WOODY CREEK – When a mountain lion has been treed by hunting dogs, the animal looks distinctly catlike: powerful, annoyed and, yes, bored. 

Whit Whitaker and other winter sportsmen have hunted mountain lions in the Roaring Fork River valley for decades, but until this week, a small triangle of land above Aspen has been off-limits. 

The Colorado Parks and Wildlife commission voted Wednesday to open the tract of land — officially called Game Management Unit 471 — for lion hunting. The change gives hunters more flexibility and range, and is designed to push the big cats away from town and reduce encounters with humans.

Whitaker gets up at 4:30 on snowy mornings to look for mountain lions in fresh powder. Last Saturday, a friend and fellow hunter, Ron Christian, called Whitaker after he spotted promising tracks near Woody Creek. 

“I’m saying this is a 120-pound female,” Whitaker said, laying three fingers inside paw prints found along the side of the road.

This cold, gray morning is perfect for the hunting of mountain lions. Whitaker, Christian and another friend, Jay Sills, let their five hounds smell the prints and then set them loose to follow scent through the snow and scrub oak up a rocky drainage. 

The hunters followed, using GPS trackers on the dogs’ collars. About 540 yards from the road, the movement stopped. The hounds forced a mountain lion to perch about 30 feet up a skinny aspen tree. 

“It’s not going to like that tree,” Whitaker said. 

Jay Sills, left, and Whit Whitaker, right, are local hunters who use dogs to pursue mountain lions. They determined that this lion was a female and did not kill her.  Credit: Elizabeth Stewart-Severy / Aspen Journalism

Quota system dictates mountain lion hunting

The dogs barked furiously around the base of the aspen, and Whitaker scooted under the branches for a closer look under the mountain lion’s tail. Sure enough, it was a female, about 120 pounds. She was stretched across several branches, glaring down toward the dogs and humans.  

Once Whitaker confirmed the lion was a female, the hunters didn’t even discuss the next step; it was understood they wouldn’t be pulling out their guns. 

Females maintain the population and care for the young. They’re smaller, and most hunters want the biggest male they can find. Also, mountain-lion hunting is based on a quota system. This game unit, 47, has a one-lion quota, so when someone kills a lion in here, the season is over.   

“I like chasing them, I like seeing them. I typically don’t fill my tag,” Whitaker said. “That’s another reason why I don’t like to shoot them — because I don’t want to stop hunting. Even if you don’t intend on harvesting them, you can’t pursue lions in that unit once the quota is filled.”

Jay Sills calms his black and tan hounds as they bark at a mountain lion they have just treed. Elah, an English coon hound, is focused on the mountain lion in the branches above.  Credit: Elizabeth Stewart-Severy / Aspen Journalism

Commission aims to reduce human/mountain lion conflicts

There are four hunting units (43, 47, 471 and 444) in the valley, but only three (43, 47 and 44) had allowed mountain-lion hunting. The season runs from mid-November to the end of March. 

Now, the Parks and Wildlife commission has voted to open the fourth unit (471) and allow more flexibility in the quota system

Next season, instead of each unit having an individual limit, three units — 43, 47 and the newly opened 471 — will have a combined quota of up to seven lions. 

Officials say this could spread out hunting over more of the mountain lions’ range and increase the harvest in areas where conflicts between humans and the predators are on the rise.   

Matt Yamashita, the area wildlife manager with Parks and Wildlife, said he’s getting more calls about human encounters with lions close to town and homes. 

“A lot of these ones are being reported as not afraid or less afraid of humans, more tolerant of people — and that’s a red flag for us as well as managers,” Yamashita said.  

Mountain lions have a large range and follow their prey species — elk and deer — throughout the year. The newly-opened unit, 471, is bounded by Castle Creek Road, Colorado 82, and the Continental Divide; it includes Richmond Ridge, Ashcroft and much of Independence Pass. Mountain lions there probably move in and out of adjacent hunting units — sometimes that just means crossing a road — as they track their prey. 

Yamashita said he’s not expecting to see many mountain lions killed in unit 471 because of the high elevation, deep snow and limited access, especially in the winter, the season for lion hunting. Still, local hunter Christian said it’s worth checking out.  

“There’s a lot of mountain lions on 471, but I don’t know if they stay there in the winter,” Christian said. 

No one really knows that. Hunters haven’t been allowed in there to scope it out, and it’s difficult for biologists to get a handle on population estimates of stealthy, wide-ranging predators such as mountain lions. 

The most recent management plan for mountain lions in this area was completed in 2004. It estimated a total of about 300 lions in the Roaring Fork and Eagle river valleys. But hunters such as Whitaker, who has been hunting in the area for 20 years, say it’s clear that the lion population is growing. 

“I’ve seen more females and females with kittens or multiple kittens, which tells me it’s a healthier population,” Whitaker said. “We’re finding lion tracks in areas where, in 20 years, I haven’t seen lion tracks.” 

CPW officials say it’s an agency priority to draft a new plan in 2020 that reflects the realities of mountain-lion biology. 

Aspen Journalism collaborates with Aspen Public Radio and The Aspen Times on coverage of biodiversity and the environment. This story aired on APR on Jan. 17 and ran in the Jan. 17 edition of The Aspen Times. 

Elizabeth Stewart-Severy is a freelance journalist based in Snowmass Village. She grew up in Aspen and has worked as an editor at Aspen Journalism, reporter at Aspen Public Radio and an English and journalism...