By R. Scott Rappold
Fresh tracks in the snow – it’s what powder lovers live for and why they rush out of the house at the crack of dawn to be the first one on the chairlift.
But maybe you’ve been riding first chair and noticed someone or something has beat you to it. No, we’re not talking about ski patrol or the crazy skiers who skin uphill in the pre-dawn chill.
We’re talking about the critters that call Colorado ski areas home.
It can be easy to forget when there are 10,000 people on the mountain riding 25 chairlifts and eating lunch at restaurants tucked among the pine trees, but the mountains that host Colorado ski areas are also rich alpine environments, inhabited by critters large and small. When skiers have gone home for the night, it’s still their home. When the snow has melted and wildflowers sparkle on the tundra, it’s still their home.
Many animals migrate out of the high mountains when winter sets in, but many also stay. Here are some of the animals that may call your favorite photographic vista or ski trail home. Since most animals avoid the commotion of ski areas during daylight or only come out at night, your odds of actually seeing some of these critters is small, but give them space if you do.
After all, would you want someone skiing through your living room?
While winter is a tough time for many mountain dwellers, it’s a good time to be a predator, and Colorado’s three largest wildcats stick around the snow-covered mountains to feed on smaller animals weakened by hunger and cold. They have large paws designed to float on the snow when hoofed animals might flounder. The largest is the mountain lion, or cougar, which preys on deer and elk. The next larges is the lynx, which spends winter hunting snowshoe hares. The smallest is the bobcat, which dines on rodents and birds. They’re all nocturnal and very shy, so if you see one out during the day, it may be sick, which was the case with a lynx that was spotted strolling through Purgatory during the day in 2016.
The odds of seeing this doglike hunter/scavenger in a ski area are extremely rare, since they’re nocturnal and have learned over centuries to fear humans. But they also thrive in places of human development, supplementing a natural diet of rodents, carrion and plants with domestic pets and livestock. They usually avoid humans, though they can be dangerous, which is why in 2008 wildlife officials killed a coyote that was being aggressive towards skiers at Copper Mountain.
These huge black birds don’t naturally spend winters in the high alpine environment, but they’re highly intelligent and have learned that skiers mean food. You’re apt to see them patrolling the parking lot or squawking at each other above the outdoor dining area, waiting for you to finish lunch so they can swoop in and get the crumbs. It goes without saying that feeding them only increases their reliance on humans.
These large birds have earned the nickname “camp robber” for their fearlessness of humans and willingness to fly extra close to get a morsel of food. They have gray bodies and white heads and, like crows, have learned that skiers eat food and often drop scraps. If you see a bird swooping onto the patio or scurrying under the picnic tables at the resort, it might be a gray jay. Don’t leave your lunch unguarded.
The moose, never historically very prevalent in Colorado, has benefited greatly from introductions in the 1970s. The massive animals can now be found in every mountain range, and thanks to their height and massive heads, they’re quite comfortable in the snow-covered forests where we ski. They aren’t naturally aggressive but can respond angrily if humans get too close, and every few years in Colorado there is a report of a moose charging or threatening skiers. Give these giants a very wide berth.
This large member of the weasel family lives in pine trees and may have an extensive tunnel network under the snow, which it uses for hunting squirrels and birds, though it will eat most anything. They’re sleek and fast and mostly nocturnal, so you probably won’t see one at your favorite ski area.
These opportunistic scavengers have adapted well to developed ski areas and communities that abut the forests, enjoying human garbage along with their natural diet of rodents, insects and berries. They’re shy and mostly active at night, so you probably won’t see one, though you may see their tracks from patrolling below the chairlift for dropped morsels.
Like the name suggests, these large rabbits are made for snow, their furry paws providing flotation and their coats turning from brown to white during the snowy season. That’s because they’re the favorite prey of lynx and other predators. They live off twigs, buds and bark in winter and will freeze at the slightest noise, making them difficult to spot. Their hopping tracks in the snow will probably be the most you’ll ever see of a snowshoe hare, at least in winter.
You’ve heard the expression about gathering enough nuts for winter. Well, that’s all the squirrel does.
There are many varieties of squirrel that live high in the Colorado Rockies year-round, though most hibernate or rarely emerge from their dens during winter. The black Abert’s Squirrel is an exception, staying active year-round, and you may spy them at lower elevations of ski resorts.
Many birds flee for lower elevations when the snow falls, but not this large bird. The ptarmigan instead undergoes a stunning transformation, feathers turning from brown to white to let it blend in the snow, where it makes its winter nest. It prefers walking to flying in winter, so if you see bird tracks in the snow, it could be a ptarmigan foraging among the willows. So good is their camouflage, you may never see one in winter.
R. Scott Rappold is a journalist with more than 20 years of experience, including 10 at The Colorado Springs Gazette, where he wrote about skiing, hiking, camping and all the things that make Colorado great. He is now a full-time ski bum who writes when he needs money for beer or lift tickets. He lives in Colorado’s beautiful San Luis Valley. Read more of Scott’s stories here.