Editor’s note: “Mountain lion,” “cougar,” “puma” and “panther” — different names for the same critter, according to mountainlion.org.
A midday nap in wildlands epitomizes being the human animals we actually are: snugging into the duff and leaves; the scent of earth and autumn in your nose; a warm boulder against your back, sun on your face. When wildlife photographer and conservationist David Neils lay down for a nap during archery season, he had no idea what was soon to unfold.
Sensing something, he opened his eyes to a curious mountain lion just as the “apex predator” bopped Neils’ face with his nose — and then bolted off in surprise.
It changed Neils’ life forever and he spoke about this last Friday in Estes Park. I attended his lecture, “Navigating Like a Lion,” in part because I’m in awe of wild cats and also because I wanted to learn how to minimize our impacts upon them.
Cougars, wolves, grizzlies, brown bear and buffalo pay with their lives because we choose to live on their turf with little thought to what that truly means. Sensational headlines across the West attest to this.
What would Neils’ lecture imply? What actions can we take to turn the tide in “euthanizing” and “culling” these wild and glorious creatures? I wanted to know because our Valley’s population is rising, paired with a high mountain lion population.
I’m friends with a local hunter who does predator control for ranchers. According to him, five mountain lions were removed from Basalt Mountain last year. Do moms and dads living at the peripheries know this? Or hikers with small dogs?
This past January, there were discoveries of cached kills (pumas bury their kill and return to feed, especially in colder temps, when it stays fresher longer); two altercations with dogs, leading to the death of one; and repeated sighting and stalking incidents in a west Glenwood neighborhood took their toll. After much deliberation and deference to science, Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) euthanized a mother puma and her three 80-pound-plus yearlings associated with the events. A fifth was killed as well.
My response was dismay and frustration at us, not CPW.
In February, a Fort Collins trail runner was attacked by a hungry, motherless juvenile mountain lion. In a hand fight for his life, the recreator escaped only after choking the animal to death in a legbar.
As a trail runner, I’ve backtracked off trails, hair on my neck erect. I’ve envisioned scenarios such as his, and simply won’t run blindly on cougar turf.
We’re accumulating a body of local encounters that may cause misperceptions regarding mountain lions.
Three summers ago, a mother pulled her 5-year-old son from a mountain lion in Lower Woody Creek. He and his brother had been playing unsupervised in their yard — at dusk. Two young mountain lions were killed as a result of the encounter.
What could have prevented this? (Check out the sidebars to this story.)
A week later, the Rio Grande Trail was closed between Catherine Store and Rock Bottom when a cyclist posted pics of cougar kittens in broad daylight. The photographer was fascinated with mountain lions. He had trail cams to capture wildlife moments, but he knew to get the hell out of there. Mom was somewhere near, hunting, most likely.
Locals flocked the trail looking for the kittens. What price, had RFTA not closed the trail? (See the sidebars.)
The year before that, Carbondale police put down a sick male cougar discovered beneath a River Valley Ranch bridge. He was covered in sores and appeared to have mange. He could only lift his head at the time.
What toll are we taking on the wildlife around us?
Backpacking the far side of Independence Pass last summer, I had to hike a sick child out while his father continued on to the shuttle truck 10 miles away. He was lucky enough to see a mountain lion on his way through.
My envy was immeasurable. But could I have truly handled the situation wisely, safely? Not without familiarizing myself with these sidebars.
These questions circle in my mind as one after another headline points to the impact people have on wildlife here in the mountains. Has it become Us or Them? What can we do? Read these sidebars.
David Neils has been studying cougars for years now, encountering them six times. He is an exception, as his life revolves around them. CPW reports that fewer than a dozen people have been killed by mountain lions in the last century. What can you do to keep that number low? Please read and learn the information in the freaking sidebars. Let’s protect our wildlife.
For more information on Neils and his work, go to https://wildnaturemedia.com/
At home, CPW advises:
- When your children are playing outside, make sure there is at least one adult outside with them. Watching from inside the house is not good enough. Make sure children are inside before dusk and not outside before dawn.
- Teach your children that, if they are outside alone and they see a lion, they need to stand up and keep facing the lion. They need to yell as loudly as they can to their parents or other adults that they can see a lion. They must back up slowly until they reach the house or nearest shelter. Tell them to never turn away from the lion and never run.
- Make lots of noise if you come and go during the times when mountain lions are most active — dusk to dawn.
- Install outside lighting. Light areas where you walk, so you could see a lion if one were present.
- Landscape or remove vegetation to eliminate hiding places for lions, especially around children’s play areas. Make it difficult for lions to approach unseen.
- Planting non-native shrubs and plants that deer often prefer to eat encourages wildlife to come onto your property. Predators follow prey.
- Don’t feed any wildlife that may be mountain lion prey!
- Keep pets under control. Roaming pets are easy prey and can attract lions. Bring pets in at night. If you leave your pet outside, keep it in a kennel with a secure top. Don’t feed pets outside, as this can attract raccoons and other animals that are eaten by lions. Store all garbage securely.
- Place livestock in enclosed sheds or barns at night. Close doors to all outbuildings since inquisitive lions may go inside for a look.
- Encourage your neighbors to follow these simple precautions. Prevention is far better than a possible lion confrontation.
Out and about, CPW advises:
- When you walk or hike in mountain lion country, go in groups and make plenty of noise to reduce your chances of surprising a lion. A sturdy walking stick is a good idea; it can be used to ward off a lion.
- Do not approach a lion, especially one that is feeding or with kittens. Most mountain lions will try to avoid a confrontation. Give them a way to escape.
- Maintain visual contact with the lion so you can always see what it is doing — keep your eye on it! If you look away, the lion could move and then you will not know where it is or what it’s doing.
- Stay calm if you come upon a lion. Talk calmly yet firmly to it and make enough eye contact so that it knows you have seen it. Slowly back away. Most lions will run away, but sometimes they stay and you need to completely leave the area.
- Running may stimulate a lion’s instinct to chase and attack. Face the lion and stand upright. Do all you can to appear larger. Raise your arms. Position yourself to appear bigger by getting up on a stump or a rock. Open your jacket if you’re wearing one. Stay upright and facing the lion.
- If you see a lion and you are with a small child, pick up the child immediately so they won’t panic and run. Tell the child not to speak — the high voice may sound like prey to a lion. This also helps you look bigger, and if the lion attacks, you can fold your body over the child to protect them. With a larger child, still keep them within arm’s reach or in the middle. Have the child stand directly behind you and hold onto your belt or pants pocket.
- If the lion behaves aggressively, throw stones, branches or whatever you can get your hands on without crouching down or turning your back. Wave your arms slowly and speak firmly. Convince the lion you are not prey and that you may in fact be a danger to the lion.
- If the lion behaves more aggressively (eyes locked on you, ears forward, feet underneath them), yell loudly and wave your walking stick in front of you. Keep yelling in an aggressive manner. Loud, sustained noise is most effective at deterring a lion. An air horn may also be effective.
- If the lion gets even more aggressive (crouched, tail twitching, hind feet pumping in preparation to jump), be ready to fight back.
- Fight back if a lion attacks you. Lions have been driven away by prey that fights back. People have successfully fought back with rocks, sticks, caps or jackets, garden tools and their bare hands. Remain standing or if you are knocked down try to get back up!
Fun facts from mountainlion.org
- Though sizes vary greatly throughout the cat's geographic range, a typical adult male will weigh 110 to 180 pounds and the female 80 to 130 pounds. Exceptional individuals have exceeded 200 pounds, but this is rare. Adult males will measure 6 to 8 feet from nose to tail tip and females 5 to 7 feet.
- State game agencies have estimated mountain lion populations in the United States to be between 20,000 and 40,000.
- People are responsible for the deaths of more than 3,000 mountain lions in the U.S. each and every year.
- Mountain lions can: Bound up to 40 feet running, leap 15 feet up a tree, climb over a 12-foot fence, travel many miles at 10 mph and reach speeds of 50 mph in a sprint.