Lions may be helping in CWD control efforts

February 17, 2002 The Denver Post by Theo Stein
NEAR GREYROCK MOUNTAIN - With a hiss and a show of teeth, the tawny lioness scratched her way farther up a slender ponderosa pine.

Quivering with exertion, she dislodged a shower of bark chips on the hounds, whose storm of protests rang through the stand of sun-dappled timber northwest of Fort Collins.

Two months ago, this young female became an unwitting participant in one of several new chronic wasting disease studies underway in Colorado when she was darted and fitted with a radio collar.

Now the lioness was trapped again to aid in research that could result in lion hunting being curtailed along the northern Front Range. The study seeks to determine whether some of the state's estimated 2,000 to 3,000 big cats are slowing the spread of the fatal brain malady by picking off sick deer. 'If infected animals are being snuffed out fairly quickly by lions, especially near the edges of the epidemic, it would be useful to know that,' said Mike Miller, the Colorado Division of Wildlife's chief wildlife veterinarian.

The agency's CWD control strategy aims to slow the spread of the neurologic malady by reducing deer numbers with a combination of hunter harvest and culling. But it's expensive.

The DOW appropriated $ 300,000 to meet the target of more than 5,000 deer removed from just part of the five-county epidemic area.

In the area west of Fort Collins, up to 15 percent of the mule deer and 1 percent of elk are afflicted by the disease, which makes animals slobber, wobble and waste away as it progresses.

Mountain lions kill about a deer a week, more often if they've got cubs. So a healthy population of cats living in and around the endemic area could be acting as a natural, and cheap, brake on CWD's spread.

But are they? CSU graduate student Caroline Krumm intends to find out.

'There haven't been a lot of studies done on mountain lion prey selection,' said Krumm, whose work is funded by the wildlife agency. 'But we know a lot about infection rates in this area and we can test the kill for CWD. So we should know if lions are killing just any deer that comes along, or selecting for the sick ones.'

Of course, that's easier said than done.

Stealthy predators that hunt by night, mountain lions hide their kills under dirt and brush and return to feed for several days. So Krumm will track a handful of cats outfitted with special radio collars that contain global positioning units, focusing on places where they linger.

The collars record a lion's coordinates every two hours from dusk to dawn, then broadcast the data every other day to Krumm, who has to scramble to a high point to receive the data.

She then has to find the kill in time to obtain fresh brain or tonsil samples that can be tested for CWD.

Lions aren't hunted hard west of Fort Collins. Only two of an allowable 10 were taken during the 2000 hunt in an area stretching from the Poudre River north to the Wyoming border. But as the 15,000-square-mile endemic area grows, the agency may consider further restrictions on the lion season to keep older, experienced and presumably better hunters in the lion population, Miller said.

To develop meaningful results during the three-year study, Krumm will need about 100 lion-killed deer. Problems with her receiver have limited her to two kills, both adult does taken by the discomfited lioness in the tree.

Krumm also needs more collared lions, which was the goal recently when she set out with Laramie houndsman Duggins Wroe and a team of biologists and veterinarians across a snowy ranch just south of Livermore.

As the team bounced and spun down a four-wheel-drive road into the Arapaho-Roosevelt National Forest, Wroe and University of Wyoming biologist Hall Sawyer stopped once or twice in search of fresh lion tracks to set the dogs on.

The sparsely populated foothills west of Fort Collins are ideal lion habitat, with lots of browse for deer and elk, and plenty of ambush zones for opportunistic lions. Wroe and Sawyer quickly found the tracks of a big male, or tom. But toms range more widely than lionesses and don't kill as often, so it's tougher to find the remains of their prey, Krumm said. So they left the tom alone.

The next set of tracks, just a couple hundred yards up the road, looked more promising.

'She might be the one we've seen with kittens,' said Wroe as he sprang from his truck and hauled three eager dogs over to the track.

'Get the cat, Maddie!' Wroe said. 'Get the cat, Jed!' The words were hardly out of his mouth when Maddie, a cross between a red tick and a Walker hound, rocketed up a snowy ridge in full throat with Jed and a third hound, Katy, baying on her heels.

'Now comes the fun part,' Wroe said.

After getting directions from a spotter on a nearby mountain, the team drove another half-mile down the trail, which dipped and bucked across gullies and through streams, before setting off up a dark draw on foot and loaded with gear.

Two ridges and a sweaty hour later, a happy Jed came trotting up to the team as it moved down into a gully, ready to escort them to the quarry.

They quickly found Maddie and Katy, barking with renewed energy at their quarry. The lioness flattened her rounded ears against her head and began to chew distractedly on a green-tufted twig sticking in her face, her claws flashing in and out of her oversized paws.

Krumm quickly realized there was a problem: This was the same cat she collared two months ago.

'She's looking good,' Krumm said as she and veterinarian Lisa Wolfe unloaded a special dart pistol and removed the syringe. 'I'm glad to see she's easy to tree, so we can get that collar off her this spring.'

After watching the lioness for a few minutes, the team packed out. But Krumm would be back on top of a nearby ridge with her telemetry gear the next morning, waiting for more data from the collar.

'I sure hope she's worked up an appetite,' Krumm said.

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