Peppered with Pumas: Experts say recent lion sightings no cause for alarm

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A mountain lion moves through the snow in the mountains in central Idaho in January 2000.

By Zak Brown

Boulder Daily Camera

The sight of a mountain lion can inspire excitement, awe and, if only for a moment, fear.

The rarity of mountain lion attacks on humans is well-documented, although that doesn’t mean there isn’t any reason to fear such a powerful animal. And even if there is little chance a lion will attack a human, pets and livestock are at a real danger. So it’s news when a mountain lion makes a cameo appearance in or near civilization.

This winter, the news in Boulder County has been peppered with pumas. There have been multiple sightings in Louisville and Boulder this winter, the most recent a backyard appearance in west Boulder on March 20.

That high number of sightings may seem like a pattern, but local wildlife experts tend to regard them as people simply seeing what is already there. Mountain lions are our local ecosystem’s version of the reclusive celebrity.

“My feeling is that I’d bet that these things happen more than you’d believe,” says Marc Bekoff, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado. “I’m on the bike path a lot and I feel like animals are seeing me when I’m not seeing them.”

Sightings are fairly common in Boulder. Colorado Division of Wildlife spokesman Tyler Baskfield says he gets reports of sightings about once a month.

Moisture, or the lack of it, has a major influence on ecosystems in the West. Drought conditions can force wildlife out of habitual environments and into contact with civilization in order to find food or water. That was likely not the case this winter and likely won’t be the case this summer, based on projected water levels. The mountain lions’ main food source is mule deer, which means the lions typically go where deer go.

That includes the water sources for the deer or any other small prey. That’s likely the reason the lions ended up in Louisville, miles from the mountains yet close to water.

“That can happen if there’s a riparian area, or there can be a ditch that they can follow,” says Wendy Keefover-Ring, director of the carnivore protection program at Sinapu, a Boulder-based nonprofit dedicated to the restoration and protection of native carnivores and their habitat in the southern Rocky Mountain region. “They certainly don’t like to be exposed and in the open. They are an ambush predator and they want to be right where they can hide themselves in tall grass. They don’t want to walk across the prairie.”

In January, a lion was reported near Keith Helart Park in Louisville, and a pair was seen near Annette Brand Park.

The public’s fear of mountain lions heightens when the animals are seen close to civilization. There have only been 17 fatalities from mountain lion confrontations since 1890, according to Sinapu. The biggest threat is to small animals and sometimes children. When there are sightings and the presence of lions is confirmed, outside pets should be put in kennels. Small children should play in fenced areas under supervision.

The March 20 sighting in Boulder, when a large cat was seen in the backyard of a home near the intersection of 13th Street and Cascade Avenue, was highly publicized. The animal was caught on camera walking through the snow and testing the lid of a garbage can to use as a springboard out of the yard (not to feed; unlike bears, lions don’t scavenge refuse, according to Keefover-Ring). The relatively lengthy footage of the animal slowly trolling through the snow provided an impromptu home version of “Nature” or “Wild Kingdom.”

For Bekoff, watching the video for the first time was a special treat. He was out of town when the video was publicized, but watched it while being interviewed for this story.

“The animal was displaced on the way somewhere. Frankly, that would be my guess. That’s the only other thing I could think of because it is walking so casually,” he says. “I don’t know if it’s weather-related. It could be just that a cat would be going somewhere else. I would have to say it was a lucky glimpse.”

Other recent sightings, Bekoff says, are likely just lions crossing paths with humans. There are several other times when humans are in close contact with lions but never see them. As ambush predators, lions require cover and have no interest in dealing with larger animals such as humans. For instance, Bekoff cites a photo of two hikers talking, with the face of an unseen lion in the grass a few feet from a hiker’s ankle.

“If you see a lion, enjoy the moment, because you’re probably not going to have that opportunity again,” Keefover-Ring says. “They are naturally fearful of humans. If they weren’t, we would have far more attacks.”

Common sense should prevail. But even with the recent sightings, the chance of being attacked is statistically so small as to be insignificant.

“We have a really rich deer population, so we have a higher density of mountain lions in Boulder. And they’re not hunted here,” Keefover-Ring says. “The great thing is the risk of an attack is extremely rare.”

Zak Brown can be reached at brownz@dailycamera.com.

Copyright 2006, DailyCamera. All Rights Reserved.

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