Report of alleged mountain lion sighting causes scare at Steamboat schools | SteamboatToday.com

Report of alleged mountain lion sighting causes scare at Steamboat schools

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include more details about the reported sightings and comments from Jim Haskins, of the Colorado Department of Parks and Wildlife.

Two reported mountain lion sightings in Butcherknife Canyon caused a scare at Steamboat Springs Middle School and Strawberry Park Elementary School on Tuesday.

As a result, school officials refused to allow students to go home via the popular Butcherknife Trail that leads from the schools' shared Strawberry Park campus to the neighborhoods around Old Town Steamboat.

"We're trying to just divert everyone away from Butcherknife," middle school Principal Tim Bishop said Tuesday afternoon as he spoke with curious students about the alleged sightings.

The schools were on particularly high alert after the second reported sighting was made just before classes let out for the day. Staff members took up watch around the campus.

The first reported sighting was made earlier in the day and prompted an email to district staff and families.

The 10:15 a.m. email to parents read: "The district has been notified that a mountain lion has been seen on Butcherknife Trail. Please take all appropriate precautions for yourself and your children's safety. The Division of Wildlife has been contacted in connection with this sighting."

The Colorado Division of Parks and Wildlife is looking into the reported sightings.

Area Wildlife Manager Jim Haskins said some of the reports were secondhand and still are being sorted out. He thinks the report that came in shortly before school let out Tuesday actually was related to a sighting Tuesday morning. And the call to the school Tuesday morning may have been related to a sighting at noon Monday by a woman who lives on East Maple Street, Haskins said.

He said the woman said the animal was in a neighbor's yard, was "smaller than a pony," was light yellow and had a long tail.

"It sounds like a typical lion encounter out here," Haskins said while also acknowledging that officials aren't yet sure whether the lion reports are accurate.

Nevertheless, Haskins said he will assume there is a mountain lion in that area. He said there are circumstances when wildlife officials would attempt to remove a lion from near a school, such as repeated sightings or aggressive behavior.

"This doesn't rise to that level at all," Haskins said.

Haskins said lions have been spotted in the Butcherknife Canyon area before, and people who are concerned about a lion in the area should travel in groups.

Mountain lions live throughout the area and have been spotted frequently on Mount Werner and Emerald Mountain.

"This is just a sighting," Haskins said. "It's all we've got right now."

Anyone who thinks they have seen a mountain lion is asked to call the Division of Parks and Wildlife's local office at 970-870-2197.

Middle school staff member Ruth Dombrowski said additional parents would be in the Butcherknife area Wednesday morning to help ensure a safe route for kids walking or biking to school.

"They just should use precaution until the DOW verifies the sightings," Dombrowski said.

Mountain lion safety tips:

■ When you walk or hike in mountain lion country, go in groups and make plenty of noise to reduce your chances of surprising a lion. A sturdy walking stick is a good idea; it can be used to ward off a lion. Make sure children are close to you and within your sight at all times. Talk with children about lions and teach them what to do if they encounter one.

■ Do not approach a lion, especially one that is feeding or with kittens. Most mountain lions will try to avoid a confrontation. Give them a way to escape.

■ Stay calm when you come upon a lion. Talk calmly yet firmly to it and move slowly.

■ Stop or back away slowly, if you can do so safely. Running may stimulate a lion’s instinct to chase and attack. Face the lion and stand upright.

■ Do all you can to appear larger. Raise your arms. Open your jacket if you’re wearing one. If you have small children with you, protect them by picking them up so they won’t panic and run.

■ If the lion behaves aggressively, throw stones, branches or any item you quickly can grab without crouching down or turning your back. Wave your arms slowly and speak firmly. What you want to do is convince the lion that you are not prey and that you may be a danger to the lion.

— To reach Matt Stensland, call 970-871-4247 or email mstensland@SteamboatToday.com