Staying Alive in Mountain Lion Country

DENVER, Colorado, August 5, 2002 (ENS) - In January 2001, Frances Frost, 30, was killed by a mountain lion in Banff National Park while cross-country skiing alone on the Lake Minnewanka Loop. According to Park Chief Warden Ian Syme, "The cougar leapt on her back, bit her neck and I suspect that she may not even know what hit her." A healthy adult male cougar was later shot by wardens where her body was found.

In July 1997, Mark David Miedema, 10, was killed by a female cougar while returning from a hike to Cascade Falls on the North Inlet Trail on the west side of Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado. The boy had raced ahead of his family on the well traveled trail to see if animals had eaten the peanuts he had left on the trail on the way up.

In April 1994, Barbara Schoener, 40, a long distance runner in excellent physical shape, was killed by female mountain lion in northern California on the American River Canyon trail in the Auburn State Recreation Area. No one observed the attack.


Mountain lions (Photo courtesy U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service)
Since 1970, across the United States, there has been an average of 14 mountain lion attacks per year on people, according to Tom Chester, an astrophysicist with an interest in recording mountain lion attacks.

The cat of many names - cougar, puma, mountain lion - inhabits all states of the southwest. One of the densest populations in the country occurs in the Four Corners region where Utah, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico meet.

Although once found in almost every state, today mountain lions are only rarely found east of the Rocky Mountains except for isolated populations in Florida and eastern Canada.

Across the southwest, the number of mountain lion-human sightings and interactions has increased in the past few years. The lions are found in most of Colorado, and on Friday state Division of Wildlife officials issued an advisory alerting hikers and campers to ways they can avoid dangerous encounters.

"Encounters may continue to increase as more people are moving into deer and mountain lion habitat, and as more people are hiking and camping in mountain lion habitat," the Division of Wildlife says.

Predators follow prey, the wildlife biologists say. "In almost any place where you see wild deer, there is always the potential to see a mountain lion. This includes places deep in the forested wilderness you may expect - and less expected places, such as the edge of golf courses or walking trails along a canal." They often use shrubs and bushes as hiding places.

"You may spend many hours hiking or camping in mountain lion country and never see one of these elusive predators, although it is possible a mountain lion has silently watched you from a distance," the Division of Wildlife (DoW) says. "Cougars can wait in absolute stillness, their tan coats blending with sandy soil and rock formations."

Most active at night, mountain lions will hunt in the day if prey is scarce. In Colorado, studies have shown that cougars primarily eat deer, as much as 70 percent of their total diet, but will also kill and eat mice, squirrels, beavers, raccoons and other small mammals.

Movement, especially running, triggers the prey instinct in mountain lions. Many encounters between humans and mountain lions have been prompted by jogging or running past a waiting lion.

Mountain lions often kill prey, then drag it a short distance away and cover it with dirt, leaves and branches, returning to feed on the kill for several days. "If you find evidence of a mountain lion kill, be aware the lion is likely still in the area and will be returning to the site to feed," the DoW says.

The number of mountain lions in Colorado has stayed fairly constant in the last few decades, estimated at between 1,500 and 3,000.


Mountain lion in Colorado (Photo courtesy Colorado Division of Wildlife)
In addition to Colorado's population, mountain lions are present and hunted in Arizona, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Texas, Utah and Washington. In New Mexico, an earlier hunting ban was lifted, and limited hunting was restored in the late 1990s.

Mountain lions are a protected species in California, with no hunting since 1990. Still, says the Mountain Lion Foundation, although the cat is a "specially protected mammal" in the state, it is still being hunted with dogs and killed for its head, skin, and claws. A cougar pelt can sell for $1,000 to $1,500.

Mountain lion populations are also found in western Canada and Mexico.

The Colorado Division of Wildlife, and the Mountain Lion Foundation agree on these safety measures everyone should take.

To reduce your chances of encountering a mountain lion near your home, do not feed wildlife. Make sure children are inside before dusk and not outside before dawn. Talk with children about mountain lions and teach them what to do if they encounter one.

Wandering pets are easy targets for hungry mountain lions. If pets are kept outside, use an enclosed kennel with a secure top. Feed pets inside or bring dishes in promptly after feeding. Pet food can attract other wildlife to your yard; the mountain lion will be attracted by the prey.

Remove bushes and dense vegetation that would provide good hiding places for mountain lions, especially around children's play areas, entrances and walkways.

If you plan to hike or camp in mountain lion habitat, talk in advance to children and hiking companions about what you will do if you see a lion.


Mountain lion in Colorado
(Photo courtesy Colorado Division of Wildlife)
Do not hike alone, the cougar experts all say. Go in groups, with adults supervising children. The majority of lion attacks on people have involved individuals hiking or running alone. The size and noise of groups seems to deter lions.

Do not run because running stimulates a mountain lion's instinct to chase. Instead, stand and face the animal. If you have small children with you, pick them up if possible so they don't panic and run. Keep older children close by.

Think twice about bringing a dog into mountain lion country. According to Banff National Park Chief Warden Syme, "Many people like to take a dog along in the wilderness because it gives them a sense of security. They feel they will be protected from cougars. But that's not the case. Dogs are an attractant in most cases."

The Colorado Division of Wildlife says, "If you bring a dog into lion country, you must be especially careful about attracting lions. In addition to risking your pet's safety, running dogs, especially when allowed off-leash, have returned to camp with a lion following closely behind."

Do not approach a lion. Most mountain lions will try to avoid a confrontation. Give the lion a way to escape. Always leave lion cubs and all baby wildlife alone.

Do not crouch down. Researchers who have studied lion behavior conclude that a human standing up is just not the right shape for a cat's prey. But a person squatting or bending over can looks like a four-legged prey animal. If you are in mountain lion country, avoid squatting, crouching or bending over, even when picking up children. Crouching down or bending over also makes the neck and back of the head vulnerable.

Do all you can to appear larger. Raise your arms. Open your jacket if you are wearing one. Keep everyone in your group together, appearing as one large shape to the lion. Wave your arms slowly and speak firmly in a loud, low voice. Convince the mountain lion that you are not prey and that you may be a danger to the lion.

Fight back if attacked. Throw stones, branches, or whatever you can reach without crouching or turning your back. People have fought back successfully with rocks, sticks, tools, jackets, and their bare hands. Since a mountain lion usually tries to bite the head or neck, try to remain standing and face the attacking animal. Wildlife experts do not recommend that you play dead.