Basalt students study mountain lions roaming nearby
It sounds like the beginning of a Grimm’s fairytale, but wildlife expert David Neils swears it’s the story of how he found his career path and longtime fascination.
He said that decades ago, he went bow-hunting in the wilderness around his home. Exhausted, he decided to take a nap at his campsite by a stream while it was still daylight. A mountain lion crept up to him while he slept and began nudging Neils’ face and licking his cheek. Neils woke up. The giant cat stared at him then turned and slipped into the forest.
“I still had mountain lion slobber on my face,” he said, laughing. “I knew that I wanted to study that animal.”
He’s done that for 20 years, often using wildlife cameras positioned around his North Colorado home. His clients are individuals, companies, and educators who want to learn how to live alongside the apex predator whose existence, he says, is essential to a healthy ecosystem.
He figures the 120 Basalt High School students he spoke to Monday comprise his 87th client in just the past seven years.
For many, mountain lions, or cougars, have an eerie reputation. They can run 50 mph and leap 30 feet in the air. They can make noises from the chirping a mother makes to her kittens to the howling during mating season. But a cougar can be so silent and stealthy that it can stalk an elk or deer without the prey seeing or hearing its killer.
Unlike the bears who dine at Aspen’s landfill, cougars are not scavengers, and they can’t digest plants or grains, like bread. They need fresh meat they kill themselves. And they have roamed all the way to Patagonia (where they are referred to as “pumas”), where they eat penguins, and north to Alaska, where they eat caribou.
“They need to drink massive amounts of fluid, either water or blood, to digest an elk they’ve eaten,” Neils told biology teacher Ryan Bradley’s morning class as they study video of a cougar drinking.
The Basalt biology students will set up more than 40 cougar cams in the hillsides, ridge roads, and mountain tops — not right behind and around their school. Neils has mapped 120 square miles outside downtown Basalt and traced mountain lion paths within hiking distance of the school. The kids study the topography map marked with green lines for mountain lion paths that he put on screen. He explained how high the night-time cameras should be off the ground to be triggered by the heat generated from a nearby cougar’s heart, kidneys, and lungs.
The students had thoughtful questions. None of them asked what to do if they encountered a mountain lion on a trail.
Here are Neils’ safety tips: If you see a cougar near the trail you’re hiking, don’t run. Never turn your back toward the cat. Back away. Maintain eye contact. He says it helps to talk to the cougar in a low, tough, calm Clint-Eastwood-as-Dirty-Harry-style voice.
Bradley is a husband, the father of a toddler, and due to the school bus driver shortage, he drives a school bus all the way to Marble in addition to teaching. He finds time to apply for grants, so his students can tackle projects like this. The idea for wildlife projects came to him during the pandemic.
“During the fall of 2021 when we were still teaching online, I thought about having the kids do a project that gets them outside and is unique to them instead of having them take a test,” he said, a Basalt teacher for 16 years. “I have had the students do a project exploring a local area and documenting plants and animals since 2021, and I really enjoy seeing where the kids end up on their journey.”
He has his own webcams that he’s set up to get video of elk, deer, and bears.
“Mountain lions seemed the most elusive,” he said. “I recognized David as an amazing fountain of information. Our students could learn from him … We plan on setting around 12 of my old cameras out in areas that include Light Ridge, Arbaney Kittle, Basalt Mountain, and the Crown. I would like for the kids to pick the locations after studying the maps and learning from Mr. Neils.”
Because mountain lions prevent deer, moose, and elk from overpopulating, Bradley hopes to keep the project going for years, identifying individual lions and how many kittens they breed. Neils said that because female cougars do not go through menopause, they can give birth right up until they die of old age.
When he explains to the students how a 145-pound cougar can bring down an 800 pound elk by snapping its spine then gripping its windpipe, he doesn’t spare the details. He describes how the elk’s legs are rendered useless as the animal collapses to the ground. He and Bradley explain to students that mountain lions bury their prey, so crows and magpies won’t pick the carcass clean down to the skeleton.
“What I really want our kids to understand is that you don’t have to go to the Serengeti in Tanzania or even Yellowstone to experience amazing wildlands and wildlife; it is literally right out the back door of our classroom,” said Bradley.
Both he and Neils have had scary encounters with bears while hunting but not mountain lions. Neils says it’s a scientifically proven fact that the odds of a human being elected U.S. president are greater than being attacked by a mountain lion. He does offer one cautionary note: Humans aren’t normally attacked while walking on their own two feet.
“When humans are bent over fast mountain bikes or are cross-country skiing, they can look more like prey and canapes to the mountain lions,” Neils adds.
To view some of his cougar videos, visit wildnaturemedia.com.
To reach Lynda Edwards, email her at email@example.com.