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Big cats come and go

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nicholasn | Apr 02, 2010 05:30 PM

In early March, a mountain lion chased a Jack Russell terrier into a house near Salida, Colo., surprising a woman and her five-year-old son, who sat coloring with crayons at the kitchen table. Luckily, they were able to dash into a bedroom. When Division of Wildlife officials arrived and subdued the lion, they found the 18-month-old male cat was significantly malnourished, weighing one-third less that it should have – 40, instead of 60 pounds. They decided to put the lion down.

While a story worthy of headlines, certainly, such harrowing run-ins with mountain lions are anything but abundant. A current study on Front Range lion movements by the Colorado Division of Wildlife shows that these predators aren't likely to linger long in neighborhoods filled with people, contrary to recent speculation.  Although they may slink into a suburb occasionally, and steal a dog out of a backyard rarely (and in desperate instances, bound after a Jack Russell  through a swinging pet door) they're shy and not likely to stay — they prefer to keep trekking.

One look at a DOW map of a collared mountain lion's movements in the Boulder area shows the extent to which these animals are itinerant: it looks a little like a crayon sketch by a five-year-old, but it’s actually a 230-mile wandering, over the course of just a month. A satellite records the location of those lions involved in the study every three hours, so researchers can look in on them constantly, from high up.

Another significant finding of DOW's tracking initiative is that mountain lions on the Front Range don't last long. Only 18 of 40 lions captured and collared in the study so far — a study only 3-years-old — remain alive. Those unaccounted for may have lost their GPS collars, but more likely they died from starvation, or from a run-in with a car or gun.

Researchers are unsure just how many of these big cats there are in Colorado, but despite high mortality rates, the lion population in the state seems to be relatively vigorous. Those that make a stir in suburbs, or enter pet doors, fortunately don't represent the population as a whole.   

Hungry for more? Check out this related book, The Beast in the Garden.

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