Sunday, January 14, 2007

Young cougar enters Colorado town, relocated to wilderness

By: Melanie Brubaker Mazur

Residents of “the island” in downtown Bayfield had a bit of commotion in their backyards on Wednesday morning.

A young tom mountain lion was seen in a field behind the homes on the end of North Street, close to the Pine River and Bayfield Roadside Park. Local agents and some hound dogs called in to track him got the cat penned in a shed, but he escaped out a back window.

Then he went up a tree, and stayed there.

Cary Carron, longtime wildlife agent for the Colorado Division of Wildlife, said it’s the first time he’s ever treed a cat in town.

Then he and the Bayfield Marshal’s Office had a tough decision to make. Although several local hunters offered to shoot the cat, the local season had closed last week, and Carron wasn’t too wild about having a hunt inside town limits.

Tranquilizing and relocating the cat to an area where the hunting season had closed seemed to be his best bet, but it was risky.

“There are a thousand ways this can go wrong,” he said as he was preparing the tranquilizing gun.

The cat was chased up the tree by two dogs owned by Clayton Wilson, a trapper for wildlife services for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Usually, Wilson’s job consists of trapping or killing predators that are eating livestock, but he said he gets three to four calls a year for mountain lions.

Carron said this particular cat had been treed by a hunter on County Road 516 in December, but the hunter had moved on, wanting to find a larger, more mature cat. He’d had a few more calls about a cat in the area killing deer, then more calls last weekend from residents of North Street. Although the cat hadn’t done anything wrong, “it was a matter of time” before something happened, Carron said.

Wilson climbed the tree and shot the cat with the tranquilizer gun, and the tom jumped down about 30 feet and hit the ground running. Carron said he had used a large dose of tranquilizer, and Wilson saw him slowing down as he ran away.

Bayfield Marshal deputies then left North Street and drove to the Roadside Park to try to head the puma off if he came into the park or toward U.S. Highway 160. They saw him moving toward the park, but he was unable to cross a fence bordering the highway. Carron and Lyle Willmarth, a local mountain lion hunter, got the cat moved into a cage, and Carron drove him 70 miles to an area south of Pagosa Springs.

He found a habitat with a large deer population and where the mountain lion season had closed. Carron said he wanted to give the cat a chance to get his bearings so he wouldn’t be too easy of a target for hunters, but move him as far away from Bayfield as he could.

“It went smoother than I could have hoped,” he said. North Street residents Chantelle and Cindy Highland said they hadn’t seen the elusive cat until that morning. Carron said the cats usually avoid populated areas, but with all the deer that live in the fields near the river, the puma had a pretty good life and didn’t see the need to move on.

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