When either limit is reached, the season in that zone will close. If neither quota is reached, the season closes on March 31.
Data for the 2007-08 seasons indicate that only five zones closed because the female quota was reached. Those zones included Zone B where a female quota of four and five were harvested; C with a female quota of 13 and 15; L with a female quota of three; P where three were taken; and Q with a female quota of 12.
The top-producing zone during the 2007-08 seasons was Zone C with a total kill of 41 lions. This same zone is the top producer based on a five-year average harvest of 35. Zone J was ranked as the second-highest producing region in 2007-08 with a total take of 28 lions. This zone ranked third in the five-year average column with a total average harvest of 28 cats. Zone Q ranked third in the 2007-08 seasons with a total harvest of 21 but held rank as the second-highest-producing zone in the five-year averages column with an annual take of 30 cougars.
As all sportsmen recognize, hunting today often becomes a supply-and-demand game. When the supply is a quality hunt with high-caliber trophies, demand can be high. The pros know it when they see it.
"Utah is my next second favorite state," said Denney. "There is lots of public access in many areas but more competition from other hunters."
Management options often need to be adjusted in order to address these conditions. Justin Dolling, game-mammals coordinator for Utah Division of Wildlife, said he manages lions based upon a two-tiered system to accommodate both the requirements of the hunting public and many varied wildlife population objectives.
In order to do so, some areas are classified as limited-entry hunts where tags are issued on a competitive lottery-style draw.
The second tier is a quota-driven system. More tags are issued and seasons close when quotas are reached. These areas generally allow for greater harvest to address chronically depressed big-game herds. In particular, this type of management strategy is used where bighorn sheep are more susceptible to lion predation.
Dolling advised that hunters consider the type of experience they're looking for when planning a hunt in Utah. If you simply want to experience the thrill of cougar hunting with a reasonable expectation of filling a tag, then a quota-driven hunt area may offer your best bet.
"The northern part of the state is primarily private lands," Dolling said. "So unless you know a landowner or do some serious homework, you may have problems finding a location to hunt. Otherwise, the central and southeast part of the state contains more public lands and you might steer toward those units."
If a serious trophy hunt is more your cup of tea, then you should play the odds on a limited-entry drawing. Data collected since 1996 show a statewide mean age of 3.2 years for tagged lions. But statistics for the 2008 season showed limited-entry units 16a, 16b2, 17a2 and 25c with 20 percent or more of the harvest represented by lions 6 years or older.
Over the last 11 years, Jason Reinhardt has been there to tree or tag between 160-170 mountain lions in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming. That experience is eclipsed only by his passion as a Wyoming cougar-hunting guide and houndsman.
"A lion hunt can last five minutes or five days and you have to be committed to stay with those dogs," Reinhardt said.
Then, with a laugh, he said, "To have a lot of success you have to be hard-headed, and if you're going to do this right, you either need to be single or have a really understanding wife!"
The mountain lion harvest report for September 2007 through March 2008 showed the top-producing region to be Area 15 with a total kill of 25 cats. Tied for the No. 2 spot were areas 14 and 23 with 15 filled tags from each. Area 1 followed closely behind with 12 cougars in the bag.