Colorado study: Hunger is driving mountain lions to residential areas they would normally avoid | SummitDaily.com

Colorado study: Hunger is driving mountain lions to residential areas they would normally avoid

Mountain lions are generally wary of humans, and attacks are exceptionally rare. But new research suggests that when they are hungry, the cats throw caution to the wind and are likely to hunt in residential neighborhoods — and stay there if the hunting is good.

A new Colorado State University study, published recently in the Journal of Animal Ecology, used GPS tracking collars and camera traps to monitor lions near the fringes of Denver and Boulder. While well-fed lions steered clear of dense housing developments, those that had gone four to seven days without a kill had no problem moving about through backyards and dense neighborhoods.

"This study contributes to a growing body of evidence indicating that an animal's energetic state is very important in the decision-making process; animals will make riskier choices when hunger beckons," researcher Kevin Blecha said in a news release.

Camera trap footage also indicated that prey is increasingly more abundant in residential areas as development spreads into the mountains, and lions are thus likely to have more success hunting near homes. With the approach of spring, when prey is less plentiful, it's a recipe for more human contacts with lions — and potentially more conflict.

"We have a robust lion population in this state, we have a growing human population in this state, and as a result, our wildlife officers in some areas of Colorado are reporting a pretty significant increase in the number of interactions, whether it's a human seeing a lion, pets disappearing or lions spotted in residential neighborhoods," said Mark Porras, a Colorado Parks and Wildlife spokesman.

The researchers concluded that when it's a question of fear versus food, the latter will win out in a hungry mountain lion. And if it finds success in a hunting ground it would normally avoid, it's likely to stay there.

"These predators, including mountain lions, aren't 'hangry' and seeking out backyards to find food, but there comes a point when a mountain lion is hungry enough that it may use backyards to hunt for food, similar to what takes place in the wild," Blecha said.

Porras said he couldn't comment on the study directly because he hadn't read it yet. But based on the observations of wildlife officers, he said its conclusions sounded plausible.

"We have seen that if a lion finds a steady source of food, via pets or mule deer, it would not be out of the ordinary for it to take up residence in a neighborhood," he said. "Lions are looking for four-legged prey. They're not typically after people, but being large powerful predators, close proximity to people can certainly lead to significant conflict."

There have been several mountain lion sightings near Vail in neighboring Eagle County in recent weeks, but no reported attacks. Wildlife officials suspect that recent snowfall had pushed mule deer to lower elevations. When that happens, lions are rarely far behind.

Porras said that if residents see mule deer in their neighborhoods, they should assume that lions could be lurking as well. While people should never feed wildlife, Porras said, it's especially important if there are predators in the area; if prey gets comfortable in one spot, the animals that hunt them will, too.

"Lions are mainly looking for deer, but they also hunt smaller animals like skunks and porcupines," he said. "They don't distinguish between those kinds of animals and your pet. So if you live in lion country keep an eye on your pets, secure your pets, bring them indoors, keep them on a leash — all of those things are important because a lion could certainly make a meal out of your pet."

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What to do if you see a mountain lion

Colorado Parks and Wildlife encourages anyone who sees a mountain lion in a residential area to report it by calling the agency’s northwest region office at (970) 255-6100. Other wild animals that appear habituated and unafraid of humans, especially bears and moose, should also be reported to CPW.

Experts say you should not run if you encounter a mountain lion. Instead, raise your arms over your head to make yourself look big, maintain eye contact and back away slowly while yelling at the animal. If possible, throw a rock or stick at it.

Lions are most active at night, so it’s important to be most cautious when hiking at dusk or dawn. In the unlikely even of an attack, fight back as aggressively as possible with anything you have.

For more information about safety in mountain lion country, visit the CPW website.