The line between mountain lion and human habitats is blurring. Here’s why that matters
Is our fear of mountain lions unwarranted — or an alarm bell for the changing West?
By Anna Callaghan May 23, 2021, 10:00pm MDT
On May 19, 2018, two mountain bikers in their early 30s were riding on a logging road some 30 miles from Seattle and just outside of North Bend, Washington, a small town in the foothills of the Cascade Mountains. As they rode, they noticed a mountain lion. It appeared to be stalking them.
They stopped, yelled and stood their ground until the 100-pound male ran away. By the books, it was the right thing to do. But then the lion did something unusual. It returned and pounced on one of the bikers, 31-year old Isaac Sederbaum. It latched on Sederbaum’s skull with its mouth, shaking him back and forth. This predatory move is intended to snap the neck of prey. Seeing this, the other biker, S.J. Brooks, 32, fled on foot. When Brooks ran, the lion released Sederbaum and pursued Brooks instead.
For Sederbaum, bleeding from wounds on his head and neck, the attack had stopped. But it wasn’t over yet. He saw the lion dragging Brooks into the woods. Grabbing his bike, he knew he had to find cell service. By the time he reached the 911 dispatch officer, it was too late. Officials later found the lion standing over Brooks’ body amongst the brush and trees.
This death was pivotal. A renewed and widespread fear of mountain lions swept through Washington, triggering a new lack of tolerance for mountain lions in the wild in a state that up until that point, was interested in heeding scientific data on how best to manage the animal. Politicians introduced new legislation, and in defiance of the recommendations of state biologists, Fish and Wildlife commissioners voted to increase hunting limits. It’s a course of events that has repeated itself across the West after someone is killed or attacked by a lion: states react swiftly and definitively against the lions.
So, what’s to come in the western United States, where human-mountain lion interactions — fueled by shrinking boundaries between human habitat and lion habitat — are certain to rise?
Since the arrival of European settlers in North America, humans and mountain lions have had a contentious relationship. While lions roamed the country among the Native American population, the colonists arrived with both the tools (steel traps, dogs and guns) and the desire to kill them, which they did after their livestock kept turning up dead.
Early mountain lion policy in the U.S. was ostensibly zero tolerance. Connecticut was the first state to issue a bounty on mountain lions in 1684. Soon, other states followed suit. In 1888, the Utah Territorial Legislature established its own bounty and classified the mountain lion as an “obnoxious animal.” For the next 71 years, hunters in Utah could trade kills for cash. Over the course of Arizona’s 51-year bounty program, the state paid out a sum of $386,150 to hunters who brought in dead mountain lions.
In 1901, Teddy Roosevelt took a vacation to Colorado between the end of his governorship of New York and taking office as vice president. A report in the Meeker Herald stated, “Mr. Roosevelt, wanting a little recreation, has chosen to hunt mountain lion for a pastime.” He killed 14 during his monthlong trip. By the early 1900s many states had succeeded in killing off their entire population of mountain lions. And while the cats remained in pockets throughout the West, they were mostly eradicated from states east of the Mississippi.
A few decades later — once the mountain lions were either dead or good as dead — America’s attitude toward them shifted dramatically. During the zeitgeist of the late 1960s cultural revolution, both perceptions and policy started to shift. Acceptance of the animals ended bounty programs across the country, and many states moved to reclassify them as game animals. Now, instead of states paying for a dead lion, they charged hunters for the chance to kill one. In Utah today, the going price for a lion tag is $58.
Mountain lions became a conservation success story, and researchers were finally able to study them in earnest. As their population began to rebound, they started to return to their historic ranges, eventually showing up in states from South Dakota to Connecticut. At the same time, the human population was growing, and metro areas and mountain towns such as Salt Lake City and Boulder, Colorado, began to sprawl. In the 1990s, mountain lion attacks — and deaths — peaked, with four fatalities, a number not seen since. The stories gripped the public.
The town of Idaho Springs, Colorado, is 2 miles long and three blocks wide, give or take. It hugs the edge of Interstate 70 and is hemmed in by the Rocky Mountains. Colorful Victorian-era homes line the streets, holdovers from the town’s founding in 1859 when gold was discovered. It was once rambunctious and bustling — home to 12,000 people during its peak — but by 1990 it had long been quiet, and the population had settled to under 2,000.
In 1991, 18-year-old Scott Lancaster was in the middle of his senior year at Clear Creek High. He had an easygoing nature, an affinity for tie-dye and Birkenstocks, and was professedly in love with his girlfriend, Heather. He’d recently let his grades slip so low that he wasn’t able to compete for the Nordic ski team, of which he was the star. It didn’t matter — he was far more interested in biking and had his eyes set on a pro cycling career.
Lancaster had a free period in the afternoon and often used that time to run a few laps in the hills above the high school for training. On the 14th of January, Lancaster grabbed pepperoni pizza from 7-Eleven for lunch and headed out on his run. At some point during his second lap, Lancaster was attacked by a mountain lion and dragged uphill. Despite being within view of both the high school and the freeway — and it being the middle of the day — no one saw him. Or heard him scream.
The mountain lion killed and ate the boy, and his body — “hollowed out like a pumpkin” — wasn’t found until two days later, recounts David Baron in the book “Beast in the Garden.” On that January day, Lancaster became the first human killed by a mountain lion in Colorado’s history.
Big biological questions arose. Were mountain lions losing their fear of humans and, more importantly, once again looking at us as prey? The answer to the cause of this horrifying death, Baron says, can be found in the landscape, society’s changing relationship with wilderness and mountain lions’ increasing adaptability to suburbia.
“This is what our nation is becoming: a country where people build new homes on undeveloped land, pay to preserve the open space beside it, attract animals into their yard, and — by embracing wilderness and wildlife — alter the very nature of what they presume Nature to be,” Baron writes. “The future of America looks a lot like a place in Colorado where, on a mild winter’s day in 1991, a large cat killed a young man and ate his heart.”
Is that true? Well, sort of. In the U.S., undeveloped land in mountain lion country is increasingly being developed, which is blurring the buffer between human habitat and lion habitat. But does the future of America look like more people being preyed upon by mountain lions?
“That was a fearmongering book. There’s no evidence of that,” Mark Elbroch, scientist for Panthera, a global wild cat conservation organization, says. There are lions everywhere, and these gruesome deaths are the outliers, not the norm. “There are definitely cats on the outskirts of towns all the time in the West, in people’s yards, living in between us all the time.”
Most encounters with mountain lions are one-sided: The lion sees you, but you don’t see it. If there is an actual encounter, people typically employ the right behaviors (stand your ground, make yourself look bigger, don’t crouch down, yell, throw rocks) and the lion moves on. They usually hunt from dusk to dawn, a time when most people are asleep. In the last few years as doorbell cameras have increased in popularity, they’ve been picking up roaming lions at night. Without those, the sleeping residents would be none the wiser.
“In the U.S., undeveloped land in mountain lion country is increasingly being developed, which is blurring the buffer between human habitat and lion habitat.”
We feel fear in order to protect ourselves from legitimate threats, but we also feel fear when our lives aren’t immediately at risk (a big spider, flying on a plane, etc.). Most of us humans are skilled at imagining the worst-case scenario. So how do we perceive whether our fear is warranted?
Experts point to the numbers. In the last 100 years, less than two dozen people have been killed by mountain lions in North America, and no human has ever been killed by a mountain lion in Utah. (For perspective, around 20 people are killed every year by cows.) A person is far more likely to be struck by lightning or drown in their own bathtub than to be attacked by a cougar. “It’s this latent, intuitive sense of danger. It’s not based on statistics or probabilities of being attacked,” David Stoner, Utah State University mountain lion researcher, says.
Stoner is right, the odds of being killed by a mountain lion are extremely low, but does it matter? Does low probability affect our fear? Not really. And especially not now, when encounters are becoming more likely.
Mountain lions continue to demonstrate a strong aversion to humans, but they are adapting their behavior to a changing environment. According to research by Montana’s Headwater Economics, since 1990, 60% of new single-family homes in the U.S. have been built in what’s called the “wildland-urban interface,” or the zone where undeveloped wildland meets human development. Prime real estate is often also prime lion habitat. While mountain lions are capable of surviving virtually anywhere, their survival is dependent on deer, and deer are attracted to human landscapes. Towns close to the mountains, in places like the Wasatch Front and Colorado’s Front Range (which has one of the highest mountain lion densities on record in the country), provide respite for deer during the winter when they must retreat from the snowy high country. A study from the University of Michigan showed that deer are attracted to the light of urban areas. In these urban areas, deer herds also find a consistent, sustainable food source.
“It’s all about the food,” says Stoner, who co-authored the study. “So what happens?” Deer develop an affinity for human habitats, and food security trumps the mountain lions’ fear of those humans, so they follow their prey into town. Climate change and drought may also drive deer and lions into towns in order to access reliable water sources. “The problem with human conflict with deer and mountain lions in urban areas is really just getting started,” Stoner says. “This is not a problem that is going to go away.”
In 2017, a police officer killed a charging mountain lion just outside of downtown Salt Lake City. “Typically they’re not in the city seeking people, they’re trying to find their own habitat and have just gotten a little bit lost,” Riley Peck, a wildlife program manager for the Division of Wildlife Resources, told the Deseret News after the incident.
The Mountain Lion Foundation estimates that there are fewer than 30,000 mountain lions in the U.S., and the density of those mountain lions varies widely. In Utah, the highest mountain lion density is in the northern part of the state where it’s the wettest, and also where the majority of the state’s population lives: the Wasatch Range from Provo north to the Idaho state line. “What part of the state do we have two opposing factors: very low hunting pressure combined with very high habitat quality?” Stoner says. “The Wasatch Front. Specifically, right behind Salt Lake City.”
There’s no data to predict how many more encounters could occur, but as the boundaries between human and mountain lion habitat are harder to identify, researchers see negative interactions on an upward trajectory. “There’s almost no real management intervention that can be employed to alleviate this, and this is true of many cities in the West,” Stoner says. “I think what we’re seeing now is really just the front end of what’s going to continue to be a real conundrum in Western communities for the foreseeable future.”
Elbroch agrees. “The trajectory we’re on is that things are just going to get worse unless we can figure it out, and all I know is that we haven’t figured it out.” In his book, “The Cougar Conundrum,” Elbroch says, “Every mountain lion story in the news eventually comes down to hunting.”
What he means is that after incidents like the mountain biker death in 2018, states often turn to hunting to try to address the problem of negative interactions between humans and lions. The ethos being if you kill more lions, there will be fewer lions around to kill people. That’s exactly what happened in Washington. “The state rocketed up mountain lion hunting beyond the levels that their own state biologists have recommended,” Elbroch says.
But this approach actually could have adverse effects. Evidence suggests that we’re seeing more conflict between humans and mountain lions in the areas where hunting is the heaviest. A study by a team at Washington State University (ironically, the mascot of WSU is the cougar) suggested that reducing the number of lions hunted for sport would actually reduce negative interactions between mountain lions and humans, pets and livestock. In 2012, Washington state heeded this data, lowered its hunting quota and saw a marked reduction in these negative interactions, but after the 2018 death, Elbroch says, “all of that’s been thrown out the window. There’s no connection between human safety and lion hunting, but people believe there is.”
In 1990, Californians voted to make it illegal to hunt mountain lions for sport. To this day, California is the only state to have done so. It also has the lowest rate of human-lion interactions per capita in the country. Under the depredation law, the public can apply for a permit to kill a lion that poses a risk to public safety or livestock, but only after they’ve tried nonlethal methods twice.
The first radio-collared mountain lion killed under the depredation law came in January 2020 after a lion known as P-56 killed a dozen livestock belonging to a single landowner. A different landowner requested a depredation permit in 2016 after 10 of their alpaca were killed and a headline in the L.A. Times read: “P-45 mountain lion faces the death penalty after alpaca slaughter, sparking protest.”The landowners received death threats from the community and ultimately rescinded their request. This doesn’t mean that all Californians are protective of mountain lions and want them to remain in the ecosystem. In 2019 alone the state issued 194 depredation permits and an average of about 98 are killed each year under the system.
For many of these issues with landowners who have a small number of livestock, the solution is often pretty simple: building a taller fence or putting livestock in a closed shelter at night. “I’d love to see a shift in legislation that demands that people protect their livestock, and if they can’t then they should be helped,” Elbroch says. “How do we get society to shift towards being accountable for themselves?”
This debate over mountain lions is nuanced at almost every juncture, and as scientists continue to learn more about this elusive animal, they hope to be able to determine the right way to coexist. But regardless of the data, it will come down to convincing the public.
“We’re not ready as a society to live with mountain lions. I would love to say we are, but we’re not,” Elbroch says. “We would need to be accountable for ourselves and our belongings. We would need to actually believe that these animals have a right to live and are essential to healthy ecosystems. Not just that they have a right to be out there, but that we want them to be.”
Anna Callaghan is a writer and filmmaker based in Boulder, Colorado.