‘There’s no clear answer’: Questions Remain After Mountain Lion Attacks Colorado Trail Runner

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On Feb. 4, trail runner Travis Kauffman, 31, survived a mountain lion attack west of Fort Collins, Colorado. The incident represents one of only 20 known mountain lion attacks that have taken place in Colorado since 1990.

On a recent Monday afternoon, Travis Kauffman set out for a 10- to 15-mile trail run just west of Fort Collins, Colorado. From Lory State Park, the 31-year-old made his way to the Towers Trail in Horsetooth Mountain Open Space. Although it was first time running Towers, which tops out at above 7,000 feet, he’d been there before on his mountain bike and knew it was an “intense hill … good for getting some hill training in.”

After making his way along a spur of the West Ridge Trail, a shuffle in the pine needles behind him caught his attention. These types of noises don’t always cause Kauffman to stop and turn aroundsometimes he’ll continue running, chalking the rustling up to a small woodland creature. But in the back of his mind, he says, there’s always the possibility it’s something else. As Kauffman turned his head, one of his “worst fears” was confirmed: He saw a juvenile mountain lion staring back at him.

Ten days after he was attacked by a mountain lion, the Fort Collins resident shared his story of survival. The attack left the runner with serious, non-life-threatening injuries, but alive. Still, questions remain as to why the mountain lion attacked in the first place.

After spotting the mountain lion, Kauffman threw up his hands and started yelling, but nonetheless, it approached and lunged at him. “It latched onto my wrist, and then it started clawing along my face and legs,” Kauffman recounted during a press conference Thursday. “As I tried to throw it off me ... we kind of tumbled off the slope to the south side of the trailand from there, it was just a wrestling match.”

The struggle continued until he managed to maneuver his foot to the mountain lion’s neck, which he used to gradually suffocate the animal. 

After subduing the mountain lion, Kauffman ran back to the Towers Trail, where, after roughly 2 miles, he came across another trail runner who accompanied him downhill. Eventually, the pair encountered a married couple who offered to help. The husband went with the other trail runner to retrieve Kauffman’s vehicle while the wife drove Kaufman to the hospital, where he was treated for his injuries, and later released.

“I think it’s just one of those really weird, sensational stories. It’s super rare,” Kauffman told Colorado Parks and Wildlife. “It captures the imagination just because it’s a modern-day man vs. nature scenario.”

Following the attack, Larimer County rangers and state wildlife officers began an investigation. According to Rebecca Ferrell, the statewide public information officer for Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW), officials conduct an inquiry anytime there is a wildlife attack in order to survey the area and determine if the animal was “sick or injured and if it lashed out for reasons like that.”

On the evening of Feb. 4, following a preliminary evaluation, Larimer County rangers briefly reopened the trails at Horsetooth Mountain Open Space. But after County rangers encountered additional mountain lion activity in the area, all trails were closed temporarily.

Over the weekend, CPW officers captured two juvenile mountain lions and moved them to a wildlife rehabilitation facility, with plans to release the cats into the wild at a later date.        

“We have removed additional lions that we believe are siblings of the lion involved in last Monday's attack,” Mark Leslie, northeast region manager for CPW, said in a news release.

Larimer County reopened Horsetooth Mountain Open Space on Tuesday, Feb. 13, but not without an additional warning.

“People should be aware that reopening Horsetooth Mountain Open Space to the public does not mean there are no mountain lions in the area,” Steve Gibson, district manager for Larimer County Department of Natural Resources, said in the release.“While it's located close to urban areas, Horsetooth Mountain Open Space is a wild place that supports many different animals. There will always be a chance to encounter wildlife on the property, including normally elusive mountain lions.”

At the press conference Thursday, officials released the necropsy report—standard practice when animals have been either been euthanized by officers, or, in much rarer cases, killed by someone in self defense, according to CPW Public Information and Website Manager Lauren Truitt. But the results failed to provide conclusive reasons for the attack.

“We’re all wondering why this happened to Travis,” Leslie said, “but unfortunately, there’s no clear answer.”

The necropsy showed that the injuries sustained by the mountain lion were consistent with Kauffman's account. “There was blunt-force trauma to the skull. There was indication the animal was asphyxiated,” Fort Collins Area Wildlife Manager Ty Petersburg said. 

“There’s no real definitive reason [for the attack],” Ferrell noted. “We did the necropsy and we didn’t find any real definitive reason why it would be attacking. It wasn’t diseased, as far as we can tell at this point. … It was thin, but it wasn’t starving or emaciated.”  

Ferrell added that the mountain lion’s juvenile age could have been a contributing factor leading to the attack. “We’re guessing that, because of its young age, it really hadn’t developed [hunting] skills yet, and in a way, we were kind of fortunate—not that you would ever want an attack—but certainly that the animal was young and smaller.”

An adult mountain lion gazing into the distance surrounded by rocks

According to the Mountain Lion Federation, adult mountain lions can grow to be anywhere from anywhere from 80 to 180 pounds, depending on age and gender. (Photo Courtesy: Colorado Parks and Wildlife)

Mountain lion attacks are not common in Colorado or the United States and, according to Colorado Parks and Wildlife, there have been fewer than 20 known fatalities due to mountain lion attacks in North America in more than 100 years. Since 1990, Colorado has counted 17 mountain lion-related injuries (including the Feb. 4 attack) and three fatalities.

According to the CPW, in the last 20 years, Colorado has seen a modest increase in the number of human-mountain lion interactions, which CPW classifies as sightings on private property, missing animals, attacked pets, and aggressive behavior. Ferrell said this information is chiefly collected by CPW via written submission forms, and to a lesser extent, calls made directly to CPW offices.

CPW suggests that the modest increase may be attributed to the following factors:

  • ​More people moving into lion habitat
  • Increase in deer populations and density
  • Presumed increase in lion numbers and expanded range
  • More people using hiking and running trails in lion habitat
  • A greater awareness of the presence of lions

Adult mountain lions range anywhere from 80 to 180 pounds, depending on gender and age, according to the Mountain Lion Foundation (MLF), an advocacy group dedicated to protecting lions and their habitats. The organization estimates that there are currently fewer than 30,000 living mountain lions in the United States, acknowledging the animal’s solitary nature makes them difficult to track and count.

There has been an increase in the overall number of human-wildlife interactions in Colorado the last 20 years, according to the CPW. “We’ve seen increases [in wildlife interactions] for the past twenty years coinciding with the growth of outdoor recreation in Colorado,” Petersburg said. “We’ve seen significant increases for most species—modest for mountain lions.” 

“The more people who are coming to Colorado, the more we have to find space for those people to live. So, they’re moving into habitat just because we don’t have anywhere else to go,” Ferrel said.“And it’s the same thing with the animals: that’s where they live, and they don’t have anywhere else to go.”

What to do if you encounter a mountain lion

Colorado Parks and Wildlife recommends that if you come across a mountain lion, you should avoid turning your back to the animal. The agency advises walking backward as you face the animal, looking it in the eyes and making yourself as big as possible. In addition, CPW suggests speaking calmly, but with authority. The goal is to convince the mountain lion that you are a predator, so that it does not want to attack.

In a mountain lion attack, “you want to grab anything that you can within your reach to fight them off—a stick or a rock,” said Truitt. “[Kauffman] had nothing available other than his body, so he used his arms, hands and feet, and ultimately he defended himself in the attack. … But I think the most important thing is to be aware of your surroundings. Recreation in Colorado is very safe, but be aware that we live close to wildlife.”

During the press conference Thursday, Kauffman said he’s already been on a couple runs since the attack, and that he plans to return to Horsetooth Mountain Open Space and finish his run on the West Ridge Trail.

What lessons did Kauffman learn? “Be aware that you are sharing that space with wildlife,” he encouraged. “One of the things that I’m really glad that I did was turn my head, and I couldn’t have done that with earbuds in. Just fully appreciate the sights and sounds of nature, go without earbuds and, if you can, go with a buddy. That’s something that I will be doing going forward.”

(Editor Sam Morse and writer Morgan Tilton contributed to this report.)

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