“Well, the big boy made a kill,” said Billy Pat McKinney, sounding relieved. “That’s a good sign.” The big boy he was talking about was a mountain lion. The kill was a dead javelina, of which only the crushed skull, the stomach, and one leg bone were left. “Cats don’t like the stomach, but he has used the rest of it up,” the Texas Parks and Wildlife technician observed. Moving upwind from the rotting javelina, McKinney and his partner, Parks and Wildlife biologist Michael T. Pittman, scanned the rocky terrain of West Texas’ Big Bend Ranch State Natural Area wondering where the big cat was hiding.

The mountain lion in question doesn’t have a name; he is just M1. A five-year-old weighing about 140 pounds, he was the first male cat collared for a five-year study that began in January under the auspices of Parks and Wildlife. Its purpose is to obtain information on one of the most elusive and secretive of all wild animals.

Mountain lions are on the rise in Texas. In 1992, 266 sightings and 132 deaths were reported by Parks and Wildlife, mostly in South and West Texas; these figures were up from previous years. But it was in 1991 that the animals really gained attention: Three mountain lions had been sighted and shot in East Texas, an area where they had not existed for decades. One day no one was interested in mountain lions; the next day everyone was.

Where did the lions come from? One possibility was that the animals were tame cats that had been freed. Every day newspapers carry classified ads selling exotic animals, including mountain lion kittens. The cuddly kittens make good pets, but as they mature, becoming less manageable and more expensive to feed, their owners often turn them loose. Lacking hunting skills, the lions stalk whatever is the easiest mark—dogs, livestock, and on rare occasions even children. In the process they give wild lions, which normally have a healthy respect for humans, a bad name. The other possible reason for the cats’ turning up in East Texas was that they were the vanguard of an expanding wild population that was simply coming back to a place that had once been home.

Some conservationists, including the Sierra Club, hoped the second theory was correct. The organization began a relentless campaign to stop the unrestricted hunting of mountain lions. In December 1991 it contacted Parks and Wildlife, pressuring the agency to adopt rules to protect the mountain lion; in 1993 it persuaded state senators Gonzalo Barrientos and Chris Harris to coauthor a bill in the Texas Legislature granting the cat game status. If the bill passed, the killing of lions would still be allowed if they were attacking livestock, but any other killing would be regulated by the establishment of a hunting season.

As ardently as the conservationists advocated the bill, Texas ranchers opposed it. In particular, those whose livelihoods depended on sheep and goat ranching were aghast at anything that might keep them from removing lions from their land. As they saw it, game status had “economic disaster” written all over it.

The stage was set for a pitched battle. Ostensibly the issue was simple: Should the mountain lion be granted partial protection in Texas, as it has in each of the other eleven states in which it exists? But, in fact, the matter was complex. It was about people’s lives and livelihoods and government control and Texans’ fiercely guarded sense of independence. The real question was, Could mountain lions coexist with man in the modern world? The study begun by Parks and Wildlife is an attempt to answer that question, or at least cast some light on it.

Broken by craggy mountains and rolling ridges, the 265,000-acre state-owned Big Bend Ranch State Natural Area is home to perhaps ten adult mountain lions. The dry, rugged terrain is covered with brush and cactus, yet it also harbors some ninety natural springs. Here, sheltered by canyons, scrubby vegetation thrives and cottonwood trees reach heights of thirty feet. Drawn by shade and water, all the ranch’s wildlife crosses paths at these oases, including mountain lions. When the study is finished, it will provide information on the size of the lions’ territories, how long they live, the number of offspring, and at what age the kittens leave their mother.

McKinney and Pittman set to work in January and in three months captured and put radio collars on four lions on the ranch. Three of the lions breezed through the ordeal without a scratch—one was caught using dogs, two were snared. But Ml was not so lucky.

“He boogered up some toes trying to peel out in that snare,” said Pittman, a tall, solidly built man. The leg-hold snare is a device consisting of a metal cable encased in plastic and attached to a chain. It usually does not cause a great deal of damage, but it can cut off circulation to an animal’s foot. That apparently was what had happened to M1, though McKinney and Pittman didn’t realize the severity of the lion’s injury at the time. Afterward, when the agency’s plane made its weekly flight over the ranch to monitor the cats, Ml was repeatedly found in the same barren, boulder-strewn region. Normally, he would be prowling as much as a twenty-mile area each day, hunting for javelinas, porcupines, and deer.

After weeks of worrying about Ml, the two men knew they would have to track him down and give him medical attention. It would mean getting up before dawn and spending hours in a truck and on foot looking for lion tracks and scat, or droppings. Fortunately, McKinney had had plenty of experience in tracking cats.

A forty-year-old West Texas native, McKinney is a mountain lion expert. He grew up watching Marlin Perkins’ wildlife series on television and listening to the tales told by his grandfather, a government lion hunter. What he didn’t learn from his grandfather he picked up by trial and error over the past twenty years, learning some lessons the hard way. Once he was yanked from a tree limb when a tranquilized lion he had roped tumbled off a branch (he now loops the rope over another branch for safety). But he doesn’t make mistakes like that anymore.

As the principal investigator of the study, Pittman, also forty, does some fieldwork but spends a good deal of his time analyzing the data McKinney collects. The two men, who share a house on the ranch during the week, complement one another. McKinney is gregarious and jovial, Pittman taciturn and slow to smile. McKinney washes the dishes after Pittman cooks, teasing him for tossing table scraps to the skinny stray house cats that beg outside the screen door.

On the evening before the hunt for Ml, the men’s mood was subdued. “This is just like having a sick kid at home,” said Pittman. “But since we caused the problem, we’re obligated to rectify it.” By eight o’clock the next morning, four hours after rising and traveling by truck and foot, the men reached the area where the lion’s radio signal had been strong the previous day. “Let’s see how far he’s trying to get us to walk,” said McKinney, heading into the brush.

Occasionally he would stop, adjust his headphones, then lift the H-shaped antenna skyward, listening for the steady beep emitted by Ml’s radio collar. McKinney’s five lion hounds quickly found the dead javelina rotting in the sun and almost simultaneously picked up the cat’s trail.

The barking dogs, a mix of various hound breeds, sprinted down the ridge. Eleven-year-old Pilot was in the lead, despite his age and having lost an eye in a lion hunt years ago. But seventy-pound Walter was on his heels. “He’ll pass old Pilot,” laughed McKinney. “Walter is the Michael Jordan of dogs.”

One ridge away the pack caught its first glimpse of M1. The barking turned frantic. The cat bounded up the ridge, limping at every stride. Cats have little lung capacity and can’t run at high speeds for long. Within minutes the dogs had cornered him on a huge boulder. Hissing, ears flattened against his head, the cat swiped at the lunging dogs with his good paw. Suddenly he roared, and for a second the dogs were silent.

McKinney edged around the boulder and shot the lion in the right hip with a tranquilizer dart. Then he and Pittman pulled the dogs away and tied them to bushes. In fifteen minutes, the lion began to get groggy. He lay down and dropped his head onto his paws. Even though he was semiconscious, his pale yellow-green eyes stayed open in an unblinking stare, and he growled in a constant low rumble that sounded like an engine idling. McKinney, concerned about the lion’s condition, had used only a light dose of the tranquilizer, which would allow thirty minutes for the men to work.

They carried the lion from the boulder, his legs dangling and his claws extending and retracting in futile grasps for flesh. Laying him in a dry creek bed at the base of the ridge, they covered his head with a cloth to keep the sun from damaging his still-open eyes. “I’m glad we caught him to doctor him, but I hate seeing him like this,” said Pittman as he held the lion’s paw.

The foot was a bloody mess. The top of the paw had no fur or skin left, and the claws stuck out like long white sticks. However, there was no sign of gangrene, and the base of the paw, including the pads, was unscathed. Pittman gave the lion shots of penicillin and cortisone and rubbed an antibiotic salve into his foot and on several javelina bites on the animal’s neck and back leg. “He’s not starving, but he’s thinner,” said McKinney, guessing that Ml had dropped fifteen to twenty pounds in the six weeks since he had been collared.

Within thirty minutes, the cat began to lift his head. McKinney took his hounds and headed over the ridge to the truck while Pittman removed the cloth from the lion’s head and then sat down twenty feet or so away to keep an eye on him as he came around. Startled by his proximity to humans, the lion began inching down the creek bed over rocks and dips, losing his balance occasionally and rolling onto his side. Eventually he stopped in the shade under a bush to sleep off the effects of the tranquilizer. McKinney later assessed the situation. “I think he’s over the hump,” he said.

While McKinney and Pittman were dealing with lions in the remote wilderness of the Big Bend natural area, a different kind of confrontation was occurring in Austin between the two factions in the mountain lion controversy. The opponents squared off in March at the public hearing for Senate Bill 583 before the Texas Senate’s Committee on International Relations, Trade, and Technology, and it didn’t take a scorecard to figure out which side the players were on. The ranchers—who had flown in from West Texas—were clad in Western shirts, jeans, and boots; the Sierra Club members and other wildlife types sported Birkenstock sandals and T-shirts with drawings of mountain lions.

One by one the ranchers stood up to oppose the bill. One man said 83 of his sheep had been slaughtered by a lion in one week’s time, costing him considerable money and grief. Another recounted incidents in which lions had attacked humans. In fact, lions mauled children in Big Bend National Park in 1984 and 1987, and in 1990 a mother lion with two almost-grown young treed a lone hiker—a swift kick discouraged the trio, but the hiker spent the night in the tree. But what incensed the ranchers the most was the prospect of knuckling under to the government. They didn’t have time, they said, to wait for permission from the state to kill a lion that was feeding on their livestock.

The Sierra Club state conservation director, Scott Royder, led off for the conservationists. “Right now there’s unlimited, unregulated taking of lions, and nobody knows what impact that has on our current population,” he said. “The lion is an umbrella species. If we protect lion habitat, we’re protecting the habitat of all the species that depend on that food chain beneath the lion.” Other conservationists cited statistics that show that more people are killed annually in auto collisions with deer than by lions. They stressed that the game bill would not keep ranchers from taking predators off their land—a comment that transformed the ranchers’ scowls into laughter.

The two sides never reached an accord. Exasperated, committee vice chairman Gonzalo Barrientos finally said, “I can see that for some people it would be a cold day in hell before they let any bill close to this pass.” More than half the room nodded in assent. The bill did eventually clear the committee, but it still faces an uphill battle on the floor of the Legislature.

News of the bill’s progress made little difference to McKinney and Pittman. Whatever happened, they would continue their study. And they understood as well as anyone what lay at the heart of the issue. “It’s not a lion issue; it’s a real complicated people issue,” said McKinney. “These are independent people, and you can’t drive them into doing what they don’t want. Sometimes it takes an act of God to get a rancher to let you on his land.” In an effort to assuage their neighbors, whom McKinney describes as “a bit ‘ouchy’ about having us out here,” he and Pittman have contacted the landowners to explain the study, hoping to establish trust and gain their cooperation.

More than anything, they need time—time to continue the study and time to build goodwill. “If we rock along another five to ten years, the lion would become a game animal, and that would be about right. We need time to soften people up,” says McKinney. Pittman agrees that time is needed, but for a different reason. He feels that given enough time—years—the lion will do fine on its own without being granted game status and without human intervention. “The lion has been a success story with zero management,” he says.

Although McKinney and Pittman differ on the lion’s ultimate need for help, they do agree that they can’t push the ranchers too fast. They are patient and pragmatic. If one of their radio-collared lions strays onto an adjacent ranch, they will not ask the rancher to refrain from killing it. Says Pittman: “We just tell him we want the collar back.”