STEVENSVILLE — Drew Zeiler thought he had done everything right before he let his three mountain lion dogs go on a set of fresh tracks Sunday afternoon.
The 20-year-old Stevensville man had been hunting with others in the Ninemile drainage north of Missoula since Sept. 3.
In all that time, they had not seen any sign of wolves in the area.
This day wasn’t any different.
“We had run the roads every single day and had never cut a wolf track,” he said. “We were in the same area the night before and hadn’t seen any wolf sign.”
Zeiler and three teenagers were following his dogs’ tracks through the snow when the GPS collars indicated the dogs weren’t moving, which usually means they have treed a mountain lion.
“We thought we were going to be walking up to see a cat,” he said.
They came to a ridgetop and could hear the dogs barking. Zeiler guesses they were only 700 or 800 yards away.
By the time the four walked to the bottom of the draw and came back up the other side, there wasn’t a sound. The dogs didn’t come when called.
But the GPS indicated they were right on top of the dogs.
“Then we saw the first one,” he said. “You could see it had been in a big fight. It was ripped open.”
In the next few minutes, they found all three dogs scattered along the hillside. All were dead.
“We never saw the wolves,” he said. “In the five or 10 minutes it took us to walk there, the wolves had come down and killed all three dogs. It was a quick deal.”
Zeiler is the third generation of his family to hunt mountain lions.
“My grandpa started mountain lion hunting 51 years ago,” he said. “I grew up with it. Here I was out with a bunch of kids. They don’t need to see that kind of stuff. It can really ruin it for them.”
Hunting mountain lions with dogs is a risky proposition in places inhabited by wolves. Almost every year, lion hunters lose dogs to wolves, despite their best efforts to keep the two separated.
“When you are running mountain lion dogs in country occupied by wolves, there is a risk,” Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Region 2 wildlife manager Mike Thompson said Monday. “Guys now go through all kinds of pains to check out an area to see if they dare let their dogs loose, but they can never be 100 percent certain.”
This time of year, Thompson said it is not unusual for wolves to move great distances as they check out all corners of their territories.
Wolves also are very territorial as they come into their breeding season.
“They don’t like other canines this time of year,” Thompson said.
Most lion hunters have adapted to the new reality that wolves have brought to their sport, Zeiler said.
“You run all the roads around an area looking for wolf sign before you ever think about letting your dogs go,” he said. “It’s an entirely different sport than what it was just a few years ago. It’s changed a lot.”
Zeiler said the group of hunters he’s associated with rarely kill a lion.
“We treed 26 this year so far and we’ve killed one,” he said. “Pictures are a lot cheaper than taxidermy. You don’t do it to kill. You do it for the sport.”
What hasn’t changed is the commitment lion hunters have to their dogs. Zeiler said he had about $12,000 invested in the three that died.
“There is a lot of time and effort that goes into training a dog, he said. “All of that can go down the tubes in a matter of minutes.”
“I work construction just to be able to feed them and then take the winter off to hunt,” he said. “It’s what I work for. They are really like my kids in a sense.”
Zeiler still has a beagle.
“She goes out and checks the other three doghouses,” he said. “She can definitely tell that something is up. It’s a rough deal.”
“People have been real supportive,” Zeiler said. “That’s made it a lot easier.”