by Rex Montaleone and Pauline Parvenu

Now, let’s see…magpies, malls, misappropriations, moon pies, mountain lions…ah…mountain lions…much maligned mountain lions…These proud cats of the Rockies have been the victim of bad press for centuries even carrying a stiff bounty on their heads until recent years. The adult cat, known as a puma, panther, cougar, catamount or El Leon in other parts of the Western Hemisphere may be either a gray color or a reddish or yellowish color called tawny. Its hairs are fawn-gray tipped with reddish-brown or grayish. He has no spots and in this way is different from his cousin the jaguar. The throat, the insides of the legs and the belly are white, and the tip of the tail is black. Some mountain lions are solid black but they are quite rare in the Southern Rockies.

Despite years of bad publicity there is no conclusive proof that the graceful mountain lion is a threat to livestock, unless of course he is hungry.

A full-grown animal may be over five feet long not counting the heavy tail that is usually two to three feet long. The heaviest lion on record weighs in at about 250 pounds. The body is slender and the legs are long. The head is round and rather small. As one can quite well imagine the mountain lion is a formidable foe on physical prowess alone. Combine his high intelligence and sly, methodical nature and any adversary, even a badger or wolverine, could have a major donnybrook on his hands.

Mountain lions have from one to five cubs at a time, which can be very taxing for the female. If a hiker comes across a female lion with cubs the best approach is to wave his arms and make noise. You will then appear larger and fiercer. If this doesn’t work you might try running like hell even though the lion will probably see that as a sign of fear and attack immediately. One good idea is to bring along an ample supply of raw meat in your backpack that could serve as a diversion in a tight spot. Mountain lions are generally timid when in the proximity of man and are less likely to attack than other cats such as the smaller lynx or bobcat.

Although mountain lions go to great lengths to avoid contact with man the population has grown steadily since the animal has been protected. Most Western states have a season on the lions but they are severely restricted. More cats are killed attempting to rustle livestock than are shot during bow and rifle season combined.

The cry of the mountain lion is wild and terrifying. It sounds like a woman screaming in pain. The animal also has a soft whistle call that can be quite unnerving to potential prey. Mountain lions hunt at night. Its chief prey are deer, followed by elk. On special occasions it kills a bighorn and if hungry enough will feed on small mammals, rodents, even skunks and porcupines. The cat generally keeps under cover while stalking its prey then suddenly leaps upon the animal breaking its neck and dragging it to the ground. Unfortunately most herd animals, including domestic ones, don’t have access to all this information or they certainly wouldn’t go out after dark.

Imagine living life as a sheep, in the strictly literal sense. You have just finished grazing on the side of a hill and are set for some shut-eye. The shepherd is already asleep and the moon is full. Off in the distance you hear a shrill cry. The rest of the herd is tense. In the shadows you can see the silhouette of the predator, creeping his way toward your flock. What is he after? Surely the shepherd will protect his sheep. Wait! He’s looking right at you! No, this just can’t be. You’re too young to die plus you’re scheduled for shearing on Monday! Look at those biceps. Oh no. It’s too late. He’s stepped up his pace. His claws are extended. He’s in the air. He’s got you…

How often do you think this bloody scenario occurs over the summer season when the woolies are up high and the mountain lion has expanded its hunting radius? Every night? Once a week? Once a month? Wrong! There are far more sheep killed on the highways than by the cats. Everyone, especially the crafty mountain lion knows that elk and venison are way better tasting than mutton. Lions who engage in this kind of roguishness are usually too old to catch anything else and are badly in need of a snack.

The mountain lion is an extremely social animal and lives in a den with its family, or pride until the young cubs are old enough to hunt for their own food. Actually observing a mountain lion in the wild can be a thrilling experience depending on your ranking on the food chain.

The human reaction to mountain lion forays is to mount a hunting party or posse and go out after the lion. This generally results in a lot of senseless wandering around the hills at night with whiskey and loaded rifles. Which lion is to blame for the crime? Can these trackers distinguish between a lion who was home in bed at the time of the infraction and the feline rascal who raided the herd? It’s not likely. Therefore it’s the old solution of an eye for an eye and the only accomplishment is often one less lion and no increased security for the sheep. One of our neighbors placed a series of spotlights around her corrals in an attempt to discourage further onslaughts but the mountain lion in attendance simply used the light to scope out the fattest prize and then dined by simulated candlelight.

Animal behaviorists stop short of suggesting that the mountain lions should police themselves regarding this grave matter. However, that is not a valid approach to the conflict. Many ranchers have employed llamas, dogs and high fences in an attempt to spare sheep a gruesome death but the cats are just too smart and too powerful. The core of the problem is simple enough: a herd of sheep is clearly defined as lunch buffet by mountain lions.

The cats sometimes kill calves and young horses. The largest variety of mountain lion has been given the scientific tag hippolestes, which translates as horse killer. This is a heartless misconception as more horses die each year of jockey abuse and rattlesnake bites than from lion attacks. Nobody calls the rattlesnake hippolestes. This, like most other things evolving from the human factor, is not fair.

As the mountain lion population increases so do these scrapes with the law. Efforts to pay the ranchers for losses have not worked. A plan to designate certain low grade sheep and cattle as official mountain lion cuisine has never gotten off the ground nor have the construction of mine fields since sheep are way dumber than most wild predators.

Mountain lions do a lot of good when left to their methods. Many have helped control the poodle population even on redwood decks of our Front Range sprawl. That takes some guts all right! Unlike bears, lions aren’t proficient dumpster divers, unlike coyotes they won’t keep a camper up all night and unlike deer they do not loiter on the highways at dusk and dawn.

Probably the most important contribution of the big cat is his inherent wildness. At a point where man is polluting his planet and manufacturing stress upon more stress, the presence of a beast like the mountain lion succeeds in giving us hope. Long after our species (and its livestock dependents) has burned itself out, the mountain lion will still be prowling these forests looking for a hot meal.

-Kevin Haley

Filed Under: Soft News


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