Living with Wildlife - Mountain Lion

Much of the Intermountain West is prime country for mountain lions. I'm continually hearing stories of folks finding a mountain lion on the roof of their home or in the trees in the yard, inside city limits. Mountain lions go wherever they need to for food. Their natural enemies include bears, other lions and wolves. They also fall victim to disease, accidents, people, and road hazards. In 1929, Colorado classed lions as varmints and $50 bounties were offered. In 1965, that legal status was changed as they were designated big game. Lions play an important role in the ecosystem and that change in status allowed for a more sound mountain lion management program.

Also known as cougars, pumas or panthers, population estimates in Colorado range from 1,500 to 3,000 animals. A lion's natural life span in the wild is around 12 years. In captivity, they can live up to 25 years. Lions are big, powerful cats and their usual dinner fare consists of deer, elk, pronghorn antelope, small mammals, porcupines, and livestock, but they won't turn down a tasty, well-fattened house pet or even a jogger running away from them on a country trail (if you're going to act like their usual food they're going to treat you like food).

Colorado lions are usually tawny to light-cinnamon in color with black tips on their ears and tail. Adult males will weigh, on average, 150 pounds and be more than 8 feet long from nose to tip of tail. Adult females can be up to 7 feet long and weigh an average of 90 pounds. They are much larger than bobcat and lynx and have a tail that may measure one-third of their total length.

Walking normally, lions usually set their hind paws in the tracks made by their front paws. They have four toes with three distinct lobes at the base of their pad. As their claws are retractable, you usually don't see claw marks. If tracks show two or more lions traveling together, it's most likely a mother with kittens as adult males are quite solitary.

In Colorado, you'll find lions in areas of pinons, juniper, mountain mahogany, ponderosas, and scrub oak, especially if these areas have lots of lunch walking around. A lion's hunting range will vary in size from 10 to 370 square miles, determined primarily by the availablility of food. Males mark the boundaries of their range by making "scrapes" (piles of dirt and twigs) that signal to other lions that the area is occupied.

While they are most active at night, they also travel and hunt in the daytime. Like most cats, they prefer to kill their own prey, and they do this usually by ambush and not by a long chase. Once they have picked out dinner, they will stalk it using available cover and then attack in a rush, usually from behind. Lions usually kill with a powerful bite just below the base of the skull, breaking the neck. Then they will drag the carcass to shelter below an overhang or under a tree before eating. Once full, a lion will cover the carcass with leaves, dirt or snow. Each time they return for leftovers, they will move the carcass and re-cover it after each visit. You really don't want to disturb a lion during its lunch break. And if a lion seems tame to you, it's only trying to suck you in for a snack.

Female lions generally begin to reproduce at 2.5 years old. Males are attracted by the sounds and scent of females in heat. Once a male finds a female, he'll usually hang out with her for a few days to make sure she gets pregnant. Breeding can take place all year long but most females give birth between April and July after a 3-month gestation period. To give birth, a female will usually choose a secluded spot in a rocky depression or under an uprooted tree. She will usually drop 2 to 3 kittens and their care is totally on her. She will even defend them vigorously against male lions because the males consider kittens to be lunch.

Newborn kittens may be a foot long and weigh 1 pound. They have dark rings around their short tails and are covered with blackish-brown spots. Other than to nurse, they don't usually start moving around until their eyes open at about 2 weeks old. At 2 months old they are usually weaned. As kittens, they love to play and explore and learn real hunting skills by watching their mother. At about 6 weeks old, the mother starts taking them to her kills for dinner. Their spots fade as they mature. At 6 months they tend to be 30 pounds in weight and are pretty good hunters on their own, but they will normally hang out with mom for another year honing their hunting skills.

Lions are most commonly found in areas with adequate cover and plenty of deer, areas such as mountain subdivisions, urban fringes and open spaces. To reduce the risk of having problems with mountain lions the following precautions are suggested:

  • Make lots of noise when you are moving around outdoors at night.
  • Install outside lighting: you want to be able to see if a lion is present.
  • Watch your kids closely when they are playing outdoors and make sure they are indoors between dusk and dawn. Talk to them about lions and teach them what to do if they should meet up with one.
  • Make it hard for lions to approach unseen by landscaping to eliminate hiding places, especially around children's play areas.
  • Planting shrubs and other plants that attract deer also attracts lions: they're just following dinner.
  • Never feed any wildlife!
  • Roaming pets make good snacks and can attract lions. Bring them in at night, or at least keep them in a kennel with a secure top. Feeding pets outdoors can attract raccoons and other small mammals that are also on the lion's menu. Securely store all garbage.
  • Put your livestock in enclosed barns or sheds at night and close the doors to inquisitive lions.
  • As prevention is far better than dealing with a lion confrontation, encourage your neighbors to follow these simple precautions, too.

People rarely get more than a glimpse at a lion in the wild and attacks by them are even rarer. However, there have been a few fatalities over the last 100 years, usually caused by young lions without established hunting areas who key in on easy prey: house pets and small children. While no formal study has yet been done to determine what to do if you meet a lion, certain patterns of behavior and response have been observed. If you find yourself in the position, the following suggestions may be helpful:

  • In mountain lion country, travel in groups and make plenty of noise so you don't surprise a lion. A hefty walking stick can be used to ward off a lion. Keep your kids close and in sight at all times. Educate your kids about what to do if a lion appears.
  • Most mountain lions will try to avoid confrontation so don't try to get close to one, especially if it's eating. Always give them a way to escape.
  • Stay Calm if you come upon a lion. Move slowly and talk calmly but firmly to it.
  • Stop or Back Away Slowly, if you can do it safely. Face the lion and stand upright. Running away makes you look like lunch and the lion may chase and attack you for your efforts.
  • Do All You Can To Appear Larger. Stand up straight, raise your arms over your head, open your jacket, whatever will make you look larger. If there are kids with you, pick them up so you look larger and the kids don't panic and run (and become lunch).
  • If the lion gets aggressive, throw anything you can at it without crouching down or turning your back. Speak firmly and wave your arms slowly. You are trying to convince the lion that you are serious trouble and not food.
  • Fight Back if you are attacked. People have driven lions away with rocks, sticks, baseball caps, jackets, garden tools and their bare hands. Remain standing or try to get back up. Lions prefer food that doesn't fight back!

Remember: every situation is different in regards to the lion, the terrain, the people and what they are doing. If you have an encounter or are attacked, please immediately contact the Division of Wildlife, the Colorado State Patrol or your local Sheriff's Department. logo
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