The bait in question is a pickup-truckload of frozen deer carcasses. This was last Tuesday afternoon, and I was out delivering carcasses with Winston Vickers, a UC Davis researcher studying mountain lions in Southern California. (Apparently, whoever it is that usually deals with roadkill deer knows to call Winston at this time of year.)
The deer I saw looks like it took a hit to the skull – its fur is scraped away in spots above its brow. (Don’t know if the vehicle caused that or if it was the asphalt. Didn’t ask.) It’s locked into an extremely odd-looking position, but I suspect that’s more to do with the way it settled in the freezer. When Vickers and the other scientist take it down from the bed of the truck, it thunks solidly onto the ground. They’ll use this deer to draw in a hungry mountain lion. For the next few days, it’ll sit wired to a tree where a lion is likely to pass. Ideal locations are where side canyons run into the main canyon.
Still, just setting it out there is no guarantee that a lion will find it. So step one is tying straps to the deer’s hind legs. Vickers and the other researcher each take a strap and drag the carcass along, leaving a scent trail for the lions to follow. After a few hundred feet, I ask if I can take one of the straps – ostensibly to gauge how heavy the carcass is but really, because I want to be able to say that I did it.
It isn’t too heavy, and we move it along at a pretty good clip, but Vickers, despite his white hair, is pretty spry. He blasts through thorny-looking branches and muddy patches – things I would normally take my time navigating – and I have to make sure I keep up so that he’s not dragging the load by himself. The deer keeps getting caught by brush, and there’s all sorts of snapping of brush as we pull it free.
As we tug, we come across some lion tracks, and Vickers explains how to distinguish them from coyote tracks. Mountain lions, though heavier, have a wider foot pad and thus don’t press down as far into the substrate. He says he can sometimes even tell the gender of the mountain lion by its track. The larger ones are male.
I let the other scientist take the strap again, and they head off. The deer is scratching a satisfyingly-rich red trail in the sand of the stream bed – a wide furrow from the body and a narrower one from the head – the pattern a result of the body’s icy rigor. When I look at the long trail, I imagine deer stink lines radiating from it (Though it doesn’t smell bad yet, just a little musky). I avoid walking in it in case doing dampens the scent.
They drag it surprisingly far, and by the time we reach the destination, they’re puffing a little. I’m pretty sure I’d be fully blown if I were them, so I’m glad for the excuse of holding my microphone.
At the chosen spot, Vickers takes out a long knife and punches through the tendons in each of the deer’s legs. He does this, because it’s more secure than just tying ropes – lions will chew right through that. The blade goes through seemingly pretty easily, and he leaves it in there as a guide to feed the wire he then strings through and wraps around the tree. That done, they set up trail cameras to watch what comes to feed.
The cameras are secondary verification tools – mainly used to see if the lions are actually lions and not other animals. Also, they will tell if the lion has already been caught and tagged. Vickers explains that the carcass itself will be the primary indicator of lion feeding. The clearest indicator of mountain lion would be feeding up through the chest of the deer – that’s too hard for a coyote or bobcat to do.
Someone will come by everyday to check on the bait. There are typically 10-to-12 spots with bait throughout the study area. When it’s clear that a lion has taken the bait, then a team will come back that evening to set up a cage. But that will take place on another day. Vickers will call me when it’s go time.