Kevin Lineback was supposed to be in his Ford, heading north to Billings for a golf date at sunrise, but this is Wyoming.
Having chores, Lineback headed out his back door at 6:30 a.m Tuesday to let out his chickens and noticed his two golden retrievers, Rocket and Boomer, sitting under a tree. He thought maybe there was an owl in the branches and decided to take a look.
“I come out through the gate and looked up and a cat was laying right there in the tree,” Lineback said.
It wasn’t a house cat sitting 12 feet from his face, but a 130-pound male mountain lion. It was still mostly dark at the early hour.
“All I saw was this dark figure and a python-like tail hanging down,” he said.
Lineback went in the house to get a headlamp, headed back out — through the gate directly under the tree — and shined the light on the healthy lion.
“Those big old yellow eyes were looking at me and I thought, ‘Oh geez,’” he said.
Lineback said he didn’t think to bring a gun. The fact that a lion was in his tree no more than 20 yards from his back door hadn’t quite hit him at that point, despite staring straight in its eyes. Kevin, a retired roofing contractor, and his wife Tami, a human resources employee at Powell Valley Healthcare, live just a minute or two south of Southside Elementary School on Road 9 (Wyo. Highway 295) with neighbors up and down the street.
Lineback went in the house and loaded his .243 rifle. He got on the phone and called the game warden to find out what he should do about the dilemma. Boomer and Rocket, young retrievers born on Independence Day, stayed in the yard, watching the perched cat. It stayed perfectly still, “like a statue,” Lineback said. The limb isn’t that high and just a few feet inside the yard; the lion could have jumped down outside the fence and disappeared in the darkness.
Lineback called his son, Austin, and he and a neighbor, Bob Lebruska, came by. The two watched as the pups kept the big cat cornered, while Lineback went to Big Horn Co-op to get a mountain lion tag. (Hunt Area 20, which covers the area around Powell, has a year-round season for mountain lions.)
Dana Richardson met Lineback at the Big Horn Co-op counter.
“I was back making coffee and he came in the door yelling, ‘I have a lion in my backyard.’ He was a little frazzled,” Richardson said. “It was pretty comical.”
Lineback rushed back to his home, took aim from about 15 feet away and killed the cat with one shot. Lineback said he didn’t shoot it for sport, but rather out of his concern for his family’s safety.
“They’re a beautiful animal, but it was just too close,” Lineback said; his house lies about a half-mile south of Powell city limits.
While the experienced hunter has purchased mountain lion tags for past seasons, “just in case,” Lineback had never seen much more than a few tracks in the dirt before Tuesday.
Austin thinks the cat may have been around for some time, as the dog had been acting funny for a few days. He also pointed out that four grandkids often play outside at their grandma and grandpa’s.
“They won’t be out there alone anymore,” Kevin Lineback said. “He [the mountain lion] could have jumped on me or one of the dogs with no problem.”
Tami’s first thought was why the lion would jump the fence and come into the backyard.
“My second thought was, we need to get a gun,” she said. “Then I started to think of grandkids. It was just too close for comfort.”
As news of the incident spread online, officials at the Wyoming Game and Fish Department began taking calls from people upset about the harvest.
Powell area game warden Chris Queen ruled the harvest of the lion “100 percent legal,” but pointed out that Lineback had options.
“We could have been there within 30 minutes to dart it and move it to a safe place,” Queen said.
In the 13 years Queen has been the area’s game warden, several large carnivores have come into town. The last known mountain lion visit to Powell came in 2009, when a cat was found in a tree in the 300 block of North Bernard Street. While the Game and Fish’s Cody Region large carnivore team rushed to the site, Queen asked a city police officer to keep an eye on the animal.
“I told the officer if the cat came out of the tree to shoot it,” Queen recalled. “We can’t let conservation get in the way of public safety.”
That cat was darted and safely moved, as were two other mountain lions within city limits in the past dozen years.
“Our large carnivore guys are the best anywhere in the nation. You can’t find a more responsive team — especially when it comes to human safety,” Queen said.
Another mountain lion was caught in a backyard in the city of Cody last week, heightening public awareness of the issue. The Cody lion was found to be in poor health and was euthanized. It had been surviving on house cats and deer living within the city limits.
“Over the years, lions have killed a lot of domestic and feral cats,” Queen said. “I wouldn’t doubt there’s a lion around town every couple months, you just don’t see them.”
Tami thought her husband showed “great restraint” and was scared as she watched him move in to shoot the cat.
“He made the calls to check on his legal options and made a good shot. I just keep thinking that my grandkids were playing out here just yesterday,” she said.
With the big cat safely in the hands of a taxidermist and the excitement over, Lineback loaded up the truck and — although still shaken — he headed to Billings for his round of golf, where he shot an 83.
“Where else can you shoot a cougar in the morning and golf in the afternoon but Wyoming?” Tami mused.