No danger, just a “cool experience”
For two local mountain bikers, the biggest thrill of the ride came when they weren’t even moving down a trail south of Crested Butte on Wednesday, July 2. While taking a break, one of them looked up and saw a mountain lion slinking through the grass.
“I was just riding along and slowed down for a second, when I saw him crawling toward me, prowling along the side of the hill,” says one of the riders, who has been taking his mountain bike into the surrounding mountains for the past 19 years. The rider asked that he not be identified in the newspaper for personal reasons.
“It was walking through the ground cover when I saw it, so I clicked out of my pedals and it turned around and slithered away. When [my partner] caught up, we were talking about it and I thought it had moved on, but it just went around the corner to the right of me,” he says. “It must have seen that there were two of us and changed its mind, because it spooked and took off.”
The encounter happened in the Cement Creek area at approximately 1 p.m.—not generally considered to be prime for viewing big cats, which are most active between dusk and dawn.
Mountain lions, also known as cougars, pumas and panthers, are the most widely distributed mammal in the western hemisphere, other than humans. In Colorado, where they are estimated to number between 3,000 and 7,000, their modern range is largely confined to the mountainous areas, with the greatest density in the foothills, canyons and mesas, according to the Colorado Division of Wildlife.
“I was in its backyard… It’s no different from seeing a bear or deer or any other wildlife. People just need to be heads-up,” says the rider.
Last year the area surrounding the Lower Loop trail near Crested Butte was home to a female mountain lion and her cubs. After many sightings, the town, after consulting the DOW, closed the trail for 10 days last summer.
“We recommended that the town shut the trail down in that case because there was a female lion up there with dependent young, and she was less likely and able to get out of the area with people around,” says J Wenum, area wildlife manager for the DOW.
That was just one of eight reported sightings of different mountain lions in the Gunnison River drainage. Because of their elusive nature and broad ranges, lions are difficult to study, so there aren’t estimates of their numbers in the area, Wenum says.
“The odds of encountering a mountain lion are pretty low, especially if you’re not going into their territory,” says Wenum. “The odds of being attacked are very, very low, but that will increase with the more people we have going into lion habitat.”
According to the DOW, a mountain lion can grow to be more than 130 pounds and six feet in length and can hunt anything from rabbits to elk, but specializes in deer.
“If you’re noticing a lot of deer and other wildlife in an area, especially if some of them have visible young, and there are rocky outcrops and good places to hide, you can stay away and lessen the opportunity for an encounter,” says Wenum, adding that mountain lions are active year-round.
Mountain lions have territories that can be anywhere from 10 miles, for a female with kittens, to a reported 370 miles. A mature male lion requires about one deer per week, which he will consume over the course of a few days at several sittings, concealing the remains with debris in a new location each time until it is finished. Then he moves on, according to the DOW.
But like any cat, Wenum says this mountain lion might have just seen something moving and couldn’t resist the urge to chase it.
“[Mountain lions] are going to be opportunistic hunters. And they are a feline, and just like any cat, they’re going to be curious and want to see what that thing is that’s going down the trail,” he says.
The last fatal mountain lion attack in Colorado was in July 1997 in Grant County, inside the boundary of Rocky Mountain National Park, says Wenum, adding that no one has been killed by a lion in Gunnison County since his records started in 1990.
“Each year we have about one lion killed in self defense, typically during hunting season, and we had one last year that was killed in the West Elk area,” he says.
According to the DOW, anyone who encounters a mountain lion should remain calm and face it, looking as large as possible and never run away, because that can trigger the cat’s instinct to chase.
The rider says he never reported the mountain lion sighting to DOW, in hopes that the trail would stay open for riders and people would leave the lion alone. But Wenum says there are no plans to close the trail.
“Barring an emergency, we wouldn’t close a trail for lion sighting. It may only be there for a few days.”