Mountain Lion Population is Healthy

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The mountain lion's elusive nature makes it difficult to accurately count how many lions there are in Colorado, but the fact that large lions, such as one killed in December 2001, exist is evidence of Colorado's healthy mountain lion population.

Theodore Roosevelt set the state record for the largest mountain lion killed in Colorado more than 100 years ago, but that record was surpassed in January 2002 after the kill of possibly an even larger mountain lion.

The 2001 mountain lion was killed in December just northwest of Pagosa Springs. The lion weighed 220 pounds before being field dressed or gorged and was 8 feet from nose to tail. The final Boone and Crockett score was 16 0/16, which beat the previous record of 15 12/16 set by Roosevelt in 1901.

The mountain lion that Roosevelt killed in February 1901 northwest of Meeker was said to weigh 227 pounds. "This is a reputed weight because it's not known whether it was gorged or field dressed when it was weighed," said Dick Ray, the outfitter who was on the hunt for the 2001 mountain lion.

The Boone and Crockett score, which measures the size of the animal's head, was larger with the 2001 mountain lion, but the weight of the two animals begs the question of which one was larger. "That's something we'll never know," Ray said, "but one thing is certain - they were both huge animals."

According to Ray, the actual skull from the mountain lion taken by Roosevelt is in the Boone and Crockett Museum in Missoula, Mont., and also was housed by the Smithsonian for many years.

The mountain lion's status evolved form that of a varmint, on which a $50 bounty was offered from 1929, to a big game species in 1965. The change in legal status reflected growing public appreciation and concern for sound mountain lion management.

Mountain lion hunting season now runs from Jan. 1 through March 31 and Nov. 14 through Dec. 31. Much of Colorado, including the Front Range, is prime mountain lion country, and it's estimated there are 1,500 to 3,000 mountain lions in the state.

As far as success hunters can expect this year, Ray said it depends heavily on the weather.

"This season should be as good as any," he said. "It's not a question of whether there are lions out there to hunt, because there are plenty of lions - it's more a question of whether we'll get a lot of snow. The lions are hard to track on dry ground."

In past years, there has been a steady success rate for mountain lion hunting in Colorado. Last year, 1,734 licenses were issued and 439 lions were killed. According to Jerry Apker, a Colorado Division of Wildlife biologist in Monte Vista, success rates fluctuate from year to year based on snowfall during the winter, but the numbers are not going to change substantially.

"Mountain lion hunters put a lot of time and effort into the hunt," Apker said. "Most mountain lion hunters hunt with anywhere between three to five dogs specially trained to track a mountain lion and hold it at bay."

Over the years, the number of licenses that have been issued has gone up, mirroring the increase in human population along the Front Range.

Also because of the increase in human population, the number of human-mountain lion encounters has gone up. Mountain lion attacks, however, are rare, but if you see a mountain lion, take these steps to help prevent an attack:

- Stay calm. Talk calmly yet firmly to the lion, and raise your arms to appear larger.

- Do not run, as running may trigger a lion's instinct to chase and attack. Stop or slowly back away.

- If the lion behaves aggressively, throw stones, branches or whatever is available without crouching down or turning away from the lion.

- If a lion attacks, fight back. Lions have been driven away by prey that fights back.

Powerful predators, mountain lions (Felis concolor) always have lived in the state, feeding primarily on plentiful deer. They usually kill large animals, such as deer and elk, but also have been known to attack pets. Mountain lions also are known as the cougar, panther or puma, and live only in the Western Hemisphere.

They vary in size and weight, with males being larger than females. Adult males may be more than 8 feet in length and weigh an average of 150 pounds. Adult females may be up to 7 feet long and weigh an average of 90 pounds.

Lions generally are most abundant in areas with a large deer population.