The Lion Dogs

No hunt is more primal and grueling than chasing cougars in the desert Southwest. A true story of adventure and heartbreak.

Field & Stream Online Editors

The dogs are free-casting along a wash at the bottom of a nameless canyon in the Atascosa Mountains a few miles north of the Mexican border, slilently nosing for lion scent, when all eight blow up. The almost mournful hysteria of the pack echoes off the canyon walls, bypasses the rational brain, and reaches into something deeper, some preverbal place where the laws of men no longer obtain. All at once there is a coppery taste in my mouth, blood hammering into my ears, and I'm alive in a way I wasn't just a moment ago. Barely an hour into the first day of the hunt, it looks as if we may get ludicrously lucky on the most elusive predator in North America.

My guide, Jonathon Kibler, dismounts his mule to look for a print. So does Wally Kostelnik, another guide who is helping Kibler on this trip and has brought some of his dogs along, too. Unlike most other North American game, mountain lions leave what is known as "heavy" scent, evaporating so slowly that the dogs can't tell which way the track heads. In the quickly vanishing art of bare-ground hunting-all Kibler does and just about all he cares about-you must hunt for a print or other sign lest you track the animal backward.

A few minutes later, Kibler draws a circle in the gravel with his boot heel and motions me over. With my nose inches from the ground, I finally make out what he has seen from his mount: the four toes and two ridges left by the clefts in the heel lobe, which, taken together, spell lion. Lion tracks are hard to see. One reason is that dirt is scarce in this part of Arizona, and any terrain not covered by rock is covered by thorns. Another is that a cougar puts its feet straight down instead of rolling them, so no debris is thrown behind the track. And since a cougar only extends its claws when killing or fighting, it leaves no scratch marks. This track is just a few hours old. The dogs are headed the right way. From the frenzied note in their bawling, Kibler thinks the lion is very close. "We just may catch this one," he says. Photographer Dusan Smetana jumps down to get a shot of the print in the morning light, then trots his mule fast to catch up with the three of us.

Perfect Predators
Truth is, I'm not sure I want to shoot a mountain lion. Maybe it's professional courtesy. We're both hunters, after all, and the lion outranks me in every aspect of the game except abstract reasoning. It has the widest distribution of any native mammal in the Western Hemisphere, from northern British Columbia to the Straits of Magellan. An adult tom averages 140 pounds and can bring down a 1,000-pound elk, antlers and all. When it kills, it fastens its jaws to the back of the prey's neck, snapping it by twisting the head with a blow from its paw. A lion can pounce 20 feet or more from a standstill. Lions have been observed dropping 65 feet from a tree to the ground without injuring themselves. This is partly because a mountain lion's entire dismantled skeleton would fit inside a hiking boot box. The creature is all muscle and sinew.

My motivations are further complicated by the fact that I've always thought you had a responsibility to eat what you kill. Although you can eat lion (it's pink and tastes a little like pork, which, of course, is exactly the way cannibals describe human flesh), I'm not after meat. Like most hunters, I've heard about lions most of my life and have seen exactly zero of them in the wild. To me, they are the embodiment of stealth, secrecy, and skill. And now that we've struck a trail, I'm obsessed with encountering one face-to-face.

Of course, this is only the first day. I harbor no ambivalence about the chase. I can't wait to hunt the animal, to see where it lives and how it moves when trying to elude the dogs. I'll trust my gut on whether to shoot. That moment will come if and when we've bayed the lion and Kibler asks if I want his Ruger .44 Magnum, the one with the 11-incharrel he keeps in a special leather holster a friend made for him that bears a line of scripture incised on the inside of the flap. I've been nailing orange-juice jugs with the pistol back at camp. Kibler has it sighted in at 100 yards with 240-grain solid points. Most shots on bayed lions are at distances of less than 15 yards.

The dogs boil up the wash, then veer off to follow the scent trail straight up the steep side of the canyon into red rock bluffs and then along the canyon ridge. The trail leads into even higher bluffs, follows the spine of the ridge farther, and then drops back into the canyon. Going up was scary; going down you distract yourself by composing potential epitaphs because you can see exactly where you'll end up if your mule slips. (At the moment, I'm thinking I Told You It Was a Little Too Steep might be appropriate. Kibler uses mules because they're stronger and more sure-footed than horses. "When a horse loses its footing, it starts scrambling, just like humans do. A mule will just drop down onto its brisket, put its feet back under itself, and get up." Equally important, mules won't spook at the scent of lions or blood.) I'm leaning so far back in the saddle that my head nearly rests on the hindquarters of the mule I've christened Tylenol in honor of the medication I will be doubling up on should I make it back to camp in one piece. The cougar crosses its track once, then again, and now, three hours later, we are almost back where we picked up the scent.

Suddenly the dogs go quiet. "I'll be damned." Kibler pushes his new gray Stetson, the exact color of his moustache, back on his head, looks up into the bluffs, and lets out a long breath. "Tell you exactly what happened," he elaborates at last. "That cat watched us walk 100 yards below him two hours ago, waited until we'd passed, and took off." When a lion is hunting or alarmed, he explains, it reflexively shuts down its scent, which is why the dogs can no longer pick up a trail. Biologists haven't proved this yet, but it has long been axiomatic among experienced lion men. In any case, this lion has too much of a head start and is no longer leaving enough scent to follow. "That's about as close to catching one as you can get and not do it," he says.

The Lost Art
It's not enough to be good when you're chasing lions over bare ground. You also need to be lucky. That's why Kibler's hunts last 10 days. So many things affect the dogs' ability to scent-humidity, temperature, sunlight, how long it's been since it rained, even the wind-that it may not be worthwhile to loose the dogs some days. But if you get on lions (and Kibler usually does get on five or six in that time), eventually you will probably guess right and catch one. If you last that long. "I've had hunters go out, spend 10 hours like we did today, and ask to be taken straight to the airport that same night," he says with a grin. "A lot of guys don't like to do this because it's so hard."

As for me, I'm already hooked-on the bawling of the dogs, the beauty and scale of the country, the clop of mule hooves against stone, and the possibility that this may be the day you catch an animal most hunters go their whole lives without seeing. Maybe most of all, I'm hooked on the aesthetics of this kind of hunting. Some things are supposed to be hard. The difficulty is precisely what makes them matter so much.

Fifty years ago, there were hundreds of guys in the Southwest like Jon Kibler, who carried between their ears centuries of accumulated knowledge. Now there are a few dozen. In a generation or so, the only bare-ground lion hunters left will likely be made of wax and paint in museum dioramas. Not so long ago most ranchers kept a pack of dogs to deal with the mountain lions that preyed on their livestock. The dogs were bred and taught to hunt close to their owners, to ignore all game other than what they were trained to hunt, and, once on the scent, to follow it until they dropped from exhaustion or their master called them off. The body of knowledge that grew up around training lion dogs and hunting big cats wasn't written down because nobody thought it needed to be. You couldn't learn it from a book anyway. You had to go out and do it.

Wave bye-bye to those days and those men, because you won't be seeing them again. Today's "rancher" is an absentee landlord who leases the land to someone who has no proprietary interest in keeping it up. New roads make it easy to get into what was once remote lion country. Today's cowboy saddles up a four-wheel-drive truck, an ATV, and a snowmobile to get where he wants to go. Radio collars mean it's no longer necessary to spend the hours it takes to train dogs to hunt close. Cellphones allow groups of widely separated hunters all after the same lion to coordinate their movements. And Kibler, 56-who wears spurs first worn by his grandfather, was born on a farm, and has been raising and training his own dogs for more than 30 years-is fully aware that he is one of the last of his kind, a dinosaur. He's even thinking of trying to write a book about what he knows, not so much to teach as to document what once was common knowledge. He wants to call it The Lost Art.

**Tough Dogs **
Over steaks, double margaritas, and lots of Tylenol back at the trailer that serves as camp, I ask Kibler about which breeds work best on lions. "Now you're opening a Pandora's box," he says. "See, I'm not stuck on breeds. I'm stuck on something else entirely: ability." He explains that for a lion dog in the Southwest, it starts with good feet. It takes three to four years to get a dog up to snuff, and in the country he hunts, a dog will be lame by then unless it has tough feet. That the dog needs a good cold nose goes without saying. Beyond that it has to have the determination to stay on a scent trail for eight or 10 hours without flagging. This is known as the ability to "pound" or "hammer" the track. But a dog also must be able to run the lion fast enough to force it into a bluff or up a tree-to "drive" or "push" the track. Bitter experience has taught him that registered hounds rarely fit the bill. Walkers, for instance, don't have the foot toughness or the desire to keep pounding, although they are fast on a jump race after the lion has been sighted. Plotts don't have enough nose, and the 30 or so Kibler has owned over the years were weak in homing instinct. A dog that can't find its way back to the truck won't make it in this country. Blueticks, though blessed with good cold noses and toughness, are hardheaded and won't push as hard as required.

Redbones are good coon dogs, but he finds they lack the determination and drive for bigger game. Black-and-tans are ideal in many ways. They have good noses, will pound a track all day, and have ton, once on the scent, to follow it until they dropped from exhaustion or their master called them off. The body of knowledge that grew up around training lion dogs and hunting big cats wasn't written down because nobody thought it needed to be. You couldn't learn it from a book anyway. You had to go out and do it.

Wave bye-bye to those days and those men, because you won't be seeing them again. Today's "rancher" is an absentee landlord who leases the land to someone who has no proprietary interest in keeping it up. New roads make it easy to get into what was once remote lion country. Today's cowboy saddles up a four-wheel-drive truck, an ATV, and a snowmobile to get where he wants to go. Radio collars mean it's no longer necessary to spend the hours it takes to train dogs to hunt close. Cellphones allow groups of widely separated hunters all after the same lion to coordinate their movements. And Kibler, 56-who wears spurs first worn by his grandfather, was born on a farm, and has been raising and training his own dogs for more than 30 years-is fully aware that he is one of the last of his kind, a dinosaur. He's even thinking of trying to write a book about what he knows, not so much to teach as to document what once was common knowledge. He wants to call it The Lost Art.

**Tough Dogs **
Over steaks, double margaritas, and lots of Tylenol back at the trailer that serves as camp, I ask Kibler about which breeds work best on lions. "Now you're opening a Pandora's box," he says. "See, I'm not stuck on breeds. I'm stuck on something else entirely: ability." He explains that for a lion dog in the Southwest, it starts with good feet. It takes three to four years to get a dog up to snuff, and in the country he hunts, a dog will be lame by then unless it has tough feet. That the dog needs a good cold nose goes without saying. Beyond that it has to have the determination to stay on a scent trail for eight or 10 hours without flagging. This is known as the ability to "pound" or "hammer" the track. But a dog also must be able to run the lion fast enough to force it into a bluff or up a tree-to "drive" or "push" the track. Bitter experience has taught him that registered hounds rarely fit the bill. Walkers, for instance, don't have the foot toughness or the desire to keep pounding, although they are fast on a jump race after the lion has been sighted. Plotts don't have enough nose, and the 30 or so Kibler has owned over the years were weak in homing instinct. A dog that can't find its way back to the truck won't make it in this country. Blueticks, though blessed with good cold noses and toughness, are hardheaded and won't push as hard as required.

Redbones are good coon dogs, but he finds they lack the determination and drive for bigger game. Black-and-tans are ideal in many ways. They have good noses, will pound a track all day, and have ton