Vail Valley mountain lions return to the valley floor | VailDaily.com

Vail Valley mountain lions return to the valley floor

Wildlife throughout the state starting to lose its fear of humans, and that isn't good

Living with lions
  • Here are some tips for living in mountain lion country.
  • Don’t feed any wildlife.
  • Avoid planting non-native shrubs and landscape to eliminate places mountain lions can hide.
  • Make noise when you come and go, especially during dusk and dawn.
  • Install outside lighting and closely supervise children when playing outdoors.
  • Keep your pet under control.
  • Hike in groups and make plenty of noise.
  • If you see a mountain lion, don’t approach it, stay calm, stop or back away slowly, do all you can to appear larger and if the animal behaves aggressively, then throw stones and fight back if need be.
  • Communicate with neighbors about these tips.
Source: Colorado Parks and Wildlife

EAGLE COUNTY — Deer and elk move toward the valley floor this time of year, and mountain lions follow them.

While most of us enjoy seeing deer and elk in the valley, mountain lions can pose a problem. Like all wildlife this time of year, the big cats are hungry. Deer are the lions’ natural prey, but the cats are opportunistic hunters. That means unattended pets can sometimes end up being eaten, even when they’re close to home.

Mountain lion sightings can depend on a lot of factors, including the severity of a given winter. A good covering of snow makes it easier to spot footprints.

Craig Wescoatt is Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s officer for the western part of the Eagle River Valley.

Wescoatt said he’s seen a “slightly downward trend” in mountain lion reports so far this winter.

But Colorado Parks and Wildlife area wildlife manager Matt Yamashita said the general trend has been toward more sightings and reports.

Yamashita said there are several factors behind the trend, including social media and the ubiquity of cameras on phones.

“Folks have an easier route to contact (the agency) and report (sightings),” Yamashita said.

The Glenwood Springs office of Colorado Parks and Wildlife has a Facebook page that invites people to post photos and report wildlife sightings.

Even if the state agency doesn’t receive a firsthand report, Yamashita said social media posts often make their way to wildlife officers.

Yamashita added that it’s “likely” that predator populations are increasing in the Eagle and Roaring Fork valleys. A number of those predators are spending time where humans live or recreate.

And, he added, “People in the Eagle and Roaring Fork valleys love to get outside. … Our presence outside is more substantial than it was 20 or 30 years ago.” That means the chances rise for human-wildlife conflicts.

Beyond meeting wildlife on trails, Yamashita said, people living in the area often inadvertently lure wildlife to yards and decks. A birdfeeder can attract prey animals, and — ultimately — predators.

“People, pets and wildlife is a recipe for issues,” Yamashita said. “Our passion for wildlife can have unintended consequences.”

Protecting yourself

Yamashita encouraged residents to take steps to keep all wildlife off their property.

Wescoatt said he’s heard reports from some residents about neighbors putting out feed to attract wildlife. Beyond being unwise, it’s also illegal.

While various forms of shooing animals away is fine, there are only a few instances in which a human can protect either human or domestic animal life, particularly when it comes to pets.

Yamashita said state law considers pets personal property. State hunting regulations don’t cover personal property protection.

On the other hand, if a predator attacks a pet on a leash, that’s considered a threat to human life, and a human can respond with deadly force.

A pet on a home’s deck is a kind of gray area: That’s why Colorado Parks and Wildlife wants residents to discourage animals from bedding down in yards and on decks.

It isn’t just old, small or weak pets that are at risk.

A mountain lion “is an apex predator,” Yamashita said — an animal that can take down an elk can take down a dog of any size.

Yamashita urged people to call Colorado Parks and Wildlife before a predator becomes a problem.

“We want to know what’s going on,” Yamashita said. Wildlife officers don’t want to kill animals unless it’s absolutely necessary, he said.

“We want people to report, so we can use all the resources available to us,” to mitigate a problem animal,” Yamashita said.

Changing behavior

While mountain lions tend to be solitary creatures, Yamashita said their behavior is evolving as they live with more people in their habitat. There are more reports these days of groups of mountain lions being spotted. That could just be family units, Yamashita said. A mountain lion cub will often stay with its mother until its 18 months to 2 years old.

Still, he added, with prey in more concentrated areas, especially in the winter, lions are more tolerant of one another.

As more people want to be close to wildlife, animal behavior is changing in both prey and predators.

“A lot of wild species — not just mountain lions and bears — over the years … have lost their fear of people,” Yamashita said.

Now, as humans want to be closer to wildlife, the animals are getting accustomed to people being in their environment.

That’s dangerous for both humans and animals.

“We keep saying it’s going to take somebody getting injured or killed (to alter human behavior),” Yamashita said. “But we have incidents, and it hasn’t changed behavior.”

Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at smiller@vaildaily.com or 970-748-2930.