It’s difficult to visit Durango without getting a taste of our abundant wildlife. At any time, it’s possible to find coyotes trotting through meadows, bears climbing our trees, or elk waiting their turn to cross the railroad tracks. Even in the most urban areas, mule deer roam and graze lazily throughout the day.
The wildlife viewing opportunities are endless here in southwest Colorado, but it’s a good reminder that humans are not at the top of the food chain. It's important to know how to properly observe these animals and how to make the most of your wild Colorado experience. This is meant to be an overview of our local wildlife and is not all-inclusive on the species you may spot or how to interact with them. Be sure to study up if you're heading into the wilderness.
Though sightings of our predatory animals are more rare than that of deer or cattle, they’re certainly not unheard of. In the 2016 school year, students at Miller Middle School near Junction Creek were sent home with caution letters that there had been multiple mountain lion sightings in the area. How’s that for growing up in the mountains?
Never approach or disturb a predatory animal. Here is a good resource to avoid wildlife conflict from the Colorado Parks and Wildlife.
The Mountain Lion
Sightings: Extremely Rare
While not common on the trail, if you see one of these big kitties while hiking, it’s best to stay on your guard and head straight back to the trailhead. These cats can weigh over 200 lbs. and are known for their massive bodies, long tail and tan to red coloring. Like most cats, their tracks will show four toes but no claws, unlike those of coyotes, wolves or dogs.
The Bobcat & Lynx
Sightings: Occasional; Rare, respectively
It’s easy to confuse the bobcat with the lynx, especially here in the Southwest where bobcats can grow to around the same size as their cousin. Both have a short 6” tail, medium sized build and tufted ears. However, the feet and tufts on the lynx are significantly larger than that of a bobcat. Bobcats typically have more spots on their coat, whereas a lynx is solid grey in color. Still, the rule tends to be that if you believe you’ve spotted a lynx, it’s probably a bobcat.
If you catch sight of either of these animals, the moment will probably be short. Neither enjoys interacting with humans and they generally perform their hunts at night. It’s safe to take a picture (if you can in time).
Coyotes can be found, and heard, in the early morning hours, especially in meadows or along the edge of wooded areas. While typically not dangerous, it’s best not to approach these animals.
A mountain coyote can grow up to nearly 50 lbs and 4 feet long, the size of a small wolf. While closely related to the coyote, wolves do not live in Colorado.
Unlike the lynx, bobcat or mountain lion, a coyote track will show a set of claws at the front. This is the most common identification. Identifying the difference between a wild coyote print and a domestic dog can be more challenging. A domestic dog track tends to show more blunt shaped claw marks and can be less symmetrical in size.
The Black Bear
Sightings: Occasional to Rare, depending on season
If you think you’ve spotted a black bear, chances are that you’re probably right. These are generally curious animals, but mothers can be aggressive when they have their cubs in the spring. If you see a bear around town, up a tree, or swimming across the Animas River, it’s best to leave it alone and go the other way.
Contrary to the name, a black bear’s fur can be many colors, from light cinnamon to brown to black. The tracks are easy to identify and are comparable to bare human tracks because of their elongated length.
For more resources on our local bear community, be sure to check out Bear Smart Durango.
The most commonly spotted herbivore is the mule deer. Much larger in size than the white tail deer, the mule deer is known for its docile nature and extra long, mule-like ears.
Herds can be found throughout the local Fort Lewis College campus and in many Durango neighborhoods. Most of these animals are well accustomed to humans, but should not be fed or approached. This creates bad habits in the animals and can be detrimental to both the wildlife and humans.
Sightings: Occasional to Rare
Our elk herds travel up and down the mountains seasonally, chasing high elevation cold weather in the summer and warm, moderate temperatures in the basin through winter. Sightings often occur in neighboring Hermosa and up near Silverton.
These massive animals are incredible to watch, and the sound of a bugling bull can give you goose bumps. As with most herbivorous animals, you may pause to take photos and observe, from a safe distance of at least 25 yards away.
Sightings: Somewhat Rare
If viewing this incredible, massive creature is on your bucket list, head up to Silverton and nearby Mineral Creek for your best chance. These animals, which can stand over 7’ tall, are the largest living members of the deer family.
Unlike most herbivores, the moose is a solitary animal. While often unhurried in nature, these animals can be aggressive, especially if they feel threatened. This is an animal that you do not want to sneak up on, so be extra aware of your surroundings near dense brambles or thick trees, where they like to bed down.
Big Horn Sheep
Sightings: Somewhat Rare
Colorado is home to the largest population of the species anywhere. Bighorns typically occur in steep, high mountain terrain. In Colorado, they prefer habitat dominated by grass, low shrubs, rock cover and areas near open escape.
Sightings: Common in certain high elevation areas
High in the San Juan Mountains live our white-haired freaks of nature. Mountain goats are popularly found in high-elevation areas near Chicago Basin, where they often perform acrobatic stunts up steep slopes and slippery ice.
If you know where to look, your chances of finding them are common.
While typically indifferent to human activity, mountain goats can show aggression if they feel threatened. As friendly as they may seem, do not approach. If a herd meanders through your camp, just let them pass through.
If you’re in the backcountry, be careful where you pop a squat. These animals love salt, which can be found in urine. It’s not unheard of for a mountain goat to knock a person over mid-stream for a taste of the action. Welcome to the wild.
If you're interested in learning more about the species you could encounter in Colorado, please visit Colorado Parks and Wildlife species page.