Staff from the Gunnison office of Colorado Parks and Wildlife have continued the second year of a mountain lion density study, and the investment in the research project has already proven beneficial in ways both expected and unexpected.
CPW began the Western Slope Mountain Lion Density Study in 2021 in Middle Park in CPW’s Northwest Region. Gunnison was selected as the second location for the study in the Southwest Region in 2022, and it has continued on across the Gunnison Basin in 2023.
The purpose of the study is to get a better understanding of mountain lion populations across the Western Slope of Colorado. Through better understanding of the population density, CPW can make even more informed management decisions based on the science.
A key aspect of the study is to get Global Positioning System (GPS) collars on adult mountain lions along with numbered ear tags on each captured animal. CPW also placed remote cameras out across the region that help biologists recapture the marked lions versus those without markings to get a better understanding of the population.
CPW has been able to successfully collar 35 Gunnison area mountain lions for this project and will look to continue to put out more collars this winter as conditions permit.
“GPS collar data collected from these mountain lions is showing some interesting movement patterns,” said CPW wildlife biologist Kevin Blecha. “While higher concentrations of mountain lion activity are being found in river and creek drainage bottoms and forested segments near big-game wintering areas, mountain lions are also successfully hunting in shorter vegetation types such as sagebrush.”
Blecha noted home ranges for mountain lions with a 10- to 15-mile diameter are common and home-range territories of multiple lions overlap extensively. That has also been seen in all other modern GPS collar studies of mountain lions.
CPW’s Gunnison Area Wildlife Manager Brandon Diamond said it is important for residents in the area to remember mountain lions regularly move through surrounding communities throughout the year.
“Mountain lions are hunting in backyards for game more than most residents realize,” Diamond said. “If a person finds a deer or elk in their backyard that has mysteriously died, please call your local CPW office, especially if it appears covered up by snow, leaves or grass. Those are all indications of a lion kill that it has cached.”
Reports of lion kittens
CPW’s Gunnison office has received multiple reports this winter of mountain lion kittens found without the presence of a mother. Management of these reports is done on a case by case basis, as most often the mother will return following a hunt.
“Once the mother mountain lion makes a successful hunt elsewhere, she will return to retrieve her kittens and bring them to that new kill to feed,” Blecha said. “After filling herself up, she will leave the kittens again to go hunt.”
Blecha said it is most common for a mother to be out for one to six days between making kills. However, recent research in Colorado and elsewhere shows mountain lion kittens can go 12 days or more before seeing their mother return.
CPW warns against the dangers of human interference with kittens and reminds the public it is illegal in Colorado to knowingly feed wildlife.
“Human intervention on what appears to be abandoned mountain lion kittens can often have unintended long-term consequences on the behavior of that family,” Blecha said.
Moving a family of mountain lions from a backyard or city and keeping the family intact is challenging, and removing kittens from a mother that hasn’t actually abandoned them can also be considered inhumane. Successfully rehabilitating mountain lion kittens and teaching them to hunt on their own for release back into the wild is extremely difficult and has a poor track record.
Avian flu and mountain lions
The mountain lion density project also helped CPW identify a deceased collared mountain lion in Gunnison that tested positive for Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza in January.
Given the elusive nature of mountain lions, it is likely this rare positive case of HPAI would never have been detected if not for Blecha and Diamond receiving a mortality signal from the GPS collar and being able to retrieve the animal to send it for testing.
Since the first positive lion HPAI case was detected, a second collared lion from Gunnison County was confirmed to have died from HPAI. Testing was conducted by Colorado State University in Fort Collins and the National Veterinary Services Laboratory in Ames, Iowa.
“Given just a sample of mountain lions have been collared, it is likely there are more lions out there that have died from this,” Blecha said. “HPAI spilling over into mountain lions would be expected when they are scavenging on the infected carcasses of birds that have died of HPAI.”
HPAI is foremost a disease among bird species. CPW urges the public to refrain from feeding waterfowl. Wherever waterfowl are present, it is currently assumed that HPAI is also present.
Report lion sightings
As the Gunnison office continues with its mountain lion density study, there are ways the public can help. CPW would appreciate any fresh sightings of uncollared mountain lions within 24 hours. Sightings of lion tracks and recently killed deer and elk can also be a great help to CPW staff.
“The goal of this project is to estimate the abundance of mountain lions in the Gunnison Basin and to help ground-truth the accuracy of models that have mapped the density of mountain lions throughout Colorado,” Blecha said. “Mountain lions are notoriously difficult to enumerate given their cryptic nature, and so having this basic piece of information is a big step forward to better managing and conserving mountain lion populations in Colorado.”
To report a mountain lion sighting in the Gunnison area, call 970-641-7888. Visit the Colorado Parks and Wildlife website to find an office near you.
Living with mountain lions
Recently throughout Colorado, the number of mountain lion/human interactions has increased. This increase is likely attributed to a variety of factors such as:
- More people moving into lion habitat
- Presumed increase in lion numbers and expanded range
- More people using hiking and running trails in lion habitat
- Greater awareness of the presence of lions.
For more information on living with mountain lions, go to the CPW website.
Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI) Resources
For more information on HPAI in Colorado
For information on HPAI in pets
For information on hunting and HPAI
For information on HPAI in wild birds in the United States
For information on HPAI and human health
Written by John Livingston. John is the Southwest region public information officer for Colorado Parks and Wildlife.