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Dog-attacking mountain lion in Nederland was healthy, hadn’t recently fed on dogs

The lion had gunshot wounds on its head and chest after a man killed it as it attacked his dog, officials say
Mini, a 51-pound mixed breed rescue, lost her leg after a mountain lion attacked her near Nederland on Dec. 27. The lion is now dead. (Daniel Murphy/Special to The Colorado Sun)

A mountain lion killed after it attacked two dogs in a neighborhood near Nederland on Dec. 27 had no dog remains in its gut when it died, according to a Colorado Parks and Wildlife necropsy report.

The examination of the animal, believed to be about 3 years old, suggests it was an opportunistic predator and not starving because deer, its natural prey, had been over-hunted, as some residents in the area suspected. Necropsies are standard when wildlife is involved in a conflict with humans, for disease monitoring purposes, for law enforcement cases and in instances where the cause of death is unknown and biologists want to learn more.

Starting in 2021, a lion or lions (CPW couldn’t say for certain) had attacked, killed and dragged off dozens of dogs in forested subdivisions in Boulder and Gilpin counties, sometimes in the presence of their owners. Residents grew frantic when the incidents escalated between Nov. 9 and Dec. 9, during which time seven dogs died, two were stalked, one survived an attack and one vanished. Many accused state wildlife officials of not doing enough to save their pets and potentially, they said, their children.

The situation came to a head Dec. 27, when a lion jumped an 80-pound husky outside of a home in Gilpin County, according to its owner. When the owner lunged and screamed, the cat released the dog and traveled a quarter mile to the home of Daniel Murphy, owner of Murphy’s Garage in Rollinsville. The lion attacked Murphy’s 51-pound mixed-breed rescue, Mini, while he walked from his car to his house. Murphy says he heard Mini, “screaming, making all kinds of bad noises,” and saw the lion “from its rear end, on my dog.”

He ran at it, screaming, “and it didn’t care at all,” he says. “At that point, I stopped thinking and just started acting. Luckily I had a rifle handy, and I ran in and grabbed that. Then I did what I could to save my dog’s life.”

Murphy fired a .223 AR-15 semi-automatic rifle 20 times at the lion.

“Basically, once everything started happening, I wanted to make sure I’d taken care of the lion and it wouldn’t be angry and wandering around the woods,” he says.

Once he could confirm the lion was dead, he started searching for Mini. A friend Murphy had called found her running on South Beaver Road nearly a mile from Murphy’s home.

Mini was badly injured. There were teeth marks on her head and she was covered in lacerations. Luckily, none of them were very deep; her worst injury was her paw, which had been shredded. Murphy and his friend worked to treat her wounds until a third acquaintance – a veterinary technician – arrived and drove Mini to emergency care.

Murphy then called both the Gilpin County sheriff and his local CPW officer.

“I just figured that it’d be better for me to tell my story,” he says. “That it would look better if I did it.”

When officials arrived, the officer did a quick once-over of the lion to confirm its sex, and then he and the sheriff took it to Fort Collins for a necropsy, Murphy says.

The necropsy revealed the lion was “in excellent body condition … with fat abundant throughout the carcass.” This answers residents’ conjecture that it was sick or starving. It weighed 129 pounds at time of death and its stomach was empty save for “yellow mucus and (a) few hairs,” the report said.

CPW Northeast Deputy Regional Manager Kristin Cannon said the hairs were not identified by animal type. Rabies was not detected.

Weeks later, a premeditated lion kill

Following the lion’s death, in mid-January, former Denver Broncos defensive lineman Derek Wolfe hunted and killed a much bigger mountain lion said to have attacked two dogs near the unincorporated community of Grant, in Park County. However, an open records request revealed that CPW had received no reports of lion attacks in the area.

Wolfe’s hunt was legal. He had a tag and it was lion hunting season. But it raised questions about the ethics and safety of killing lions on what Deanna Meyer, a Colorado wildlife activist and executive director of Prairie Protection Colorado, called a “trophy hunt” and a needless killing.

“When I saw Derek’s story on Instagram, right away I started looking into it,” she said. Wolfe had posted a picture of himself holding the lion, and in the conversation below, “Someone wrote, ‘Tell me you are doing a full mount on that cat …’ and he said, ‘Hell yes.’ Of course he’s gonna mount it. He wanted to hunt lions. He said it was just like Christmas killing his lion.”

Another issue Meyer had with Wolfe’s kill centered on a 20-year-long study by Rob Wielgus, Ph.D. at the Mountain Lion Foundation. Wielgus’ work revealed interesting behaviors in adult and juvenile lions.

“For every large resident male killed, two or three young guys came to the funeral,” he told ABC News in 2019. “These young cougars were responsible for increased complaints.”

Juvenile cats aren’t as proficient at hunting as their fully grown counterparts, he found. They make mistakes in human communities, including attacking livestock and pets. Therefore Wolfe’s claim that he had fixed a problem by heroically eliminating an established large lion could just have easily created a new problem, Meyer says.

In an email to The Sun, Cannon said the removal of one lion – no matter how it’s killed – does not make a difference to the population, especially the healthy population of lions along the Front Range.

“Individual lions and their behavior, especially in relation to other lions, is really interesting but difficult to predict and definitely difficult to understand at the individual level,” she said.

“We know that lions are territorial, so when a dominant male (the lion in question was not necessarily a dominant male) is removed, that will impact lions within or near its territory, but there are a lot of factors at play as to what lions do and why,” Cannon said.

Mini’s future and a lingering lion mystery

Cannon isn’t certain that the lion killed Dec. 27, which had been relocated to Roosevelt National Forest land northwest of Lyons from a neighborhood near the University of Colorado in the fall of 2021, was the animal that attacked and killed the dogs between Nov. 21 and Dec. 27.

In December, a Nederland resident named Claire Farley began creating a timeline and map of those attacks. It later became known as the “mountain lion tracker map,” a repository for lion encounters starting in November of 2021. The map is still live; the last entry is dated Dec. 27.

As for Mini, Murphy says her wounds and lacerations have healed save for her mangled paw. A vet amputated her entire right front leg. But Murphy says, “She’s doing really well, far better than I ever imagined. She runs up and down stairs and bolts through the snow.”

And as for any regrets about killing the lion, he said, “I would never want to have to take the life of such a beautiful animal, but my dogs are my children. As I mentioned on the phone, Mini was a stray from Pueblo. She was about to go to the pound to be euthanized. When I adopted her I made a promise to her to give her a good loving home, to keep her warm and fed, and keep her safe.

“I could not have just stood by as she was taken for a meal,” he says. “At that moment there were no second thoughts. I had to do whatever possible to keep her safe.”

CPW told The Sun in December that it would not press charges against Murphy, due to “the totality of the circumstances.”

“You can’t kill a mountain lion for attacking your dog,” Cannon wrote in an email. “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.”

The Colorado Sun is a reader-supported, nonpartisan news organization dedicated to covering Colorado issues. To learn more, go to coloradosun.com.