The Crestone Eagle, March 2005:
Our neighbors, the mountain lions
It was a warm summer evening in the Grants, over by Spanish Creek, around 10pm, when Donna Conrad was heading to her van after checking on a house she was caring for. As she approached her van in the dark, the house’s auto security light went on, and in the light she could see, sitting about ten feet away from her van, a large mountain lion.
“I saw his eyes first, but he just sat there and didn’t stand up till I was able to get to the van and open the door,“ recalls Conrad. Lucky for her this cat behaved the way most of them do when they see humans, and all turned out okay. Although running into lions is considered a rare event, even in the mountains, it seems many of us around Crestone have had close encounters with them in the past.
Colorado is prime mountain lion country. These large, powerful predators have always lived here, preying on deer and other wildlife, and playing an important role in the ecosystem. Perhaps the old Beach Boys song, “I Get Around”, could best be used to describe the mountain lion. They have the largest geographic range of any native American mammal, other than humans—from Canada to Argentina.
They once ranged from coast to coast in the United States, but today eastern populations are extinct or endangered. (A small population still exists in southern Florida. Most of the rest back east were killed off by early settlers.) Remote areas of the western U.S. are their stronghold, from deserts to coast range forest, and from sea level to up to 10,000 feet (although tracks have been spotted in our mountains above that elevation).
They also can be found in parts of the US upper mid-west, western Canada and much of Mexico. In Colorado they are most abundant in the foothills and in many canyons in the state. For the most part, where there are deer, there are mountain lions, too. Here in Colorado there seems to be more reports of lions on the Front Range than anywhere else, but that is only because there are more people living there and moving into lion habitat.
Mountain lions hold the record as the mammal with the most names, as they are also known as cougar, panther, puma, catamount, or just plain lion, to name a few. The scientific name is Felis concolor, meaning “Cat all of one color”.
There is an on going Colorado state study to get a better count on their true numbers. For now, the Division of Wildlife estimates there are between 3,000 and 7,000 lions in Colorado, with the number most likely in the 4,500 to 5,000 range. Here, in and around Crestone, there is believed to be between one to four lions who call this area home. An adult male’s home range can span well over 100 square miles, but usually is less than that. Females generally use smaller areas, about 25 square mile, and their ranges can overlap. Lucky for us, of late there have been no problem reports involving lions here in town; in fact, none have even been spotted here since last year.
Mountain lions are active year round. They live for an average of 12-13 years in the wild, but in captivity they can live for over 20 years. Adult males may be more than 8 feet long from nose to end of tail and generally weigh between 130 and 150 pounds. Adult females can be 7 feet long and weigh between 65 and 90 pounds.
Female lions generally reproduce when they are about 2 1/2 years old, and they may breed at any time of year, but mating peaks in the spring. Births are most common in July. Two or three spotted, fist-sized kittens are a typical litter. After a few months the kittens lose their spots.
Lions are generally nocturnal, and are carnivores and solitary hunters. Most lions hunt at both dusk and dawn. Sometimes, however, lions are not nocturnal because they need to be active at the time their prey is active. Research indicates that about 80-90% of a lion’s diet is deer. An adult lion will kill and eat one deer per week. Other prey species include elk, rabbit, raccoon, birds, and they will also kill and eat domestic livestock and pets.
There are some myths about lions, including that they lurk in the treetops waiting to ambush anything that passes by. Not true, as they hunt on the ground and ambush their prey from behind. Also, contrary to popular belief, there are no known black ‘panthers’; no one has ever captured or killed a black mountain lion.
The potential for being killed or injured by a mountain lion is quite low compared to other natural hazards. You’re more likely to be struck by lightning than be attacked by a lion. Normally, lions are very elusive and stay away from people. They are, however, unpredictable and have been known to attack people. So should we worry about them or not? Well, at least be aware that they are around. Observations of captured wild mountain lions reveal that the animals seem especially drawn to children, as they see them as prey because of their small size.
Records are sketchy, but between 1890-1995, there were approximately 70 cougar attacks on humans in the United States and Canada. Thirteen of these attacks were fatal and 57 resulted in nonfatal maulings. Since that time there have been several more attacks, including a few more deadly ones, both here in Colorado and out in California.
The last two deaths in Colorado took place in the last seven years. In both cases, preteen boys hiking on mountain trails alone were killed. Parents must remember to keep their children within their sight at all times while on trails, and even here in town. Closely supervise your children whenever they play outdoors. Make sure children are inside before dusk and not outside before dawn. You should be with your children while they wait for the school bus to pick them up in the morning. Talk with children about lions and teach them what to do if they meet one. We have never had problems with lions here in town involving any of our children—so let’s be proactive and keep it that way.
To reduce the chances of an encounter with a Mountain Lion, avoid hiking alone, especially between dusk and dawn, when lions normally do their hunting. Hike with a good walking stick; this can be useful in warding off a lion. Also, when you leave your home at night, before you open your door, turn on an outside light and take a good look around before you head out.
If you encounter a Mountain Lion, stay calm and face the lion. Do not run because this may trigger the lion’s instinct to attack. Try to appear larger by raising your hands. Pick up small children so they don’t panic and run. This will also make you appear larger. Avoid bending over or crouching. If the lion acts aggressively, throw rocks, branches, or whatever can be obtained without turning your back or bending over. Fight back if attacked. Since a mountain lion usually tries to bite the head or neck, try to remain standing and face the attacking animal. Most important, report any mountain lion sightings, especially if you see one in town.