Wildlife encounters in the backcountry

In Public by Anna Debattiste

One fine fall day in Summit County, a little dog named Arlo was walking on the Rainbow Lake trail with his family.  He had trotted a bit ahead of his owners, a local couple, when suddenly three moose appeared on the trail between Arlo and his owners.  Arlo tried to get back to his people, but one of the moose stomped him, repeatedly.

Arlo was still breathing when the Summit County Rescue Group (SCRG) arrived to carry him out, but his eyes were vacant and he was unresponsive.  SCRG members put him on a dog litter and carried him to the trailhead, where his owners rushed him to a veterinary clinic in Silverthorne.  Later that day, Arlo’s owners messaged SCRG’s coordinator that Arlo had been unsavable and the vet had put him to sleep.

Raise the subject of dangerous wildlife encounters and many backcountry recreationists think first of bears and mountain lions, yet Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) reports that more people are attacked by moose than any other wild animal.  Many of these attacks start because of a dog who chases or barks at a moose.  A moose’s natural predator in Colorado is the wolf, and a moose will react to a dog as it would to a wolf, by charging the dog to defend itself.  If the dog runs back to its people, that puts the people in danger too.

Wildlife in Colorado are best viewed from a distance and left alone.  Here are some safety tips for wildlife encounters in the backcountry.


Unlike most bears and mountain lions, moose are generally unafraid of people.  If they feel threatened, or especially if a cow moose has calves with her, they will charge and attack.  They can run up to 35 mile per hour and weigh up to 1200 pounds, so the damage they can inflict is not to be underestimated.

Obviously, the most important first step to keep you and your dog safe from moose is to keep your distance and keep dogs leashed.  Should you end up too close to a moose, watch for signs of aggression – snorting, raised hackles and pinned ears.  While experts recommend backing slowly away from most wildlife, a moose encounter is different; you should get away as quickly as you can.  If possible, put a large object such as a tree, car, snowmobile or ATV between you and the moose.  Never feed moose, or any other wildlife.  Learn more about moose encounters on CPW’s website here, and more about moose and dog safety here.


If you run into a bear on the trail, don’t run.  Stand still and speak in a normal voice to make sure the bear is aware of you, and most likely the bear will move away.  If the bear approaches you instead, make yourself look as big as possible and back slowly away.  Never turn your back and run, and don’t climb a tree (bears climb trees too!)  If you’re on a trail, step off the trail on the downhill side.  Be especially careful if you see bear cubs, because that means a protective mother bear is likely nearby.

CPW reports that on the rare occasion when a bear has attacked and injured a human, it is usually because the person blocked the bear’s escape route.  On rarer occasions the bear has been food-conditioned by humans and has lost its natural fear of people and is willing to attack to get food.  This generally forces CPW to euthanize a bear.

If you are attacked by a bear, fight back with everything you’ve got.  Yell, throw rocks, use bear spray if you have it.  “Convince the bear you’re not worth the trouble,” CPW advises.  Learn more about Colorado bears on CPW’s website here

Mountain Lions

Mountain lion encounters are generally rare and brief, and lion attacks are even rarer.  Should you encounter a mountain lion, CPW’s advice is much the same as for bear encounters.  Stay calm, make noise and back away.  Make yourself look larger and don’t run. If the lion attacks, fight back any way you can; grab a stick, throw a rock, use your mountain bike as a weapon.  Read more about mountain lions on CPW’s website here.

Wildlife sightings are one of the things that make backcountry recreation in Colorado so special.  Most human-wildlife conflicts, however, are caused by our encroachment on wildlife habitat.  Respect wildlife by keeping your distance and cultivating animals’ natural fear of humans.  Never feed any kind of wildlife – never! You may think you’re doing them a favor but you’re not.  You’re also breaking the law.  Feeding wild animals encourages them to wander into developed areas and leads to them losing their fear of humans.  That’s dangerous for people and pets, and dangerous for the wildlife too, who may have to be destroyed to protect public safety.  Feeding wildlife also leads to disrupted natural behavior, the spread of disease, and negative impacts to wildlife health.  You can read more about the dangers of feeding wildlife here.