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‘Back away slowly’ – big cats sighted in Sandias

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

Early morning trail runners have reported close encounters of the feline kind as they made their way along one of the most popular routes in the Sandia Mountains.

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Mountain lions, like this one at the ABQ BioPark Zoo, have been reportedly seen in the early morning hours along La Luz Trail. Hikers and trail runners are reminded to remain vigilant. (Dean Hanson, Albuquerque Journal)

On about a half-dozen occasions since fall, runners on La Luz Trail have stopped in their tracks after encountering mountain lions.

Although wildlife sightings in the mountains are not unusual, what is concerning to U.S. Forest Service officials is the “abnormal behavior” of the mountain lions, Sandia Ranger District wildlife biologist Esther Nelson said Wednesday.

“Most of the time, they don’t want anything to do with you,” and will run off if people get a little too close. Each of these lions, however, held their ground for a while, and in some instances approached the runners before scampering away.

Mountain lions are mostly nocturnal, meaning they are most active hunting for prey between dusk and dawn. The trail runners, who were wearing head lamps, were out at dawn or just before dawn when the encounters occurred, Nelson said.

“Running is the kind of behavior that could trigger a mountain lion’s natural instinct to chase prey and attack,” she said.

It’s possible that because the runners were wearing lights, the lions were confused, though curious, and didn’t become aggressive or attack.

“The humans and the mountain lions probably shocked each other,” Nelson said.

People are not high on mountain lions’ list of favorite foods. They prefer deer and small mammals such as squirrels, raccoons, mice or rabbits. But they have been known to attack people.

And they are formidable. An adult mountain lion can weigh from 80 to 150 pounds and can measure 8 feet long from the nose to tail tip.

Although there are no time restrictions on when people can hike or run the trails, doing so between dusk and dawn “is highly discouraged,” Nelson said.

In the event a hiker or runner sees a mountain lion, regardless of the time of day, Nelson offers these tips:

• Stop and back away slowly while facing the animal, but don’t make direct eye contact.

• Avoid cornering the animal and give it space so it can leave.

• Make yourself look larger by holding up your hands, and if you’re wearing a jacket hold it open so you look larger than the mountain lion. Act aggressively and speak loudly.

• If the mountain lion approaches or acts aggressively, arm yourself with a large stick, throw rocks, speak loudly and firmly and convince the lion that you are not prey and convey the message that you are a danger to it.

• In the event the mountain lion attacks, fight back aggressively with sticks, rocks, a backpack or anything you can grab.

Hikers should also consider carrying bear pepper spray with them. The spray, which is effective against mountain lions, is stronger than the pepper spray people normally carry for protection against two-legged attackers, and it shoots out farther “so you don’t have to get so close to a wild animal.”

Nelson also reminds parents hiking with small children to keep them close; and for those accompanied by dogs, to keep them on a leash at all times, as required by Bernalillo County ordinance.

Above all, “be smart, be aware of your surroundings and remember you’re not the only living thing out there,” Nelson said. “You’re in their habitat; you’re in their home.”

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