Coping with Colorado’s big cats
EVERGREEN (AP) ” Carrie Ann and Shaffer Warner have repeatedly called authorities about the stalker that peers into their 6-year-old son’s bedroom window at night. It’s the same stalker that killed the family cat and chased the family into their home in the wooded hills west of Denver.
The culprit is a tannish-brown mountain lion that has eluded wildlife officers perched on the porch with shotguns, traps baited with roadkill and even a motion-detection camera fastened to a pine tree.
The family keeps the blinds drawn and has built a steel enclosure around the back porch. Two months ago, Schylure told his parents the lion stared into his room “like it was mad at me.”
“We’re living in this vale of fear,” said Carrie Ann Warner, watching Schylure fidget near the side of the house. “I’ve reached my wit’s end. I don’t know what to do.”
The clash between the family and one of the West’s most infamous predators is not the only one in Colorado this year, not by far.
Reports of mountain lions roaming neighborhoods and devouring family pets are cropping up from suburban Denver to Fort Collins, one of the most heavily populated stretches in the Rockies. In April, a lion attacked and broke the jaw of a 7-year-old boy on a trail in Boulder before it was chased off.
Wildlife officers are scrambling to educate people about how to get along with the big cats as development pushes farther into the canyons and pine-studded hills the animals once had to themselves.
They say mountain lion fatalities are rare ” only 17 nationwide since 1890 ” and insist, for the most part, that the animals are naturally wary of people.
Still, the number of human-lion encounters ” when an unprovoked cat makes contact with a person ” started picking up nationwide starting in the 1970s, rising from about two each year to between six and 10, said Paul Beier, a conservation biology professor at Northern Arizona University.
The number of fatal lion attacks in that span has increased from about one to three or four a decade, he said.
“They’re still extremely rare events,” Beier said.
The numbers really look small, Beier added, considering that the West, where most of the cats are, is the fastest-growing part of the country.
Hunting, development and other activities wiped out mountain lions in most of the East and Midwest, though most experts agree they are gradually moving east, prompting North Dakota and South Dakota to start hunting seasons.
A recent book suggests lions are becoming more threatening because they’re starting to see people as prey. Published in 2003, “The Beast in the Garden: A Modern Parable of Man and Nature” by David Baron is set in Boulder, where mountain parks and open space abut the city limits.
As mountain lions follow deer into gardens and yards, Baron says, they may be learning to look at family pets and people as potential food.
“I think that people and mountain lions can largely coexist. The threat from mountain lions is extremely small compared to most threats we face in our daily lives,” said Baron, who lives in Boston and works for Public Radio International.
Ken Logan, a nationally recognized mountain lion biologist, said Baron’s book does a good job exploring how people affect the environment and wildlife. But he said science doesn’t support the premise that lions are starting to view humans as dinner.
“If pumas were relying on humans for prey, people would be getting killed by pumas weekly, if not daily,” said Logan, who is in the second year of a 10-year study for the state Division of Wildlife on mountain lions in western Colorado.
A study is also in the works on mountain lions in Colorado, including the foothills west of Denver. There are an estimated 3,000 to 7,000 mountain lions statewide, with male adults weighing 110-180 pounds and reaching 6 feet long.
Naomi Rachel and her husband, artist Ryo Murraygreen, know there are mountain lions near their mountain home west of Boulder.
They’ve topped the rail along their second-story deck with wire mesh so their four house cats can’t jump down and a cage connected to the house allows the felines to get fresh air safely. Plants and vegetables are behind Plexiglas and inside wire cages to keep out critters.
Rachel has seen mountain lion tracks a few times in the snow in the 14 years she and Murraygreen have lived in the mountains ” but no cats. Murraygreen said he once saw a mountain lion and her kittens from afar.
“Every time I walk out here I figure there’s a 5 to 10 percent chance or less that there’s a mountain lion watching me and I know I’m not very interesting in terms of (being) prey,” he said.
Not far away, neighbor Jon Silver said he has caught rare glimpses of mountain lions in the nearly 30 years he has lived in the area. He warns the people living on his rental properties about bears and lions.
“It’s just a matter of adapting to your surroundings,” Silver said. “If I’m in Manhattan and it’s 11 o’clock at night, maybe I wouldn’t be walking down streets that weren’t well lit.”
For Silver, adaptation has meant devising a special dog run.
His wife’s German shepherd puppy, Me Too, goes outside by running through a doggie door into the garage, where he enters a door on the floor, scampers through a 40-foot underground tunnel, complete with a light triggered by a sensor, and bursts into a 24-foot-long chain-link cage.
The door over the tunnel closes when the garage door opens so the Silvers can drive cars in with no problem.
“I want to live with wildlife. It’s their territory. But I also want to protect my dog,” Diana Silver said.
Vail Daily, Vail, Colorado