Mountain lion mysteries revealed

Exhibit at Anasazi Cultural Center shows history, behavior of big cat

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Navajo sandpainting by Hosteen Etsitty.

They are not really true lions and are more closely related to cheetahs.

They are the second-largest wildcat in the Americas, bowing to the very rare jaguar.

Their existence 15,000 years ago in North America overlapped with their now-extinct relatives — the saber-tooth tiger, and the Great American cave lion, which is estimated to be 25 percent larger than today’s African lion.

These are just a few of the interesting facts viewers will learn at Mountain Lion! a new exhibit honoring their existence at the Anasazi Heritage Center.

The Southwest is ideal habitat for the mountain lion, also known as cougars or pumas.

It is believed they splintered off from a much larger extinct wildcat 200,000 to 300,000 years ago, and then migrated here from South America.

Native Americans simultaneously worshipped and feared the predator, and American pioneers despised the animal, nearly hunting it out of existence.

In 1771, it was declared an official species, and in 1970 wildlife wardens came to realize there are no “good or bad” animals, and mountain lions play a role in a balanced ecosystem.

The bounty program on mountain lions was cancelled, and it began being managed as a game animal to preserve their population and that of deer, its favorite prey.

The exhibit explains how between 1906 and 1930 the federal government killed nearly all the mountain lions in the Kaibab National Forest in Arizona. Deer population skyrocketed to between 20,000 and 100,000, devouring vegetation and causing massive starvation.

“This led to the conclusion that all animals serve a vital role,” the panel states.

How native tribes relate to mountain lions is well documented in photographs, stories, and artwork. Pictographs of mountain lions are at Chaco Canyon and Blue Mesa. A Navajo sand painting, Zuni fetishes, and a Toho Katsina depict the cat’s virtues of stealth, spirituality and ferocity.

Historic fear-mongering against these animals is highlighted at the exhibit, evident from early posters depicting wildly savage behavior against people, or grotesque lions stalking entire towns with evil intent.

Pat Dorsey, southwest region manager with Colorado Parks and Wildlife, explains that lion attacks on people are very rare, and that the shy cat avoids encounters.

Mountain lion population regionally is thought to be healthy, based on surveys, hunts and sightings. On the Southern Ute Reservation, there are thought to be up to 60 lions.

Their numbers rise and fall with deer and elk population. And the more urban areas expand into mountain lion habitat, the more sightings occur, including occasional conflicts with pets.

The exhibit advises to not run if you encounter a lion because it triggers a chase response. Facing the lion, standing tall, yelling and throwing things while slowly backing away usually will make the cat flee. Keeping pets on a leash is also advised.

“In Boulder County, when I compared the areas with the most dogs at large complaints to the sheriff department, I found it was the same areas where the most dog predation was by mountain lions,” Dorsey said.

As human development stretches further into wildlife habitat, closer encounters are more likely, and management adjusts accordingly.

“People are seeing them more. It might be that there are more lions, but it is also that there are more people recreating outdoors. The exhibit gets people thinking about what they will do if they see a mountain lion beforehand so they have an plan and know not to run,” she said.

The exhibit points out that urban areas with parks, gardens and green lawns attract deer, a favorite mountain lion prey. Lions occasionally will see livestock as convenient prey as well. Wildlife officers are keen to the problem.

“Once behavior is identified as abnormally aggressive, or we see lions keyed in on livestock as prey, that is where we draw the line and put them down,” Dorsey said. “In Durango, juveniles were seen peering into backdoors, so that is a negative behavior we will react to.”

The exhibit is a move to offer the public subjects beyond archaeology and anthropology, said Marietta Eaton, AHC director.

“We know everybody around here is familiar with archaeology, so we are conscious of offering additional topics like natural resources and art,” Eaton said.

Exhibit viewers are encouraged to write down their stories of mountain lions. They are posted on a board, and will eventually be put in a book.

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Courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service