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Our young cat didn’t come home one night last fall, which was very unusual. She has strong feelings about missing a meal.
The next morning about 11:30 a coyote loped (coyotes always lope) through our front yard and about an hour later Brandy turned up, tired and hungry. For the next few days, when she was outside she moved in fits and starts from tree to tree and very much on the alert. We figure she spent the night in a tree, playing Peter, while the coyote played the Wolf.
Whatever the scenario, it’s certainly true that we saw more wildlife last year than we’ve seen in a very long time, and we’ve heard about more wildlife in the general area. My mother saw six mountain goats in Wild Basin. Someone saw a mountain lion cross the road near Olive Ridge Campground. The last time I saw one was in 1953 on the south ridge of Mt. Meeker, there was a time, in the 20s, when the lived on Big Owl Hill and Dorr Yeager wrote a novel, still in the Estes Park Library [alas, no longer] about one of them “Cheetah, the Story of a Mountain Lion.” There are more hawks in the sky than we’ve seen since the 1950s.
We had a pesky raccoon who raided our bird feeder, and deer grazing on our leech field. We saw (and heard) many coyotes; one crossed Big Owl Road right in front of my car in the middle of an afternoon.
Nobody’s sure exactly what’s going on, but it’s all probably related to the food supply in some way. In the 1950s we had a fairly large rodent population of marmots and pack rats, but it’s been a long time since I’ve seen either in our valley in any numbers. Our other cat brought home a pack rat last fall and it was the first one I’d seen since I found one drowned in a toilet in ‘84.
We’ve always had field mice, many of which move into our house in the winter. Rabbits have been a fairly stable population, too. There’s apparently more food than in the past so I wasn’t surprised to hear about the vole population explosion.
Never heard of voles? It’s short for volemouse. They’re a vegetarian rodent about the size of other field mice, but they burrow in the ground and have blunt noses and short tails. The Park Service is concerned because the population explosion has reached the alpine level and they’re doing enormous damage to the tundra, which takes a very long time to regenerate and almost no time at all for hordes of voles to destroy.
On the other hand, it’s carnivore heaven for the hawks, coyotes and even the lions because voles aren’t very fast and they aren’t any smarter than other mice.
It’s only a phase, of course. The Miller moths used to congregate in such clouds around our kerosene lamps in the 30s, 40s and 50s that a bowl of soapy water would collect scores of them in an evening. In the 20s, 30s, and 40s pack rats were a way of life and when you found a nest your found things that you had been missing for months or years: the thimble you had dropped on the floor and the button that popped off your jacket and loads of other shiny odds and ends. In the 50s there was a family of marmots living in every rockpile. The voles won’t be around forever if we can believe the historical record. In addition to the predators, disease will wipe out most of the population, supposedly.
That may not happen quite the way it’s happened before. We have tampered fairly significantly with the ecosystem, primarily by preventing forest fires, so there’s a wealth of vegetation that normally would be available year after year.
Meanwhile, they’re fueling the rest of the wildlife, with mostly pleasant results, except for our cat, which is having second thoughts about staying out after dark. [In 1993 Brandy, having forgotten this lesson, went out one night, and never returned.]
© 1985 – 2003, David E. Steiner
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