What to do if you see a mountain lion while hiking in Colorad

Here’s something to keep in mind the next time you go for a trail run or a hike around sunrise or sunset: Mountain lion sightings are increasing in Colorado, with one area of the state reporting a 51% increase in the first 10 months of this year as compared to all of 2020.

Now, that doesn’t mean the cougar population has increased dramatically. Colorado Parks and Wildlife officials who track mountain lion encounters say it’s a function of more people moving into mountain lion habitat, and some of the increase can be traced to the proliferation of security and doorbell cameras.

Even so, all those sightings are signs that there are a lot of mountain lions out there, and some are encountering humans. It’s enough of a concern that CPW put out a six-page news release on the subject last week, and earlier this year the agency produced a series of four informational videos on YouTube. What you don’t know can hurt you — or your pet — when you recreate carelessly in mountain lion habitat.

CPW says the state’s mountain lion population is thriving, estimating there are 3,800 to 4,400 mature cougars out there, and that doesn’t include their offspring. There have been 25 known mountain lion attacks on humans in Colorado since 1990 with three fatalities and 22 resulting in injury. The last occurred in March 2020 when a Larimer County sheriff’s deputy and a civilian were injured in an attack near Loveland. The lion was shot and killed.

In a five-county area at the southwest corner of the state, CPW says there have been 109 mountain lion sightings already this year. For all of last year in that area, there were 72. In another CPW area that includes all of Boulder County plus parts of Larimer and Weld counties, reports increased from 62 in 2019 to 96 in 2020. This year so far there have been 85 there, on pace to easily exceed last year’s total.

“It’s not like suddenly there are a lot more cats, it’s just that we’re seeing them a lot more often,” said John Livingston, public information officer for CPW in the Durango area. “We have ways of seeing them that we didn’t in the past. If your Doorbell picks up a mountain lion walking through your front yard as it stalks a pack of mule deer in the middle of the night, you never would have seen it before. Now you get an alert on your phone and you see that animal.”

Mountain lions prey primarily on deer and elk, so they are likely to be present where those animals are abundant, according to Jamin Grigg, a CPW senior wildlife biologist. And that includes the Front Range foothills.

“They are generally shy around humans,” Grigg said, “but are also very curious, similar to house cats.”

Of the 109 sightings in the southwest area this year, only five involved “aggressive behavior” by  cougars. Livingston gives an example that comes with a good object lesson. While mountain lions prefer to move in secrecy, they are apt to react aggressively when humans or pets come close to their kittens or a place where the cougar has stored food.

“We had an incident of a hiker in town (Durango) whose dogs, off-leash, stumbled either into kittens or a cache of food,” Livingston said. “The dogs got the attention of this cat and it backed the dogs and the hiker back down the trail. The guy did everything right, aside from having his dogs off-leash. The cat left the dogs alone, it was just interested in steering that guy out of the trail. He was able to throw rocks and sticks. Eventually another hiker came up, and the cat backed down.”

CPW experts say mountain lions are secretive creatures that rely on stealth when hunting, so if one allows you to see him or her, it’s probably not acting in a predatory manner. As in the Durango incident, they often will attempt to direct humans away from their kittens or food. Hikers and runners are advised to keep their dogs on leashes and refrain from using earplugs on trails in wildlife habitat.

They also warn that mountain lions are most active between dusk and dawn.

“Trail running has become such a popular sport, and such a great sport for our state, but a lot of trail runners like to set out alone,” Livingston said. “Dawn and dusk are popular times to be out. If you’re alone, you want to make sure you’re alert and aware of your surroundings.”

Interactions are likely to increase as Colorado’s human population grows and development encroaches on mountain lion habitat. That’s one of the reasons CPW produced the informational YouTube series. The series covers mountain lion biology with a historical perspective; habitat and human expansion; hunting (a limited number of cougars can be taken by hunters possessing specific CPW licenses during a season that lasts from mid-November through March); and what to do if you encounter a mountain lion, which can weigh up to 165 pounds and leap 20 feet in the air.

“Mountain lions are a fascinating yet elusive animal, but when they do pop on the radar they make for big headlines,” said CPW director Dan Prenzlow. “Sightings of mountain lions are increasing. Thanks to sound management practices implemented over the years, mountain lions are doing quite well in Colorado. The challenge going forward will be balancing decreasing habitats and our exploding human populations, since we share the same spaces. This video series is meant to lay that all out.”

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