Mountain lion

A mountain lion peers around a tree. Unlike bears, the big cats eat only fresh meat, preferably mule deer.

Courtesy photo

Mountain lions are some of the biggest carnivores in the West, with territory that covers most places in Wyoming.

Sightings are rare, but not unheard of — just ask anyone in Laramie on June 14, when multiple mountain lion sightings near LaBonte Park were reported to the Wyoming Game and Fish Department.

While reports of a mountain lion attacking a human are rare indeed, with only 66 such attacks recorded in the last 100 years, humans continue to encroach on their territory as infrastructure development expands into new areas.

Game and Fish doesn’t know how many mountain lions live in Wyoming, but they are dispersed across the state, most of which offers suitable habitat. Spokesperson Robin Kepple said information collected from successful hunters about their health suggests the lion population is healthy overall.

“They’re doing well,” she said.

Kepple said there are things humans can do to protect themselves and their pets from the big cats.

Unlike bears, mountain lions are strict carnivores, which means they eat only fresh meat, Kepple said. A bear might be attracted to garbage or human food, but not a lion.

“They’re not too interested in digging through your trash,” Kepple said.

Mountain lions, which are light brown with black tips on their ears, have long tails that aid them in balancing and pouncing on prey. In Wyoming, their meal of choice is mule deer, but they’ll hunt many small animals, especially ones that don’t pose a threat.

A large male can grow as large as 8 feet long and 150 pounds. Their paw prints show four toes in the front, without a mark from their retractable claws.

“Their front paws are much bigger than their back paws,” Kepple said.

For humans, young mountain lions are the most dangerous. A mother has an average of three cubs, though their survival rate is not high. Perhaps one will live to adulthood.

“It’s really tough being a wild animal,” Kepple said. “It’s especially tough being a large carnivore.”

When the cubs reach about 2 years of age, they’re sent away by their mother to live on their own. Those that struggle with the transition are the ones that might get into a desperate conflict with a human, Kepple said.

“They have to learn real quick how to survive on their own,” she said.

Mountain lions are most active around dawn, dusk and night, when their prey is also most active. They prefer rugged, brushy areas, which offer cover for them and food for their prey.

The mountain lion that wandered into town probably followed the Laramie River.

“They’re going to follow the food,” Kepple said.

Those with property in mountainous areas can work to prevent a conflict with a mountain lion by taking steps such as not feeding or attracting deer to their property. Cutting back dense foliage near houses leaves lions without places to hide, as do lights with motion detectors.

Also, watch for tracks, scat and other signs of large predators near your house. Kepple said landowners should report mountain lion sightings.

“Give Game and Fish a call,” she said. “We do want to know about it.”

Children are more vulnerable to attack than adults because of their size, which means adults should keep them close when in mountain lion territory.

The same goes for pets, which should be kept in sight or under voice control so they won’t chase a predator.

When hiking, biking or skiing, it’s a good idea to have a partner. If you’re on horseback, pay attention to the behavior of your horse as a clue to the presence of a predator.

If you see a mountain lion in the wild, definitely don’t approach it. Instead, talk firmly, move slowly and make yourself look big. Don’t run, but do back away. Don’t crouch or turn your back on the lion, which attacks its prey at the base of the neck.

Throw stones, wave sticks and make lots of noise to convince the predator it’s better off looking for a meal elsewhere.

“Never play dead,” Kepple said. “A mountain lion wants you dead.”

If you smell carrion, that could be a mountain lion or bear kill that has been hidden for later. Don’t go investigate, as the predator could be guarding its food.

Kepple said mountain lions are elusive and shy and want to avoid human contact as much as a humans do.

“They don’t want to be around people,” she said.

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