Trapping Lions Part 4: P2 Revisited

If you haven't seen Part 3, find out what you missed here.

P2 was a young male, around 2 years old, the first time we caught him. He stepped into a foot-hold snare that was placed along a major game trail where it was anchored to a tree stump no more than 4 feet high. The trail led to an artificial watering hole known as "the puddle." Countless elk had been frequenting the puddle that spring before the monsoons came and delivered temporary watering holes from the sky.

Watering holes in the arid southwest can provide us with a wealth of information about wildlife, including whether or not a lion has been in the area. The shallow pool was situated between the main road, Highway 64, and the boundary between the National Park and the National Forest. Its proximity to the road made it easy for me to stop by fairly regularly to survey the banks and nearby trails for tracks. One day when I was on my way back from picking up remote cameras at another site, I pulled the car to a stop along the highway and hiked out to the puddle. Much to my surprise, there was a big, dead elk lying right in the pool, his formidable rack reaching for the sky.

I wasn't able to determine the cause of death right away. I'd seen elk that had been killed by lions, and this was not. I'd seen elk that were hit by cars, some with internal injuries that it made it hard to determine cause of death. This was fairly near the highway, but that wasn't it. Near the top of his ribcage, the elk had a hole in his side nearly the circumference of a golf ball. I hadn't seen a wound like that before. I took some pictures of the puncture and planned to run them by someone smarter than me later. I guessed that he hadn't been there very long, perhaps not even overnight, given that the scavengers hadn't found him. Usually the coyotes would be all over a nice meal like that on night one.

After poking around a bit, I hiked back to the car to get a remote camera unit. The carcass was likely to attract the attention of scavengers and carnivores alike, and I'd like to see what animals would come along. Coyotes were often the stars of the show, but occasionally bobcats, condors, eagles, mountain lions and very rarely in these parts black bears would join the cast. The camera was an oldschool clunky piece of machinery that required 4 C Cell batteries and was housed in a practically bomb-proof metal box that I would have to wire to a tree at just the right height and angle so that critters would trigger the sensor.

I put the equipment in my backpack and hiked back to the puddle. My turnaround time was around an hour. Upon my return, I stopped dead in my tracks. The elk was still there, but not the whole thing. His magnificent rack was gone. That's when it dawned on me. I wasn't familiar with the wound because it was man made. It was possible that the chase began on the Forest Service side of the fence, where it was archery season, and the hunters had tracked him into the Park to claim their reward. Had they seen me? Were they there when I found the carcass? Or had I just scared them off? Were they aware that what they were doing was highly illegal? And how armed were they? Hunting legally on National Forest land is one thing, but when the animal crosses that arbitrary (well, as far as nature is concerned) boundary between National Forest land and National Park land, it's no longer legal to hunt it. But I was hardly in a position to get in argument over it, all alone in the woods with well-armed people feeling entitled to their prize.

Guns are (were?) illegal in Parks. Even taking trinkets, or in this case, trophies like massive antlers, is prohibited in Parks. So is taking archeaological- or even historical- artifacts, like rusty old cans. Those rusty cans could tell the story of who was there, where they came from, and where they went in the great settling of the west. Rusty old cans of beans is all we have left in the trail of the mysterious and long lost Grand Canyon adventurers, Glen and Bessie Hyde. That could have been the last can of beans they shared before she lost her chance to earn the title of the first woman to -successfully- ride the rapids through the Grand Canyon.

Some people are wary of collecting artifacts like potsherds and arrowheads at the Grand Canyon not out of respect for their place in our past, but because of their effect on the present. There are countless stories of people taking pieces home with them and mailing them back to try to dispel the bad juju that befell them after looting the pieces. For the archeaologists, this is frustrating because without knowing the exact location of the piece, they can't put it back. Not only do they lose its locational context and with it valuable information, they have stores of these cursed pieces locked away in an undoubtedly haunted room. Or so I hear.

One day early in May 2004 we set a trap at the puddle. Not too long after that, we caught P2. It was our second lion capture at the Park. We collared P2, gave him the antidote, and watched him get up on his feet. He took one look at us and leapt off. As soon as he started booking, some coyotes denning nearby gave chase. Eric followed with the video camera. The resulting video is very bigfootesque. He claims the lion is in the shot, but all you can see is a series of blurs as the camera shakes and dips and Eric does some serious heavy breathing into the mic.

In the end, the good news was that the lion ran off wearing a shiny green collar without any further ado. The bad news is that the collar didn't work. The VHF radio signal wasn't beeping. I drove, hiked, and flew all over northern Arizona listening to static for months and never picked up a signal. I was sooooo bummed.

**********Back at Bob Cave***********
But that's ancient history. Now here we were on a snowy day in March, almost a year later. Eric and I had just left the newly collared P4, and hiked toward Bob Cave to investigate the second pair of tracks that we'd found at P4's capture site. You can imagine my surprise when I saw a big, massive, wet ball of P2 fur sporting that green collar in front of the entrance to Bob Cave.
So I did hear mountain lions screaming at eachother when I approached Rock Cave earlier that morning. P2 must have made a social call to P4 and bolted when he heard me coming, then stumbled into our trap while he was marking his territory down canyon.

P2 was big. He was so big that I had to stop referring to P4 as "P-Daddy." And he was cold and wet. The snare was anchored inside the "cave", a rock outcropping that formed a ledge where he would have been fairly dry if he had stayed in there. But he was standing out in the open on the slope in front of the outcrop when we approached. He grumbled, growled, spat, and generally let us know that he didn't want us coming near him. Wild cats tend to like their space. He laid his ears back (lion speak for back off), squatted back on his hind legs and lunged toward us. Another warning. But we kept approaching. We had to poke through some small pines and oaks to get a clean shot with the blowdart. We got him in the right front shoulder, just below the malfunctioning battery on the GPS collar.

As soon as he went was dozing, we released the cable from around P2's front paw and carried him into the shelter of the cave to warm him up. P2 had a long and fairly wide scrape running up the side of his left hip. It wasn't too deep, but it had scraped the hair clean off. It looked to us like it wasn't fresh, maybe a few days old. I don't know what caused it, it was reminiscent of road rash. Could he have scraped up against something while trying to take down an elk? We applied some anti-biotic ointment and wrapped him up in blankets to get him dry and keep his temperature up. We switched out his old collar for a new and improved one, took some blood samples, and frequently checked his vitals to make sure he was stable. Preventing hypothermia was our goal at that point.

We kept P2 warm and dry and let him sleep off the drugs while we pondered the relationship between these 2 big, supposedly territorial, adult males in such close proximity to one another. Were they related? Was one of them the father of the 3 cubs we caught on film in Pine Cave? How much did their home ranges overlap? Had they crossed paths before, and would they again? Were they competing for the same resources, like females, prey, and access to the best hunting areas and watering holes? If so, how would their duel over territory play out? What other kinds of threats would they face in their lives?

Only time will tell...................

Click here for Trapping Lions Part 5: The Santa Monica Mountains.

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Photo captions: 1) P2 darted in front of Bob Cave, 2) P2 and I keeping out of the snow

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