Wildlife roundtable: Nature is brutal enough without humans making life harder for local animals


Wildlife survival can be very difficult. Although plants and animals have special adaptations that improve their chances of survival in specific environments, this is not a guarantee. “Survival of the fittest” is a reality for the natural world, not just a phrase.

This sentence has an interesting history. Conventional wisdom is that Charles Darwin coined the phrase. He developed the theory of evolution and the concept of natural selection, but never used the phrase in early editions of his book “On the Origin of Species”.

Herbert Spencer, an English biologist, coined the phrase in his book “Principles of Biology” in 1864. Alfred Russel Wallace, a British naturalist suggested that Darwin use the phrase “survival of the fittest” as an alternative to “natural selection”. Darwin liked the idea and used it in future publications of his book “On the Origin of Species”.

So what does “survival of the fittest” really mean for wildlife? Moreover, should “survival of the fittest” also include the concept of “survival of the luckiest?” In the wild, there are all kinds of things that wildlife deal with and there are a lot of “right place, right time” that lead to survival that could just as well be “wrong place, wrong time” and be the disappearance of certain species or individuals.

Nowhere to go

In Eagle County, the greatest impact on the survival of many species, especially deer, elk, and bighorn sheep, is habitat loss. Historically, elk have used the valley grasslands for food and shelter. Elks are herbivores and their favorite foods are grasses, herbaceous plants and shrubs. An herbaceous plant is a broad-leaved herbaceous plant that is not a grass. Herbaceous plants have high nutritional value during the growing season. According to research, grass is the favorite food of elk. Most of the grassy meadows in the valley have disappeared.

Elks need the valleys to locate their favorite food: grass.
Rick Spitzer/Courtesy Photo

For deer and bighorn sheep, their historic use of the valley has been on the open, south-facing hillsides. Mule deer’s favorite foods are the leaves, needles, succulent stems, fruits, and seeds of trees, shrubs, and herbaceous plants. Bighorn sheep browse on grasses, clovers, and sedges during the warm months, but turn to sage, willow, and other woody plants in the winter. This type of forage is very different from other ungulates such as cattle and elk.

Finding food under deep snow in winter can be difficult for almost any wildlife. This bighorn ram is pawing through the snow to reach the grasses and herbaceous plants it needs to survive.
Rick Spitzer/Courtesy Photo

The habitat requirements for these animals are the same as our habitat preferences. Building in grassland requires less surface preparation and is less expensive in terms of infrastructure construction cost. Building on a hillside is more expensive, but with improvements in technology and materials, it is still reasonable to build and maintain a property on a mountainside. The problem is that where we choose to build, we take away the habitat that deer, elk and bighorn sheep need, especially during the stressful winter months.

In addition, our construction of roads, housing and commercial areas has blocked the ability of animals to follow migration routes or removed grazing areas altogether. In addition, the construction of fences on the highways prohibits the animals from following their historical migratory routes.

Fences prevent wildlife from moving into the valley bottoms. Fences on highways are 8 feet high and cannot be jumped.
Rick Spitzer/Courtesy Photo

Wildlife overpasses and underpasses can help alleviate these problems, but they are expensive to build. In this valley there are areas where they would have no value because the migration routes through the valley have already been blocked by construction.

When we really look at our piece of paradise, we don’t often think about the fact that we’ve taken over much of the area the native wildlife used to call home.
Rick Spitzer/Courtesy Photo

Wild animals often come into conflict with members of their own species as well as with other species, especially when resources are limited. In winter, many animals that are normally scattered over large areas begin to converge on their historic grasslands. As this area is lost to development, the amount of space used by wildlife during the rut and for food during the winter decreases. Reproductive success and the ability to feed decrease.

Fighting mule deer and elk during the rut can be dangerous. These antlers can gouge out eyes and cause puncture wounds that can become infected.
Rick Spitzer/Courtesy Photo

Some people may claim that these animals can move to another place. Where? Other locations may not meet the needs of animals. Additionally, other areas may already be populated by other members of their species, and the addition of these additional animals may produce a situation where the food supply may not meet the demands of this increased population. What happens? Animals die.

Impacts of climate change

All animals need food, water and shelter to survive. However, due to climate change, the ability to find these things is changing. Growing seasons are shifting and getting longer. Temperatures are warming up, causing some plants to start growing earlier and seeding earlier. Trees bud earlier in the season and become more susceptible to late spring frost. The rivers are warming up and making the survival of trout more precarious.

A longer summer means that some insect species like pine beetles now produce two to four broods in one summer, which can alter the ability of some plants to survive attacks from increased insect numbers. Hummingbirds may arrive and find that the plants or insects they depend on have already passed their prime and are no longer available as a normal food source.

Animals like ptarmigan and long-tailed weasels adopt their white coats in late fall and return to their summer colors in early spring. However, the snow comes later and melts earlier. This is not a good thing for a white animal that now lives in a brown landscape.

We all know what life is like for us and for others when we get sick or get old. We have doctors who can help us, as well as family members and friends who can help us in times of need. Wildlife does not have this support.

natural hazard

Natural hazards in the environment can injure or kill wildlife. Falls, stepping into holes or tripping over limbs can break bones and cause further injury. Collisions with branches or rocks while trying to escape a predator can cause injury and lead to capture. Animals that fight during rut or mating activity. may sustain wounds that become infected or result in an inability to feed or escape predators.

Our local wildlife lives in areas that have dangerous situations. Slips and falls can result in life-threatening injuries.
Rick Spitzer/Courtesy Photo

Predator/prey relationships also have an impact. For mule deer, the natural predator/prey relationship with cougars is a serious threat. Is this detrimental to the mule deer population? Research has shown that mountain lions kill an average of one deer per week.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife estimates of Colorado’s cougar population range between 3,800 and 4,400 cougars. This means that mountain lions kill between 197,600 and 228,800 mule deer each year. This appears to be the end of mule deer populations in a very short time. However, mule deer and cougars had a predator-prey relationship for thousands of years before humans showed up on earth.

If lions were removed from this relationship, it could allow a deer population to exceed an area’s carrying capacity, resulting in the death of individuals, but from a different cause.

Helping animals can hurt them

If you spend a lot of time outdoors in our environment, you will see animals in poor health, injured or affected by an event caused by a person or nature. Should we help them? It can be an emotional struggle.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife officers often receive calls from people wanting to “help” wildlife they believe are abandoned or injured. Often the parent is somewhere nearby foraging for food and the young are simply waiting for them to return.

Animals contract diseases and injuries that can make it difficult for them to survive. This moose is malnourished due to an unknown cause.
Rick Spitzer/Courtesy Photo

Some want to help wildlife by providing them with food. Some people don’t know that intentionally feeding big game is illegal. Feeding can cause animals to congregate in areas where they can become a danger to local people, spread disease, attract large carnivores, and damage landscaping. Additionally, the food provided may be poisonous or of a type that cannot be properly digested by wildlife. In some situations, animals died with full bellies. Feeding wild animals can contribute to their death.

Feeding the birds is another problem. Bird feed is most useful during the winter, when birds need the most energy, when natural seed sources are depleted. Most research shows that bird food is helpful for many species and not harmful. Research by scientists at Oregon State University shows that distributing food to small birds in winter does not lead to dependence on human-supplied food.

If in doubt about what to do with wildlife, contact Colorado Parks and Wildlife or an approved wildlife rehabilitation center.

Nature can be quite brutal. The best thing we can do is allow our wildlife to stay wild and do what we can to reduce the human impact on their lives.


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