What the death of a young mountain lion in Colorado can tell us about the trophy hunt

Photo credit: John E. Marriott - https://wildernessprints.com/

Photo credit: John E. Marriott - https://wildernessprints.com/

In early February, the story of a trail runner in Colorado who killed a mountain lion that attacked him went viral. News headlines read “Jogger strangled mountain lion in ‘battle to the death’” and went on to describe the trail runner as a living legend for killing the cat in self-defence.

Meanwhile, we and many others were left with more questions than answers after hearing the story. Mountain lions are an apex predator and are known to take down elk that can weigh in excess of 500 pounds. They’re extremely fast over short distances and use stalking methods to ambush prey. So how did a 5-foot-ten, 150-pound trail runner manage to subdue and kill this animal? It wasn’t long before we had the answer to this question.

A necropsy indicated the mountain lion involved in the attack weighed 35-40 pounds. At that weight, the animal was approximately 6 months old, a kitten to be more precise. This explains why the trail runner was able to suffocate the lion, a feat that would be nearly impossible had the animal been full-grown. The cougar was alone at the time of the attack which is unusual, considering young lions stay with their mothers until approximately 18 months of age. There’s a chance the mother was hit by a vehicle while crossing the road. She may have been killed defending her kitten from another predator or died of disease. Hunting large prey like elk is a dangerous task and she may have been killed as she gave chase. These are all certainly potential reasons why the cougar may have been without its mother, but there’s another possibility, one not so well-known among the general public.  

Trophy hunting of mountain lions is popular throughout North America, including in British Columbia, Canada and in states like Montana, Wyoming, Idaho and Colorado. Those who hunt lions will tell you they only kill large males and that hunting these predators keeps a healthy fear of humans – they’re being dishonest.

Statistically, a third of the mountain lions killed in the trophy hunt are female. When you consider female mountain lions are pregnant or raising kittens for roughly 75% of their lives, it’s fair to say hunters are orphaning kittens. It’s legal in British Columbia to hunt female mountain lions with kittens, so long as they’re not in the presence of their kittens at the time of the kill. When kittens are orphaned and haven’t learned about how to hunt appropriate prey, they’re more likely to come into conflict with people, livestock and pets.

In areas where lion trophy hunting occurs, studies suggest there is a “positive relationship between trophy hunting and male cougar-human conflict”. While that may initially appear to be counter-intuitive, removing dominant toms (large male mountain lions often targeted for trophy) may create instability in local populations which can ultimately lead to conflict with people.

The species is known as the ghost of the forest because of their elusiveness. This elusiveness is likely a reason why lions have been able to recover in certain parts of North America where for decades they were hunted almost to extinction. It’s also why we as humans rarely see these animals and why attacks are so rare. In fact, you’re more likely to drown in a bathtub than get attacked by a mountain lion.

While we’ll never know for sure the exact circumstances that led this young and/or starved cougar to attack a trail runner, we do know that the trophy hunt orphans kittens and creates instability in populations, putting them at increased risk for conflict with humans. Incidents like this attack are rare but nevertheless, it's crucial that trail runners, mountain bikers, hikers and all back-country users take the appropriate steps to protect themselves and wildlife when out in the wilderness, including equipping themselves at all times with bear spray.