Living with lions |

Living with lions

KATHY HEICHEREagle County Correspondent
Special to the Daily

EAGLE COUNTY – Most people live their entire lives without ever catching a glimpse of a mountain lion in the wild.Dosia Laeyendecker of Salt Creek, south of Eagle, is one of the exceptions.On Jan. 19 Laeyendecker was driving up a snow-covered Brush Creek Road at about 7:30 p.m. Five miles out of Eagle she saw something she will remember forever: Three mountain lions crossed the road in front of her car. Already traveling slowly, she carefully braked, and watched with amazement as the three large cats, all about the same size, passed by. She remembers their graceful jumps as they disappeared into the dark, their beautiful, thick tails curling behind them and the contrast of the animals against the white snow.”My adrenaline was way up … I could see all of it. What a wonderful, beautiful sight it was,” she recalls. She drove the rest of the way home, and told her husband, Hyko, about the lions.”Hyko was jealous,” she reports.The Laeyendeckers, who have also seen bobcats near their Salt Creek home, consider those glimpses of wildlife one of the benefits of living in the rural mountains.”They (the mountain lions) are here. We know that. We aren’t really scared, because normally you don’t see them,” says Dosia, noting that lions tend to be most active from dusk to dawn. The Laeyendeckers do make a point of getting their cat inside at night.Wildlife experts say people who want to live in rural, open country with nature at their back door must learn to cope with the wildlife that comes with the lifestyle.Craig Wescoatt, Eagle District Wildlife Manager for the Colorado Division of Wildlife, says he’s only seen lions in the wild twice in the 23 years he’s worked for the CDOW.

“We don’t have any idea how many lions are around,” he says. DOW biologists have estimated the mountain lion population in the state at somewhere between 3,000 and 7,000. There’s no county-by-county breakdown of lion numbers, because the animals are so elusive. In the late 1980s, the CDOW conducted a small-scale research project. Biologists tracked, tranquilized, and tagged about a dozen mountain lions in the Eagle Valley.According to the CDOW, the status of mountain lions in Colorado has evolved over the decades. In the 1920s, the animals were considered to be a varmint, and a $50 bounty was offered for their hides. By 1965, lions were classified as a big game species. The state issues a limited number of hunting licenses for lions; and hunters have to pay top dollar for these mountain lion hunts. Wescoatt says the harvest of lions in the game units on the south side of Interstate 70 is fairly low, with one or two lions killed every year. More lions are harvested in the northern part of the county, in areas such as Burns, the Rancho del Rio country along the Colorado River, and the north side of Castle Peak.Wildlife experts have a sort of rule of thumb for where mountain lions can be found: They like areas with plenty of deer (their main prey species), and with good vegetative cover to hide in. Most of the deer winter range in the Eagle Valley is located on the north side of Interstate 70, from Edwards to Glenwood Canyon; and as far north as Burns and McCoy. In the summer months, when deer are scattered from timberline to valley floors, the lions also scatter. During winter months, when weather forces the deer to bunch up, the lion population also becomes more concentrated.Wescoatt said that during the past winter, he handled two reports of mountain lion sightings in the Eagle Cemetery – the same place where a local deer herd winters.”I imagine the lion was following its prey species,” says Wescoatt.Lion, human interactionsThe CDOW says the number of mountain lion/human interactions is on the increase, for a number of reasons. More people are moving into lion habitat, including mountain subdivisions and “urban fringe” areas, such as Salt Creek or Eby Creek (north of Eagle). As the state’s population grows, there’s more people out using the trails in lion habitat. There’s also a greater awareness of the presence of lions.

The Eby Creek country, immediately north of Eagle, is deer winter range. Add to that the fact that the topography of the area creates a natural crossing area for lions, and it’s not surprising that residents of the area can report encounters with the stealthy animals.A dozen years ago, Susie Kincade’s family had a close encounter with a mountain lion up Eby Creek. Kincade’s daughters, then 6 and 8 years old, were walking with their dog up the road from their house, which is located about two miles up the creek. However, within a few minutes the girls returned, and reported to their mom that the dog had chased a “big kitty” into a tree. When Kincade went to investigate, she found the “big kitty” was actually a mountain lion.The Kincade family saw lions on several other occasions; and subsequently adapted their lifestyle to be more cautious of the predators. They got another dog, a big German Shepherd that liked to bark. They talked with CDOW personnel about how to co-exist with the lions.”Oh, my gosh. I love seeing the lions … but I don’t go out jogging by myself during their feeding times. You get to understand their patterns, and know what time of the year they come,” says Kincade.On a recent April evening, Wayne Conrad was driving up Nielson Gulch Road to his home in the Eby Creek Mesa subdivision when two mountain lions crossed in front of him, near the site of the town water tank.”First there was a deer that came screaming across the road that made me slam on the brakes. Two or three seconds later, those two cats were right on it,” he said. Conrad speculates that the deer was able to get away from the predators.Last summer, Ben Kunkel saw a mountain lion while he was sitting out on the deck of his parents’ cabin, about two miles up Eby Creek, reading a book. He happened to look up from his reading at the same moment the lion silently crossed the yard.”He was startled,” recalls his mother, Gale.Marlene Kunkel (Ben’s aunt), who lives on Neilson Gulch Road in Eby Creek Mesa, still remembers the day nine years ago when she looked out the bathroom window while brushing her teeth, and saw a different sort of animal walking just beyond her back yard.”At first I thought, ‘what a funny-looking dog.’ Then I realized it was not a dog, it was a cat. Then I realized, ‘holy cow, it’s a mountain lion,'” she recalls.

The fact that a mountain lion could be so close to her home did cause some worry. Her dog, a golden retriever, was out laying on the deck at the time – and he didn’t react to the mountain lion at all. Kunkel had some fears that a lion could get to her pets.”It is part of living up here,” she acknowledges.Conrad said his mountain lion sighting did cause him concern. His wife, Brenda, likes to walk and hike in the area. He encourages her to walk with a friend; and Brenda makes a point of telling him where she is going when she heads out for a walk.”There is always a likelihood with lions in the area that one could wander down, and grab a pet,” says Wescoatt. However, he notes that lion attacks on humans are very rare. According to the CDOW, there have been fewer than a dozen fatal lion attacks on people in North American in more than 100 years. The risk of being struck by lightning is considered far greater than the risk of being attacked by a mountain lion.Wescoatt says that when humans and lions do come across one another, the animals will give definite visual clues about their attitude.”If they are crouched down, with the tail switching, that is a fairly good indication they are thinking about attacking. If they are sitting upright, just looking, it is more of a curiosity situation,” says Wescoatt. “The body language will clue you in.”He offers some advice for people who encounter a lion:- Do not turn and run. “Lions have the same predatory response as a house cat. If something runs away, they want to grab it,” he notes. Stop or back away, slowly.- Stay calm. Talk calmly yet firmly to the animal. Move slowly.- Do all you can to appear larger. Raise your arms, open your jacket. Pick up small children so they don’t panic and run.

– If the lion does behave aggressive, throw stones, sticks, or whatever you can reach without crouching down. Keep talking. Let the lion know that you are not prey.- If an attack does occur, fight back. “Fighting back has been shown to be a fairly effective method of chasing lions away,” says Wescoatt.Box: Big cat tipsThe Colorado Division of Wildlife has these tips for people living in country that mountain lions may frequent:- Make lots of noise if you come and go during the hours mountain lions are most active – dusk to dawn.- Install outside lighting in areas where you walk.- Closely supervise children when they play outdoors. Keep children inside after dusk.- Eliminate lion hiding places by removing vegetation.- Avoid planting shrubs and plants that deer like to eat.- Keep pets under control. Bring them in at night. Don’t feed pets outside.

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