Six Steps from Death

Jim Collins had the blacktails bamboozled into thinking he was a fawn in distress. Unfortunately, he also had a cougar fooled.

Outdoor Life Online Editor

Jim Collins had chased deer ever since he was old enough to hunt, but his enthusiasm level was running at full throttle when the 2000 Oregon deer season began. For the first time, Collins would try to call a blacktail to within range, and his anticipation was high.

On November 11, opening day of the muzzleloader season, he used a fawn distress call to entice a six-pointer to within 30 yards. He let the 21/2-year-old buck walk, however, figuring something with better headgear would come along if he was patient.

A fisheries biologist for the Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife (ODFW) and later for the state's Department of Transportation, Collins knew Douglas County as well as anyone and better than most because it was in his home district. As he left the woods on opening day, he thought about Plan B. He recalled seeing mature, heavy-racked bucks on a Bureau of Land Management parcel 20 miles from his home in Roseburg. That spot, he decided as he drove home, was his destination for the next day's hunt.

The following morning, the 38-year-old Collins hiked two miles by flashlight to a place where two old logging roads converged in a vast area of second-growth Douglas fir. Blacktails traveled the roads frequently, and the intersection was perfect for an ambush. Bounded by the Cascade Range foothills to the east and the Umpqua River to the west, the site was postcard-scenic. It was also smack in the middle of prime cougar country. [pagebreak] Big Cats Come Back
As is the case in the rest of the Western states, the cougar population in Oregon soared during the 1990s. In some areas, biologists reported densities as high as 20 cats to every 100 square miles. The most rapid growth occurred in the period after 1994, the year Oregon voters passed Measure 18-a ballot referendum crafted and pushed by animal-rights groups to ban the use of dogs and baiting for hunting bears and cougars. Hunting with hounds is the only practical, effective means of hunting cougars; without dogs, a hunter's prospects are reduced to hoping for a chance encounter.

With no effective control in place, cougar numbers mushroomed and the cats' range expanded. Today mountain lions are being spotted in areas where they have not been seen in modern times. Prey is scarce in much of the new habitat, and many of the cats prowling Western mountains are young and inexperienced. This combination has led to problems.

In 2000, of 386 complaints addressed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Wildlife Services Program (formerly Animal Damage Control), 118 involved threats to humans. By comparison, the agency addressed only 53 complaints in 1992, most of them livestock-related.

One complaint incident occurred on September 10, 2000, near Bunch Grass Ridge in the Willamette National Forest. Robert Gentry had stopped to watch deer nearby when he heard something behind him that made a sound like a heavy animal striking the ground. What he had detected was the first bound of a charging cougar.

As he spun around to confront the lion, Gentry tripped and fell. Down and vulnerable, he scrambled to bring his gun to bear. At the last second, he got off a quick shot that killed the 125-pound male lion. In their report, ODFW investigators described Gentry as "badly shaken" by the incident.

A month later, a camper sitting on a ridge watching the sunset heard the same kind of noise that alerted Gentry. The unarmed man stood and turned to see a cougar about to launch itself at him. Fortunately for the camper, this cat knew what a human was and veered off at the last second. Later, the man reconnoitered and discovered tracks and other sign that the lion had stalked and watched him for some time-a classic hunting technique of the patient cougar.

A mountain lion on Vancouver Island did more than watch when it stalked a hiker on August 1. David Parker was out for his eveninstroll when he was jumped by the cougar, which pounced on him from a cliff beside the gravel road. As the cat bit and clawed Parker's head, he was able to remove a knife from his pocket and stab the cougar. Finally, the 62-year-old man slit the lion's throat. Parker was badly injured, but he managed to get medical attention on his own.

For all their size and strength, cougars are surprisingly fragile and easily injured. They choose the path of least resistance when taking prey, meaning they spot, stalk and pounce in a surprise attack from behind. If everything goes perfectly, the lion launches onto the back of the prey-be it deer or man-and hangs on with its claws while it delivers a killing bite to the base of the skull. Generally, it's all over within a few seconds. If the prey turns to face the charge, most cats back down and consider their options.

In the case of the Oregon camper, the cougar not only backed down but abandoned the attempt, suggesting a man-savvy lion that made a mistake identifying its prey. Lions and other predators do not "instinctively" fear people. Hazard avoidance and prey recognition are learned behaviors. Young or old, a cougar that has never had a negative encounter with humans has no reason to be afraid of them. People are perceived as potential prey items in the lion's environment until circumstances suggest otherwise. The fact that humans are bipedal and upholstered in polyester rather than fur or feathers is of no consequence to a mountain lion.

Such was likely the case with respect to the cougars that attacked Robert Gentry and David Parker. The men were standing erect so the cats had the opportunity to recognize them as humans. It didn't matter; the lions were hungry and the men were available.

Both Gentry's and the camper's "close-to-nature" experiences occurred within two months and 70 miles of when and where Jim Collins was hunting, in a region ODFW designates as "high density" lion habitat. [pagebreak] The Hunter Is Hunted
Collins had no knowledge of the cougar incidents as he prepared to hunt that second day of the muzzleloader season in 2000. In fact, for someone who lives, works and hunts in prime lion country, he knew surprisingly little about the big cats' unsociable behavior toward humans.

Armed with enthusiasm and a .50-caliber Traditions in-line muzzleloader, Collins finally found a good stand location and set up to wait for daylight. He got comfortable with his back against the trunk of a fir and positioned himself to watch the trail intersection, which was about 20 yards away. And then he listened. Within minutes, he heard movement in the trees directly in front of him. Collins prepared to bring his gun up for a shot, expecting to see a deer step out onto the trail. Nothing materialized, however, and that puzzled him. He blew a few notes on his fawn distress call and waited. A couple of minutes passed, and then in his peripheral vision he picked up movement over his right shoulder. That must be a blacktail, he thought. It never occurred to him that he wasn't the only hunter waiting for deer at the intersection that morning.

**Mistaken Identity **
Hunters do things in the wild that non-hunters don't do," observes ODFW district biologist Bill Castillo. "They sneak around, they hide, they douse themselves with scents and mimic animal sounds-things that will attract a cougar's attention. A lot of aggressive-cougar incidents here involve hunters, I think for that reason."

Cougars mistaking hunters for game is common. In one spectacular series of events, lions stalked four California bowhunters in separate incidents over a three-day period in August 1994; one cat was shot and another approached to within easy bow range. Three of the incidents happened on the same day.

In 1992, a cougar responded to a turkey call operated by California hunter Arthur Eichele. The lion jumped him from behind and balled up on his head. Realizing the "turkey" was quite a bit larger than experience dictated, the cougar broke off the attack and vamoosed into the undergrowth. Eichele's scalp and neck wounds were superficial and the cat missed major blood vessels.

As noted, in cases of mistaken identity, cougars usually back off once they realize their error, but some cats demonstrate incredible determination to finish what they start. Bob Bower, a California sheriff's deputy, encountered a determined lion while hunting turkeys at daylight near Sutter Creek. After about five minutes of calling, he put his call aside to watch and listen. Minutes later Bower heard a twig snap behind him. Turning his head slightly, he saw a tawny, airborne blur hurtling straight at him.

Bower's survival instincts kicked in and he rolled to the left behind a bush. A microsecond later, 100 pounds of female lion landed precisely where he had been sitting. The cat studied Bower and began circling, slithering in a half-crouch across the forest floor. At about 10 feet, the lion pressed herself lower and bunched her front feet beneath her, the signal that she was about to press the attack with another spring. Bower remembered the shotgun in his hand and fired at the lion but he was so badly shaken that the shot missed low and to the right of the cougar.

Undaunted by the gunfire, the cat circled to the right, jockeying for a better attack position. By this time, Bower was on his feet. He shot again as he backed away. The cougar gave no sign she was hit but started quartering uphill away from Bower. Bower aimed and fired once more, but again, there was no indication of a hit. The lion paused at 30 yards, looked back, snarled and bounded out of sight.

Later that day, a lion hunter from the game department used hounds to track down and kill the offending feline, a 21/2-year-old that had never birthed cubs. A postmortem proved that at least a few pellets from Bower's shotgun had hit the mark. The cougar was indeed lionhearted; she chose to fight it out with the hunter's hounds on the ground rather than tree. [pagebreak] It Wasn't a Deer
Collins turned his head for a better look at whatever had materialized behind him that morning of his blacktail hunt. Expecting to see a buck, he almost swallowed his teeth when he looked into a pair of yellow-green orbs mounted on the business end of a cougar. It was crouched in a deadfall behind a small bush six paces away. The cat's demeanor indicated more than simple curiosity: flat to the ground, ears pricked forward, eyes focused on the man.

The betraying semaphore of its twitching tail tip had first alerted Collins. Had he not been watching for deer, chances are he would have missed the tiny movement; the only thing worse than seeing an unexpected cougar aichele. The lion jumped him from behind and balled up on his head. Realizing the "turkey" was quite a bit larger than experience dictated, the cougar broke off the attack and vamoosed into the undergrowth. Eichele's scalp and neck wounds were superficial and the cat missed major blood vessels.

As noted, in cases of mistaken identity, cougars usually back off once they realize their error, but some cats demonstrate incredible determination to finish what they start. Bob Bower, a California sheriff's deputy, encountered a determined lion while hunting turkeys at daylight near Sutter Creek. After about five minutes of calling, he put his call aside to watch and listen. Minutes later Bower heard a twig snap behind him. Turning his head slightly, he saw a tawny, airborne blur hurtling straight at him.

Bower's survival instincts kicked in and he rolled to the left behind a bush. A microsecond later, 100 pounds of female lion landed precisely where he had been sitting. The cat studied Bower and began circling, slithering in a half-crouch across the forest floor. At about 10 feet, the lion pressed herself lower and bunched her front feet beneath her, the signal that she was about to press the attack with another spring. Bower remembered the shotgun in his hand and fired at the lion but he was so badly shaken that the shot missed low and to the right of the cougar.

Undaunted by the gunfire, the cat circled to the right, jockeying for a better attack position. By this time, Bower was on his feet. He shot again as he backed away. The cougar gave no sign she was hit but started quartering uphill away from Bower. Bower aimed and fired once more, but again, there was no indication of a hit. The lion paused at 30 yards, looked back, snarled and bounded out of sight.

Later that day, a lion hunter from the game department used hounds to track down and kill the offending feline, a 21/2-year-old that had never birthed cubs. A postmortem proved that at least a few pellets from Bower's shotgun had hit the mark. The cougar was indeed lionhearted; she chose to fight it out with the hunter's hounds on the ground rather than tree. [pagebreak] It Wasn't a Deer
Collins turned his head for a better look at whatever had materialized behind him that morning of his blacktail hunt. Expecting to see a buck, he almost swallowed his teeth when he looked into a pair of yellow-green orbs mounted on the business end of a cougar. It was crouched in a deadfall behind a small bush six paces away. The cat's demeanor indicated more than simple curiosity: flat to the ground, ears pricked forward, eyes focused on the man.

The betraying semaphore of its twitching tail tip had first alerted Collins. Had he not been watching for deer, chances are he would have missed the tiny movement; the only thing worse than seeing an unexpected cougar a