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The Return of the Natives

Article by Martha Quillen

Wildlife – April 1994 – Colorado Central Magazine

They’re on the football held, at the tennis court, strolling down the street, and hanging out at the courthouse.

Deer. They’re in Salida, Buena Vista, Poncha Springs, Crestone, Denver, Boulder, Colorado Springs; they’re so numerous in towns and cities that the Colorado Division of Wildlife lists deer prominently in a pamphlet called Too Close For Comfort: How to Avoid Conflicts with Wildlife in the City.

Yet only fifteen years ago, deer were seldom seen in towns.

Why the invasion?

According to Eric Lundberg, public relations director for the Wildlife Division, one reason is better leash laws.

But Lundberg also points out that Colorado is losing four acres of natural habitat every hour, a relentless progress that amounts to 55 square miles — approximately a Denver International Airport — every year.

“Roads and houses are popping up in many of the places where deer have always lived and traveled about,” the pamphlet notes, and the deer respond by migrating and adapting — migrating to town, and adapting to life there. Elk, too, are following this route, though they still prefer rural subdivisions to towns.

Towns, as well as the newer residential subdivisions, offer a pretty good deal for deer. Thanks to irrigation and gardeners, there’s more foliage than on undeveloped land, and in town, deer are generally protected from hunters, poachers, and predators. Except for cars, deer are safer in town.

HOWEVER, DEER are not ideal neighbors. In suburban environments, deer routinely damage gardens, shrubs, and ornamental trees. And they don’t seem to be learning to look both ways before crossing the street, either.

Ron Dobson, a Wildlife Division official who has worked in Salida for seven years, has picked up deer carcasses on every street in town, and he says the problem is getting worse.

With so many car-deer collisions, deer are the most dangerous wild animal in Colorado, causing many, many more fatalities than either bear or mountain lion.

Even when deer are out of the road, they can be dangerous — probably because of their passive nature. Although i’ts illegal to feed deer in Colorado, people often try to hand-feed or pet deer, which brings them within striking distance. When frightened, deer can strike back. Injuries and even deaths, though rare, have resulted.

Beyond that, deer run into plate-glass windows and get stuck in culverts.

And they’re less than neighborly in another respect. As the saying goes, “predators follow prey,” and deer make up more than half of the diet of the typical mountain lion.

Deer aren’t the only reason mountain lions come into town; the same habitat pressures that pushed the deer also push the lions.

The result is what wildlife biologists call ~habituation~ — an animal becomes so accustomed to humans that it loses its innate aversion. Habituated animals aren’t tame or domesticated; they’re just animals that will allow people to get near them.

They still avoid conflicts with humans — unless food is involved. Yet even without deer, towns supply an abundance of cougar chow, including tree squirrels, small dogs, and house cats.

CARS MAY BE the only operating limits on deer

population in town.

In a 1988 interview, regional Wildlife chief John Torres observed that in an urban community, where the traditional kinds of wildlife management approaches are no longer available to use, strange things happen to wildlife. It generally booms. It, for the most part, goes uncontrolled; there’s nothing to keep it down like in the rural communities where you have the privilege of hunting or trapping or even using toxicants.’

Given that deer are destructive, it’s entirely understandable that some people want the deer removed from our towns — in a humane way. of course. But unfortunately, that simple solution won’t work.

Deer are hard to trap and transport, and thus such a program would take enormous amounts of manpower and money. And afterward, new deer would almost certainly arrive in short order — so the process would have to be repeated frequently.

And to make this even more complicated, no one is sure that town deer could survive anywhere else. City deer are far too friendly to make them fair game for hunters, and their ability to deal with predators is suspect.

Therefore, unless a crisis develops, the deer are probably in our towns to stay — unless they, themselves, decide to leave.

So what does this mean for Chaffee County — where deer loiter on our street corners like young teenagers, a tad wary and remote, but very much a part of our community?

It could mean that the spread of housing projects throughout the county has significantly altered our terrain.

In a speech last year, Mollie Beattie, Director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, defended her department’s listing of the Bruneau hot springs snail as an endangered species, a listing that could mean unemployment for Idaho farmers.

“Farmers in Idaho are up in arms because of the listing of the snail as endangered,” she said. “But the snail is simply a weather vane for a much greater threat to farmers and others in the region — in this case the steady decline of the regional aquifer in the Bruneau Valley. The snail is the messenger telling us that a water problem exists and must be dealt with or the ecosystem and agriculture upon which human beings depend will continue to crumble. Once again local reaction is quite literally to kill the messenger rather than to heed the messages.”

With Beattie’s speech in mind, it seems reasonable to ask whether proliferating mule deer could also be giving us a message.

BUT FIRST, it’s important to note that mule deer

are not endangered. Today, there are an estimated 700,000 deer and 200,000 elk in Colorado. And that’s a lot. At the turn of the century, there were probably only 5,000 deer left in the state, thanks to the zealous achievements of pioneer hunters.

Yet today’s deer are clearly different than yesterday’s. Apparently, deer are adapting to new conditions very well — by choosing fenced yards over wooded slopes, and covenanted neighborhoods over open fields — just as people have.

Deer are not the same reclusive, seldom-seen creatures they were twenty years ago. Yet it might be a mistake to assume that changes in deer behavior indicate there are too few wooded slopes and open fields left.

The deer’s steady relocation into towns over the past decade may merely mean that there are too many dogs running loose out there, or so many people that the deer have lost their innate aversion to humans.

NEAR CRESTONE, growth has been slow, but deer crowd into town like kids crowd a play ground. In Crestone’s case, however, the situation has a lot to do with the nature of the San Luis Valley. Deer don’t take to huge open spaces. Therefore, in the Valley, their habitat is confined to a narrow band of margin land between the mountains and the plain.

In such places, it doesn’t take much development to displace deer. And the Great Sand Dunes National Monument, where there is no hunting, has undoubtedly produced a more people-friendly species in Saguache County than elsewhere.

But that doesn’t mean Saguache County residents shouldn’t worry about development. The very scarcity of wooded habitat could be seen as a warning that their woodlands should be protected.

Then too, there are Leadville and Fairplay, which sit at elevations where resident deer will never overwhelm them as readily as incoming Denverites and Californians. But are the elk adventuring closer to their homes these days?

Maybe. But in most cases these messages from animals are superfluous — because people are generally far more aware of impending problems than they care to admit.

If the Bruneau aquifer in Idaho was falling, surely no one knew that better than the local farmers.

Yet Idaho farmers chose to ignore the situation. Why?

Probably because they had very few options.

And so it is with us.

Whether you arrived in Central Colorado last month or forty years ago, you probably look to the hills at night and note the additional lights.

And on a ride, you probably fret a little about the number of houses spreading north of Buena Vista. Or about the condos blossoming above Alma. Or about the homes sprouting near Rosita.

But there doesn’t seem to be very much you can do about them. And you suspect there’s very little you should do about them — at least until the situation grows untenable.

AFTER ALL, people have a right to move here. To buy land. To sell land. And to build homes.

But do they have the right to change the nature of this place?

For all of U9 who live in the West, this controversy is growing. In Washington, D.C., in environmental journals, at cattlemen’s meetings, and in private homes, intensely factional debates are being waged about mining, rangeland, wetlands, farmlands, timberlands, and endangered species.

BRUCE BABBITT, Secretary of the Interior, leads the fight against what he calls the “lords of yesterday,” those agents of the mythic West’s leading industries — mining, logging, and agriculture. Babbitt and his supporters envision a New West, dedicated to what they perceive to be cleaner industries — recreation and lone eagles.

This may all be well and good, but in 1994 it makes as much sense as declaring war on the Confederacy.

While Babbitt has focused everyone’s attentions on cutting federal subsidies to industries already in decline, the West has already entered a new era.

Babbitt is too late. Fairplay has art galleries. Salida has art galleries. Buena Vista has art galleries. Today, gift stores seem to be Central Colorado’s leading industry, with bike rentals trailing right behind raft trips, and all of them running neck and neck with mining museums — not operating mines.

Certainly, there are issues to iron out with the “lords of yesterday,” but it’s about time that Babbitt, cattlemen, sheepherders, environmentalists, et al, quit feuding long enough to note that the West is now firmly in the hands of the tycoons of tomorrow.

THIS WINTER, Babbitt supporters and hard-core environmentalists seemed puzzled by the West’s continued resistance to higher grazing fees — since most westerners today are transplanted suburbanites, not family ranchers trying to hold on to great grandpa’s homestead.

Yet in the last go-round on grazing, even a few environmental groups jumped on the ranchers’ side — because the people in Babbitt’s New West are starting to believe that every time a ranch dies, a subdivision is born. And people don’t move here to live in cities.

In the New West, even real estate developers realize that rural living is what they have to sell. The newcomers want dynamic scenery, plentiful wildlife (In real-estate ads, deer and elk are promoted as an amenity like county roads or utilities on site), good fishing, clean air, small towns, and open spaces.

That’s a tall order, however, and whether growth, wildlife, small towns, and open spaces can really coexist is questionable. For example, deer and elk will hang out amid houses between visits to a rancher’s hay field. Scare tactics like firecrackers work only briefly before the critters are back at it, destroying the rancher’s livelihood and then retreating to their suburban sanctuary. Selling out to a subdivider starts to look real attractive to the rancher.

But we’re here. The wildlife is here. And growth is happening.

The biggest environmental problem facing Colorado today is the urbanization of its mountain valleys. Right now, we’re building without any clear idea of what it will mean to wildlife, natural habitat, or water supplies.

Yet the environmental movement is pushing rapid changes to create a New West — a West that may actually be more ecologically unsound than the old one. The old one had its flaws, but among its legacies is a generally attractive landscape.

Whether Bruce Babbitt realizes it or not, his New West is here. And it’s got problems.

Babbitt, however, doesn’t deserve to be singled out. By allowing the EPA to run amok, the mining industry to rip and run, and the logging industry to chain-saw through unconscionable amounts of Pacific rain forest, the Reagan regime left us with massive lay-offs and clean-ups. And in the process they gave environmentalists endless ammunition.

There may still be gold in them thar hills, plus uranium, granite, marble and silver, but right now the future of Colorado’s mining industry is being buried under the clean-ups at Summitville and Rocky Flats.

That’s the legacy Republicans left to miners. And now Bruce Babbitt seems determined to equal that legacy by wresting the public lands out of the clutches of agriculture, and passing them on to recreation. Our recreation industry relies on low population densities, however, and historically that condition has been fostered by the ranching industry.

PERHAPS IT’S TIME to reflect upon the fact that environmentalism, itself, has be come an industry, a very large promotional industry for books, magazines, “ecological” products, recreation, and real estate. And now that environmentalism has grown into an industry, it should be assumed that environmental lobbyists are influenced by the same big power and money considerations as the mining industry.

All in all, politicians seem determined to mess up the West in any manner they can — because there’s money to be made by manipulating us into untenable positions. There was money to be made by deregulating the mining and logging industries. And now there’s money to be made by repackaging and reselling every inch of the West.

Which leaves us the task of saving it — or at least trying to save whatever we can. It’s not going to be easy. It isn’t a job for armchair environmentalists, and it won’t be accomplished by people sitting on redwood decks worrying about spotted owls. Even worse, it won’t happen at all if too many people insist that public lands are public, so they’ve got a right to take their four-wheelers wherever they want.

WHETHER WE LIKE IT or not, our population is increasing and our wildlife is showing signs of stress. Higher usage of public lands, parks, river frontage, highways, and trails threatens our landscape and our animals. More people do more damage, and therefore when the population goes up, everyone has to be more careful. Last year, Colorado had more bear problems than ever before, for several reasons. It was the first year without a spring bear hunt, the berry crop failed, and forage was in short supply.

Last summer, bears, especially near Westcliffe, seemed to go crazy, raiding the same places over and over, breaking into kitchens, crushing bird feeders, and smashing anything and everything that might yield food.

Today, the Colorado Division of Wildlife supports Amendment 10, which eliminated the spring bear hunt, bear baking, and hunting bears with dogs. Although it may not have been the Division’s favorite piece of legislation, Director Perry Olson viewed the measure as a popular mandate and has discouraged subsequent attempts to override it.

BEAR BAlTING was never a good idea because it encouraged bears to eat food supplied by humans — many hunters raided the Safeway Dumpster for the bait. But the end of the spring bear hunt has brought numerous problems. National park studies show that bears that eat human food are far more dangerous than those who don’t. And in the last few years parks have drastically reduced their bear problems by strenuously policing garbage.

The principle seems to be that one should never stand between a bear and his dinner. And thus it’s best, in the long run, if bears never find out that humans throw away enough food to keep them fat and happy.

BEARS WHO HAVEN’T BEEN conditioned to eat human food are reasonably safe to have around, but once a bear has discovered junk food, it can be a serious nuisance — or worse. As bears go, black bears are relatively docile, and for years they entertained park visitors by begging, posing, and even eating out of human hands. But bears also caused formidable damage in those Yogi Bear days, by ransacking campsites, ripping off car roofs, and literally peeling apart metal campers.

Black bear are big, incredibly strong, and nothing to fool with. But in the absence of food, they can usually be scared away by a few clanging pots. Although black bear attacks are very rare, black bear damage isn’t. So if we’re going to live here and save the bears, we’re going to have to watch our garbage.

Eliminating the spring bear hunt wasn’t a bad idea. But it almost certainly should have been done in stages — proceeded by a massive education program to eliminate all of the dumps and problem garbage containers in bear country, first.

As it was, better habits were adopted too late — after the bears had come to rely on garbage. Apparently, a lot of bears had been feeding on bait, too, and had begun to rely on that yearly spring picnic in spite of its potentially lethal consequences.

Presumably, if the bears had been given a year or two to remember what it was they were supposed to eat, and to adjust to not finding food at all of their old hang-outs, the transition would have been easier. Amendment 10 wasn’t the wisest course voters could take.

ANIMAL MANAGEMENT is a tricky enterprise, where dog control leads to town deer, and town deer lead to town lions, and town lions lead to poaching, and everything has side-effects that aren’t readily anticipated. It’s where the Law of Unintended Consequences can take strange paths.

Obviously, it would be best to proceed with a plan, rather than a mandate. But anti-hunting factions couldn’t wait.

One of the gravest problems facing the West today is the urgent push for rapid change. New laws, amendments, and regulations represent polltical triumphs. But all too often, the public gets stuck with some truly dubious leglslation that’s impossible to implement.

Although some problems call for quick action, even endangered species will be better served by a little patience. There’s a real tendency to push a cause till it topples — even though that doesn’t really further the goal. The Endangered Species Act turned twenty this year, but many fear that it won’t survive Bruce Babbitt’s enthusiastic support.

To prosper, we need to resist hasty legislation — _ because it generally serves a political agenda better than it serves us. Resisting haste doesn’t mean we should resist participation, though.

The Colorado Division of Wildlife is a public entity. Write them. Lobby them. Send petitions. March if you must. And don’t forget that the Colorado Wildlife Commission meets six times a year to discuss policy, and the public can apply to make presentations at their meetings.

But activism won’t save our wildlife at this point. The threat to them isn’t due to hunting. Nor do they lack protective legislation. The threat to wildlife is in how we live, day to day in the places we inhabit. Even if the deer and elk flourish, they’re not “wildlife” when they’re on the lawn every day, and neither are bears that know how to raid trash cans but not how to gather acorns.

In the end, bears had to be destroyed last summer. Division of Wildlife policy gives bears several chances, but statistics show that persistent garbage bears are responsible for most bear attacks on humans.

Normally, when there’s a bear problem, the place being raided will be cleaned up and bear-proofed as best as possible before the clock starts ticking on a bear. Then if a bear persists, it gets moved, but a recalcitrant bear can only be moved so many times, usually two, before it has to be destroyed.

Last winter, Al McClelland brought suit against the Colorado Division of Wildlife, claiming that his son, Colin, was killed by a bear transplanted into the Cotopaxi area. The Division denied the charges, saying the bear responsible had not been moved, and that no bears whatsoever had been moved into that area in the last eight years.

But the fact remains that moving bears is controversial because moving problem bears almost never solves the problem. Instead, the bear becomes a problem elsewhere.

The only long-term solution is to prevent bears from becoming a problem in the first place. And that has to be done by all of us.

Once upon a time, our mountains weren’t so crowded, and a little bit of sloppiness here and there wasn’t disastrous. And the public tolerated a lot more hunting than it does now — until the 1930s, bear were vermin to be shot on sight.

But now if most of us are a little sloppy, it may be enough to addict all of our bears to inappropriate foods — foods that may get them killed in the long run.

Therefore, in the interest of bear and human survival, if you live in bear habitat, use bear-proof trash containers or keep your trash in an enclosed basement, garage or fruit cellar. Periodically clean your trash containers to reduce odor. Don’t store pet food and barbecue grills outside. Don’t put tasty morsels in compost piles. Beware of bird feeders, especially hummingbird feeders; hang them only on wire strung between trees, and always bring them in at night. A bear’s favorite food is bee larvae soaked in honey, so if you have hives, bear-proof them with appropriate fencing.

But most of all, remember that the majority of bears don’t cause any damage, yet all of them will pay if we let our bear problems get out of hand.

Now that you’ve made the world a safer place for bears, if you live in mountain lion habitat — which also means areas of juniper, piñon, ponderosa, mountain mahogany, or oak brush, which means many developments around Salida — you should make lots of noise when you go outside between dusk and dawn.

Closely supervise children and keep them inside between dusk and dawn. Remove any vegetation that can serve as a hiding place for lions. Discourage deer by planting things they don’t like. Bring pets in at night, and never feed them outside because pet food attracts small mammals that attract lions. Keep outside pets in kennels with secure tops. Install yard lights and use them when you go out at night. Keep shed and barn doors closed to avoid entertaining a curious cat.

Lions may not be the animals you want to save our planet for, but they’re actually very reclusive, and they almost never attack humans. In more than 100 years of record-keeping, lions have been held accountable for fewer than a dozen human deaths in North America.

In one study, radio-tagged mountain lions were tracked repeatedly skirting a crowded Los Angeles suburb on their way from here to there, and one lion actually settled down for four months in a semi-natural area within the city. Yet in those five years, only three mountain lion sightings were reported.

In recent years in Colorado, the number of mountain lion sightings has increased. Lions are intelligent, sleek, and beautiful, but they don’t make good pets, so it’s imperative that we discourage visitations — since human experiences with bears and deer prove that animals exposed to people can lose their native wariness.

The thing to realize today is that none of us live where we used to live. Even if you’ve been in the same house for thirty years, the landscape has changed. And that means stress.

We have a tendency to look to the past, to remember when things were better, simpler, and easier. And a contrary tendency to change everything as fast as possible because we think everything a total mess, today. And that means stress.

Maybe this place is fated to change, to fill with houses from Granite to Buena Vista, from Salida to Cotopaxi, from Westcliffe to Rosita. And maybe it will never happen.

BUT THE REGION has already changed. Its population, its economy, and its workforce are different. In some ways it’s a better place. There are more shops, more events, and more restaurants. There are new galleries, gift stores, and boutiques.

We can do our very best for wildlife. There are a thousand things we can do; some are simple, like keeping our dogs from wandering, and some are hard work, like re-fencing without the barbed wire.

But the thing we most need to save is ourselves.

People are leaving the cities — because of crime, random violence, dysfunctional schools, heavy traffic, street gangs, and drive-by shootings.

And they’re coming to places like this — because this is where the people are friendly, the pace is slow, the schools are good and old-fashioned, the lines are short, and the traffic is non-existent. This is the dream haven, the safe harbor, the shelter from the storm.

Except it can be disappointing, and frustrating, and oh so easy to fall into cultural wars directed and cast by people we’ve never even met who pit wine against beer, café latte against straight rye, nylon against leather, cowboy boots against running shoes, mechanical aptitude against computer literacy, pick-ups against Ford Explorers, guns against golf clubs.

And we buy it. We agree to be stereotyped. And to believe whatever they say about that other guy. And this is heaven? No. But it’s well worth saving, even if it isn’t quite the piece it used to be.