To lions, we may be just a link in the food chain

  A 100-pound mountain lion can kill an 800-pound elk. Keep that in mind the next time you go hiking in cougar territory.

If you are alone and unarmed, and one of these powerful predators attacks you -- intent on killing and eating you, rather than merely trying to drive you away from its offspring or a previous kill -- the contest likely will be as lopsided as if you had waded into traffic to wrestle a pickup truck. Worse, actually, because the odds are that you will never even know until the cougar bites into the back of your neck.

Whether such prowess leaves you horrified or reverent depends on your attitudes regarding the role of wildlife and nature in a human-dominated world. Mountain lions are among the few remaining species on the planet that persist in occasionally regarding humans as food -- grizzly bears, sharks, lions, tigers and crocodiles pretty much fill out the roster -- and like all big predators they test our philosophical boundaries in a way that most creatures do not.

With respect to cougars, at least, it is a test many Westerners and Californians in particular should get used to taking. Recent attacks on two bicyclists in the mountains of Orange County are but the most recent reminder that we live in an era without historical precedent when it comes to the relationship between big predators and human beings in North America.

Never before have so many people lived so close to so many potentially dangerous animals while simultaneously lacking the desire to exterminate them.

The potential consequences of that historically unique set of circumstances form the theme of a gripping, well-researched book by journalist David Baron, a National Public Radio reporter who is currently a visiting scholar at Boston University's Knight Center for Science Journalism.

"The Beast in the Garden" is on one level a detailed examination of events in the late 1980s and early ‘90s in Colorado., where a series of mountain lion attacks on pets and people climaxed with the death of a high school student. More broadly, however, it is an analysis of how population growth, development patterns and changing attitudes about nature are contributing to a growing number of deadly encounters throughout the urbanizing West.

Many Californians will recognize something of their own state in Baron's description of Boulder: a liberal community with a laid-back vibe, socially tolerant, determined to live in harmony with its natural surroundings and -- not incidentally -- sprawling by leaps and bounds into the wild lands along the Rocky Mountain foothills.

As people moved into the habitat of deer, coyotes, raccoons and other creatures, the animals found themselves residents of suburbia. They thrived there among the fruit trees, vegetable gardens and well-watered landscaping, and it was not long before the top predator in the local ecosystem followed its prey into people's yards.

Homeowners soon began to see lions leaping onto their porches to attack pet dogs, or found lions perched unconcernedly in their trees or reclining on their picnic tables. And before long, lions began menacing people. The escalating series of encounters, which Baron's book relates with the suspenseful pacing of a good thriller, eventually included the fatal 1991 attack on 18-year-old Scott Lancaster in Idaho Springs, Colo.

Lancaster was killed and partially consumed by a healthy mountain lion just off the high school campus. It was the first recorded fatal attack in Colorado history, and it challenged the belief among most American wildlife managers that mountain lions posed no real threat to humans. Additional challenges to that assumption soon came from other states, including Montana and California.

One wildlife biologist quoted in Baron's book, University of California professor Lee Fitzhugh, has suggested that because they are no longer widely hunted or hazed by humans, cougars are learning to regard people as prey. Reporters following up on the fatal Orange County incident of a week ago have cited his data showing a marked escalation of attacks since California banned mountain lion hunting -- still very rare, but three times as many since 1971, as during the preceding century.

Those numbers alone do not prove a behavioral change; they may merely reflect the fact that there are more lions and more people in California than there were 30 years ago.

What the data and Baron's book suggest, however, is that Westerners need to think long and hard about the degree of risk they are willing to assume when they buy homes or venture onto trails, as well as what strategies they are willing to accept to reduce that risk.

John Krist is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country news (hcn.org). He is a reporter and columnist for the Ventura County Star in California.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

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