Sunday, October 08, 2006

As animal magnetism goes, we draw the lion

Mountain lions might have an identity crisis because they have so many names, but one thing is certain: They don't roar.

October 7, 2006

The beasts among us.

There's something about being eaten alive by a wild animal that really creates the jitters.

Despite being less likely than falling off a cliff or finding a pair of shoes that fit, it's something that harkens back to our caveman DNA and creates shivers just thinking about it.

But would those shivers turn into shakes if we realized just how many really big carnivores mingle among us undetected at any given moment?

The state's two summit carnivores - cougars and black bears - are part of the natural fauna of this area. We live in their habitat, put out food for them, ignoring the consequences until coming face to face with something that quickly reminds us we aren't the toughest critters in the valley.

Lately, there has been a low-intensity hysteria (fueled, I admit, by the media) when someone stumbles across a fang-and-claw member of society in the neighborhood of a home - or actually in a home, for that matter.

And strangely, it's most often around Boulder where it happens. Who'd think?

I once did a story on a fellow who closed a bar in downtown Boulder and was headed home when he came to an intersection with a large, tawny-colored dog lying in the middle of the street.

He honked at it. Nothing.

Raced his engine. Nothing.

Finally, in a bit of a boozy blur, he got out and started walking up to shoo it off.

It stood up.

He sobered up.

When tawny dogs turn into long-tailed cats; they have a tendency to do that to you.

Extraordinary?

I'd be willing to bet there are few days a cat or a bear isn't inside some metro city limit, especially right now, when bears are stuffing before denning, even as far east as Aurora and other towns that seem buffered by distance from the foothills.

Watercourses traversing through the urban corridor are interstates for wildlife. Where you find prey, you'll find predators.

But what fascinates me is how the big animals are such masters at moving about undetected.

The other summit species carnivore, by the way, is wolves, blasted off the face of our landscape in the first half of the last century because they didn't possess two qualities that save bears and lions - stealth and silence.

Wolves are a raucous bunch that hang around in gangs and constantly howl, thus making them pretty easy to spot.

Cats and bears, for the most part, don't holler much, are solitary and blend remarkably well into any natural background.

How good are they?

Well, I remember when the Interagency Grizzly Bear Team was radio-collaring bears around Yellowstone National Park, they set culvert traps near one small town outside the park to see if they could capture any.

The locals ridiculed them, saying they had never seen any grizzly around there.

In the first couple of weeks, half a dozen were captured. Perhaps a few were recaptures, but regardless, the great bears were using the area as a migration route in and out of the park but did it so secretively, no one knew they were there.

And when Alan Anderson was working on a cougar study a few decades back, he said cats he radio-collared near Cedaredge were either in the town or on the outskirts every time he flew over using a radio receiver. Yet, no one ever called to report them.

How do they do it?

Stealth.

It's cool how the color of the big cats blends in with most natural backgrounds. The way they crouch and slide on their bellies to stay below the horizon, moving when the cover moves, lying still when it is still, are their trademarks.

But somehow lately it seems like, every other day, someone is startled by a cat or a bear in the urban areas.

That said, I'll destroy my thesis by saying there have been a remarkable number of sightings of both species lately.

Why?

Well, one of the obvious reasons is, there are more people. More eyes equals more sightings.

But there seems to be more to it than that, and I suppose it will take one of those 10-year studies by wildlife biologists to know for sure.

It simply might be more lions and bears are frequenting populated areas along the Front Range and down the Interstate 70 corridor to Grand Junction.

And while I'm no expert, I'd guess a lot of it is due to an ever- expanding artificial food supply.

The cat's chief prey, deer, are peacefully grazing and browsing in backyards on ornamental bushes, flowers and Kentucky bluegrass that's overloaded with tons of nutrients (to get it to grow in a climate without precipitation or oxygen) that creates "super plants" so highly nutritious it allows animals to produce milk on steroids for their young.

That, alone, lowers the natural mortality rate by a sizable factor, and the more prey, the more predators.

On top of that, people still are setting out way too many attractants in the forms of pet foods, bird feeders, barbecue grills, trash and pets.

And finally, there are so many mountain palaces dotting the foothills it has all but eliminated hunting with anything other than a '97 Buick to keep their numbers in check.

So, as the prey base grows without control, the natural cycle of predator-prey grows artificially high.

In turn, animals like cougars, that usually are territorial, become more tolerant of letting their young establish territories among them, and the number of predators in a given area may be unnaturally high.

Then, too, without any negative reinforcement, bears and cats become habituated, tolerate people, and rather than resorting to stealth around humans, they brazenly walk among us.

For all the lions and bears that are being reported, I wonder how many we never see?

Keep your pets and kids indoors. It's a jungle out there.

Fun facts

• Cougars are known by more than 100 names, including mountain lion, puma, panther, painter and catamount. Their scientific name is Felis concolor, which means "cat of one color."

• The large cats of the world are divided into two groups - those that roar, such as tigers and African lions, and those that purr. Mountain lions purr, hiss, scream and snarl, but they don't roar.

• Cougars have been recorded jumping 30 feet from a tree or rock outcropping and can leap more than 15 vertical feet - more than enough to hop up on the roof of your one-story home.

• Mountain lions are solitary hunters and rarely hunt in family packs, although cubs will hunt with their mothers as they are learning.

They don't leap from rock outcrops or a tree onto the back of an unsuspecting deer. Rather, they sneak up like a house cat sneaks up on a mouse, then spring forward in a burst of speed, hooking one arm over the shoulder of their prey while biting into the throat until the animal suffocates.

• They can eat 10 pounds of meat at a time.

• It's a myth that lions can't swim. They don't care for it but can be strong swimmers when the occasion calls for it.Sources: Kids Web India; Animal Bytes.

gerhardtg@RockyMountainNews.com or 303-954-5202

http://www.rockymountainnews.com/drmn/other_recreation/ article/0,2777,DRMN_23950_5049178,00.html

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