Fort Collins trail runner Travis Kauffman made national news a year ago this month when he killed a young mountain lion that attacked him near Horsetooth Reservoir. Four months later, an aggressive cougar scratched up a Rangely man who was protecting his house cat. Just weeks after that, a hunter in Big Horn Park near Kremmling fought off a lion with a pocketknife and an eight-year-old boy was mauled near his Bailey home.
The four incidents represent the most cougar-on-human assaults ever recorded during a single year in state history. The headlines left many wary about exploring the outdoors, but this isn’t a new trend. Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) has been concerned about the growing number of interactions between mountain lions and people for more than a decade. This year, however, CPW is adjusting its management strategy—and if similar efforts in other states are any indication, the department might finally have found the right solution.
Until 1965, the Centennial State sought to exterminate mountain lions, offering bounties for hides. The population has since rebounded, and today, the Front Range has one of the highest documented cougar densities in the country (around four lions per 40 square miles). Of course, cities have grown as well. So, in 2005, CPW commissioned a decadelong study to investigate how lions in and around Boulder County have reacted to mountain towns, such as Lyons, infringing on their territory. CPW scientist Mat Alldredge found that rather than retreating from development, the cougars have adapted. For example: Lions typically feed at dawn or dusk but have begun snacking between midnight and 4 a.m. At the same time, Alldredge discovered that encroaching neighborhoods protected mountain lions from being hunted by humans.
According to many researchers, hunters typically kill young cougars, whose boldness makes them easier prey. That confidence also means they’re the most likely to attack humans. (At least three of the assaults in 2019 were committed by juveniles; the age of the lion in Rangely is unknown.) It might seem like CPW’s most logical move would be to encourage hunting around mountain communities by increasing the cougar quota—reduce the number of young cats, reduce the number of attacks—which is exactly what it has done in years past. During the 2018-’19 season (November through April), the agency raised the limit from 654 to 677 cougars, or about 16 percent of the state’s estimated 4,000-plus mountain lions. But this season, CPW decreased the quota to 647—12 to 16 percent of the cougar population.
Washington-based carnivore scientist Robert Wielgus believes Colorado’s decision to go low is a good one. Research Wielgus conducted at Washington State University suggests a rise in hunting might reduce the number of young lions, yes, but more elder cats, which are typically better behaved and keep the young’uns in check, are killed along with them. And when an older male disappears, more aggressive youngsters flood the area. “It’s like you got rid of the policeman,” Wielgus says, “and three hooligans moved into the neighborhood.”
Wielgus estimates mountain lion populations rise by about 14 percent a year on average. To ensure younger cats are supervised, he says the total human-caused cougar mortality rate shouldn’t exceed that. In 2012, Washington set its quota around 12 percent based on Wielgus’ data. “Once we did that, all of these problems—negative human interactions, livestock and pet predation—went away,” Wielgus says, asserting that researchers in Montana, British Columbia, and Idaho have replicated his results. California, he adds, banned cougar hunting; it now boasts the lowest rate of human-lion interactions per capita in the country. “Mountain lions are self-regulating,” Wielgus says. “The best thing you can do is just leave them alone.”
There’s one expert, however, who doesn’t buy the laissez-faire approach: Alldredge. He notes the areas of highest conflict in the state—populated towns along I-25 like Pueblo—have lower limits. “I don’t think, in general, statements about increased hunting leading to increased conflict can be said about Colorado,” he says.
Alldredge should soon know for sure. He’s currently three years into a nine-year study in the Arkansas River Valley that’s examining if killing more lions will both increase mule deer numbers and decrease interactions with humans. Alldredge can’t share any early observations—though CPW did say it lowered limits in part because of Alldredge’s (not Wielgus’) research. But he hopes the results will lead to a resolution on how to handle this particular brand of conflict.