On a cool, crisp evening in the heart of winter, you’re taking a moonlit walk through the neighborhoods just west of Lionshead Village when you hear a rustling from the pine trees ahead. You hardly think twice about it—could just be the wind—but another round of rustling makes your ears perk up and hair stand on end.
Is it a dog? A deer? A bear? A mountain lion? You stop in your tracks and listen to silence. By now your heart is beating a mile a minute and you still haven’t caught sight of whoever—or whatever—is in the trees ahead. Then, with one final rustle, it appears: a red fox, one of the most common predators in Eagle County and easily one of the most skittish. He (or she) is frightened but sticks around long enough for a final look at this odd, two-legged creature before disappearing back into the snow-white forest.
Like skiing, biking and slopeside cocktails, wildlife sightings are part of living and playing in Eagle County. Colorado is home to a whopping 135 different species of mammals, according to the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, and the vast majority calls the High Country home. Most humans can name 20 or 25 on a good day–think big critters like deer, moose, elk and the like–but that’s only scratching the surface.
“We have a pretty biodiverse corridor here in the Eagle Valley, where you have black bears, bobcats and mountain lions, bighorn sheep—all of that,” says Kaitlyn Merriman, the community programs director for Walking Mountains Science Center in Avon. “It’s pretty incredible that even at a small place like Vail Mountain you’ll see something like moose, and in a heavily trafficked area.”
For decades, humans and mammals have comingled in Eagle County and the surrounding White River National Forest, where 2.3 million acres of pristine woodlands, meadows, riverbeds and alpine tundra are a sprawling sanctuary for dozens of animals. The forest is also home to 11 ski areas and dozens of small towns, including the one you’re sitting in now, which means the chances of running into one of nature’s most elusive denizens are almost better than first tracks on a powder day. It’s all about knowing where to look.
The Mysterious Lynx
One of North America’s most intriguing native predators is also one of the world’s most mysterious. In fact, lynx (Canada lynx in Vail) are so good at evading people that scientists aren’t quite sure how many live and breed in the Colorado Rocky Mountains.
“Most people absolutely won’t see a lynx around here,” Merriman says. “It’s a very elusive creature, and you hear that even people who study lynx won’t come across them unless they’re tracking them for a long time.”
Lynx might be elusive, but they’re easily one of the most recognizable wild cats, with wispy ears, a trademark spotted coat and massive hind legs built like snowshoes. The Canada lynx is the smallest of the family at 18 to 24 pounds—about half the size of the Eurasian lynx—and is sometimes mistaken for a bobcat, which range from 20 to 30 pounds and belong to the lynx family (lynx rufus).
Another adaptation is the lynx preferred prey: snowshoe hares. They’re the cat’s main food source, Merriman says, and the two species have coevolved in the Rockies. If you find snowshoe hare, a lynx might be nearby. As solitary animals that don’t hibernate, lynx prefer the sub-alpine terrain around tree line (from 8,000 to 11,000 feet) and cover massive swaths of land. A study in the ‘90s took several dozen animals from Canada and reintroduced them into the southern Rockies, where researchers tracked their movements with collars. Within a few years, many had made the 1,500-mile journey north to their home territory.
“The sub-alpine gives them the protection they want so they aren’t seen from predators or humans,” Merriman says. “They like to stay hidden.”
The Curious Marmot
Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, Eagle County introduces the one and only Rocky Mountain whistle pig. “If you don’t see them, you hear them,” small mammal expert John Demboski says of marmots, the high-alpine rodents with thick fur coats and chubby bellies. “They have a very distinctive call and that’s how they got the nickname ‘whistle pig.’”
For 10 years, Demboski has been curator of mammals at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. The position puts him in direct contact with many of Colorado’s montane (aka mountain) critters: red squirrels, pine squirrels, shrews, porcupine, nearly 20 species of bats (seriously!) and marmots. Alpine and yellow-bellied marmots are two of the most recognizable—and most studied—montane mammals in Colorado.
Since the ‘70s the Rocky Mountain Biological Institute (RMBL) in Crested Butte has been watching the state’s marmot population to track everything from diet and territory to social habits and the effects of climate change. Because it’s one of the largest animals living in the high alpine (above 10,000 feet), the seven pound whistle pig is a scientist’s best friend. It’s relatively easy to track, and it’s curious enough about humans to get near before scurrying back into rocky, subterranean homes.
Along with the one-of-a-kind, high-pitched call—it’s almost like a dog’s squeak toy on steroids—marmots are known for living in talus fields at the base of craggy peaks in the Gore and Sawatch Ranges, home to this area’s sole 14,000-foot peak, Mount of the Holy Cross outside of Red Cliff. They hibernate for nearly eight months out of the year, and so they spend the summer months from June to September madly putting on weight for the winter to come. This long hibernation period is the crux of one RMBL study, Demboski says. It’s meant to show how climate change has impacted high-alpine mammals like marmots. Over time, marmots have wandered lower and lower, sometimes getting below tree line to 8,000 feet, and the study looks at how warming global temperatures might have altered the whistle pig’s habits.
In the past year, mountain lion sightings in Eagle County have been on the rise. It began with a few isolated run-ins—there are typically a few every year—and then grew into attacks on local dogs, including three that were killed between Red Cliff and Vail in January and February of 2016.
Does this mean humans are next? Hardly, experts say. In the wake of the sightings, Colorado Parks and Wildlife asked Eagle County residents to be wary of their habits, especially during the prime hunting times of dawn and dusk. Even though mountain lions range from 80 to 100 pounds, CPW reminded folks that they rarely hunt for two-legged prey. They’re more interested in four-legged creatures—dogs, deer, raccoons, foxes and coyotes—and tend to disappear when loud, rowdy humans are around.
In fact, Colorado mountain lions have caused just three confirmed deaths since 1990, and each of those involved someone separated from a larger group. There’s a moral to this story: When in doubt, don’t hike alone.
The Playful Pika
It’s easy to think of pika as the small, chipmunk-like cousin of the marmot. The two share a high-alpine habitat and are known for a piercing call—but that’s where the similarities end.
The American pika, also known as a “rock rabbit,” isn’t even in the same family as marmots, squirrels and other rodents. These animals are about the size of a guinea pig (six to seven ounces), Demboski says, and actually belong to the rabbit family, with close relatives like the jackrabbits and cottontails. Pika also don’t hibernate like the majority of high-alpine natives. Instead, they use gray-and-white camouflaged fur to disappear into the rocks, talus, scree and boulders of their habitat during long, cold winters above it all. Along with marmots, this makes pika the subject of climate-change studies. Demboski cites one published paper from the Great Basin ecosystem on the border of Nevada and California, where researchers have found fragmented and ephemeral pika populations that disappear with little warning.
“Because these guys live so high, when it gets warmer higher up, their habitat will shift even higher into the mountains,” Demboski says. “The pika population is already fragmented on terrestrial islands — the areas above 10,000 feet. I’ve heard of them referred to as a bellwether for climate change, similar to polar bears.”
The Regal Elk
Think of the Eagle Valley—the meandering strip from Vail to Eagle—as a migration superhighway for nearly a dozen montane mammals. Along with moose and mountain goats, elk are common in the area and use the slopes of local ski resorts to move from
the “high highs to lower elevations” between seasons, Merriman says. This makes them vertical migrators, meaning they migrate up to the sub-alpine for summer foraging and down to meadows and riverbeds for winter foraging.
Between summer and winter are spring calving season and fall mating season—two of the most important times of year for elk. Sightings are most common during these in-between seasons, when elk move through the aspen groves at Beaver Creek and Vail Mountain to protect their young. It’s why the two resorts shut down in mid-April every year, no matter how good the snow is—elk are on the move. Elk are part of the deer family and stand five to six feet tall at the shoulder. During the fall mating season, or “rut,” males display enormous racks to attract females. They also bugle loudly to win mates and, on occasion, challenge other male to spar. Males shed their rack when the rut ends—year after year, season after season—and then regrow a new one in time for the next rut.
“I think it’s pretty amazing that the males shed their antlers when they do,” Merriman says. “They use those to show off for females and keep the harem. Potentially, depending on the size of elk and his rack, he can have hundreds of female in his harem.” In the grand scheme of things, these four animals are more conspicuous than most alpine wildlife, and it’s all because, just like humans, they’re active during the day. Yet, there’s an entire world of nocturnal life underfoot from mice and bats to the red fox you might run into on your moonlight walk.
Of course, there’s bound to be contact when humans and animals live in such close proximity, and it’s just fine to enjoy and appreciate that special moment you come face-to-face with a wild critter. Just remember to keep a safe distance and let the wild animal be wild. After all, this is their home too.