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The mountain lion
Not all of the stories are funny.
On Nov. 10, FWP biologist Jay Kolbe, wearing a thick jacket and black Carhartt overalls, sits inside a trailer at the Bonner check station, on the banks of the Blackfoot River east of Missoula, sipping hot tea. It's cold outside. A dusting of snow has fallen, the first accumulation of the hunting season. The snow should help hunters, but so far, at around 3 p.m., only about a half-dozen deer have come through.
This check station, open on the six weekends of hunting season, has been in operation since the early 1950s. Kolbe has worked it for the past seven years. It's in a perfect spot, at a bottleneck between the expansive Blackfoot Valley and Missoula. Some 10,000 hunters drive through the check station every hunting season; state law requires them to stop if they've been hunting that day.
Kolbe gathers data from 11 hunting districts, an area close to two million acres in size. The most important data he collects is the age of harvested animals. Equally important, though harder to quantify, he says, is the value in talking to those 10,000 hunters.
"Personally, for me, it's the most important part of being here," Kolbe says. "You never know what's going to come through. It's always interesting. You're just getting all those stories, and all that input. It's a pretty dynamic place."
He hears a lot about wolves, mountain lions and grizzly bears. The Blackfoot Valley's wolf population began to surge in about 2007, Kolbe says, and during those first few years, every wolf sighting—even every wolf-track sighting—was a big deal to hunters. Those sightings are less remarkable now. "Even sightings of full packs by some folks doesn't merit a wave-over to tell you about it, like it would have five years ago," he says.
But grizzlies are a different story. Just this morning, Kolbe says, a grizzly sow with two cubs commandeered a whitetail buck before the woman who had shot it even had a chance to tag it. "The bear got what it wanted and she doesn't need another tag and can hunt another day," Kolbe says. "But it was a close call."
Just a week before there was a similar incident, which was described to Kolbe as a "Mexican standoff" with a sow. "Forty yards away. Locking eyes. Somebody's going to draw," he says. "Eventually, things ended well.
"That's just real common stuff," Kolbe continues, "and thankfully we haven't had anyone hurt, that I'm aware of, by a grizzly in the Blackfoot since 2001, when that fella was killed on the [Blackfoot-Clearwater] game range."
For all Kolbe's years in the field, and the stories he's heard on cold weekends in this run-down trailer, he says hunters know specific areas in the Blackfoot better than he or any FWP staffer.
"Like this guy," he says.
A white-haired man, sweating with his jacket off, steps into the trailer. His name is Steve Wallace. He just pulled up with a quartered bull elk in the back of his truck, the first elk to pass through the check station all day. His son shot it early in the morning.
"This was a bit of a bitch," Wallace groans.
He and Kolbe chit-chat for a bit. Then Wallace says, "We saw lion tracks today. Every time I see lion tracks it reminds me of it."
"It" happened two years ago.
Wallace and his son Court were hunting near Lincoln. Wallace carried a rifle, but he almost didn't bother to bring it, since he had already filled his elk tag and didn't have a deer tag. Some snow had fallen. They split up, and Wallace headed up a ridge, where he spotted large mountain lion tracks. But those tracks disappeared as the day wore on and the sun melted the snow.
In the afternoon, while Wallace moved along a game trail below the crest of a ridge, he heard movement in the trees above him, followed by a very low, sustained growl"Unlike any growl I had ever heard," he says. A second later, Wallace saw a large lion, about 60 feet away, appear out of the trees, crouching, quickly gliding toward him.
"As the cat approached I shouldered the gun and fired," Wallace says. "There was no time to aim, only react...The whole scope was just full of brown hair.
"When I shot," he continues, "the cat jumped into the air and went right by me on my left side and it was clawing at the ground wildly." When it passed him, "I felt like I could almost reach out and touch it."
The cat tumbled 30 or 40 yards down the hill and stopped at the base of a tree. It wasn't moving. Wallace pulled out his cellphone and called Court.
"Court, I was just attacked by a mountain lion," he remembers saying, "and I had to shoot it."
"Did you kill it?"
"I think so."
Just as Wallace said that the lion limped away from the tree and into thick cover.
"No, the cat is not dead," he said, and hung up the phone.
But Wallace had lost sight of the animal. He moved uphill to where the lion had been and found a partially eaten whitetail doe. Then he crept toward the tree where it had stopped after being shot, and found a pool of blood the size of a paper plate. But there was no blood trail, and no more snow to reveal the lion's tracks and whereabouts. He clutched his rifle, its safety off, and left.