State proposes “special management area” for local mountain lions

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Elizabeth Stewart-Severy/Aspen Journalism

A female lion is treed by hunters with hounds near Woody Creek, Colorado. Most lions in Colorado are hunted with hounds and treed, which presents challenges in areas with a lot of private land.

GLENWOOD SPRINGS – In response to an increase in mountain lion sightings and conflicts in the Roaring Fork and Eagle river valleys, Colorado Parks and Wildlife officials are proposing a “special management area” to give hunters more time and tools to kill mountain lions.

CPW has proposed the Glenwood Special Management Area, where the agency will focus on suppressing the lion population. The Glenwood SMA encompasses most of the Roaring Fork River valley and portions of the Eagle River valley south of Interstate 70.

In the proposed West Slope Mountain Lion Management Plan released this week, the agency says its current plan, which dates to 2004, has management areas that are too small to “properly manage solitary, low-density, wide-ranging carnivores like mountain lions.” 

The proposed plan expands the geographic boundaries of management areas, combining several current game units to better reflect the long distances that the big cats travel. It also aims to maintain a stable population and seeks to reduce the growing number of conflicts with humans, especially in the Roaring Fork and Eagle river valleys, where mountain lion sightings are on the rise.

CPW

This map shows the boundaries of the proposed Northwest Region. The yellow zone is the Glenwood Special Management Area, where CPW is proposing increased hunting to reduce human-lion conflict.

“Reports 10 years ago were occasional sightings, but sightings are the norm now,” said CPW district wildlife manager Matt Yamashita. “Pets and livestock are being either injured or attacked on a fairly routine basis, and on the more serious side of things, we’re getting reports of attacks on people.”

Near Loveland this month, a rabid mountain lion attacked a man and a sheriff’s deputy. The most recent incident in the Roaring Fork area occurred in June 2016, when a 5-year-old boy in Woody Creek who was playing in his yard with his older brother was attacked by a small lion. The boys’ mother pulled the lion off the younger boy, who survived. Lions involved in human attacks are killed by authorities.

The updated plan comes on the heels of an expansion of mountain lion hunting near Aspen that the CPW Commission approved in January. 

Researchers say one reason for the increase in conflicts is that development in the Roaring Fork and Eagle river valleys overlaps with mule deer winter range.

“Where there’s deer, there’s lion,” said Mat Alldredge, a CPW researcher who specializes in mountain lions and other carnivores. “When we provide good cougar habitat and good prey habitat in urban areas, we are increasing the likelihood for human conflict.” 

Deer are attracted to irrigated landscaping, which draws deer and mountain lions close to residences and raises concerns about human safety. 

“We’ve heard from everyone from sportspersons to homeowners to schools, where they’re not feeling comfortable,” Yamashita said. “Most of this area was rural or agricultural in nature, and it’s not that way anymore and we’re having to manage for wildlife species in these urbanized areas, which is a very, very difficult thing to try to do.”

The proposal would increase the number of mountain lions that can be killed in a hunting year in the Glenwood management area from 18 this season to 33 in the 2021-22 season. 

Mountain lion season runs from mid-November through March, and hunters typically track the big cats through the snow with hunting dogs.

Alldredge says increased hunting can, under certain circumstances, reduce interactions between humans and lions, but populated areas pose a unique challenge. 

“Most of these areas with high human density are very, very difficult to hunt because most lion hunting is done with dogs, and you can’t do that when there’s a lot of private property,” Alldredge said. “There’s no real good evidence one way or another because you can’t increase hunting pressure in a developed area.”

But the new plan aims to make hunting easier in the Glenwood management area. Hunters would be allowed to hunt during elk and deer rifle seasons in October and November (without the use of hounds) and during an additional April season. Also, hunters in the new area would be permitted to use electronic calls, which are illegal in all other hunting units in Colorado, to attract lions. 

“Our management strategy is to manage for suppression,” Yamashita said. “We’re looking to decrease the number of mountain lions that we are seeing or hearing from in these particular areas.” 

CPW tries to maintain a stable mountain lion population across the Western Slope, but it’s difficult to know exactly how many lions live in the region and throughout the state. 

“Much of the biology of lions — their low densities, secretive nature, wide-ranging (nature) —  make them nearly impossible to enumerate on a statewide scale,” said Mark Vieira, who manages the carnivore program for CPW. “We estimate that we have 3,800 to 4,400 independent lions in Colorado.”

CPW’s proposed lion-management plan aims to keep the state’s lion population stable and groups what are now 13 management units into two, larger regions. CPW says this better reflects how mountain lions move across the landscape. 

Under the new plan, the limit of mountain lions that hunters can kill in the state’s northwest region — except in the Glenwood management area, where the limit has increased — will decrease from 284 lions this season to 276 in 2021-22. 

Historically, hunters have not reached the limits set by CPW in many of the hunting units. Since the plan allows more geographic flexibility, officials expect to see the harvest increase. 

The public can comment on the draft plan through April 12. 

Aspen Journalism collaborates with The Aspen Times on coverage of the environment. This story appeared in the March 21 edition of The Aspen Times. 

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