Grover Hedrick was climbing up a pine tree to reach a tranquilized mountain lion when he found out the cougar wasn’t quite sedated yet.
The cougar saw Hedrick’s back as the perfect flat spot to stop and try to balance as it stumbled down the tree, sinking its claws into his back for stability.
“It was wobbly and trying to hang on,” Hedrick recalled. “It tore the hell out of my coat.”
After a lifetime of running hounds in pursuit of lions and bears for researchers as well as hunters, the 63-year-old Hedrick has a wealth of stories about unusual encounters with mountain lions and insight into their habits, stealth, speed, agility and hunting prowess. It’s a lifestyle that has kept him fit and trim with eyesight keen enough to differentiate tracks in the snow while driving.
Hedrick is under contract with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to provide hounds for chasing and treeing mountain lions for a three-year study on the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge. The lions, once treed by Hedrick’s dogs, are darted with a tranquilizer gun, lowered by rope and then blood is drawn, the lions are aged, ear tagged, DNA is collected and they are collared for tracking.
In his half-century of pursuing lions, Hedrick has had some unusual encounters and seen some unusual tales in the snow. In Yellowstone National Park, for example, a 92-pound pregnant female lion had jumped atop a 350-pound bull elk and managed to take it down. The three feet of snow was cleared to the ground in a 50-yard-diameter circle where the deadly struggle took place as the bull tried to throw the lion.
“They get pretty smart about sneaking up on them,” Hedrick said. “They have to get within about 20 yards because they don’t have the lung capacity to run very far.
“Once they get a hold of something, though, I think they are really screwed.”
The exception was a struggle in the snow he came across in the Belt Mountains. He saw where the lion had jumped atop the deer’s back, only to be knocked off when the deer bolted between two closely spaced trees.
One time, Hedrick even took a tiger by the tail, so to speak.
A 150-pound male lion that had been darted three times and still wasn’t sedated started to walk away, so Hedrick grabbed the cat’s tail and wrapped it around a tree, thinking he could hold the cougar until more sedative was given. But the lion was so strong that it kept walking as if Hedrick wasn’t even there, pulling its tail-holding human along.
Lifetime of lions
Hedrick grew up on a sheep ranch north of Colville, Wash., not far from the Canadian border. His father kept bear dogs to chase down any black bears that raided his flock. Hedrick admits to secretly wishing the bears would attack just so he could hunt them with his father.
He now lives in Boulder and has worked on mountain lion studies in Yellowstone National Park, the Garnet Mountains and now the northern half of the CMR Refuge. Lion tracking on the CMR is not as action-packed as you might think. When the snow conditions are good and the temperature isn’t too cold, Hedrick and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service researcher Doug Powell will spend the entire day driving the refuge’s roads in search of a fresh lion track in the snow.
On a trip last Friday, Hedrick had three of his hounds – two redbones, Lily and Daisy, and a black and tan, Spice – loaded in a crate in the back of the pickup ready to run if the opportunity arose. To the dogs’ chagrin, and despite their whimpers and frequent howls, no lion tracks were found.
“It only takes one track,” Hedrick noted optimistically.
The dogs have to be in top shape. On the Eastern Montana prairie, it’s not unusual for a mountain lion to run five to 10 miles before seeking shelter in a tree, and the cats are fast.
“These cats over here run like hell,” Hedrick said. “You need these faster dogs. My two youngest ones are the fastest dogs I’ve ever had.”
On the average day, Hedrick said he’ll drive about 100 miles in search of cat tracks. On a wintry day in the CMR, that can mean chaining up the four-wheel drive pickup to alternately bust through 2-foot-deep drifts, skate across ice and gumbo mud while negotiating narrow, knife-edge ridgeline roads that drop off 75 yards on both sides.
He’s stoic in the face of the challenge.
“If you’re going to be a cat hunter, you’ve got to take chances,” he told Powell, of the Fish and Wildlife Service, before blazing up a ridge, a playful grin creasing his face.