Wildlife manager: Mountain lions ‘becoming more accustomed to being around people’
Are mountain lions growing in population in Eagle County? Or are there just more sightings?
GYPSUM — Jesse Martinez’s young daughter was acting a bit naughty the afternoon of June 9, and he is very grateful that she was.
When Martinez and his girlfriend arrived at their Gypsum home at around 3 p.m. that day, they sent the little girl inside for timeout. If they hadn’t done so, she would have been playing in the front yard when a mountain lion brazenly strolled through their Estes Lane neighborhood. Martinez figures his daughter would have been within mere feet of the predator.
“It walked right down the street like it was nothing,” Martinez said. “There were dogs right at the other side of a fence, barking at him and the cat didn’t even notice them.”
According to Craig Wescoatt, wildlife manager for the Colorado Department of Parks and Wildlife, Martinez’s story would have been remarkable a few years ago. Nowadays, it is certainly unusual but not unprecedented.
“Mountain lions are becoming more accustomed to being around people,” Wescoatt said. “They also seem to be becoming more active during the day. Any time of day you can see them.”
Wescoatt noted there is a widespread belief that Eagle County has seen an increase in its mountain lion population. But that belief is based on anecdotal evidence, not empirical data.
“We are not certain if we have a lot more lions than we used to. We do have a lot more occurrences of encounters between people and lions,” Wescoatt said.
One of those occurrences happened in February when Edwards resident Sean LaFaver was loading up his car at night in anticipation of a morning trip to Denver when he heard an unusual screeching noise.
He walked around the corner of his Homestead house to investigate and got a big surprise. About 10 feet away, sitting in a tree, was a mountain lion.
“We had a stare off for a moment or so,” said LaFaver. “It was definitely an adrenaline rush.”
“But I didn’t want to hang out outside for too long,” he said.
LaFaver didn’t want to put himself in a dangerous situation, so he went back into his home and turned on his outdoor lights. He then captured photos of the animal, which was accompanied by a pair of cubs and dragging a dead deer.
Wescoatt noted mountain lion habitat is vast. Lions reside at various elevations and in multiple types of vegetation.
“The creeks around the valley serve as a corridor for all wildlife species,” Wescoatt said. “The lions are just going to where the food is. If there are food sources available they are going to stay in that area.
“There are places they are finding food sources near residences,” Wescoatt continued. “Unfortunately, some times the food may be domestic pets.”
“Mountain lions aren’t losing their fear of us, they are just becoming more tolerant of us because of the potential to get a reward,” Wescoatt said.
Those rewards extend beyond readily available domestic animal prey. Mountain lions will feed on roadkill. Like bears, raccoons, skunks, and other wild animals, mountain lions are attracted by trash or by pet food that is left outside.
“It’s probably the aroma that attracts them,” said Wescoatt. “They also feed on raccoons, who are attracted to trash.”
The recommendations for how to behave during a mountain lion encounter in the wild also apply to encounters that happen in your backyard, Wescoatt said. He also offered some other common sense tips.
Wescoatt advised against leaving pet food outside. “And when you let your pets out to go to the bathroom, you should be accompanying them so you can make noise.”
“The mountain lions that are finding their way to residential areas are probably young lions,” he continued. “They are in the learning process, especially if they have just recently been kicked loose from their mothers.”
Regardless of age, Wescoatt said mountain lions are always hunting for their next meal.
That’s a concern Martinez shares. He said the mountain lion in his neighborhood wasn’t a full-grown adult but it wasn’t a cub either.
“I bet there had to be other cats the same age around, that day,” Martinez said. “That cat walked within 50 feet of us like it was no problem.”
“I always have it in the back or your mind (that a mountain lion could be nearby) now,” Martinez said. “Even though you are in town, you need to be aware.”
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