"Hell boy, it goes straight up from here. Hold on!" And I did for the next four hair-raising days. We found the tom's track and territorial scratches and even his kills-bighorns with their necks broken-but we never caught up with him. After four days on the back of a mule named Cherie, jumping ledges and having the pride scared out of me as I rode along 300-foot precipices, Mike and I headed back to Salt Lake.
When we came into an area with cellphone service Mike checked his messages, gasped, and pushed the accelerator down. "I'll have to drop you off early at the airport. There's an aggressive mountain lion in Salt Lake. Another mountain lion has come out of an un-hunted population.
"This is typical. Those young males have to go where there isn't a mature male, because the big males will kill them on sight. If all the areas around them are full of big males, because they're not hunted, then they'll end up in suburbia. That's what happens on the lands owned by the Kennecott Copper Corporation. That area in the Oquirrh Mountains just west of Salt Lake is not hunted; it's currently an active copper mine. There is also a cougar-research project being conducted there. The area is saturated with mountain lions. All the mountain lions I have to deal with in Salt Lake come from that area. Those lions aren't hunted, and have little reason to fear people. Those young, desperate, bold mountain lions are dangerous and desperate," said Mike.
I later interviewed David Stoner, the graduate research assistant from Utah State University who was then heading up the research project on mountain lions to which Mike referred. Stoner and I were standing with a dozen wildlife professionals in a suburban Salt Lake parking lot. Stoner was busily trying to find a signal from a young male mountain lion's tracking collar. The cat had left the research area and headed right into the housing developments in the valley, just as Bodenchuk said the cougars did. I asked Stoner why the cat was there.
Stoner explained as he fooled with his telemetry device: "This cougar is part of a study population. The objective of this study is to examine movement patterns and prey selection of cougars in and around the urban wild land interface. We are interested in cougar use of small-scale habitat corridors that may serve as conduits for hunting forays outside of their traditional habitat. Much of this land is being converted to subdivisions, and conflicts between wildlife and suburban residents are increasing, therefore we hope to document cougar spatial use patterns before this land is completely developed."
I scratched my head. "How's that?"
"Cougars need pathways, wildlife corridors from Kennecott on the west side of Salt Lake to the Wasatch Range on the east. We need to create these wild corridors so that cougars can move through the residential areas freely, so they don't have confrontations with people," he explained.
"But wouldn't those corridors pass through housing developments?"
He frowned. "Yes, but what can we do? If we don't do something these cats will end up in backyards."
"If the population you're studying was hunted, could hunters reduce the population so that young cougars would have space where they were raised? Isn't that how the state manages cougars all over Utah?"
He shrugged and said, "We're trying to find ways to control human-cougar conflicts without hunting."
"We still have a lot of research to do."
He couldn't locate the cat. Weeks later, while flying in a small plane to locate collared cougars, he picked up its signal. The cougar was on the other side of Salt Lake. Somehow it crossed several highways and went through miles of suburbs undetected.
We zoomed north through sun-drenched red landscapes and Mike apologized, "Sorry, I'll have to drop you at the curb. The homeowner says the mountain lion showed its teeth. It was sitting in her backyard. I'm sure it's still around. It'll move after sunset, so I'll have to get my hounds and high-tail it up there!"
He left me at the curb at the Salt Lake Airport and raced off to protect an urban homeowner from the wild predators living all around. He had some hunting to do, for the good of us all.
Weeks later Cory caught up with and killed the big tom that was destroying the small herd of bighorn sheep in the Book Cliffs. "They're gonna make it," he boasted.