Hiking in lion, bear country | AspenTimes.com

Hiking in lion, bear country

Aspen resident Aron Ralston snapped this photograph of a mountain lion a couple of years ago in May when he unexpectedly encountered the cat on the south side of Triangle Peak, downvalley of Woody Creek. (Courtesy Aron Ralston)

ASPEN ” The mountains surrounding Aspen/Snowmass and the Roaring Fork Valley offer almost unlimited options for exploring the backcountry, but remember, you’re not alone out there.

This is both black bear and mountain lion country. Chances are, a hiker will never encounter either of these mammals in the wild (this writer never has), but it’s important to know how to respond, just in case.

The Colorado Division of Wildlife offers the following advice regarding encounters with mountain lions:

– When you are in areas where lions might be present, travel in groups and make lots of noise, especially from dusk until dawn when lions are most active.

– Mountain lion sightings are rare, but if you see one, do not approach the lion.

– Stay calm. Back away slowly, as running may trigger the lion’s natural predatory instinct.

– Open your jacket and raise your arms to make yourself appear larger than you are.

– Pick up young children so they don’t panic and run away.

– If a lion behaves aggressively, throw rocks, branches, or anything else you can find without crouching down or turning away. Wave your arms and speak firmly.

– In the rare case that you are attacked by a lion, fight back. Remain standing if possible and try to get up if you are knocked down.

The projected population of mountain lions in Colorado is between 3,000 and 5,000 cats, though true numbers are hard to determine due to the elusive nature of the animals, according to the DOW. Lions are active year-round; powerful and muscular, they feed on large prey such as deer and elk, but also eat small mammals, including domestic pets.

Mountain lions in Colorado generally live in areas of pinon pine, juniper, mountain mahogany, ponderosa pine and oak brush, and are often found in areas where deer are plentiful, according to the DOW.

Grizzlies are not known to exist in Colorado, according to the DOW, but the state boasts a healthy population of black bears and Aspen/Snowmass is situated in prime bear habitat. Furthermore, bears use trails much as people do, because it’s easier than traveling through the underbrush.

Still, sighting one on a trail is not a regular occurrence (you’re more likely to spot one sniffing out garbage in Aspen once the sun goes down).

According to the DOW, there are no definite rules about what to do if you meet a bear.

In most cases, the bear will detect you first and will leave the area, according to the division. Bear attacks are rare compared to the number of close encounters between humans and bears, but if you do encounter a bear before it has had time to leave the area, here are some suggestions:

– Stay calm. If you see a bear and it hasn’t seen you, calmly leave the area. As you move away, talk aloud to let the bear discover your presence.

– Stop. Back away slowly while facing the bear. Avoid direct eye contact, as bears may perceive this as a threat. Give the bear plenty of room to escape. Wild bears rarely attack people unless they feel threatened or provoked.

– If on a trail, step off the trail on the downhill side and slowly leave the area. Don’t run or make any sudden movements. Running is likely to prompt the bear to give chase and you can’t outrun a bear. Do not attempt climbing trees to escape black bears. This may stimulate the bear to follow and pull you out by the foot. Stand your ground.

– Speak softly. This may reassure the bear that no harm is meant to it. Try not to show fear.

– In contrast to grizzly bears, female black bears do not normally defend their cubs aggressively; but send them up trees. However, use extra caution if you encounter a female black bear with cubs. Move away from the cub; be on the lookout for other cubs.

– Bears use all their senses to try to identify what you are. Remember: Their eyesight is good and their sense of smell is acute. If a bear stands upright or moves closer, it may be trying to detect smells in the air. This isn’t a sign of aggression. Once it identifies you, it may leave the area or try to intimidate you by charging to within a few feet before it withdraws.

– Fight back if a black bear attacks you. Black bears have been driven away when people have fought back with rocks, sticks, binoculars and even their bare hands.

The DOW estimated Colorado’s black bear population ranges from 8,000 to 12,000 bears. The bears aren’t necessarily black, but range in color from blond to honey and brown. They hibernate during the winter.

Their tracks are distinctive and hikers may find them on a trail or in snow ” the hind footprint resembles that of a human. All bears have five toes; claw marks may or may not be visible. Even more recognizable is a black bear’s droppings ” a loose pile of leaves, partly digested berries, seeds and/or animal hair. The droppings are often a dark reddish/purple, when a bear has been gorging on berries.

For more on Colorado wildlife, go to http://wildlife.state.co.us/WildlifeSpecies/ on the DOW website.

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