Monday, September 25, 2006

CO: In Boulder, an uproar over cougar visits

With 7 sightings this month, residents want to be notified

By John Aguilar, Boulder Daily Camera
September 25, 2006

With a rash of cougar sightings in urban parts of Boulder County, some residents are questioning whether local and state officials are adequately notifying the community when a big cat visits town.

September alone has seen at least seven incidents in which cougars have wandered into neighborhoods or near trails, including a likely feline break-in at a north Boulder apartment and two cougar removals from residential backyards.

Some residents say they don't hear about the encounters until long after they've occurred, with the news often coming from friends and neighbors instead of public officials. Others, who have come across wild animals at close range, feel their reports to authorities are not taken seriously.

For instance:

• Residents of a downtown Boulder neighborhood took it upon themselves to warn one another that a mountain lion was prowling in their midst.

• A woman who spotted a cougar in downtown Boulder said she had to alert the media to get word out about her close encounter.

• A woman was frustrated that Mount Sanitas trailhead offered no information about the fact that the popular hiking area had been closed because of mountain lion activity.

• A Superior man was disappointed in the lack of response wildlife officials gave to his claim that he had seen four cougars on the east side of McCaslin Boulevard, less than 50 yards from homes in Rock Creek.

Todd Michaud, a resident of Rock Creek, said parents often walk around the neighborhood with their children.

He said he hoped officials might have come out to plant signs and notify people about the potential danger after his Sept. 2 sighting.

"They should make people aware that these things are literally walking around their houses," Michaud said. "They were pretty nonchalant about it. Kind of like 'Yeah, we'll get back to you.' "

"Blasé" is the word Louisville resident Valentina Risse used to describe the reaction she got from Boulder police when she reported seeing a mountain lion scurrying past her as she waited for a bus at Broadway and Canyon Boulevard on Sept. 11.

"It's a wild animal that has attacked humans. I thought more could have been done to follow up," Risse said.

Police spokeswoman Julie Brooks said wildlife calls are only a tiny slice of what her department deals with daily. She said police generally defer to wildlife officials when it comes to such sightings and encounters unless there is an immediate threat to human health or the Department of Wildlife requests assistance.

Tyler Baskfield, a spokesman for the Colorado Division of Wildlife, said the volume of calls his agency receives about possible neighborhood incursions by wild animals is overwhelming. He said he couldn't possibly issue a news release every time someone picks up the phone.

"When you read a couple of newspaper articles about mountain lions, it's amazing how a golden retriever suddenly looks like a lion," Baskfield said.

If an incident becomes more problematic for the agency, attempts to notify the public would become more intense, Baskfield said. If it becomes severe enough, wildlife officials would ask for police help.

"If we have trouble catching up to the cat or we see people's pets disappearing, we'll put out a release," he said.

Despite perceptions to the contrary, Baskfield said his agency doesn't just react to animal sightings. He said wildlife officials held informational meetings with Louisville residents this year to come up with a strategy on how to deal with a series of cougar sightings in the city.

"We've been very upfront with people if we have a lion issue, a bear issue or a coyote issue in the area," he said.

What happened Sept. 14 in Donna LaLiberte's Boulder neighborhood as school was letting out deserved all the attention it could get, she said. That was the day a cougar wandered out of the foothills and took up residence in a tree behind a home on Cedar Avenue, two blocks away from where LaLiberte lives with her husband and 10-year-old daughter.

"Given that it was a time when kids were getting out of school, it would have been appropriate to notify people," she said.

"One of my neighbors has three little boys who play in the front yard - no one told her that there was a mountain lion a block and a half away," she said.

Baskfield said because the cougar was found so quickly, the situation never rose to a level of immediate public danger.

"In that particular case, since we had a ranger watching it (in the tree), we didn't inform anyone," he said.

On the western fringe of Boulder, encounters with wildlife are more common. Wendy Littlepage accepts that risk when she takes her dog hiking in the Mount Sanitas area. But she said she wished Boulder Open Space & Mountain Parks was a little more informative about the reason for trail closures.

On Sept. 9, Littlepage said, she hiked a good distance up her favorite trail before coming upon yellow tape blocking her path. She said there were no signs explaining why the trail was closed. She returned the next day to find the trail still taped off.

"I hadn't read in the paper about it being closed. I thought, 'Is this going to be closed for another day or another week?' " she said.

Littlepage later found out the trail closure was because of mountain lion activity in the area.

Julie Johnson of the city's open space program said her department is discussing the possibility of posting trail closures online.

In the meantime, the Division of Wildlife and the city's and county's open space departments will try to balance the need to inform the public about wildlife dangers with the desire not to raise unnecessary alarm.

However that balance is achieved, one thing is for sure - visits from wildlife will not come to an end. Just last Wednesday a mother bear and her two cubs were discovered in a cottonwood tree on the edge of the city limits.

http://www.rockymountainnews.com/drmn/local/article/ 0,1299,DRMN_15_5018766,00.html

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