Idaho is one of the fastest-growing states in the country and the Wood River Valley is no exception. One thing that sets the valley apart from other areas in Idaho, however, is its appeal to younger mountain lions, says Fish and Game regional wildlife biologist Sierra Robatcek.
“With its nice, thick vegetation for cover and plenty of deer and elk, the Wood River Valley is the perfect spot for transient subadults to move through on their way to finding their permanent home ranges,” she said last week during a presentation at the Hailey Library. “You’ve got this beautiful river corridor that we all like to walk along. Well, it’s also a great migration corridor for mountain lions.”
As subadults, Robatcek said males leave their natal home ranges, likely to avoid inbreeding. The Wood River Valley is also attractive to lions as a historical wintering area for deer and elk, which have returned to its hillsides for thousands of years.
“The [valley’s] high housing density continues to put pressure on mountain lion populations. This just underscores the fact that we need to live responsibly amongst them, if [Fish and Game] is to avoid having to lethally remove them,” she said.
Lately, Fish and Game has received more reports about mountain lions in Blaine County “being fairly bold, looking into people’s houses and bedding down under peoples decks for the day,” Robatcek said.
Fish and Game classifies human-mountain lion interactions using a four-tiered assessment.
“We consider ‘sightings’—seeing an outline at a distance—really cool. You get to see this beautiful wild predator in its natural habitat,” she said. “An ‘encounter’ is an unexpected, direct meeting, though without incident. Maybe you’re walking on the trail, surprise a mountain lion and it runs away.”
When a resident or hiker “actually needs to take some sort of action to cause that animal to flee or back down,” she said, the agency defines that as an “incident.” The worst-case scenario, according to Fish and Game’s four tiers, is an “attack,” in which a human or pet is injured or killed.
“We are very fortunate in that we have not had an attack on a person in the Wood River Valley,” Robatcek said, noting that fewer than two dozen fatalities have been reported in the United States and Canada over the past century. (As a comparison, dog attacks on humans typically cause around 40 deaths annually in the U.S.)
That said, the cats can still be dangerous. If a lion sticks around long enough for you to get a good, up-close look at it and refuses to leave, Robatcek recommended yelling “loudly and confidently” with your hands out, never screaming, and facing the animal at all times. She also recommends using bear spray if possible.
Robatcek said one factor exacerbating wintertime lion activity in the valley has been residents’ feeding of deer and elk hay in their private backyards.
“If you’ve got 20 deer that are routinely in your backyard, lions will figure that out pretty quickly,” she said.
Feeding deer and elk in the winter is also harmful because ungulates have specific adaptations to lower their metabolism rate in the winter months, she said, and feeding “can actually send their bodies into shock and kill them.”
Robatcek noted that Fish and Game does feed “about 120 elk” at the Bullwhacker site out Warm Springs “to keep them out of the valley, up in the mountains and out of town.” Those elk comprise two major elk populations in the Wood River Valley—the 12,000-some Pioneer elk group of and the 4,000-some Smoky-Bennett elk group.
“You’re looking at 16,000 elk total,” shes said. “We feed 120 of them—the point of the site is not to ‘save’ them.”
Robatcek recommended that bird enthusiasts in the valley clean up birdseed scattered on the ground and bring in ground-level feeders at night, as to not attract raccoons and skunks, two popular menu items for lions. Dog and cat owners also have the responsibility of keeping pet food inside, she said.
“At the risk of sounding like a broken record, keeping attractants away from smaller prey species is really important. Pet food is a multimillion dollar industry, designed to taste good for even picky dogs, and other animals love it as well,” she said.
At this time of year when lion sightings tend to peak, Robatcek said homeowners should close off spaces underneath their porches and decks so those don’t become prime cat-napping spots.
“The last thing we want to happen is have somebody walk out one morning, surprise a mountain lion’s as she’s coming out from under the deck and have it turn into a conflict situation,” she said.