Lions Brave the Suburbs


When Stephanie Bray moved to the Sugarloaf community in the rugged foothills above Boulder last fall, she loved the region's forested beauty and frequent sightings of wildlife. But one thing puzzled her: the near-constant posting of "lost dog" signs in the area.

Bray now says she can guess what happened to those pets. Mountain lions got them.

Two months ago, she watched as a lion leaped from her garage roof and killed a deer that had been feeding in her frontyard. As she witnessed the carnage from the safety of her home--which she shares with two aging dogs and four cats--Bray was reminded of lion stories told by neighbors.

"One neighbor said she was in her house and looked out her patio doors and saw a mountain lion flicking his tail and staring at her young son," Bray said, shivering. "Looking around for a little lunch."

Mountain residents around the state, enthusiastic chroniclers of wildlife comings and goings, are increasingly spotting the normally reclusive lions hunting deer, elk and smaller forest creatures. But what's more surprising, wildlife officials say, is the boldness of lions padding across supermarket parking lots and prowling popular jogging trails, where at least two dogs have been attacked in recent weeks.

Reports of mountain lion sightings have risen markedly across the region this year, according to the Colorado Division of Wildlife.

The increased sightings, in part, are explained in a study released last month by the National Wildlife Federation. The report concluded that the mountain lion has lost nearly half its habitat in the West, especially along Colorado's Front Range from Colorado Springs to Boulder.

That north-south corridor exactly maps the state's substantial growth in the last decade. Suburban sprawl has led to more frequent backyard meetings between homeowners and predators.

"We humans are obviously occupying a lot more habitat than ever," said Todd Malmsbury, spokesman for the Colorado Division of Wildlife. "The foothills elevation is prime habitat for mountain lions and bears. The foothills habitat is also prime condo and second home habitat. There's going to be a problem."

The mountain lion encounters follow a year in which a record number of bears were killed by Colorado animal control officers as the bears foraged for food in suburban subdivisions. Even though lions are less threatening to humans than to pets and livestock, residents are more aware than ever of what might lurk beyond the front door.

Mountain lions are difficult to track and count, but biologists estimate there are 2,000 to 3,000 in Colorado. The state's huge deer and elk populations offer potential meals, and vast stretches of foothills that range from 6,000 to 9,000 feet afford perfect cover.

Mountain lions have always thrived here. The animals survive only through great secrecy and don't chase their prey but lie in wait. They are efficient killers, and full-grown lions are known to be extraordinarily strong, able to kill a 600-pound bull elk quickly and carry it off with great speed. Male lions can measure 8 feet from nose to tail and can weigh more than 170 pounds.

Even though the lions seem to have become less fearful of people, there have been only two recorded fatal attacks on humans in Colorado in the last 100 years.

Dawn Kummli compiles the popular "Wildlife Sightings" column for the Sugarloaf newsletter. A 30-year resident of the area, Kummli said she hadn't heard of anyone seeing a mountain lion in her area until about two years ago.

"I think we've been awfully lucky that one hasn't cornered a child and attacked," Kummli said. "I got a call yesterday from a woman who had a bear on her deck and the day before from someone who had two bears playing in a child's wading pool. It's priceless, so few people ever get to see that kind of thing. Of course, there is the danger. But the lions are hunters. They are doing what nature has told them to do. We don't blame the animals."

But the mounting losses of pets and livestock have shaken this close-knit community, pitting some animal lovers against others.

In April, neighbors called a meeting after wildlife officials trapped and destroyed a lion that had repeatedly raided one resident's sheep herd, killing a number of lambs.

The lion killing caused an uproar. Some neighbors contended the property owner had acted irresponsibly by failing to shelter the sheep at night and that the lion could not be blamed for killing the lambs.

Malmsbury said that particular lion was killed not because he attacked the lambs but on account of his peculiar behavior. The lion, he said, was reported to have attempted to follow a house cat into a home.

"This lion was making the rounds of a rural subdivision and eating pets along with his usual fare," Malmsbury said. "His behavior was different. Mountain lions don't try to force their way into homes."

Tina Jungwirth, the district wildlife manager, said that increasing interaction with humans is altering lion behavior.

"Our big thing is education of the people here," she said. "We can't do anything about wild animals being wild animals. But we can try to educate people [about] how to live with them safely."

Most people who live in the mountains are well-versed in proper precautions; few now allow pets out at night and are especially wary at dawn and dusk, lion feeding times.

Bob Irmiger, a Sugarloaf veterinarian, said he never lets his two Rottweilers out of the house unsupervised.

"It's part of living here," he said. "As humans, we think we are big and bad. But it's humbling to know that there's something out there that's bigger and more powerful than you. It's neat to know there are still places where wild animals can exist."

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