Steamboat Springs Routt County residents must remember when hiking, biking and recreating, they live in mountain lion country.
Although human encounters with mountain lions are rare in the Yampa Valley, they are not unheard of, which means the Colorado Division of Wildlife has a list of reminders to issue people as summer kicks off.
First, don't feed wildlife because it is illegal and because attracting deer, a mountain lion's natural prey, to neighborhoods increases the likelihood of a mountain lion encounter.
Second, closely supervise children and house pets, especially when they play outside at dusk or dawn. It is when most mountain lions are active. Mountain lions have not been spotted within Steamboat's city limits, but lions have been known to attack or investigate animals on Routt County hikes.
"Lions don't like to be around people," said Jim Haskins, the district wildlife manager for western Routt County and into Rio Blanco. "If you look at the number of sightings, it doesn't even come up to a handful a year. I've been doing this job for 28 years, and I've seen two in the wild. It was in the middle of the night, and they were south of Hayden right where I thought I'd see them."
For the most part, encounters between mountain lions and humans are Front Range issues, but Jennifer Churchill, public information officer for the DOW's northeast region, warns Colorado residents, including those in Routt County, that mountain lions don't only live in the Boulder area.
In fact, a mountain lion's territory is between 10 and 370 square miles and could include terrain as diverse as deserts and forests, Churchill said.
"They like to have their own home range and not have other lions near them," she said, but she added there still is much the DOW doesn't know about mountain lions.
"It's hard to say a lion will stay in this area but won't go past other areas," Churchill said. "That's why we are trying to do more studies about them. Tracking and finding them can be difficult."
The projected population of mountain lions in Colorado is between 3,000 and 5,000, but Churchill said there are no specific numbers by region because mountain lions can travel long distances and are solitary so it's difficult to ever see one in the wild - even from the air.
"Any of the large predators are very difficult to census," Haskins confirmed. "There is no real good method to do it at all. We can look at harvest numbers and look at trends."
Haskins is not concerned about the mountain lion population in this area. Mountain lions follow their prey, which tends to be elk and deer, so it is unlikely to see a mountain lion near the city of Steamboat Springs.
But "get out farther west and south, and you can see where lions cross roads," Haskins said.
The DOW commissioned a study in April 2006 to gauge public perception of mountains lions, a polarizing animal in Colorado. The DOW learned most people know what to do if they encounter a mountain lion in the wild.
Churchill said it's important to make noise and keep pets and small children close to adults when hiking because remaining calm is the best way to handle a sighting. Turning around or running is strongly discouraged. Instead, people are asked to speak firmly and make themselves as big as possible.
If a lion behaves aggressively, throw rocks, branches or anything accessible without crouching down or turning away. In the rare case a mountain lion attacks, fight back. Remain standing if possible and try to get up if you are knocked down.
"Remember, you are walking through their home," Churchill said. "We can share the land. Most animals don't want anything to do with humans."