It’s breathtaking to catch a glimpse of a snowshoe hare, elk or mule deer while snowshoeing, cross-country skiing or snapping that money shot of wildlife in the forest. But it can be just as exciting to see footprints and be able to identify what large or small animal walked before you. In fact, you’ll probably see plenty of animal tracks from the chairlift on a freshly blanketed powder morning, and it’s always entertaining to point out the difference between a mule deer and an elk’s pattern to friends and family. There are those who are experts at identifying scat, aka the poop of wild animals, but that can be—let’s just say—a smelly, mushy business, depending on how many berries animals have eaten and how long their droppings have been exposed to the elements. Fortunately, there’s a cleaner way to identify mountain animals, particularly in the winter: They each leave distinct tracks in the snow. So start spotting
If you’ve ever lived with a domesticated cat who scrams to the nearest hideout the second someone pulls in your driveway, you know how bobcats respond to humans. The muscular felines make their way through the mountains day and night with stealth, but because they’re so shy, people rarely spot anything but tracks. The tracks of a bobcat feature four toes on each hind and front foot, which look like teardrops, the back paw looking a bit like a youngster might draw a fat, bubbly capital “M.” Unlike canines, felines rarely leave claw prints in the snow or mud; instead, they retract claws to keep them hunter-sharp. Bobcats, which tend to look like huge cats, weigh up to 30 pounds and sport long, tufted ears and a tail measuring about six or seven inches long that is banded with black stripes. Worldwide, lynx outnumber bobcats. Bobcats have small feet and short legs, which make their prints small and close together. They’re sometimes confused with the lynx, which have padded paws for walking in the snow as well as only a bump of a tail and long face whiskers.
Only about 30,000 of these big (110- to 180-pound males and 80- to 130-pound females) cats lurk in the woods, and it doesn’t “get real” until you see their two- to nearly five-inch “paw” prints. Just like bobcats, mountain lion impressions don’t show claws — unless they’ve really pounced. They can jump 15-feet high up a tree, reach 50 miles per hour and bound approximately 40 feet when running despite a heavy tail, which measures nearly a third of the animal’s total length. Sometimes hikers mistake mountain lion prints as dog prints, however, there are a couple key differences. Mountain lion tracks are rounder and usually don’t leave behind claw marks like dogs do, as they have razor-sharp claws. Mountain lions also have wider spaced “toe” prints, which rest above a trapezoidal foundation, adorned with a three- scalloped base. Like humans, mountain lions’ toes often slant, indicating right from left. You can estimate the size of cat by its middle-toe track. Yet, it’s often hard to distinguish clear front tracks, because the lions tend to flick their front feet, obscuring otherwise clean tracks. Sometimes, these cats’ snow tracks look more like oblong blobs, but sizeable indentations indicate a quiet, uber-aware, solitary hunter may be lurking at you with its big, yellow-green eyes.
As these white rabbits hop through deep snow, they tend to leave about two-inch, blobby ovals wider in the front and narrower in back. The tracks don’t look like a typical four-legged animal rather, these hares often create a series of four or five clumps, or impressions, which sometimes look like a capital “Y.” A hare’s two front paw tracks tend to show up behind one another, rather than side-by-side. In fact, clean tracks will showcase four toes on the fore and hind feet. Sometimes the fifth “hole” they leave comes from their cottontail. Snowshoe hares hang out in dense, softwood forests and thickets and munch on twigs and small tree trunks, leaving behind a clean-cut angle. A few markings of the hare slightly mimic that of deer, though scat is rounder and smaller, and deer rip twigs they chew, leaving jagged, rather than neat ends. Since snowshoe hares don winter white every season, they’re tough to spot. Chances of seeing one increase during what skiers dread most—late or low snowfall years. That’s because shorter sunlit days, rather than actual snow, triggers their chameleon change. If it doesn’t snow early, the hares’ bright white contrasts brown ground.
A porcupine’s little tracks smack of tenderness, with five thin, long toes and heels much like a baby’s foot. Sure, the porcupine isn’t one of those cuddly creatures that compel you to get up close and personal, but if you happen to catch one snuggling under a backyard bush or conifer tree, you’ll notice an endearing calm in these animals’ eyes. Yet, sharp quills threaten predators, embedding into coyotes, fox and owls’ skin and working in deep, sometimes toward vital organs. It’s a myth that porcupines shoot quills, but the spikey defenses can puncture skin with a slight touch. You probably won’t see porcupine’s tiny prints in the snow clearly. It turns out the critters act like miniature snowplows; they actually drag their tails and plow through snow, leaving fairly wide trenches. Tracks in mud often have a pebbly texture, along with drag marks from their tails. Porcupines stay warm in winter with three types of hair: heavy, dark underfur maintains heat; guard hairs, atop underfur, protect porcupines’ sensitive back and tail; and pointed, hollow quills give the animal its not-so-friendly air.
The stuffed animal industry teaches kids bears are roly-poly mammals that roam forests, quite possibly looking for cuddles. And though black bears are pretty darn cute when you spot them ambling three chairlift towers above a summer concert (true story), the fact is that males weigh an average of 200 to 600 pounds and measure four to seven feet from nose to tip of tail, so they’re nothing to mess with, even though they’re normally timid. Grizzlies thrived in Colorado until the mid-20th century, when government-funded hunters extinguished them in favor of livestock and development; now just black bears exist. However, Colorado Parks and Wildlife officials often hear grizzly reports because black bears’ hair can appear blonde or chocolate brown. Yet, they lack the signature grizzly humped back. The short and rounded black bear claws are thick at the base and taper to a point; claws which help them climb trees to outrun predators, dig and gather food. Female black bears’ claws can spread to more than nine inches wide—and they are the smallest claws of the bear family. Unless food is abundant, black bears usually hibernate in winter, so search for tracks in spring snow.
The way elk hold their heads high and balance seemingly impossibly huge antlers makes them some of the most majestic creatures in the Rockies. Set against a white backdrop of fresh powder, they epitomize mountain living. Antlers branch out from a main “beam” measuring up to five- feet high. Though they shed antlers every year, elk rely on them for defense. Elk are not inherently aggressive—unless people intrude, especially during “rut” season, from mid-September to mid-October, when males battle and bugle (sometimes called whistling go figure)—for their ladies. Adults can weigh more than 1,000 pounds—all that bulk from shrubs, bark, grains and lichen. Most active near dusk and dawn, they can run 35 miles per hour and swim, as well. When comparing elk tracks with deer, elk come up longer, ranging from three to nearly five inches in length and around three-inches wide. Though one hoof shows up as side-by-side, stretched-out ovals, it’s often difficult to make out two distinct front feet, due to the way they walk. Some confusion has surrounded elk, as the word means “white deer” in Shawnee and “moose” according to British lexicon; the chaps over the pond mistook elk for moose upon initial sightings.
Like elk, two hooves characterize mule deer tracks, though deer tracks are smaller. Many view the elongated, smaller-than-elk tracks as an upside-down heart because the toes come to a point in the front and remain rounded in back. The outside toe is usually a bit larger than the inside, and front feet grow larger than hind. Their trail pattern looks like the hind foot lands directly upon the front foot track, so don’t expect clear delineation between the two. Named for their large ears, mule deer, as opposed to white-tailed deer, reside in the Rockies. Mule deer also sport a black-tipped tail and antlers that fork as they grow, rather than branching out from a main beam, like elk. While elk run, deer “stot” (typically considered prancing), with all four feet landing in unison. Adult mule deer weigh between 150 to 200 pounds. Their scat is smaller than elk (and, by the way, anytime you find scat, it means, in a similar vein to humans, the animals felt safe enough to relax and release, which also means the might be hiding in plain sight)!
Of course, plenty of other animals populate the Vail Valley. One myth suggests that snow snakes abound. You know, supposedly, those nasty critters that grab your ski edges. But a small white animal that scampers and dives in snowy terrain, looking nearly like a snow snake slithering sideways then disappearing, does exist. It’s a mink-like critter called an ermine. And, if you’re lucky enough to spot one from the chairlift, you’ve witnessed yet another inspiring aspect of our magical mountains. So, as you’re out and about this winter, practice identifying animals’ footprints in the snow, then extend your skills into spring mud, summer dirt and fall fragments—half covered by shed leaves. Soon enough, you’ll become an adept tracker, alert to the roaming dimensions of our glorious forest, scat and all.