Author: Expect more cougar conflict

In a way, Boulder, Colo., was a victim of its own foresight.

The well-planned mountain community, which is surrounded by greenbelts and parks and is full of trees and naturally landscaped yards, became a refuge for mule deer in recent decades. Unfortunately, local cougars followed their prey to town, with tragic results.

At least that/s the viewpoint of David Baron, author of "The Beast in the Garden: A Modern Parable of Man and Nature," who spoke to a standing-room-only crowd of 150-plus at Utah State University on Wednesday. His book chronicles increased sightings of mountain lions in Boulder neighborhoods in the late 1980s and the subsequent killing of an 18-year-old jogger by a cougar in 1991. He said his findings apply to cities like Logan because Boulder "tends to be ahead of the curve" on such issues, and indeed, recent cougar attacks in California and Montana may indicate a pattern.

Baron/s theory is that nature-lovers can be their own worst enemy by welcoming wildlife into their neighborhoods. By the late 1980s, some 1,000 mule deer roamed in or near Boulder, giving birth to fawns who knew no other lifestyle. Having never been hunted by man or beast, these deer became less wary than their wilderness cousins and would feed in broad daylight in open areas.

Traditionally, mountain lions have been crepuscular, hunting mostly at dawn and dusk, and 77 befitting their status as a frequently targeted animal 77 hiding or running from human contact. Biologists told people not to fear cougar attacks, which, as Baron noted, were "very rare, and usually done by a rabid cat, or when a child was the prey."

"The idea that adults had to worry about an attack in the city, in the middle of the day, was preposterous," Baron said.

From the time of Western settlement through the 1960s, cougars, wolves and coyotes were treated as vermin and exterminated wherever possible, often for pay. Colorado didn/t remove its bounty for mountain lions until 1965. Utah dropped its bounty in 1959, but didn/t give the cougar protection as a big game animal until 1969.

Since that time, Baron argued, many mountain lions have learned that humans, and dogs, are not necessarily a threat. Since their meal ticket, the deer herd, now lived in town 77 and less cautiously than ever before 77 the bolder Boulder lions began to pop up in suburban sideyards, along foothill trails and even on downtown sidewalks. Some residents argued that the cougars should be annihilated, and others wanted to leave them alone; after all, the cats were here first, and humans were the interlopers.

Then came an incident that would have been front page news nationwide had it not coincided with the start of the Gulf War. An 18-year-old high school student from Idaho Springs, Colo., went for an afternoon run in the hills near the school. When Scott Lancaster didn/t return, a search was launched, and when his body was discovered, a 2- or 3-year-old, male mountain lion was guarding the remains.

"This was truly a remarkable death 77 a healthy lion killed a full-grown human on the edge of town in mid-day," Baron said, noting that Lancaster was the first adult killed in North America by a healthy cougar in 100 years. "Scott/s death was not a natural tragedy; it was very much a man-made tragedy."

Baron is convinced the culprit cougar 77 which was shot and killed not far from Lancaster/s body and was found to have human remains in its stomach 77 was from the Boulder area, and had migrated southwest along the mountains from Boulder to Idaho Springs.

About that time, two Boulder biologists launched a mountain lion study. They asked the public to report sightings (there were dozens and dozens) and mapped the results, which Baron said indicated "a whole generation of lions had grown up here with no fear of humans."

"Predators will mimic the behavior of their prey, and hunt when food is available," Baron said. "In essence, they were losing their fear of us."

Not everyone agrees with Baron/s assessment. Utah State University wildlife professor Mike Wolfe, who just concluded a four-year study of Utah mountain lions that included radio-collaring over 100 cats, said he doesn/t think "there/s any empirical data about a shift" toward daytime activity among cougars.

"We can see how they butt up against urban areas, but we haven/t really seen many incursions into suburbia," Wolfe said. "It/s just that large predators evoke so much visceral fear in peoples/ minds 77 it/s going on with the wolf, too."

His advice to recreationists hasn/t changed: "If you/re going to live and recreate in cougar country, especially with kids, do it sensibly. Don/t go out at dawn or dusk, or at least go in a group. Be smart."

Since the Lancaster attack and a 1997 incident where a 10-year-old boy was killed in Rocky Mountain National Park, officials in Boulder have launched an education campaign that includes signs at trailheads, and have taken to shooting any cougar in or near town with rubber buckshot to instill fear. They also urged dog owners to cover their dog runs after they realized that the dogs were actually easy pickings for large mountain lions, which can weigh close to 200 pounds and can easily leap a 6-foot fence.

"I do not mean to imply that the mountain lion is the next great threat to America," said Baron, a former science and environmental reporter for National Public Radio, "but I believe we should pay attention to what is happening with cougars."

Baron said recovery programs for predators such as cougars and wolves have been so successful that the challenge now is to manage their abundance. Since humans have taken an active role, he said, natural balance is unlikely to occur.

"Nature is no longer in control 77 we are," he noted.

What this means for Cache Valley is unclear. Local Division of Wildlife Resources biologists have long discouraged urban residents from feeding deer, but many local towns have a resident deer herd, at least during the winter. Geographically, Logan is not so different from Boulder, with urban development abutting National Forest.

"It certainly looks the same," Baron said. "You/ll probably see some of the same issues."

One difference, he noted, is that "Colorado was reluctant to take a hands-on approach, and my impression in Utah is that Fish and Game here are more willing to take a hands-on approach."


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