COLORADO SPRINGS – A mountain lion spent a lazy Saturday lounging in the branches of a cottonwood tree last weekend as hundreds of people explored the sandstone pillars of Garden of the Gods, one of the state’s busiest parks.
While lion sightings are nothing new in the western foothills here, glimpsing one during the day in a park that attracts 4 million people a year is “extremely rare,” the park officials say. The park said Thursday it plans to warn guests to be on the lookout, though there’s unlikely to be a repeat midday visit.
“I think this is probably a once-in-a-lifetime thing,” Anna Cordova, Garden of the Gods interim manager and city archaeologist, said. The park’s senior ranger, who has patrolled Garden of the Gods for more than a decade, said she has never seen more than a glimpse of a mountain lion in the park, let alone one lounging in a tree.
The adult mountain lion stayed in the tree all day, feet from unsuspecting hikers on Ute Trail and climbers in the popular Snake Pits bouldering area, likely after feasting on a deer, Cordova said.
A ranger found the mountain lion about 6 a.m., shortly after the sun rose and he heard the yipping of coyotes in a meadow dotted with cottonwoods.
The park was already bustling with cyclists, roller skaters and runners for its “Motorless Mornings” event, when the park closes off its roads to vehicle traffic, from 5 a.m. to noon. Visitors reported the coyotes were running in circles, Cordova said.
The ranger walked to the area to investigate and found a deer carcass stashed next to a cottonwood tree, Cordova said. High in its branches, he saw the mountain lion.
“This is just my guess, of course, but he probably ate quite a bit and was feeling pretty tired and lazy, just trying to digest, and climbed up the tree,” Cordova said. The elusive cats are known to hunt deer in the area, but are most active during dawn and dusk.
“We had so many people in the park so early on. He likely didn’t feel comfortable coming down with dogs and people and all kinds of stuff all over the place.”
The Garden of the Gods staff suspected a mountain lion was in the area weeks earlier after finding another deer carcass. They had not seen the mountain lion since, she said.
The sighting comes as many living in the high country are on alert for mountain lions after a string of attacks on dogs in and around Nederland. One mountain lion clawed a man hot-tubbing in a backyard near Mount Princeton Hot Springs Resort in March, leaving four superficial scratches on his head and ear.
Mountain lion activity common in the area
Colorado Parks and Wildlife hasn’t seen an increase in mountain lion activity in southern Colorado, a spokesman said, and described the behavior of the mountain lion seen in Garden of the Gods as typical.
“In fact, the lion did exactly what lions and bears will do – sit in a tree until dark or the danger has passed,” CPW spokesman Bill Vogrin said.
Mountain lions are pretty common in Colorado Springs because of the high deer population, which are a lion’s main source of food.
“This is a big reason CPW has urged communities to reduce their resident deer populations,” Vogrin said. “The deer are a threat to human health and safety because they cause so many automobile accidents and because they attract predators into communities.”
More people moving into mountain lion habitats and running and hiking where mountain lions live is also driving up interactions between humans and cats, according to CPW.
Garden of the Gods is home to a variety of species, including nesting raptors, a great horned owl, red-tailed hawk, big-horned sheep, black bears and deer, which lure mountain lions to the area. The park has reported a few rattlesnake bites, typically from people wandering off trail, Cordova said, but no other wildlife attacks in recent years, she said.
Cordova is urging visitors to respect wildlife and observe animals from a distance using Leave No Trace principles and “the thumb rule.” If you hold your thumb up at an arm’s length away from your face, your thumb should completely cover the animal. If not, you’re too close.
“Of course Garden of the Gods Park is important to all kinds of people but it’s extremely important to wildlife and its habitat for those creatures as well,” she said. “We always want to be respectful and protective of those as well, realizing that we’re in their home.”