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May 1995

Mountain Lions: Return Of The Ghost Cat

The mountain lion is the only North American predator that occasionally stalks humans. Do you have anything to fear?

Which is easier said than done, considering that a run-in with a big cat can be one of life’s most frightening experiences. Just ask Mario Troche. While fishing with a friend along Washington’s Skookumchuck River in summer 1993, Troche heard a twig crack. “I turned around and all of a sudden there was this cat,” he says, “a big female with a head the size of a volleyball and forearms as big as my calves.” She wasn’t alone. A young male cat was perched on a nearby log.

When the second cougar approached to within 6 feet, its tail twitching, Troche, who works for Washington’s Department of Fish and Wildlife, figured he had two options: jump into the rocky river or stand his ground. He picked up his fishing pole and started swinging. “I hit him in the face but that didn’t faze him,” recounts Troche. Only when Troche’s companion began pelting the cougar with rocks did the pair of cats retreat into the woods.

Perhaps the most frightening aspect of an attack, according to Troche and others who have had similar encounters, is the feeling of having been stalked. “Grizzly encounters often involve bears going after people’s food,” says John Phelps, predator biologist with the Arizona Game and Fish Department. “In mountain lion incidents, the people are the food. By the time you see the mountain lion, it has seen you for some time and you’re already on its list.”

It sounds scary, but before canceling that upcoming trip to the backcountry, let’s put things in perspective. Mountain lions rarely kill humans; there have been only 14 deaths since 1890. “It’s still greater than a million to one shot that you’ll run into an aggressive mountain lion out there,” says Phelps. “You have a much better chance of getting struck by lightning, yet you don’t see people walking around with lightning rods sticking out of their packs.”

The recent rise in attacks has spurred renewed pressure to loosen the restrictions on hunting as a way to stem what some see as a boom in mountain lion numbers. But Hansen warns against generalizations. “It’s tricky talking about mountain lion numbers because there’s no such thing as one population of lions. There are many populations, fragmented and isolated. One population may be doing fine while another is in big trouble. When people say lions are doing fine, the next question should be, ‘Where?'”

Even some of those whose lives have been tragically altered by the big cats don’t see hunting as the answer. In 1991 Todd Lancaster lost his 18 year-old brother to a mountain lion in Colorado. “The loss was painful, I won’t deny that. But I could not and will not take offense against the animal kingdom.” Despite his encounter, Mario Troche still fishes and hikes, and holds no malice. “The place we were was specifically set aside for wildlife,” he says. “The cats belong there, in the wild places.”

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