Shared from the 5/3/2020 The Denver Post eEdition By Bruce Finley The Denver Post
Mountain lions face an uncertain future under a new state plan to let hunters kill up to 15% a year across western Colorado, and more near subdivisions — rankling animal rights advocates who favor a live-and-let-live approach to wildlife.
Among the world’s most elusive predators, mountain lions join black bears in Colorado as the last surviving large carnivores, eating mostly elk and deer. These solitary cats weigh up to 150 pounds, run as fast as 50 mph and can leap 40 feet.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife managers say they’re compelled to allow hunting to control mountain lion numbers amid a human population growth and development boom drawing more people onto lion habitat. They point to “conflicts,” saying staffers received 116 calls about lions over 13 months from people in the Roaring Fork and Eagle River valleys. In one case, a lion was brushing up against stopped vehicles before it and another lion were found dead a few days later along Colorado 82. Lions also have raised alarms by wandering near a school and homes, where they occasionally snatch pets.
Colorado officials are basing their plan on a statewide estimate of 4,000 to 5,500 lions today, half a century after bounty killing pushed this species toward extinction.
The Parks and Wildlife 10-year plan, up for approval this summer by commissioners, calls for preserving mountain lions while also giving opportunities to hunters, who currently are allowed to kill lions at levels intended to reduce numbers across 11,372 square miles in western Colorado designated for “suppression.”
These western suppression zones where lions could be hunted at levels higher than a 15% overall kill rate would shrink, in the new plan, to 1,829 square miles — a new “special management area” around Glenwood Springs encompassing the Roaring Fork and Eagle River valleys, where towns such as Edwards (population 10,266) are expanding onto lion habitat.
The plan would replace existing plans for 13 game units in western Colorado but wouldn’t change hunting in foothills west of the heavily populated Front Range, where hunting is done at levels designed to reduce lion numbers with kill rates set as high as 28%.
Colorado would remain among the 14 states that allow hunting of mountain lions, which number about 30,000 around the West amid widening support for peaceful coexistence. Hunters harvested 541 mountain lions statewide last year.
California voters in 1990 prohibited lion hunting, and wildlife managers there have not seen increased conflicts.
“We are attempting to manage for a stable mountain lion population,” said CPW biologist Mark Vieira, architect of Colorado’s plan.
While nobody knows for sure how many lions inhabit Colorado, agency officials are confident from extrapolations, small-scale density studies and informal assessments that the statewide population estimated at 4,000 to 5,500 has been steady or increasing and that 15% a year could be killed sustainably, Vieira said.
“As we live and recreate more, with our pets in this habitat, and bring deer and elk right up to towns, we’re bringing in lions as well — something we have to deal with. The real threat to lions is the loss of their habitat,” he said.
Colorado wildlife managers “are not trying to suppress mountain lions in western Colorado. It’s amazing that we’ve got these top predators existing at these densities, at these numbers, in Colorado. We should be proud of the lion populations we have.”
But animal rights groups, and some lion hunters, are fighting the plan.
“We are on a road to losing lions,” said Delia Malone, director of the Sierra Club’s wildlife program, who lives near Redstone and recently marveled at a lion in her driveway and on a neighbor’s porch. A more accurate estimate of the statewide population would be 3,000, Malone said.
“And we don’t need to ‘manage’ them. This ‘management’ is mostly about trophy hunting. Lions will not overpopulate and become rampant marauders invading human neighborhoods. If you have a population that is unhunted, the adult lions will keep younger lions out of their territory. And if lions don’t have territory, they die — a natural population control process,” she said.
Critics contend the plan exploits fears of lions as ambush predators too dangerous to live near people, whipped up after rare, extraordinary incidents: A lion bit a boy in Bailey southwest of Denver last year, and an orphan male cub lunged at a Fort Collins jogger on Horsetooth Mountain who fought back and killed the lion.
“Just because you see a mountain lion does not mean that lion is threatening you. It is just there,” said Lindsay Larris, attorney and wildlife program director for WildEarth Guardians. “WildEarth Guardians does not support any plan that assumes killing mountain lions is necessary in order to avoid human-wildlife conflict.”
Mountain lion hunters, too, question this plan. Allout Guiding and Outfitting owner J.T. Robbins, west of Grand Junction, said CPW appears driven by concerns that deer and elk herds in parts of the state are decreasing, with lions playing a role. “Too many lions are going to be harvested,” Robbins said.
“If we wipe out lion populations, I go out of business. We all care about sustainability,” he said. “How do they really know how many lions there are to begin with?”
A review of the state’s documented conflicts in the proposed new special management area around Glenwood Springs reveals that most of the 39 calls made to Parks and Wildlife dispatchers over 19 days in February and March were sightings: residents living in lion habitat who spotted lions near subdivisions, driveways, cul-de-sacs, porches, golf courses.
But one lion in the area last year killed a dog that was walking with its owner, leading the owner to attack the lion. Edwards Elementary School officials reported lions. Children weren’t let out. And in the Homestead subdivision, residents took photos showing lions dragging deer through yards.
Public sentiment for reducing mountain lions nevertheless remains weak in Carbondale, just south of Glenwood Springs. Mayor Dan Richardson, who has hunted elk in the area, noted “very few negative interactions” with mountain lions.
“No, I would not want to eliminate more lions,” Richardson said. “One side is the impact on humans. The other side is: What would be the negative impact on ecosystems? I would err on the side of leaving them be unless there’s a really significant threat.”
Colorado lets hunters track lions using hounds. The new plan also would allow, in some areas, electronic calls that mimic distressed deer to lure lions.
In the past three years, hunters have killed an average of 495 mountain lions a year, state records show. This hunting harvest adds to deaths from vehicle collisions, ranchers protecting livestock and a few cases where problem lions were euthanized.
Colorado’s new plan also calls for monitoring lions over large landscapes because studies have shown they commonly wander across multiple states. No more than 22% of those killed in western Colorado could be females. The current hunting cap of 532 in western Colorado would be lowered initially to 461, officials said, with a statewide cap at about 661.
State rules say hunters can kill lions only with the intent of consuming “all harvested lion meat.” A CPW spokesman said game wardens issue citations to enforce this rule against waste.
Animal rights groups contend hunters kill mountain lions mostly as trophies.
“We do support an updated plan, and looking at how to preserve mountain lions on a larger scale makes sense. But it is fundamentally cruel and inhumane to bekilling these animals primarily for sport,” said Haley Stewart, wildlife protection manager for the Humane Society of the United States.