As we finish our western virtual pre-trip, we can reflect on the many animals we did or could have encountered. With each stop, the possibility of a furry or scaly critter scampering or slithering up to say “hello” is pretty high. Let’s look at a few and discuss their home environment and how to spot them looking back and evaluating us – the two legged invader of their territory.
The first is rarely seen unless you are in a rocky environment such as the higher elevations of the Tetons, the talus piles around Devil’s Tower, and Ant Mountain in the Big Horns, It is the Pica! The what? A Pica is a small bundle of fur – looking like their rabbit relative and always watching you from their rocky burrow. You seldom will see them although on a trip through the Bighorn Mountains , I saw a dozen at least. Approach them and they will scold you or perhaps just be warning others that another tourist is afoot.
Our second is a creature seen from afar and Wyoming is home to more Pronghorn Antelope than all the other states combined. Only a cheetah can catch this fast, elusive animal and thank goodness, cheetahs are half a world away. They travel in small groups of 8 to 18 with one adult male, several small kids, and a harem of females. When danger sounds, they will gather in a tight bundle searching in all directions for an intruder and then with a snort and a leap, will bound out of sight in a flash. Many times I have stopped on the grasslands and took my time visually searching every hill and valley, and there they are blending in with browning grass or dusty hills. They are quite a sight to see racing over the prairie just for fun!
Our third creature is a denizen of the deep woods. A Badger is fearless and corner one and he will feign an attack although you are a dozen times larger. My only encounter was with a grumpy, old Badger who paced our car for 30 feet or so along a Bighorn backwoods trail. He actually was a handsome critter until he stopped and bared his fangs as if bidding us a required farewell. The Badger is seldom seen as he hunts day and night and woe is the poor squirrel, rabbit, or grouse that fails to detect him.
There are two species of deer in our western states and spotting them is easy. The Whitetail deer runs away flashing its pure white tail as a warning to others of its kind. In the Black Hills, I have seen hundreds of reflected eyes as I traveled at night along backroads. The Black Hills advertises itself as the Whitetail deer capital of the world and it is easy to see why.
The other deer species is more at home in the grassy knolls and valleys away from the forest. Mule Deer are larger than the Whitetail, have huge ears, and bound on all fours rather than run to get away from predators. Seldom are Mule Deer in groups of more than three or four in size and their antlers are not forked like the Whitetail. But a deer is a dear sight to see regardless of species and always be on the lookout at dusk and dawn as they seemingly appear out of nowhere.
The American Buffalo, or more correctly Bison, can be found in protected areas in many National Parks and they are a mere shadow of the millions that once roamed the unbroken prairies. Now, in Yellowstone and the foothills of South Dakota’s western highlands, scattered herds graze peacefully but don’t let that serenity mislead you! Get between a mama Bison and her calf and you will need to run – fast! Your car is not a safe haven as many a small car has been pushed off the road by an enraged Bison Bull. These fellas are huge and not to be teased! Stuck in a long car line on a Yellowstone road? The culprit is likely a bison or seven entrenched on the road in a casual stare down with a camera-in-hand tourist.
The American Elk is a large mammal and when you happen to see one up close, you become spellbound. They are in most areas of the mountainous West and there is actually a National Elk Range near Jackson, Wyoming, where thousands of elk descend from higher elevations to spend winter in the slightly warmer fields and valleys. While hiking in the Bighorns, I heard a crashing of twigs just over a hill and the snorts proved to me that I startled a group of elk who crashed off for parts unknown.
Anytime you are off the beaten path whether in a forest or grassland environment, the possibility of meeting up with Mr. Rattlesnake is high. Usually he will warn you away with a series of unmistakable rattles but occasionally both of you will be startled as you step over a rock or fallen tree. He usually will quickly slither away to find a more defensible lair and then turn and face his adversary. My foot was actually on the way down, when one popped into my vision and fortunately, I stopped and he bolted all within a fraction of a second! No matter the environment – forest, sandy desert, rocky hillside – he is there so tread softly!
Wow! One of the benefits of traveling is seeing new creatures that normally don’t live in your backyard. Our western trip will be no exception and we will log encounters and get some neat photos. I am a wildflower enthusiast, as I am sure you know, and my next blog will touch on some more touchable inhabitants of our wonderful world! Come join me and let me know how many of the warm, cuddly creatures mentioned here have been part of your world. Thanks for visiting!