February 2, 2023

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Pam Rose texted a Colorado Parks and Wildlife official on the evening of Dec. 9 to tell him she had started to fear for her 11-year-old daughter’s safety because two mountain lions seemed to be casing her home.  

Rose boards and trains horses on a small ranch off Magnolia Road, which connects Boulder Canyon to the Peak to Peak Highway. Since early November, she had been contending with the lions, which she says had been “actively stalking” her mini horse and daughter’s pony. Her tenant, Sarah Bennett, had also encountered them on early-morning runs with her dog, Bagel. 

The lions had been around for weeks by that point. Rose had seen them watching the horses from a hillside on her land in the Roosevelt National Forest. Reports of lions attacking dogs in her immediate neighborhood, coupled with their sudden interest in the livestock and Bagel, had put her nervous system in “overdrive,” she says. 

The night she texted CPW was a breaking point. A lion had been sitting outside of Bennett’s garden-level door, seemingly waiting for her to bring Bagel outside to pee. Bennett saw it 25 feet away and rushed the dog back inside. “I felt like it knew our patterns,” Rose says. “It knew Bagel lived there, and it was waiting to attack.”  

But Rose, Bennett and Bagel were luckier than dozens of Nederland-area residents who’d had mountain lion encounters in the months and weeks before. 

A member of the “Nedheads” Facebook group created a mountain lion tracker map that showed 23 dogs had either disappeared, been attacked or were killed by lions between April 4 and Dec. 9, with the greatest number of reports occurring between Nov. 14 and Dec. 9. 

During those last three weeks, seven dogs died, two had been stalked, one survived an attack and one vanished. 

People speculated that it was one lion, or two, or a group of four or five doing the damage. Which is to say no one could pinpoint the exact lion or lions targeting their pets. Amid fear, uncertainty and anger that they could no longer walk their dogs without worry, residents wanted help. 

In response, Sam Peterson, CPW’s Area 2 Boulder South District wildlife manager, held a meeting at the Nederland community center. Most of it focused on how to peacefully coexist with lions, but that’s not what the 140 people who attended were after. They wanted to know why lions were hiding out under porches, grabbing 100-pound Dobermans and 70-pound Labs and stalking dogs on leashes held by humans. 

They wanted to know if CPW had identified the offending lions; if so, what the agency planned to do about them; and how long they were expected to live with “neighbors” that were killing their best friends. 

The complexity of living with lions 

Game Management Unit 29 spans from the Continental Divide to Interstate 25 and includes mountain neighborhoods west of Boulder, including Ward, Nederland and Rollinsville.

As is true with many matters of wildlife management, there are no simple answers. First, in the region Peterson oversees — Game Management Unit 29 — there are an estimated four lions per 36 square miles in an area that stretches from the Continental Divide east to Interstate 25. “That’s, yeah. That’s a lot of lions,” Peterson says. “That means there are quite a few animals out there on the landscape.”

Colorado typically offers two mountain lion hunting licenses in GMU 29 each season, but no tags have been filled since 2005. This means the number of lions in the area is “higher than what we want them to be in relation to our management plan,” Peterson says. Last year 2,493 people pulled mountain lion hunting licenses statewide, and 486 were filled, a 19% success rate.  

A Colorado mountain lion is an arresting animal. Adult males can grow to 8-feet long, including their tail, and weigh 225 pounds. Adult females may be 7-feet long and weigh 150 pounds. They are generally calm, quiet and elusive, CPW says, tending to live in remote, primitive regions with plentiful deer and adequate cover. 

Sam Peterson has twice set traps like this in places where lions appear to be threatening humans. (Julia Vandenoever, Special to The Colorado Sun)

That describes the area surrounding Nederland where the surge in lion attacks has been reported. Clusters of houses are tucked away in quiet neighborhoods within the Roosevelt forest. Residents live there for the backdoor access to cross-country skiing, mountain biking, hiking and hunting. They’re used to coyotes snatching their chickens, moose devouring their willows and black bears that know how to open car doors and do so all summer. 

But mountain lions are scarier, due to their size, perceived ferociousness and known ability to study patterns of movement in animals and humans that they use to ambush prey. Individual lions are also harder to identify than, say, a bear, “where it’s like, oh yeah, it’s the black one with the limp or scar on its eye,” Peterson says. And they generally hunt in the dark. 

The dog attacks around Nederland ranged from Hurricane Hill, near the top of Boulder Canyon, to Big Springs, within town limits, to both sides of Winiger Ridge, and into Gilpin County around the town of Rollinsville. 

So it was difficult for Peterson to say if there was an “it” doing the killing, or a “them.” But he did tell the crowd at the community center that mountain lions live in the Nederland area “probably for the same reasons you’re here: the prey availability, the shelter, the space. It’s fantastic mountain lion habitat.” 

He also laid out some things people could do to deter lions, to keep their dogs from ending up dead. 

The list included removing thick brush or tree limbs, where cats can lie in wait; using motion-detection, flood lights and loud music around a home’s exterior; yelling or singing when traveling through the woods or feeding horses and gathering firewood; walking dogs on a leash; and keeping pets indoors during prime mountain lion hunting times — dawn and dusk. 

For some, good information too late 

The audience Peterson addressed, however, included people who had already lost dogs to lion attacks or knew those who had. Like Gea Franklin, whose off-leash 11-year-old shih tzu, Willow, disappeared during a “pre-bedtime bathroom break” just outside her house in the Hurricane Hill neighborhood of Nederland on Nov. 30. 

With the exterior lights on and Franklin standing outside, Willow vanished “in the blink of an eye,” she wrote on Facebook on Dec. 7. “We found cougar tracks near her that we chased desperately through the night for hours to no avail. We’ve continued to search hours and acres with no sign of her. It looks like the lion, myself and Willow were most likely in a triangle just feet apart with the lion hidden, from the snow tracks we saw.” 

Duke was the last dog I thought this would happen to because he was so
nature-savvy. Shit happens. And I hate to say it, but it’s better than one of my kids.

— AJ Koziel on finding his 6-year-old Bernese mountain dog mauled by a mountain lion in October. Koziel now carries a spear when he walks Coral, his 2-year-old great Pyrenees

(Julia Vandenoever, Special to The Colorado Sun)

AJ Koziel’s 90-pound Bernese mountain dog mix, Duke, vanished from his house in the Gamble Gulch neighborhood near Rollinsville on Oct. 27. 

Koziel let Duke outside to go to the bathroom. When he didn’t return, Koziel knew something was wrong. It was dark, so Koziel waited for morning to go looking. When he found Duke’s body, on a hillside above his house, he says he saw claw marks on his hips and most of his neck, “one shoulder hanging off to the side, and half of the skin on his face torn off.” As someone who honors the natural life-and-death cycle, Koziel said he left Duke’s body where it lay, “for the raven and his brothers to feast on.”

Zack Stansfield, who lives not far from Pam Rose off Magnolia Road, had watched a mountain lion drag his 50-pound Catahoula-black Lab mix, Lilah, into the woods on the night of Dec. 1.  

Stansfield loves wilderness and wild animals so much that last winter, after finding a fresh mountain lion cache (a dead elk) on a hillside near his land, he went back the following night, hoping to see the lion in action. Four lions arrived and Stansfield watched them for an hour. An avid animal tracker, he said he believed three of the cats belonged to the same family — a mother and two adolescents. Seeing them didn’t scare him, he says, but he and his wife had been “appropriately cautious” when it came to Lilah.

On the evening of Dec. 1, he went outside with Lilah. Looking away from her and then back, he saw the “disembodied LED light” attached to her collar moving into the distance. When it went over a barbed wire fence and into the meadow beyond, he started sprinting after it, eventually catching up to the lion holding Lilah by the neck. 

I started yelling like a madman and the lion let go.

— Zack Stansfield, who was able to reach his 3-year-old Catahoula-Lab mix Lilah in time to save her from a mountain lion attack

(Julia Vandenoever, Special to The Colorado Sun)

“I started yelling like a madman and the lion let go,” he said. It was growling and hissing, but gave no chase when Stansfield ran after Lilah. 

Lilah had puncture wounds on her head and neck as well as lacerations on her belly. Stansfield and his wife drove her to the emergency vet hospital in Boulder, where the dog received 10 stitches and a drain in her abdomen, seven stitches to close a sizable wound on the back of her neck, and, he says, “a bunch more stitches scattered all around — 25 total.” 

All five pet owners admit to having lingering fear after their dogs’ run-ins with lions. They all also recognize the reality of living in the woods among wild predators. But most of the people interviewed for this story were unfamiliar with the state statute that guides Colorado Parks and Wildlife. The law differentiates between “real” and “personal” property, allowing people to kill wildlife that threatens their “real” property, such as livestock, houses and motor vehicles. But it’s illegal to kill predators that threaten “personal” property, which includes dogs. CPW wildlife officials can trap or kill a mountain lion for damaging real property, but not for personal property. 

CPW will also attempt to trap and kill a lion if it exhibits aggressive behavior toward humans. Peterson says he twice set out traps for lions near Nederland and Rollinsville in the month of December, after the lions killed dogs and “in the process approached people to within about 10 yards.” But for every aggressive act toward a human, the lions were aggressive toward multiple dogs.   

“As morbid and messed up as it sounds, if we just have a dog getting attacked or killed and no human involvement, then it’s just lions doing lion things and we can’t kill them,” Peterson said. “But if we were responding to every pet that was killed by wildlife with lethal removal, then we would be spending the majority of our time as officers (at least on the Front Range) doing that, and we would have to kill a lot of bears, lions, bobcats and coyotes. Instead, I think the best solution is advocating for responsible pet ownership and being diligent with your pets when living or visiting areas where wildlife are likely to be.”

Anger over CPW’s policies 

Many residents say that view is problematic because for decades they’ve walked their dogs at dawn and dusk, let them run free in their wooded neighborhoods and given them unsupervised bathroom breaks without them disappearing or getting eaten. 

“I’ve lived in Gamble Gulch for 16 years,” Koziel says, referring to his neighborhood south of Rollinsville. “I’ve had three dogs pass of old age that have all been completely free to do what they want. Duke was the last dog I thought this would happen to because he was so nature-savvy. Shit happens. And I hate to say it, but it’s better than one of my kids.” 

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Koziel now carries a spear when he walks his new dog, Coral. Stansfield now wields a stout stick when he’s out with Lilah. And Rose now carries a 9 mm pistol when she and her daughter walk their dog or feed their horses. 

Rose says her daughter is afraid to check the mail alone. “And I don’t want her to. She won’t walk across the street to her friend’s house. And I damned sure don’t want her to ride by herself. Which is sad, because all of these were empowering her.”  

As for why accounts of attacks ramped up in recent months, Peterson says it might be partly due to social media.

“I’ve heard from a lot of people, ‘I’ve lived here for 30 years and this has never happened.’ I get that it hasn’t to a small community or individual, but six or seven years ago, it did over on South Beaver Road (between Magnolia and Rollinsville). And there were issues like this with lions on lower Magnolia 10 to 12 years ago. But over the past five to 10 years, we’ve become more prone to share information because of better avenues. So even if people think it hasn’t happened before, it has at least on a slightly smaller scale.”

That doesn’t calm the community, which grew more and more alarmed as reports of attacks racked up through the month of December. 

Theories also swirled about why the cats were attacking.

Some think construction of the Gross Reservoir Dam expansion, just south of Magnolia Road, has pushed the cats out of their territory. Others believe increased hunting pressure in the Magnolia area is depleting deer, lions’ natural food source. Some blame habituation: a lion stumbles on a tasty meal in a dog tied on a tether or trapped inside a fence and tucks in.

Eric Stone, a Nederland musician and retired wildlife biologist who studied mountain lions in the 1990s, says both a low early-winter snowpack and chronic wasting disease in the deer population may be the culprits.  

“This is kind of a hard winter right now for lions,” he says. “The ground is crunchy and makes a lot of noise. Lions are at a disadvantage to hunt their usual prey. And this lion might be sick or hungry or starving — taking advantage of easy prey.” 

Lion or lions? Sick or healthy? One thing CPW believes is that the lion or lions attacking dogs aren’t the ones that went after Bagel. “I think there is one, possibly two cats that are involved with attacking dogs,” Peterson wrote in an email Dec. 21. “I don’t think the pair that are near Pam’s house are directly involved.”

Rose disagrees. She stopped seeing the adult female lion around when attacks stopped in Stansfield’s neighborhood over Winiger Ridge from Rose’s ranch. “But there’s been a whole lot of sightings of this adolescent, which is a full-grown cat,” she says.  

She won’t walk across the street to her friend’s house. And I damned sure don’t want her to ride by herself. Which is sad, because all of these were empowering her.

— Pam Rose, with her BLM mustang Sunny, on how recent mountain lion attacks have made her 11-year-old daughter fearful

(Julia Vandenoever, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Either way, the question remained: Why wasn’t CPW doing more to find and deal with the lions when so many dogs were dying? 

An ongoing debate heated up on Nedheads, with some members blaming CPW for negligence, because although it had the authority to bring in a team of hounds, find the lion, and kill it, it hadn’t, and for them to think the cat was “just going to decide to stop targeting residents’ dogs for food” was ludicrous.  

But Paul McCarthy, a longtime Magnolia resident, wrote: “The lions belong here. Being vigilant about your safety and that of your pets and kids is the answer. Or if you’re energetic enough, take a shot at Denver Water and their blasting at Gross, where they have destroyed habitat. See what they want to do about this.”

And still others called out the lion lovers, accusing them of making the issue at hand “one of people wanting to kill all the wildlife.” This was likely one lion that was not behaving as a healthy animal does. People live in the mountains for their diversity of species, but also appreciate the necessity to keep it safe. When in the past had people walked around with the sense of fear that the lion brought? 

Several residents wondered about a common tool they’d heard CPW used with “problem” animals: relocation. That would have been predicated on CPW catching the animal, and Peterson says, “We have relocation as a tool to use but there is a lot more to it than most people realize. We start running into issues with territory disruptions or ‘moving the problem’ when relocation is considered. Usually we will move an animal if it is in an area that has poor habitat.” 

They treat “problem bears” similarly. In 2022, one bear was relocated in GMU 29 and one mountain lion was relocated. No bears or lions were killed by CPW in that time period in GMU 29.

Human and animal safety are up to humans 

A simpler thing might have slowed the cats’ attacks: human adaptation. 

On Dec. 8, Katie Albright, a specialist in searching for lost dogs, who used to live in Nederland, made a Facebook group called “Peak to Peak poster project,” and designed signs warning people of lion activity in their neighborhoods. McCarthy paid for 30 posters and distributed them with Nederland resident Chris Jenson. Donations rolled in, and McCarthy bought 50 more signs. Now 78 of 80 are up, in neighborhoods between South Beaver Road, Lump, Gamble and Moon gulches, all along Magnolia Road and its side roads, in Nederland, and on Sugarloaf Mountain, east of Nederland. 

The citizen-initiated Peak to Peak Poster Project paid for 80 signs warning people that mountain lions are hunting in neighborhoods around Nederland. This one is one posted along Magnolia Drive. (Julia Vandenoever, Special to The Colorado Sun)

On Nedheads and other social media sites, people disseminated additional lion safety info. And Peterson gave the same educational talk he did at the Nederland community center at the Gilpin County Public Library and Wild Bear Nature Center.

By the third week of December, reports of lion attacks started dying off dramatically. 

Some residents even started feeling comfortable enough to let their dogs outside by themselves in the early morning and evening. 

On Dec. 21 in a Facebook message, Claire Farley, who helped create the wildlife tracker map, told The Sun, “I’ve been really happy about the lower frequency recently. As I see it, there’s a chance that citizen awareness could save BOTH their dogs and the lion. If the ‘food source’ (dogs) dries up close to houses, the lion probably won’t come close to houses so often, which could save his life (assuming that he’s still healthy enough to hunt deer).”

Then, on Dec. 26, a lion took a dog in Moon Gulch, near Rollinsville. 

“Our beloved Aussie shepherd was snatched off the porch by a massive mountain lion right in front of me as I ran to open the door,” Caroline Bennett wrote on Nedheads. “[It] was like a dragon took him out of the sky and then leapt 20 ft off the deck. I know we’ve all heard it before but this is obviously NOT normal coexistence behavior and I’m now scared for our children (and the grownups after seeing the size & strength of the lion.)” 

Readers immediately criticized CPW while calling for more interaction, with one writing,  “We (the surrounding residents) are doing what we can, but we need some help from CPW,” and another saying, “We need more than a presentation on how to live with Mtn. Lions!!!” 

But CPW had continued working to identify and haze lions. 

On Dec. 27, for instance, Peterson went to Rose’s house to try to call one in using several recordings of dog vocalizations. 

He stood on Rose’s deck with a 12-gauge shotgun at the ready. If a lion came, he intended to shoot it with “beanbag” slugs designed for hazing. He went to Rose’s because hers the only house in the Magnolia area he’d been able to identify that had regular sightings, he said. “So I thought it presented the best opportunity to try some more proactive hazing. And while it didn’t really address the root of the problem (pets unattended outside), it could help to try to change behavior of a cat that has been targeting pets or ensure that that behavior doesn’t manifest later on for an individual cat.” 

But at the same time a different cat was on the hunt near a home 7 miles away in Gilpin County. 

Between 4 and 5 p.m. on Umatilla Road, Stephanie Andelman and her partner, Phil Chappell, were unloading sound equipment from their car with their 80-pound Siberian husky-malamute mix, Coda, sniffing the ground behind a trailer 10 feet away from them. Andelman heard a “loud and shrill” scream come from Coda, she says. Running toward him, she saw a cat twice the dog’s size “crouched down, hugging him.”  

Screaming as loud as she could and lunging after them, she watched the cat, with Coda in its paws, “tuck, roll and slide” onto the road. Chappell screamed and started making as much noise as he could with a shovel. The lion released Coda. “The cat went under our cabin while Phil was 10 feet away continuing to scream, but it didn’t care. It was staring at Coda and me,” Andelman said. 

The large, reddish cat walked up a neighbor’s driveway and behind Andelman’s house. Several minutes later, she says, she and Chappell heard several gunshots. CPW’s deputy regional manager Kristin Cannon filled in the rest of the story. 

Cannon says the lion attacked a dog at a home 400 yards from Andelman’s and that during the attack, the dog’s owner killed the lion. She reiterated what Peterson had said, that it’s illegal to kill a lion to protect a pet but that in this instance CPW won’t be pressing charges due to “the totality of the circumstances.”  

“No, you can’t kill a mountain lion for attacking your dog. But the officer on the scene, after examining the evidence, hearing the witness statements, and consulting with his supervisor, decided not to charge the individual for killing the lion,” she said. 

This adult mountain lion — shown here after being found near the University of Colorado campus in Boulder in 2021 — was tranquilized and tagged, and relocated to the mountains. The lion was killed near Nederland on Dec. 27, after it attacked dogs in two different yards. (Colorado Parks and Wildlife photo)

Cannon added that the lion had a green tag in each ear, an indication that it had been relocated. 

Peterson had said CPW doesn’t relocate problem cats, something Cannon confirmed and explained further.  

“We don’t relocate lions that are causing issues, but we do relocate ones that have found themselves in a bad location,” she said. “This lion was not behaving in a bad way, it was just hanging around the CU Boulder campus, and we don’t want them on campus hiding under a bush. It’s not safe. ”  

In the fall of 2021, CPW released the lion in the Johnny Park Area on Roosevelt National Forest land northwest of Pinewood Springs near Lyons, Cannon said. Between then and now, it traveled more than 20 miles to the Nederland area. 

“We are going to relocate a lion to lion habitat,” Cannon said, “and that is something people are going to have to live with. Because anyone living in the mountains has to live with wildlife.”

If you have an encounter with a mountain lion, contact CPW’s Denver headquarters at (303) 297-1192 on weekdays from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.. If the encounter occurs outside of these hours, contact your local sheriff’s office.