March 3 was World Wildlife Day, so I’ve been thinking about the animals that share space with us.
At Durango Nature Studies, we are transitioning to our springtime programs for kindergartners and first-graders, so we will soon be getting the Nature Center ready to serve as a learning laboratory for thousands of students during the next eight months. It’s always fun to visit the Nature Center and see what tracks have been left by an array of wildlife navigating the property.
We don’t have to go too far though to see evidence of animals. One morning in early February, I noticed parallel tracks of a cat, a human and a raccoon in a dusting of snow along the sidewalk near the library. Tracks from deer criss-crossed those tracks. I was fortunate to get a unique glimpse of the diversity of species that inhabit Durango.
A week earlier, news was circulating about Travis Kauffman’s encounter with a juvenile mountain lion while he was running on trails near Fort Collins. He escaped with only a few injuries by strangling the lion. In Canada, backcountry skiers awakened a hibernating grizzly, and they came within a few feet of the bear as he emerged from the den. Fortunately, no one was injured.
While we don’t have to worry about grizzlies here, we share our town with quite a few different species of wildlife, and interactions occur frequently. Luckily, most interactions result in no harm. Complacency puts us at risk, however. It puts wildlife at risk, too. I’ve witnessed human-wildlife encounters frequently. One day, a young woman walked along the sidewalk on east Eighth Street, looking down at her phone, only to look up just in time to avoid walking into a healthy five-point buck. The woman was bewildered, but the buck was unfazed. Had she actually walked into the deer, the outcome could have been unpleasant, to say the least.
Last week, a doe and a young buck were traveling along a sidewalk, and I watched as an approaching child threw a couple of snowballs at the deer. Lucky for the child, the deer didn’t react and calmly walked around the corner, but it’s not uncommon for deer to turn defensive.
It’s easy to take our encounters with wildlife for granted, especially if some cute animal like a soft-eyed doe walks directly in front of you. The reality is that any animal can turn defensive or can cause damage if it bolts in fear. Or it can be sick. I had the misfortune of encountering a rabid raccoon in my backyard when I lived in Virginia. While I’ve always had a healthy respect for wild animals, the raccoon’s relentless effort to attack me ensures that I give all wildlife a wide berth.
It’s not just physical encounters that pose a danger. Our complacency in leaving food sources unsecured puts wildlife at risk. If you lived here in summer 2017, you likely encountered bears. Rarely was there a day that summer when I didn’t see evidence of bear activity. The result was crushing as 59 bears were killed in our region as a result of being “nuisance” bears. Bear Smart Durango works tirelessly to educate and help us understand how to live with bears. Bears aren’t the only wildlife at risk. Hungry animals of all sorts will scout out food, especially in harsh conditions like this winter.
I consider it a privilege to live in a community that has abundant wildlife in our midst. That privilege also means that we need to be responsible and respectful. There are some easy things we can do in that regard. For instance, if you’re out on the trails around town, leave the earbuds at home so you can hear what’s happening around you. Take a friend along if you can. If you encounter an animal, give it space. Alter your path if you can, but avoid running, especially if you encounter a predator.
Don’t provoke an animal, but make sure it knows you’re there by talking loudly and slowly waving your arms. Ensure that food sources and trash are secured and do not attract hungry scavengers. These simple steps ensure that we can live in harmony and enjoy wildlife in a manner that is safe for all of us.
Stephanie Weber is executive director of Durango Nature Studies. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.