Note: This story is part of series on trapping lions at Grand Canyon National Park. Click here to start at the beginning of the series.
I was following a game trail early on a cool November morning when I saw the tracks. Four round toes in that tell-tale pattern. No claws. Big, round foot pads with 3 distinct lobes forming the "M" along the hind edge of the heelpad. A mountain lion was just on this trail. I looked up to survey the landscape in front of me. I could make out the reddish bark of the large Ponderosa pine that anchored the foot-hold snare ahead. I had propped a long branch up against one side of the tree to form a lean-to over the trap. This would encourage clunky animals like elk to walk around the branch- avoiding the trap, while stealthy lions would prowl under it and, if I was lucky, place one big round paw directly on the trigger plate.
I couldn't see the branch against the tree.... but there was no movement in my field of vision. All was eerily calm. As my eyes began to focus more, I started to make out the shape of a long tawny-colored cat lying in a patch of sunlight next to the trail in the distance, not unlike a housecat basking in the sunshine on a window ledge. Its right-front paw was secured in the trap, a highly customized combination of cables, bungee cords, and chain securing it to the tree. The lion held my gaze. It's more scared of you....
I hurried back to the work truck and bumped along an old two-track to the junction where I was supposed to meet up with Eric. I arrived just in time. He was just about to leave me a note and head back to the other side of the Park.
Eric was antsy: He'd discovered tracks from a lion who avoided the traps on the West Rim earlier that morning. He wanted to get back there and track it, but he had to help me sedate and collar our first catch, P1, before he could go.
P1 (for Puma 1) was the first mountain lion captured for research at Grand Canyon National Park. Countless others had been run up trees by packs of hounds, and subsequently shot, over the course of the last century- either in the name of "game management" or for pure sport. The legendary bounty hunter "Uncle Jim" claimed to have killed over 1,200 lions single-handedly on the North Rim.
The near-extirpation of lions on the North Rim led to an unprecedented number of mule deer on the Plateau. The surplus deer brought on countless other management problems and resource damage. They stripped the forests of their vegetation and soon began starving to death. Managers attempted the great Grand Canyon Deer Drive- a hare-brained scheme to "drive" thousands of deer across the canyon to greener pastures.... that was a complete failure. The plight of the wildlife on the Kaibab Plateau has since become a text-book story on predator-prey dynamics, exemplifying the importance of predators in an ecosystem.
All of which makes P1's demise a bit uncanny. P1 was a young male in search of his own territory. We caught him on the tail end of his dispersal, which we followed using the GPS collar we placed around his neck. He spent a few months meandering around the east side of the Park, then made a beeline for the San Francisco Peaks outside of Flagstaff. This was an exciting finding in mountain lion ecology. We were interested in learning whether -or where- he would cross the major highways and interstate near the Peaks, and when or if he moved through the sprawling housing developments east of Flagstaff. But the research was stopped short when P1 was hunted.
While hunting is prohibited within the bounds of Grand Canyon National Park, it is permitted on most other public lands throughout the state, including the Kaibab National Forest that flanks the northern and southern boundaries of the Park.
The Arizona Game and Fish Department reports that statewide annual harvests range from 250 to 350 mountain lions. Numbers you can wrap your head around; slightly lower than the number of days in a year. Keep in mind that this is the number of lions either hunted legally or taken with depredation permits. It doesn't include those killed by cars, poached, shot in self-defense, or for showing up in a neighborhood, or are otherwise killed by people -directly or indirectly. Another way to look at it is that on any given day its a fairly safe bet that a lion is being killed in Arizona.
How do game managers know that this a sustainable management practice? That's a great question. They don't. With a good understanding of the factors affecting population demographics- birth rates, mortality rates, causes of mortality - one could reasonably estimate the number of animals that could be hunted without detrimentally affecting the population.
Without that information, its anyone's guess. The lion research at Grand Canyon National Park is a good starting point for gathering that kind of information. Eric lost his life trying to get it, when he contracted the pneumonic plague from one of the lions.
On Eric's birthday last May, I hiked out the game trail to P1's capture site to honor Eric's memory and attempt to make sense of this loss. We caught and collared P1 together nearly 10 years ago. Together they taught me everything I know about trapping and tracking lions. My memories of that time are crystal clear as if it were today. As I stood under the big sweet-smelling Ponderosa, I noticed that the scratches P1 left on the tree that day were still visible. I'm the only person who knows what that's from. Its impossible for me to grasp why- of the three of us present that day; Eric, P1, and myself- I'm the only one left. I can't let these memories, experiences, and the knowledge I've gained from them, be mine alone. I have to share them, to ensure that this work, this life, this death, wasn't all in vain.
That's why I want to share my stories about lion research. Maybe I can reach other people who are trying to make a difference and who will stand up for what they believe in. Perhaps together we can leave a lasting mark, like P1 did... A "mark" that promotes a peaceful coexistence between humans and wildlife, gives mountain lions room to roam, provides them with safe means to cross deadly roads, and leads to the development of sustainable management practices ....If we can do this, we might be able to save a lion a day.
And you too, P1.