The fact is, nobody knows exactly how many mountain lions live in Colorado. But by the end of April, expect there to be somewhere between five and 15 less.

Colorado's Parks and Wildlife Commission on Thursday approved an extension of the state's mountain lion hunting season from its current annual closing date of March 31 to April 30, should hunter quota objectives fail to be met before then. They rarely are.

With a best-guess estimate of up to 4,500 adult cats statewide, mountain lion licenses are issued in unlimited quantity. Interested hunters must call CPW to learn which game management units are open to hunting. When a unit meets its harvest limit, it is closed to lion hunting for the remainder of the year.

Since new lion hunting guidelines were established in 2005, however, the statewide hunter harvest quota for the reclusive cats has never been filled and management objective ranges have been broached only once, that by just one more lion than the established low-end parameter.

This year's license quota reached 618. In 2011, 393 mountain lions were harvested by hunters. CPW carnivore biologist Jerry Apker anticipates an additional annual hunter harvest of five to 15 cougars during the April season extension, depending upon weather conditions.


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"Most mountain lion hunting occurs on snow-covered ground and most houndsmen go after mountain lions after a recent snowstorm," Apker said. "In the month of April those snowstorms are highly sporadic, and that's going to constrain the number of opportunities there are to go after mountain lions."

The increased harvest proposal generated some controversy from animal rights activists before near-unanimous approval by the commission (Commissioner Michelle Zimmerman of Breckenridge cast the lone dissenting vote). CPW biologists have two years remaining on a pair of mountain lions studies underway, one on cougar demographics and human interaction along the Front Range and another on population biology on the Uncompahgre Plateau near Montrose. Critics of the proposal suggested it be placed on hold until research is concluded.

"I feel like we've done a really good job over the last decade or so with lion management and conservation, and I'm concerned that we're getting ahead of the curve given that we don't know what the population is," said Wendy Keefover, director of carnivore protection for Wild Earth Guardians. "Rather than maximizing mortality, which is what this proposal does, we need to be conservative for a couple more years and actually have scientific data informing what we're doing."

Supporting public testimony from ranchers and outfitters cited the impacts of predation on Colorado's diminishing mule deer population, a factor that some commissioners agreed was worthy of consideration with regard to timing.

"I don't think anyone would argue that our mule deer herds are declining," said Commissioner Jeanne Horne of Meeker. "There are a lot of reasons, but no doubt predation is one of them. Putting this off for two more years would further diminish our deer herds, I believe."

Wildlife officer of the year. Patt Dorsey, area wildlife manager out of CPW's Durango office, made history Thursday as the recipient of Shikar-Safari Club International's 2012 wildlife officer of the year award.

The Loveland native is the first Colorado woman to earn the award in its 40-year history.

"I didn't even realize that, so that makes it doubly special," she said. "But I'm in great company. Colorado's had a lot of great women officers and I work among several today. It's an honor to be the first woman to receive the award. I hope that I won't be the last."

With a focus on public outreach over the course of nearly 22 years with the division, Dorsey's cumulative body of work, including overseeing the statewide hunter education program, led to her recognition.

"Patt's nomination was one of the most comprehensive I've ever seen. The contributions she's made and her experience are amazing," said SCI's Bob Boswell. "This was an easy one."

"If you think you're going to change the world overnight and make it a better place for wildlife conservation or hunters, it's probably not going to happen," Dorsey said. "You have to just keep plugging along in little steps."

Scott Willoughby: 303-954-1993 or swilloughby@denverpost.com