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On the pre-dawn hunt for the elusive mountain lion

March 11, 2012 at 07:59 PM

The Associated Press

RAPID CITY, S.D. (AP) — In the pre-dawn darkness a few miles south of Rapid City, Jim Glines turned off Highway16 and pulled his small four-wheel-drive pickup to a stop so the headlights shone on a narrow road winding off into the trees.

The two-track lane glistened with overnight snow unblemished by tire tracks.

“This is good,” he said, as he jammed the gear shift into low and released the clutch, sending the pickup lurching forward onto the trail. “This is where we start.”

It is where most Black Hills lion hunts start, well before dawn on lonesome roads and trails that could, on any morning, lead to a hunting adventure unlike any other in South Dakota.

But there are a lot of miles between the could and the kill on most Black Hills lion hunts.

Glines knows that as well as anyone.

Since the fall of 2005, when the state Game, Fish & Parks Commission set the first hunting season on an animal that was rarely seen in the Black Hills just 25 years earlier, Glines has been a backroads vagabond.

He has driven thousands of miles and spent hundreds of hours on rough roads and trails, looking for the tracks that could but rarely do lead him to a lion.

The 64-year-old auto mechanic and obsessive outdoorsman has found and followed more than a few of those tracks on foot. Dozens, actually. He has thrashed for hours through tangled canyons and big-rock ridges, setting up from time to time to play the recorded sounds of a doe deer bleat — a coaxing call to come and get it for hungry lions.

Yet, he has never killed one.

“I’ve had a couple come to the call,” Glines said, manhandling the wheel of his converted Jeep Liberty on a slippery trail that barely allows passage between trees. “One was kind of sickly and small. I passed on that one, probably should have shot it. And the other was a female with kittens.”

The female lion was a good-looking cat that came to the call willingly, right up to about 40 yards from where Glines sat near the call.

Yet, he didn’t fire, feeling he should wait, for some reason he couldn’t define immediately. And eventually the smaller lions, kittens, appeared out of the woods behind the bigger female. State regulations prohibit hunters from shooting spotted kittens or lions that are in the company of others, a rule aimed at reducing accidental killing of kittens or the female lion they need in their earliest stages of life to survive.

“That was my shot,” Glines said. “But I just had a feeling that something wasn’t right.”

Midway through this particular hunt, Glines admitted to the same feeling. He had already driven 40 or 50 miles on a day where he would travel more than twice that, without “cutting” a single set of fresh tracks. He noted a set of old tracks on the Hill City Road, and what appeared to be a blown-over set in the snow on Newton Fork Road.

But nothing fresh, nothing to entice him off the roads and trails and into the tangled, rocky forest, where a foot stalk for one of the big cats can take all day, and most often end with the cat losing the hunter in indescribably difficult terrain.

On this day, though, there was no reason to get far from the vehicle. Despite the overnight snow, Glines traveled a 100 miles without cutting a fresh track.

That’s unusual for Glines, who typically finds at least one set of new tracks after a snow. A few days after this particular hunt, he would cut eight sets, and follow several on foot unsuccessfully.

Such is the nature of this hunt, for most hunters on most days. John Kanta, regional wildlife manager for the state Game, Fish & Parks Department in Rapid City, said lion hunting can be a long, lonesome and unproductive enterprise.

Except, of course, when it isn’t.

“I talk with hunters that spend day after day and season after season with no success,” Kanta said. “I have also seen a hunter go out and kill a lion within 20 minutes. I believe that some hunters are gaining experience and learning the tricks that give them an edge over the next hunter. But I also know that a lot of the harvest is just luck.”

Glines agrees with that.

“There’s a tremendous amount of luck involved in this,” he said as he negotiated a tricky hillside on another two-track trail. “You just have to run until you see something.”

Fresh snow helps improve the odds for lion hunters. The telltale tracks reveal the presence of cats that might otherwise go undetected. That’s why Glines and his hunting buddy, Steve Bulle, watch the weather forecast throughout the season and head for the hills before dawn after a snow.

“Snow is incredibly important, unless you’re just plain lucky,” Bulle said. “If you just go out and sit and cold call in an area with no snow, it’s like finding a needle in a haystack. Even with snow, there’s no guarantee. But at least the tracks let you know there are lions in the area.”

Bulle killed a lion last year. And he also has been along when others killed cats, something Glines has also done. But mostly, like Glines, Bulle spends long days at the wheel, driving slow and watching the road ahead for signs.

A 100-mile day at the wheel isn’t unusual. When things are slow, Bulle might travel 200 miles.

And when he hits a promising trac,k he takes to the country on foot, which is where the real labor of lion-hunting love begins.

“It’s a lot of work. You’re out there pounding the bush,” Bulle said. “This year I’ve probably put 100 miles in on the ground, on foot, tracking, and I still haven’t gotten one.”

The foot chase is challenging not just because of the terrain and weather but also because of the lions and their elusive ways. The cats often sense when they are being pursued, and take evasive action.

Rapid City chiropractor Brett Sutton experienced that last Wednesday, the day before the season closed because the 70-lion quota was filled. He was up early cruising roads when he found a promising track in the Hayward area west of Hermosa. That led him on a daylong trek on foot through “some of the craggiest country known to mankind,” Sutton said.

Through thick stands of pine, up steep rocky slopes and along sheer canyon walls, Sutton followed the cat from near dawn to near dark.

“Eleven times that cat back tracked on itself, and I’d end up at the end of its tracks and have to back up and find where it broke off,” he said. “Three times it cut across my own tracks. In other words, we were traveling in circles.”

Sutton gave up for the night but was back before dawn on Thursday. And by 6:30 a.m. he had found the cat from the day before feeding on a turkey it had killed.

One shot, one lion.

And the Black Hills hunt will rank with any Sutton has had, including trips to Africa, South America and Europe.

“This was the most exhilarating hunt, not knowing what was around the next corner,” Sutton said. “The cat won on Day 1 but God granted me a blessing on Day 2.”

There was no such blessing for Glines during the five-hour morning hunt he shared with a reporter and a photographer. But that, too, is part of the game he loves.

“You just never know,” Glines said. “I’ve been seeing tracks on these roads and trails regularly. This is good lion country in here. The next one could be the one.”


Information from: Rapid City Journal,

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.

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