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Big Cats, Big Trouble : All Across the West, Where Development Pushes into Wilderness, Mountain Lions and Men are in Conflict

March 01, 1992|Carol McGraw and S.L. Sanger | Carol McGraw is a former Times reporter who recently moved to mountain lion country in Colorado . S.L. Sanger is a former newspaper reporter and author of "Hanford and the Bomb . "

IN A PLEASANT JUNE AFTERNOON IN 1990, Lynda Walters, a medical student at the Denver campus of the University of Colorado, took a study break and headed for her favorite trail in Four-Mile Canyon, just west of Boulder. It was near 5 o'clock when she rounded a bend in the trail and came face-to-face with a crouched mountain lion. Walters yelled and slowly backed away from the animal--sound defensive tactics. But the lion began to stalk her, homing in with incredible concentration. She picked up a fist-sized rock and threw hard, hitting the animal on the shoulder. It didn't flinch. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw another lion moving toward her. Walters was shocked by their huge size, their enormous paws. "I'm gonna die," she thought.

She scrambled up the side of the canyon, hurling rocks and branches at the advancing lions. The next thing she knew she was 12 feet off the ground, hunched on a branch of a ponderosa pine. She suddenly felt a searing pain in her leg. One of the animals had come up after her, swatting at her bare leg and cutting two six-inch slashes down the back of her right calf. Looking down, she saw its immense head, and kicked. To her surprise, the lion fell from the tree.

For an hour more, Walters faced down the lions. She broke off a branch and used it as a spear as the second one started climbing the tree. As the animals paced beneath her, she thought the scene looked like a nightmare National Geographic special. Finally, at sundown, the lions left for a drink at a creek down the hill. Walters dropped to the ground and ran a mile on shaky legs to her parents' house.

"For a while it didn't sink in," Walters, 28, recalls. "If I didn't have the bloody leg, I would have thought I was dreaming. A few months later I read in the paper that a guy had been killed by a lion, just pulled (him) down from behind and crushed his neck. I think it wasn't until then I realized they really were trying to kill me." A lifelong outdoorswoman, she no longer goes into the mountains alone. For a while, she carried a handgun even when hiking with friends. She still has nightmares.

All across the West, as civilization pushes into some of the country's last wilderness, the wilderness has been fighting back. Stories similar to Walters' are becoming more and more common. The killing she read about after her own encounter occurred last winter--a lion jumped an 18-year-old jogger from behind on a trail near his high school in Idaho Springs, Colo. Last summer, Orange County lost a lawsuit and was forced to pay $2 million to the family of an El Toro girl who received severe head, leg and eye injuries during a lion attack in Ronald W. Caspers Wilderness Park--in February, the park was closed to minors. And last July in British Columbia, two children and a woman were clawed by a young lion.

Reports of less serious contacts are also increasing--from livestock slaughters and pets snatched off patios to families battling lions in back yards. With each clash, even animal lovers' tolerance slips. Bitter debates rage over what should be done about the culprit cats. Some argue that they are a deadly threat that should be eliminated, others propose relocating them to unpopulated areas, still others believe that people living near lion habitat must accept the lions' right to exist and modify their behavior accordingly.

It is a historic conflict come full circle. The mountain lion--also called cougar, panther, puma, catamount--once had the widest distribution of any mammal besides man in the Western Hemisphere, ranging from Canada to the tip of South America, and in this country from coast to coast. Ranchers and farmers have always regarded the cat as a varmint. Eventually, bounties and unlimited sport hunting along with human invasion of lion habitat all but eliminated the species in the eastern and central parts of the United States. The few in Florida have endangered-species status. But in the sparsely populated West, the animal persevered.

The crisis that has emerged is, simply put, "Biology 101," says Todd Malmsbury of the Colorado Division of Wildlife, which last spring hosted a symposium on handling lion encounters. Left alone in remote areas, made hardier and more numerous by increases in its main food source--deer--and finally, in the '60s, protected by limited hunting seasons, the lion is once again populating the West in growing numbers. In November, a lion was killed in the Nebraska Panhandle, where no lions had been sighted in 20 years. Most biologists are reluctant to estimate numbers, but ballpark figures place the Western lion population at 16,000, including about 5,100 in California. More and more face-offs between lions and humans seem inevitable. Now, two years after her ordeal, Lynda Walters speaks carefully when summarizing the hard edges of the controversy:

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