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The Population Explosion (1997)
In 1859, when only Alonzo Allen and the Arapahos knew our valley, the place abounded with mammalian species. Deer, elk, beaver, grizzly and brown bears, bighorn sheep, marmots, raccoons, skunks, squirrels, porcupine, bobcats, lions, wolves, coyotes, foxes, weasels, rabbits and many lesser rodents, were all here in great numbers.
But when Man came to the valley Bambi and all his forest cousins began to diminish in numbers until, by the 1970s, a sighting of most of these animals was rare or nonexistent. And yet, within a 24 hour period last summer, I saw near my home a bear, three elk and two mule deer, a marmot (which I’d not seen for many years) and a very healthy coyote. One June evening last year Don and Betty Ann Newton and I enjoyed the dusk, sharing it with five bull elk who had chosen their yard for a nap.
Faith Gillespie, who lives on Big Owl Hill, reported seeing a mountain lion, and she’s not alone, several others have confirmed that the lions are back.
So what’s going on? Why has there been a resurgence in these populations in the past few years, and will it continue in the face of more people, more houses, more of everything we do that ought to discourage this trend?
I spoke to Dick Coe, one of RMNP’s top naturalists. He pointed to the burgeoning elk population in Estes Park as a harbinger of the future. “Along Highway 7 in Estes Park, we now need not only a sign with a jumping deer, but a blinking yellow light, too. That’s how bad the hazard is, to both the elk and people.”
And why is the mammal population exploding? Nobody knows for sure. It may be in spite of people, or it may be because of us. More strict hunting regulations and protection of predators has been a factor, although that should have reduced the population of the hunted animals. Instead, those populations have grown. In the case of the elk and bighorn sheep, their populations have grown to the point that disease is now taking a toll as nature seeks to stabilize those herds.
In our valley, and particularly the portion in Boulder County, the more strictly enforced rules about dogs has certainly played a part. In the late 60s packs of dogs roamed at will and created havoc in the wildlife population. Today, any dog or cat running loose has a significant chance of becoming part of the food chain.
So is this a trend or is this boom headed for a bust? Again, the naturalists’ crystal balls are cloudy. Most of us believe we know, precisely, why the animals are back in such numbers, and we are probably wrong; the ways of nature are both mysterious and complex. All of life, as we know, has cycles, and this is certainly one of them. Whether it’s a long or short cycle is the question we can’t answer, but it’s worth considering that most archaeologists, paleontologists, zoologists and biologists agree that the full cycle for mammals on this planet has been about a million years, on the average, from the time of flourishing to extinction. Lower forms last longer, some much longer. So we still have some time left, at least statistically, as we continue to adapt, barring either a cataclysm of the sort that wiped out the dinosaurs, or some disaster we create for ourselves. Within that million years or so there are many ups and downs as we adapt to our environment, doing the best we can to flourish and avoid extinction, which is, nevertheless, if we believe the fossil record, inevitable. Meanwhile, we pretty much just do the best we can, and that is probably what is happening with our valley mammals today. Clearly, we should do what we can to prolong the cycle and hope that we can all live together, in peace.
© 1985 – 2003, David E. Steiner
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