Living among lions |

Living among lions

Kathy Heicher
Special to the Enterprise

EAGLE COUNTY – Most people live their entire lives without ever catching a glimpse of a mountain lion in the wild.Dosia Laeyendecker of Salt Creek, south of Eagle, is one of the exceptions.On Jan. 19 Laeyendecker was driving up snow-covered Brush Creek Road at about 7:30 p.m. Five miles out of Eagle she saw something she will remember forever: Three mountain lions crossed the road in front of her car. Already traveling slowly, she carefully braked, and watched with amazement as the three large cats, all about the same size, passed by. She remembers their graceful jumps as they disappeared into the dark; their beautiful, thick tails curling behind them, and the contrast of the animals against the white snow, she said.”My adrenaline was way up … I could see all of it. What a wonderful, beautiful sight it was,” she said. She drove the rest of the way home, and told her husband, Hyko, about the lions. “Hyko was jealous,” she said.The Laeyendeckers, who have also seen bobcats near their Salt Creek home, consider those glimpses of wildlife one of the benefits of living in the rural mountains.”They (the mountain lions) are here. We know that. We aren’t really scared, because normally you don’t see them,” she said, noting that lions tend to be most active from dusk to dawn. The Laeyendeckers do make a point of getting their cat inside at night.

Wildlife experts say people who want to live in rural, open country with nature at their back door must learn to cope with the wildlife that comes with the lifestyle.Craig Wescoatt, Eagle District Wildlife Manager for the Colorado Division of Wildlife, says he’s only seen lions in the wild twice in the 23 years he’s worked for the agency.”We don’t have any idea how many lions are around,” he said.State biologists have estimated Colorado’s mountain lion population at 3,000 and 7,000. There’s no county-by-county breakdown of lion numbers, because the animals are so elusive. In the late 1980s, the state conducted a small-scale research project. Biologists tracked, tranquilized, and tagged about a dozen mountain lions in the Eagle Valley.

According to the Division of Wildlife, the status of mountain lions in Colorado has evolved over the decades. In the 1920s, the animals were considered varmints, and a $50 bounty was offered for their hides. By 1965, lions were classified as a big game species. The state issues a limited number of hunting licenses for lions; and hunters have to pay top dollar for these mountain lion hunts. Wescoatt says the harvest of lions on the south side of Interstate 70 is fairly low, with one or two lions killed every year. More lions are harvested in the northern part of the county, in areas such as Burns, the Rancho del Rio country along the Colorado River, and the north side of Castle Peak.Wildlife experts have a sort of rule of thumb for where mountain lions can be found: They like areas with plenty of deer (their main prey), and with good vegetative cover in which to hide. In the Eagle Valley, deer spend the winter on the north side of Interstate 70, between Edwards and Glenwood Canyon, and as far north as Burns and McCoy. In the summer months, when deer are scattered from timberline to valley floors, the lions also scatter. During winter months, when weather forces the deer to bunch up, the lion population also becomes more concentrated.During the past winter, Wescoatt handled two reports of mountain lion sightings in the Eagle Cemetery – the same place where a local deer herd winters, he said.”I imagine the lion was following its prey species,” says Wescoatt.

The Division of Wildlife says the number of meetings between lions and humans are on the increase for a number of reasons. More people are moving into lion habitat, including mountain subdivisions and ‘urban fringe” areas, such as Salt Creek or Eby Creek (north of Eagle). As the state’s population grows, there’s more people out using the trails in lion habitat. There’s also a greater awareness of the lions’ presence.The Eby Creek country, immediately north of Eagle, is deer winter range. Add to that the fact that the topography of the area creates a natural crossing area for lions, and it’s not surprising that residents of the area can report encounters with the stealthy animals.A dozen years ago, Susie Kincade’s family had a close encounter with a mountain lion up Eby Creek. Kincade’s daughters, then 6 and 8 years old, were walking with their dog up the road from their house, which is located about two miles up the creek. However, within a few minutes the girls returned, and reported to their mom that the dog had chased a “big kitty” into a tree. When Kincade went to investigate, she found the “big kitty” was actually a mountain lion.The Kincade family saw lions on several other occasions, and became more cautious of the predators. They got another dog, a big German Shepherd that liked to bark.”Oh, my gosh. I love seeing the lions … but I don’t go out jogging by myself during their feeding times,” Kincade said. “You get to understand their patterns, and know what time of the year they come.”

On a recent April evening, Wayne Conrad was driving up Neilson Gulch Road to his home in the Eby Creek Mesa subdivision when two mountain lions crossed in front of him, near the site of the town water tank.”First there was a deer that came screaming across the road that made me slam on the brakes. Two or three seconds later, those two cats were right on it,” he said.Last summer, Ben Kunkel saw a mountain lion while he was sitting out on the deck of his parent’s cabin, about two miles up Eby Creek, reading a book. He happened to look up from his reading at the same moment the lion silently crossed the yard.”He was startled,” his mother, Gale, said.Marlene Kunkel, Ben’s aunt, who lives on Neilson Gulch Road in Eby Creek Mesa, still remembers the day nine years ago when she looked out the bathroom window while brushing her teeth, and saw a different sort of animal walking just beyond her back yard.”At first I thought, ‘what a funny-looking dog.’ Then I realized it was not a dog, it was a cat. Then I realized, ‘holy cow, it’s a mountain lion,'” she said.The fact that a mountain lion could be so close to her home did cause some worry. Her dog, a golden retriever, was out laying on the deck at the time – and he didn’t react to the mountain lion at all. Kunkel had some fears that a lion could get to her pets.”It is part of living up here,” she acknowledges.

Conrad said he was concerned after seeing the mountain lions. His wife, Brenda, likes to walk and hike in the area. He encourages her to walk with a friend; and Brenda makes a point of telling him where she is going when she heads out for a walk.”There is always a likelihood with lions in the area that one could wander down, and grab a pet,” Wescoatt said. But lion attacks on humans are very rare, and, there have been fewer than a dozen fatal lion attacks on people in North American in more than 100 years, he said. The risk of being struck by lightning is considered far greater than the risk of being attacked by a mountain lion, he said. But when humans and lions do come across one another, the animals will give definite visual clues about their attitude.”If they are crouched down, with the tail switching, that is a fairly good indication they are thinking about attacking,” he said. “If they are sitting upright, just looking, it is more of a curiosity situation. The body language will clue you in.”Vail, Colorado

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