Cougars under siege from growth

By Joey Bunch
Denver Post Staff Writer

Evergreen – Kate Wellington found herself in an unnerving position on two consecutive mornings last week: staring down the whiskers of a mountain lion.

The Evergreen resident was on a morning hike Wednesday with her dog near her home on Myers Gulch Road. Up a ravine, blond with autumn grass, a cat of the same color gnawed a deer carcass. By the time she saw it, the cat was just 8 feet away, Wellington said.

She screamed and a neighbor came running, hurling rocks. The wildcat scrammed. But on Wellington’s walk the next day, the cougar was back, perched in the middle of the trail. This time, Wellington was mad and armed, she said.

When the cat prowled within 3 feet of her, she thumped it on the head with her walking stick. The cat recoiled, snarling. This time the neighbor’s dogs helped chase it away.

“The land is being so encroached upon, and the deer population is so out of control, that you’ve got more lions and more people closer together,” Wellington, a 30-year resident of the area, reasoned on Sunday.

And she is right, said wildlife experts.

Suburbia has become lion country – as delicious deer, elk, raccoon and household pets flourish near civilization and as Front Range home development crawls into the foothills.

Wildlife managers estimate that Colorado has about 5,000 mountain lions, the local vernacular for cougars, pumas, catamounts and panthers.

Yet only two deaths have been attributed to cougars in Colorado: a high school senior training for cross-country on a trail in Idaho Springs in 1991 and a 10-year-old boy in Rocky Mountain National Park in 1997. The big cats have injured seven people in Colorado in the past decade, according to the state Division of Wildlife.

“It’s not a function of more mountain lions,” said Wendy Keefover-Ring, a wildlife specialist. “There are just more of us gobbling up their habitat.”

Sinapu, a Boulder-based wildlife group, is offering a series of free lectures about the secretive cats this month. It’s also pressing the state for a hunting limit on female lions to help expand the cat’s population in appropriate areas.

In November, the state will begin a 10-year, $2 million study of mountain lions to measure their population and their interaction with prey and humans, Division of Wildlife spokesman Todd Malmsbury said.

Whether it’s from more houses, more recreational areas or more hunting, encounters with humans will squeeze out the lions, said Keefover-Ring, Sinapu’s director of carnivore protection. And if the species suffers, so will the Western wilds. Mountain lions thin out deer and elk, and keep them from overgrazing an area.

There also is an aesthetic that’s at risk, she said.

“Mountain lions are an icon – a symbol of the West,” she said. “And if we have these cats in the ecosystem, then we have a functioning ecosystem.”

Lectures about lions

Wendy Keefover-Ring of the Boulder-based conservation group Sinapu will present “Mountain Lions in the West: Natural History, Conservation & Co-Existence” at these venues at 7 p.m. on the listed days:

Oct. 12: CCAH Arts Annex, 580 La Fontana Plaza, Carbondale

Oct. 13: First Congregational Church, 1425 N. Fifth St., Grand Junction

Oct. 14: Noble Hall, Room 125, Fort Lewis College, Durango

Oct. 20: Humane Society Building, 2323 55th St., Boulder

Oct. 26: Buchanan Park Recreation Center, 34003 Ellingwood Trail, Evergreen

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