Living with the lions: In winter especially, mountain lions are all around us, even if we can’t see them
Special to the Daily
As snow blankets the Vail Valley, evidence of all four-legged residents is captured in soft footprints across the white landscape. Hooves of many shapes and sizes appear, sometimes in abundant swirls, indicating the presence of entire herds of deer and elk. Where such activity is visible, the proximity of another four-legged neighbor is inevitable. Mostly invisible, mountain lions are sometimes lurking just a couple dozen yards away. Most of the time, we never know it.
Majestic, elegant and beautiful as they are, mountain lions are predators. Depending on the circumstances, they’re not altogether harmless. It’s important that we humans take certain precautions so all can coexist harmoniously.
“In Eagle, Vail and Edwards, deer live in everybody’s backyards,” said Colorado Parks and Wildlife District Wildlife Manager Matt Yamashita. “That’s a major contribution to human and lion conflict. Mountain lions don’t discriminate between food sources. If there’s a deer there one day and a dog the other, it’s all the same to them.”
Colorado wildlife officials have noticed a considerable uptick in mountain lion sightings and encounters in the last several years.
“Our population has increased dramatically over 40 years, especially the last 15 years,” said CPW Carnivore and Furbearer Program Manager Mark Vieira. “We have more people in lion habitat, more people on trails, more people that have chickens or pigs or who might plant things that attract deer and elk to their yards. Those things are going to increase the sightings of lions.”
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Colorado’s largest cat
Also known as cougars or pumas, mountain lions are the largest wild cat in Colorado. Males are larger than females. Adult males are about eight feet long from head to tail and are 25 inches tall at the shoulders, weighing as much as 165 pounds. They can reach heights of 19 feet by jumping straight up in a single leap. Their home ranges can easily span 100 square miles.
Vieira estimates that between 3,800 and 4,400 mountain lions live in Colorado, the majority concentrated in the western half of the state.
Deer and elk are a mountain lion’s primary food source. A lion can consume one deer or elk per week. They also feed on smaller animals like raccoons, rabbits, deer and turkey, but are capable of taking down much larger prey, such as moose. Humans are not typically an attractive menu item. According to CPW, there have been 25 mountain lion attacks on humans in Colorado since 1990, five of them since 2019. Still, attacks on humans are incredibly rare.
By nature, mountain lions are elusive and solitary creatures that innately fear humans. Other than females raising their young, they typically live and travel alone. However, like any species, they sometimes act out of character.
Mountain lions in Vail
Last January, a mountain lion wandered through the sliding glass doors, directly into the lobby of Vail Spa Condominiums in (of course) Lionshead. Earlier that morning, the animal had spent several hours huddled in a corner on the first floor of neighboring Antlers at Vail. Wildlife officers arrived on scene, following the animal’s tracks between buildings. They found and captured the cat in an indoor hallway. They discovered the animal was in a state of starvation, which accounted for its unusual behavior. The poor creature was euthanized.
“It was literally starving to death. It was desperate, trying to find anything. It was walking dead,” Yamashita said. “There was almost no muscle tissue on it at all. It was in really poor body shape.”
In Yamashita’s district, which covers Eagle County as well as the Roaring Fork Valley, there were 66 mountain lion sightings reported in 2020 and a whopping 107 in 2021. As of October, 2022, there were 43 sightings.
Yamashita says another factor that accounts for the recent uptick in mountain lion sightings and conflicts in the Vail area are winter weather cycles.
“For a while, we had some mild winters. In those years, the deer and elk tend to be more dispersed. They’re not as concentrated in the valley floors. Last winter, December in particular, there were periods where we had decent snows. That concentrated those prey species near town. When that happens, it concentrates the predator species, too. We saw a lot of lions following their prey into town. That obviously brings them into close contact with humans.”
Technology is also to thank for the increase in mountain lion sightings. Security cameras captured footage of the lion in the buildings in Lionshead last winter and shortly thereafter, another lion was spotted on a nearby porch by a homeowner’s Ring camera.
Habits and habitat
In addition to traveling around a massive home range area, mountain lions mate throughout the year. Although they’ll bed down to escape nasty weather in the winter, with the exception of females giving birth and raising young, lions don’t typically spend much time in a single den.
“They’re going to get under big boughs, spruce fir trees, thermally, in a place out of the weather. When a female has kittens, she’s going to find a place that’s even more protected and harder for predators to get into,” Vieira said. “Young lions are with their mother until about 14 or 16 months old and then they are dispersing. With large home ranges, they’re not coming back to a single spot day in day out, year in year out. They know their home range. There are lots of places they’re likely to bed up, a rock overhang, under a pile of pine trees. They’ll want places they can see out of with good wind so they can smell something coming.”
While mountain lions typically hunt from dusk to dawn and sleep during the day, in the winter, they are more likely to be seen and possibly even hunt during daylight hours. To avoid mountain lion encounters, wildlife officials encourage homeowners to refrain from luring deer and elk onto their property. The reality is that even if you don’t see a mountain lion, they are likely not far away.
“By and large, lions are secretive. They’re trying to stay away from people,” Vieira said. “Still, lion habitat can be right up against homes. That’s a key place for mountain lion incidents. The takeaway is to bring pets in at night. Use lighting in backyards. Don’t put deer-friendly food on your property. Take common-sense steps. Maybe you’ve never seen a mountain lion, but they’re there.”
For dog owners, a major tip for mountain lion avoidance is to keep dogs leashed.
“When people call about mountain lions, their biggest concern is how to keep themselves, their families, their pets safe,” Yamashita said. “Most activity we see in Eagle County is tied to dogs, specifically, dogs off leash. They’ll stalk dogs. When dogs are in danger, they’ll instinctively retreat to their owners. Dogs are the No. 1 instigator for human-lion interactions. If people could be cognizant of that, we’d have fewer conflicts.”
This story first appeared in Vail Valley Magazine.
Keep dogs on a leash.
Closely supervise small children playing outside.
Make sure pets and domestic livestock are locked indoors at night.
Use outdoor lighting on your property.
Avoid walking dogs in the early morning or late evening .
If walking at night or at dusk or dawn, make noise, wear bright colors and don’t listen to music on ear buds.
Don’t put deer and elk-friendly food (low hanging bird feeders) on your property. Deer and elk eat many kinds of plants, but according to Colorado State University Extension, plants that help repel them include trees like white fir, Colorado spruce, pinyon pine and juniper, shrubs such as lilac, potentilla and quince and ground covers thyme and English ivy.
When skiing or snowshoeing in remote areas, make sure small children stay close.
Be aware of your surroundings and pay attention to tracks in the snow.
If you see a mountain lion, do not approach it or run. Make yourself look as large as possible (put your arms up, spread your jacket wide), speak loudly and slowly back away. Keep your eyes on the animal at all times. If a lion acts aggressively, yell, throw rocks, sticks or anything nearby.
To report a mountain lion sighting, call CPW headquarters at 303-297-1192