02 Aug The Wildlife in Our Backyard
White Rocks trail lay ahead of me, meandering through an open prairie that undulated with swaying, two-foot tall spring-green grasses. The path passed alongside several lakes, ponds, and creeks in this wildlife-rich wetland meadow on the eastern outskirts of Boulder, Colorado. From here I could see the crisp, toothy line of the white-capped Rocky Mountains to the west. The mountains’ snows glistened in the sunshine, delivering spring snowmelt to the full flourishing of life below. The meadow before me was already responding. Thick, alternating stands of cottonwoods and Russian olives formed large patches of shade. Between them, the fields burst with creamy-white Queen Anne’s lace, deep-yellow buttercups, and tangerine-hued copper mallow. They all leaned sideways, as if entwined in a tango with the prairie grasses in the gentle breeze.
I was eager to step into this lush, natural world, but something on the trailhead’s notice board caught my eye, halting my entry. Below a detailed trail map I saw a newly posted yellow sign. “Be aware,” it said, “bears and mountain lions are active in this area throughout the year.” I looked around. I had grown up here in the stark plains of Colorado’s foothills turned farmland, and I had never seen a mountain lion or a bear in the wild. Not a one. But now, decades later, with more and more people moving into the mountains and along the foothills, these two elusive and shy creatures were becoming more visible. And wildlife viewing doesn’t always mean we get to watch from a distance.
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I took in my surroundings. But, seeing only a hare watching me from the other side of a grass copse, I turned back to the sign. It told me what I should do in case I did see a lion or bear: Don’t run, it first advised. Make a lot of noise; make yourself bigger; put yourself between the animal and your children, and lastly — I took time to absorb this final piece of advice — “If attacked, fight back.” I could feel a mild anxiety work its way under my skin.
“We are fortunate to have these creatures living in Open Space and Mountain Parks,” the sign continued. “Please respect these animals and their home.”
With that honest orientation, I stepped onto White Rocks trail much more cautiously than I would have, had the yellow sign not arrested my attention. In fact, I found myself obsessively scanning the terrain for large, furry, black or tan figures slipping through the grasses. I was so engrossed in this new focus that I momentarily forgot about the other residents of this meadowland, regular inhabitants that trekkers traditionally came here to see: turtles and waterfowl drawn to the rich waters, as well as the hawks, songbirds, deer, coyotes, foxes, bats, and snakes.
I moved along the sinuous trail as it entered into the first stand of cottonwoods and stopped. A stunning, dappled light filtered through the canopy of fluttering, pale-green leaves. Below, the light fell over a shamrock green sea of undergrowth, moving in waves across the small forest floor. So engrossed, and so forgetful of watching for large animals, I turned the small, blind bend to the next stand of trees and this time, my heart froze before the rest of me.
Just ten feet before me, lounging on a fallen cottonwood, was a more than six-foot long snake sunning himself with relish in the May sun. Content and sleepy, he lifted his head slightly to let me into his vision. As my heart rate skyrocketed, I flicked through the files stored in my mind on what to do when encountering a snake. Back away first. I did that. And within a safe distance, identify. Right in time, for now I saw that he was beginning to waggle the tip of his tail.
I heard no rattle. His coloring and thickness were similar to the prairie rattlesnake’s, a regular resident of these rodent rich plains. But his head, thankfully, was not the telltale v-shape of a viper. I took a deep breath. He was a bull snake, famous for their similar coloring to rattlesnakes, even mimicking the tail shake. But bull snakes, though intimidating, were harmless. I realized I was getting a rare — though not as rare as bears and lions — glimpse of this snake. Most bull snakes would have slipped away once a human had arrived.
It was then that my awareness at last expanded, taking in all of my surroundings, not compartmentalizing into this species or that. I could see the whole, and that I was also a part of it, dissolving the biggest compartmentalized illusion of them all. A rush of gratitude for being in so much beauty displaced the last edge of my anxiety.
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Given that encounters with wildlife are becoming more frequent, I wanted to deepen what the yellow sign had initiated. I soon learned that the City of Boulder manages trails carefully, and lays out rules for each depending on wildlife activity. For instance, on some trails dogs must be on a leash, or are banned entirely — in many cases to keep them from getting into a scrape with a lion, who would win.
But what about wildlife that passes through people’s backyards? I thought about the pack of coyotes who woke me up two nights prior to my hike with their yips, screeches, and howls at three in the morning. I also recalled the bear that two friends had recently witnessed as it scoured their neighborhood for easy food in west-central Boulder. And I also wondered about the most recent sighting of four mountain lions — a mother and her three cubs — who had hunted and eaten a deer in a north Boulder neighborhood. Twenty years ago, these occurrences would have been quite rare, but now they are annual events. With more and more wildlife making its way into our backyards, it’s crucial that we know how to coexist.
Colorado Wildlife & Parks is a great resource. Their website offers ground rules that assure safety whether in town or out on the trail. They advise that residents keep pets indoors at dusk, dawn and night. Mountain lions hunt most during these times and while they prefer deer, in recent years there have been more incidents of beloved pets being taken down. Additionally, clearing a yard of all sources of food — such as easy-to-open trash bins, exposed pet food, or bird seed — can avoid a great deal of the hazards to both wildlife and ourselves. If there is no easy food, most wildlife will keep their distance. As important, simply leaving wildlife alone, whether on the trail or in one’s backyard, is key. Most wild animals return the favor and also leave you alone.
When I finished my hike, the trail ended at the trailhead of another path, that of Teller Farm North, named after the historic farmland from the 19th century. It reminded me that it was we humans who recently showed up in this area. We are the ones making our way into the long-time home territories of these animals. We are the wild ones coming into their backyards.
I watched three horses — one tan, one brown, and one black — graze around rust-red farm equipment that was sinking into the earth, overgrown with wildflowers and grasses. The snowcapped mountains marked the far end of the horizon. Just then, dragonflies flitted up and over the horses’ backs and rushed down into the sweeping meadow. With their grace, I recalled the final two words on the yellow sign at the White Rocks trailhead: Enjoy. Protect.
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