September 20, 2006
Angie Majers was working at her computer a few weeks ago when she heard some tapping and scratching sounds just outside her West Glenwood home.
When she went to take a look, she saw a young mountain lion looking back at her through a sliding glass door.
"I was home by myself and I thought I needed to take a picture because nobody would believe me," she said.
She lives in fear that the lion she photographed pawing at her glass the afternoon of Aug. 31 might return to her home. Majers worries about going out in her yard, especially with her 4-year-old son. If he saw a lion, "he would run, and that's the last thing we're supposed to do," she said.
"We don't own a gun, though if we did, I probably wouldn't hesitate in shooting (the lion). It's just dangerous. I think it's just coming too close."
She hasn't seen the lion again, but has heard neighbor dogs bark up a storm, maybe because of deer, maybe because of a lion.
"It's kind of an uncomfortable feeling, never knowing," she said.
DOW's role debated
Longtime Glenwood-area resident Charlotte Zilm hears such stories and becomes frustrated by what she considers to be a lack of action by the Colorado Division of Wildlife in response to increasing encounters between humans and lions.
"People don't report them because they don't think they (wildlife officials) will do anything and they're right about that," Zilm said.
Far from it, said DOW spokesman Randy Hampton. He said the agency is in the middle of an ambitious study of lions that will help guide how it manages them. The agency is taking a close look at how best to deal with a problem of growing conflicts between lions and people, while hearing from various constituencies providing a variety of views on how lions should be managed.
"People should know that we're having these same discussions internally. We are not ignoring the concerns of the public. The challenge is, when it comes to effective solutions, there aren't a lot of them," he said.
Karen Gentry, who lives on Four Mile Road outside Glenwood, sought a solution of her own several years ago, after a lion put its paws on a windowsill of her home and scared her daughters, who were inside.
"We purchased a Great Pyrenees because our Lab obviously wasn't keeping anything at bay. In fact, the morning of the mountain lion she was asleep on the other end of the house," she said.
The Gentry's new dog, which weighs well over 150 pounds, seems to have kept lions from returning to her home, even though they are in the area, Gentry said. Her kids are older now, but she still makes the dog go out with them at dusk, when lions are more active.
"I think there is a general concern about the lions just because more and more people are seeing them and they're coming closer," she said.
People in Silt and Redstone have reported lion sightings this year. In Silt lions were thought to have attacked livestock and domestic animals.
Hampton said there were several reports of lion activity in West Glenwood through the end of August, including a possible attack on a domestic cat up Mitchell Creek, where lions have been active over the years. Authorities have posted signs in the area to help alert residents.
Zilm believes the DOW should do more selective hunting of problem lions. In fact, Hampton said the DOW has alerted Wildlife Services that it may need the federal agency to go after the West Glenwood lion if it causes more problems. The lion would either be relocated or put down, depending on how dangerous it is deemed to be.
DOW officials believe the West Glenwood encounters all most likely involve the same lion, probably the young one Majers photographed.
"Young lions are very curious," he said. "... In the majority of instances where we deal with conflicts between lions and people or lions and pets, we determine young lions are involved."
When the lion visited the Majers residence, it may have been intrigued by its own reflection in the window, or interested in their dog, which was inside, Hampton said. Majers said her dog, a mid-sized, coonhound/mixed breed, emitted some muffled barks when the lion appeared.
Encounters such as Majers' make Zilm worry about the safety of local kids.
"Lions get you from behind; they're dangerous; they're predators," she said.
Habitat loss a factor
Zilm has lived in the Chelyn Acres subdivision up Four-Mile Road since the late 1960s and never saw lions there until around five years ago.
Hampton said it's not uncommon to hear of residents of long-established neighborhoods only recently starting to see lions. With continuing residential and commercial development, lions are losing natural habitat. That's causing them to go elsewhere - in some cases to older neighborhoods, Hampton said. Often they're only following the paths of a chief food source, deer.
While human/lion conflicts are a growing problem, "it's not necessarily because the population of lions is growing. The population of humans is growing," Hampton said.
DOW officials have recommended to Majers that she move any dead deer found in the area farther away from her house, and use a foghorn to keep lions at bay. Zilm scoffs at such suggestions.
"How are you going to scare a lion? I'm not. It just kind of scares me," she said.
Zilm believes that, besides providing for more selective hunts, the DOW should raise lion hunting harvest numbers.
But before DOW officials make any drastic management decisions about lions, they'd like to get a better grasp on how many of the animals are in the state.
Jerry Apker, a DOW carnivore management specialist, said that when it comes to the science of estimating lion and bear numbers, researchers are about 30 years behind where they are in doing deer and elk estimates. Part of that reflects the importance of obtaining good numbers to properly manage big game that are under heavy demand to be hunted. But it also reflects how difficult it can be do to an accurate census of animals such as lions, which can be highly elusive.
A developing science
Some of the basic population biology for lions has only been developed in the last five or 10 years, Apker said.
The DOW hopes to improve on things with its 10-year study on the Uncompahgre Plateau outside Grand Junction. Ken Logan, a leading lion researcher, is heading up the effort, Hampton said. The study is probably one of the most extensive studies of lions in their habitat that has been done in the United States, he said. Apker said there have been few lion studies conducted in the country.
During the first five years of the Colorado research project, lion hunting is being suspended on the plateau, animals are being collared and their ranges studied. In the second half of the project, hunting will be allowed again, to see how it affects lion numbers.
The study will serve to check the accuracy of the DOW's current methods for estimating populations. Researchers hope to use the study's findings to project lion numbers across the state with a higher level of confidence.
The DOW now believes about 3,500 lions inhabit the state, a figure deduced in part from suitable habitat in the state. One highly involved method of counting lions requires capturing and marking them, and Apker hopes the study will reveal cheaper yet reliable alternatives.
About 400 lions a year are killed by hunting in Colorado, but that number is gradually rising, Apker said. Harvest limits around the state generally aren't being reached. The state Wildlife Commission recently left lion hunting quotas virtually unchanged for the next hunting season.
Even if the state wanted to raise its quotas, there aren't many people who hunt the animals, Hampton said. He said the DOW has discussed whether it would want to hunt them itself or hire contractors if it decided to reduce lion numbers.
One challenge with lion hunting is that snow is important to help track them, but not so much that it bogs down travel for hunters and their tracking dogs, Apker said.
Hampton noted that while some people are concerned by lion numbers, a state survey suggests most are happy with the size of the current population (see related story). And some groups are vehemently opposed to increased hunting, he said.
"It's a contentious and difficult issue as a management agency to manage," he said.
Yet it's worth bearing in mind that, even while the odds of people being attacked by a lion are increasing as encounters with them increase, those odds remain infinitesimally small, Apker said.
Bears injure humans at about twice the rate that lions do. But lion attacks seem to draw a lot of attention, whereas people seem to be desensitized to bear conflicts because bears are more commonly seen, he said.
For that matter, other animals living in our midst pose a far more serious danger. Apker said humans are hundreds of times more likely to be killed by a dog than by a lion.
Contact Dennis Webb: 945-8515, ext. 516