Summit County wildlife officer shoots mountain lion hit by car on Vail Pass
SUMMIT COUNTY — It’s almost always a case of wrong place at the wrong time.
Cars have been roaming the nation’s roads for less than a hundred years, and wildlife certainly haven’t adapted defense mechanisms to avoid collisions with them. That evolution will take millennia, if the creatures can catch up at all. What’s an animal — human or non — to do?
Around dawn on the morning of Tuesday, Oct. 7, a driver headed up Interstate 70 toward Vail Pass hit a mountain lion. The animal lay broken, but alive, in the road.
Soon a couple Colorado State Patrol troopers and a Colorado Parks and Wildlife officer arrived to the scene about a mile and a half up from the Copper Mountain exit. They found the lion could lift its head but didn’t react when they approached.
“That is really strange behavior. Normally a mountain lion would be gone,” said Elissa Knox, one of two wildlife officers for Summit and Grand counties. Mountain lions typically run away from people or don’t let people come close.
Part of Knox’s job as a wildlife officer is euthanizing wildlife too injured to survive.
“If it can get up and run away from us, we leave it alone ’cause some wild animals do fine on three legs,” she said.
This lion, however, seemed to have a broken back or pelvis and a broken hind leg.
From about 30 feet away, Knox raised her gun. She wanted to be close enough for an accurate shot but far enough away in case it tried to swipe at her. The lion was also on a bridge, and Knox didn’t want to encourage it to crawl away and potentially fall off the bridge.
She waited until no cars were coming to avoid scaring drivers. Then she aimed and shot the animal in the chest.
“Having to kill things is probably the worst part of my job,” Knox said. “It’s sad, but on the flip side this animal is injured, it’s suffering and the sooner that I can end that the better.”
Around Summit County, folks sometimes say that if you regularly drive in the Colorado mountains and haven’t hit a wild animal yet, just wait.
A week or so before Knox shot the mountain lion, a driver on Highway 9 north of Silverthorne hit a bear. The bear was the latest of six to eight bears killed by cars this year.
Knox said she also knows of four moose, two on I-70 and two on Highway 9, that have been hit since January. The larger animals were all dead when she or her partner officer arrived.
She couldn’t put a figure on the roadkill elk and deer. In the winter, a driver hits one almost every night somewhere in Summit or Grand counties, she said.
Mountain lions are rare car-accident victims, but Knox said she still sees one or two a year.
“They’re so agile it’s kind of shocking that they get hit,” she said.
Collisions with large animals not only threaten the wildlife, they also cost people thousands of dollars in car repairs. Sometimes the human drivers or passengers are the ones who end up dead.
Parks and Wildlife regional spokesman Mike Porras reminded drivers to stay vigilant, especially this time of year when the days become shorter, visibility worsens and animals are moving and migrating.
Daylight saving time approaching in early November could mean more drivers on the road around dawn and dusk, when wildlife are most active.
Sections of Highway 9 north of Silverthorne and between Green Mountain Reservoir and Grand County are especially notorious for animal-vehicle accidents.
Around 30 years ago, Parks and Wildlife changed its policy to allow people to collect roadkill meat.
First priority goes to anyone on scene, whether it’s the driver who hit the animal or a passerby who expresses a desire to take the meat home.
Area wildlife manager Lyle Sidener said more and more people have become interested in the locavore movement and want their food to come from closer to home. Others are drawn to roadkill wildlife for financial or health reasons or because they don’t support conventional agriculture practices but might not be able to hunt wild game.
Those who find freshly dead deer or elk in the road can collect the carcass on the spot as long as they obtain a roadkill permit from Parks and Wildlife, state patrol or their local government within 48 hours.
People who stumble upon roadkill mountain lions, bears, bighorn sheep and mountain goats must call Parks and Wildlife first before moving the animal.
The agency salvages any trophy parts — hides, heads, antlers — for an annual auction put on in the winter by the nonprofit Colorado Trappers Association and adds the money it makes from sales to taxidermists and the like to its general operating budget.
Knox said when she finds roadkill in Summit County that isn’t spoiled or destroyed she contacts a handful of residents who have asked her to call them.
“It’s nothing formal. It’s just sort of a list we have,” she said.
Someone took home the roadkill mountain lion last week.
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