Steamboat Springs hikers use sticks to defend themselves from mountain lion | CraigDailyPress.com

Steamboat Springs hikers use sticks to defend themselves from mountain lion

Matt Stensland

— A group of Steamboat Springs hikers has reported a scary, up-close encounter with a mountain lion that had them defending themselves with sticks.

Robert Bowes was hiking with friends Jakub and Alyssa Dybala on Sunday afternoon on a trail off of Routt County Road 36 near the Strawberry Park Hot Springs. The trail runs near the Lower Bear Trail and gave them a direct route to Rocky Peak.

As the group got close to the tree line, a mountain lion ran behind Bowes and Alyssa Dybala in front of Jakub Dybala.

"We both turned around, and he's pitch white," Bowes said. "It threaded the needle between us. The dogs didn't even see it because they were up front."

That was enough of a scare, but then the mountain lion returned and Jakub Dybala spotted it about 20 feet away. Bowes pulled out a small knife, and this time, the dogs went after the lion. He thought they were goners.

"They were face to face with the mountain lion," Bowes said. "It was showing its fangs and swatting at the dogs."

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Bowes said the lion was large, with a tail the size of his arm span.

With the cat hissing just feet away, Bowes said they were backed into a boulder, which they climbed onto.

"The mountain lion jumps up onto the boulder with us all," Bowes said. "He swiped at me, and I could feel the wind from his paws going past my leg."

After a good whack in the head with a small stick, the lion jumped off the boulder and scurried into the brush.

"It was the most scary thing I've ever encountered," Bowes said.

He said the dogs returned, and they sprinted into a field making noise as they retreated, not knowing if they were being preyed upon.

"That was the scariest part," Bowes said.

They made it back to their car without seeing the lion again.

Local wildlife officer Justin Pollock learned about the incident, and he said it made him very concerned. He went to the Rocky Peak area to see if he could find any signs of the animal. He was unsuccessful and said the mountain lion’s aggressive behavior toward humans was unusual.

“I can understand if it’s cornered and can’t get out,” Pollock said. “They’re going to avoid any confrontation.”

Pollock said it was possible the mountain lion had kittens in a nearby den that it was trying to protect.

“The dogs would have provoked him more,” Pollock said.

Bowes agreed with Pollock's assumption.

"We think we pretty much went into its home," Bowes said.

Signs have been placed in the area letting hikers know that a mountain lion has been seen in the area.

Mountain lion sightings are not unusual for the area, but aggressive behavior toward humans is. Generally, mountain lions tend to stay away from humans.

In October 2011, a mountain lion in Butcherknife Canyon prompted a scare at nearby Strawberry Park Elementary School and Steamboat Springs Middle School. Parents were notified, and students were not allowed to use the canyon trail to go home.

Mountain lion sightings also have startled people on Mount Werner and Emerald Mountain.

The animals typically target smaller animals, but they also have been known to prey on young elk.

Mountain lion safety tips:

■ When you walk or hike in mountain lion country, go in groups and make plenty of noise to reduce your chances of surprising a lion. A sturdy walking stick is a good idea; it can be used to ward off a lion. Make sure children are close to you and within your sight at all times. Talk with children about lions and teach them what to do if they encounter one.

■ Do not approach a lion, especially one that is feeding or with kittens. Most mountain lions will try to avoid a confrontation. Give them a way to escape.

■ Stay calm when you come upon a lion. Talk calmly yet firmly to it and move slowly.

■ Stop or back away slowly, if you can do so safely. Running may stimulate a lion’s instinct to chase and attack. Face the lion and stand upright.

■ Do all you can to appear larger. Raise your arms. Open your jacket if you’re wearing one. If you have small children with you, protect them by picking them up so they won’t panic and run.

■ If the lion behaves aggressively, throw stones, branches or any item you can grab quickly without crouching down or turning your back. Wave your arms slowly and speak firmly. What you want to do is convince the lion that you are not prey and that you may be a danger to the lion.

To reach Matt Stensland, call 970-871-4247, email mstensland@SteamboatToday.com or follow him on Twitter @SBTStensland

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to remove the link to a photo of a bobcat. The reported length of the mountain lion’s tail was also corrected