By DAVE BUCHANAN
The Daily Sentinel
Call it puma. Or catamount. Or cougar.
Take your pick, since there are at least 40 English names for what most people call mountain lions.
Whatever name you use, mountain lions area keystone species in the Western ecosystem, said Wendy Keefover-Ring during a 45-minute presentation Wednesday night.
She is director of Carnivore Protection Program for the conservation group Sinapu, and her message was that lions deserve more protection.
Of the eight wild cats that live in North America, three are found in Colorado: the lynx, bobcat and mountain.
Mountain lions are particularly important because they are umbrella species, Keefover-Ring explained.
“Mountain lions need large areas of land to survive, and if we protect lion habitat we are also protecting those other species that need smaller areas,” she said.
Mountain lions are ambush predators, hiding until prey comes close and then rushing out for a short chase before leaping on the prey and killing it by biting deep into the back of the neck. Before wide-scale predator control programs and major habitat loss, pumas occupied the largest range of almost any mammal in North America, second only to humans.
Now mountain lions are known to exist only in the western half of the United States except for a tiny population of cats in Florida.
Because of the mountain lion’s solitary and evasive nature, no one knows exactly how many cats roam Colorado. Earlier estimates of 3,000 to 7, 000 cats have been trimmed to between 3,200 and 4,000 after a recent puma management plan was completed by the Division of Wildlife.
“This is an excellent plan,” said Keefover-Ring. “More valuable information will be gathered by Dr. Ken Logan’s 10-year study of pumas on the Uncompahgre Plateau.”
Logan’s study will be the largest mountain lion study ever conducted in Colorado. During the decade-long project, lions will be captured, sampled, tagged and tracked to learn more about their populations, movements, prey and interactions with people and domestic animals and the effects of hunting.
Also, part of the study will test tools that managers can use to estimate lion numbers.
“The biggest threats to mountain lion populations are habitat loss, roads and overkill by sport hunting,” claimed Keefover-Ring. “By 2025, it’s estimated Colorado will have 6 million people, which means more development and more roads creating more loss of habitat.” Roads cause direct mortality through collisions between lions and vehicles and indirect mortality when they open access to previously unroaded mountain lion habitat.
Hunters, too, have an impact, Keefover-Ring said, by unintentionally overharvesting female lions, which could leave dependent kittens to starve.
“Forty-four percent of the mountain lion harvest in Colorado over the last 10 years has been female lions,” she said. “At any time during the hunting season, 50 percent of the females will have dependent kittens which will starve if left on their own.
“The death of one female can result in the deaths of three to four kittens,” Keefover-Ring said.
The Division of Wildlife has proposed a drop in the annual hunting quota of mountain lions from 790 lions to 567. Keefover-Ring said Sinapu applauds that move but still is pushing for a subquota on the number of female lions that can be killed by hunters.
Keefover-Ring also pushed educating lion hunters in how to identify treed cats as a way to prevent killing females. The Four Corners Houndsmen Association, a group of mountain lion guides in western Colorado, are tackling the education issue a spokesman said recently.
Tom Burke, a state wildlife commissioner from Grand Junction, said he prefers voluntary education efforts over regulation.
“We’re really pushing the education part,” Burke said after Keefover-Ring’s presentation. He said efforts by hunters in the Gunnison Basin to identify and release female cats cut the percentage of females killed by hunters from 44 percent of the total bag to 18 percent last year.