Colorado’s abundant wildlife often is cited by residents as one of the things they like best about living here. During the mid and late 20th …
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Colorado’s abundant wildlife often is cited by residents as one
of the things they like best about living here. During the mid and
late 20th century, Colorado’s growth brought people in closer
contact with deer, elk and other wildlife species, to the delight
of a new generation of wildlife watchers.
But one of these wild animals is the mountain lion, a powerful
predator, and while secretive by nature, it has become increasingly
visible in recent years. And as some Coloradans have discovered,
when mountain lions follow deer and other wildlife prey, it brings
them into people’s neighborhoods.
Although most people will never see a mountain lion in their
lifetime, the Colorado Division of Wildlife says the number of
reports of mountain lion sightings has been gradually
“Attacks on people are rare,” said Jerry Apker, a carnivore
specialist with the division. “But attacks on dogs and cats are
becoming more common.” Division policy is clear when it comes to
lions that pose a threat to human safety. They must be
While a spate of lion sighting in some Front Range neighborhoods
has generated headlines recently, division officials stress that
these big cats can be found almost anywhere in the state where a
suitable population of deer exists.
In the past year, wildlife officials destroyed or moved mountain
lions from Durango, Cañon City, Grand Junction, Colorado Springs,
Boulder, suburban Denver, and various other communities throughout
In one case in the spring of 2008, a mountain lion was found
hiding in a barn in eastern El Paso County about 50 miles east of
the foothills. Division officers tranquilized the cat and moved it
back to the mountains.
In another 2008 incident, a man walking along a rural road near
New Castle was forced to shoot a lion that threatened the man and
his wife. Several weeks after the first New Castle incident, a
second lion in the area was killed by division officers after the
lion killed a horse.
In July 2008, the division killed two lions in Durango. Both
were young females that wouldn’t leave people’s yards in the town.
Their behavior was on the aggressive side so division officials
decided that killing the lions for safety reasons was the prudent
In Cortez, a lion jumped from a tree toward a young man on a
riding lawnmower. The lion missed. The division used dogs to tree
that cat, and it was destroyed.
“Roughly 65 percent of Colorado is classified as good mountain
lion habitat,” Apker said. “The only place mountain lions cannot
live for an extended period of time is where there is no prey.”
There are a variety of reasons for increased mountain lion
sighting. One is that more humans live and seek recreation where
mountain lions and their primary prey, mule deer, exist.
Other explanations could be related to changes in lion
distribution and movement patterns, increasing populations, or the
simple fact that people are more apt to report sightings.
The vast majority of sightings happen very quickly and end when
the lion runs away. But wildlife managers are concerned that more
and more reports are coming from populated areas where mountain
lions are finding plentiful food supplies.
Don’t feed the deer
According to Apker, feeding deer and other wildlife draws prey
animals into residential areas — which means mountain lions are
likely to follow. “Sometimes people become a little too anxious to
see wildlife and attempt to bring animals closer by putting out
food,” he said.
It is illegal to feed deer in Colorado, but sometimes people do
it anyway because they are unaware of the problems it causes.
“Deer are more than capable of finding plenty of natural food to
eat on their own,” Apker explained. “Feeding deer congregates them
in back yards and puts everyone in the neighborhood at risk because
deer are one of the main food sources for mountain lions. Mountain
lions usually avoid people, but even with human activity nearby,
mountain lions are more likely to stay in an area where deer
When a lion kills a large animal like a deer, it consumes part
of the meat and conceals the rest by covering it with dirt or
leaves. The lion returns later to eat more. As long as the meat
does not spoil, the lion will remain in the vicinity until it is
consumed. That might be up to a week during the winter.
If you find a partially eaten carcass on your property, call
your local division office and officials will safely remove it.
This will prompt the lion to leave the area.
In some cases, division officers use “negative conditioning”
techniques to haze cats away from populated areas. One method is
shooting the lion with bean bags or rubber buckshot. It sends a
strong message to reinforce the cat’s natural instinct to avoid
One of the tools the division uses to manage cougar populations
is controlled hunting. Licensed hunters legally kill about 350
mountain lions a year. Another 40 or so are killed each year by car
accidents, or by state or federal wildlife officers responding to
calls of lions taking pets or killing livestock.
Like most predators, mountain lions are opportunistic. In
addition to deer, mountain lions also eat raccoons, fox, rabbits
and other mammals. They do not differentiate between domestic pets
and livestock that also make easy prey.
Pets that are allowed to roam free are in danger of being killed
by lions, but also by coyotes and foxes. Pet owners with outside
dogs are encouraged to install tops on kennels to prevent predators
from jumping in.
Although it is a common belief that cougars are only found in
the back country, mountain lions have been known to visit nearly
every part of Colorado from time to time, including occasional
sightings on the eastern plains.
“I talk to a lot of people who ask me why the division of
wildlife doesn’t move all of the lions away from the where people
live,” Apker said. “Lions are destroyed if wildlife managers
determine the cat is a threat to public safety, but it is
impractical to try to move every mountain lion because as long as
there is food to eat it is only a matter of time before another
mountain lion will move in to fill the vacated territory.”
Male mountain lions are territorial. Some of them live in small
territories where prey is plentiful. Other lions are constantly on
the move in territories that cover hundreds of miles.
The fate of moved lions is poorly understood. There is reason to
believe that some mountain lions die after they are moved. They
could be killed by other lions where they are released, may return,
or die trying. Colorado researchers are studying lion movements to
learn more about the effectiveness of relocating them.
Mountain lions hunt day or night, but are most active during
hours of darkness. Males will travel as much as 25 miles a night in
search of food.
Lions are generally solitary. Offspring can be born during any
time of the year and will stay with their mother for about one year
before heading off on their own.
Following are tips for people who live in mountain lion
Don’t feed wildlife. By feeding deer, raccoons or other wildlife
in your yard, you may inadvertently attract mountain lions, which
prey upon them.
Landscape for safety. Remove dense and/or low-lying vegetation
that provides good hiding places for mountain lions, especially
around children’s play areas. Make it difficult for mountain lions
to approach a yard unseen.
Install outdoor lighting. Keep the house perimeter well lighted
at night — especially along walkways — to keep any approaching
mountain lions visible.
Keep pets secure. Roaming pets are easy prey for hungry mountain
lions. Outside kennels should have a secure top. Do not leave pet
food outside — it can attract foxes, raccoons, rodents, and other
mountain lion prey.
Keep livestock secure. Where practical, place livestock in
enclosed sheds and barns at night, and be sure to secure all
Keep children safe. Keep a close watch on children whenever they
play outdoors. Talk with children about mountain lions and teach
them what to do if they encounter one.
If you encounter a lion
Do not approach a lion. Most mountain lions try to avoid people.
Human encounters are generally brief. Give them a way to escape.
Mountain lions become aggressive if they feel they are
Do not run from a lion. Running may stimulate a mountain lion’s
instinct to chase. Instead, stand and face the animal. Make eye
contact. If there are small children, pick them up if possible so
they don’t panic and run. Although it may be awkward, pick them up
without bending over or turning away from the mountain lion.
Stand tall and appear large. Raise your arms. Open your jacket
if you are wearing one. Again, pick up small children. Throw
stones, branches, or whatever you can reach without crouching or
turning your back. Wave your arms slowly and speak firmly in a loud
voice. The idea is to convince the mountain lion that you are not
prey and that you may be a danger to it.
Fight back if attacked. Many potential victims have fought back
successfully with rocks, sticks, binoculars, garden tools and their
bare hands. Since a mountain lion usually tries to bite the head or
neck, try to remain standing and face the attacking animal.
Do not hike alone. Go in groups, with adults supervising
Keep children close to you. Observations of captive mountain
lions reveal that they seem especially drawn to children because
they are lower to the ground. Keep children within your sight at
To learn more about mountain lions, contact your nearest
division of wildlife office or visit www.colorado.
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