Animal Attacks, Safety Concerns Increase in Colorado

Earlier this year, 31-year-old Travis Kauffman made headlines when he encountered a juvenile mountain lion in the foothills around Fort Collins. He was on a trail run on an unusually warm afternoon in February when he heard a noise and turned around to see the lion only ten feet behind him. He tried to scare it away, but it was too late.

The animal bit down hard on his hand and wrist, wrapped itself around his body, and dug its claws into his back. Kauffman fought for about 10 minutes, finally gaining enough leverage to put pressure on the lion’s windpipe. He held that pressure until the lion died. Only then did it release its grip.

Kauffman’s story is remarkable, but wild animal attacks aren’t unheard of in Colorado. In fact, some studies indicate that encounters are happening more frequently in recent years. As the potential for conflicts increases, it becomes increasingly important for Coloradans to know what to do when confronted by a dangerous animal.

Many districts send employees into a variety of often remote locations to work on infrastructure, spray for mosquitoes, or conduct routine maintenance, potentially placing their employees in the line of sight of a potentially dangerous animal. Many other districts host facilities like parks where guests may encounter these dangers. Wild animals are a common, often beautiful, natural treasure. But given the dangers, it’s important that we keep on top of the risks they pose to our employees and guests.

Mountain Lions

According to a study conducted by Colorado Parks and Wildlife, the state’s mountain lion population is estimated to be between 4,000 and 5,500, while a 10-year study spanning from Lyons to Golden found an average of 3.7 lions per 38.6 square miles.

However, according to Ty Petersburg, CPW’s wildlife manager in the Fort Collins area, the rise in conflicts – noted especially in the Front Range area – has less to do with a growing lion population and more to do with a greater number of people living in lion habitats.

In addition, many people illegally feed wildlife like deer, which are natural prey for mountain lions. The larger an area’s deer population, the more likely mountain lions are to visit.

If you live near mountain lions, CPW recommends the following to reduce the likelihood of an encounter:

  • Make noise to announce your presence when you come and go – especially during lions’ active hours between dusk and dawn.
  • Install outdoor lighting.
  • Make landscaping decisions that eliminate hiding places for lions and avoid planting non-native shrubs and plants that deer prefer.
  • Never feed wildlife.
  • Keep pets and livestock under control; never leave them outside at night.
  • Hike in groups.
  • Supervise children when they are outdoors.

Even if you follow the above guidelines, there is still a slim chance that you may encounter a mountain lion – especially if you spend time in the Front Range region, where sightings and conflicts are on the rise.

If you do come across a lion, remember these tips:

  • Give the lion a way to escape. Most will avoid confrontation.
  • Stay calm, speak firmly, and move slowly. Do not indicate that you are afraid.
  • Do not run, crouch, or turn away from the lion. Doing so may trigger its hunting instincts.
  • Make yourself appear larger by raising your arms or opening your jacket. Your goal is to convince the lion that you are not prey.
  • If the lion acts aggressively, throw stones, branches, or anything within reach.
  • If the lion attacks, follow Kauffman’s example and fight back. Try to remain standing, and if you are knocked down, get back up.
  • Finally, once you are out of danger, immediately contact the Division of Wildlife to report an encounter. If it happens outside of normal business hours, you should contact the Colorado State Patrol or your local sheriff’s office.

Moose

Of course, mountain lions aren’t the only dangerous animals you might run across in Colorado. Hostile encounters involving moose are rising in the Front Range area, due to a rising population and illegal feeding. In fact, each year, more people are attacked by moose than any other species of wildlife.

Unlike most wildlife, moose will not run away when approached. They are well known for charging when they feel threatened, can reach speeds of up to 35 mph, and are particularly aggressive during their mating and calving seasons. This makes it impossible to scare them, outrun them, or fight off an attack.

Instead, when you encounter a moose, you should do everything you can to keep your distance. Watch for snout licking, pinned ears, and raised hackles, all of which are signs that the moose feels threatened and will attack. If the moose charges, your best option is to quickly take shelter behind something large, like a tree, boulder, or car.

While sudden movements are not recommended when encountering a mountain lion, you will need to move swiftly when confronted with an aggressive moose.

An adult bull moose could be as much as seven feet tall and weigh three quarters of a ton. Against a moose with a full rack of antlers, you wouldn’t stand a chance.

This advice would also work for elk and deer, though those animals are far less hostile or stubborn than moose. Ticks present the biggest danger from most deer encounters.

Mountain Goats

People hiking, working, or living in the mountains will often encounter these animals, and while they are usually pretty good about keeping away from humans, they can prove dangerous. In 2010, Washington state officials were forced to shoot a mountain goat who gored and killed a hiker in Olympic National Park.

Reports of mountain goat attacks are rare, but these animals are known to be territorial, protective, and very stubborn. In most cases, leaving the area will halt a potential conflict. Short of that, throwing stones has also been shown to work.

Coyotes and Wolves

Coyotes, also known as brush or prairie wolves, are similar to dogs and wolves though smaller than the latter. They are prolific throughout Colorado and the west and have even begun to encroach on urban settings, especially since wolves have been eliminated.

Because of their march into cities, coyotes are much less fearful of humans than wolves or other animals. They have been known to prey on pets and compete with raccoons and birds for food waste in garbage cans.

While an attack on an adult human by a coyote is rare, the CPW advises you follow the same advice we provided for mountain lions, underscoring the calls to be big, loud, and to fight back. If you are with a pet or child, pick them up.

For districts, it would be best to reduce the likelihood of a coyote encounter by picking up refuse, keeping brush cut short, and keeping outside garbage cans empty.

Wolves are a common ancestor to domestic dogs. In fact, domestic dogs are considered a subspecies of the wolf. Wolves, however, are much larger than most dogs, and much more skilled at hunting and killing prey.

Fortunately, wolf encounters in Colorado are going to be pretty rare. While they were once common, they have been extirpated, which means they no longer exist in the wild. However, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service has restored the gray wolf to Wyoming, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, and Arizona and continues to restore them to other western states to help regulate the populations of other animals and restore environmental balance. In April of this year, discussions began about a state ballot measure which would allow for the restoration of wolves to the wilds of Colorado.

Until then, wolves in Colorado have either wandered in from a neighboring state or are escaped pets or zoo animals. If you encounter a wolf in the wild, follow the same tips we provided for dealing with mountain lions. Additionally, remember to keep your dog leashed if you have one (Fido won’t be a hero, he’ll be lunch), and always try to hike or camp in groups.

Bears

Like moose and mountain lions, black bears are encountering humans more frequently. They’re facing some of the same issues as other wild animals too. An increased human population has intruded on their natural habitat, while rising temperatures and urban development around dens have significantly shortened hibernation. Coupled with reliance on human food, these circumstances have led to more black bear conflicts.

The best ways to prevent such conflicts are to safely store food and trash, and avoid known foraging areas. If you do stumble across a black bear, recommended behavior is to stay calm, be still, speak firmly, and, if you need to create distance between yourself and the bear, move away slowly and sideways (as black bears interpret sideways movement to be non-threatening). Bear spray is also an effective deterrent, and should be used at a minimum distance of 25 feet, with a minimum spray duration of six seconds.

One notable difference between the black bear and the mountain lion is that black bears are usually more accustomed to human interaction and will likely identify you and leave. So if you encounter a black bear at close proximity and it seems calm, you should allow it to sniff you and avoid screaming or shouting.

However, if the bear attacks, you should fight for your life. Do not play dead; unlike grizzlies, black bears do not respond to this tactic. They might simply start eating you, though you probably wouldn’t continue to play dead through that.

Snakes

While large mammals may be the first to come to mind in a discussion of wild animal attacks, reptiles shouldn’t be forgotten. Although most snakes in the state are nonvenomous, two species – the western rattlesnake and the massasauga – are deadly. The western rattlesnake can be found in most habitats, but the massasauga is prominent only in the southeastern grasslands.

Both snakes can be identified by the presence of a rattle at the end of the tail. Other distinguishing features include fangs, pits between the nostrils and eyes, and vertical, elliptical pupils that look like slits in bright light (nonvenomous snakes have round pupils).

Though many encounters with snakes happen when people travel through the snake’s natural habitat, snakes are also known to seek shelter in basements, sheds, crawl spaces, and other cool, damp places. The best ways to prevent this are to keep areas dry and warm, control insect and rodent populations, seal openings 1/4 inch or larger with mortar or caulking, and, in snake-infested areas, construct snake-proof fences using galvanized hardware cloth.

That said, sometimes it’s impossible to prevent an encounter with a rattlesnake. You can be prepared during hikes or other outdoor activities in snake-prone areas by wearing long, loose pants, high boots, or snake guards. You can also alert a snake to your approach by using a walking stick to sweep an area before entering. Remember that snakes are usually non-aggressive toward people and will only attack when startled, cornered, or stepped on.

If you are bitten, it’s important to stay calm to keep your pulse low and prevent the venom from spreading. You should get to a hospital immediately, keep the bite positioned below the heart, remove clothing that may cause swelling, and wash the wound, if possible. You should also allow the wound to bleed freely, as this may expel some of the venom. However, do not make an incision at the site or attempt to suck the venom out with your mouth, as this increases the chance of infection.

First Aid

If you find yourself in an encounter like the one listed above, regardless of how rare that might be, it can be beneficial to understand a few basic first-aid tips to manage the worst-case scenario of an animal bite. Immediately following an attack that results in a bite or a scratch, you or someone in your party should inspect the wound to classify it as minor or severe.

Minor wounds are instances when the skin is slightly or not broken at all, while severe wounds are instances of a bite or scratch that is torn, bleeding badly, or deep, as in the case of a puncture.

For minor wounds, the first step is to thoroughly wash the wound with warm, soapy water or cleanse it with an antibacterial spray or wipe. Apply antibiotic cream immediately. Following this step, cover the wound with a clean bandage and as time passes, keep an eye out for signs of infection, changing the bandage as need. Signs of a local wound infection may include: warmth, pus, red streaks, a foul odor, or pain with joint movement.

For severe wounds, the response is a little different. When dealing with a situation like this, the first step is to apply uniform pressure with a clean cloth directly on the wound. The goal here is to try and stop or limit the amount of bleeding. Work to immobilize the area of the bite and try to keep it elevated.

When dealing with a bite, scratch or puncture wound on a joint, hand, or a foot, seek medical attention immediately as these injuries are serious and, due to the sensitive location, might need to be treated with a prescribed antibiotic. Additionally, the treating medical providers may deem it necessary to administer vaccines for rabies or other diseases potentially carried by wild animals.

Be Prepared

Many wildlife experts advise Coloradans not to be overly afraid of a wild animal attack. The fear of encountering mountain lions, bears, or any number of other potentially dangerous animals shouldn’t detract from your work, daily life, or your outdoor adventures. The likelihood that you will encounter, let alone be attacked, by animals is extremely remote.

Instead, it’s better to be prepared and educate yourself on how best to respect wildlife, prevent conflicts, and respond to attacks so you can safely enjoy your surroundings. Wild animals don’t want to hurt you or your employees or guests. They simply want to be left alone.

The owner of this website has made a commitment to accessibility and inclusion, please report any problems that you encounter using the contact form on this website. This site uses the WP ADA Compliance Check plugin to enhance accessibility.