Mountain Lion: Misunderstood Quarry, Under-Appreciated Cuisine

Mountain Lion: Misunderstood Quarry, Under-Appreciated Cuisine

Some hunters might find it hard to believe that a saucer-shaped depression in a fresh layer of snow can arouse just as much excitement as the sudden appearance of a bugling bull elk—unless they were experienced mountain lion hunters. Then, they’d know the drill.

The abrupt transformation inside the vehicle was certainly enough to startle Sam (as I’ll call him here), the out-of-state visitor riding in the back seat on the first morning of his first cougar hunt. We’d already been driving back roads for two hours in the dark searching for meaning in the Morse code stream of deer and elk tracks pouring by in the headlight beams. Sam had been trying valiantly to stay awake while my young friend Mark and I told lion stories in the front seat. I’m afraid sleep had won the battle by the time I spotted the object of our search right in the middle of the road ahead of us.

All that followed in the next several seconds happened by pure reflex, without conscious input from the thinking part of my brain. First, I bellowed “Lion!” at the top of my lungs, simply because that’s what all of us who hunted cats together regularly did upon spotting a track. Then my foot was standing on the brake pedal, bringing the truck to a skidding halt astraddle the track. The rig had barely stopped moving before Mark had bailed out of the shotgun seat while I did the same from the driver’s side. Secure in their dog box under the pickup’s topper, the hounds knew full well what was up and made no secret of their excitement. Sam later admitted that he had awoken in a state of terror.

It didn’t take long to confirm that the track belonged to a mature tom and that it had crossed the road to the west and up into a dizzying maze of cliffs that Mark and I knew all too well from past experience as a great place to suffer all kinds of mishaps. But this was a good cat and we were there to hunt lions, so Mark and I walked around to the back of the truck for our two best dogs, his Bluetick June and Sadie, my Treeing Walker. I wasn’t sure the dogs would be able to make their way up the first rocky chute on their own power, but they did, in full cry.

I found a place to pull the truck off the road, the three of us shouldered our packs, and another chase was on.

A Fair Chase
Sparsely populated and elusive, cougars have a way of hiding in plain sight. Back when I first acquired hounds and started training them, there were only two other cat hunters within a 100-mile radius of my rural hometown. We were all friends and hunted cooperatively rather than competitively, which was just as it should have been. I learned a lot from both of them and eventually enjoyed passing some of that knowledge on to younger hunters like Mark.

To find cougars, you have to believe in their presence and then consciously seek them out, which almost no one else did back in those days. Montana had already instituted a quota system for cougar hunting, and one winter I shot the only cat taken in our entire district. Even veteran local deer and elk hunters thought we were crazy since none of them had ever seen a lion in their lives.

One winter day after I’d trained some hounds and enjoyed a fair measure of success, I took two novice friends out for their first cat hunt. Two hours after turning out on what I felt (correctly, as it turned out) was a young tom, my friends had fallen behind and left me following the track by myself even though I wasn’t the one who was supposed to shoot the cat if we caught it. The track took me up one side of the mountain and down the other, where I wound up on the same county road where we turned out with Sam 20 years later. A late season elk hunt was in progress, and as soon as I stepped out on the road a truck full of older, orange-clad hunters pulled up and asked if I were lost or needed help.

After I assured them that I was fine, the driver politely asked what I was doing out in the middle of nowhere by myself. I told him I was hunting mountain lions. “Son,” he replied with a chuckle, “there hasn’t been a cougar in these mountains for years!” The irony of the situation was that as he offered this sage opinion his idling truck was sitting right on top of a red-hot cat track. After wishing me luck with what he plainly considered a fool’s mission, he left me to catch up with the cat, my dogs, and my missing friends, one of whom eventually killed the lion.

Traditional cougar hunting with hounds has long provided an attractive target for critics who have successfully led efforts to restrict or prohibit it in several Western states. This view is not confined to hard core animal rights activists. Several of my most reliable hunting partners never understood how using dogs to tree a quarry reconciled with my own high standards of fair chase and otherwise regarded cat hunting as “too easy” (without the benefit of ever having done it themselves, I might add). Dogs and degree of difficulty… Let’s examine these objections one at a time.

Several of those skeptical friends suggested that I could leave the dogs behind, successfully track down a cat on my own, and kill it with my bow. They’re right, I could—but I didn’t particularly want to. I grew up with hunting dogs and have pursued all kinds of game with all kinds of dogs throughout my life. I wouldn’t walk across the street to shoot a limit of ducks or pheasants without one of my Labs or wirehairs, and I feel the same way about lion hunting. The hounds are the hunt. For me, the satisfaction that comes from training one to perform such a complex and courageous task is matched only by the excitement of hearing them bark treed on a distant mountaintop. One either gets that or one doesn’t, and I’m thankful that I do.

Is lion hunting easy? It can be, but don’t count on it. One year a friend from Alaska came down for his first lion hunt. We found a good track early on the first morning, and by the time we had our packs on the dogs were barking at the tree a couple of hundred yards up an easy hillside. After he shot the tom, we were able to slide the whole cat straight down the fall line to the truck, and we were back at my house in time for breakfast.

To his credit, my friend actually felt disappointed. He had been looking forward to days of vigorous exercise and an opportunity to enjoy the solitude of mountain wildlife habitat in winter. We tried to cheer him up by sharing stories of far more typical hunts in which we wound up staggering down out of the hills by moonlight feeling fortunate just to have all the dogs on leashes. I could only hope those accounts helped assuage his guilt about having had his cat come so easily.

Readers may have noted by now that a lot of my first-time lion hunting companions showed an unusual ability to hit good tracks and enjoy successful chases with a minimum investment of time. Based on what I have reported thus far they would have a point, but I admit that some of what scientists call selection bias may be at fault. Frankly, it’s easier to write about chasing dogs and cats than long days spent driving back roads doing nothing more exciting than digging your way out of snow drifts. However, I can truthfully say that some of my most memorable lion hunts involved tough chases that the cat won.

The day that Mark, Sam, and I turned out in that steep-walled canyon turned into one of many such examples. The cat, which obviously knew the terrain, had taken a relatively easy route up through the rocks, but that didn’t mean it was easy for us or the dogs. In several places, we reached frustrated hounds unable to continue the chase on their own and had to form a human chain to boost them up and on their way. By the time the three of us finally reached level ground on top however, the dogs’ tracks were lined out right on top of the cat’s and the chase was already beyond the range of our hearing.

Two hours later, Mark and I were standing beside the dogs, waiting for Sam. The cat, a solid if not exceptional tom, had treed in a ponderosa pine right on the edge of a steep cliff. Just part way up the tree with few obstructing branches, the cat would have offered Sam an easy bow shot, but first we needed Sam. With ideal tracking snow on the ground I couldn’t believe he’d have difficulty following a trail left by a cat, two hounds, and two people, but when he still hadn’t arrived after another half-hour wait Mark started back to look for him while I stayed put to babysit the dogs and the lion.

We had simply underestimated Sam’s lack of preparation for mountain hunting. He was out of shape from the start and having arrived from sea level they day before he was having trouble with the altitude. As a physician, I’ll take the blame for failing to take that factor into consideration and letting him acclimate for a day or two before we started hunting. Mark finally got him to the tree, but he looked like a man running on fumes when he arrived.

A female or a younger tom likely would have bailed out and run by then, but like most old toms this one was content to wait quietly and glare at the barking dogs below him. After taking a badly needed moment to catch his breath and calm down, Sam finally assembled the takedown recurve bow he’d borrowed from me and sent an arrow whistling harmlessly through the scruff of the cat’s neck. Calm no longer, the cat jumped from the tree and sailed over my head while Mark and I struggled to unleash the dogs.

The cat ran up another tree almost immediately, but stopped at the first branch, barely out of Sadie’s reach. Realizing that if Sam shot the cat there it would come down right on top of the dog, I jumped in and grabbed Sadie by the tail in order to drag her out of harm’s way. Despite popular misconceptions about savage fights between lions and hounds, such incidents are extremely rare with proper dog handling, and I wasn’t about to let it happen to one of my favorite hounds.

The cat leapt passed us again before Sam could get into position for another shot. At that point, I decided we’d all had enough lion hunting for one day. Frankly I was more worried about getting Sam out of the woods than killing the cat. I remembered that a dead-end road led to an old ranger station in the canyon below us and decided to take Sam out the short way while Mark hiked back for the truck.

A couple of hours later, Sam was coming back to life with the help of some food and the warmth of the truck’s heater. “On a scale of one to 10,” he asked, “how would you rate the difficulty of that chase?”

“About a six,” I replied after a moment’s thought and a glance at Mark for his opinion.

“Yeah, that’s about right,” Mark said.

“You mean they get harder?” Sam gasped.

“Oh, yeah,” I assured him, as Mark nodded in agreement. And that was the end of Sam’s lion hunting career.

The author after a long, cold lion chase.

Cooking Cougar
Now we come to a favorite aspect of cougar hunting that seems especially appropriate for MeatEater: mountain lion as table fare.

Whether or not one cares personally about the general public’s attitude toward hunting, all hunters should at least acknowledge its importance. Like it or not, voters have the ability to end hunting as we know it at any time. Cougar hunting has become the canary in this particular coal mine, as hunters in states like California and Washington have learned the hard way.

Independent surveys consistently show that non-hunters—who make up around 80% of the general population—consistently show more favorable attitudes toward hunting when we eat what we shoot. One reason why lion hunting has proven such fertile ground for anti-hunting activists is the perception that cougars are hunted exclusively for their value as trophies. Unfortunately, there is some truth to this charge, and there shouldn’t be. In fact, as those who can overcome deep-seated but basically groundless cultural biases against eating cats are usually quick to discover, mountain lion meat is excellent.

When I prepared the backstraps from the first lion I shot and served them to family and friends, I did so out of a sense of obligation. I was raised to shoot what you eat and eat what you shoot. Since I wasn’t sure how deeply committed to that principle our dinner guests that night would be, I didn’t say much about the meat at the heart of the parmigiana until someone came right out and asked. By then it was too late for second thoughts, for everyone at the table had already declared it delicious.

Lion meat is lean, light, fine-grained and delicate, and can be prepared in any manner suitable for pork or veal. It has proven to be a consistent hit at our table, even when served to initially skeptical guests who knew full well what they were eating. It really is that good. Most states have specific meat salvage regulations on the books for big game, and a number of them, including my home states of Montana and Alaska, have expanded them to include non-traditional meat sources such as bear. There is no reason in the world not to extend these principles to include mountain lion. Doing so could well keep other states from following California’s unfortunate, biologically unjustified precedent.

Years ago, the nationally prominent writer David Quammen wrote a piece about mountain lions in the changing West for a wildlife publication to which we both occasionally contributed. The text included some mildly disparaging remarks about lion hunting which set me off even though they were neither totally unreasonable nor particularly vitriolic. I wrote a letter to the editor questioning the writer’s knowledge base and qualifications to write about the subject.

To his great credit, David contacted me, acknowledged that I had a point, and asked if I would take him mountain lion hunting. I replied that I would be delighted to do so and told him that if killing a cat would make him uncomfortable, I would be glad to provide a “catch-and-release” hunting experience, since I did a lot of that anyway. He bravely told me that if the goal was to inform him about lion hunting, that killing any cat we might tree should at least be an option.

He drove up from Bozeman one winter weekend, and we went hunting. The weather was brutal, but we covered a lot of ground by vehicle, skis, and foot. Even though we never cut a track, we learned that we had a remarkable amount in common. The high point of the experience for him was a mountain lion dinner prepared from a cat a friend had shot while hunting with me earlier in the month. We have remained good friends ever since, and he acknowledges that the experience changed his once skeptical attitude toward hunting.

So, if you are going to shoot a cougar, pack the meat off the mountain and eat it. You will enjoy the dining experience and be helping to secure the future of hunting with every bite.

Writing this piece has left me awash in nostalgia. My hounds have been gone for years now, and I miss them. Their absence does not reflect a change of heart about lion hunting. Our household now includes the two Labrador retrievers and two German wirehair pointers I need to meet my wing-shooting needs every fall, and one can have time to give just so many dogs the attention they deserve.

Friends like young Mark still invite me to go along with them every winter, but I always find an excuse to decline. I’ve never hunted lions without at least one of my own dogs and doubt I ever will. The hounds were everything, and hunting without one I’d raised and trained myself would have felt like dancing with my sister.

I do, however, remain ready and willing to cook a mountain lion dinner for any of those friends after they have enjoyed a successful hunt.

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