JACKSON (AP) — Cooper Hadaway and a couple of friends were sitting around one afternoon last week, cloistered by coronavirus, when a mountain lion stepped into view through the back door of their Henry's Road home.
The cougar soon headed down a wooden walkway that led to an open-door garage where Scenic Safaris stores some of its side-by-side ATVs. Hadaway thought it would be prudent to send the big cat on its way and instill the animal with some fear of mankind.
"I figured we should probably try to flush it out and chase it off the property," he said. "We have fires out back, and sometimes I'll go mess around in the barn."
He grabbed his shotgun and his buddy a revolver and they headed outside. Shotgun muzzle pointed skyward, he blasted the firearm — and the cat barely budged.
"It was completely chill," Hadaway said from the scene two days later. "Even after my gunshots, it wasn't running away."
Studying the humans, the lion crouched on the wooden walkway long enough for a roommate to snap a stellar picture, then slipped around the corner. Hadaway peeped into the garage, the animal "growled," he realized he was being foolhardy and retreated.
The household of 20-somethings had no intention of escalating the situation, but Teton County sheriff's Deputy Jesse Willcox soon rolled up. An alarmed neighbor had called in the gunfire, the Jackson Hole News & Guide reports.
"As soon as law enforcement showed up, I was like, 'F—-, should I have done that?'" Hadaway said.
He explained that he was shooting to scare off the lion, which lingered in the garage. Deputy Willcox, who declined an interview, brought Wyoming Game and Fish Department into the loop.
It was far from the state agency's first report about a mountain lion on the peripheries of Jackson this winter. Just to the south, in the Porcupine Creek area, a lion had in recent weeks been spotted repeatedly during the daylight hours, killing deer and raising the hackles of parents in the neighborhood whose young children often play outside. A domestic goat was lion-killed at Hoback Junction, and another report detailed a deer stashed in the backyard by a Hoback cougar. A puma with kittens has also been phoned in from just across the river, at the Snake River Mobile Home Park.
"We've had a lot of mountain lion calls this year, at least the most in my time here," Game and Fish Warden Kyle Lash said. "The sightings, in general, are very unusual with mountain lions."
Lions hunting in daylight near homes is out of the ordinary and not desirable, but the large felids' presence low in the Gros Ventre Range foothills this time of year is natural. Snowpack persisting in the mountains has pressed the cats' main prey — elk and deer — down toward the lowest southern-facing open slopes into habitat shared with humans.
As Hadaway rounded the corner of his garage Thursday, some 30 mule deer took a break from foraging to check him out.
"That's a lot of frickin' deer," he said. "Usually there's like a third of that."
Lash, who took the call last Tuesday, conferred with the regional supervisor, Brad Hovinga, and his carnivore biologist colleague, Mike Boyce, about what to do. Learning that the lion was seemingly unconcerned by the presence of people and was in a residential area during daylight, they judged the 2- to 3-year-old feline was probably the same cat seen at Porcupine Creek. They decided to kill the cat as a precaution for public safety.
Hadaway and his friends, who moved to a nearby gazebo to watch, were bummed to learn of the animal's fate. His roommate, who asked not to be named, was downright upset.
"I understand law enforcement and Game and Fish need to do what they need to do, but I was hoping for it to get away," Hadaway said. "I was like, 'S--t, because of me trying to scare the thing away, now its life is about to be ended.'"
Lash orchestrated the unsavory operation of killing the lion, which stuck tight to the garage even though it was not being pressured and could have left on its own. After the call was made, the warden, Willcox and a couple other deputies who responded went to surround the structure.
"We tried to block the two entrances," Lash said. "Initially, I was going to be the guy to go in there and remove it — that was the plan — but it saw me and moved toward one of the back exits."
Crouched low along one of the ATVs parked five in a row, the lion came into view for Willcox.
"He said, 'Hey, I have a safe shot, do you mind if I take it?'" Lash recalled. "He fired a shot, and at that point he thought he hit it."
Presumed wounded or dead, the cat reportedly hunkered in underneath the third ATV from the back.
Lash tried for a closer look.
"As I moved in," he said, "I think it kind of heard me step on a nearby ATV and it squirted out the back entrance once I left my position."
As the cat scampered away, Willcox got off another shot at the lion they believed was injured, perhaps mortally. Lash gave chase too, once the cat was outside and on the move. He was able to squeeze off a shot from his government-issued .308 rifle, but watched his bullet strike the hillside over Squaw Creek high and to the left.
At about 400 yards the cat crossed back into view, and that was the last the warden and deputies saw of it.
Lash cut its tracks and followed them through the snow and mud for at least 200 yards, but didn't detect a drop of blood. The animal quickly covered ground, showing no signs of having been hit by any of the three shots directed its way.
"If I felt in any way or form that lion was injured," Lash said, "we definitely would have made a big effort to make sure it wasn't suffering."
One upside to the faulty operation is that the lion may have learned a lesson.
"We've had no more calls with that mountain lion," Lash said. "Maybe that negative interaction with us was enough to deter it from coming around homes."
Hadaway looks back on the whole ordeal as "really frickin' cool." It was only the second mountain lion he'd ever seen, the first being the big cat that stashed a deer carcass in sight of the Maverik gas station — which he braved a bad fever to see. Up close, encountering a mountain lion was an entirely different experience.
"It was the coolest thing," Hadaway said. "My heart felt like it was about to beat right out of my chest. It was insane."