“We used to joke about hunting in Big Bend National Park,” grinned Jack Kilpatric. “If we could only turn our hounds loose down there, we’d say, we couldn’t shoot fast enough to kill all the lions our dogs would tree.
Now here we were, two days into a hunt in the best lion range of the Chisos Mountains, and we couldn’t cut a track.”
“It turned out like most lion hunts,” said Bill McKinney. “Just boredom for days, and then total terror.” McKinney is a sort of hired gun on the Black Gap Wildlife Management Area in southwestern Texas. Among his many duties, it’s his job to keep the mountain lions and coyotes down to manageable numbers. For years, the 800,000 acres of high desert that make up the Black Gap WMA have been a restoration site for the rare desert bighorn sheep.
Next door is Big Bend National Park, 1 million acres cradled in a vast curve of the Rio Grande River. It contains the beautiful Chisos Mountains–prime cougar habitat. McKinney was not only invited to hunt the park; he was being paid. Biologist Doug Wade was doing a lion study, and the simplest, most cost-effective way of putting telemetry collars on cats is to catch them with hounds and dart them. Leave the guns at home, of course. And that’s what eventually made the terror complete.
Kilpatric also works for Texas Parks and Wildlife (he’s the area manager for the Elephant Mountain WMA) and had long been involved in keeping lions out of Black Gap’s “sheep pasture.” Lion eradication had never been the intent, of course. It was simply a matter of limiting predation on these “high dollar” sheep and other wildlife in the management area.
Like McKinney and most other good houndsmen, Kilpatric does not see the kill as the highest purpose of a hunt. The chance to hunt to further a scientific investigation of one of his favorite animals offered a far greater challenge. Kilpatric jumped at the opportunity to go along, eager to see all those lions running like rabbits in every direction.
Two days without a bark hadn’t reduced the challenge, but it did necessitate a fateful change. If the lions weren’t in the best range, maybe they were in the worst. On the third day, the hounds were put down in the Grapevine Hills, a two-mile-wide string of boulder piles that McKinney describes as “leftovers from building the Chisos Mountains.”
Kilpatric was riding McKinney’s little black Mexican cow pony that day. He was even dressed, McKinney claimed, for a ride in the park–right down to his leather gloves. McKinney and Wade were on foot. As they entered the mouth of a canyon, several javelinas ran out, and expectations rose dramatically. A lion could loaf for days around the springs at the bottom of this canyon, eating any javelinas that ventured in for water.
The hounds soon verified this speculation, but the scent was old–just a touch here and there. Scrapes had been made by a male lion, and the animal had gone up a slick rock pour-off where water cascades downward during a rain. Lots of odor was left where the cougar had killed a ringtail cat, but no ground scent could be moved in a definite direction.
Missey, the red and white matriarch of the pack, switched to checking bushes. Most of the vegetation was strong-smelling greasewood, difficult shrubbery to trail through. But now and again she boo-hooed that a lion had brushed against a branch. Gradually, Missey worked the pack through to where the scent turned into a decent running track.
Two other dogs, Rowdy and Toby, gave voice and trailed out of the canyon. Kilpatric rode ahead, trying to cut sign to speed up the chase. In minutes, a weird-sounding new dog was yelping.
Wade’s jaw dropped. “What’s that?”
“That’s Jack,” McKinney grinned. “He runs silent when he’s cutting trail. He doesn’t open unless it’s a jump track, so he’s looking at that lion. Let’s get to him!”
The dogs caught on as well. They passed Kilpatric and connected with the mountain lion’s body-scent funnel. Cougars are fast sprinters, but they don’t have the lungs for a long chase. This one made it another 400 yards up the approach to the mountain, but there wasn’t a tree anywhere. He stopped to face the dogs on a broken-rock ridge. Some rocks were bigger than pickup cabs. The ridge was a giant jumbled mess that made horseback riding impossible.
Kilpatric dismounted. It’s dangerous enough when a lion is bayed on the ground. The hounds get too close to fangs and claws. Furthermore, when the man with the gun arrives, dogs become extra brave, assuming they’re safer. The hounds didn’t know that Kilpatric’s sidearm was at home. Wade had a tranquilizer gun, but serum puts a lion down slowly. All three men needed to be there when the dogs rushed the cougar. Kilpatric waited nervously.
The moment McKinney and Wade caught up, Kilpatric raced across the rocks. McKinney noticed the rope leashes still tied to the saddle. They would be needed to tie dogs back so they wouldn’t hurt the tranquilized cat. He stopped long enough to grab them and arrived at the uproar several steps behind Kilpatric.
The lion was on the far edge of a huge flat rock that tilted down toward the cat. All five dogs were above the cougar, screaming in its face–and in much danger of sliding into the beast. The instant Kilpatric appeared, the hounds piled onto the lion, whose haunches slid off the table rock into a hole formed by other rocks. Rowdy and Missey went with him. So did Sam, a tri-colored treeing Walker that arrived a split second too late. The hole was already filled with two dogs plus a lion standing on its haunches with its front paws on the table rock. That left Sam standing on the backs of two dogs and barking behind the cougar’s ear. The cat spun around, hooked a thumb claw into Sam’s leg and flipped him back up on the table rock. The dog landed on his side with his back toward the feline, which promptly ripped a 5-inch patch of hide loose.
Kilpatric jumped onto the table rock, running at the lion to kick it off Sam. “Bill,” he yelled, “you’d better get here and help me. We’re about to lose some dogs.” Just in time Kilpatric realized that a running kick would leave him sliding on one foot down the slick, slanted rock–right into the jaws of the cat. He stopped short as the cougar opened its mouth to bite again at Sam’s spine. With no weapon and no time to think, Kilpatric dropped to the lion’s level, braced himself against sliding with his left hand and threw a hard right cross straight into the cougar’s nose, snapping its head back. The lion’s eyes lit up like copper burning green in hot fire. Its muscles bunched, and Kilpatric knew the cat was about to leap right over the dogs to get to him. Just then Sam recaptured the lion’s attention by trying to wriggle free.
McKinney joined the fracas about the time Kilpatric yelled for help. Missey was trying to scratch her way onto the table rock to join the fight. McKinney ran up behind the lion and snatched Missey before she got caught. He quickly tried to grab more hounds, all the while yelling, “Doug! Shoot that son of a gun!”
The lion was again attempting to bite Sam in the spine. But this time his eyes were on Kilpatric as he slowly lowered his head toward the dog. Kilpatric scooted a tad closer, yelled “Ha-a-a-h-h!” and hammered his fist down hard on the top of the lion’s head.
The cat’s head instantly bounced back up away from the dog, and fury again glowed green in its eyes. Missey pulled free and ran back, trying to get killed in an attempt to rescue Kilpatric and Sam. Not wanting her to escalate this dangerous mess any further, and still yelling for Wade to shoot, McKinney once more snatched Missey away from the cougar. This time, it was McKinney’s and Missey’s commotion that pulled the lion’s attention away from Kilpatric.
Focusing entirely on the lion, neither Kilpatric nor McKinney knew exactly where Wade was or what he was doing. But they did know the cougar wasn’t acting drugged. “Doug, shoot! Shoot the lion!”
“I did!” Wade finally yelled back.
There had been room for Wade to aim the tranquilizer gun at the lion’s hip when McKinney first yanked Missey out of that hole. The serum just hadn’t had a chance to work yet.
Before the lion went under, Sam tried to squirm away. The 135-pound lion grabbed the dog by the back and shook him violently. Kilpatric slugged the cat in the head once more, knocking the two animals apart.
Hot green eyes riveted back on Kilpatric. Muscles bunched. But for the third time, Kilpatric was saved. Two hounds that McKinney had not yet caught piled onto the rock, challenging the cat. Sam escaped.
Knowing that the drug was finally taking effect on the lion, McKinney reached in the hole and grabbed Rowdy. As the lion faded out, it now became a job of protecting the cat from the dogs. Even Sam tried to jump back into the hole with the cat when it slumped off the table rock.
Finally, in a tangle of ropes, all of the dogs were caught. Wade took scientific data and installed the radio telemetry collar on the cougar’s neck. It was a tough old tom that had suffered a broken tail and numerous battle scars from territorial fights with other males.
McKinney looked at Kilpatric, the other tough old tom, and tried to think of something nice to say about his friend’s heroic performance. “Dang it, Jack,” he said. “You’re gonna have to improve your manners if you’re gonna help collar cats in the Big Bend. Look at this animal! Its nose is bleeding, and you loosened its front tooth! If you want to hunt with me, no more hittin’ around on these park lions!”
Kilpatric didn’t let all those compliments go to his head. At that moment, he was just very pleased that his three rounds with the lion had ended in a draw.