Mountain lyin'

By Gary Wockner
Rocky Mountain News

Another fatal mountain lion attack.

Catch your attention? That’s the point. The truth, on the other hand, is, as always, a different story.

News of the dreaded BEAST has swirled in the media for the past several months.

It started with a fatal mountain lion attack in California last fall. The recent publication and wide review of David Baron’s book, The Beast in the Garden, fueled the fire. Like the media reports of the California mauling, Baron’s book and its reviews paint a ridiculous, grossly exaggerated, paranoid portrait of human encounters with mountain lions.

Much of Baron’s book discusses mountain lions in Boulder and the fatal attack nearby in Idaho Springs in 1991. For the record, exactly two people have been tragically killed by mountain lions in Colorado in recorded history – the first in Idaho Springs, the second in Rocky Mountain National Park in 1997.

That’s a grand total of two people out of about 4.5 million Coloradans. If we generalize over that 13-year period, the odds of getting killed by a mountain lion in any one year are roughly one in 29 million.

Here’s a little perspective: According to the state of Colorado’s 2002 vital statistics, the odds of dying of a heart attack or stroke are 1 in 500, of cancer are 1 in 750, in a car wreck are 1 in 7,500, of suicide are 1 in 7,500, of drugs/alcohol are 1 in 10,000, with a gun (murder or accidental) are 1 in 10,000. The odds of dying of a work-related injury are 1 in 50,000.

After all that, going for a hike in lion country doesn’t look so bad, and certainly looks better than going to work.

I spent 10 years hiking, running and mountain biking in those Boulder mountains almost every day. I never saw one mountain lion, and never even saw a mountain lion track. I had friends who saw mountain lions. One friend walked up on a mountain lion eating a deer, and the lion sat licking its bloody lips and didn’t even look at my friend 30 feet away.

I have another friend – a wildlife biologist – who tracks, traps and collars mountain lions for the Colorado Division of Wildlife along the Front Range. She hires a houndsman with lion-sniffing bloodhounds and a professional tracker, and they sometimes spend days and weeks without even seeing a mountain lion.

When they do find one, it’s the mountain lion that’s paranoid and frightened. Later, when she goes out to study the collared lions’ deer-kills, she actually walks up, alone and unarmed, with a global positioning system receiver and watches the blip-blip on the GPS screen of the lion frantically racing away over the nearest ridge. She rarely sees them with her eyes.

I imagine a mountain lion jumping on my back, its fangs diving into my neck, its claws clinching in a death-grip. Then I imagine being slowly eaten. What a horrifying image.

Of course, it’s less likely than being struck by lightning (1 in 350,000) or winning the lottery (1 in 150,000), but it sure makes great news, and a great read. It keeps you on the same TV channel and keeps you turning pages of a book.

I have another friend I call “The Skeptic.” He, too, is tired of mountain lion paranoia, and so he set out to prove a point. Last fall he found a road-killed deer, sliced it into pieces, and tied several deer chunks together with rope. Then he chopped off parts of the hide and carved it into a makeshift coat. A day later, he put on his deer coat, slung the meat-rope around his shoulders, and slathered deer blood on his body.

At about 4 p.m., he walked out into the Boulder mountains intent on seeing a mountain lion. Earlier, he had practiced making the sound of an injured deer, and as he hiked he whimpered and whined. As dusk came and no lion appeared, The Skeptic became more intent.

He rambled through the brush, off-trail-running and bleating loudly. Dark came, hours went by, still no lion, and my friend became obsessed. He wandered through the night, bleating and whining, and at one point started calling out, “Here kitty, kitty!” while flailing through the forest.

At 8:30 the next morning, a jogger on the Mesa Trail found my friend. He was delirious and sleep-deprived. He still hadn’t seen a mountain lion.

Quite a story. Ridiculous and grossly exaggerated, too. That’s the point. It’s fun, it kept you reading, and the odds are (the publisher assures me) 2-to-1 that you will keep turning the pages. The truth is a different story, as always.

Gary Wockner is a wildlife ecologist and writer in Fort Collins. He can be reached at http://www.garywockner.com.

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