A rash of recent mountain lion attacks have resulted in the deaths of at least one dog and 15 cats, and Grand County residents remain on edge because lions are still in this area.
The first attacks on cats began in Kremmling at the home of Sami and Shawn Lechman during the week of Jan. 15.
On Jan. 19., a mountain lion killed Rob and Sara Gonzales’ dog. Then a separate lion attacked a dog on Jan. 23. The dog survived the Jan. 23 attack. Both attacks on dogs occurred in Grand Lake.
Attacks on cats
“I had 15 cats — now I have none,” said Kremmling resident Sami Lechman.
The Lechman family lives on a ranch 5 miles from Old Park, in a secluded area that has long been home to lions. While the family has previously coexisted peacefully with the animals, everything changed this month.
“The lion came to the right house because I am the crazy cat lady. I’ve had some of these cats for 13 years,” Lechman said. “The barn cats — you just feed them, they control the rodent population. They were part mountain lion themselves. … Three of the cats were gentle, well-loved cats.”
Lechman suspects only one lion is responsible for killing all her cats, since it wears a tracking collar. Lechman stated Colorado Parks and Wildlife officials collared the cat in Old Park because it was hunting feral cats roughly a week before it began targeting her home.
“All I’ve been finding is bits and pieces of cats,” she said. “It came in broad daylight, and it was not afraid of me at all. … I watched it eat one of my cats.”
She added she worries for neighbors with small children, and her family’s other livestock, including chickens and goats. After seeing the lions, she says her dogs are too afraid to leave the house.
“They are scary because they are so sneaky,” Lechman said. “They’ve said for years and years here that you don’t see them, but they see you.”
She has lived in Kremmling for 45 years, but this is her first time spotting a mountain lion. So far, her neighbors have been safe from the lion, “but I bet it is headed somewhere next because I’m out of cats,” she said.
Attacks on dogs
In Grand Lake, residents have reported spotting three mountain lions roaming for weeks, though the number of lions hasn’t been confirmed by Parks and Wildlife officials. Mountain lion sightings in Grand Lake aren’t unusual, but residents say these lions haven’t behaved in a typical manner.
Sara Gonzales was walking her dog, Red, on County Road 461 when one of the lions ambushed the dog and killed him.
“This was a 65-pound, incredibly healthy, very strong dog taken by surprise,” said Rob Gonzales, Sara’s husband. “This was an alpha male dog.”
According to Parks and Wildlife spokesperson Rachael Gonzales, Rob Gonzales came to the scene of the attack and shot and killed the lion.
“Even though the wife was making noise, (the lion) was just too close for human health and safety,” said Rachael Gonzales, who is unrelated to Rob and Sara.
Rob and Sara Gonzales emphasized that Red was not wandering on his own during the walk, and Sara was less than 10 feet away when the lion approached.
“This happened at noon, right in the middle of the day,” Rob Gonzales said.
This isn’t a typical time for lions to hunt. About three hours after the attack, Rob Gonzales said, a different lion was spotted in the area on a security camera. Rob and Sara said they hadn’t ever seen a mountain lion in the wild until this incident.
Grand County Deputy Sheriff Sean Curran and Parks and Wildlife area wildlife manager Jeromy Huntington responded to the scene and removed the dead lion, which was a female between 6 and 7 years old.
Rob Gonzales added that he and Sara want to thank Curran and Huntington for their work responding to the scene. Rob encouraged residents to be proactive to prevent future attacks, since lions may still be prowling the area.
“Every time you see a mountain lion, please call and report it to (Parks and Wildlife) because they need to know how much mountain lion activity is currently going on in our neighborhood,” he said. “The more people that report it, the more pressure on the authorities to do something about it.”
Since the attack on the dog, Grand Lake residents have continued to see lions. Brianna Lund made a Facebook post on the Grand County Sales and Community page that her mother, Cathy Lund, had her dog attacked by a lion near Columbine Lake on Jan. 23. The small, elderly dog survived and is recovering from surgery at the veterinarian’s office.
Because the lion that attacked Lund’s dog was in close proximity to her while she and her dog were in their driveway, Parks and Wildlife deemed the lion a threat to human health and safety. According to Rachael Gonzales, the lion was euthanized by Parks and Wildlife officers the same day.
Controlling the mountain lion population
Can people kill lions they deem a threat? It depends. In the Gonzales’ case, the lion was extremely close to Sara and thus a risk to her, so it could be killed legally. However, it is illegal to kill lions solely because they may be targeting pets. This law helps preserve the species.
According to a state statute guiding Parks and Wildlife, a lion can only be killed if it targets livestock, real property such as vehicles or is a risk to human life. Pets are considered personal property.
Dangerous lions can be relocated, but Parks and Wildlife officials typically hesitate to do so, because another lion can enter the territory to take its place, and the relocated lion is liable to wreak havoc elsewhere. It is legal to hunt lions in Colorado with an active license and education certificate issued by Parks and Wildlife.
Hunting keeps the population in check and is a key part of Parks and Wildlife’s West Slope Lion Management Plan. In the 2021-22 hunting season, 486 lion tags were filled, and 2,493 hunters pulled tags.
In Grand County and surrounding counties, such as Summit and Jackson, all tags were filled in the 2021-22 season, with 41 lions harvested. However, the sport is dwindling in some places. In Nederland, where a spate of attacks led to the death of 15 dogs in December, no lion tags have been filled since 2005.
Mountain lion statistics
Along with grizzly bears and wolves, mountain lions are apex predators. They hunt using stealth to ambush their prey, typically from behind, using their powerful jaws to break the prey’s neck.
Mountain lions can sprint up to 50 mph and jump up to 15 feet. Males typically weigh 140-170 pounds, and females weigh 80-100 pounds. They grow up to 8 feet long (including the tail) and stand 2-3 feet tall at the shoulder. By comparison, an adult male German Shepherd is about 70-90 pounds and about 2 feet tall.
Parks and Wildlife officials estimate there are between 3,000-7,000 lions in Colorado, although the exact population in Grand County is unknown.
“Obviously, there are mountain lions up there. A lot of times they’re not really seen. They’re a very elusive animal,” Rachael Gonzales said. “The (Kremmling) area is the winter range for elk and deer, which is their natural food source.”
She added that Parks and Wildlife officials are currently leading a decadelong study on mountain lion population density in Grand and Gunnison counties, which began in 2021.
Mountain lion sightings in Colorado have been on the rise since 2020, but officials say this isn’t necessarily because their populations are exploding.
“It’s not like suddenly there are a lot more cats; it’s just that we’re seeing them a lot more often,” said John Livingston, public information officer for the Durango area, in a 2021 interview with The Denver Post. “We have ways of seeing them that we didn’t in the past. If your doorbell (camera) picks up a mountain lion walking through your front yard as it stalks a pack of mule deer in the middle of the night, you never would have seen it before. Now you get an alert on your phone and you see that animal.”
Mountain lion safety
Rachael Gonzales explained that the best tactic to stay safe in mountain lion territory is to make sure lions stay scared of humans.
“The goal is to make the mountain lion as uncomfortable as you possibly can, so it knows it’s not welcome there,” she said.
She added that pet owners should be careful letting their animals outside, especially during dawn and dusk, when mountain lions typically hunt.
“With cats, it’s not recommended to leave them out at night, but with dogs sometimes you don’t have that option,” she said.
She advises pet owners to turn porch lights on and off, scan the area (flashlights can pick up lions’ reflective eyes), and make lots of noise to scare any lions off before letting pets out at dark.
“If you’re able to, stay with your animal,” she said. “Especially in wintertime, we don’t want to stand outside, but again, having that presence and making them feel unwelcome is the key if you live in mountain lion habitat.”
Another tactic is to leave a radio on playing loudly, since lions are spooked by human voices. Lastly, Rachael states that people should never feed wildlife (which is illegal) or leave pet food out — a deer or raccoon seeking a human-provided meal will soon attract a lion looking for its own meal.
She also stressed the importance of educating children about mountain lion safety.
“If they see a mountain lion, they (should) yell at the top of their lungs, ‘Go away, mountain lion!’ Young children don’t have deep voices, but get them to be firm as they possibly can,” she said.
She added yelling the words “mountain lion” can help alert people around the area that the predators are close.
Living with lions
Rachael stated that lion attacks on pets aren’t unheard of in Grand County, but not very common.
“You tend to see these (attacks) happen more in the Boulder area, in populated places,” she said. “We’re not seeing any more attacks this year (in Grand) than happened in the past.”
Attacks on humans are even more rare. Since 1990, Parks and Wildlife has recorded 25 attacks on humans, with three fatalities. According to Parks and Wildlife, the last attack on a human in Colorado occurred in Loveland in March 2020. In August 2019, a lion attacked a hunter scouting elk in Kremmling, but he succeeded in warding the lion off by throwing rocks and stabbing it with a pocketknife.
Mountain lions are intrinsically frightened of humans, who are apex predators in their own right and do hunt them. The question is whether lions in the area have maintained this fear. Recent attacks and frequent sightings suggest they may no longer feel threatened by humans they previously coexisted with.
In the meantime, officials are encouraging Grand County visitors and residents to contacting Parks and Wildlife for every lion sighting, keep pets close at all times, and practice hazing behaviors (such as yelling and flashing lights) to help keep their pets, and themselves, safe.
“We want wildlife to always remain wild, but health and human safety is our first priority,” Rachael Gonzales said.
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