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‘Coexist with wildlife? People have gotten far far from nature’

Wildlife populations have always changed and adapted. Sometimes populations grew until they surpassed the carrying capacity of the land.

An extremely hard winter, several years of hard winters or years of drought could leave starving animals with very low survival rates of their young. As the population of grazing animals dropped, the numbers of predators followed in the decline.

Human actions also influenced the population. Human changes in landscape, agricultural practices, market hunting, and predator extermination all caused population disruptions.

At the same time, the natural influences were still in play. With our rapidly growing human population, I believe that we are having an even larger influence on wildlife populations.

Anyone who has lived around here for more than 20 years or so will tell you about the herds of elk and deer on the ranches in the valleys, and on the mesas. These privately owned large tracts of land were critical for winter range, where animals had adequate forage to get them through the winter.

These large ranches and farms have been cut up into smaller parcels or subdivisions, leaving less usable habitat for wildlife. According to Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s Draft San Juan Basin Elk Management Plan, elk calf recruitment has dropped from the average of 41 calves per 100 cows before 2006, to 30 calves per 100 cows.

Other factors may also contribute to the decline. Loss of migration corridors and increase in nonagricultural land uses are possibilities. More humans in the outdoors disturb patterns of travel of wildlife, while increasing numbers of trails, bicycles, ATVs, snowmobiles and loose dogs keep wildlife moving more than normal.

Some species like the mule deer are becoming more urban. Many people love seeing deer in their yards or parks, but not everyone. Urban gardeners and people who have spent lots of time and money on their landscaping find it all destroyed overnight.

Bucks can be aggressive during the rut. Mountain lions follow the deer into town. Automobile accidents involving deer become more common.

Predators get far more attention from the public. Most people have heard stories of coyotes that have killed cats and small dogs in residential areas. Stories of bears or lions injuring or killing people make the headlines, even though that very rarely happens. Every year or so, we see a report of a bear that decided to den up under someone’s house or porch, or the lion that killed a deer in a yard.

Opinions on wildlife vary greatly. Some people, through fear or lack of knowledge about the role predators play in the natural world, would kill all that they could. That is not to say that hunting is not a useful tool in proper wildlife management. Indiscriminate killing, however, serves no purpose.

There are people who want to see wildlife up close, so they set out food for them. This is not good for the wildlife and can have dangerous consequences for the people. Deer and elk gathering in unnaturally large numbers make it easier for diseases to spread.

Feeding bears is even more problematic. When people put trash out overnight, bears learn that there are easy calories to be found and sometimes will move on to breaking into sheds for dog or livestock feed, raiding chicken coops and breaking into houses.

Can we coexist with wildlife? People have gotten far away from nature. Knowledge and understanding of the natural world by most people, diminishes each generation. We must try.

Scott Perez is a Durango area-based former working cowboy, guide and occasional actor. He has a master’s in Natural Resource Management from Cornell University.