Skip to content

Breaking News

Colorado wildlife agency’s past research raises questions about mountain lion hunting levels

CPW says preliminary findings of 10-year study released in 2015 "are no longer valid," but won't explain why

This photo of a mountain lion was taken on the Uncompahgre Plateau of western Colorado by photo safari company owner Brady Dunne.
This photo of a mountain lion was taken on the Uncompahgre Plateau of western Colorado by photo safari company owner Brady Dunne.

Five years ago, Colorado Parks and Wildlife scientists found that killing mountain lions at the levels agency managers allow across much of the state — including what’s now being planned for the next decade on the Western Slope — will lead to declining numbers, contrary to the goal of ensuring stability for this species.

The CPW biologists determined, from research done between 2004 and 2014 for the purpose of guiding agency decision-making, that wildlife managers cannot let hunters kill more than 12% of lions a year without triggering a decline, according to a report summarizing results and preliminary analysis.

But in proposing a hunting rate of up to 15% a year in western Colorado, state wildlife officials appear to be overriding those early findings — and not discussing why, beyond declaring the data flawed.

The numbers from the mountain lion study, conducted by CPW scientist Ken Logan, “have since changed and are no longer valid,” agency spokesman Travis Duncan said.

State officials would not elaborate, and declined to release the completed study after The Denver Post requested it under the Colorado Open Records Act. (A final report was “still being reviewed by editors of a scientific journal,” officials said, adding that peer review and publishing is slow, and that it will be at least a year before findings are released to the public.)

The Post’s request to interview Colorado Parks and Wildlife director Dan Prenzlow was denied, a request through the agency to interview Logan went unanswered, and Logan — when contacted directly — referred queries back to a CPW spokesman.

Colorado wildlife commissioners are scheduled to vote this summer on the plan for managing mountain lions in western Colorado with hunting kill rates between 11% and 15% — while leaving in place quotas as high as 28% elsewhere around the state.

More than 1,000 residents have weighed in on the plan that will shape the future of mountain lions in Colorado a half century after bounty killing pushed the animals toward extinction. Mountain lions now number roughly 30,000 around the West but face intensifying threats such as highways cutting through their habitat. These are elusive, solitary, last-surviving large carnivores in Colorado, able to leap up to 40 feet in pursuit of deer.

Colorado wildlife authorities say they want to ensure a healthy self-sustaining mountain lion population while allowing hunting of lions for meat and minimizing conflicts with people where communities have spread onto lion habitat. They’ve estimated that 4,000 to 5,500 mountain lions live in the state, a number they say is stable or slightly increasing, based on extrapolations from density studies, preliminary data and informal assessments. Hunters last year killed 541 lions. The statewide hunting cap is set at 664.

A mountain lion was spotted on the Uncompahgre Plateau of western Colorado by photo safari company owner Brady Dunne.

New plan to control numbers

The CPW plan would control lion numbers by letting hunters kill up to 15% a year west of the Continental Divide — using hounds and in some areas electronic calls that mimic deer in distress — with an unspecified kill rate higher than 15% on a 1,829-square-mile urbanizing area in the Roaring Fork and Eagle River valleys between Vail Pass and Glenwood Canyon.

Wildlife managers there say they received 116 calls about lions over 13 months: many sightings and occasional lions snatching pets, including one pet fatality. That area is smaller than the current 11,372-square-mile western slope “suppression” area where lions are hunted at higher levels aimed at reducing numbers. The plan says no more than 22% of lions killed could be females.

This plan for the next decade in western Colorado would leave in place current mountain lion hunting quotas as high as 28% across the rest of Colorado east of the Continental Divide. CPW officials said they may evaluate these in the future.

No fatal mountain lion attacks on people in Colorado have been reported for more than two decades, but last year a boy was bitten on the head in Bailey and a jogger in the mountains outside Fort Collins killed a lion that lunged for his face. Scientific research on whether hunting of lions reduces or increases conflicts with humans has been inconclusive.

In rejecting the Post’s requests to make Logan’s mountain lion study available, CPW officials said this “would be contrary to the public interest”  because the study is “preliminary” and subject to more analysis, and revealing data could hurt its integrity. The completed study is based on Logan’s decade of research on lions across an 870-square-mile area in southwestern Colorado.

This study was designed to find acceptable levels for “sport hunting” of mountain lions. (State rules say lions can only be hunted for their meat, but anti-hunting groups contend hunters’ main motivation is to obtain lion skins and lion heads as trophies.) Researchers captured 224 mountain lions, marked them, released them and observed what happened.

Over the first five years, hunting was prohibited in the area and the lion numbers increased, according to the 2015 state summary report presenting preliminary research results and analysis. Then over the next five years, hunters were allowed to kill 15% of the lions a year. When the lion populations decreased sharply after three years, CPW researchers lowered the hunting quota to 11% for the next two years, the report said, and the population after the five years decreased by 34%.

The scientists concluded that allowing hunting at a rate that removes 15% of lions a year would lead to “a substantial population decline in 3 years.” And they found that lion populations when hunted at levels less than 12% a year “may be sustainable.”

Montrose-based wildlife guide Brady Dunne, who runs a mountain lion photo safari company, worked for Logan conducting the CPW research from 2006 through 2013, running lion capture operations. While Dunne acknowledged he hasn’t seen the final study, he said he was familiar with the results and that, even if math and scales are adjusted for publication in a scientific journal, researchers clearly established that hunting lions at 15% a year could be ruinous.

“If they push this plan through, Colorado’s mountain lion population will be a third of what a healthy mountain lion population in Colorado would be,” Dunne said. “This is really very bad news for mountain lions in Colorado.”

Colorado Parks and Wildlife spokeswoman Rebecca Ferrell defended the agency’s approach to mountain lion management.

“CPW has been managing Colorado’s wildlife for close to 125 years, and employs some of the nation’s leading experts on mountain lion management,” she wrote in an email. “Since the 1960s our research, biologists and wildlife managers have been instrumental in bringing the population back, as well as growing population numbers for mountain lions. Our efforts are focused on maintaining mountain lions on the landscape and protecting their habitat.”

Deer, elk and wildlife balance

Colorado officials are adjusting the state’s approach to mountain lions at a time when a population growth and development boom is drawing more people into lion habitat and deer favored by hunters are decreasing, with chronic wasting disease  infecting around 5% of deer and up to 20% in some herds. CPW’s target statewide population for deer has been 560,000, but the population has dwindled from 614,000 in 2005 to about 418,000, state records show. Elk numbers remain steadier around 286,000, records show, but herds in the southwestern part of the state are shrinking and migration routes are impaired.

To try to bolster deer, CPW officials committed to a strategy that includes “predator management where predation may be limiting deer survival.” In 2016, state commissioners approved two experiments to allow increased hunting of lions on a total 3,971 square miles around Rifle and Salida to determine how lion predation may affect deer numbers — for which results have not been made public. The wildlife agency also rejected a public-records request from The Post to see that study.

Degradation of habitat amid Colorado’s commercial and residential development boom looms as a primary threat to wildlife, but CPW lacks power to preserve habitat and officials say hunting is one of the agency’s best tools for managing numbers.

Hunting also provides significant revenue for wildlife management in Colorado. Sales of hunting and fishing licenses last year generated $104 million, about 61% from hunters of elk, pronghorn and deer, state records show, with the agency’s overall budget around $231 million. Hunters from out of state pay $401 to hunt deer, $350 to hunt lions, and up to $670 to hunt elk, which pumps millions into rural Colorado. Hunters killed more than 36,000 deer last year.

But CPW carnivore program manager Mark Vieira said that efforts to control mountain lion numbers are “not about finances or generating revenue.” Colorado officials aim to ensure “a stable population,” meaning lion numbers in western Colorado would stay the same as at present, Vieira said.

The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation advocates “that predators be managed,” habitat stewardship director Karie Decker said. Mule Deer Foundation Colorado chapter president Jon Nestor said “we’re just worried about habitat,” declining to take a position on mountain lion hunting in the state.

Some hunting business operators favor reducing lions.

“We have too many lions. Lions are hard on deer and elk. We need to get the lions down to where deer populations can remain stable,” Cotopaxi-based Loco Mountain Outfitters owner Jim Flynn said.

Trail camera image of a mountain lion spotted on Aug. 21, 2019, in the Burland Ranchettes subdivision near Bailey.

Conserving Colorado’s wild species

But critics contend Colorado wildlife officials are sacrificing lions and ecosystem balance in a commercial tilt toward managing habitat primarily as a deer-and-elk hunting preserve.

“What they want to do is have more deer and elk. It is as simple as that. They want to keep hunters happy. This is not responsible wildlife management, ” said retired Colorado State University biologist Barry Noon, former chief scientist for the National Biological Service.

CPW officials were directed by lawmakers to take care of wildlife for the benefit of all residents, and only about 5% are hunters, Noon said. Agency leaders “have lost track of what their mission is,” he said. “…And anytime you see an agency muzzle their scientists, that is a really bad sign.”

Colorado wildlife managers have said they are committed to ensuring the survival of mountain lions and call them a source of pride. They point to the recovery of lions since 1965, when bounty killing ended and hunting lions as “big game” began.

“We work hard to conserve all 960 species under our care as well as the habitat they depend on. It is our agency’s duty and mission to find the responsible and sustainable balance of multiple uses on the landscape. It is a mission we take very seriously and very personally,” agency spokeswoman Lauren Truitt said in an email. “…To say we have lost track of our mission is unfounded. We invest millions of dollars and thousands of hours of staff time every year managing Colorado’s resources, the majority of which are non-game wildlife.”

National Wildlife Federation chief scientist Bruce Stein recently warned of a global extinction crisis with thousands of declining species worldwide. “Healthy ecosystems depend on the full range of species, which includes your top carnivores,” Stein said in an interview. “When you take top carnivores out…  then you saddle yourself with needing to play those roles. And humans traditionally haven’t been very good at that.”

Environmental groups including the Sierra Club, WildEarth Guardians and animal rights groups led by the Humane Society are challenging Colorado’s approach to mountain lions and opposing the plan in its current form. Some lion hunters, too, oppose the plan, saying reduced lions could put them out of business.

CPW officials haven’t made the public comments Colorado residents submitted to the agency ahead of an extended April 30 deadline available, saying they’re “still being reviewed and collated.” Some residents are urging restraint in the manipulation of mountain lion numbers.

“It makes me sick. It is so wrong I could go to war over it,” said Terry Stark, 76, a retired construction worker and former hunter in Glenwood Springs. “Leave mountain lions alone. Let them make their own, natural population level. This is their environment.”