Legend has it that several years ago the Copper Ski Patrol called the Breckenridge Ski Patrol to tell them that a mountain lion was running down from Copper Mountain heading toward the Breckenridge Ski Area. The lion was then seen from the ridge on Peak 8 running up the west side of the mountain. That’s a pretty good run and it was in a hurry!
We thought we saw a large cat-like creature moving swiftly as it crossed Highway 9 in Breckenridge one morning at dawn. The mountain lion or cougar can be found from western Canada to Argentina, one of the largest geographic ranges of any American native mammal. They were found from coast to coast in the United States, but currently eastern populations are extinct or endangered. The numbers of mountain lions in Colorado has stayed fairly constant in the last few decades, and are estimated to be between 1,500 and 3,000. In our state they are most abundant in foothills, canyons or mesa country in brushy areas, and woodlands in areas of pinion pine, juniper, mountain mahogany, ponderosa pine and oak brush. They are not frequently found in dense forests or in open prairies. They will be most abundant in areas with plentiful deer. The mountain lion has more names than any other Colorado mammal, and the most common are: cougar, puma, panther, catamount or lion. In fact because of its wide distribution it has the Guinness Record for the most names.
Colorado’s largest cat, the male adult mountain lion tips the scale at 130-150 pounds, measures up to 8 feet in length, and boasts a tail 32 inches long. They are reddish in color with a slightly paler beige color on their undersides with a black-tipped tail. Mountain lions are easily distinguished from other wild cat species in Colorado by their long tail, which may measure one-third of their total length.
Individual lions can range anywhere from 10 to 370 square miles. The size of the home range depends on the terrain and how much food is available. Boundaries of an individual male home range are marked with piles of dirt and twigs, called scrapes, which alert other lions that this area is occupied. In an unhurried walk, lions usually place the hind paw in the imprint made by the front paw. They have four toes with three distinct lobes present at the base of the pad and claw marks are not visible. Mountain lions have large paws and proportionally the largest hind legs in the cat family. They have great leaping and short-sprint ability, and can leap vertically 18 feet and jump horizontally 20 to 40 feet from a standing position. They can run as fast as 35 mph but are best adapted for short, powerful sprints rather than long chases. They are good climbers and are also able to swim.
They are active year-round, and 70 percent of their diet is deer. They pounce on prey from a tree or rock overhanging a game trail. The deer is often killed quickly with a broken neck, and the lion then eats until satiated, covers the remainder with leaves or conifer needles, then fasts for a few days, digesting the food and resting. They are most active at night, but will hunt during the day if prey is scarce. They will also kill and eat elk, mice, squirrels, beavers, raccoons, porcupines, livestock and a variety of domestic animals such as pets. Adult males almost always travel alone, and if tracks indicate two or more lions traveling together, it’s probably a female with kittens.
Mountain lions may breed at any time of year, but mating peaks in the spring. Female lions mate when they are about 2-1/2 years old. A female in heat makes frequent sounds and leaves a scent that attracts males. After locating the female, the male courts her a few days before mating. She gives birth to two to three spotted kittens usually in July, with a gestation period of about 14 weeks. Her den is a secluded spot beneath an uprooted tree or a rocky depression. The young stir only to nurse until they are about 2 weeks old, and when their eyes open they become alert and playful. Care of the kittens is strictly the mother’s role and she defends them from being killed by male lions. They are weaned at about 2 months and learn hunting skills through play and exploration, and by watching their mother.
The Department of Wildlife advises you to “stay calm if you come upon a lion. Talk calmly yet firmly to it. Move slowly and stop or back away slowly and do not crouch down or turn your back or run.” They tend to go for the back of the neck. They can run a lot faster than you unless you are on a downhill course racing on skis. Raise you arms to appear larger, and open you jacket and flap it. If the lion behaves aggressively, the advice is to throw stones, branches, or whatever you can get your hands on. That might be hard to do without crouching down. Waving hiking poles or a walking stick might work — or breaking off a nearby branch. Fight back if a lion attacks you. Lions have been driven away by prey that fights back. You may spend many hours hiking or camping in mountain lion country and never see one, although it is possible a mountain lion has silently watched you from a distance. Mountain lions can wait in absolute stillness, blending with sandy soil and rock formations. Movement, especially running, triggers the prey instinct in mountain lions. Many encounters between humans and mountain lions have been prompted by jogging past a waiting lion. Do not hike alone. Go in groups, with adults supervising children because the size and noise of groups is a deterrent. Think twice about bringing a dog into mountain lion country. In addition to risking your pet’s safety, running dogs, especially when allowed off-leash, have returned to camp with a lion following closely behind. Do not approach a lion. Most mountain lions will try to avoid a confrontation. Give the lion a way to escape. Using common sense and being alert is the best way to share our environment with these magnificent animals.
The grace and power of the mountain lion has been widely admired in the cultures of many of the indigenous peoples of the Americas. The Inca city of Cusco is reported to have been designed in the shape of a mountain lion and the animal was often depicted in their pottery. In North America, mythological descriptions have appeared in the stories of many native tribes. The names puma, cougar, and jaguar, some of the other names for the mountain lion, have been used for brand names, clubs, mascots, and sports teams.
Breckenridge resident Dr. Joanne Stolen is retired from teaching microbiology Rutgers University, and has taught classes at CMC. She is now pursuing a career in art, specializing in nature and many of the animals she writes about. Her work can be seen locally.