Wildlife in Colorado. Photo by Flickr user Mark Byzewski

What to Do If You See a Mountain Lion


This is wild country.

It can be easy to forget with fine dining, traffic jams and a highly-rated university. But Boulder is snuggled up to the foothills. We live with one foot in the city and one in nature.

It’s common to see deer, foxes and even the occasional black bear right in town. And the “conveniently located” trails right at the edge of downtown? Yeah, some of them are the home of snakes and mountain lions.

After the Colorado man who was running on a trail on the Front Range was attacked by a mountain lion (and fought it off), it’s got people wondering: What do you do if you’re attacked by a wild animal in Colorado? On one hand, we know this is their territory, but many people come here explicitly for the beautiful outdoors and we don’t want to be afraid to enjoy it.

With a little knowledge and some common sense, too, it’s possible to set yourself up for a safe experience in Boulder’s open space and mountains while respecting the animals that live there.

Here are some ways to coexist with wildlife in Boulder County and beyond.

Wildlife in Colorado. Photo by Flickr user Mark Byzewski

1. Don’t take bear selfies (and do other stupid things for Instagram).

You’d think this would be common sense, yet it’s easy to find viral videos of bison charging children and even hashtags like #bearselfie. Fact: Your cell phone doesn’t make you invincible, and it’s not a weapon. It’s not worth it to try to get closer to wildlife to score a sweet selfie. It’s confusing to the animals, too, and may make them feel threatened. It’s disrespectful, not to mention just. Plain. Dumb.

Instead, stay far away from wildlife if you can. Elk are not large, cuddly puppies. The National Parks Service says do not approach or disturb wildlife for a reason.

How close is too close? The NPS says to stay at least 75 feet (imagine two bus lengths) away from all wildlife, and at least 120 feet (or three buses) away from bears, moose and mountain lions.

If you want a close-up view, pack binoculars or a good camera with a lens that can zoom. Learn more about how to take photos of wildlife here.

Don’t call, click or make noise to try to attract wild animals either. That’s against the law. Plus, it’s annoying.

Yeah, this yellow-bellied marmot is cute, but don’t feet him. Photo by Flickr user Chris Collins

2. Don’t feed the wildlife. Any wildlife.

Obviously, don’t dangle a slab of meat in front of a cougar. But also don’t try to feed gentler prey animals like deer, rabbits, prairie dogs or (sorry) even squirrels. Human food is not good for animals, and it can put them at risk. Not everyone may be as nice as you, and luring innocent animals into parking lots where cars are driving around can end in their death. You are not being sweet by tossing your leftover granola bar to the bighorn sheep. It can make them ill or they might end up frightened and charging you or a child.

Some animals, like rabbits, can carry diseases that can infect you if you are bitten. You just don’t know. So stop doing it.

Don’t even try to feed wild animals grass or their natural food. Leave them alone. They’re not pets. Don’t try to train them to beg, either. This can eventually lead to aggressive behavior.

Wildlife in Colorado. Photo by Flickr user Dave C.

3. Try to avoid running into wildlife to begin with.

Most wildlife doesn’t want to interact with you any more than you want to interact with it.

Visit the ranger station (or check trip reports) before you head out on a trail to see if there have been any wild animal reports. Stay clear of those areas.

Other tips:

  • Stay on the trail.
  • Travel in groups and stick together. Wildlife is less likely to attack a group than a person alone. However, a large group of people (pulled over on the side of the road) circling or approaching an animal can seem like a threat and cause the animal to attack. Don’t join that dangerous party.
  • Don’t wear headphones so you can hear what’s going on around you.
  • Stay alert and attentive to your surroundings.
  • Avoid thick brush or undergrowth.
  • Keep dogs leashed.
  • Consider going on late fall and winter hikes, when there’s less wildlife risk.

In addition, you can minimize the chance of bumping into a rattlesnake by hiking with trekking poles that can push back brush. Dress appropriately, too. Wear long pants and tall boots to protect against rattlesnake bites.

A mountain lion at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo. Photo by Flickr user Mark Byzewski

4. Know what to do if you meet a dangerous predator.

It’s rare, but it can happen. Before you go for a hike, memorize the NPS’s recommendations:

  • If you encounter a bear, first stand still and stay calm. Chances are, the bear will leave. Avoid eye contact or erratic behavior. If it doesn’t go away or seems to be hunting you, now you want to try to appear as big and scary as possible so the bear doesn’t want to mess with you. Stand up tall, pick up a stick and wave it around to appear bigger, throw small rocks, scream, make a total ruckus. If you’re lucky, this will scare it away. On the unfortunate chance that this doesn’t work and the bear attacks, do not play dead, according to the NPS. Do not run either. Fight back. Fight for your life. Bears around here are most active mid-March through early November and tend to hibernate in the winter.
  • If you run into a mountain lion, stay calm. Don’t run away or that will create a chase. Instead, slowly try to back away while keeping your face toward the lion. Just as with a bear, try to look at big as possible so it doesn’t want to fight you. Hold your arms up or hold a stick above you to appear larger. If you’re with small children, pick them up. In this case, however, you want to appear like a predator. Maintain eye contact, wave your hands and make a ton of noise. But if the cat charges, just like the man who was recently attacked, your best bet is to fight back.

    A rattlesnake. Photo by Flickr user Mia & Steve Mestdagh
  • If you see a rattlesnake while you’re hiking, freeze. A rattlesnake is more likely to snap if it feels threatened, so stop and assess the situation. You may hear a rattlesnake before you see it, so know the sound before you hike, and if you hear it, stop and try to locate the source. Then slowly move away, making no quick movements. If you have a stick or hiking pole, place it carefully between you and the snake. If it attacks, it may bite the pole first. Note: Dogs are more likely to be bitten than humans, due to the way dogs act.
Camping in Colorado. Photo by Flickr user Chris Amelung

5. Camp wisely.
When camping, it’s also important to take precautions. Don’t let your dog wander around; he could lure wildlife back to your camp. Check the site before setting up camp and look for signs (droppings, tracks, claw marks on logs) of a bear or other animal. If you see suspicious signs, pick another site or leave.

Always keep your campground clean; throw trash away in bear-proof trash bins.

Don’t leave food out. If you’re lucky, there might be a special bear-proof food storage locker nearby. If not, the trunk of your car is safer than leaving it on camp. Not only will this keep you safe, but it can keep the animals safe, too. If your messy campsite attracts wildlife, it may end up euthanized. Double-bag your food, too. Bears can smell food five miles away, according to Colorado Parks and Wildlife.

Also, don’t eat in your tent, don’t bring or wear scented toiletries (this includes sweet-smelling toothpaste, sunscreen and bug spray) and don’t sleep in the same clothes you ate and cooked in. In other words, try not to make your bed smell like someone else’s plate of food.

Camping in Rocky Mountain National Park. Photo by Flickr user Chris Collins

6. Be prepared.

When camping or hiking, especially in the backcountry, it’s wise to carry bear spray. Always tell someone where you will be, and talk to the park rangers, too — before you head out and if you run into an aggressive animal. This can help keep others safe.

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