What is Colorado Parks and Wildlife's mission?
Our agency's mission is critical and relevant to all Coloradans; we work to conserve 960 species, more than 40 state parks and over 350 state wildlife areas. Colorado Parks and Wildlife is charged to protect and promote the wildlife, lands and waters that build the foundation of our shared Colorado lifestyle. As part of our work, staff biologists conduct multiple research studies to help inform how we manage wildlife and the habitats they depend on to ensure Colorado's natural beauty and wild allure remain intact as we see continued population growth, urbanization, and increased outdoor recreation.
CPW understands not everyone is a hunter. Many Coloradans just enjoy knowing lions are out there on the landscape. Our mission as an agency includes maintaining thriving wildlife populations, ensuring all people can safely and responsibly enjoy outdoor recreation in the ways most meaningful to them, whether that be hunting a lion, photographing one or knowing they exist in healthy numbers. It is possible to have robust and stable populations of wild animal populations while also allowing hunting.
Why is hunting an important part of wildlife management? Regulated hunting emerged in response to dwindling wildlife populations at the turn of the 20th Century. Before Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) and other fish and wildlife agencies existed, many wildlife species in the country were at the brink of extinction due to market hunting and absence of wildlife laws. The creation of conservation agencies like CPW enabled states to implement hunting and fishing laws and license requirements, which helped ensure dedicated personnel and funding to successfully protect and manage all wildlife in the state. While only roughly 40 of the 960 species in Colorado are "huntable," the fees from hunting and fishing licenses help conserve all wildlife in the state, including threatened and endangered species. CPW’s management of mountain lions is consistent with state statute: “It is the policy of the state of Colorado that the wildlife and their environment are to be protected,
preserved, enhanced, and managed for the use, benefit, and enjoyment of the people of this state and its visitors. It is further declared to be the policy of this state that there shall be provided a comprehensive program designed to offer the greatest possible variety of wildlife-related recreational opportunity to the people of this state and its visitors…”
Carefully regulated mountain lion hunting is one form of “wildlife-related recreational opportunity” as mentioned in statute. State statute goes on to declare the “state shall utilize hunting, trapping, and fishing as the primary methods of effecting necessary wildlife harvests.” We cannot foresee a time when the lethal removal of mountain lions will be unnecessary. From time to time, ensuring public safety will require that dangerous lions be removed, whether by agency staff/contractors, licensed and trained hunters, or both.
What is the West Slope Mountain Lion Management Plan? It is important to understand CPW manages wildlife at the population level. Unlike many other species, mountain lions have wide-ranging home territories, travel and disperse large distances and our previous management scales didn't align well with their movement on the landscape, which is why CPW researchers and biologists made some changes in management practices in the West Slope Lion Plan. The West Slope Mountain Lion Management Plan was approved by the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission in September 2020. This plan revises and consolidates 13 older lion management plans that cover the western part of Colorado into one overarching plan that manages lions at a larger scale. This scale is more biologically appropriate for this far-ranging animal that regularly moves across the state and beyond. This plan relies upon the best available science to ensure management maintains healthy lion populations. The plan uses two independent measures as safeguards to prevent overharvest and to manage for relatively stable populations over time. If either one of these thresholds is exceeded, hunter harvest (licenses) will be reduced. The first threshold places protections on adult female lions, as is recommended in several independent studies since perpetuating the lion population relies on breeding females. The second threshold sets the upper boundary of all human-caused lion mortality. Human-caused mortality includes hunting harvest, landowner and other human-lion conflict removals, and roadkills.
The West Slope Plan provides a science-based framework for maintaining a stable lion population across the entire West Slope now and into the future. This plan lays out rigorous safeguards on harvest levels, includes independent metrics on annual evaluations to make sure mortality levels are acceptable, commits to measuring lion population sizes in select survey areas (this began in Jan. 2021), and provides flexibility, with a series of management tools around Glenwood Springs to address public safety concerns due to human-lion conflicts. Under the West Slope plan, the local area around Glenwood Springs is the only area proposed for a smaller lion population. The strategies of increased harvest opportunities, heightened educational outreach, and focusing on individual lions in human conflicts will be evaluated under an adaptive management approach to assess the success of conflict reduction. This new plan only provides revisions to lion management on the West Slope. As such, the annual maximum number of harvested mountain lions allowed for the West Slope only, as reduced from around 532 lions, which it averaged in recent years, is around 461. This plan actually enacts a reduction of more than 70 lions in the maximum annual harvest allowed across the entire West Slope (including the Glenwood Springs area).
The mountain lion harvest levels in our West Slope Plan are below those of many other states and in fact, are similar to levels recommended by some lion advocacy groups. In particular, our proposed female lion protections are stronger than those used in many other states. Hunting is an important part of maintaining healthy lion populations, with the hunter essentially acting as another predator on the landscape. Careful readers of the West Slope Lion Plan will note the plan does not propose reductions of regional lion populations to bolster deer or elk numbers, as has been suggested. In fact, the plan moves away from the suppression objectives outlined in two of the older lion plans and sets new limits intended to maintain lion populations at levels similar to what they are now.
If the goal is stability, why hunt mountain lions at all? Something to keep in mind regarding hunting is the main motivation for hunters is to provide food for themselves and their friends/family. In fact, hunters in Colorado must make use of the meat harvested from lions and other animals. Bottom line, hunting exists as a continuation of the hunter-gatherer traditions and connection to nature for many people, as well as to help maintain healthy wild animal populations. There is no evidence of managed hunting leading to the extinction of any species in Colorado, and there is no evidence that well-regulated hunting negatively affects the statewide population stability of mountain lions. Some people have referenced the “California system” that eliminated lion hunting in 1990, and implied this is why wildlife managers in that state have not seen increased human-wildlife conflicts. In reality, California has regulations that allow for the take of depredating mountain lions along with the removal of individual lions that are deemed dangerous to people. Rather than managing mountain lions through regulated hunting, wildlife managers in California issue depredation permits to help manage lions. Removing hunting as a wildlife management tool did not lead to the elimination of mountain lion deaths.
The West Slope Lion Plan strives for a balance between hunting, wildlife viewing opportunities, and human safety in Colorado. There are no real-world examples of success with just letting lions “exist” with humans without thoughtful management. The Florida panther population has grown because of active management - bringing 8 female lions in from Texas to supplement genetics in what was appearing to become a fatal genetic bottleneck in Florida. Newer lion populations in South Dakota, North Dakota, and Nebraska are now established due to wildlife agency management, not despite it. The West Slope Lion Plan incorporates advances in the science of lion management from the last 15 years, including two long-term research projects in Colorado. The plan manages for maintaining stable lion populations, similar in numbers to what we have today, across the West Slope, by implementing clear annual thresholds. It incorporates adaptive management in evaluating human-lion conflicts and gathers crucial lion population size data on the West Slope. This is all achieved while balancing multiple compatible opportunities for the public to use, benefit and enjoy lion populations into the future.