KSL Outdoors: In search of the elusive mountain lion

(Adam) coming up tonight on KSL Outdoors. It’s the love the chase, not the kill that drives this houndsman to pursue the biggest feline in Utah.

(adam) One of the biggest thrills is right there in the tree. Come along as we tree a mountain lion. I’m Adam Eakle and this is KSL Outdoors.S

(unload wheeler nats)

It’s five am, on a cold winter morning as the Leifting brothers set out in search of the secretive, elusive, mountain lion.

(Nick Liefting, Houndsman) (adam) Who does this? (nick) You know what I don’t know. Seriously I never thought of doing this but I did it once and I thought that would be pretty dang cool and now I’m into it and I couldn’t imagine not having dogs because it’s just so fun.

(Todd Liefting, Houndsman) It’s for the dogs, that’s why I enjoy doing it.

The brothers are new to the sport, they got their first dogs just four years ago. They share these two Red bone hounds, nine year old Gage and year old puppy, Penny.

I met Nick, when he submitted this snapshot entry of his 8 month pregnant wife Whitnee and his two year old daughter Ariah at the girls first treed mountain lion. Nick is in his last year of graduate school at the University of Utah, where he played football for the 2009 Sugar Bowl Champs.

(Nick) I did more bench sitting than much of anything. (adam) but you were at least at the Sugar Bowl. (nick) Yeah I was at the Sugar Bowl, got a Sugar Bowl ring. Got some free clothes. That was fun. (adam) Did you ever get in? (nick) That was a good experience. No! I didn’t get in, not on the Sugar Bowl come on man.

Today we are out with some of Nick’s old high school buddies, including Minnesota Vikings running back Matt Asiata.

(Nick) We are going to set the Guinness Book of World records, first polynesian in the woods. (laughs) (matt, Asiata, Former U of U running back) yeah, so big buddha, I beat you to it.

Mountain lions are one of the most reclusive animals in Utah. So how do you find one? Well, houndsmen will drive around, looking for a lion track crossing a snow covered road. It’s called “cutting a track.”

(Nats releasing dogs)

Once one is found, the dogs are released to track the lion to hopefully scare it into a tree.

(Nick) it’s kind of a different sport. it’s kind of hard to get into it to because you’ve got to have a dog that knows what to smell, what to chase and obviously sit underneath the tree and bark until you get there.

Today we weren’t so lucky. So a few days later, Nick and I are back at it.

(Nick) Trying to find a fresh one, great conditions. It is cold, we will find one though. Got to have faith Adam.

It was a beautiful morning and I can understand the allure of this type of hunt. But from covering this story before, I know these houndsmen will spend countless early mornings and long days often leading to frustration just find a mountain lion track to chase and they tell me, it’s only getting harder.

(John Shivik, Mammal Coordinator DWR) they are secretive, they are not easy to see. A lot of times when you go out to pursue one, even if you are using dogs or hounds, you are not going to see one every time.

John is the biologist in charge of managing Utah’s mountain lion population. Like any wild animal, it’s tough to give a population estimate. I asked him to give us his best guess on cougars.

(John Shivik) it’s probably around three thousand, give or take a thousand or so. so we don’t have a precise estimate, but we have a pretty good guess, just based on the densities that we expect them to be and the amount of habitat there is in the state.

(Nick) I would say that’s even a high number, just because I always thought there was lions everywhere. Deer hunting, lions are killing all the deer, they are everywhere. Then I got hounds. Then I started coming up here, cutting tracks. I’d cut for days and come up with one track. If I was lucky.

(Nick) Go out with any houndsman and they’ll tell you the same thing. some areas there’s more than others but for the majority, they are not hiding under every rock.

(Adam and Nick) we didn’t go that far the first day, but today we’ve gone 15-20 miles on your machine. (nick) yeah easy. (adam) We have yet to see, we saw one old track. (nick) yeah that’s it. It’s been tough. (adam) that’s a long day. (nick) have faith, you are putting the pressure on me. (adam) We have some more roads to cut? (nick) Little bit, we’ll get it done. (adam) we’ll keep at it, if we don’t get it done today we’ll definitely come back. The rest of our chase coming up but first tonights Burt Brothers Quiz question.

(Adam) arms getting a little tired. (nick) a little bit, we need to find us a cat track. We’ve been out all day.

(Nick) That is why it makes it so fun because it is tough, it’s challenging. if it was easy, everybody would be doing it. It wouldn’t be as fun. Don’t worry Adam, you’ve got to have faith, we’ll find the track.

Admittedly my faith was wavering, but wouldn’t you know it, after traveling over 30 miles on these high country roads.

(Nick) we’ve got us a kitty track right here. How many miles have we’ve been driving? A long time, but it looks like a nice cat track.

(Nick) let’s get some dogs on it and get it caught.

(nick) so i’m just putting their GPS collars on.

The GPS allows Nick to monitor the dogs movements as they chase the cat. Most times a chase or run, can last 2 miles sometimes much longer.

(Nick) I’ve got an extra collar to put on you. (adam) in case I get out of control. (nick) so I don’t loose you yeah. (laughs)

Watch as the dogs put their noses right in the cat’s track….

And the race is on.

(Nick) love listening to the dogs, they are working that track. I’m not going to promise anything though. Lion hunting is the most demanding, crazy sport out there. But that’s also why I do it.

(nick) it’s going to be a long hike, but it will be worth it. Snow is not too deep.

The dogs haven’t been gone but just a few minutes. Nick is following their progress when he realizes something, I have not.

(Nick) um, I’ve got them treed. (adam) Are you sure? (nick) well we’ll see.

(Nick) see right here it says Gage is treed at 293 yards.

(Nick) But that is the shortest race, it’s got me wondering. What’s going on here. I’ve never had a race this short. (adam) we won’t know unless we go down there. (nick) yeah let’s go

(Nick) You can see where it went right underneath here.

(Nick) not a bad track. It’s coming down hill but it’s a nice cat.

We’ve only gone three hundred yards into this canyon, when we catch up to the dogs.

(Nick) oh yeah it’s right there. See him. (adam) got it..oh…(nick) are you kidding me.

(Gage barks) (nick) good boy! You’re a lucky dog Adam, this stuff doesn’t happen.

The beautiful cat, looks to be a tom. The biggest I’ve ever seen.

(Nick) I’ve taken a lot of people that have never hunted before in their life and they love it. They love lion hunting. Why? They are not big into killing things. But they like seeing the animals and leaving them and taking cool pictures. Like how many have pictures of lions, ten feet from you and not being scared.

(Some kind of tracking or chase nat?)

In order to chase lions, houndsmen must obtain a pursuit tag. The pursuit season is November to May. Those that do draw a limited entry tag or buy a quota tag are encouraged by the DWR and other houndsmen to try and target a mature tom. The DWR has an orientation course, on-line, to help hunters identify the difference between a male and female lion.

(John Shivik) The reason it’s important to tell male and female cougars apart is because our plan is largely based on the number of adult females we have in the population and the number of adult females that are harvested.

(John Shivik) So by educating people on how to tell the difference between males and females, big toms, and small toms and trophies, they can go out, have a better hunt, get the animals that they want and not impact the cougar populations as much.

(John Childs) it has changed with the pressure on them right now. I think the lion are in trouble.

John has been chasing lions for over 50 years and like Nick has never killed one.

(John Childs) I’m not opposed to somebody killing a lion for a trophy, but they don’t need to kill four or five.

Utah has a 20 year cougar management plan with a goal of maintaining a healthy cougar population, while still protecting other wildlife species, especially our deer herds. Lion hunters, I’ve found are just as passionate about lions, as deer hunters are about deer. They’ve seen the increase in the amount of cougars killed in the past two decades and it has them concerned. For instance, in 1990, the sport harvest on cougars was right about 200 animals. In 1997, that increased to about 600. For the past eight years those numbers have leveled off between 300 hundred and 400 cougars taken each year. John Shivik says, it’s about finding a balance.

(John Shivik) The thing with cougar management and you brought it up the social aspect of it. It’s really about balance and it’s about the Division trying to please everybody in a situation where some people really favor deer and not so much predators and a lot of people are passionate about predators. So we kind of come down in the middle and try and make sure we have healthy deer populations, healthy predator populations and happy people, so it’s a difficult thing to do but we do our best.

(John Childs) You know I’d be hypocritical if I didn’t try to say nobody needs to try hunting. Hopefully it will keep going and like Harley Shaw said in his book. He said, he hopes…that the…you know that there will always be lions. Cause some of us like them.

Time now to check out another cunning cat in tonights Utah Field Guide.

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