Mountain Lion Encounters Possible
Mountain lions are elusive animals, possessing unparalleled patience as they wait and watch for prey. And – when a lion sees something dart past – it can spring into action at an amazing 40-45 miles per hour. Cougars are known to travel 18 to 20 miles a day and can have a home range of 40 to more than 400 square miles. The home ranges of males sometimes overlap the home ranges of females.
With a range of nearly 500 miles, it’s possible to cross paths with a lion nearly anywhere in Colorado, although their solitary habits and ability to sit motionless make sightings fairly rare. You may spend many hours hiking or camping in mountain lion country and never see one of these elusive predators, although a mountain lion may have silently watched you from a distance. Cougars can wait in absolute stillness, their tan coats blending with sandy soil and rock formations. However, if you are in an area where there is potential prey for the carnivorous lion -- including almost any place where you see wild deer -- there is always the potential to see a mountain lion. This includes places deep in the forested wilderness you may expect – and less expected places, such as the edge of golf courses or walking trails along a canal. Predators follow prey: Deer are the primary food for Colorado mountain lions. Mountain lions are found anywhere there is plentiful prey and adequate cover. Loose pets, such as dogs and cats, are always at risk of becoming food for larger predators.
Although most active at night, the big cats will hunt in the day if prey is scarce. In Colorado, studies have shown that cougars primarily eat deer – as much as 70 percent of their total diet – but will also kill and eat mice, squirrels, beavers, raccoons and other small mammals. Movement, especially running, triggers the prey instinct in mountain lions. Many encounters between humans and mountain lions have been prompted by jogging or running past a waiting lion.
Mountain lions will often use shrubs and bushes as hiding places. From the shadows, a mountain lion can pounce on a small animal or pet, killing it in an instant. Mountain lions typically kill prey, then drag it a short distance away and cover it with dirt, leaves and branches, returning to feed on the kill for several days. If you find evidence of a mountain lion kill (called a cache), be aware the lion is likely still in the area and will be returning to the site to feed.
The number of mountain lions in Colorado has stayed fairly constant in the last few decades, with population estimates of 3,000 to 7,000 of the big cats. Generally, the number of mountain lion/human sightings and interactions has increased throughout the United States where lions are present. Encounters may continue to increase as more people are moving into deer and mountain lion habitat, and as more people are hiking and camping in mountain lion habitat.
The range of the mountain lion includes all states of the southwest, with one of the densest populations of mountain lions in the United States occurring in the Four Corners region. Although once found in almost every state, except for isolated populations in Florida and eastern Canada, mountain lions are only rarely found east of the Rocky Mountains today. In addition to Colorado’s puma population, which is a game species, mountain lions are present and hunted in Arizona, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Texas, Utah and Washington states. In New Mexico, an earlier hunting ban was lifted on the large cats and limited hunting was restored in the late 1990s. Mountain lions are a protected species in California, with no hunting since 1990. Mountain lion populations are also found in western Canada and Mexico.