‘People are scared’ as mountain lions hang out in Colorado towns
by Allen Best
VAIL, Colo. — The shadows of Colorado mountain towns have become more suspect this winter since dogs in Vail, Steamboat Springs, and other towns have been killed by the big cats variously called mountain lions, cougars, and pumas.
In Vail, a resident of Forest Road, located on the lower slopes of Vail Mountain, let a spaniel named Mogul out onto the patio at 6 a.m. Wildlife officers found the remains of the dog under the patio. Ironically, perhaps, the home is located near Vail’s neighborhood called Lionshead.
About 10 miles away, on what is sometimes called the “backside” of Vail Mountain, two more dogs have been killed in the small town of Red Cliff. In Steamboat Springs, a mountain lion also killed a dog.
Mountain lions have also been seen in other neighborhoods in the Eagle Valley. Several have been killed on highways.
Wildlife officers have also killed several. In Steamboat Springs, after killing the dog, the cat hung out below the house overhang for eight hours—long enough that the state wildlife officers decided they needed to kill the animal. While attacks on humans have been extremely rare, parents with children understandably get nervous.
Mountain lions have always been common enough in mountainous areas, even if the giant cats were rarely seen. They hang out where there is available prey, including deer and elk.
Wildlife officials say that mountain lion populations have been increasing in at least some portions of Colorado.
“I have had more calls in the last two months than in the last 30 years,” says Craig Westcoatt, a state wildlife officer. Before, he adds, it was “shock and awe” to get a report of a sighting. “Now it’s, ‘They’re here and we’re scared.’”
That’s the same story given by long-time residents. “People are scared,” says Barb Bomier, a resident of Red Cliff since 1989. A one-time mining town now of about 300 people, Red Cliff cut power to streetlights, to save money. Without streetlights, Bomier tells Mountain Town News, she won’t walk to the town’s only restaurant, located a block away, after dark. “I don’t want to run into a mountain lion.”
An even longer time perspective comes from Angela Beck, who was born in Red Cliff in 1930. She has lived her whole life there, and she says that mountain lions were never seen, even on hunting trips into the surrounding mountains.
What has changed? One hypothesis is that in places like Red Cliff, people in decades past had a tendency to take things into their own hands. Red Cliff was also a place of hunters and guns. If a bear—or somebody’s dog—got into trash, it suffered the consequences. Mostly, nobody talked about it. It just happened.
After one dog was killed in January, a local, licensed hunter did kill a lion at Red Cliff. In that case, state wildlife officers had OK’d the shooting. But town and state officials warn against random shootings.
“We don’t want people hunting them,” town manager Barb Smith told the Vail Daily. “We don’t want people firing guns into someone else’s house.”
Bill Andree, a state wildlife officer, said killings can be condoned only if human safety is at issue. Even then, it’s up to the shooter to do so in a way that doesn’t endanger others. “If your bullet goes through the animal and causes damage somewhere else, then you’re totally on the hook for it.”
He says that while hunting licenses are now available for mountain lions, conventional techniques using dogs to tree animals are difficult in residential neighborhoods.
Andree, who has covered the Vail-Red Cliff area since 1980, says he sees the increase in mountain lions being very similar to the surge of encounters between bears and people that began about 15 years ago. When he first arrived in the Vail area, bear sightings were very rare. By the 1990s, they had become somewhat common, he says.
The larger story yet may be a species that has regained its footings. Writing in the December 2013 National Geographic, Douglas Chadwick had this to say:
“Cougars once inhabited the lower 48 states from coast to coast, but by the early 20th century, virtually all the survivors in the U.S. were confined to the backcountry of the Rockies, Pacific Coast ranges, and Southwest. (An exception was the subspecies called the Florida panther, which still holds out in that state’s vast marshes.) Finally western states dropped the cougar bounties some were still paying as late as the 1960s. In 1972 federal law banned the use of predator poisons on federal lands. More wildlife departments started managing the cats as game animals with a regulated hunting season. And for the first time in 300 years cougar numbers began to rise. The story ever since has been about the comeback of a major carnivore—a recovery with broader reach and larger implications than the better-known and more controversial return of grizzly bears and wolves.”
In the article, he points out that cougars have lately been establishing populations on the Great Plains and have visited almost every state in the Midwest.
According to the Mountain Lion Foundation, Colorado classified mountain lions as a predator in 1881, with a bounty offered for every mountain lion killed until 1965, when the species was reclassified as a big game animal. Between 1917 (the first year records are available) and 1965, the website says, 1,754 mountain lions were killed and turned in to government agents for a reward.
The website also notes that since 1917 at least 11,130 mountain lions have been reported killed by humans in the state.