Ben Lilly, wilderness man

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Ben Lilly was a bear and lion hunter, probably the most successful hunter New Mexico has ever known. He was a solitary man who roamed the Gila Wilderness, the back country of eastern Arizona and the remote heights of Mexico’s Sierra Madre. Like many loners, he had his peculiarities. For one thing, he would not hunt or do any work on the Sabbath. Once he treed a mountain lion on Saturday night and stood by until Monday morning before shooting it.

Lilly was born in Alabama in 1856. Hunting was in his blood and at every chance he took to the woods with rifle in hand. As a youth, he went to work on his uncle’s farm in the midst of the woods and swamps of Louisiana. During off days he ranged over trackless country trailing game and hunting.

The strange young man had an uncanny sense of direction. Often he boasted that he could go into any swamp on the darkest night, leave his knife stuck in a tree, and then return the next night from a different direction and go straight to the knife.

When somebody asked him if he hadn’t been lost just once in a while, Lilly replied, “No, but I can remember one time being considerably bothered for about half a day.”

Lilly got married and set up housekeeping in a cabin on the edge of his hunting ground. One day a hawk was bothering his wife’s chickens and she told him to get his gun and go shoot it. The bird flew away and Lilly went after it. He didn’t get back home for a year. His only explanation was that “the hawk kept flying.”

Later, he turned all his property over to his wife, kissed his kids goodbye and left home forever to roam the wilds. He never saw his family again.

In the fall of 1907, President Theodore Roosevelt decided to go bear hunting in the thickets along the Louisiana-Texas border. A call was put out for Lilly to serve as guide, and one day he appeared in the presidential hunting camp. The affair created national headlines. Lilly tracked sign for a week and finally got the president in position to kill his bear. When the lean, undersized animal had been shot, Roosevelt danced and shouted as if he’d brought down a 1,000-pound grizzly.

By the time Lilly was 50, there were few bears left in his home range so he began drifting toward the Southwest in hopes of finding better pickings. Fording the Rio Grande, he hunted for a while in the mountains of northern Mexico and sold fresh game to mining companies.

In 1911 he crossed into the southwestern corner of New Mexico for the first time. He was after an old grizzly that he had been following through Sonora and Chihuahua. The bear was finally dropped in the Animas Mountains of the New Mexico panhandle. Lilly later remarked that he had chased the animal through three states and two countries. It turned out to be a rare Nelson grizzly and he sent the hide and skull to the National Museum.

A new phase opened in the life of Ben Lilly. To this point he had always hunted for pure pleasure or to sell game to provide for his simple needs. Suddenly in New Mexico he was given the chance to pursue hunting as a profitable business. Ranchers in the western half of the state were plagued by bears, mountain lions and lobo wolves. They were willing to pay top bounty if Lilly would go stalk these predators. The U.S. Forest Service was also willing to pay for predator control. So Lilly’s skills, his pack of dogs and his rifle were much in demand.

Over the next few years, he probably averaged about 50 lions and bears a year. How many he killed in a lifetime of hunting no one can say, for Lilly remained close-mouthed on that subject. Evidently he planned to reveal the total figure in his autobiography, which he worked on from time to time in his last days. But that project was never completed.

In 1936 Lilly died at Silver City. Some 14 years later, Texas author J. Frank Dobie published a biography of the man, but it received only moderate notice. With the expanding interest in conservation and the growing clamor over endangered species, Lilly’s career and his record of slaughter seemed like a blot on the history of the West.