April 22, 2004 News » Cover Story

Lion Sense 

Mountain lions and humans, managing to coexist

click to enlarge GETTY IMAGES
  • Getty Images

It is April, and the sun has just dropped behind the mountains west of Colorado Springs. In the near West Side neighborhood of Bijou Street, neighbors are calling it a day, reluctantly heading inside for dinner. A scream pierces the air -- almost human, eerie. A woman carefully ventures across her back yard to investigate the source of the high-pitched shriek. Her back fence borders scrub oak and tall grass, a strip of open space. Glancing up toward the top of the hill, she sees first one, then two moving figures -- sand-colored, muscular, graceful; huge dogs, she thinks. Not dogs, she realizes suddenly, clutching her throat, not someone's loose pets, these are mountain lions. The scream she heard was a mating call -- right here in the middle of the city.

How common this event might be is hard to tell. Colorado Division of Wildlife figures show 28 calls reporting suspected mountain lion activity in the area stretching from Monument to Security from Jan. 1 to April 2 of this year. Many sightings, like the one described here, went unreported. And many calls, say DOW officials, are unsubstantiated -- foxes mistaken for mountain lions, paw prints that belong to large dogs, not lions.

But of the 28 calls made during the first three months of 2004, 15 were confirmed to be mountain lion activity -- a deer killed in a suburban back yard, a mother lion and her three cubs spotted crossing a street, sightings near Manitou Middle School and Manitou Elementary School --all within a two-week period in February.

Public interest in mountain lions, commonly known as cougars or puma, peaked this winter with the bizarre Jan. 10 death of former Colorado Springs resident Mark Reynolds, 35, killed by a mountain lion while mountain biking in Whiting Ranch Park, a popular Orange County, Calif., recreational open space. Accounts differ as to what exactly happened to Reynolds; some speculate that he had stopped to repair the chain on his bike and, hunched over on the trail, looked like easy prey to the lion. All reports confirm that the lion dragged Reynolds off the trail and partially buried his body, then proceeded the same afternoon to attack another mountain biker, fitness instructor and former Marine Anne Hjelle.

Significantly, Reynolds was biking alone; Hjelle was not. As the big cat pounced on Hjelle and tried to drag her away, a friend grabbed her leg and held on while other cyclists pounded the lion with rocks. The lion let go. Hjelle is recovering from her injuries.

According to the LA Times, the Reynolds attack was the sixth fatal mauling of a human by a mountain lion in California, the first since 1994 -- a relative rarity.

Rare, agrees author David Baron whose recent book, The Beast in the Garden, chronicles mountain lion activity in Boulder, Colo., and the last lion fatality in Colorado, 18-year-old Scott Lancaster of Idaho Springs, who was out for a jog behind Clear Creek High School in the foothills west of Denver on Jan. 14, 1991.

But Baron and others agree that although the likelihood of being killed in a car, by a dog or by another human is far greater than the danger of being killed by a mountain lion, human-mountain lion interactions have become far more frequent in the past two decades as Colorado suburbs push farther into the foothills, claiming lion habitat and attracting deer, the lion's natural prey.

"Like storms that develop where weather systems meet, Boulder's cougar problems, and Scott Lancaster's death, had resulted from the collision of two worlds -- rebounding nature and civilization's sprawl -- each moving toward the other, neither showing signs of slowing its advance," said Baron in Beast in the Garden.

Baron argues that mountain lion attacks on people have grown at an exponentially higher rate since the early '90s and raise questions everyone living along the Front Range foothills should consider: How has the modern suburban landscape changed wild animal behavior? What should be done to mitigate the danger of human-mountain lion interaction? Can humans learn to coexist with these magnificent predators? Who, exactly, is the beast in the garden?

Love-hate relationship

Of the thousands of humans who flock to Colorado each year, some 90 percent say exposure to wildlife is important to them. Indeed, as eco-activist Edward Abbey wrote in 1970, "A world without mountain lions, I wouldn't want to live in." But our love-hate relationship with large carnivores is well documented. In Colorado, mountain lions carried a bounty until 1965, and eager hunters nearly exterminated the unprotected species within the state. The $50 bounty, however, created a black market on cougar hides, and the dearth of mountain lions yielded an overpopulation of deer in most areas.

When we were almost rid of cougars in Colorado, we decided we wanted them back.

In 1965, the state legislature repealed the bounty and declared the cougar a game animal to be "managed" by the Colorado Division of Wildlife. Funded largely by the sale of hunting and fishing licenses, the division responsible for wildlife in Colorado manages cougars largely by deciding how many can be killed by hunters, in what area of the state and by whom.

"There's no way to census mountain lions," said Bob Davies, senior terrestrial biologist of the Colorado Division of Wildlife's southeast regional office here in the Springs. "The only reliable way to census is by harvest. In Colorado, we kill more than 300 a year. The last three years averaged 370."

Davies and others at the DOW estimate the cougar population of the state to be somewhere between 3,000 and 7,000, most likely in the 4,500 to 5,000 range.

"We have a healthy lion population," said Davies. "They're in no danger."

click to enlarge Felis concolor, cat of one color, also know as cougar, puma, mountain lion, sometimes referred to as ghost of the wilderness because it is stealthy, secretive and rarely seen. - COLORADO DIVISION OF WILDLIFE
  • Colorado Division of Wildlife
  • Felis concolor, cat of one color, also know as cougar, puma, mountain lion, sometimes referred to as ghost of the wilderness because it is stealthy, secretive and rarely seen.

Others, like the animal preservation group Sinapu, disagree. In 2002, when the state Wildlife Commission revisited its hunting quota of 791 mountain lions per year, Sinapu petitioned for a drop to 300, arguing that the commissioners were more concerned about their hunting constituency than about preserving cougars. The commission voted to keep the quota at 791.

Sinapu estimates that since 1980, "the number of lions killed in Colorado has increased approximately 400 percent -- from 81 cats to a record 439 cats in 2001." At the same time, the lion-hunting quota increased fourfold, from around 200 to almost 800. Sinapu argues that the state should limit hunting until empirical data prove the state has a "healthy" population of pumas, predators that serve as a "keystone" species in the natural order, helping to maintain ecosystem regulation by preying on deer, elk, raccoons and other mammals.

Davies, Baron and others dismiss Sinapu's concerns about cougar numbers in the state, adding that automobiles are a bigger danger than hunters to cats.

State law allows the killing of mountain lions that pose a threat to livestock, real estate or human life. If a lion behaves aggressively, says Davies, wildlife officers will eliminate it.

"We've put down two cats in Colorado Springs," said Davies, his face going somber as he remembers. "One was in a house, obviously sick.

"The other was next to a grade school on registration day." He looks down and hesitates before continuing. "If I were presented with the same situation now, I probably wouldn't handle it the same way."

Most of the time, says Davies, watching a cat until it leaves is a good enough safety measure, pointing out that lions cover a huge range of territory on a daily basis and won't return to an area unless they have identified or killed prey there. He recalls a Halloween a few years back in the Broadmoor Bluffs area of the city.

"There was a lion in a tree out there," he said. "We watched it until all the trick-or-treaters were gone, then let it go."

The real-estate factor

Of all the dangers to lions, says Davies, habitat loss due to human intervention is the greatest. And that intersection of human and cougar habitat -- houses built deeper and deeper into the foothills -- also presents the greatest danger to people who are ignorant of the ways of wildlife.

Davies has lobbied the local Board of Realtors for wildlife disclosure when a home is sold in an area known to be lion habitat. Nothing, however, has come of that suggestion, except on some occasions when real-estate agents give potential homeowners DOW brochures offering safety tips for "living in lion country."

On one occasion, DOW spokesperson Michael Seraphin recalls, signs had been posted in a Rockrimmon neighborhood warning of mountain lion activity in the area.

"A realtor took the sign down when it was posted in front of a house she was trying to sell," said Seraphin.

Senior city planner James Mayerl, who oversees development review on the West Side of Colorado Springs, says the city has no plan in place for disclosure of the presence of large carnivores in new developments.

"We've looked at bear, I know, in the past," said Mayerl. "We've worked a little bit on making sure that if it's a commercial development, a multifamily development or even a development of single-family homes, that bear-proof containers are part of the design.

"We haven't gone to the step of disclosing the presence of wildlife," he said, though geologic hazards and wildfire potential are disclosed. "I have complaints about deer eating the shrubbery. And I've seen bighorn sheep in the Mountain Shadows area. But we haven't gone to the extent of having people disclose wildlife potential, the urban interface of wildlife."

Mayerl agrees with Davies that people moving into areas where mountain lions are present should be alert and should know what they're dealing with.

"I was preparing for a wildfire conference the other day, walking up in the Stratton Forest, looking down the road there," he said. "I was thinking, well, you know, you send your kids to school, walking to school, that's nice. But I don't think I'd do it up there. There's a lot of wildlife up there. And mountain lions are a part of it."

click to enlarge David Baron, author of  The Beast in the Garden (W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2004).
  • David Baron, author of The Beast in the Garden (W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2004).

Nice pussy cat'

Author Baron, who says he has spent the past four years thinking about nothing but mountain lions, believes that as humans move into lion territory, more aggressive measures must be considered to maintain a safe balance.

"I don't mean to make people paranoid about lions," said Baron. "I'm definitely not anti-lion. The most important thing is that people who live with lions should know that they're there, should take proper care of their pets, should know not to feed and attract deer, should know how to behave around lions.

"But the people in charge," said Baron, referring to the Colorado Division of Wildlife, "should be more proactive in keeping records of lion encounters and more aggressive when lions hunt pets and/or people."

Baron gives credit to the DOW for the work it's done educating the public about cougars. But since 1989, when wildlife biologists in Boulder were calling for the state to actively collect lion data following a rash of attacks on pets in Boulder County, Baron believes the state hasn't done enough to mitigate the lion problem in suburban areas.

"The number one thing that [biologists] Jim Halfpenny and Michael Sanders were calling for in 1989 was a radio collar study of suburban lions to determine lion behavior," said Baron. "Are many [lions] in back yards eating dogs? They needed to confirm this.

"In the aftermath of Scott Lancaster's death in 1991, the DOW put together a committee and asked, 'How are we going to deal with lion problems on the Front Range?' The recommendation was made then for a collar study and it's still not been done."

Baron points out that wildlife management in California is far more aggressive in "dealing with problem lions." There is no hunting of lions in California and hasn't been since 1970, but if a lion "kills livestock, is perceived to be a threat to people, or kills a single dog, they bring in a tracker and take down the lion."

"DOW doesn't do that," said Baron. "They have a double standard. If a lion kills a horse, a cow or a llama, they go in there and kill that lion because they're financially liable for damage to livestock."

Their responsibility to people and their pets is less clear, he says, adding that he doesn't believe the division "wants to take responsibility for this problem."

Baron refers to a recent incident near Boulder, in county open space, where two women hikers in broad daylight, found themselves 6 feet from a lion they believed was stalking them.

"They reported the lion's behavior to DOW and they wouldn't do anything," he said. "But later, a tracker did go out and was able to find the lion's tracks. He concluded that the lion was indeed stalking these women."

Part of the reason DOW doesn't respond aggressively, Baron asserts, is that they face a no-win situation.

"When they actually do take action and take a lion down, they get hate mail for weeks."

Baron emphasizes the omnipresence of lions along the Front Range and the urgent need for people to be alert and responsible for their own behavior within lion habitat.

"At this point, I think the Front Range may be the place with the highest concentration of lion attacks of any place in the United States," he said. "Far more than in a comparable area of California, except for maybe Orange County. I just don't see how anyone can move to the Front Range, go hiking or biking in the foothills, and not be aware of the number of mountain lions around."

Combined with the presence of cougars are conflicting attitudes about nature, largely born of ignorance, says Baron, and it's a potentially deadly combination.

"I grew up in the Boston suburbs; I include myself in this," he said. "My main connection to nature was Sierra Club calendars and occasional hikes up in Maine. I have romantic views about wildlife; I'm not a hunter. And I do think that many of us who grew up out of touch with what nature's really like have a very unrealistic idea about nature.

click to enlarge Although you may never see one, mountain lions abound in rocky foothills terrain like this. Unleashed dogs are attractive prey for a hungry lion, especially around dusk or dawn. - SEAN CAYTON
  • Sean Cayton
  • Although you may never see one, mountain lions abound in rocky foothills terrain like this. Unleashed dogs are attractive prey for a hungry lion, especially around dusk or dawn.

"The natural reaction is to ooh and aah, admire the pretty deer. A lot of people put food out; they actually think they can have a personal relationship with [wild] animals, like with their pets. But being nice to them doesn't mean they're going to be nice back -- particularly in the case of a mountain lion.

"I have met many people who have seen mountain lions in their yards and literally say, 'Oh, what a nice pussy cat.'"

By enticing animals to come close to our homes, says Baron, we do them a great disservice.

"It's completely unnatural. When, in the history of America, did we have people living in and among animals so closely and not killing them? I think we've got this weird unnatural closeness with these animals and we're making them not wild any more. It's a theme park version of nature."

Big, hairy animals

Just 12 days after the fatal attack of Reynolds in southern California, a report was released by researchers at the University of California, Davis, revealing the most comprehensive information to date on the relationship between people and mountain lions on the burgeoning suburban-wilderness frontier.

Among the researchers tracking 20 pumas over three years was UC Davis field biologist Ken Logan, now the principal carnivore researcher for the Colorado Division of Wildlife.

Relocated to the Western Slope city of Montrose last June, Logan has designed a comprehensive puma research and development program for the state. It will launch this summer with an intensive puma population study on the western slope of the Rocky Mountains.

"One project that we want to develop within this research is a project that studies the relationship of puma to people, the behavior of puma around human facilities, and the impact of human development on puma," said Logan, adding that the human-puma project will be developed as funding is made available or as he is able to secure grants to focus on that particular subject. For now, his job is to determine as accurately as possible the number of puma in the state and the nature of their density.

What he learned in eastern San Diego County in Southern California, says Logan, has plenty of applications any place where there are large intersecting populations of mountain lions and people.

"We documented directly that some of those puma were using domestic animals as food," said Reynolds, a significant finding about adaptive puma behavior. "But it was our understanding that probably a large percentage of those problems could be dealt with by smart husbandry by the pets' owners, recognizing that they live in puma country, knowing what kind of precautions they need to take for their pets -- leashes on trails, safely enclosed by late evening and through early morning hours when puma hunt."

Like Baron, Logan emphasizes the necessity of wildlife awareness for those who choose to relocate to the Front Range.

"Let's face it, as you drive up I-25 to Colorado Springs, you're looking at the biggest puma habitat in the western United States, the Rocky Mountain chain," he said. "It seems like a pretty simple concept to grasp. If we want to preserve [puma], keep them as part of nature, we need to manage them smartly. We also need to manage our own behavior smartly."

Logan believes that the DOW and individuals share responsibility for establishing a balance that will benefit both wildlife and humans.

"I believe that the effort should begin with the individual that's thinking about living here," he said. "You know as well as I do, if you've moved around the West, the first thing you think is: Am I moving into a safe neighborhood? Is it safe for me to get around this town? Is it safe for my kids?

"Along with those considerations, people need to inform themselves about what kind of wildlife they live with here. They should drop in and phone the DOW to ask about what kind of animals they'll be living with, just as they would call the local elementary school on behalf of their kids."

Logan says he and his family, including a young son, lived in the middle of his research area in California, fully aware that cats were going right by their yard at night, according to radio collar tracking. His son, he says, did all the things that kids do -- climbed trees, built forts, had swimming pool parties out in the yard -- but never without an adult present.

"That's what I mean by being aware of the natural history and behavior of these animals," he said. "My wife (also a wildlife biologist) and I recognized that just in case that extremely rare occasion arose where a puma showed up, we needed to be there with the kids."

click to enlarge Adult male cougars can weigh 160 pounds and measure up to eight feet from nose to tip of tail. A single lion might travel 25 miles a night in search of food.
  • Adult male cougars can weigh 160 pounds and measure up to eight feet from nose to tip of tail. A single lion might travel 25 miles a night in search of food.

Mountain lions in general, says Logan, in addition to being stealthy and secretive, tend to avoid humans, maintaining a relatively peaceful coexistence.

"Now when you go to the other side of the continuum," he adds, "there may be very rare individuals among pumas that are aggressive toward humans. Those are the individuals we need to manage.

"I believe they comprise a very small number; otherwise, puma attacks on people would occur far more frequently than they do."

Whether Colorado will sustain a healthy puma population and pursue policies that benefit the puma-human relationship, says Davis, is ultimately up to us.

"It's up to people to decide, to manage our lives to accommodate these wild beings," he said. "In the West, the bulk of their habitat is probably relatively secure, in the public domain -- national forests, BLM lands, state parks, state wildlife areas, etcetera.

"However, there is a lot of development that tends to perforate and fragment that habitat, that puts people in close proximity with those large carnivores. We will continue to impact them because more people will be living in puma habitat than ever before in the history of humanity."

Can humans successfully coexist in close proximity to mountain lions? Logan gives a carefully measured response.

"If we decide we care for these animals, if we learn about them, we can go halfway.

"I think we can coexist with [mountain lions], but I wouldn't call it a peaceful coexistence; I'd call it a managed coexistence where, if one's behavior becomes threatening, it will have to be dealt with."

Laughing, he adds, "Personally, I wouldn't want to live anywhere where there aren't big, hairy animals."

Colorado Division of Wildlife terrestrial biologist Bob Davies says that the biggest learning curve for humans is to understand predatory behavior.

Mountain lions are true carnivores, predators that require 4 to 5 pounds of meat per day to survive. They normally prefer deer, elk, raccoon or other mammals but have been known to eat domesticated cats and dogs when other prey is not available.

"It's like a lot of things in the West. If you don't respect it, it'll kill you," said Davies, referring to both the weather and large carnivores.

Davies offers these tips to people who put themselves in close proximity to cougars:

The majority of mountain lion attacks on humans happen to children under 16 -- low to the ground, moving rapidly, with high-pitched voices, they mimic cougars' natural prey. In the wild, keep your kids with you; don't let them walk alone, ahead of you.

Ditto for your dog; keep him on a leash when hiking.

Don't walk in the woods by yourself; don't mountain bike in the wild by yourself.

Avoid wilderness activity at dusk and dawn when lions are most active.

If you are approached by a mountain lion, don't run. Get kids up off the ground; raise them up high. Raise your arms up; make yourself look large. Back away. If you're wearing a coat, raise it up high. If you have a bike, put the bike between you and the cat. Fight if you are attacked; go for the eyes and nose.

If you live in lion country, don't feed deer and raccoons. If you feed wildlife you are attracting prey species into your yard; predators will follow.

Keep pets in a fully enclosed, secure kennel with a top, or inside.

For more information on mountain lions and how to behave around them, visit the Colorado Division of Wildlife's Web site at: http://wildlife.state.co.us.


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