Cougar. Puma. Mountain Lion. Red Tiger. Call them what you will, as one of the North Central Rockies’ apex predators, they are strong, fierce and make for a thrilling hunt experience.
“Mountain lion hunts are very exciting, and take place during a time of year when there is limited other big game hunting,” said Dean Billington, owner and guide at Bull Basin Outfitters.
Colorado is one of only 14 states that allow mountain lions to be hunted. And while the season is a long one – stretching from Nov. 23 to March 31, 2021 – unlike big game tags, lion harvesting operates on a quota system. Even after purchasing a mountain lion tag, hunters are required to check harvest limits with Colorado Parks and Wildlife prior to engaging in a hunt.
“Lion season opens mid- to late-November and goes through the end of March,” confirmed Billington. “(But) once a pre-determined number of lions is harvested in a given area, lion hunting in that area closes.”
In 1965, lion bounties were abolished in Colorado. Since then, it has been CPW’s job to manage the state’s mountain lion population. Current estimates put Colorado’s lion population between 3,000 and 7,000.
Beginning Nov. 18, CPW maintains an active report of mountain lion harvests and unit areas on its website. Updated daily after 5 p.m., the document lists valid units, the harvest limit for that unit, the number of lions taken to date in that unit, and the unit’s open or closed status.
Lion harvest limits are put in place to help manage not only lion populations, but also big game populations. CPW’s Data Analysis Unit sets lion limits to balance an area’s lion population with its prey availability, and also with a keen eye to preserving a healthy, robust lion population (which has meant harvesting fewer females than male lions).
During the November 2018 to March 2019 season, 534 mountain lions were harvested in Colorado (statistics for the 2019/2020 season are not yet available).
Hunters wanting to pursue mountain lions are required to take and pass CPW’s Mountain Lion Education and Identification course. Practice and certification exams are available on CPW’s website and hunters can opt to take the course online or print a written exam. To take the certification exam, hunters will need to enter their customer identification number. Once passed, hunting licenses are updated to indicate a valid mountain lion certification.
The 20-question exam is straight forward and questions are designed to assess the hunter’s ability to identify a mountain lion’s gender and age based on color, genitalia and tracks. While questions are not intended to be tricky, hunters are encouraged to review the Mountain Lion Hunting brochure, and take the practice exam prior to the certification exam.
Preparing for the Hunt
Whether you choose to employ a guide or strike out on your own, mountain lion hunting is best done with a well-trained pack of dogs. Unlike big game, hunters are looking for tracks, not the actual animal.
“Once a good track is located, the chase is on,” Billington said.
Hunters should be prepared for a physically demanding chase through a wide variety of mountainous terrain – everything from steep wooded hillsides to open sagebrush flats. On his website, Bud Carpenter, owner and guide at Badlands Outfitting, notes that guests will be hiking at elevations between 7,000 and 9,000 feet above sea level, and should be prepared to ride horses or mules, ATVs and snowmobiles.
According to Billington, the best time to hunt lions is after a fresh snowfall, so hunters should also be prepared to trudge through snow. As with all mountain activities, dressing in layers and being prepared for any kind of whether is advised.
As for the best method to harvest a lion, Billington said most shots are taken at a range of 10 to 15 yards. “The weapon of choice is not too critical,” he said. “We just encourage our hunters to practice a lot with their choice of weapon to make a clean and ethical harvest.”
Once harvested, CPW officers will examine the lion carcass and provide a seal that must remain attached throughout the taxidermy process. They will also extract a tooth in order to assess the animal’s age. To aid with this process, hunters are advised to prop the lion’s mouth open before rigor sets in.
To learn more about mountain lion hunting in Colorado, visit www.cpw.state.co.us and select the Mountain Lion link under Hunting.