By MICHAEL BABCOCK
Tribune Outdoor Editor
In a copse of scrub fir on a steep hillside above the Blackfoot River we find the lion's lair. An oval, swept clean of snow and fir needles down to bare dirt, is her bed. She has kittens. Within paw's reach is a partially eaten mule deer. A hind leg, a backstrap and some organs remain; the meat is frozen solid. A few yards away is the toilet.
Nobody is home: The kittens are hidden away and the female cat has fled at the sound of the approaching snowmobiles. Her tracks in the snow and a receiver picking up signals from the radio collar she wears indicate she may have crossed the river.
Ravens, magpies and gray jays flapping up out of the trees as we approached drew our attention to the lions' hideout. Houndsman Grover Hedrick spotted the birds as he led our party down to the Blackfoot where we would try to determine if the cat had crossed the river ice or if she remained in the area.
"There's a kill in there," Hedrick says. "Go check it out while we go see if we can find where she crossed the river."
Wildlife technician Melanie Trapkus, who has worked on this project for three years now, leads the way and within minutes finds where the lioness has lived for several days.
"Her kittens are around here somewhere. We could find them if we wanted to," Trapkus says. "They won't make a sound."
Why we're there
But the mission today is to capture mountain lion F-88. Wildlife biologist Rich DeSimone wants to remove her radio collar, which contains months worth of GPS data on the lion's travels. Her collar also emits signals that help wildlife biologist DeSimone locate her.
DeSimone is in the 10th and last year of an extensive mountain lion study in the Blackfoot River Drainage. He has spent "several million dollars." The study is breaking new ground, especially in the last three years. DeSimone is developing a model by which biologists will be able to "count" the number of lions in a particular area.
With the help of researchers at the U.S. Forest Service Rocky Mountain Research Station at the University of Montana, DeSimone has conclusively identified 24 lions in the core study area on and around the Blackfoot Clearwater Wildlife Management Area west of Ovando.
By capturing and marking and recapturing the lions, through extensive reports from deer hunters and by gathering hair samples and tiny "biopsies" from the cats, DeSimone will be able to project the likely number of lions in the study area. Eventually, researchers will be able to apply his techniques to other hunting areas in the state.
It also means that Montana's game managers will be armed with scientific data to defend the state's lion management practices, including hunting.
A short genealogy
We are chasing lion F-88, so designated because she is the 88th lion captured and tagged in the 10-year study. She is a granddaughter to F-11 who also still lives and breeds in the Blackfoot Valley.
"We have monitored F-11 through five litters. Two of her daughters stayed to be productive females and so have two granddaughters," DeSimone says. "F-11's mother was F-9. She had four kittens and in the fall of 1998, hunters killed three of her yearlings and the mother."
So far, F-11 has produced five litters and F-88 is from her third litter. There are 10 reproductive females in the Garnets and five of the 10 are offspring of F-11.
"This just shows you how interrelated they are," DeSimone says. "The point is, this is not a mishmash of animals. They not only know each other but they are related and that is shown in other studies."
It is cold when we leave the Fish, Wildlife & Parks station on the Blackfoot Clearwater WMA. A truck thermometer reads 18 below zero; the thermometer at the FWP building reads 8 below. It is a clear, windless day and the sun peaking over the crest of the Rockies to the east promises some warmth.
Near River Junction Campground, where the Clearwater and Blackfoot Rivers come together, we trade trucks for snowmobiles and head for where the signal from F-88 had been coming the day before.
The crew includes DeSimone, head of the mountain lion project; Hedrick, the houndsman and a forester hired by FWP and Trapkus.
With Hedrick are Sugar and Daisy, two redbone mixed hounds. Sugar is a pro; Daisy is still learning.
As tree climber, it will be up to Trapkus, if a lion is treed and tranquilized, to climb the tree and handcuff the lion to a rope and then lower the cat down. She has done it dozens of times already in the study.
In the morning cold, the crew snowmobiles a dozen miles or so into the area where the cat was believed to be. The ride goes over the top of a slide that blocked the Blackfoot several years ago and we come down to the river to determine if F-88 has indeed crossed, as her radio signal indicates.
On an open hillside across the river, a band of elk mew and chirp. They probably are looking at us, or, perhaps F-88 is stalking them, or, we find out later, a pair of wolves may be working the edge of the herd.
DeSimone, Hedrick and Trapkus are old hands at this and their consensus, after taking radio positioning from several positions on the long trail down the mountain, is that indeed, F-88 is across the river. Hedrick confirms by finding F-88's tracks crossing the river ice.
So the crew speeds back to the trucks and trailer and loads up and heads for Ovando. There, we must track down the landowner and receive permission to access the river.
The mood is uncertain as we drive single file across gently rolling snow- and sage-covered hills, then head down into the steep river canyon again. On the way down, we stop and confer in another wooded area. Tracks run through the area: some are lion tracks but others are wolf tracks.
Several packs of wolves have re-established territories in the Blackfoot and they are unafraid of humans or hounds. That worries Hedrick. The houndsman doesn't want to loose Sugar and Daisy to chase the cat because wolves will home in on the baying hounds and kill them.
"They can do a lot of damage to the dogs," Hedrick says.
So he and DeSimone ride through and around the timber and run two wolves out of the trees. When they return 15 minutes later, they are sure the cat has stayed in the grove of trees.
When we reach the riverbank, Hedrick, still worried over his hounds, keeps them on chains as they pick up the cat's trail. Within minutes they tree the F-88.
Sugar and Daisy's distinct voices filter back to those of us waiting at river's edge. Her trained ear tells Trapkus that the hounds have treed the cat and she packs her climbing gear. We rush to catch up with Hedrick, DeSimone and his hounds.
Hedrick has chained his hounds on opposite sides of the huge pine tree and DeSimone and Trapkus hurry to ready their gear. The lion is perhaps 20 feet off the ground and she looks huge in the tree above us.
She appears unbothered by the ruckus below her, but her eyes are narrowed and she peers down at the houndsmen, the scientists, a photographer and a reporter.
The hounds will not be quiet and after four or five minutes, the cat leaps out of the tree, landing in a shower of breaking branches and bark less than arm's length from the reporter. She bounds away.
"Let that dog go," Hedrick shouts as he frees Daisy. I turn Sugar loose and they speed off to follow the cat. We rush back to the snowmobiles are parked and take up the chase again.
The fear is that F-88 will cross back over the river ice but in a quarter mile or so, we come on to Hedrick and the hounds, and they have her treed again.
This time, Hedrick shoots a dart into the cat's leg and after waiting a few minutes Trapkus begins to climb the tree toward the lion.
The lion has yet to pass out from the drugs and when Trapkus is only feet away from her, F-88 leaps from the tree she is in to another nearby. The lion then leaps down from that tree and takes off again. But this time, she has the drug in her and we follow her tracks on a short distance and find her unconscious in the snow.
A cat in hand
F-88 is beautiful: Tawny fur, black paw pads the size of saucers, black markings on her face and muzzle and white fur in her ears.
First thing DeSimone does is remove the radio collar. F-88 is not quite asleep and she snarls at him.
"You want to get the collar off," DeSimone says. "The lion, she has a tough life. She has kittens, wolves and hounds. You want all the disturbance to come for a reason. Getting the collar off is telling the animal that we have obstructed your life and we want to get some meaning out of that."
DeSimone, Trapkus and Hedrick quickly measure the cat's features — paws, claws, overall length and body temperature. She weighs 98 pounds.
It is tempting to humanize this lion, but she is among Nature's most perfect killing machines.
DeSimone explains that she kills most often by leaping down from above and crushing the back of the head of an unsuspecting deer.
The presence of such a predator makes us a little silly and we discuss whether we would rather die by lion or wolf. The consensus is lion.
We pose with the lion like tourists and we feel a little silly about that, too. But few people touch a sleeping lion.
F-88's pulse and breathing are clearly evident. We feel that, too.
Free at last
DeSimone administers an antidote to the lion. She responds slowly. When she stirs slightly, Hedrick tells us to block her path so she will run either up the river or away from it, instead of directly across it where she might fall through open water.
DeSimone and Hedrick pull the canvas tarp from under the lion and she stands, staggers and sits down. She looks at the people around her like a drunk roused from a stupor.
She stands, staggers a little and walks slowly off, upstream and away from the river.
Her hide is the color of the yellow grass around her and in a few seconds, she disappears.
Reach Tribune Outdoor Editor Michael Babcock at triboutdoorsgreatfallstribune.com, at 406-791-1487 or 800-438-6600.