Scavengers and predators play crucial roles |

Scavengers and predators play crucial roles

Tom Wiesen
Photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Mountain Lions are numerous in Eagle County, especially near wintering deer and elk herds.

I’ve often heard the word “scavenger” cast in a negative light, as if they were lowly beings. Predators on the other hand are often viewed with a sense of awe and respect. If I asked, “If you could see any animal that lives here, which animal would you most like to see,” chances are you would choose a predator, because they’re the coolest.Predators are great as long as they aren’t standing over you or your prized pets. Predators such as mountain lions, bobcats, coyotes and foxes are common here in Eagle County, but we rarely see them because they are generally nocturnal and secretive by their nature.Avian predators such as hawks, eagles and owls also take a large number of rabbits, squirrels and small rodents. These raptors possess keen eyesight and sharp talons to keep small herbivore populations in balance.Helping herdsPredators such as mountain lions, grizzly bears, and wolves play an important role in keeping large prey populations in check. For instance, white-tailed deer populations are out of control in many parts of the United States largely because of a shortage of predators.

Oversized elk and deer herds ultimately weaken the animals as they compete for limited winter food sources.Scavengers play an important role as the clean-up crew. Life is messy, and roadside carcasses, dead fish and animals that die from natural causes are all utilized as food by opportunists that find themselves in the right place at the right time to score a free meal. Examples of scavengers include bald and golden eagles, magpies, coyotes, fox, black bears and weasels.Wolves workAn interesting story has unfolded in Yellowstone since they reintroduced wolves there over a decade ago. Wolves feed upon large herbivores such as elk. Prior to the wolf’s re-entry upon the scene, the elk would browse the riverbanks clear of brush. This made life for the beaver difficult because the elk competed with them for food.

As wolves preyed upon the elk that found themselves too far from cover to escape, the elk began spending less time in the exposed river valleys. Willows and aspen began to thrive along the river courses and beavers moved in and commenced dam building.With more vegetation to shade the river, the fish populations began to thrive. With more ponds, thanks to the beaver, new habitat was created directly benefiting ducks, fish muskrats and mink. Also, more of the land receives water as the beaver dams spread the water out into rivulets, which then benefit many shrubs, grasses and berry bushes, and in turn provides habitat for warblers and waxwings, as well as porcupines, chipmunks, and mice.This shows how the presence of wolves can have far-reaching effects, and improves the overall health and biodiversity of an ecosystem.Deer wasn’t scaredRecently, a woman from Marin County, California told me how her yard is fenced to keep out the deer.

One day the gate was accidentally left open and a deer made its way into her yard and was feeding on her flowers. She went out to shoo it away with a broom, and much to her surprise, the deer snorted at her and stood its ground. When wildlife that should run from people no longer fears them, it is a sure signal that things are out of balance. Human development puts pressure on wildlife as they are squeezed into smaller broken-up parcels of natural land.We must strive to keep our natural systems in tact here in Eagle County and foster natural balance. This means making choices that protect wildlife, and maintaining development at a level where the needs of people and the needs of wild animals are both met.Tom and Tanya Wiesen are naturalists and owners of Trailwise Guides, a year-round Vail Valley guide service specializing in daily private tours for hiking, mountain biking, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, birding, and wildlife watching. Contact Trailwise Guides at 827-5363.Vail, Colorado

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