Mountain lions: Powerful but elusive | VailDaily.com

Mountain lions: Powerful but elusive

Rick Spitzer
Special to the Daily

EAGLE COUNTY — Mountain lion — what other predator in our neighborhood would conjure up so many images? What would frighten you more on a trail? A bear or a lion? Most people I have talked to emphatically said the mountain lion would be the bigger threat.

In reality your chances of being killed by a mountain lion are slim. Since 1990 there have been three fatalities in Colorado. None had witnesses, so the specifics of events leading up to the death are unknown.

• An 18-year-old male was killed near Clear Creek High School in Idaho Springs. He was jogging on a common route in 1991

• A 10-year-old boy died in 1997 on the west side of Rocky Mountain National Park when he hiked ahead of his family.

• A 3-year-old boy became separated from a group on a trail in Poudre Canyon, west of Fort Collins in 1999. His clothing was discovered in 2003. Evidence at the scene was consistent with mountain lion predation.

Even with slim chances, it is always a good idea to stay alert while outdoors in Colorado. There have been stalking reports in many areas of the state. As a native and former park ranger, I pay close attention to my surroundings, but have only seen three mountain lions in Colorado. How many have seen me?

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The range for mountain lions is huge, from the southern part of Canada to the southern tip of South America. No other wild animal has that large a range. They can be found in forests, swamps, canyon country and deserts. Mountain lions may roam over a 30-to-200 square-mile area. It would be very rare to see more than one adult cat at a time.

Names? The mountain lion has a lot of regional names, including cougar, puma, painter, panther, catamount and screamer. Screamer? Do an Internet search for mountain lion scream on your computer. The sound, which I have heard a number of times — twice when I was in my hot tub — will give you the chills.

A male lion can weigh as much as 165 pounds and be 8 feet long, counting the tail. The largest documented male lion weighed 276 pounds. Females weigh in at about 100 pounds and at about two years of age can breed. Two or three kittens are the norm, but one animal in Eagle County has four. Lions can survive for 12 years or more.

These animals are powerful and generally prey on deer and sometimes elk, but smaller animals are also a part of their diet. They tend to hunt around dawn and dusk. They will stalk their prey and attack when they have the best chance of success.

When a kill is made, they often drag it to cover and when done feeding, they will bury the kill with vegetation, often lying on it to protect it from other predators. Estimates are that they will kill a deer every 10 days. When that prey is not present, they may begin to prey on livestock.

Farmers and ranchers do not have a favorable attitude for these big cats. In fact, by the beginning of the last century, mountain lions were nearly eliminated from much of the West, along with wolves, coyotes, grizzly bears and black bears. They were considered vermin and many states had a bounty on them. Some believe that these animals had a negative impact on the population of game species. The reverse was actually true.

By the early 1900s, hundreds of thousands of lions were killed. The impact on the ecosystem in some areas caused a population increase of deer and other herbivores. The resulting overgrazing, increased erosion and other problems had a huge impact on the health of entire ecosystems.

In the 1960s, states began to eliminate the bounty on mountain lions with the last bounties in the 1990s. Most states in the West have now reclassified mountain lions as big game animals and started hunting seasons.

Some biologists believe that the population of lions is increasing across most of its range. This may be due to increased prey population and less predation on the big cats by man. A higher population of people also means sightings are on the increase. The Colorado Parks and Wildlife does not have an accurate estimate of mountain lion populations. In Colorado, mountain lion hunters must have the proper permits and must complete the Colorado Parks and Wildlife certified mountain lion course and pass the test. If a lion is harvested, then there are many other requirements that must be met.

Due to the small number of encounters, there are no studies that provide the best way to manage them. The National Park Service and the Colorado Parks and Recreation suggest the following, should you be hiking and meet a mountain lion:

• Travel in groups and make noise to reduce surprises.

• Carry a walking stick as some form of protection.

• Keep your children and pets close. Tell your kids what to do.

• Never approach a lion and always give them an escape route.

• Maintain eye contact, and never turn your back on a lion.

• Talk calmly and move slowly. Pick up your kids so they do not panic and run.

• Stand up straight, with arms above your head and open your jacket in order to appear larger.

• Back away very slowly in case the lion is guarding a kill or her den.

• If the lion approaches, then throw rocks or sticks and yell at the animal.

• Try to convince the lion you are not prey, but might be a danger.

• If the lion does attack, then fight back with every thing you have.

• Unlike surviving a bear attack, if you play dead with a mountain lion, then you will be.

• Above all, do not run. No cat can resist the instinct to give chase.

Hopefully, you will have a chance to see a mountain lion in the wild, and at the same time be in a situation where you will be safe and can enjoy the encounter from afar.