From the Field

Mountain Lion at Phantom Canyon Preserve

February 25, 2019

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Two mountain lions walking down a forest trail
A mountain lion captured on a trail cam at Phantom Canyon. Photo © TNC

For more than 30 years, The Nature Conservancy’s Phantom Canyon Preserve has sought balance between the needs of people and the needs of wildlife.

The 1,200-acre preserve is situated in one of the last roadless canyons on Colorado’s Front Range, where herds of bighorn sheep and elk roam. It is home to more than 200 plant species, including some that are rare and endemic.

But the preserve sits only 30 miles from the growing city of Fort Collins. It is connected to a landscape dotted with private ranches. On its way to fields and cities the North Fork of the Cache la Poudre River provides habitat for native fish like the colorful Iowa darter, and for the American dipper, a bird that forages underwater.

Downstream, the river is utilized for irrigation and utilities. Its water is essential for everything from hay for livestock to the region’s famous breweries.

A recent trail camera photo taken at Phantom Canyon Preserve perhaps serves as the perfect illustration of the blurry line between the human and the natural. It captures a mountain lion striding, not through wilderness, but through the preserve’s cluster of buildings.

A mountian lion walking between buildings
A mountain lion strolls by Phantom Canyon Preserve’s bunkhouse. Photo © TNC

“The preserve is not open for six months of the year,” says Sally Ross, The Nature Conservancy in Colorado’s Laramie Hills program director. “I visit a couple times a month and collect the cards from the trail camera. Usually I just sort through lots of rabbit photos. But this time, there was this big female lion, walking right in front of the bunkhouse.”

Despite the surprise of that particular mountain lion, Phantom Canyon is cat country. About 18 months ago, Ross began noting more scat and tracks on her visit to the preserve. In the mid-2000’s, the Colorado Department of Fish and Wildlife culled mule deer due to the presence of Chronic Wasting Disease. The deer herd has since increased, and with it came signs of mountain lions.

Not long after Ross began noticing scats, a trail camera captured this footage of a mountain lion with cubs.

Trail cameras at the preserve have captured images of other interesting wildlife, including black bears, bobcats, elk and mule deer.

While Ross acknowledged this is anecdotal, she has noticed one change around preserve headquarters with the increase in mountain lion sign and sightings. “When I started here three years ago, the rabbits would chew the wires on cars we parked around the preserve. It cost TNC a lot of money,” she says. “Since the increase in lion signs, we haven’t had any issue with rabbit damage.”

A canyon and a river at sunset.
Late afternoon light sculpts the canyon walls in this view of Phantom canyon and the north fork of the Cache la Poudre river that flows through the Laramie foothills in northeast Colorado. Photo credit: © John Fielder/TNC

More About Phantom Canyon Preserve

The Nature Conservancy acquired the 1,200-acre Phantom Canyon Preserve in 1987, primarily to protect native plants. Since then, it has become an anchor to build community engagement and to protect private lands on the Colorado Front Range.

The Conservancy has worked with utilities, land management agencies, private landowners and other conservation groups to create a 22-mile corridor that connects high elevation public lands in the west (Rocky Mountain National Park) to low-elevation private ranches in the east.

Since the effort began, there have been approximately 100,000 private acres protected under some form of conservation management, which is connected to 110,000-acres of publicly protected lands.

Today, Phantom is used as a place to inspire, educate, and demonstrate to our users the impact of conservation and good land management practices. Read more about the project.

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  1. Very cool story. I enjoyed reading it. I usually don’t take the time to read emails in-depth. But, many of The Nature Conservancy’s, Cool Green Science and other articles are educational and inspiring for me so, I look at them a little more carefully.
    I know that a Mountain Lion is larger than a Bobcat but, are there other differences? The Mountain Lion is more of a threat than a Bobcat is, correct?


  2. wow matthew, what an honor. i have been near there when i visited my son kevin who was living in denver & boulder

  3. You made my work morning with this email – thanks!

    These were great photos and good reminder of what the work the NC does here in Colorado. Thank you, you encouraged me to check that my membership is current! I’l have to look into signing up to tour or visit this place sometime.

  4. What a beautiful place. The geology and the ecology seem to fit together so well… so happy to see the big cats back in their niche there! As a geology instructor at Lamar University (where we don’t have many rocks – except the ones that we have for study) and an avid nature photographer – that place looks like the perfect place to hike around and visit with nature. Thank you for being a good steward and sharing these images with us. Friend of Wendy Ledbetter 🙂 Perhaps I will get to visit one day.

  5. I am so grateful that TNC is protecting our wildlife and plants in this preserve and is work is working with the locals to make it all work peacefully, thank you .

  6. Love those lions. We lived outside of Bayfield on the south side of the San Juans and often bear and deer visited our area. On his way home from work one evening my husband saw a mountain lion crossing the dirt drive leading to our house. One afternoon my cat stood on the edge of our deck staring down at at bobcat staring up at him from below. So wonderful living in places like this! Must preserve them.

  7. Very cool and interesting story. We cherish our mountain lions here in Southern California, too, although they live in a precarious balance with all the urbanization here. Thanks to the Nature Conservancy for the stewardship, protections and education you offer. And the emails! I’m always up for a good big-cat story, and the photos and video footage here of the Phantom Canyon cats are terrific.

  8. …good to see the cats there. Thanks for the effort.

    Tom Baugh

  9. Those video clips and photos are amazing! Keep up the good work, TNC!
    With great respect,
    Brad Dunker

  10. As my friend who spends much of the summer in the wilderness here in Montana said, “if you see one mountain lion 100 have seen you

  11. Mountain lions are also known in Griffith Park, Los Angeles. While out riding I encountered one, some years ago, and while eyeing my horse the big cat also knew a human was involved so just backed away. Much to both my horse and my relief !

  12. Thanks for sharing this incredible footage of the mountain lions. I live in Santa Cruz, CA – specifically in Live Oak, next to a riparian corridor. Occasionally, I we have had sightings in our area – even one in a small tree in a strip mall by the Dollar Store. And I swear I saw one at the end of the street, one night, 10 pm as I walked my dog. It was just sitting there – very tall – much taller than a coyote, which we also have. We did not walk in that direction to check it out. Ha!

  13. Your narration on the habitat of these creatures is giving me new hope that we can preserve the areas where these animals roam and live. So many of our free ranging animals have come under attack because their normal roaming sites have become human places for homes or camps. We need to protect these areas for the animals. Once a species is killed off, we have no one to blame but our lack of for sight and willingness to speak-up for them. Please keep up the good work and stories.

  14. Really COOl to see the mountain lions and the fact that this acreage is connected so that there is a corridor to various elevations. Wildlife needs this to happen in multiple areas to help ensure their safety and proliferation of the species.

    1. Providing corridors that provide interaction between different populations of a species provides greater genetic diversity and reduces the harm of inbreeding found in isolated populations.

  15. What an inspirational article! It is nice to hear some positive news on wildlife for a change! Keep up the good work!

  16. Beautiful animals. Thank you for your tireless efforts for their conservation and that of other animals.

  17. Beautiful! Nature….left alone, manages fine without us .

  18. Providing and preservation of natural habitat for such beautiful creatures like these Mountain Lions is a very noble cause. Thanks for great organizations like the Nature Conservancy that provide hope for so many threatened species and by making room for our animal friends contribute to our own survival.

  19. I have been blessed to see 2 Lions. One in the San Gabriel Mtn’s of southern California, as I hiked the 4 mile trail into my wilderness cabin. More recently, I followed one up a mountain road to my home in northern Arizona! For more than a long city block, it lopped up the road before me. Watching it from 30 feet, I could see its amazing musculature in motion, its massive muscles rippling beneath its taught shiny coat. I will take that memory to my deathbed.

  20. Pretty cool. I’ve only seen two mountain lions in the wild here in Arizona and it was exciting to say the least.

  21. How much i loved this piece, with trail camera pictures…gorgeous mountain lions in their natural setting, with the camera resolution perfect!! i really appreciate the work you do, as well as your presentation to us out here. i am in syracuse ny…close to the Adirondacks, which we love. we are always having active discussions about who thinks he saw a mountain lion…and we have ongoing discussions about whether wolves could be reintroduced. we do however have a complement of moose…quite exciting here.

  22. I love the shots of the beautiful mountain lions thank you for your dedication and knowledge.

  23. This is exactly as it should be. It gladens my heart – both for the wildlife as well as for American humanity.

  24. very interesting to learn of this partnership. Great to provide a corridor for the animals between areas.

  25. So the rabbits aren’t chewing on the car wires any more…………because the mountain lions have eaten the rabbits?? Or scared them away??

  26. Having lived in Woodland Park and Parker, I was interested in your story. We had quite a few miles living within Parker limits. Then we had a female lion that raised her Cubs in the drainage about 2-3 hundred meters from our house. This was back in the late 80s.

  27. Now if we could just encourage our current administration to enhance these lands and not make them available for business profit, especially destructive mining techniques. We are blessed with a beautiful country and wild animals and plant life.

  28. great to see the lions saundering around….better than being treed or dead next to a rifle

  29. Love the cougar video & article!! We hope the Conservancy & other wonderful groups can/will continue to work hard to preserve them & our other brothers in the wild. Thank God for all you do!