Mountain lion strategy draws criticism, praise
GYPSUM — During a special meeting about proposed changes to the state’s Western Slope Mountain Lion Plan, Colorado Parks and Wildlife officials stressed what they don’t want to do and what they don’t yet know.
But even with uncertainties, agency officials acknowledge they need to make some management changes to protect both humans and mountain lions.
“We don’t want to annihilate the mountain lions. We want them here. We just don’t want them in the numbers that are here now,” said Matt Yamashita, the district manager for Colorado Parks and Wildlife, during a Feb. 18 session in Gypsum. “When you see a mountain lion walking down the street near Highway 6, that’s not usual mountain lion behavior.”
Increased mountain lion sightings
Yamashita launched his presentation by noting that CPW has seen a large increase in mountain lion sightings and human encounters in western Colorado. Noting that mountain lions venturing into more urban areas have become a human safety concern, he said CPW wants to reorganize how it manages the Western Slope mountain lion population.
The goal is a stable mountain lion population for the majority of western Colorado. But there are also parts of the Western Slope identified for suppression efforts, including the area that extends from the mouth of Glenwood Canyon to the top of Vail Pass on the south side of Interstate 70. That area has been earmarked for suppression efforts because of human safety concerns. Yamashita stressed that the agency has not yet set actual harvest numbers associated with the new management plan.
What CPW has done is rethink how it manages the Western Slope mountain lion population. Mountain lions in Colorado have historically been managed in smaller, localized units — similar to the management of Colorado’s deer and elk. But CPW officials say current research shows that managing mountain lions on a larger landscape is more appropriate and effective, reflecting actual animal behavior. Mountain lion range is much larger than deer and elk.
Yamashita said the CPW’s existing management plan allows for the harvest of around 200 mountain lions from the Western Slope. But historically far fewer lions are actually killed by hunters. Under the new plan, the net harvest number may not change, but the allocation of where lions can be taken will. The goal is to cull more lions from areas where the population is becoming problematic.
CPW is looking at an expanded mountain lion hunting season in the areas identified for suppression efforts. Additionally, hunters in the suppression areas who have a valid deer or elk hunting license would have the opportunity to also purchase a mountain lion hunting license.
“Hunting is the tool our agency uses to address wildlife effects,” Yamashita said. “We don’t have a tool, as a public agency, to manage human populations.”
The crowd of around 70 locals who turned out for the meeting in Gypsum was invited to weigh in on the management plan by completing surveys. Those comments will be combined with survey responses collected during a series of seven meetings held in various Western Slope communities. CPW plans to publish its draft management plan in March, and the Colorado Wildlife Commission is slated to take action on the proposed Western Slope mountain lion management plan at its May meeting.
During a Q&A part of this week’s meeting, the debate regarding mountain lion issues was on full display. Some meeting attendees passionately argued against plans to expand mountain lion hunting, others argued that more aggressive mountain lion management was desperately needed.
One Carbondale-area resident reported she recently spotted a lion on her private property and, not long afterward, a “posse” of mountain lion hunters appeared at her door. She said the three men said they didn’t plan to kill the lion but rather to “catch it” and photograph it.
“They told me they do this all over,” she said. She asked if the CPW knew about this kind of behavior and said it was an example of human actions causing the Western Slope’s mountain lion issues.
“I don’t know the specifics about this ‘posse’” Yamashita said. “Maybe if you had called at the time, we could have done something about it. Contacting wildlife officers is always a great place to start, but three weeks after the fact, it is difficult for us to investigate it.”
Another meeting participant shared information from a mountain lion study in Washington state. The research findings detailed both an increase in hunting mountain lion deaths and an overall increase in mountain lion numbers. She argued that the research showed that increased hunting doesn’t get the desired result of reducing mountain lion problems.
Yamashita responded that he was familiar with the study she referenced and noted that it did not research a cause and effect between hunting and overall population, but rather it reported two independent sets of data.
He returned to research in Colorado which shows increased mountain lion/human interactions and said the CPW needs to address the problem. He said CPW does extensive education programs to teach people how to live with wildlife, but with more lions, education alone isn’t addressing the problem.
“In Eagle, you have deer on every street in town and if you have deer on every street, the mountain lions are going to follow,” Yamashita said.
Other meeting participants supported increased mountain lion hunting.
“I have lived here all my life, and I had never heard of mountain lions being around,” Jim Gonzales said. But this year, he said four active lions have been spotted in the Minturn area alone.
Gonzales said the lions are negatively affecting an already stressed local elk population. “And the elk around here are in real trouble,” he said.
“We are not going to hunt them down to the very last lion,” said local rancher Jim Bair. “Things need to be managed though. We don’t need to be totally hands-off.”
In the end, Yamashita said CPW is already faced with culling the mountain lion numbers because agency officers are called out to kill problem animals. The goal is to find a better way to comprehensively manage the mountain lion numbers.
“We are trying to manage not on an individual basis, but for the whole population,” Yamashita concluded.
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State department of transportation crews are well on their way to clearing Highway 82 to Independence Pass, which should open on schedule May 27 at noon.