For generations, cattle ranchers have argued vehemently that an overabundance of mountain lions are a genuine threat to wildlife as well as their own herds.
Their contention seemed to earn more credence last spring when the Arizona Game and Fish Commission approved a program that targeted mountain lions in a rugged area of the Tonto National Forest west of Roosevelt Lake.
It was reported that the reason the commission had approved the hunt was the declining bighorn sheep population near Canyon lake.
Predator lions were rumored to be the reason behind the sheep kills that had reduced a herd of about 116 in 1994 to only 41 last fall. Those types of kills are exactly what ranchers have been exposing.
The sheep, once almost an endangered species, were transplanted to the Apache, Canyon and Saguaro lakes in the early 1980s in an effort to reintroduce them to the ranges.
Ray Lee, big game biologist for the Arizona Game and Fish Department, said these sheep are "important animals," also agreeing they should be protected.
The commission's edict targeted a dozen mountain lions of an estimated 16 living in the remote area.
"That's not a significant loss," Lee said.
The commission-endorsed sport hunt will begin July 1. Anyone with a valid hunting license may participate providing the hunter first notifies Game and Fish of the intent to take part. The hunter has 10 days to report a kill. Also, more than one lion can be taken.
Because of the remoteness of the rugged hunt area, game officials doubt 12 mountain lions will be killed in a year's time, and professional lion trackers or federal wildlife experts may have to be contracted to finish the job.
The mention of "professional lion trackers" immediately caught the attention of local ranchers.
About five years ago, Arizona Game and Fish Officers began investigating illegal mountain lion kills south of Payson by professional tracker Larry Hendrix.
Last fall, a fifth and final defendant involved in the case pleaded guilty to charges in U.S. District Court.
The previous summer, Hendrix -- who officials say is probably the best lion hunter in the country -- pleaded guilty to 10 counts of violation of the Lacey Act and was ordered to pay $20,250 in fines and restitution for his part in the crimes. He also was placed on probation for 18 months and ordered not to hunt or guide hunters for mountain lions while on probation.
The Lacey Act governs the transportation of illegally taken wildlife on federal lands.
Hendrix tracked the lions with dogs and was responsible for killing about 20 of the animals, officials say. In light of the commission's edict to hunt and kill 12 lions, the vigorous prosecution of Hendrix was a farce, ranchers contend.
Not so, says Lee; Hendrix committed illegal acts. If the lions had been depredating livestock, Hendrix could have hunted them legally, but his kills should have been, by law, reported to officials.
Hendrix admitted he knew the ranchers he was working for were not reporting the deaths to game and fish officials.
"This (hunt) is not an uncommon management activity and we are protecting the mountain lion by having a harvest objective," Lee said.
But, tongues are a-waggin' on cattle ranges throughout Gila County, questioning why Hendrix was federally prosecuted for almost the same type of mountain lion hunting that the commission is now endorsing.