A Big Bear in the Big City

As bears, cougars and other predatory animals range closer to cities, wildlife agencies are rethinking how best to keep both people and animals safe.
by | November 2014
Photo Illustration by Heather Whisenhunt/Shutterstock/David Kidd

Most days, cougar No. AF126 stays close to her 3-month-old kitten in her den in the Flatiron Mountains near Boulder, Colo. But when dusk falls, she eases silently down foothill trails and out onto Colorado’s High Plains. There, in the dark of the night, she’ll hunt mule deer, raccoons, skunks and other prey to sustain herself and her offspring.

One hot September morning, Colorado Parks and Wildlife Department biologist Mat Alldredge trekked up a faint wildlife trail to find where AF126 had been secluding herself and her cub. The startled cougars bounded away when Alldredge, a biology tech and a ranger from Boulder’s Open Space and Mountain Parks suddenly stopped close to the fallen logs and brush where the cougars had been secreted. The men stayed just long enough to set up a remote camera to record the cougars’ comings and goings.

AF126’s den doesn’t lie in remote mountains or untrammeled forest wilderness. Rather, her site commands a sweeping view eastward across a landscape dotted with buildings, highways and power plants. The cougar’s den, barely two miles from Boulder’s city limits, sits in the rocky terrain that the city bought years ago as an open preserve for all its citizens.

Since 2007, Alldredge has tracked more than a hundred cougars within a 2,800-square-kilometer area along the Rocky Mountain Front Range. With help from county and city open space rangers, Alldredge has put tracking collars on each of the animals and has monitored their dens and kill sites. He has followed male lions searching for mates as far north as Wyoming and as far south as New Mexico.

What he’s learned from his local tracking is that, come dusk, female cougars like AF126 don’t limit themselves to the rocky façade looming over Boulder. They prowl down stream corridors, cross Boulder’s city line and wander into prosperous, tree-shaded neighborhoods. “A lot of the time they’ll go in there and utilize human-populated areas for food when people are asleep and it’s quiet,” Alldredge says. “Generally, nobody notices they’re doing it.”

Coyotes roam through a neighborhood in the south Denver suburb of Littleton, Colo. (AP)

Boulder is not the only city where wild and potentially dangerous carnivores now live, breed and raise their cubs close by. Western and Eastern cities alike have their hands full with black bears that venture into urban places; just last month a black bear cub was mysteriously found dead in New York City’s Central Park. Mountain lions, also known as cougars, pumas or painters, were once confined to Western high country but have been moving in recent years to hunt prey close to heavily populated, urbanized communities such as Los Angeles; Portland, Ore.; and Tucson, Ariz. Mountain lions have spread eastward from the Rockies to establish breeding populations in South Dakota, Nebraska, Iowa and Missouri. One lion was shot by Chicago police; another killed by traffic in the Connecticut suburbs of New York City. Every year, frightened residents report sighting cougars in unexpected places. Winchester, Mass., 10 miles north of Boston, sent out warnings last winter after large footprints were found in a snowbank. Biologists decided they were made by a coyote or large dog. “Mountain lions are our Sasquatch of the East,” says Thomas French, assistant director for Massachusetts’ natural heritage program.

In fact, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently declared the Eastern cougar population extinct. But French thinks that in another decade or two, Western mountain lions could be breeding in New York’s Adirondack State Park and eventually in less isolated regions where forests have reclaimed farm fields.

In Western states, once in a while cougars have frightened and sometimes threatened hikers, mountain bikers and children as they play in wooded parks and suburban neighborhoods. They’ve scaled backyard fences to snatch household cats. Horrified pet owners have woken up in the morning to find the mangled remains of beloved poodles, retrievers and German shepherds. Sometimes, homeowners find a partly consumed deer carcass that a lion has cached in their backyards. A decade ago, one male mountain lion jumped two different mountain bicyclists on the same day near Los Angeles.

The attacks put state wildlife departments on the spot for failing to keep dangerous animals away from people. Court decisions going back to the 1800s give state governments the responsibility for managing wild species as trustees for the public. For the most part, state game commissions and agencies have served the needs of the hunters and fishermen who pay for licenses that provide 90 percent of the agencies’ revenues. As one consequence, wildlife agencies have been quick to expand hunting seasons on mountain lions, wolves and bears so they’ll take fewer deer, elk, moose and bighorn sheep that provide hunters with big-game trophies.

Wildlife officials have also been quick to dispatch with predators spotted near populated areas. But that’s changing. “In the early days, if a bear or lion came into town, we just dealt with it” by shooting the intruder, says Boulder Area Wildlife Manager Larry Rogstad, a 35-year game department veteran. Now, when a cougar or bear wanders into a backyard, game wardens walk a hazier line. “We’re pulled between people who perceive great danger and others who think it’s great to have bears and lions around,” Rogstad says.

In short, state wildlife agencies and local governments are being forced to rethink how they manage wildlife for the greater good of all citizens. “Very few states,” says Jim Halfpenny, a renowned cougar tracker, “have recognized that the future of wildlife management is going to be at the interface of animals and people.” Boulder, with its nearby population of cougars and black bears, has become the proving ground for balancing the presence of carnivore species with human safety.

Twenty-five years ago, mountain lions began showing up on Boulder’s outskirts. Boulder County wildlife specialists and Halfpenny, then a University of Colorado researcher, worried that the lions were getting uncomfortably close to people. In the 1990s, three lion attacks frightened Colorado’s Front Range region: A few miles south of Boulder along Interstate 70, a cougar severely mauled an 18-year-old athlete running a trail behind his high school. Another lion left a 10-year-old boy dead as he hiked in Rocky Mountain National Park northwest of the city. And a cougar was suspected of killing a 3-year-old child who vanished from a wilderness trail near Fort Collins with no trace, except for shoes and clothing found four years later.

There have been no further fatal encounters. But cougars have settled just outside Boulder, preying on ample mule deer herds in a city surrounded by expansive wildlife habitat. To protect their mountain views, voters in 1959 imposed a “blue line” that bars city water service in nearby foothills. Since 1967, they’ve willingly paid special sales taxes to buy more than 43,000 acres of timbered foothills and valley grasslands that now encircle the developed area. All times of year, residents venture up and across 145 miles of trails, undeterred that a cougar could be watching them from a tree or rocky ledge, or from underneath nearby brush.

When a lion is known to be around, rangers post signs warning hikers to keep children and dogs close by. If a cougar makes a kill of another animal along a trail, rangers drag the carcass 100 meters away to keep people out of danger. “Lions have always been part of the backdrop,” says Heather Swanson, a senior ecologist for Boulder’s Open Space and Mountain Parks.

One morning three years ago, City Councilwoman Lisa Morzel, who lives in north Boulder, stood looking out from her window as a 2-year-old lioness napped in her backyard. Earlier Morzel had had her son bring their two dogs inside. She watched as the cougar, who was wearing a wildlife agency collar, stood up, stretched, crossed Morzel’s flagstone patio and jumped some fences. As it turned out, the cougar had cached a deer fawn carcass a block away; that afternoon Kristin Cannon, the state’s district game warden, shot the lion with a tranquilizer dart and moved her out of town. “My backyard is in a riparian corridor,” Morzel says. “We’re living where bears and cougars have always been.”

Even closer to downtown Boulder, there are cougar sightings once a week or so. This August startled residents found one female napping beneath low-growing juniper bushes in a manicured backyard. Since 2009, Cannon has helped tranquilize lions inside Boulder’s city limits nearly 20 times and moved them back into the mountains.

Seattle officials in 2009 had to briefly close the city’s largest park to capture a cougar. (AP/Kevin P. Casey)

In Cannon’s first months on the job, one big male cougar “got very good at hunting dogs when their owners let them out at night,” she surmises. In a heated public meeting, grieving pet owners and alarmed parents berated Cannon and other officials for not alerting them that lions were roaming their neighborhoods. Just as with wild prey, when a lion kills a dog “we see that as behaving very naturally,” she says. But Cannon realized she and the rest of the wildlife team had to do a better job of keeping people informed.

A biology and environmental studies major in college, Cannon spends two-thirds of her time checking fishing licenses, scouting for poachers, and counting elk and deer. But she also puts in hours educating urban residents about bears and lions. She cautions parents to watch their children closely, especially when wildlife is most active at dawn and dusk. She urges homeowners to keep dogs inside or build fully enclosed runs so lions can’t ambush family pets. She has also explained why state game wardens won’t track and kill a lion that takes pets but has never threatened people.

Cougars are not the only wildlife issue in Boulder. Bears, like lions, follow stream corridors down into town, consuming insects, small animals and berries on native bushes. Some wander into Boulder neighborhoods, discovering easier pickings by raiding bird feeders, breaking into homes and overturning fully loaded trashcans that residents put out for pickup. “Bears tend to be in closer proximity to people than lions,” Cannon says. “It’s their diverse diet. It’s their strength. It’s just the nature of bears.”

Keeping bears at bay depends in part on people’s behavior -- on educating residents to keep food and garbage away from the reach of bears. “I’m not aware that any state has this worked out satisfactorily,” says Daniel J. Decker, who researches human dimensions of wildlife policy at Cornell University. “It only takes one person in a neighborhood to create a food-conditioned bear, and that will mean issues for everyone.”

Colorado’s policy is to give bears one chance to stay away -- by relocating them. But once they return, “at some point we have to do something,” Cannon says.

Separate from the state, Boulder has drafted its own plans to keep bears and cougars out of trouble. The city hired Valerie Matheson, a former open space ranger, as its first urban wildlife coordinator. This fall, Matheson organized volunteers to pick fruit in the yards of ill or elderly homeowners so bears won’t be attracted to the crop. She also partnered with Cannon and the advocacy group Boulder Bear Coalition to convince the city council to mandate that residents close to the foothills buy fortified “bear-proof” containers for putting trash out for collection. Eventually, the rule will apply across the city, although Matheson says it will be tough to enforce for commercial trash and university student apartments.

When bears see people, their natural escape response is to climb a tree, sometimes with cubs in tow. Should that happen, Cannon calls on volunteers to stand watch and notify wardens when the bears appear ready to leave. A treed bear usually draws a crowd, and Cannon uses the opportunity to conduct impromptu seminars on bears while keeping onlookers a safe distance away.

That said, Boulder writer Marc Bekoff, a professor emeritus in evolutionary biology, faults Colorado game managers for “some really egregious cases when they killed bears that really hadn’t done anything.” Bekoff, who writes the Animal Emotions column for Psychology Today, discovered a bear peering through a bedroom skylight after scaling his mountain house rooftop. Boulder doesn’t go far enough “to put the onus on people,” he says. “It’s OK to be a little inconvenienced for wildlife.”

To help wildlife officials develop effective management programs, Colorado Parks and Wildlife has committed about $300,000 a year to fund Alldredge’s lion research. Under his guidance, Colorado State University students have deployed 131 remote cameras to investigate how housing density in urban neighborhoods influences where lions go looking for prey. There are two more years to go, but the results could give state and local wildlife managers better information on how to keep cougars from endangering people.

For instance, Alldredge has learned that most Boulder female lions have established themselves in comfortable territories, and they’re adjusting to life with human neighbors. There’s no point in killing those females, since other lions would quickly take over their territories. “These are the cats you want in here, even if they slip up once in a while,” Alldredge says. “If they’re taken out, new lions would just come in, and in many cases they’d cause more trouble.”

Rather than try to drive the predators out, state and local leaders are trying to find a way for people to coexist with them as peaceably as possible. “We can’t reduce the risks to zero,” says Boulder Mayor Matt Appelbaum. “And we really don’t want to do that. We need to learn to live with lions on their turf.”