A Colorado reality check: lions roam and kill

  • Attacked by a lion: Park ranger Chris Philippi

    Steve Lipsher/Denver Post

On July 17, 10-year-old Mark David Miedema was hiking minutes ahead of his parents in Rocky Mountain National Park when an 88-pound pregnant female mountain lion attacked. The lion had fled by the time the family found the unconscious boy. Miedema, who choked on his own vomit, was dead when park rangers arrived.

Three hours later, the lion returned and attacked a ranger who was standing guard over Miedema's body until the coroner arrived. The ranger shot and wounded the animal, which was then tracked and killed.

This was the second mountain lion to attack a Colorado national park visitor in three days. On the afternoon of July 14, on Mesa Verde National Park's northern edge, an attack near a parking lot left a 4-year-old French boy with lacerations to his left ear, shoulder and nose.

Park rangers were escorting the boy's family off a trail near where a lion had been spotted. When the boy saw the lion, a young male, just off the trail, he screamed and ran, apparently provoking the lion's chase instinct. The animal pounced and dragged him into the bushes. The boy's family scared the lion off and rangers shot and killed it.

Department of Wildlife officials say Colorado's rapid urban growth and the popularity of the state's national parks have made attacks inevitable. As tourists pour into wilderness areas during the summer, where wildlife are protected from hunting, animals shed their instinctive fear of humans.

"There's just no reason for (lions) to be afraid of us," says Todd Malmsbury, Division of Wildlife spokesman. "Clearly, there will be more encounters."

Still, lion attacks are rare. Lions have killed fewer than a dozen people in the United States this century, including two in the last seven years in Colorado, where the lion population is estimated at around 3,000. The last fatal attack in Colorado took the life of an Idaho Springs jogger in 1991.

State wildlife officials also say there are more lions in Colorado now than at any other period since World War II. This is largely because their traditional food sources - elk, deer, and small mammals like raccoons - are more plentiful. In 1965, Colorado was also the first state to ban hunting lions for bounty, though hunting them in season is still legal. Officials say sightings and legal hunting kills have increased steadily. Last year, hunters took 319 mountain lions, double the annual average 10 years ago.

Officials advise people not to turn and run from a lion. Instead, people should wave their arms and stand tall while slowly backing away.

But, says Malmsbury, "You are many more times likely to be struck by lightning than attacked by a lion."

* Jamie Murray and Peter Chilson

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