High Country Canines Thrive

Filed in Expert Articles, Wildlife Tours by on November 11, 2013

A dog is man’s best friend, right? Well, how about their wild cousins fox, coyote, and wolf? Each of these animals evokes different emotions in us as humans, and we are probably surrounded by wild dogs more than we think as they quietly go about their business.

TWG_story_wildlife09imgWe’ve all heard of the fox in the hen house. Crafty, cunning, and sly is the reputation of the fox. But another assessment of a fox’s way of doing things is that it is simply successful at making a living.

For instance, fox are known to wait in ambush along popular rabbit paths. The fox has the foresight and the patience to say to itself, “I’m going to invest my time sitting here and waiting knowing that in time a rabbit will come down this path and then I will take him by surprise.”

Foxes are also big mousers, much like cats are. Also similar to cats, fox have elliptical-shaped pupils, which give them cat-like eyes on a dog-like face. Fox are commonly seen pouncing on a mouse out in an open field and their movement is very cat-like. Interestingly, the gray fox actually climbs trees readily.

A fox’s most efficient gait is a trot. It’s easy to remember like “fox trot”. A trot pattern looks like a series of round depressions lined up, and in each depression is two individual footprints. Fox are dainty and agile animals weighing between six and twelve pounds, and can sometimes be heard barking a yappy dog “ruff-ruff”. Red Fox are common in the high-country while gray fox tend toward lower more arid environments.

Like the fox, coyotes are also numerous and very successful as animals. Coyotes range throughout all 48 states and live in cities and suburbs as well as wilderness. How do the coyotes do this? Through adaptability, intelligence, and resourcefulness.

Like the character Wiley Coyote, sometimes it is best to have a plan. For instance, I once observed a coyote sitting quietly on a shrubby hillside overlooking a beaver pond. Then upon closer inspection I saw a beaver on the shore of its pond busily chewing bark off of a limb. The coyote camouflaged himself in the vegetation while sitting perfectly still, and assessing the situation must have thought, “If I play this right I’m going to have meat for me, my mate, and our pups for the next three days.”

In this scenario, if the beaver wandered up the hillside to gather more limbs for food, the moment he got too far away from the safety of his pond, the coyote would pounce attempting to dispatch his prey with sharp teeth and strong jaws. An unsuspecting bite to the back of the neck is the ideal kill. The beaver never sees it coming, no suffering or fear is involved, and the coyote gets food for its family. This is a perfect food-chain example of how a plant-eating animal feeds a meat-eating animal.

Similar to the fox, coyotes hunt and eat a lot of mice, voles, rabbits, squirrels, and carrion. Fruits, berries, and grasshoppers are also eaten opportunistically.

Unlike the fox, that almost always trots, the coyote almost always walks. This is reflected in their walking tracks which are alternating left-right, left-right.

Remember canines such as fox or coyotes show claws in their prints. Felines such as bobcats or mountain lions have retractile claws. Cat claws rarely show, but when they do such as on a crusty icy embankment they’ll be thin razor sharp cat claws, opposed to blunt thick dog claws.

Coyotes typically weigh between 15-30 lbs. Although we swear they’re pretty good-sized dogs when we see them, they are long-legged, bushy-tailed, and thickly furred. Their lightweight enables them to stay on the surface of the snow. Compare this to the tracks of a domestic dog that almost always punch deep into the snow.

Coyotes mate for life and often hunt in pairs. The old, “you flush and I’ll snatch” strategy is employed regularly.

Wolves once thrived in Eagle County and throughout much of North America, but were killed off by ranchers and settlers. Bounty hunters were paid by the U.S. Government to eliminate both grizzly bears and wolves from much of the west, in the name of “predator control”. This is an example of extirpation, which is the technical term for driven to local extinction.

Wolves however, will likely migrate back into Colorado in time and reclaim their role as large carnivores that feed on large herbivores such as deer and elk. Predation is healthy for deer and elk herds because predators are likely to kill the easiest prey such as the old, weak, or sick. Fewer animals then feed on the limited winter food sources, and the healthiest most able members survive and pass on their genes to their offspring.

I once asked a wolf biologist, “As a hiker if you came around the corner and found yourself face to face with a wolf, what should you do?” His answer was “smile, because the next instant that wolf will turn and run away as fast as possible.” In other words, wolves are not a physical threat to humans.

Wolves operate a strict social hierarchy within a pack. The alpha male and female are the only members to breed. A wolf pack lives together, and they hunt cooperatively to bring down big game.

Wild canines are part of the natural world in which we have chosen to immerse ourselves. They display many qualities that we as humans admire. They are smart, learn quickly, adapt, and display foresight. With these qualities they are able to thrive along side of humans.

Tom and Tanya Wiesen are owners of Trailwise Guides; a year-round Vail Valley guide service specializing in hiking, mountain biking, and natural history tours. Daily private tours are available. Contact Trailwise Guides at (970) 827-5363.

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