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Tales from Afield: For the hounds

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A female mountain lion treed by hounds PHOTO BY RYAN CASTLE

By Jessianne Castle EBS ENVIRONMENTAL & OUTDOORS EDITOR

Night still cloaked the snowy earth when my husband and I strode through the door, our two dogs eagerly following behind. Outside, they wiggled and pranced in the snow, tails whirling as they waited to be loaded in the truck. Rooster, our three-year-old male, bound from door to door, his energy and enthusiasm instinctively causing my fingers to grip harder around my coffee mug as I reminded myself it wasn’t yet 6 a.m.

When we reached the canyon, my husband, Ryan, slowed the truck and we began to scan the fluffy blanket of snow. Our truck made first tracks on the road so looking was easy. It was obvious when we spotted a swath of dimples cutting across the road who’d been in the canyon: a mother mountain lion and her cubs, probably closing in on two years old—nearly old enough to venture out on their own.

We dropped the dogs and watched their transformation from floppy-eared clowns to austere professionals begin. Without even directing them, the two dogs bee-lined for the tracks. Rooster glanced his nose over the snow, moving back and forth over the tracks before picking a direction and heading out. Bay followed swiftly behind.

Now there are a couple things you need to know: When I first heard of chasing mountain lions with dogs, it threw up a few barriers my head. Things like sportsmanship and animal harassment really bothered me. But I talked to houndsmen, I interviewed biologists, I read the studies. Like all things, there are good ways of doing things and bad ways of doing things, and sour apples ruin the barrel.

Also worth mentioning, while most houndsmen—the people who have dogs and pursue mountain lions—might go out and tree cats all season long, most only kill a couple cats in their entire lifetime. My husband, the original houndsman in our family, has only shot one. I haven’t killed any.

People call it many things—hunting mountain lions, running dogs, chasing cats, hound hunting—but at its simplest, the activity we were engaged in involved finding a mountain lion track, letting our dogs track it, locating the mountain lion, and praising the dogs. For the majority of the time, the cat is hours ahead of us, laid up on a cliff after a night on the hunt or perhaps prowling unsuspectingly in the still early hours of morn. When the dogs do catch up with it—as I’ve been lucky enough to observe twice—the lion quickly darts into a tree. After that, we usually take a photograph, pet the dogs and leave.

So why the heck do it? Well, why do you hike? Why bother catch-and-release fishing? Why camp?

For me, hound hunting is a way to experience the wild world. We go places I wouldn’t otherwise have ever been; we see things in the wintertime I wouldn’t have ever imagined. These experiences define who I am, not only as a Montanan, but also as a conservationist and a very human being.

It’s all enabled through a deep bond I share with our dogs. We got Rooster at six weeks old and a day later Ryan left for four months of remote work. Rooster kept the house alive with energy as he explored our little world. I taught him how to sit, come, stay. We played fetch and tug. When he was six months old, about the time Ryan got home, we introduced him to tracking, following mountain lion or bobcat scent with his trusted best friend, and experienced tracker, Bay, whom Ryan had started as a puppy as well.

Three seasons later, he’s shaping up to be a good dog but the training isn’t over. Rooster knows that he only gets rewarded for tracking bobcat, mountain lion or raccoon scent. He knows that he’s only supposed to locate the animal—never engage with it. He’s learning how to track in an array of conditions. And practice, my friends, makes perfect.

Back on the track, for a time, we observed how the dogs alternated leading the track, moving quickly, deliberately and always further forward. When they ducked into the trees, we quieted our breaths and waited.

Our dogs have always been quiet at the start of a mountain lion race. Where other houndsmen elate at their dog’s bark every stride, Ryan and I wait in silence until that moment when our dogs erupt into a chorus—it only happens when they reach really fresh tracks, the ones the cat leaves after knowing the dogs are close, just before it climbs into a tree.

Rooster and Bay pushed up a steep and rocky canyon wall, bolting over snow-covered shale slides. When Rooster called in his breathy moan, we knew what was about to happen and by a stroke of luck we could see him sidehill over shale toward the top of the canyon wall. Ever the speed demon, Rooster ate up the terrain, with Bay bringing up the rear, her choppy bark swallowed by Rooster’s long howls.

When their tones changed, we hurried our steps and climbed the mountain to the tree.

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