Wildlife behavior to change with the weather | AspenTimes.com

Wildlife behavior to change with the weather

Michael McLaughlin
The Aspen Times

The forecasted change in weather this month is expected to trigger some different animal behaviors throughout the Roaring Fork Valley. Lower temperatures will encourage the local deer and elk populations to begin their move to lower elevations and may finally slow down the bear sightings in Aspen.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife District Wildlife Ranger Kevin Wright said the bears are starting to go into hibernation. He said sows with cubs usually start denning around mid-to-late October.

"From talking with hunters in some of the higher places recently, they've seen a few sows and cubs," Wright said. "That indicates those particular individuals are moving towards their den sites, but obviously we're still getting reports of sows with cubs in town, so they're still around. If we get a really good cold snap, that'll help. The boars, or the males, they usually start hibernating around mid-November."

Wright said the bears don't necessarily head to higher elevations to den.

"A lot will go higher elevations," he said. "But some bears will den just about anywhere. In Aspen, I've seen bears den in some of the old mine shafts literally right next to houses. About 60 percent of the bear dens are associated with some type of rock outcropping, but there's not one set place you can say they den and they usually don't use the same den, year after year."

Wright said he's seen den sites made under root systems, under trees with low-hanging branches and even under people's decks. If the public does come across a hibernating bear, Wright said it shouldn't be a dangerous situation if the bear is left undisturbed.

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"I think it would be rare for someone to come across a bear's den because it's going to be hidden," Wright said. "A bear den is usually back in some type of cavity. For the most part, they're pretty lethargic, but they can wake up and move in an instant."

Mountain lions are another predator that live in the area and remain active all winter. There have been recent big cat sightings in Aspen near Koch Park and at the Marolt Open Space. Wright said it's likely the same cat because the sightings have all come within a mountain lion's travel area.

A mountain lion's primary prey source is mule deer, so they're usually going to be around where the deer are congregating, but they're also opportunists and will attack small mammals or unprotected pets that are roaming free. As the deer and elk move down in the winter from the higher elevations, the mountain lions will follow.

Wright said a person is much more likely to see a mountain lion in the winter than in the summer.

"Like with any wild animal, you have to exercise caution around big cats," Wright said. "It's very rare for a big cat to attack a person. We've only had three fatalities in the last 100 years by mountain lions in this state. If you look at how many people have been hurt or injured by dogs, you're going to see a much higher percentage."

Wright said big cats are commonly most active around dawn, dusk and during the night. He said people should take care of their pets and always keep them on leash, especially if walking them during those times when big cats are active.

"Unfortunately, we've had instances where people let their pets out at night and something grabs them," he said. "It could be a lion, a coyote or a bobcat, depending on the size of the pet. If it's a small pet, we've even had foxes grab them."

Wright said there's an abundant population of coyotes in this area. They primarily eat small rodents, but can be deadly to house pets, such as dogs.

"A coyote will act like it wants to play and try to lure the dog away from its house," Wright said. "But there's usually a couple more nearby and they will pack up on it and kill it. It's just another reason for people to understand that they need to control their pets. If they allow them to roam and run free, they do have that chance that something can grab it."

As the weather changes and winter sets in, the local elk and deer population also will make their way down from higher elevations in search of food. Wright said there are already some deer and elk in the Aspen area, but the temperatures have been so high and the weather so dry that the real migration to lower elevations hasn't kicked in yet.

He warned that when the deer and elk make their way down, drivers need to use extra precautions.

"The time change is here now, so more people will be driving in the dark," Wright said. "That's a tough situation with all the deer and elk activity, but it's pretty much unavoidable."

He reminded everyone to keep pets away from deer and elk because that's a losing combination, especially for the wild animals. Deer and elk have to survive winter conditions with calories they've mostly put on prior to winter. If they get spooked or chased, they burn up valuable calories that are needed for survival.

"We've had dogs outright kill deer and even small elk," Wright said. "Sometimes they'll hamstring them. I've seen deer standing alive with their guts hanging out of them. Dogs are very inefficient predators. They can do a lot of damage without killing a deer."

Wright said he hopes the public will use caution and remain bear aware, especially businesses in Aspen where unsecured garbage remains a problem. In his opinion, this has been one of the worst seasons for trash violations throughout the valley.

In the upper Roaring Fork district that encompasses the East/West Sopris Creek area up to Aspen and Independence Pass, Wright said they've to put down nine bears this year.

"We've had years where we've put down more bears," he said. "But the trash issue, especially in Aspen, needs to be taken care of. It's not a good situation. Trash and the fruit trees are still major attractants."

mmclaughlin@aspentimes.com