Skull Bound TV: The Ultimate Stare Down

Today’s blog post comes from Jana Waller, host of Skull Bound TV.  You can tune in for hunts with Jana on Wednesdays at 8:30 PM ET, Tuesdays at 1:00 AM ET and 12:00 PM ET.

I am blessed to live among some of our country’s most spectacular wildlife in the Bitterroot Mountains of Montana.  From elk and mule deer to grizzlies and wolves, the plethora of animals found under the big sky of Montana is nothing short of a North American safari. The mountain lion, one of the most misunderstood apex predators, is a mysterious creature of beauty and brawn that roams the Bitterroot Valley in abundance.  Lions are reclusive, solitary and generally nocturnal predators. Many people will never lay their eyes on a mountain lion in the wild and therefore presume their numbers are sparse but that couldn’t be farther from the truth.

The Tom, with his large belly full of elk,  perched high above the baying hounds.

The Tom, with his large belly full of elk, perched high above the baying hounds.

According to Montana’s Fish, WIldlife and Parks (FWP), the mountain lion populations on my home turf along the Bitterroot Valley are plentiful.  So much in fact that the FWP set a goal in 2012 of “reducing mountain lion abundance by approximately 30% over a three year period.” (see Lion Progress Report )  One of the main goals of getting the lion population under control is to reduce elk calf mortality, and thus, enhance elk populations.  It’s simple… when there are too many predators the ungulate populations suffer.

I always enjoy talking with our local biologists from the University of Montana as well as FWP employees about our predator issues in the West. It’s a constant battle trying to manage the wildlife, from the complexities of the predator-to-prey ratios to managing specific areas and units all in hopes of sustaining our ungulate population. I also love talking with other hunters and outfitters who spend most of their time with their boots in the backcountry. I believe their time spent in the field is priceless when it comes to observing what’s really going on in our own backyards.

Cameraman Jimmy and I stop to film a small herd of elk across the canyon.

Cameraman Jimmy and I stop to film a small herd of elk across the canyon.

One person who has spent countless hours observing mountain lion behaviors and their effects on the environment is our good friend and outfitter Ben Wohlers, Owner of Painted Rock Outfitters.  Ben’s been cat hunting since 1995 and has treed over 300 lions throughout his hunting career.  His hounds are proven detectives, finding lions on even the oldest of clues.

Ben has one pawn in this game, other than his hounds, that fuels his success with catching cats…the “catmobile” as I like to call it.  His 1997 jeep Cherokee has been personally modified to the specs of a Sherman Tank.  Well… not exactly but this decked out catmobile can literally climb mountain switchbacks in three feet of snow, which allows him to cut more tracks and find more cats.

Jim Kinsey, Skull Bound’s executive producer and cameraman, and I planned to head into the hills to look for a cat with Ben when our schedules alined in early February. I knew that with fresh snow in the forecast we could get a call at any moment.       That call came at 3:00am sharp as my ringer broke the morning silence. We stumbled around to get dressed and head out the door to meet up with Ben and his hounds down in the Valley.  A fresh snowfall is preferably the best time to hunt lions.  These hungry carnivores are always on the move in search of a meal, crossing logging roads and highways as they prowl for their next dinner, leaving a trail of scent for the hounds to follow. Ben’s hunts always begin in the wee hours each morning, combing the dark, snow covered roads with a powerful spotlight in hopes of cutting a track.

The jeep’s headlights led the way into the canyons but visibility was limited with the deluge of snow that was continuing to cover Montana. Every so often Ben would slow down to a stop, lean his head out the window and direct his handheld spotlight on a set of tracks.  “What do you have?” I asked, straining my head from the passenger seat.   More often then not Ben responded with “a deer” or “coyote”. It can be tough to tell once the snow starts to fill in the track until closer inspection.  After a couple of hours of driving up the thick powdered roads, Ben got out of the jeep to inspect a set of tracks crossing down over the rocky ridge.  “It’s definitely a mountain lion track but it’s a young one, small in size.” he explained.  The dogs rustled in their boxes in the cab, anticipating the exciting chase.  Since Montana regulations state that you can’t release the hounds until daylight we decided to continue looking for other tracks until sunrise.

Ben Wohlers and I next to the infamous Catmobile.

Ben Wohlers and I next to the infamous Catmobile.

The 35 inch tires plowed through the thick snow as we continued to look for any signs of a cat.  Huge lodgepole pines lined the road, their limbs blanketed in white. The sky began to brighten with the morning sun bouncing off the glittering trees. Suddenly a flash of movement from 30 yards off the road caught our attention.  Ben stopped the jeep and we got out to investigate. As we trudged off the road it became apparent that we stumbled upon a fresh kill.  The dirty, matted down snow was covered with fur and a half buried leg bone revealed the victim to be a young elk. Cameraman Jimmy was rolling his Sony EX3 to capture this concrete example of predation.  The flash we had seen was the attacker. “A big Tom according to these tracks.  Let’s collar the dogs and go find him!” said Ben.

Each of the dogs are collared with a GPS tracker allowing the houndsman to determine not only the direction of the cat, but how far the dogs have gone and when the cat is treed or bayed in the rocks.  Like greyhounds taking off from the gate, the collared hounds raced off down the drainage until they were out of sight, their barks echoing off the canyon walls.  We jumped back in the Jeep and followed the GPS back down the logging road.  “They should be just around this corner, “Ben exclaimed watching the blips on the Garmin.

Unlike most mountain lion hunts, the dogs had actually treed the lion a mere 20 yards from the road!  I’ve been on other hunts where the cats goes into the most steep, treacherous spots that can take hours to climb to.  This was a piece of cake… or so we thought.

The dogs jumped at the base of the ponderosa pine, barking profusely at their chew toy who was perched 60 feet above.  We could see the large cat standing on two limbs with his enormous belly full of elk. There are few things in this world that compare to staring into the eyes of an alluring mountain lion.  It’s one of the few moments in a hunting situation where you can slow down and appreciate the beauty of the animal close up. If you’re lucky enough to get that close to other animals it’s rarely an eye-to-eye encounter.

Cameraman Jimmy grabbed his extra lenses from the jeep as Ben and I climbed the ridge so we could get an eye level view of the spectacular cougar.  Fixated on movement, the cats eyes would dart from the dogs below to mine, his stare was menacing and almost hypnotic.

After capturing some incredible footage of this mysterious hunter, the cat apparently had enough of the barking hounds and like a flying squirrel, leapt from the tree, landing on all fours in a pillow of fresh snow. With a good thirty yard head start, he darted off through the rocks with the hounds quickly trailing.  It wasn’t long before the cat was back in another pine perched high on an icy ridge with the dogs standing guard below.

We dug our boots into the ice covered rocks, exhilarated and exhausted with every step.  Inch by inch we crept up the hillside, my Mathews Jewel strapped to my backpack so I could use both hands to climb.  Ben reached the tree and began to tie up the baying hounds.  This time the lion was much closer to the ground, a mere fifteen feet above my head sitting in the ‘V’ of the tree.  I took a moment to calm my breathing and heart rate down while unstrapping my bow.  The low growl from the cat conveyed his distain for the dogs and our presence, making the encounter all the more intense.

After nocking the arrow and clipping on my release, I steadied my feet in the snow.  With a verbal “Ready when you are” command from Cameraman Jimmy, I drew back and centered my pin on the lion.  The arrow flew true and the big Tom let out his last snarl, slumping out of the tree and into the snow below.

I stood there in amazement, soaking in the compelling emotions of an exhilarating hunt and a sense of deep appreciation for this apex predator. From his sharp claws to his deadly canines, I couldn’t help but examine every inch of him.  I wrapped my arms around his waist to lift him for the classic cat pose feeling nothing but sheer respect.

There’s no denying mountain lions are a beautiful, majestic creature that have a special place in our ecosystem.  But like all predators, when they’re over populated other species will suffer.  That night we dined on lion steaks fresh off the mountain with a clink of our glasses… “A toast! To an amazing, successful hunt and to future of healthy elk herds in the Bitterroot.”

Ben Wohlers and I pose with the beautiful Tom

Ben Wohlers and I pose with the beautiful Tom