Monthly Archives: January 2005

Common sense on wolf management

Denver Post

Public and private groups cooperate to ensure that ranchers won’t bear the burden as the predators begin returning to their natural haunts.

A broad-based group of citizens and experts has offered common-sense recommendations about how to manage future wild wolf populations in Colorado, although several issues remain.

Wolves are likely to show up on our doorstep, either through natural migration or by being deliberately reintroduced by humans. The wolves may decide the issue for themselves, though: Packs brought to Yellowstone National Park in the 1980s thrived and expanded their territory. Last summer, one Yellowstone wolf was found dead near Interstate 70 in Colorado.

The Colorado Division of Wildlife (DOW) began working on a wolf management plan even before the carcass was found in Colorado. The DOW hopes to base its plan on science and real-life problems associated with human-wolf conflicts.

Fortunately that’s where the report by the state’s Wolf Management Working Group points. The group, convened by the DOW, was composed of 14 sportsmen, ranchers, scientists, biologists and local government officials. After six months of talks, the group agreed that wolves that migrate to Colorado naturally should be allowed to live anywhere in the state the animals find suitable habitat. Problem wolves should be killed, and ranchers should be compensated for the full value of livestock lost to the predators, the report said. This balanced approach will form the basis for Colorado’s first wolf management plan, which the DOW hopes to finalize by May. The plan is important, because the federal government wants to turn wolf management over to the states.

There is no documented case of a healthy wolf attacking a human in modern North America, but wolves will kill livestock.

That’s where a program like the one run by Defenders of Wildlife, a private conservation organization, could prove useful. Since 1987, its effort has paid $472,000 to 373 ranchers in Wyoming and Idaho, and, under a newer program, $40,000 in Arizona and New Mexico. The program’s policy is to pay 100 percent of the value of a lost domestic animal if experts confirm that a wolf was responsible. Defenders of Wildlife also pays 50 percent of an animal’s value if there’s evidence a wolf probably killed it.

Such efforts have been so successful that a similar program is envisioned in the draft Colorado wolf plan.

Defenders of Wildlife also works with ranchers to reduce wolf predation on livestock in the first place. For example, ranchers are encouraged to breed their cattle and sheep early in the spring, and then keep the newborns under close watch. The practice avoids having newborn calves and lambs appear in the later spring, just when wolf mothers also have had their litters, and so reduces the likelihood that wolves will target the young livestock.

The DOW and its working group should invite Defenders to the table as they continue to craft the wolf management plan.

Wolves aren’t here yet, certainly not in any significant numbers. But there will be less fear and thus less of an outcry among ranchers if they know that when the predators do arrive, the livestock industry won’t be expected to bear the economic burden.


Federal Crew Crashes While Shooting Coyotes from Plane

Green Groups Urge Congress to End Controversial Program

Wendy Keefover-Ring
303.447.8655, Extension 1, #

For Immediate Release: January 19, 2005

Boulder, Colorado. Last Friday, a national coalition of green groups sent a letter to the Colorado Congressional delegation urging them to halt the USDA-Wildlife Services’ controversial aerial wildlife-hunting program. In December, Wildlife Services (WS) crashed two planes, one while shooting at a pack of coyotes.

Aerial gunning is inherently unsafe as pilots are often distracted, and because they fly at low altitudes, there is leave little room for error. Pilots have flown into trees, land formations, and even power lines.

Since 1989, Wildlife Services has crashed at least 22 helicopters or planes while aerial gunning, resulting in at least 7 fatalities and 25 injuries. The USDA’s aerial gunning accidents have occurred in California, Idaho, Nevada, New Mexico, Montana, Oregon, Utah, and Wyoming—although the program operates in all Western states.

Since 1999, a coalition of green groups, called AGRO, has been working to stop aerial gunning. Each year, the program costs millions of dollars, indiscriminately kills tens of thousands of native animals, and fails to fix ranchers’ problems for the long term.

“Aerial gunning wildlife can be a deadly business,” said Wendy Keefover-Ring, AGRO’s coordinator. “It’s also expensive, funded by the public, inhumane, and biologically unsound,” she added.

Wildlife Services’ December 20 crash occurred in Terreton, Idaho while the two employees were shooting coyotes from an airplane. The work was being conducted on behalf of the Idaho Woolgrowers Association when the accident occurred. According to National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) records, the airplane was flying between 50 to 100 feet from the ground. The gunner shot one coyote and when the plane circled to get at the three remaining pack members, the plane crashed. NTSB reports that the gunner sustained “serious” injuries and the pilot received minor injuries.

NTSB records also show that a USDA plane crashed on December 1 in Jal, New Mexico. It is unclear if the pilot was en route to an aerial gunning operation.

“Despite recent expenditures of millions of tax dollars aimed at improving the federal government’s aerial gunning program, another crash has occurred,” said Keefover-Ring.

WS halted its aerial gunning program in 1998 after its fourth crash that year. In the fourth 1998 incident, a WS employee/pilot died while the gunner sustained serious injuries. Two years later, that same gunner was involved in a second aerial gunning accident when his plane hit a powerline. In this incident, he again sustained serious injuries.

(Earlier news reports of the accident mistakenly stated that the two employees worked for the USDI’s Fish and Wildlife Service. Wildlife Services is a program administered by USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.)

Each year Wildlife Services spends $10 million in federal tax dollars (and several millions from other revenue streams—including county and state taxes) to kill native carnivores for their livestock protection program.

“WS is very secretive about their costs and their clients,” said Mr. Lynn Fritchman, Idaho resident and AGRO coalition member.

“Contract costs for the aircraft, pilot, gunner, and ground support personnel are added to the costs of replacement/repair of aircraft,” he added.

“Additionally, we have been unable to obtain, despite the help of Colorado Congressman Mark Udall, the full accounting for medical expenses and compensation payments made to those debilitated or killed because of this practice. It could be several hundred dollars for each wild animal killed,” argued Keefover-Ring.

In FY03, Wildlife Services shot over 32,000 animals from aircraft: 28,255 coyotes, 290 bobcats, 127 red foxes, and 34 wolves.

# # #

Colorado wildlife managers study wolf plan

Associated Press writer

DENVER — A task force that says wolves migrating to Colorado from other states should be left alone unless they attack livestock or kill off other wildlife has volunteered to tackle the thorny question of whether the gray wolf should be restored to the state.

A 14-member panel presented its unanimous recommendations to the Colorado Wildlife Commission Thursday on how the state should handle stray wolves that wander into the state from Yellowstone National Park. The effort was launched last year after a wolf traced to Yellowstone through its radio collar was found dead along Interstate 70 in the mountains west of Denver.

Colorado wildlife managers agree it’s just a matter of time until more of the animals show up. The small number of Canadian wolves released in Yellowstone and central Idaho a decade ago to rebuild the population has grown to about 825, spread among Wyoming, Idaho and Montana.

The Colorado task force, which includes ranchers, hunters and wildlife advocates, said in a 67-page report that migrating wolves should be monitored and dealt with, possibly even killed, if they cause trouble. Wolves not making trouble should be left where they are.

Members also said ranchers who lose livestock to wolves should be compensated and the money shouldn’t come from the state wildlife funds generated from hunting and fishing fees.

The panel, appointed by the Colorado Division of Wildlife, also asked to be kept together and called back to duty if the state decides to explore whether to restore wolves by releasing them in the state.

Del Benson, a fish and wildlife biologist and Colorado State University professor, said he and other task force members got to knew each other so well that they could cut through the rhetoric to reach a consensus.

“If they convene a new group, they’ll have to go through all that process,” Benson said.

Bonnie Kline, executive director of the Colorado Sheep and Wool Authority, a trade group, and Rob Edward of Sinapu, which advocates wolf restoration, said they’re willing to discuss whether the state should bring wolves to the state.

It doesn’t mean they’ll agree on the answer.

“To Rob, I think a lot of wolves is 1,200. My idea of a lot is 12,” Kline said.

Edward said there were several times that “people on either side of the table were ready to get up and walk.”

“What kept people from doing that was the clear understanding that if this group couldn’t do it, no one could,” he added.

The Division of Wildlife will study the group’s plan and wildlife commissioners will likely vote on it in May. Meanwhile, the task force will hold a series of public meetings on the report starting at the end of January.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has reclassified the gray wolf as threatened, meaning it has fewer protections than an animal considered endangered. The agency wants to take the wolf off the endangered species list altogether in the northern Rockies, but won’t until Wyoming, Montana and Idaho have acceptable wolf management plans.

Fish and Wildlife has rejected Wyoming’s proposal, which it said wouldn’t protect the wolf enough, prompting a lawsuit by the state.

Colorado, meanwhile, is divided between the recovery area for the gray wolf and the Mexican gray wolf, which federal biologists are trying to restore in New Mexico and Arizona. Wolves north of I-70 in Colorado are threatened and can be shot if found attacking livestock.

South of the interstate, wolves are considered endangered, enjoying the highest level of protection, because Mexican gray wolves may wander north into the state.

Wolves are native to Colorado, but were wiped out by the 1930s after ranchers, government agents and others shot, trapped and poisoned the predator. Task force member Mike Bond, who represents hunters, said his research showed that a majority of Coloradans support bringing wolves back.

“I came into this with somewhat of a bias against wolves,” said Bond, an oil and gas consultant.

That changed after he read more than 70 reports on the impacts of wolves on deer and elk. He said the effects are insignificant unless the herds are already in distress.

Benefits include improved habitat when wolves pick off sick and infected wildlife and thin herds that have overgrazed areas, Bond said.

Wolves have also generated about $40 million in extra revenue for Yellowstone National Park, where people travel to see and hear the wolves, he said.

Wolves might call state home

Animal could be reintroduced to range for first time since the 1930s


Colorado’s first try at a wolf management plan is done, but tougher questions – including whether the animal will be reintroduced to the state – remain untouched.

“I don’t think we’ve come up with anything that’s extremely unique,” said Del Benson, a Colorado State University professor and cooperative extension wildlife specialist who helped craft the plan. “Our plan didn’t go to those creative solutions yet.”

Benson and others from the state’s gray wolf management plan working group will present their draft plan and 36 recommendations to the state wildlife commission Thursday.

The 14-member group with representatives from interest groups such as conservation, hunting, livestock and government spent about seven months last year building the plan, which will eventually dictate how Colorado deals with what many see as the inevitable migration of wolves into Colorado. The animals haven’t widely roamed the Colorado range since the 1930s when they were killed off by federal agencies for attacking livestock.

The group also will present the plan at public meetings, including one in Fort Collins in February that has yet to be scheduled.

“It certainly could have been better, but it could have been a whole lot worse,” said Rob Edward, director of carnivore restoration for Sinapu, a Boulder-based organization whose name is Ute for wolf.

Colorado’s plan won’t kick in until Wyoming and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service settle a dispute over Wyoming’s wolf management plan. After that, wolves north of Interstate 70, the Western Distinct Population Segment, could be removed from the endangered species list and control transferred to states. Until then, federal agencies will continue to manage wolves in Colorado.

Mexican gray wolves south of I-70, part of the Southern Distinct Population Segment, are likely to remain under federal management longer than their northern counterparts, and federal agencies have discussed reintroducing wolves into Arizona, New Mexico or southwest Colorado.

The transfer could prompt questions that Colorado’s gray wolf group found too hot to touch: Will wolves be reintroduced to the state and, if so, where and at whose expense?

“That will be a very controversial plan, more than this one,” said Tom Bender, a Larimer County commissioner who represented government in the working group. “I haven’t even started thinking about that one yet.”

The current draft plan, which won’t be released to the public until the Thursday meeting, is a mix of plans already in place in other states, including Wyoming, Idaho, Alaska, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Montana. The Colorado working group used the Montana plan as a framework, planners said.

“There’s no place wolves can’t go, no limit on the number of wolves, anything like that,” Edward said.

But Colorado’s plan likely will allow ranchers to kill wolves that are attacking livestock. That is similar to plans in Montana and Idaho approved earlier this month by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife, which also allows landowners to kill wolves that are stalking or guarding livestock.

Since 1987, Defenders of Wildlife has compensated ranchers for livestock killed by wolves and in 2004 paid out a record $138,000. Some ranchers critical of the fund say it doesn’t compensate them for lost time and effort raising livestock, while others are reticent to accept money from the organization.

The compensation subject proved a dividing one for wolf advocates and livestock interests, Bender said.

“It was tough because there was a lot of distrust between the livestock and the wolf people,” Bender said. “The livestock people were worried … that reintroduction will come to the front (of the discussion). The wildlife people were concerned livestock people will abuse the compensation fund.”

Said CSU’s Benson: “It boiled down to a few basic issues of why people want them and why people don’t want them.”

Wolf Management Draft Plan To Be Released

Associated Press

FORT COLLINS, Colo. (AP) A draft plan for the management of gray wolves will be presented to the Colorado Division of Wildlife on Thursday.

The plan does not address the issue of whether wolves should be reintroduced to the state, but biologists believe they will migrate into the state from Wyoming in any case.

The plan was put together by a 14-member group that included hunters, conservationists, livestock owners and federal officials.

Details of the plan were not released Monday.

“It certainly could have been better, but it could have been a whole lot worse,” said Rob Edwards, director of carnivore restoration for Sinapu, a Boulder-based wildlife preservation group. “There’s no place wolves can’t go, no limit on the number of wolves, anything like that,” said Edwards.

It is expected that ranchers will be allowed to kill wolves attacking their livestock. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service this month authorized landowners to kill wolves in such situations. Livestock owners likely also will be compensated for losses by wolf predation.

The Colorado plan is a mixture of those in place in northern states, with nothing startlingly new, said Del Benson, a Colorado State University wildlife specialist.

For the time being, federal agencies will manage wolves in Colorado, pending settlement of a dispute between Wyoming and the Fish and Wildlife Service over management of the species.

Wolves at the door?

Allen Best
Vail Daily

COLORADO – If the sturdy pioneers of the West could return today, they’d find more than dramatically changed landscapes.

More surprising to the pioneers would be our changed attitudes, none more shocking than how we now view predators. Species they had so triumphantly eradicated are now protected and, in some cases, are being restocked on the landscape.

Front and center in this “re-wilding” movement is the wolf. After being wiped out in Colorado somewhere between 1935 and 1945, wolves are now returning, this time protected by the Endangered Species Act.

Anticipating this return, federal authorities last year decided that Interstate 70 would serve as the dividing line between wolf populations transplanted in Yellowstone and Arizona.

According to this mandate, any wolves found south of I-70 are to be treated as “endangered,” the maximum protection possible under federal law. None are to be killed unless a person is being attacked.

North of I-70 wolves are accorded the lesser protection of “threatened.”

What followed next sounds like a made-for-TV movie script. Meetings were held across Colorado, including one crowded meeting during March near downtown Denver. Several ranchers, big-game hunters, and sportsman stood up to gloomily warn of the perils of wolves. Wolf supporters easily outnumbered them, declaring their fidelity to wolf restoration.

Yet for all the passion, the rhetoric sounded academic – like theologians arguing about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

In early June, the wolf story became real. A wolf was thrown into a median guardrail on I-70 by a speeding car or truck west of Idaho Springs. A few feet more, and the wolf would have been on the literal legal divide between threatened and endangered.

As was, the young female was dead. Speculation ended. This was a smoking gun – wolves were back.

First, find a mate

The trail of this 2-year-old female wolf starts in Yellowstone National Park. She was seen in Yellowstone last January before loping into Colorado, possibly sniffing along the northern fringes of Eagle County on her way toward the bright lights of Denver. She was probably looking for a male wolf.

The 77 gray wolves transplanted by the federal government into Yellowstone beginning in 1995 have now multiplied to 800 there and in adjoining states. Because wolves are strongly territorial, young wolves must spread out to find unoccupied habitat. Perhaps a quarter of the homeless wolves are headed toward Colorado.

Despite the indisputable presence of the female wolf on I-70 last summer, it could take decades for gray wolves to recolonize Colorado, says Ed Bangs, the Montana-based Gray Wolf Recovery Team leader.

If wolves don’t pick up the scent of other wolves within about 100 miles, most will turn back. Being young and unattached, he says, they have more than just a good meal on their minds.

“These lone wolves could show up for decades before you get a male and female that like each other, breed, and have pups,” says Bangs. “We have had lone wolves even in Kansas and Missouri, as well as Utah, Oregon, and Washington.

“But it’s a big difference talking about when we think a pack will show up in Colorado. It could be decades – or it could be next year,” he adds. “You never know, but I’m betting on the longer time frame.”

But with the gray wolf firmly re-established in Yellowstone, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wants to remove full protection of the Endangered Species Act. Wyoming has frustrated this de-listing, wanting to allow wolves to be more broadly hunted than federal biologists think prudent if wolves are to avoid becoming endangered once again.

On the other hand, Defenders of Wildlife and other groups argue the federal government, in trying to dodge controversy, is prematurely de-listing the gray wolf. They contend the gray wolf has been restored to probably less than 5 percent of its historic range in the continental United States.

The Endangered Species Act species requires restoration to a “significant” portion of their former range.

People want wolves

Assuming the de-listing will occur, the federal government urged Utah and Colorado to begin planning for how to deal with wolves – keeping in mind the states could be more restrictive, but no less restrictive than the federal government.

To work out state policy, Colorado earlier this year appointed a task force composed of ranchers, environmentalists, sportsmen and biologists. By most accounts, there has been head-butting but no serious blows.

Livestock producers have grudgingly conceded the most ground.

“As strongly as we don’t want wolves in this state, we have to acknowledge that times have changed, and there are a lot of people who do want wolves,” says Bonnie Kline, executive director of the Colorado Woolgrowers Association, who is on the task force.

It’s not that ranchers see wolves any differently, she adds. To them, wolves are a “really bad deal.”

Agreement reached by the task force so far is limited. Populations of elk and deer are to be monitored more closely to gauge decimation by wolves. Ranchers are to be compensated 100 percent for confirmed wolf kills and 50 percent for probable wolf kills.

As well, wolves caught killing livestock can be killed. Ranchers had wanted more open-ended authority to kill wolves they believe will later kill livestock.

Vern Albertson, president of the Eagle Valley Cattlemen’s Association, expects “nothing but trouble for us. We’re not likely to be compensated for anything they kill, because you must have some definite proof – just about a picture of the wolf doing the killing,” in order to be compensated.

He recalls his father, Joe Albertson, talking about wolves in Burns Hole in northern Eagle County.

“‘The wolf is nothing but a killing machine,’ is what he said. They don’t kill just for what they need, but rather just for the experience of it,” Albertson says. “They kill a lot more than what they eat.”

Albertson portrays the return of wolves as one of several threats to the remaining ranchers in Eagle County. “It’s just another way some of the environmental extremists and animal lovers are trying to force the livestock industry out of business,” he says.

However, based on what they have seen in the Yellowstone region, biologists do not expect wolves to kill a large amount of livestock.

“Confirmed livestock predation has been about half of what we thought it would be, and even so we had thought it would be low,” says Bangs, of the situation in Yellowstone. “Each year we kill about 6 percent of the wolf population, because of problems with livestock.”

Wolf-tinted glasses

Another thorny issue is where the wolves will be deliberately set lose in the state. A task force working on the Mexico gray wolf is considering that very possibility.

Mexican wolves, a subspecies of gray wolf, were reintroduced in 1999 to Arizona, but only 55 are now known to exist.

The recovery team has talked about reintroducing them to Colorado. Mention has been made of the West Elks-Grand Mesa area as well as the San Juan Mountains and Ted Turner’s ranch in northern New Mexico.

A recent report in a Denver newspaper estimated such a reintroduction could occur in two or three years. Recovery team member Michael Robinson, described the report as premature.

“Yeah, it could happen in the next few years, but again, it could take quite a long time. It is entirely conceivable there will be no reintroduction,” said Robinson, who is also a spokesman for the Center for Biological Diversity.

Among those groups lobbying for reintroduction is Boulder-based Sinapu. Why is restoring wolves important?

“Just as the suppression of fire from Western landscapes has broad and often catastrophic implications, wolves are unbelievably important to the health and diversity of wild America, and we cannot afford to delay the process of weaving them back into the landscape,” says Rob Edward, the group’s carnivore restoration program director.

But wildlife biologists have cautioned about reading too many benefits into wolf reintroduction.

“I am wary of looking at the world through wolf-tinted glasses,” Bangs says.

Just as wolf opponents heap too much blame on wolves, proponents have a tendency to find unblemished good, and those perceptions really reflect human values more than they accurately describe wolves, Bangs says.

“Wolves are boring; humans are fascinating,” he says.

What is clearly known about the impact of wolves to the Yellowstone region? Bangs says coyote density may be down slightly – or not.

Willow and aspen are growing in places where they haven’t grown in years. Bangs says that is because elk hunted by wolves act more like wild animals, spending more time concealed in the timber and less time hanging around the streambeds.

The result is that willows and aspen are now growing in Yellowstone in places where they haven’t grow in 70 years.

This, in turn, gives more material for beavers to work with, which slows runoff of rain and snowmelt. Beyond that, it’s hard to judge the impact of wolves, says Bangs, because of so many other changes such as weather and new roads.

Rural attitudes

Wolves returning to Colorado will change little, Bangs says. They won’t stay in designated wilderness areas, but will instead follow deer and elk to lower elevations.

Even so, Colorado’s habitat is just too fragmented by development to accommodate many wolves.

How about attacks on humans? Even in India today there are reliable reports of children killed by wolves, and records from past ages clearly indicate wolves have killed people in Russia and Scandinavia.

In North America, however, while wolves have bitten people, no killings have been verified. In contrast, Bangs points out, deer kill about 20 people a year.

“There are 25 million Canadians living with 60,000 wolves,” he adds. “Maybe the Canadians just taste bad. I don’t know. But nobody who lives around wolves is afraid of wolves.”

What we do know for absolute sure is wolves are not a topic easily ignored. While some are ambivalent, many run hot and cold. In 1996, following a debate in Eagle about wolves, divergent opinions emerged.

Sinapu representative Edward was one of the wolf advocates. Although by then living in Boulder, Edwards had grown up in semi-rural Idaho and, he says, herded sheep on the Navajo Nation.

“I can put a saddle on and ride a horse without any instruction,” he says. “I am very comfortable with rural attitudes.”

Also at the meeting that night was a rancher from Burns Hole. After the speech, the two went at it nose to nose.

“I can’t believe that you would want to bring back those animals when my grandfather worked so hard to get rid of them,” the rancher said, shaking his head in disbelief.

Edward didn’t back down. “Because they belong here,” he said.

Crossing Puma's Path

Chance encounter gives one reason to shudder, think

By Gary Gerhardt, Rocky Mountain News

Three of us were fishing in the West Elks northwest of Gunnison one summer and pitched camp up in the trees away from the stream. After supper, we bunked in a six-man tent – plenty of room and all the amenities of home.

As we lay in our bags talking before snuffing the Coleman lantern and sacking out, the breeze hushed, and in that moment, a puma screamed close enough that it took an hour to pry my fingers off the top of the tent.

Well, maybe not an hour, but I don’t even remember unzipping that bag and heading for the ax near the front tent flap.

The guys with me were stunned for a moment, then burst out laughing as we looked around at one another: big, tough campers frightened out of our wits by the sound of a cat.

Some say a puma sounds like a woman screaming. No way. It has too much gravel in its throat and force in its chest. Hear one, you don’t forget.

The next time I saw a puma up close was in a tree in Golden.

It was a couple of blocks west of Washington Avenue, around Third or Fourth street, before all the houses and roads were built west of there.

The puma, sort of trapped because of all the people standing around, was making those nasty curled-lip growls that showed it was mega irritated.

District wildlife manager Warren Cummings showed up as police cordoned off the area.

The puma was about 30 feet up, and as Cummings prepared a tranquilizer dart, I noticed a small, gray house cat sneaking up beside the yard fence, prowling toward the tree with the lion in it.

The lion was looking down at it with a “Hey kid, you suffering from delusions of grandeur?” look on its face.

A truck with a lift bucket was pulled up, and Cummings was hoisted about eye level with the big cat and zapped it with the dart.

The lion screamed like a banshee, looking back at the dart sticking in its hip, then in a couple of minutes its muscles synapsed and it couldn’t hold on. It slipped and crashed down the tree, hit the ground, then jumped up and took off like a shot, long tawny tail up stiff behind it.

We watched as it made a quick right-hand turn at the corner and disappear from view. But we didn’t lose track because we could hear shouts and screams of unsuspecting residents all the way up that block as it ran straight up the middle of the street.

It made it a couple of hundred yards into a field before the drugs kicked in and it flopped on the ground.

The wildlife officers quickly put it in a cage and took it back up into the hills, where it would be safe.

Run-ins Do Occur

Let’s get one thing out of the way right off. Puma attacks do happen. But in the past 115 years, there have been only 17 known human fatalities attributed to pumas in the United States and Canada, and about 100 injuries in confrontations.

Tragically, two of those were in Colorado, and a third, a young child, might have been killed, although by the time his tiny body was recovered, it was impossible to say what killed him.

Nothing said will be of comfort to a person who is the victim of an attack or a confrontation. I could point out how many dogs there are in the United States, but if one bit you, statistics wouldn’t count for much.

But your chances of getting attacked or killed by a puma are a gazillion times less than being fatally stung by a bee, hit by lightning or stepping on a rattlesnake. You are far more likely to fall off your mountain bike and conk your head than be chased and bitten by a puma. You could die of a heart attack while jogging long before a cat will chase you up a tree (a bad idea anyway, because they can climb a tree faster than you can fall out of one and they are able to execute a 30-foot, standing broad jump or an 18-foot leap straight up the face of a cliff).

Considering the hundreds of thousands of backpackers, hikers, campers, anglers, hunters, bikers, bird watchers, off-road-vehicle users and a host of people who work in the outdoors for a living, the statistics show the chances of a cat attack are very slim.

Census Undertaken

In Colorado, there are an estimated 3,200 to 3,400 adult pumas. They are very solitary animals, but females, in some cases, will keep their young with them up to 18 months. Mortality is caused by a number of factors.

Females will leave their kittens in caves or other refuges while they go hunting. Once they make a kill, they go back and bring the young one at a time to feed.

While a mother is gone, coyotes, bobcats, bears or adult male mountain lions might kill kittens if they are found.

Also, if the mother is killed by hunters or on the highway while looking for prey, kittens will starve to death.

Ken Logan, carnivore biologist for the Colorado Division of Wildlife, has begun a 10-year, $2 million study on the Uncompahgre Plateau west of Montrose to census the puma population there.

He hopes to study births, immigration and emigration, predator-prey interactions and human-lion interactions and determine if there is a correlation between a known population and other indicators, such as track counts.

By Any Other Name . . .

Puma is an Inca word for “powerful animal.” The animal also is called a number of other names, including mountain lion, cougar, catamount, panther, ghost cat and painter.

Wendy Keefover-Ring, director of the carnivore protection program for Sinapu, a Boulder-based conservation group, said there are 18 names for the animal in the native languages of South America and 25 in North America.

Keefover-Ring has devoted a chunk of her life to studying and protecting pumas and is something of an expert.

In a study titled “The State of Pumas in the West,” which her organization published last month, she states there are two types of terrestrial predators – “coursing predators,” such as wolves and coyotes, which run long distances on open terrain after prey, and “ambush predators,” such as pumas and other wild cats, that have a burst of speed for short distances but are far more successful in catching prey.

In fact, the kill ratio is 25 percent for coursing predators compared with 80 percent for ambush predators.

“Ambush-hunting requires cover to stalk and hide along open spaces where they can run and tackle their prey,” Keefover-Ring said.
Biologists call these areas between hiding and running places “edge zones,” and they include tree lines or rock outcroppings with open spaces beyond them. Experts contend that sufficient edge zone in a puma’s home range might be more important than density of prey.

Pumas don’t jump off boulders or from trees and land on the backs of their prey. They come up on the ground from behind, charge and leap up on the back and, with powerful jaws, break the neck of the prey by severing the spinal cord.

Then they usually drag the carcass to a secluded spot beneath a tree, feed on it and, if anything is left, cover it with leaves, dirt and whatever is available.

There was a debate a few years ago by hunters who thought predators were taking too many deer. (In such cases, the definition of a “predator” is a critter that gets to something before you have a chance to.)

But studies in Idaho and Colorado pointed to bad habitat for deer and elk as being the real culprit. It not only knocks down the prey, but that, in turn, does a job on the predators as well, because without prey, their numbers drop.

A healthy puma needs an average of one deer, elk, bighorn sheep or goat a week to survive.

They eat 8 to 12 pounds of meat at one sitting, then bury the rest and come back for it.

Deer is the favorite prey for puma, although they can survive on any protein from porcupines, hares, beavers, raccoons, squirrels, coyotes, or birds to farm animals such as goats, sheep, calves, pigs, poultry and horses.

Meat is meat. They aren’t particular, and when you leave out barbecue grills and meat products in the trash, they are happy to help themselves as well.

Puma Profile

• Scientific name: Puma concolor (formerly Felis concolor).
• Description: 130 to 220 pounds, 8 feet from nose to tip of tail, coat is sandy-brown to reddish-brown, or gray to dark brown; light beige throat, chest, stomach and inner legs; head small; dark markings around nose; short, rounded ears; longer hind legs; long tail.
• Life span: A mountain lion’s natural life span is about 12 years in the wild and up to 24 years in captivity.
• Habitat: Range from Canada to South America, mostly in mountains, forests, grasslands, swamps and semideserts. Finds shelter in thick undergrowth, rocks, caves or rock outcrops.

• Food: Hunts mostly at evening and dawn. Looks for deer, elk, porcupines, rabbits, hares, beavers, coyotes, raccoons, ground squirrels, sheep, calves, pigs, horses and poultry.
• Breeding: No set breeding season. Will give birth to litter of one to six. Kittens blind at birth, covered with fine fur and black spots. Eyes open in 10 days; weaning occurs about two months. Dependent on mother for food for 12 to 22 months.
• Range: Cats can prowl distances of 15 to 20 miles a day and can be 100 miles or more from where they previously were seen.
• Interesting facts: Good climber, excellent swimmer, excellent sight and hearing, retractable claws.

Sources: Mammals of Colorado by James Fitzgerald, Carron Meaney and David Armstrong; The Cougar Almanac by Robert Busch; National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mammals

What to Do if You Confront a Puma

To minimize the chance of an encounter, don’t hike, bike or jog alone in lion territory and don’t plan activities during dusk or dawn.

• Maintain eye contact. Never turn away.
• Stand straight, pull your shirt or jacket up behind your head to make yourself look larger.
• Stand your ground. Never run – it immediately triggers a “cat-and-mouse” chase.
• If you have pepper spray, use it. If you can quickly get to a rock or stick without turning your back, use them while yelling at the animal.
• Don’t bend, crouch or kneel, and never turn your back.
• If attacked, strike with fists, tools, a pocketknife, rocks, sticks or anything you can, but don’t give up. Target the eye with your fingers or a weapon.
• Back away, but even if you turn a corner or can’t see the animal anymore, that doesn’t mean it hasn’t followed. Be aware.
Sources: Bryce National Park; Clint Miller, former wildlife biologist with the City of Boulder Open Space Department; California Department of Fish and Game. or 303-892-5202