One small tale tells the larger truth
VAIL – In 1991, Scott Lancaster became the first person killed by a mountain lion in Colorado history. The attack shouldn’t have happened, and it was even being predicted.In the book “Beast in the Garden,” journalist David Baron argues what really killed Lancaster was a distorted perception of America’s wild lands.”The point of my book is that we’re kidding ourselves to think that wilderness still exits, and we have to accept responsibility for managing nature and managing ourselves. Because I believe what killed Scott Lancaster was this romantic view that wilderness could still exist along the Colorado Front Range,” Baron said, who spent many years as a science and environmental correspondent for NPR in Boston. He calls Boulder home now.Immediately prior to Lancaster’s death, two Boulder County scientists recorded how area mountain lions were changing their behavior. As they saw it, lions were losing their fear of people. They were considering people as prey. According to Baron, the Lancaster attack went against what scientists thought they new about mountain lions.
The young lion ate 18-year-old Lancaster. It killed Lancaster not at night but in the middle of the day. The lion was neither starving nor rabid. It attacked not in the wilderness, but in view of Interstate 70 near Lancaster’s high school in Idaho Springs. Baron said there’s a good argument that the lion that killed Lancaster traveled from Boulder.What inspired Baron to write “Beast in the Garden” was other articles he had written about wildlife. The stories weren’t about endangered species, but about species becoming more abundant. They were articles on garbage-eating bears, flower-garden loving deer and poodle-munching alligators in Florida.”I was struck that all over the country we’re entering a new phase in our relationship with wildlife. We’re living in closer proximity to many of these animals than we have before. We’re also bringing the animals back to abundance and they are moving in to where we are,” said Baron. “I wanted to write a book around that general topic and was looking for a good story to tell that would get at that larger theme.”This is when he discovered the untold stories of Lancaster and the growing population of mountain lions along the Front Range. Baron feels Lancaster’s death is a cautionary tale about what happens when we change the natural world. He thinks what happened on the Front Range with mountain lions explains what’s happening in other parts of the country with lions, bears, coyotes and deer.
“I wrote the book as a kind of parable, a small tale that tells much larger truths,” said Baron.Before 1965, mountain lions had a bounty on their head in Colorado. In 1965, they became a game animal with restrictions. In the mid ’60s, Boulder County began an open space program, buying up old ranch land around the city. They created a green belt of park land around Boulder, and suddenly after 1,000 years of hunting in this space, Baron said, there was wildlife refuge right next to the city. Deer moved in, and then into people’s backyards. Mountain lions happily followed.”The message being sent to the lions all this time was, ‘come on in, this is where the food is, you’ll find food around homes, and if you ever encounter a person, the person is just going to take your photograph or smile at you from a back porch,'” said Baron.Baron argues in “Beast in the Garden” that wilderness is just not natural anymore. He said forests have changed because humans suppress wildfires.
The species composition has changed because we have removed grizzlies and wolves from Colorado. We have also changed the way water flows to the Front Range, Baron said. “All of that is changing the natural environment around Boulder and changing the behavior of the animals that live here,” said Baron. “The fallacy as I see it was in believing we could just have a hands-off approach to nature. I very much believe in protecting the natural environment, but I think protecting it means understanding that when you put a house next to a forest, you are affecting the forest. We have to then manage that forest to make it more natural.”Baron will discuss this issue Sunday at the Antlers in Vail from 5:30-7 p.m., courtsey of Vail Symposium and Verbatim Booksellers in Vail Village. Vail Symposium is a grass-roots organization dedicated to enhance the intellectual and cultural quality of life in our valley. Vail, Colorado