Category Archives: The Backyard Biologist – Observations of an Amature Naturalist
ALL OF NATURE IS A WONDER, AND IT IS EVEN MORE CAPTIVATING WHEN FOUND ON YOUR OWN LAND, OR IN YOUR BACKYARD
“The history of any land begins with nature, and all histories must end with nature.” – J. Frank Dobie
Aldo Leopold (January 11, 1887 – April 21, 1948) was an American author, scientist, ecologist, forester, conservationist, and environmentalist. He was a professor at the University of Wisconsin and is best known for his book A Sand County Almanac (1949), which has sold more than two million copies.
Leopold was influential in the development of modern environmental ethics and in the movement for wilderness conservation. His ethics of nature and wildlife preservation had a profound impact on the environmental movement, with his ecocentric or holistic ethics regarding land.He emphasized biodiversity and ecology and was a founder of the science of wildlife management. –Wikipedia
“For The Health of The Land may be one of Aldo Leopold’s less known works, but it may also include some of his most powerful essays. He knew, for example, that the future of wildlife, and the heart of wildlife management, resided within the realm of private landowners and their relationships to the land.
Good stewardship is a choice, driven by the love of wild things and a feeling of individual responsibility for them. It is a voluntary agreement, gracefully held, passed along between family and community. Ultimately, land use decisions are personal, and local, and they should not, and cannot, be dictated by collective policy or enforced by an all-knowing government”.
‘Tis the season when big Mule Deer bucks began to pour from muted landscapes in search of females, where just days before there were no deer.
‘Tis the time of frost and biting wind, then snow. The moment is filled with purpose and perpetual motion, and the promise of primordial ritual. It is the time of gathering, of courtship, and the battle for the right to breed. It is the annual Mule Deer rut, and it is happening now, all around us.
At no other time of the year are the bucks so visible, so distracted, proud, but yet so vulnerable. You cannot witness the spectacle without being drawn to the precipice, suspended there on the periphery of their stirrings.
I am lucky to live in an area of the West that has more than it’s share of mature and trophy animals. To watch them is to know them, at least as much as a human can.
To be there, in and around them, reaches towards the place in the soul where the wild things are. The scene reminds us that there are bigger things going on in the world just outside the limited vision of our everyday lives. It’s raw and it’s real, and it simply must happen. The survival of the species, of their’s, and perhaps of ours, is at stake.
To this I say, thank the heavens for the mule deer. May you rule the Rockies forever!
When a really big buck lopes along through the forest, sagebrush, or whatever, he is a sight to behold. The big body seems to churn along smoothly and fluidly. Powerful muscles carry him across rocky hillsides, through heavy brush, and thick forests. As he runs, he carries his head forward and slightly lowered, swaying his glistening rack back and forth to avoid obstructions in his path…A trophy buck sails along like a racehorse, especially if he wants to put some space between himself and something he doesn’t like…It’s interesting that many hunters, perhaps the majority, come completely unglued when they’re treated to the sight of a grand buck… – Jim Zumbo
Hunting America’s Mule Deer by Jim Zumbo. Winchester Press, 1981. Hardcover, in Very Good+ condition, with a short tear to dustjacket. With gift inscription by and signed by Jim Zumbo.
Locked And Loaded. Photograph By Michael Patrick McCarty
Very few sounds heard in the wildlands of North America can completely capture your full and unmitigated attention like that unmistakable vibration of a rattlesnake in waiting. I located that sound recently while on a scouting trip for Pronghorn in Northwestern Colorado, emanating steadily from a clump of low hanging sage not very far from my feet. And to be honest, I can still hear it today, bouncing between my ears among the technicolor memories of my mind.
In this case the source of that infamous buzz was about two feet of Crotalus viridis, commonly known as the Prairie Rattlesnake. Yet no matter the name, or the size, of one thing there was no doubt. This snake meant business from the business end, and I wanted no part of that transaction. My guess is that it would have really preferred to skip the encounter too, though perfectly willing to do as it must. He is but a snake, after all.
Prairie Rattlesnakes are the most common Rattlesnake in Colorado, and they seem to be particularly prevalent in the areas that I frequent. This was the second live close encounter (others being found dead in the road) that I have had in as many years; the first I would have surely stepped on had it not been good enough to slither off of the trail when it sensed me coming. Before these interactions you could say that I had never worried too much about snakebite.
I do now!
The available literature seems to indicate that maximum length for a Prairie Rattlesnake in Colorado is about 3 1/2 feet, although there are mentions of much bigger snakes in the historical record. I did listen to a first hand account of a five foot or better snake killed in my hunting area just this summer, and I have no reason to doubt the source. Nobody really knows their population parameters and distributions. Fact is, there are a lot of rattlesnakes about the land, and apparently they can be…big.
Antelope hunters, and bowhunters in particular, should be well enough aware of that stark reality. Blinds on waterholes are often the preferred method of hunting with short range weapons. These locations are also preferred by the wildlife of the area, both large, and small. And snakes…
Temperatures, particularly at night, are warm; the little creatures, and the rattlesnakes that prey upon them, are active. Put it all together and it can easily spell some trouble of the bad kind for the bowhunter hurrying to the ambush point in the low light of early morning.
So, in summary, a quick tap of fangs may not kill you and dry bites are possible, but you can be fairly certain of one thing. It will be a more than unpleasant experience, and most likely a medically significant and tissue altering event. Antivenom and emergency treatment can be very expensive, resulting in what may be a financially devastating hospital bill at the end of the day, or week.
Best to avoid that possibility as much as you can. Be aware, snake aware, and ready.
You might also want to invest in a good pair of snake boots, or snake chaps, and a much brighter headlamp. Or perhaps even better, always let someone else go first, like your long time hunting partner.
You Can Read More About The Prairie Rattlesnake Here And Here
*Update September 28, 2019
It happened again, another rattlesnake close encounter, that is, and I can breathlessly report that it was no less attention grabbing than the first. For some reason which entirely escapes me, I am this year a first class rattlesnake attractor of the third kind. It is a badge of honor that I would much rather do without.
Early afternoon found me trudging down an abandoned two-track river road under an all-seeing, withering sun, en route to a promising looking catfish hole down in a deep, wild canyon.
Intent on my catfishing mission, a small whisper in the back of my mind alerted me to danger ahead as I approached a particularly tall patch of thick weeds covering the road. Call it a sixth sense, or perhaps my last encounter was still too fresh upon my mind, but everything about the place cried “snake!”.
I remember thinking that I was simply overreacting, for the chance of finding a rattlesnake camped out in this one small patch of forlorn vegetation in the middle of a vast, desolate landscape had to be very, very slim. It also suddenly hit me that in my haste to find a fish I had left a perfectly fine pair of snake chaps (for fang protection when it’s already too late) in the back of my truck, along with my camera (to document chance wildlife encounters so someone may believe me), and oh yes, my mostly unreliable but somewhat comforting cell phone in case I was ever bitten by a venomous creature in a land far, far from help (so you can throw it at the thing that bit you after it does not work).
A Black Widow Spider On the Move. As if Rattlesnakes Are Not Enough To Worry About! Photo By Michael Patrick McCarty
So, as you might guess, I was particularly watchful of where I placed my feet along the trail, as I occasionally slapped the undergrowth ahead with the tip of my fishing rod.
And of course, you have probably surmised by now what was about to happen next. Staring down across the tops of my boots not very far from the end of my nose, I soon saw the plump, round body of a rather large snake stretched out at the base of the weed stalks, and then, at the end of the rainbow, so to speak, those infamous and unmistakable Prairie rattles.
Backing away slowly, quietly, I completed my retreat as he disappeared like a slithering apparition, and we will never know who was more happy about that. Human-Snake interactions can end rather badly for the snake too, after all. Where he went next only a rattler knows; where I was headed suddenly looked more distant and treacherous than I had pictured. But go I did, albeit ever more mindfully.
Most importantly, I had catfish to catch.
And thank God for guardian angels, and that I had enough sense, snake sense, to listen, and to follow just a little bit of my own advice. I shutter to think what would have happened, had I taken, just one more step.
“Like winds and sunsets, wild things were taken for granted until progress began to do away with them. Now we face the question whether a still higher “standard of living” is worth its cost in things natural, wild and free. For us of the minority, the opportunity to see geese is more important than television, and the chance to find a pasque-flower is a right as inalienable as free speech”. – Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac
“And the fox said to the little prince: Men have forgotten this truth. But you must not forget it. You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed.” – Antoine De Saint-Exupery, From The Little Prince
A very large black bear, not far from the back door, strips a fruit tree in the early fall in Aspen, Colorado.
A young elk tests out a hummingbird feeder in a backyard garden, somewhere near Carbondale, Colorado.
Not to be undone, a mule deer buck gets his licks in too!
“For the wild animal there is no such thing as a gentle decline in peaceful old age. Its life is spent at the front, in line of battle, and as soon as its powers begin to wane, in the least, its enemies become too strong for it; it falls.”– Ernest Thompson Seton, Lives Of The Hunted, 1901
“Death will come, always out of season.” Big Elk, Omaha Chief
There is a place I have been that many elk hunters must eventually visit. The mountains may shine amidst spectacular landscapes and it may look like typical elk country, but somehow things are different there. It is a land of mystery and natural forces inaccessible by horseback, jeep or other conventional means. Inward rather than outward, it is a journey of the heart on a path unique to each individual. It is a place you only know once you get there.
I found myself in such a place some years ago, while archery hunting in the high desert country of northwestern Colorado. Elk hunting had been my passion for a couple of decades, more often than not with bow and arrow as the weapon of choice. I’d hunted more than a few of Colorado’s limited-entry units with a fair amount of success. And my overwhelming concern had always been the pursuit of the big bull – the bigger the better.
He filled my dreams and consciousness and became part of my daily motivation for living and working in Colorado. I would find him, and I would launch a broadhead deep into his chest. Of course, with that event, fame and fortune would soon follow.
I have always paid attention to “The Book”, and to who shot what where. I wanted very badly to be one of those fellows with the 27 record-book entries, who had just returned from Montana or Mongolia, or that private ranch many hunters drool over. You know the ranch of which I speak, the one with a Boone and Crockett bull on every other ridge. I wanted all of it, the recognition from my peers and the life that would come with my great success. The more entries the better and as fast as possible. I ran for the goal and rarely looked back. I can’t say nothing else mattered, but by god it was close.
Then, one long-awaited day, I found myself hunting a special-permit area in Colorado. It was indeed the land of the big bull, a trophy area of epic proportions and about as fine a spot as one could hunt without paying the big money. The animals were there. I had a tag, and I would fill it. I would take what was mine and move on.
I hunted a grueling 10 days. The terrain was rocky and mostly open, with occasional brush patches and stunted cedars. It looked like a moonscape compared to the timbered high country I was used to hunting. Getting close enough for a shot was tough, yet I was able to pass up smaller bulls and often found myself within arrow range of elk that would make most hunters light-headed. They made me light-headed. They were the biggest-bodied elk I have ever seen, with towering, gleaming branches of bone. They looked like tractors with horns.
As so often happens in bowhunting, however, something always seemed to go wrong. I made so many stalks and had so many close calls, the events are just a blur. I eventually missed not one but two record-book animals. Each time a shaft went astray, I screamed and wailed with self-pity, cursing my rotten luck and the useless stick and string in my hand. The prize was so close, yet always so far away.
Toward the end of the season, I glassed a small herd a couple of miles below me. Two were big bulls. One had cows, and the other wanted them. They were bugling back and forth and generally sizing each other up. I hurriedly planned a stalk and rushed downhill toward my dream.
I stalked and weaved and became enmeshed in a moving, mile-long skirmish line. More than once I slipped between the two animals as they worked their way through the brush and cedars. I saw flashes and patches of hide but was never able to loose an arrow. I knew that within few minutes a monstrous set of headgear would be laying at my feet. I felt I had been waiting for this moment all my life.
Soon the largest bull swung into the open sagebrush a couple of hundred yards below me, followed closely by a small herd of cows. Words cannot describe his magnificence. He was one of the finest specimens of elkness I have ever seen, with muscles that bulged and rippled under his skin. He was a bull of unique and exceptional genetics with a massive and perfect rack that appeared to stretch behind forever as he laid his head back to bugle. He was certainly at his absolute prime and, if the truth were known, perhaps a bit passed it and didn’t know it. He took my breath away. Then I remembered why I had come.
Meanwhile, the smaller and closer of the two bulls had become even more vocal, and soon it became obvious he would pass very close to me on his way down the hill. He was not quite as large as the old bull, but he was big enough all the same. My bow was up and my muscles taut as I began my draw – and suddenly he was running and he was gone. I watched spellbound as he broke into the open and headed for the elk below us.
It was one of those unexplainable moments when time stands still, and you become something more than yourself. I could have been a rock or a tree or an insect in flight. I was at once both an observer and participant in the great mystery, a part of something far larger than myself.
The air was electric and my body tingled as the two warriors squared off. The cows felt it, too, and crashed crazily over the ridge. It was as if they knew something extraordinary was going down and wanted no part of it. The bulls screamed and grunted wildly at each other from close range, with quite a bit more intensity than I had ever witnessed. And suddenly they were one. They would have made any bighorn ram proud, as they seemed to rear up on their hind legs before rushing and clashing with a tremendous crack. I watched as they pushed and shoved with all their might, a solid mass of energy and immense power surrounded by flying dirt and debris.
They showed no signs of quitting. Soon it dawned on me that they were too preoccupied to notice what I was doing, even though there was virtually no cover for a stalk. My legs carried me effortlessly over the rough and broken ground, and I was giddy with the exhilaration of the end so close at hand. The larger of the two was obviously tiring, and I remember feeling a pang of sorrow for an animal that would soon be beaten, probably for the first time in a very long time, and would now have to slink off humiliated and cowless.
They pushed and they struggled and, for a few moments, seemed to have reached a stalemate as I neared bow range. The old bull hesitated, then pushed, and when the other bull responded, the old bull spun like a Sumo Wrestler, took the uphill advantage and charged. I stood dumbfounded as the two hit the top of a shallow ravine and disappeared from view.
When I reached the edge of the drop-off, the fight was over. The old bull crawled slowly out of the ravine, managing to keep the only two trees between us all the while. He moved sorely and looked like he had just survived 10 rounds with Mike Tyson. I was probably the least of his problems.
I found the other bull where I knew he would be. I sent a shaft his way and ended what remained of his life, although his fate had already been sealed. A very long tine had done its job as well as any arrow ever could.
I collapsed by the side of that marvelous creature as if I were the one who’d just been beaten, and in a way I had. I stared off into space, confused, a little angry, and barely able to grope around in my pack for a gulp of water, half laughing, then crying. I don’t know how long I remained there before a distant bugle brought me back into the moment, reminding me of the work at hand and the long uphill walk back to my truck.
His head hangs in my den now, and I still stare at him in wonder and amazement. When my friends and family ask why I didn’t have him officially scored for the record book, I usually mumble some vague and incoherent answer, as the right words never seem to come.
For some reason, antler measurements have ceased to matter to me. It has something to do with realizing animals are much more than the sum of their parts. Hunting and the hunted remain a significant part of my life, but my reasons for hunting, and my life in general, have changed in some way I have yet to fully understand. Perhaps more than anything, I realize just how much I love to hunt. And that in itself is more than enough reason for doing it.
The bull’s proud head on my wall will always serve to remind me of that special place I have visited and hope to never forget.
I am, and will always be, forever humbled. Perhaps you have been there yourself.
“Elk hunting runs deep. Not that it’s always fun, because it isn’t. It’s a contrast in superlatives, ranging from agony to euphoria, and it will stretch your senses to the limit. It raises you higher, drops you lower, deep into your body, mind, emotions, and soul. You may like elk hunting, you may not, but definitely you won’t forget it”. – Dwight Schuh, Game Country, October, 1989
“A Bowhunter is a Hunter Reborn – Forever…” – Michael Patrick McCarty
Death Is A Most Serious Business
Unknown Artist Signature
Directly above is a photo of an original print from my personal collection. I have owned it for several years, and in fact found this at an antique store not long after I wrote this article. As you might imagine, it means a great deal to me.
I am unable to translate the title, nor identify the artist. I would love to do both, and also give proper attribution to the artist.
I arrived home past midnight last night, to find a small herd of elk feeding in an open pasture to the west. My neighbor keeps his horses here, and I have an unobstructed view of it from our house on the hill. I spotted them as I walked over to our dog kennel on the fence line, and as I studied them I saw a big cow raise her head, just to let me know that she was watching me too.
I don’t suppose I will ever tire of seeing elk. They have a way of taking over the conversation, you might say, to make you pause in mid sentence when you spy one, to make you completely forget whatever you had been doing at the time, as if the world is a mere background created just for them. It has always been this way between the elk and I.
They looked particularly surreal this night, quietly feeding on a blanket of fresh, white powder, surrounded by the mystical light of a high, full moon. I am struck by the picture quality of it all, the sharp crispness of the image frozen in the cold night air. I can only smile. It is a perfect moment in time.
Watching For What Comes
My dogs knew they were out there, of course, being that they were no more than 100 yards away with just some old wire to separate them. They had probably been watching them for some time, waiting for me to come home, whining nervously, and wishing they could run over and join up. The elk, for their part, paid us no mind, as they pawed in the snow. They had seen this show before and are not as impressed as us.
We see quite a few elk around our property when the snows grow formidable in the high country. It is one reason to look forward to winter. They especially like to feed at night in a large hay-field below us, and at first light they bunch up and head for the cover of rougher grounds and cedar trees on the properties and public lands to our North.
To my everlasting delight, they like to cross one small corner of our property as they leave the hay fields, and if we are lucky, we get to watch. I often sit in an overstuffed chair behind our big picture window, waiting, hot coffee in hand, enveloped in the approaching day as the rest of the world wakes up.
Without Winter, No Spring
We have seen herds of one hundred elk and more, although smaller groups are most common. One morning I sat transfixed as a herd of about fifty or so lined up to jump the fence at the edge of the field below our house, then crossed our field on a run and passed along our fence line next to the house. I counted seventeen bulls, some small, some large, surrounded by foggy breath when they stopped. I can see it in my mind’s eye, just now.
At times, a small herd will bed down for the night under our apple trees. Once I looked out to see several lying contentedly in the sun, with freshly laid snow still shimmering on their backs. I’ve seen them browsing in the remnants of our flower garden or standing next to our bird bath, and I wave and say hello.
Welcome, I say, and good morning to you.
Last night, I reach my door and turn one last time to watch the elk and try to lock this image in my memory bank for all time. It is the quintessential Rocky Mountain postcard, a picture postcard for the soul, and I wish I could send it out to you, to all, with good tidings and cheer.
“Biology plus politics equals biopolitics and this is what conservation departments are forced to play, often to the detriment of good game management.” – William Towell, Director Missouri Conservation Commission, 1957-1967
I harvested a sleek, young mule deer doe today, dropped cleanly with a fast-moving .270 caliber bullet well before the crack of the rifle had begun to die away in the thin mountain air. It was a fitting end to a hunt that had barely begun, yet at the same time a fine beginning to something so much more. Why then, did it cause a small pang of concern, like I had done something somehow wrong and irreversible?
It had not been a difficult hunt in the rugged landscape around me, where so often in the past it had been exactly the opposite. She had been standing with another doe just above a dirt access track stretching through a small parcel of public ground, and when the bullet hit her she had made one jump and came to rest in the middle of the road. A quick field dressing and a short flip to the waiting tailgate and she was off to the garage to hang and cool, and it won’t be long before some savory steaks and roasts hit the plate. It’s what dreams of wild game dinners are made of.
It was a planned meat hunt first and foremost, and in that respect it was a mission accomplished for which I do not apologize. I am a fan of mule deer for the table, though I do acknowledge that many people would disagree. To be honest, I would also admit that although I do like it, for the most part this western venison is not my favorite big game offering.
Given a choice, I would rather walk a substantial distance for some expertly grilled chops from a properly fed mid-west Whitetail. I would, and have, walked heroic distances for the well-earned privilege of packing back a heavy load of elk meat. I’ve also worn out a considerable swath of boot leather in pursuit of mule deer in all kinds of terrain, mostly in search of the all too few with some heavy horn on top of their head. I have not always been willing to walk so far just for a meal of mule deer.
This past Spring it occurred to me to try something different this year, and I don’t begrudge myself an easy hunt for a change. Lord knows that I and many of my friends deserve something short of an expedition occasionally, and one’s goals do tend to develop over time. I also wanted to give a mule deer a fresh chance in the culinary department, thinking that perhaps it might be best not to judge things on the taste of tough old buckskin taken well past their prime. A freezer full of protein also does wonders to combat the ever rising grocery bill.
The state of Colorado does issue a limited number of antlerless deer permits for the regular rifle seasons, with an emphasis on “not too many”. To my surprise I was lucky enough to draw a license for an area close to my home, which made it all the more enjoyable. The rest, shall we say, is in the books.
What I failed to mention is that they were the only two deer that we saw that morning, in spite of a three-mile hike through some once great deer country and then, later, a short drive to another area. Nor did I say that I could easily see two houses from where my doe had come to lay, and I knew that there were several more not far over the hill.
Such is the reality of things in the ever more settled west. The deer are not always located in some far often mountain valley, and sometimes you must hunt them where they are. And sometimes you hunt them in places that you used to hunt, years before, in a place where not long ago there were no houses to see.
Things are changing rapidly in the Rocky Mountains, and the once vast Mule Deer herds have been dramatically impacted by that change. Populations have been in serious decline in Colorado and other states, for reasons that are not so clear and steeped in worried speculation. To be blunt, Mule Deer are in serious trouble, and their ultimate fate as a viable species is in real jeopardy.
I, for one, did not have to read a detailed report to come to that sad conclusion. The evidence is everywhere; the end result devastating. Herd sizes have dropped by 50% since I moved to Colorado in the mid 1970’s, and the absence of deer is remarkably obvious. As a result, the number of hunting permits have been severely reduced and tightly controlled, with less than encouraging results.
For some time it is has not been easy for a resident of Colorado to obtain a deer tag of any kind, and when you do it can be difficult to locate a legal buck. Finding a trophy animal can prove nearly impossible for even the best of hunter’s. It’s just not easy being a deer hunter these days.
Unfortunately, the worst may be yet to come. It is debatable whether the herds have stopped their terrifying free fall and reached a period of relative stability. Why then, one might ask, are there any doe tags at all?
What is difficult to pin down are the exact reasons for the decline, and public opinion is wide-ranging and increasingly heated. There is great debate over the effectiveness of the overall state big game management plan, and one wonders if there is really any plan at all. One hand does not always appear to be aware of what the other is doing across state agencies, and I can only hope that in this case the harvesting of a doe somehow contributes to the overall health of the deer herd in this particular game management unit.
I have heard most of the standard theories of cause and reaction. Of course I have a few of my own, or simply evaluate all of the factors in my own way.
Some people are quick to put the blame on an overabundance of coyotes and other predators, and no doubt there is some truth to that. Others blame highway mortality, road building and natural gas drilling, and all forms of habitat loss. More than a few people say that what deer habitat that is left is of poor nutritional quality, and there is an increasing effort underway to remove sections of old growth forest and range and replace them with rejuvenated browse and plant communities. The long-term drought certainly has not helped, and maybe, just maybe, there are now just too many elk.
More than likely it is caused by a combination of all of the above, or perhaps something else entirely. I don’t know how it will turn out for the deer in the final outcome. Nor does anyone else out there really know for sure. It may be that Mule Deer are simply incapable of tolerating or forgiving the daily trespasses of man, and that their loss to history is essentially assured. That would be unspeakably sad.
I do know that the mule deer is a western icon of immeasurable proportions, and the Rocky Mountains would simply be a hollow and soulless shell of itself without them.
Call me selfish, but the possibility of their disappearance is not acceptable. I intend to smile over their big ears and bouncing, improbable gait for however many years that I have left, and I hope that you can too. To watch them brings pure and simple joy. To hunt them is an honor and a gift that should never be taken for granted.
I hope that the current trend of decline can be permanently reversed, for their sake and for our’s. I wish that there will always be Mule Deer to hunt, along with a place to hunt them that remains wild and free. Most of all I would like to shake the sinking feeling that I am hunting one of the last female’s of her glorious and irreplaceable kind.
Thankfully, that is still quite far from the truth, at least for now. It is not too late to help ensure that such an unthinkable day never comes.
In the meantime, I will do my best to use all parts of my animal as gratefully as possible. I look forward to many fine meals ahead, provided by an animal I both respect and cherish. It makes each small bite a most precious encounter.
Coyote Predation is without doubt a significant factor in the overall health of mule deer populations. Common sense would lead one to believe that they must certainly be extremely effective at locating newborn and younger fawns. The literature is also replete with the idea that they are quick to make a meal out of the weak and the sick in any group. But are they capable, or willing, to go against a full-grown adult?
That question was answered, to my satisfaction anyway, one spring morning a couple of years later while turkey hunting in a remote mountain meadow of northwestern Colorado.
A friend and I had been hen calling for several minutes, when two coyotes suddenly appeared on a ridge above about a half mile away. It was obvious that they were highly interested, and no doubt, the thought of a turkey dinner was forefront in their mind.
We continued calling as they cautiously made their way down a steep hill, calculating their approach with each silent step. I remember thinking that things were about to get interesting, and that we had somehow purchased some front row seats to a classic showing of predators at work.
All at once three doe and two yearling mule deer slunk out of the Aspens below, and began to cross in front of us about 80 yards away. No doubt they had caught the faint scent of human on a swirling breeze, and thought it best to be somewhere else.
The deer had no idea that the two coyotes were directly above them, a fact not lost on the hungry pair. It was immediately apparent that they had forgotten all about drumsticks and dark meat, for they immediately went into deer stalking mode.
I watched, fascinated, as the canines dropped low to the ground, and I swear I could their wild eyes meet as they turned their heads to look at each other. It was obvious that some form of communication passed between them; a message as old, as time.
As quick as could be, one coyote began to circle down and to the right and behind the unsuspecting deer, while the other belly crawled to the left in an effort to position himself above and ahead of the lead doe.
It was also obvious that these two had done this before, probably more times than they could ever remember. The scene unfolded like a slow motion movie, and I remember thinking that this was really going to happen.
Suddenly, the coyote on the left made a full speed dash towards the small herd of deer, trying to overcome one of the smaller ones before they had realized what had happened.
He almost succeeded too, as he furiously tried to sink a tooth in hide or muscle so close at hand. I could actually see his mouth open and close as he snapped them shut, just inches from blood.
But no matter, for he knew what was waiting just ahead, as that was the plan all along.
The waiting coyote adjusted his position as the herd bounced blindly on, still crouched close to the earth. The first deer was upon him, suddenly changing direction as she picked up a slight movement in her path.
The coyote leapt upwards on legs of spring steel, and from my angle it looked like he was on a perfect trajectory. His teeth flashed past the deer’s neck so closely I thought I could see her fur ripple in response, as his momentum carried him harmlessly by.
The deer seemed to hit another gear as they became fully aware of their peril, as the coyotes continued in high pursuit for a hundred yards or more. Even then, I thought that they just might catch them, though my guess is that the coyotes knew that their chance for a venison supper had already passed.
The deer had escaped, this time.
Such are the ways of the coyote, and the mule deer, and who knows just how many times it goes the other way, when we are no longer there to watch.
So, in the end, is it coyotes, or some other form of predation that is the true cause of our Mule Deer decline?
I truly don’t know. But I can only hope that this marvelous, western icon survives the encounter, more often than not…
You Can Find Out More About Coyote Hunting In Colorado Here
“It is likely, and appropriate, that a coyote will use the bones of the last man as a scent post. Beyond that, its just as likely that the bones of the last coyote will be picked clean by a Crow…And at the end, when Crow follows the long procession of species out of a world grown cold under it’s dying sun, he’ll exit laughing.” – John Madson
Interested in Coyote Hunting? We can highly recommend:
“Adoration is as alien to wild nature as blasphemy. Nature transcends love, goodness, malevolence or evil. It is simply a primordial force – shining, aloof and brooding, a vast sweep of power too awful to be imbued with human emotions, virtues or mischiefs. It is presumptuous to adore nature as it is to kick a redwood”.
Many of our followers are aware that I have done a lot of security work over the years, and I still do. I’ve spent many sleepless nights on one type of patrol or another, and I’ve learned to notice many things that most people miss in the world all around them.
Last night I missed a chance to see a big mountain lion moving just a short distance from my solitary post. It was reported to me by an excited and breathless observer, who apparently had some trouble believing his own eyes. He just had to tell somebody, and I’m glad it was me.
The sighting took place on the black top and concrete of a two-track bridge over a cold, clear river in western Colorado, not far from the unfenced yards of several exclusive homes and the manicured grounds of a large country club and golf course. It seemed an unlikely spot to find such a magnificent predator, or so he thought. For his part, the tawny beast was no doubt chagrined to find himself caught in such an exposed and vulnerable position.
The lion enjoys good company as he hunts. Coyote, the all-seeing trickster grows more bold and opportunistic with each passing year, having learned long ago to take advantage of the nonchalance of the family pet. He may have learned it from the big cat. Likewise, encounters with black bears are increasing, as are people and bear conflicts. As a result we receive many complaints about coyotes and bears on the property that I roam, and it looks like it may become particularly bad in this time of terrible drought.
After all, we are surrounded by the rocky mountain west, with national forest and other undeveloped lands close at hand. Still, a mountain lion report is big and electrifying news which will surely surge throughout the small community by morning. This creature rules by stealth, and it is no surprise that most people have never seen one outside of a zoo or animal park.
I have been quite fortunate to study them several times in my adventures and wilderness travels. I’ve spied them without them seeing me, and I’ve noted their reaction when they realize they haven’t seen me first. I’ve hunted them several times, and have found myself standing with the bawling hounds under the killing tree, with an angry and snarling cougar above. I’ve followed their distinctive paw prints over hill and dale, and on more than one occasion found their tracks following me. I love to watch them under any circumstance, and to see them do their thing for any amount of time is an awe-inspiring experience that marks an indelible impression. I can see a stalking cat right now, in my mind.
What I don’t like is this long-tailed ghost watching me, particularly when Idon’t know it. I have absolutely no doubt that it’s happened, countless times, at close range and but a primordial fang away. I’d take a bet that it’s happened to you too, if you have spent any significant amount of time in puma country. Fates can change quickly, as the tip of a cat’s tail twitches, measuring what to do. But of course, we will never really know, and it only adds to the mystery and magic of it all.
I would have explained this to my wide-eyed mountain lion man, if I could have gotten a word in edgewise. There are some noteworthy visitors out there in the black night, just out of reach of headlight beams or human consciousness.
Think about that the next time you enjoy a hike on a shadowy mountain trail in a quaking aspen grove, and the hair on the back of your neck stands up for some unknown reason. You may wish to honor that sense. It’s there for a purpose.
Keep it in the back of your mind the next time you go out at night to check on your chickens or other animals in your backyard or back forty. Catch a breath, and take a second to wonder about what just made a nearly silent footfall, behind or above.
The possibility of a lion nearby reminds us of the wilds at the edges, and grounds us in the realities of the natural world. It’s an unsettling thought for some, and one that many of us have to live with when we spend time in the places that we love. Still, I would rather live where I live knowing that a mountain lion lives here too, rather than in a place known to have no mountain lions, and wishing that it did.
It’s a reality I am happy to accept, in the hope of but a quick glimpse, in the corner of an eye.
There is not a week goes by that someone does not ask if we have had any puma reports, and I must say, I’m a bit anxious myself. The leaves in the high county are beginning to turn color already, far too early it would seem, and it won’t be long before the early snows are as high as an elk’s belly and the mule deer are headed for the lower valleys along the river. The big cats are sure to follow, and it is then that there is a fair chance to record them on a well placed trail camera. We hope that the hunting is good this season, for us, and for mountain lions everywhere.
You can see a short video of our night-time visitor here.
Game trail cameras are an invaluable tool for those wishing to document the comings and goings of our wild neighbors, particularly in those magic hours between dusk and dawn. Strategically placed, they can capture a delightful display of animal movements not otherwise observed. It’s great entertainment, with the promise of true surprise within easy reach. My anticipation of the next photo or the next video can barely be contained. You never really know what you’re gonna get…
We use several cameras scattered about the property, which we move on a regular basis. Our main interest lies in the activities of the creatures with two legs. We watch for trespass, intrusion, and foul play. That, of course, is a story for another time. Animal sightings are the bonus feature to the main event.
Today’s review of the image collection was no exception. They held the usual cast of characters. Marmots, foxes, and inquisitive raccoons. Wandering pets, and the occasional biker. One frame held the faint outline of a bear in the shadows, and another the up close face of a young mule deer.
And as you may have guessed by now, one camera captured a video segment of a mature lion on the prowl. At first there was nothing but the wide emptiness of the night, then the world lit up as the beams of infrared caught the ghostly figure like the flashes from an electronic campfire.
He was big and long and solidly built, with well-defined muscles that rippled on his bones as he padded easily back to who knows where. No doubt he had used this route before.
A house loomed large here too, just out of camera range. I know, because I set the camera there myself.
My reaction was sharp, and visceral. It’s one thing to hear someone else talk excitedly about their sighting and personal experience. You want to believe, yet, there’s always a little room for doubt in undocumented reports. It’s quite another matter when you actually see a lion for yourself, or have indisputable evidence in hand.
Real is real, and but a moment away from memory. It is undefinable proof of the untamed mystery of our realm, accessible to all just inches from the comforts of our daily routines.
I shall do my best to stay out of the big cat’s path and unseen wanderings, yearning, for his eventual return.