Tony Vagneur: Proposed mountain lion hunting changes stirs emotions, memories | AspenTimes.com
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Tony Vagneur: Proposed mountain lion hunting changes stirs emotions, memories

Tony Vagneur
Saddle Sore

You hear the scream, and your blood runs a bit cold. If you’re a Cheyenne, it means someone is going to die, and you hope it’s not you. If you’re an 18-year old kid camping along the Roaring Fork River by yourself, you might have similar thoughts, no matter your knowledge of Native American cultures.

Ah, the illusive mountain lion, cougar, puma, cat, whatever you wish to call it. Some Indian cultures and modern athletic teams have honored the cougar by making it part of their heritage or making it their mascot. Maybe it means/hopes the football team, or gymnastic team, or whatever would be blessed with tenacity, quickness, and an ability to win.

If you read the local papers, as many of us do, you will recall that Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) has proposed expanding lion hunting territories, in an effort to reduce the potential for more human-lion conflicts. Naturally, this got the citizenry riled up, hunters going with CPW on the subject; non-hunters and other citizens not necessarily pleased with the news. CPW’s goal is to prevent a tragic loss of life.

According to Mike Porras, the public information officer of CPW’s northwest region, “Management agencies use hunting to maintain levels that not only are sustainable by a habitat but by what society is willing to tolerate.” The answer, of course, rides on the last part of that statement.

We had stopped on a very narrow Collins Creek trail to close a gate. It was on the side of very steep terrain, with no escape route. It was an easy and natural spot to fence cattle and as he mounted back up, Gramps brushed my arm and whispered, “Look up there along those red cliffs — there’s a mountain lion looking down on us.” I’d never seen one before and at 9 or 10 years old, it was impressive. It wasn’t a big deal, though, it didn’t seem, and we had no illusions about coming face-to-face with the critter. Such sightings were incredibly rare.

It is important to note here that in the 1880s, the elk and most of the deer were killed off by the mining expansion; professional hunters, miners, ranchers and sportsmen had basically exterminated these herds. Which meant, quite literally, that a majority of those mountain lions (and other apex predators) who weren’t also killed for their meat were forced out of the area due to a lack of game.

As the imported elk made a slow recovery in this area, more and more predators slowly returned to the valley. Bear and mountain lion, hardly ever seen, were noticed more frequently as the 1950s and ’60s rolled on.

One afternoon, sitting on Tom and Carolyn Moore’s McLain Flats back porch, having a late afternoon 1980s libation, we noticed a mountain lion sitting along the edge of the jack-oak hillside, about 70 yards off, just above a freshly-cut hay field. He was watching us, as we watched him or her, long, golden brown, black-tipped tail occasionally rising up like a phantom from the grass, testing the warm breeze. We kept the dogs close, but other than that, the lion was soon forgotten.

There might not be any more cougars than there used to be — we’ve just encroached further into their territory, making their presence more obvious to our civilized eyesight. My friends in Seven Castles up the Fryingpan say, “Keep an eye out for mountain lions.” When we drove cattle by there in the late 1950s, early ’60s, some of the more experienced guys on the drive would say, “Keep an eye out for mountain lions.”

Several years ago, I was in the habit of walking my dog, Topper, along the Rio Grande Trail, after dinner, in the winter and after dark. I hadn’t been on that trail in a couple of years and each night we’d pass what was a trailside sign, new to me. Naturally, we were too natural to use artificial light.

I couldn’t imagine what it might have said, and finally, one sunny day while driving by, we stopped and wandered over that way. “Danger: Mountain lions may be encountered in this area.” OK. Topper looked at me — I looked at him. Like grocery store food, we hoped the sign had reached its expiration date.

For every hayfield or pasture we rezone into residential use, for every house on or near the edge of “wild,” or subdivision along the riparian zone we approve, we increase our chances for interaction with mountain lions and black bears.

The planned public meetings are over, but you can still make your views known by contacting Colorado Parks and Wildlife at dnr_cpwcommission@state.co.us.

Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at ajv@sopris.net.


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