COLORADO SPRINGS, Colorado - When people hear reports of mountain lion sightings, they naturally assume the incident must have been in the backcountry. Recent reports of mountain lion activity in populated areas, however, reinforce the fact that mountain lions can be present just about anywhere in Colorado - including cities and towns.
Over the past few weeks, Colorado Parks and Wildlife Officers responded to reports along the southern Front Range involving mountain lions killing deer near people's homes.
"We remove the deer carcasses and advise the residents to remain vigilant for the next few days in case the cat returns," said Colorado Springs Area Wildlife Manager Cory Chick.
Mountain lions are active year-round but generally are most active at night. Chick suggests people avoid letting their pets out alone - especially between the hours of sunset and sunrise.
"We don't want to scare anyone, but we want people to know about mountain lions," said Chick who explained that lions' main prey are deer, rabbits and other small mammals. "They have evolved over thousands of years to hunt for prey that moves on four legs. They go after prey that represents the greatest opportunity for the least amount of risk."
Mountain lions have extremely large territories. They sometimes roam more than 20 miles a day in search of new food sources or mates. This is especially true after young mountain lions leave their mother at about a year and a half old. If a lion moves through a neighborhood and does not find anything to eat, it will keep moving.
"Lions in Colorado are a normal part of the life cycle," said Chick. "Some mountain lions seem to be able to live in the vicinity of humans without conflict."-
Colorado Parks and Wildlife officers believe there are a variety of reasons for increased mountain lion sightings. One is that more humans live and recreate where mountain lions and their primary prey, mule deer, exist. Other explanations could be related to changes in lion distribution and movement patterns, increasing lion populations, or the simple fact that people are more apt to report sightings.
The vast majority of sightings happen very quickly and end when the lion runs away. However, wildlife managers are concerned that more and more reports are coming from populated areas where mountain lions are finding plentiful food supplies.
"The chances of you even seeing a mountain lion are highly unlikely," Chick said. "So the chances of being attacked are even lower. But people still need to be aware that lions live among us."
According to Jerry Apker, a carnivore specialist with Colorado Parks and Wildlife, feeding deer and other wildlife draws prey animals into residential areas - which means mountain lions are likely to follow. "Sometimes people become a little too anxious to see wildlife and attempt to bring animals closer by putting out food," he said.
It is illegal to feed deer or any big game in Colorado, but sometimes people do it anyway because they are unaware of the problems it causes. "Deer are capable of finding plenty of natural food to eat on their own," Apker explained. "Feeding deer congregates them in back yards and puts everyone in the neighborhood at risk because deer are one of the main food sources for mountain lions. Mountain lions usually avoid people, but even with human activity nearby, mountain lions are more likely to stay in an area where deer congregate."
When a lion kills a large animal like a deer, they consume part of the meat and conceal the rest by covering it with dirt or leaves. They return later to eat more. As long as the meat does not spoil, the lion will remain in the vicinity until it is consumed. That might take up to a week during the winter.
If you find a partially eaten carcass on your property, call your local Parks and Wildlife office for advice on removing the carcass. Removing the carcass will prompt the lion to leave the area.
In some cases, wildlife officers use "negative conditioning" techniques to haze cats away from populated areas. One method is shooting the lion with beanbags or rubber buckshot. It sends a strong message to reinforce the cat's natural instinct to avoid people.
Hunting is another way to manage cougar populations. Licensed hunters legally kill about 350 mountain lions a year. Another 40 or so are killed each year by car accidents, or by state or federal wildlife officers responding to calls of lions taking pets or killing livestock.
An extra month was added to the mountain lion hunting season in Colorado this year. The traditional close of the mountain lion hunting season was March 31, but beginning this year, the season will not close until April 30. Hunters should check with their local Colorado Parks and Wildlife office to get details on the license requirements for 2013.