A light snow had fallen in the high desert of southern Idaho. It was deer season and I was creeping down a gully toward a small herd. I rounded a corner and could see tracks going the same direction. Big tracks, about the size of my palm, glared up at me. It took me a little while to realize that I was only moments behind an elusive predator, a mountain lion.
My eyes face forward and I carry a gun--I am not normally scared in the forest. I am top dog. But at this moment, I felt disconcerted. Cats are known for circling around behind their prey and attacking from steep ledges. To my left and right were steep ledges.
Topping out at 220 pounds or so, these cats can weigh as much as a full-grown man. And they have claws. I kept having visions of a cat leaping at me, latching on with its jaws and raking down with its hind legs.
I was being irrational and I knew it, but just the idea of being in the same area as a big cat gave me the creeps. Not that I can ever help being in the same area as a mountain lion since they range from the Canadian Yukon to the southern Andes Mountains.
Eventually, the cat tracks faded off into the pines, not around behind me. It seemed like we were hunting the same herd of deer. My scent or my sound probably sent it back into the wild, and I never even caught a look at it.
Never seeing a cougar is the most common experience that most people have. According to Craig White of the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, cougars are "the wallflower type, so to speak. They are shy, timid and quiet. And they are good at it ... compared to a bear, who is more like that uncle that doesn't care who knows he is in the room."
That is why seeing a bear in the wild is so much easier than spotting a cougar: big cats just don't want to be seen. The most common way of seeing a cougar is by using hound dogs to follow a cougar's scent track.
"Hounds are used because of the natural animosity between canines and felines. The cats do what evolution tells them to do: run up a tree when a canine is around," White said.
In the past, hunters would hike behind the dogs, making sure to keep within earshot, but with the advent of GPS collars, keeping the dogs within hearing range is no longer necessary.
According to Dale Denney, owner of Bear Paw Outfitters in northern Idaho, "the new dog collars emit a GPS signal that helps you find them." Typically, when the dogs congregate and stop chasing, they have a cougar in a tree.
According to a mountain lion survey done by Idaho Fish and Game, during the 2010-2011 season, hunters reported harvesting 467 mountain lions in the state. Resident hunters killed 344 mountain lions and nonresident hunters killed another 123.
Guides like Denney accounted for 89 of those mountain lions and 72 percent were taken with dogs.
In 2010, 2,976 resident and 112 nonresident hound hunting permits were sold, according to the survey. That is about a 16 percent success rate for the hound hunters in 2010. But often the cats are treed for the sheer sport.
Fish and Game officials estimate that there are between 2,000 and 2,500 cougars in Idaho.
"The biggest sport in cougar hunting is the chase with the dog, not the shooting. I often think the killing of the cat is anti-climactic" Denney said.
The act of hound hunting goes back centuries and has roots in the aristocratic hunters of Europe: Think foxes and floppy-eared hounds followed by uptight dudes in tight pants on horses.
Like most things, mountain lion hunting does not come free of drama. In January 2012, California Fish and Game Director-elect Dan Richards came to Idaho for a guided lion hunt, paying thousands of dollars for the opportunity.
Richards was photographed with his kill, smiling proudly while holding a big male cougar. A few weeks after taking the position at the head of the California department, the pictures surfaced on an outdoor blog. Outrage followed.
In California, it is illegal to hunt or kill a cougar since they are a protected species. Groups across the state asked for Richards to be removed from his office for a legal hunt in Idaho. Eventually, he was removed by Gov. Jerry Brown.
Calls to Richards were not returned by press time.
"We [IDFG] value cougars as much as anyone else. We have a history of studying and understanding them," White said. "Along with that history is management, and with that comes respect, admiration and a regulated harvest. ... This particular person was here legally and was following our rules and regulations."
He went on to add, "It is a values system thing. Not a right-and-wrong thing. Some appreciate harvesting animals; others would rather get their meat from the grocery store. That doesn't make one person better than the other."
Outside of hunting, seeing cougars is limited to chance encounters and fleeting glimpses. Unfortunately with urban sprawl and habitat loss, cougars are showing up in populated areas more often.
This has happened several times in the past few years around Boise, with one cougar shot in the Saint Alphonsus Regional Medical Center parking lot in 2011, and another was seen, and eventually killed, near Julia Davis Park in May 2012. Hounds and a professional hunter were called in to find the cougars.
I get spooked by cougars. I hike a lot of canyons and rim rock and see cat signs often, which rattles my nerves.
"They definitely have that 'there could be one right now watching me' feeling," said White.
But in the end, I have seen a grand total of one wild cougar in my life. I watched as a huge cat crested a ridge, looked back and disappeared into the brush near Silver City. As its tan and brown body faded into the wilderness, the look on its face was priceless--it reminded me of an annoyed housecat.