Teddy Roosevelt sits near the ocean on Bird Island
Photo by USFWS

Hunter-Conservationist Theodore Roosevelt on the Fair Chase of Cougars

An adventurer, writer, conservationist and politician, President Theodore Roosevelt is known for many things: leading the Rough Riders during the Spanish-American War, serving as vice president followed by 26th president of the United States, creating the U.S. Forest Service and making the Badlands famous. But perhaps more than anything else, he should be noted for the idea he embodied, that hunting and conservation, rather than being in conflict with one another, are complementary pursuits. 

Roosevelt was born and raised in New York in an affluent family. As a child, he suffered greatly from asthma. However, with an interest in wildlife and the outdoors, he quickly realized the benefits of physical activity for minimizing the effects of his asthma. In addition to being drawn to adventure, perhaps it was his fragile health in childhood that sparked in him a desire to achieve what author Philip Dray has referred to as “rugged manhood” as an adult. 

Following the death of his first wife, Roosevelt headed west to the Badlands of the Dakotas where he became a rancher. It was there that his passion for hunting began to truly take shape, and in 1885, he published his second book Hunting Trips of a Ranchman.

Given a slightly unfavorable review by George Bird Grinnell, then editor of Forest and Stream magazine, the book ultimately sparked a life-long friendship between the two men that led to the founding of the Boone and Crockett Club, in 1887. Originally intended to promote sport hunting with a rifle as well as ethical hunting and an interest in natural science, the club ended up shifting its mission to focus more on conservation and fair-chase principles. Both Roosevelt and Grinnell increasingly saw this as an area of great need as many large-game species were being hunted to the edge of extinction. 

They advocated for civilized hunting — a sport in which hunters demonstrated an appreciation for wild places and a respect for wild game as well as following the rules. Their effort helped lead to the nation’s approach to wildlife management as we know it. 

“It is to be hoped that the days of mere wasteful, boastful slaughter are past and that from now on, the hunter will stand foremost in working for the preservation and perpetuation of wild life [sic], whether big or little.”

“All hunters should be nature-lovers,” Roosevelt said. “It is to be hoped that the days of mere wasteful, boastful slaughter are past and that from now on, the hunter will stand foremost in working for the preservation and perpetuation of wild life [sic], whether big or little.”

As he moved more into politics, Roosevelt remained committed to these conservation principles. During his time in the Oval Office, he created five national parks; signed the Antiquities Act of 1906, which created 18 new national monuments; established the first 51 bird reserves, four game preserves and 150 national forests; and placed under federal protection approximately 230 million acres.

Roosevelt’s legacy is vast, and the impacts of his ability to see the role hunters could — and should — play in wildlife conservation are still felt today. His passion for hunting drove his respect for wildlife; this can be witnessed in much of his writings, like his 1893 book The Wilderness Hunter

In this excerpt from part II of The Wilderness Hunter, Roosevelt details the experience of and the skill required for hunting cougars. 

Chapter V. — The Cougar.

No animal of the chase is so difficult to kill by fair still-hunting as the cougar—that beast of many names, known in the East as panther and painter, in the West as mountain lion, in the Southwest as Mexican lion, and in the southern continent as lion and puma.

Without hounds its pursuit is so uncertain that from the still-hunter’s standpoint it hardly deserves to rank as game at all—though, by the way, it is itself a more skilful still-hunter than any human rival. It prefers to move abroad by night or at dusk; and in the daytime usually lies hid in some cave or tangled thicket where it is absolutely impossible even to stumble on it by chance. It is a beast of stealth and rapine; its great, velvet paws never make a sound, and it is always on the watch whether for prey or for enemies, while it rarely leaves shelter even when it thinks itself safe. Its soft, leisurely movements and uniformity of color make it difficult to discover at best, and its extreme watchfulness helps it; but it is the cougar’s reluctance to leave cover at any time, its habit of slinking off through the brush, instead of running in the open, when startled, and the way in which it lies motionless in its lair even when a man is within twenty yards, that render it so difficult to still-hunt.

In fact it is next to impossible with any hope of success regularly to hunt the cougar without dogs or bait. Most cougars that are killed by still-hunters are shot by accident while the man is after other game. This has been my own experience. Although not common, cougars are found near my ranch, where the ground is peculiarly favorable for the solitary rifleman; and for ten years I have, off and on, devoted a day or two to their pursuit; but never successfully. One December a large cougar took up his abode on a densely wooded bottom two miles above the ranch house. I did not discover his existence until I went there one evening to kill a deer, and found that he had driven all the deer off the bottom, having killed several, as well as a young heifer. Snow was falling at the time, but the storm was evidently almost over; the leaves were all off the trees and bushes; and I felt that next day there would be such a chance to follow the cougar as fate rarely offered. In the morning by dawn I was at the bottom, and speedily found his trail. Following it I came across his bed, among some cedars in a dark, steep gorge, where the buttes bordered the bottom. He had evidently just left it, and I followed his tracks all day. But I never caught a glimpse of him, and late in the afternoon I trudged wearily homewards. When I went out next morning I found that as soon as I abandoned the chase, my quarry, according to the uncanny habit sometimes displayed by his kind, coolly turned likewise, and deliberately dogged my footsteps to within a mile of the ranch house; his round footprints being as clear as writing in the snow.

This was the best chance of the kind that I ever had; but again and again I have found fresh signs of cougar, such as a lair which they had just left, game they had killed, or one of our venison caches which they had robbed, and have hunted for them all day without success. My failures were doubtless due in part to various shortcomings in hunter’s-craft on my own part; but equally without doubt they were mainly due to the quarry’s wariness and its sneaking ways.

“Suddenly, without noise or warning of any kind, a cougar stood in the trail before me. The unlooked-for and unheralded approach of the beast was fairly ghost-like. … It slouched down the path, treading as softly as a kitten.”

I have seen a wild cougar alive but twice, and both times by chance. On one occasion one of my men, Merrifield, and I surprised one eating a skunk in a bull-berry patch; and by our own bungling frightened it away from its unsavory repast without getting a shot.

On the other occasion luck befriended me. I was with a pack train in the Rockies, and one day, feeling lazy, and as we had no meat in camp, I determined to try for deer by lying in wait beside a recently travelled game trail. The spot I chose was a steep, pine-clad slope leading down to a little mountain lake. I hid behind a breastwork of rotten logs, with a few young evergreens in front—an excellent ambush. A broad game trail slanted down the hill directly past me. I lay perfectly quiet for about an hour, listening to the murmur of the pine forests, and the occasional call of a jay or woodpecker, and gazing eagerly along the trail in the waning light of the late afternoon. Suddenly, without noise or warning of any kind, a cougar stood in the trail before me. The unlooked-for and unheralded approach of the beast was fairly ghost-like. With its head lower than its shoulders, and its long tail twitching, it slouched down the path, treading as softly as a kitten. I waited until it had passed and then fired into the short ribs, the bullet ranging forward. Throwing its tail up in the air, and giving a bound, the cougar galloped off over a slight ridge. But it did not go far; within a hundred yards I found it stretched on its side, its jaws still working convulsively.

The true way to hunt the cougar is to follow it with dogs. If the chase is conducted in this fashion, it is very exciting, and resembles on a larger scale the ordinary method of hunting the wildcat or small lynx, as practised by the sport-loving planters of the southern States. With a very little training, hounds readily and eagerly pursue the cougar, showing in this kind of chase none of the fear and disgust they are so prone to exhibit when put on the trail of the certainly no more dangerous wolf. The cougar, when the hounds are on its track, at first runs, but when hard-pressed takes to a tree, or possibly comes to bay in thick cover. Its attention is then so taken up with the hounds that it can usually be approached and shot without much difficulty; though some cougars break bay when the hunters come near, and again make off, when they can only be stopped by many large and fierce hounds. Hounds are often killed in these fights; and if hungry a cougar will pounce on any dog for food; yet, as I have elsewhere related, I know of one instance in which a small pack of big, savage hounds killed a cougar unassisted. General Wade Hampton, who with horse and hound has been the mightiest hunter America has ever seen, informs me that he has killed with his pack some sixteen cougars, during the fifty years he has hunted in South Carolina and Mississippi. I believe they were all killed in the latter State. General Hampton’s hunting has been chiefly for bear and deer, though his pack also follows the lynx and the gray fox; and, of course, if good fortune throws either a wolf or a cougar in his way it is followed as the game of all others. All the cougars he killed were either treed or brought to bay in a canebrake by the hounds; and they often handled the pack very roughly in the death struggle. He found them much more dangerous antagonists than the black bear when assailed with the hunting knife, a weapon of which he was very fond. However, if his pack had held a few very large, savage, dogs, put in purely for fighting when the quarry was at bay, I think the danger would have been minimized.

General Hampton followed his game on horseback; but in following the cougar with dogs this is by no means always necessary. Thus Col. Cecil Clay, of Washington, killed a cougar in West Virginia, on foot with only three or four hounds. The dogs took the cold trail, and he had to run many miles over the rough, forest-clad mountains after them. Finally they drove the cougar up a tree; where he found it, standing among the branches, in a half-erect position, its hind-feet on one limb and its fore-feet on another, while it glared down at the dogs, and switched its tail from side to side. He shot it through both shoulders, and down it came in a heap, whereupon the dogs jumped in and worried it, for its fore-legs were useless, though it managed to catch one dog in its jaws and bite him severely.

“There is no kind of game, save the full-grown grisly and buffalo, which it does not at times assail and master. It readily snaps up grisly cubs or buffalo calves; and in at least one instance, I have know of it springing on, slaying, and eating a full-grown wolf.”

A wholly exceptional instance of the kind was related to me by my old hunting friend Willis. In his youth, in southwest Missouri, he knew a half-witted “poor white” who was very fond of hunting coons. He hunted at night, armed with an axe, and accompanied by his dog Penny, a large, savage, half-starved cur. One dark night the dog treed an animal which he could not see; so he cut down the tree, and immediately Penny jumped in and grabbed the beast. The man sung out “Hold on, Penny,” seeing that the dog had seized some large, wild animal; the next moment the brute knocked the dog endways, and at the same instant the man split open its head with the axe. Great was his astonishment, and greater still the astonishment of the neighbors next day when it was found that he had actually killed a cougar. These great cats often take to trees in a perfectly foolish manner. My friend, the hunter Woody, in all his thirty years’ experience in the wilds never killed but one cougar. He was lying out in camp with two dogs at the time; it was about midnight, the fire was out, and the night was pitch-black. He was roused by the furious barking of his two dogs, who had charged into the gloom, and were apparently baying at something in a tree close by. He kindled the fire, and to his astonishment found the thing in the tree to be a cougar. Coming close underneath he shot it with his revolver; thereupon it leaped down, ran some forty yards, and climbed up another tree, where it died among the branches.

If cowboys come across a cougar in open ground they invariably chase and try to rope it—as indeed they do with any wild animal. I have known several instances of cougars being roped in this way; in one the animal was brought into camp alive by two strapping cowpunchers.

The cougar sometimes stalks its prey, and sometimes lies in wait for it beside a game-trail or drinking pool—very rarely indeed does it crouch on the limb of a tree. When excited by the presence of game it is sometimes very bold. Willis once fired at some bighorn sheep, on a steep mountain-side; he missed, and immediately after his shot, a cougar made a dash into the midst of the flying band, in hopes to secure a victim. The cougar roams over long distances, and often changes its hunting ground, perhaps remaining in one place two or three months, until the game is exhausted, and then shifting to another. When it does not lie in wait it usually spends most of the night, winter and summer, in prowling restlessly around the places where it thinks it may come across prey, and it will patiently follow an animal’s trail. There is no kind of game, save the full-grown grisly and buffalo, which it does not at times assail and master. It readily snaps up grisly cubs or buffalo calves; and in at least one instance, I have know of it springing on, slaying, and eating a full-grown wolf. I presume the latter was taken by surprise. On the other hand, the cougar itself has to fear the big timber wolves when maddened by the winter hunger and gathered in small parties; while a large grisly would of course be an overmatch for it twice over, though its superior agility puts it beyond the grisly’s power to harm it, unless by some unlucky chance taken in a cave. Nor could a cougar overcome a bull moose, or a bull elk either, if the latter’s horns were grown, save by taking it unawares. By choice, with such big game, its victims are the cows and young. The prong-horn rarely comes within reach of its spring; but it is the dreaded enemy of bighorn, white goat, and every kind of deer, while it also preys on all the smaller beasts, such as foxes, coons, rabbits, beavers, and even gophers, rats, and mice. It sometimes makes a thorny meal of the porcupine, and if sufficiently hungry attacks and eats its smaller cousin the lynx. It is not a brave animal; nor does it run its prey down in open chase. It always makes its attacks by stealth, and if possible from behind, and relies on two or three tremendous springs to bring it on the doomed creature’s back. It uses its claws as well as its teeth in holding and killing the prey. If possible it always seizes a large animal by the throat, whereas the wolf’s point of attack is more often the haunch or flank. Small deer or sheep it will often knock over and kill, merely using its big paws; sometimes it breaks their necks. It has a small head compared to the jaguar, and its bite is much less dangerous. Hence, as compared to its larger and bolder relative, it places more trust in its claws and less in its teeth.

Alexandra Vollman
Alexandra Vollman is an experienced writer and editor with a passion for the outdoors — especially hiking. As the co-founder and editor of Modern Conservationist, she oversees editorial management for the site. She has a bachelor’s degree in media communications and a master’s degree in writing and publishing. Alexandra enjoys using her knack for reporting and storytelling to instill in others a better understanding of and appreciation for nature.

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