Tony Vagneur: It wasn’t curiousity that killed the bobcat

Tony Vagneur
Saddle Sore

Places become special merely by accident, sometimes just by driving by them. It was the early 1970s, and heading up Castle Creek, not far below the parking lot for American Lake, I spied a bobcat gamboling through a meadow off to my right.

Oh my, what a beautiful expanse of land, at that. The wildflowers were in the height of bloom, and in the late afternoon somnolence induced by fading sunshine and the coming end of a long day, I stopped and focused on the bobcat. How strange, it seems now, for that was the last bobcat I have seen in the wild. It so intrigued me that I traveled back several times over the next couple of years, looking for another sighting, to no avail.

However, the memory pot of that meadow was sweetened one afternoon by the appearance of a mama bear and her two cubs. That was back in the ’70s also, a time when bears were rarely seen anywhere around these parts.

I was reminded of that meadow recently by Andy Stone, one-time editor of The Aspen Times, cutting-edge columnist for umpteen years, and an excellent interpreter of the Aspen scene. I miss his columns, and his wit.

In any case, Andy posted on Facebook (or somewhere) recently about a lovely afternoon he had with his wife, and their experience of romping through an unforgettable little Ashcroft meadow somewhere along the way. My mind went immediately to my cherished open field in that valley, and was certain we were talking about the same place. But it doesn’t really matter — what matters is that those special places and memories will never leave us.

“How did I know it was a bobcat,” someone asked back then? Shortly before that, my uncle Victor and I had seen a lynx traveling through the Red Butte neighborhood, and we damned well knew the difference between a bobcat and a lynx. The Department of Wildlife didn’t believe us, said we’d seen a bobcat. The DOW missed an opportunity that day, which was before Perry Will’s leadership. When I was a kid in Woody Creek, we had several resident bobcats. It was always a thrill to see them.

The Castle Creek Valley and Ashcroft have been one of the last hold-outs against the influx of civilization and its deleterious effects on wildlife. What’s left there, one cannot be certain, because there is a lot more traffic (hikers, mechanized and motorized vehicles) than there ever was in the 1970s.

An interesting take on Ashcroft and the vicinity can be found in the voice of Stuart Mace, longtime caretaker of the Castle Creek Valley, in a commentary recorded for the Aspen Historical Society back in 1974.

When Mace talks about the restoration of the ghost town of Ashcroft, he very capably makes the point that restoration of the buildings in the abandoned town will have much less impact and allure without the attendant restoration of wildlife. Such a simple point, but totally missed by those in today’s world who so easily compartmentalize growth and wildlife. For Mace, restoration of wildlife was more important than the restoration of Ashcroft.

We encroach on elk calving and migration grounds, either by allowing development in the same areas, or we bless mechanized and motorized travel on the same trails that bifurcate elk habitat. And we think nothing of it, except for an occasional piece in the paper saying the elk and deer herds are down. God forbid we take our foot off the throttle of further development and our inalienable right to have fun.

Mace talked about the demise of badgers, of which we always could spy one or two on the Woody Creek ranch if we were lucky. In 1974, it was suspected the wolverine had moved on or been poisoned. Dens of coyotes had been extirpated through poisoning, either through cyanide bait guns or dead animal carcasses laced with strychnine. Their songs were almost silenced.

Naturally, as we now know, carrion spiked with poison kills those that eat carrion, including bald eagles, wolves, coyotes, bears. other birds, other wild creatures, and pet dogs. It was brutally used in the ’50s and’60s by the government. Cyanide guns are very dangerous and are still used to kill coyotes. Innocent, curious animals also are occasionally killed or humans injured.

Perhaps paraphrasing Mace’s thinking, in a convoluted move toward today’s world, I believe we only protect half of what we cherish if we don’t do everything in our power to restore the wildlife that traveled the mountains when first the white man traversed these valleys. It might be too late for some of them, but we need to expand the conversation.

Conservation easements are great for protecting open space, but we need to seriously include wildlife in our viewplane.

Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at