News Flash: “Dog killed by wolf in north Idaho, could be growing trend.” That’s certainly not news to those who live an outdoor lifestyle in the West. While the wolf population is getting most of the headlines, what may be the real news is how well many other predators are faring out there, as well.
Judiciously regulated predators such as bobcat, cougar, black and grizzly bear as well as introduced and naturally expanding packs of wolves have all demonstrated that wildlife management through hunting has benefited them.
When I began hunting upland birds with dogs in the late 1970s, run-ins with porcupines were about the worst I could imagine for my dogs. For my first male English setter, 40 quills and 40 dollars was the tally. Ol’ Teddy got tail-slapped by a few before he resigned himself to pointing them with blood in his eyes…from a safe distance.
Porcupines and skunks were about as much as I considered back then. That was until an encounter with a bobcat a few years later. With Ted frozen on a solid point, I crashed through a thicket of autumn-orange ninebark brush tensely anticipating the thundering flush of a ruffed grouse. I soon found myself, however, staring directly into the face of a wide-eyed feline.
After the initial shock, I was not terribly concerned but very excited, as you can tell from my journal entry:
“On Sept. 8, 1988, Ted bumped two grouse, pointed a porcupine and a bobcat! I was working uphill towards Ted when we came face to face! The cat was treed and Ted was on the far side of thick brush. Ted continued to point the cat as it sat on the ponderosa tree limb looking at me then back at the dog. She was very small and seemed very calm for a wildcat that had just been treed by a dog.”
A few years after that, we got caught between two bugling bull elk during a moon-lit September serenade. Apparently mistaking my whistle as some elk chatter, both bulls rushed in until scent or sight reversed their charge. Not frightening enough for you? You should have been there.
Concerning wild predators, whistles and the idle conversing between dogs and men will usually prevent these encounters, but the effect may vary. There are a couple creatures that seem unimpressed by all the racket. The first is too western-tough and ornery to pay any attention—the badger.
We generally come across these grouches while they tend to their business of digging. Once, on a chukar hunt along the steep and deep canyons of the Snake River, we had such an encounter. My setter abruptly sprang straight up, turning in mid-air, then dashed back at us with a growling doormat hot on his heels. Like a 7-10 split, my cousin and I headed in two directions as dog and the bowling ball badger barreled through.
The second danger is a symbol as synonymous with western drylands as sage grouse and jackrabbits—the rattlesnake. During our western adventures we have run across several. The rattler, in all its various forms, is plentiful enough that I include “snake training” as part of a pointing pup’s course work. I have used aggressive, but relatively harmless, bull snakes to dissuade my dogs from further interest in snakes.
Danger notwithstanding, these creatures are relatively small. In contrast to the highly publicized wolf, however—which I have yet to see while bird hunting—there has been a growing number of large predator entries in my hunting journal. The following after-school hunt might be used as an illustration.
Nate, our younger son, had just taken a small buck and we had just finished with Dad’s obligatory photo session. As I picked up my gear I heard Nate exclaim, “Whoa! Look at that!” Like answering a dinner bell, a black bear sow and her two nearly grown cubs came racing over the far ridge to claim Nate’s deer.
The sow stopped briefly on the carcass, stepped over it and stood watch for the cubs. I had taken a few hurried snapshots then, without taking another moment to reconsider, I clapped and yelled, “Hey! Get away from there!” Fortunately the sow, followed closely by one of the cubs, bolted across the field for the nearest cover.
Meanwhile, the other cub just stood his ground, almost as if he were confused as to what would be his best tactic. As I made my way to the bottom of the gulley and began to head up the far side, the remaining cub started in my direction, slowly at first, then increasing his speed with each step until he was just 40 yards distant.
I yelled again; he crept forward another 10 yards, then bounced menacingly on his forelegs. He moved off, but remained in sight as I field dressed the deer. We settled the stand-off by leaving them the pile of left-overs.
I would like to believe that wouldn’t happen when I hunted birds with my dogs, yet twice this past year we had relatively close contact with black bears. The first encounter was during an early September grouse hunt. While hunting along several stretches of fire-break and road bulldozed for August fires, I noticed a great deal of bear sign. Scat and tracks littered the area.
Tess, my year-old tricolor setter pup, was on her first hunt for wild birds. A load of whistle and verbal encouragement always takes place on these early hunts. In addition, she wore a brass bell that makes a hunt even more melodious. The sound of a brass bell is a perfect addition to the warm colors of an autumn grouse hunt.
Looking for ruffs along a creek bottom, Tess moved from side to side as the bell tinkled in rhythm with her pace. As we rounded a bend, I glanced up the hillside to my right in time to see a watchful black bruin. Its head moved as Tess moved, sizing up the little setter wearing her own dinner bell.
As soon as I was in clear view the bear turned to look in my direction. Our eyes met, and just as quickly, it spun and silently disappeared over the ridge.
Weeks later, at a different location, a couple friends and I worked two dogs through broken country of steep draws that define wheat field edges. There were elderberry and wild apple adjacent to a basalt building foundation and the rusting hulks of horse-drawn machinery, remnants of a time long past. The area is now home to pheasant, valley quail, turkey and ruffed grouse. Elk, whitetail and mule deer live among them like quiet neighbors.
Mike had taken his setter, Lucy, up the far hillside to eventually drop into the thick draw that separated us. Working the draw and adjacent hillside, Ken and I moved in unison toward Mike. My setter, Tess, was still poking around in the thicket below us for bird scent.
As Mike crossed, a brawling commotion of snapping branches rolled down the draw—straight at Ken and Tess. Just above the edge of thick cover, Ken yelled, “Bear!” Thankfully, Tess is full of youth and quick as a streak of white and black-ticked lightning. Answering my whistle, she climbed up past Ken by the time the large bear passed beneath them.
Bears aren’t the only large predators in our area. If you ever find yourself sharing a campfire in Idaho, you are bound to hear the tale of the stalking mountain lion. The central theme is this: someone will know somebody who knows somebody’s cousin who has been stalked by a cougar.
The story has several variations, but generally goes like this, “I have a friend whose cousin was hunting elk along a muddy skid-trail. A few hours later, as he returned to his pickup, he noticed that there were mountain lion tracks in the boot tracks he had left coming in.”
Well, all fiction aside, I have been stalked twice that I know of, both times while deer hunting in Idaho and both times witnessed by my elder son, Mak. One of those times we watched the lion step to within 10 feet of me. The other I had no idea about until my son and I conversed later on. He told me how, while watching through binoculars, he witnessed the cat creep within yards of me then sat up to watch me pass.
There was one other time where I was hand-shake close to perhaps the stealthiest of North American predators. That was during a pheasant hunt in Washington State.
Bill, colleague and good friend, and I followed Skye, a mostly white, blue belton setter, down to a drainage with a small creek. We commented on the number of whitetail carcasses we had seen along the way. There are periodic outbreaks of hemorrhagic disease, sometimes referred to as “blue tongue,” in this area and we attributed the carnage to that.
We entered cover bristling with hawthorn and teasel to discover Skye on a solid point. Yet as I stepped into the cover, Skye moved aside, head still focused but her body turned away as if to run.
“Odd,” I thought, then I spotted a large brown animal moving through the thick brush. “Hey, it’s a deer!” I yelled over to Bill. Then, as it passed through, like Pinocchio’s nose the tail of this “deer” just continued to grow!
“Oh, s***! It’s a cougar!” I yelled as I stepped back, my suddenly inadequate 20 gauge directed at the large cat. I was as close as you could get without stepping on it; I could have tapped it on the forehead with the gun barrels.
Bill collared Skye and I snapped a couple photos of the confused cat, keeping the gun barrels focused on the feline with my other hand. Then the lion found its opportunity to run down the drainage and we had no problem letting it. Bill said he wished he’d had a better look; it was the first cougar he had ever seen.
Western wildlife agencies are in consensus; the numbers of some predator species have significantly risen. When planning a DIY upland adventure, go prepared to meet the country and its wild inhabitants. Be sure to do some advance work on the flora and, certainly, the fauna of your western hunting destination.
For, indeed, we are not alone.