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Thursday, June 1, 2023

As sightings increase, here are tips to help understand mountain lion behavior

Colorado Parks and Wildlife

As more people move to and recreate outdoors across Colorado, the more they cross paths with wildlife. Following that trend, there has been an increase in reports of mountain lion sightings this year in southwest Colorado.

Southwest Colorado is prime mountain lion habitat, as indicated by 107 mountain lion sightings already this year across the counties of Archuleta, Dolores, La Plata, Montezuma and San Juan, which make up Area 15 of Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW).

Of the 18 areas in the state, that number is by far the most, with the next highest of 67 reported in Boulder County. The 107 sightings in the southwest corner have already surpassed the total of 72 reported in 2020.

Still, of all the sightings reported to CPW’s Durango office this year, only five have been for lions displaying aggressive behavior. 

“Mountain lions are rarely seen but are common throughout western Colorado,” said CPW senior wildlife biologist Jamin Grigg. “They prey primarily on deer and elk and are likely to be present anywhere deer and elk are abundant. They are generally shy around humans, but are also very curious, similar to house cats.”

Technology has also contributed to more reported mountain lion sightings, with video doorbells picking up images that before went unseen.

“We are getting more calls now when someone picks up a lion on their doorbell camera,” said Area 15 Assistant Area Wildlife Manager Steve McClung. “That technology has led to people seeing a lot more lions and bears that have always been around our area, they just weren’t being seen as much.”

While sightings are increasing, attacks are not. Mountain lion attacks are relatively rare. There have been 23 known attacks of a mountain lion on a human since 1990 in Colorado.

Often, protective behavior by a mountain lion can be mistaken with predatory behavior. Grigg said mountain lions are ambush predators, meaning they rely on stealth and secrecy when hunting.

“If a lion allows you to see it, it’s likely not acting in a predatory manner,” he said. 

What has been observed more commonly is protective behavior by mountain lions when they make an effort to direct a human away from a food source or its young kittens. Protective behavior can include bluff-charging — an act in which the lion will behave aggressively by walking toward a person and gesturing with its paws while vocalizing.

“When you see that, a lion likely has a kill or kittens nearby and is simply trying to encourage you to leave the area,” Grigg said. “Bluff-charging is a protective behavior.”

Human interactions with mountain lions will continue to rise as more people move into lion habitat and use hiking and running trails. That is paired with a presumed increase in lion numbers across an expanded range. It is always best practice to remain alert while recreating outdoors and to refrain from using headphones when hiking and running.

While there have been fewer than a dozen fatalities from mountain lion attacks across North America in the last century, CPW recommends a few tips for mountain lion encounters. One of the most important is to keep dogs on a leash. Many mountain lion encounters happen after a dog off leash discovers a lion’s cache of food or gets too close to kittens.

It can also be helpful and provide peace of mind to carry bear spray when traveling in the backcountry.

Mountain lions
in Colorado

Earlier this year, CPW launched an educational video series on YouTube about mountain lions.

CPW Director Dan Prenzlow said this video series was produced to tell the history of the mountain lion and living with lions in our growing state.

“Mountain lions are a fascinating yet elusive animal, but when they do pop on the radar, they make for big headlines,” Prenzlow said. “Sightings of mountain lions are increasing. Thanks to sound management practices implemented over the years, mountain lions are doing quite well in Colorado. The challenge going forward will be balancing decreasing habitats and our exploding human populations, since we share the same spaces. This video series is meant to lay that all out.”

The video series is available on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M2Z4iX-RWjs&list=PLWGY7bVNQHtVxJxrDuuiLW3CxsOcgxC1K.

Episode 1 — Mountain lion biology and historical perspective: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2AF1T8UFTck. 

Episode 2 — Mountain lion habitat and human expansion: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eCphy8JsP40.

Episode 3 — Hunting: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lwHDw3i3OAg.

Episode 4 — What to do if you encounter a mountain lion: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YwMRQIA6KFY.

Bonus — Western Slope Mountain Lion Study: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BO0rAHVMO_Y&list=PLWGY7bVNQHtVxJxrDuuiLW3CxsOcgxC1K&index=7.

Listen to the Colorado Outdoors podcast episode with wildlife researcher Matt Alldredge discussing mountain lions: https://art19.com/shows/colorado-outdoors/episodes/0e9049b3-4323-42b0-97f5-3f17461513e4.

If you encounter a
mountain lion

• Go in groups when you walk or hike in mountain lion country, and make plenty of noise to reduce your chances of surprising a lion. A sturdy walking stick is a good idea; it can be used to ward off a lion. Make sure children are close to you and within your sight at all times. Talk with children about lions and teach them what to do if they meet one. 

• Keep dogs on leash.

• Do not approach a lion, especially one that is feeding or with kittens. Most mountain lions will try to avoid a confrontation. Give them a way to escape.

• Stay calm when you come upon a lion. Talk calmly and firmly to it. Move slowly.

• Stop or back away slowly, if you can do it safely. Running may stimulate a lion’s instinct to chase and attack. Face the lion and stand upright.

• Do all you can to appear larger. Raise your arms. Open your jacket if you’re wearing one. If you have small children with you, protect them by picking them up so they won’t panic and run.

• If the lion behaves aggressively, throw stones, branches or whatever you can get your hands on without crouching down or turning your back. Wave your arms slowly and speak firmly. What you want to do is convince the lion you are not prey and that you may in fact be a danger to the lion.

• Fight back if a lion attacks you. Lions have been driven away by prey that fights back. People have fought back with rocks, sticks, caps or jackets, garden tools and their bare hands successfully. Remain standing or try to get back up.

Who do you call?

If you have an encounter with a lion or an attack occurs, immediately contact CPW. Offices are open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. Before or after those hours, contact the Colorado State Patrol or a local sheriff’s department and they can contact a CPW wildlife officer.

Living in lion country

We can live with these incredibly efficient predators if we respect mountain lions and their habitat.

To reduce the risk of problems with mountain lions on or near your property, we urge you to follow these simple precautions: 

• Make lots of noise if you come and go during the times mountain lions are most active — dusk to dawn.

• Install outside lighting. Light areas where you walk so you could see a lion if one were present.

• Closely supervise children whenever they play outdoors. Make sure children are inside before dusk and not outside before dawn. Talk with children about lions and teach them what to do if they meet one.

• Landscape or remove vegetation to eliminate hiding places for lions, especially around children’s play areas. Make it difficult for lions to approach unseen.

• Planting non-native shrubs and plants that deer often prefer to eat encourages wildlife to come onto your property. Predators follow prey. Don’t feed any wildlife.

• Keep your pet under control. Roaming pets are easy prey and can attract lions. Bring pets in at night. If you leave your pet outside, keep it in a kennel with a secure top. Don’t feed pets outside; this can attract raccoons and other animals that are eaten by lions. Store all garbage securely.

• Place livestock in enclosed sheds or barns at night. Close doors to all outbuildings since inquisitive lions may go inside for a look.

• Encourage your neighbors to follow these simple precautions. Prevention is far better than a possible lion confrontation.

For more information on living with mountain lions, see our brochure and share it with neighbors and friends: https://cpw.state.co.us/Documents/Education/LivingWithWildlife/LivingWithLions.pdf.

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