To see firsthand what our federally paid hunters are up to, I asked Wildlife Services' (WS ) public relations department if I could go out into the field with a cougar specialist. After weeks of convincing them I was actually a journalist who understood the need for professional hunters, they set up an appointment with Mike Bodenchuk, who was then the head of Utah's division of WS.
Mike turned out to have the looks to match his macho part. He's a tall man with a graying mustache, an earned cowboy squint and the round-rimmed hat to top it off. He shook my hand with an iron grip, chuckled, boasted that he'd show me what they do all right and guffawed that when the trip was over I'd know why we need federal hunters even in the 21st century.
Mike looked at me, squinted and challenged, "I hope you can ride!"
He dropped this loaded phrase in such a strapping way there was no doubt I'd be emasculated if I said anything but, "Yup."
"Mule accident," deadpanned Mike.
"Oh, that's just wonderful," I replied, feeling like a journalist headed into a war zone, and wondering about my employer's workman's compensation package.
As we drove south to Utah's Book Cliffs, the raw taste of adrenaline in my mouth pushed me to ask what got Bodenchuk into such a gritty, old-school occupation.
He squinted at Utah's red hills as he drove his pickup and sermonized, "I wouldn't do anything else. We worked hard to bring the wild animals back to Utah. Now we have to control our predators to keep them wild. People need us now more than ever. Once was, men like me exterminated predators. Now we manage them. These days, if we weren't around, those people in those sub-developments all around Salt Lake and across the country wouldn't have anyone to call when a mountain lion eats their Labrador and starts thinking about them next."
No doubt about it, he was a straight shooter all right.
Then he started to tell tales of bravado, and it was clear that Mike's career could be serialized in an Old Western dime novel. He chased one stock-killing female mountain lion on foot up a cliff where he cornered it on a ledge under ancient Indian pictographs. He crawled into a mineshaft after another livestock-eating mountain lion and killed that cat in total darkness by shooting at the sound of its deep snarl. He killed two lions that were living under a porch, feasting on housecats. He'd killed a lot of mountain lions in residential neighborhoods around Salt Lake City.
The landscape fit his persona. We drove south of Salt Lake over and around hills red as Mars. It was June, and summer's dust was already hanging like low red clouds. The backdrop was all six-gun Western: buttes and saddles and coulees. When I pushed to find out how Bodenchuk became a hunter on the federal payroll, he guffawed, "I'm about convinced there is such a thing as an adventure gene! Actually, back in the sixties they used to run this ad in all the hunting magazines. Look it up. It seduced me!"
I did. I found the ad in a 1963 issue of Outdoor Life. It read: "FREE FACTS on how to become a GOVERNMENT HUNTER. Don't be chained to a desk or store counter. Prepare now in spare time for exciting career in conservation. Many Forestry & Wildlife men hunt mountain lions, parachute from planes to help marooned animals or save injured campers. Plan to live outdoor life you love. Sleep under pines. Catch breakfast from icy streams. Feel and look like a million."
The hyperbole sounded good to him, though he now laughs about the ludicrousness of the ad's tone. Sure he said it was all true, except that they left out the fights with stubborn mules, the frozen evenings lying in bedrolls at 10,000 feet, the getting up at 4 a.m. to find a cougar track, the endless hours of setting traps ... . In fact, it was such a tough avocation that later, while we were sitting in the cab of another pickup hauling mules to the Book Cliffs with Cory Vetere, a lion specialist with WS, Mike and Vetere passed the time counting up the divorces the state division's 26 hunters have had. After a lot of counting fingers they decided the divorce rate for WS' hunters was about 50 percent. Too many weeks spent in the mountains tracking livestock killers only to come home smelling like a mule take their toll. Bodenchuk had picked a tough, satisfying career.
We pulled into Green River, Utah, our jump off point into the Book Cliffs, where a big tom was then eating a threatened herd of bighorn sheep into local extinction. He explained, "If we don't get this cougar, that herd of bighorns is doomed. This is just another example of why wildlife needs hunting. Let me give you a broader example: There are a few areas in this state that are off-limits to hunting. One is located on the west side of Salt Lake. Most of the problem cougars I deal with come from there. In other units hunters kill a select number of cats each year. Biologists set the annual quotas, so that we can balance their populations with human concerns and with the needs of the ecosystems they inhabit. This keeps the mountain lions afraid of us and it minimizes human-lion conflicts."
We unloaded mules and road down a canyon and stopped-the trail dead-ended, or so I thought.
"Where did the trail go?" I asked stupidly.