For more information on my paintings:

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Results of meetings with Colorado Parks and Wildlife re: Moose Hunting

Results of meetings with Colorado Parks and Wildlife

December 17, 2014

After much discussion, the various camps involved in the Brainard Lake moose hunting meetings agreed to disagree. This means that we did not reach any kind of workable consensus. The non-hunting citizens stuck to the need for a hunting safety zone around Brainard Lake, in addition to beefing up educational efforts. The hunter's groups only agreed to increased educational efforts.  They did not want any kind of hunting exclusion instituted at Brainard Lake. They felt that increased education would be enough to alleviate any further conflict between hunting and non-hunting users of the area.

Some of the options that were bandied about to resolve the situation:

A) Increased Education only (hunting regulations stay the same): increase signage and education of park staff, non-hunting visitors, and hunters. This would include increased training for staff, posting various signage about hunting and the ecosystem of Brainard, increased education for the hunters drawing tags for that area, increased education of non-hunting public via the various websites, adding variable message boards during hunting season, education about responsible dog walking practices, etc. No change to hunting regulations.

B) Option A + allow hunting across the entire Brainard Lake area ONLY on weekdays (weekends would be closed to hunting in the entire recreation area). This would limit the conflict between the majority of non-hunting visitors and the hunters since most of the visitors to the area come on weekends. This is termed a "temporal closure."

C) Option A + 1/4 mile "safety" zone around Brainard Lake, measured from the high water line of the lake. The campground would be in the "no-hunt" zone because it is an occupied area (meaning that it has structures and more or less continual use by people). This option would limit hunting from the most-visited areas on ALL days of the week. The citizen's petition asked for a 1 mile zone from the lake but I can tell you that's not workable from the standpoint of Colorado Parks and Wildlife. I can settle for 1/4 mile zone, although I would prefer 1/2 mile zone. This 1/4 mile zone is the plan that Colorado Parks and Wildlife initially proposed in response to this incident.

D) Hybrid = Options A + B + C. How would this work? Hunting would be allowed everywhere at Brainard Lake during the weekdays. On the weekends only there would be a 1/4 mile No-Hunt zone around the lake. Personally, I feel this could be workable BUT I also feel that it is overly-complicated and worry a bit about enforcement.

My preference for simplicity is option C, although I could live with option D if push came to shove. This is assuming that CPW can enforce a combined temporal and spatial safety zone.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife is committed to getting this issue resolved this year and really does not want to revisit it next year. They have also received a tremendous amount of feedback both from concerned citizens and certain Colorado state senators who are pushing for a workable solution. No one wants a repeat of what happened this year, that much is clear. I was feeling good about CPW's commitment to come to a workable solution today and would like your input on these proposed solutions.

Parks and Wildlife wants your input on which of these options you would like to see implemented. First, please respond to the survey in the message that follows this one. Second, you can contact me via email ( to voice your opinion and I will forward them along to Larry Rogstad at CPW.

ALL correspondence to CPW on this issue will be included in the final position paper and forwarded along to the CPW Commission for final approval, so please be courteous, thoughtful, and polite.



Wednesday, September 10, 2014

A Change in Hunting Ethics for Brainard Lake Recreation Area, Colorado

Bull moose at Brainard Lake, July 2014 (photo by Nancy Rynes)

Imagine that you decide to take your family into the mountains for camping, hiking, or maybe a picnic at one of your favorite recreation areas just an hour or so away. The recreation area is well-known for its stunning views of the mountains and abundant wildlife, including several large bull moose. The moose here are so used to people that they tolerate photographers and wildlife watchers to get relatively close without shying away. You live in a very large, congested metropolitan area so being able to get away to a beautiful place like this in the mountains is very relaxing and enjoyable. Besides, your kids like the moose so much that they've named them and clamor to go up and see Henry and Buster any chance they can.

But this weekend will turn out to be terribly different from your past visits this summer. It's early on Saturday morning and your kids scramble out of the camper early so they can go check out the moose. After breakfast, you take your family  for a short hike to the lake. Everyone knows the moose always eat the willows around the lake in the early morning. It doesn't take long to find the two huge bull moose...a crowd of over a dozen photographers, a few other families with kids, and several more  people are within 50 feet of Henry and Buster. You notice that there are other moose in the area too, for a total of five. Your kids are excited to see these big, beautiful animals so close - most people in the country only see moose like this in books and on TV.

Suddenly you notice movement from a group you thought were simply wildlife watchers. Instead of raising a camera to get a photo, though, one man raises a bow and shoots off an arrow directly into Henry's side! Now instead of a beautiful scene of moose grazing on willows, a wounded, terrified, 1200+ pound bull moose bellows in pain and starts running around in terror. His panic sets off the other four moose and now there are five huge, scared, wild animals running around an area with dozens of now-terrified photographers and families. The wounded moose, still running, barrels through two groups of photographers. As you grab your kids and scramble to safety, you hope that no one was hurt or killed by the wounded animal. 

Henry finally collapses on the ground and dies. Buster, distressed, stands by the side of his deceased buddy.

Emotions start to build between the photographers and hunter, and the photographers express their disgust and displeasure as to what just happened. It's at this moment that you notice the friends of the hunter start throwing rocks at Buster, the remaining moose, trying to drive him away so they can pose with the now-dead Henry for their victory photos. Buster doesn't much appreciate having rocks thrown at him so starts to get aggressive. The photographers intervene and get the hunter's friends to stop throwing rocks. In stunned silence, you move your now-crying kids back to the campsite, trying to figure out how to explain to them what just happened.

The details of the incident are real (as reported by eyewitnesses) and happened at Brainard Lake Recreation Area on September 6, 2014.

Not a pleasant scene, is it?

But this was technically a legal hunt. The hunter had a proper license and permit, the area was open to hunting, and Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) officials supervised the hunt. But while this was legal, it was far from responsible, ethical, sustainable, and safe.
  • Innocent and uninformed wildlife enthusiasts were placed in harm's way by the hunt itself, its timing on a weekend, and CPW's lack of communication to the area's visitors.
  • The moose at Brainard Lake are habituated to humans and tolerate more close contact than animals even at Teton or Yellowstone National Parks. "Hunting" of these moose is effectively like killing a dairy cow in a corral.
  • Visitors to Brainard Lake go there to enjoy the scenery and wildlife. They don't expect to be placed in the middle of hunting season while they are camping or picnicking at one of the most popular parks in the Denver Metro area.

Some other facts to keep in mind:
  • Parks and Wildlife officials did not tell the photographers or other onlookers viewing the moose that a hunt was in progress.
  • According to visitors at Brainard Lake that Saturday, nowhere at the park entrance, in the parking lot, campground, on the website, or at the lake did they see clear signage to indicate that a moose hunt was in progress. There was no opportunity for visitors to make a decision to come back another time.
  • According to US Forest Service statistics, Brainard Lake Recreation Area is the most heavily visited site in the Boulder Ranger District, and is one of the most popular in all of Arapahoe National Forest.
  • This is a beloved picnicking, camping, wildlife-viewing, and hiking area for the Boulder-Denver metro area but is only slightly over 3,100 acres in size. Because of the multitudes of visitors using only limited facilities in a relatively small area, congestion is extreme. In fact, the usage to this area is so heavy that the Forest Service is considering alternative transportation options to lessen congestion.
  • The campground contains 47 campsites which are typically filled each weekend, so upwards of 150 people were camping within 200 yards of the kill site.
  • Many tourists come to Brainard specifically to see the large bull moose, some from out of state. Still others count the moose as an important secondary reason for visiting this area. The moose are an eco-tourism attraction. Allowing the big bulls here to be killed is a public relations and revenue fiasco in the making.

What We Propose for Brainard Lake Recreation Area

I am a member of a larger group who want to do something positive to change this situation. We are not against hunting; rather, we are in favor of safe, responsible, and ethical hunting practices. Let me reiterate that we are not against hunting (seems some folks are not seeing this). We are, however, calling for safer hunting regulations in areas that are heavily-visited by the public. These regulations already exist in other areas of Colorado and we feel they should be extended to Brainard Lake.

We propose working together with the Colorado Governor's office, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, the US Forest Service, and interested hunting and public groups to institute a plan that would allow for safe usage of Brainard Lake Recreation Area for visitors from Denver Metro area and beyond.
  • For the remaining moose tag this season, close the area to visitors on the day the hunt is in progress, and communicate to the public in advance (signage, website, etc) of what is about to happen.
  • For the future, institute a hunting exclusion zone, one mile in radius, outward from Brainard Lake (similar to what is already done at Mt Evans and in the moose habitat near Gould, CO) for the safety and enjoyment of the non-hunting public and the moose.  
  • Hunters would still be able to hunt on the Forest Service lands nearby, just not in the designated exclusion zone
  • This would allow the "eco-tourism" draw that the moose have to continue, as well as allow for continued hunting in that general area.  Recreation areas as beautiful as Brainard are gems because they are rare - the citizens of Colorado deserve a place they can go to enjoy this beauty and the wildlife without worrying about being injured by a hunt gone wrong.
  • Once an exclusion zone is established, if at some point in the future the moose become over-populated (as confirmed by a third party, uninvolved biological conservation organization or consultant), limited culling could be instated for one season, closing the park on the day or days the hunt takes place. In this instance, a weekday cull would impact the fewest visitors. This is similar to deer population control programs instituted at city and county parks in major metropolitan areas of the midwestern US.

What Will it Accomplish?

We have an opportunity to work together to create a plan beneficial for hikers, campers, picnickers, wildlife enthusiasts, the moose, hunters, the US Forest Service, and the State of Colorado.

Our biggest concern is for the safety and continued enjoyment of the non-hunting public who loves visiting Brainard Lake. We are also concerned for the moose themselves. If we continue to allow hunting at the lake, within just a few short years the big bull moose will be nonexistent there and the attraction they have for visitors AND hunters will be gone.

What will this plan accomplish?
  • Safety and enjoyment of the non-hunting public.
  • Continued moose hunting in the lesser-visited Forest Service lands in the area.
  • Continued enjoyment of one of the most beautiful and wildlife-rich recreation areas by the non-hunting public as an ecotourism draw.
  • Maintenance of a healthy population of moose close to a major metropolitan area, something extremely rare in the lower 48 states.
Precious few places exist in the US where the average person can easily and reliably enjoy being around these majestic creatures. Brainard Lake is one of the best, and it's a stone's throw from the Denver Metro area. We have an opportunity to create a positive outcomes - we can be proactive, taking a responsible, ethical, and sustainable approach to wildlife management and visitor enjoyment. Let's allow the moose to continue to draw in and delight tens of thousands of outdoors enthusiasts every year.

Nancy Rynes (primary author), Science Writer and Artist, Boulder, CO

An online petition for you to sign is available here:

People you can contact right now to voice your opinion:

Contact the Governor of Colorado:

Colorado Parks and Wildlife:

To contact news agencies:

The Denver Post newspaper:

State Reps:

State senator:

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Change is a Good Thing

If you haven't noticed, I let this blog slide for a bit. It was starting to evolve into a travel blog, which is not exactly where I wanted it to go. Don't get me wrong: I love travel and adventure, but I just don't do enough of it to maintain a travel blog.

Prairie Dogs at Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge

I've decided to steer the blog back in the direction I'd originally intended for it: discussions (in non-sciencey English) of the environment, climate, ecology, sustainability, and how human history and culture fits in. I might delve in to some other science and history topics too, as the Spirit moves me. Since western North America has been my home for over 20 years and I know it pretty well, the articles will focus on issues and topics from the Great Plains, west to the Pacific, and south into the deserts and jungles of  Central America. That's a big area, but it leaves me a lot of room to play with ideas and topics.

I'll still talk about places to visit from time to time, but will fit those travels in to the broader discussions I outlined above.

I'm excited to be making this course correction: while I love my new career as a full-time artist, part of me misses being a science writer and teacher/trainer. Now I have the chance to do that again, but this time on my own terms. I can write about my thoughts and opinions on controversial topics and not have to worry about what my employer might think :-)

Some of the topics I have planned so far include (in no particular  order):

  • What's an Ecosystem?
  • What's a Keystone Species?
  • Beavers and Stream Ecosystems
  • Prairie Dogs and Prairie Ecosystems
  • The Buffalo Commons
  • The Importance of Predators
  • The Issue of Wild (feral) Horses
  • The Issue of Feral Cats
  • Why Everything is Sacred
  • Ancient Trade Routes in Western North America
  • The Cacao Trade in Ancient North America
  • Why I don't Like GMOs
  • Why I Buy Organic
  • Why I Buy Locally-grown Foods
  • Intro to the Carbon Cycle
  • Intro to Climate Change
  • Climate Changes through History
  • Why the Current Climate Change is Worrisome
  • Scientists are Only Human: Biases vs. New Ideas
I'll start out with a few articles on ecosystems, since that is really the basis for everything that will follow.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Ghosts in the High Country

I wanted to share a story in response to Andi Poland's  Facebook re-post about a mountain lion stalking a hiker in southwest Colorado (link to article, at the bottom of this post). As Andi said, pumas are out there whether we see them or not. Please use caution and common sense when you're hiking.

And if you think you're being watched, you probably are!

"Cat Nap" Oil on panel by Nancy Rynes

I was hiking in the high country near Gould, Colorado, a couple of weeks ago. Deciding I wanted something off the beaten path, I started a short hike off a 4WD road at about 10,500 feet in the Never Summer Mountains. I was really scouting for photography locations for the next morning - I wanted to find a place where I could photograph some beautiful alpenglow on the peaks at sunrise the next day, and this little valley with a lake seemed like it might be a good spot. Since I am still recovering from a biking crash and I wasn't going far anyway in my scouting, I decided to leave my camera gear in the car - it's heavy and my back was bothering me a bit that day.

Not 100 feet down the trail, I smelled by the worst cat-pee stink of my life. I do know what cat pee smells like, having had to clean up that smell in more than a couple of newly-purchased homes. This was a similar smell, but seemingly 100 times stronger and it was coming from around the base of a dead tree alongside the trail. I kid you not, the scent was a very overpowering version of what you might smell from a domestic tabby cat.  It literally stung my nose, but then again I have a pretty sensitive sniffer!

I had a feeling I knew what caused the stink but I checked out the tree more closely just to make sure. The spray/urine seemed very fresh and came from a pile of scratched-up debris and cat-like scat near the base of the snag. I got glimpses of relatively recent, large-cat footprints, but nothing terribly distinct. The ground had been dry for a while and I am guessing it didn't take footprints well. Probably someone actually experienced at tracking would have seen more than me!

I thought "lion" at this point, but looking up higher on the snag confirmed it: scratch marks about 6 feet off the ground. Sharp scratch marks. Recent scratch marks. Many scratch marks.

A large cat had set out a territory marker and I was about to walk right past it. I didn't even hesitate - I abandoned all plans for a hike and made my way back to my vehicle. I could find another place to see alpenglow :-)

Some things to watch for while hiking (in other words, when is it time to leave?):

  • Recent mountain lion tracks on the trail.
  • Parts of a recent kill left on the trail - hiking in the hills near Boulder early in the mornings, I run into this at least once a year. I typically see parts of a deer left on the trail with mountain lion tracks around. If it's very fresh (it often is), I quickly leave. Sometimes this means I have interrupted its breakfast, sometimes the cat dropped it for an unknown reason. Fresh carcass is no laughing matter - I retreat quickly (but don't run) and report the kill to a ranger. Sometimes these carcasses are left by coyotes or bears but the tracks will tell the story. Probably best to leave in any case!
  • Recent cat scat/scent piles like the one I found.
  • Cat scratchings 4-8 ft up on a tree or snag.
For  more information, check out this site:

Content and photos copyright Nancy Rynes. You may link to this page, but please do not copy anything here without my written permission.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

The Spanish Mustang

I admit that I enjoy horses - not riding them so much (although that is a blast), but watching and photographing them just being themselves. They are incredibly beautiful and intuitive individuals, they have no pretenses, and they don't spend much time trying to be something they're not. When's the last time you saw a horse trying to be a rabbit?

We two-leggeds have a lot that we can learn from them.

But I have a particular fascination with ancient and historic breeds or types of horses. I guess anyone who knows me well wouldn't be surprised by this. I love old stuff: ancient artwork, old buildings, ancient stonework, sighthounds, learning a "dead" language. It's partly a measure of endurance I guess - anything that survives the test of time wins a lot of points in my book. But it's also having that tangible connection to the past that interests me...that link to both the humans and animals that have come before us.

Spanish Mustang showing characteristics of the even older Sorraia horse (convex/Roman nose, two-tone mane and tail, dun coloring, and Zebra stripes on legs).

In the case of horses, the Spanish Mustang (or Spanish Colonial Horse) has long fascinated me. I won't go too in-depth with their history - this has been covered more thoroughly by other writers, most notably John Hockensmith. John's book on Spanish Mustangs is well worth the read - the photos are beautiful, the content is well-researched, and the poetry magical.

But to get you started, the Spanish Mustang that we know here in America is a breed of horse that is closely descended from those brought to the "New World" by Spanish conquistadors and colonists. While horses had evolved on the North American continent and spread over a land bridge to Europe and Asia, but by about 10,000 BCE they were extinct here.

The Spanish re-introduced the horse to the Americas beginning in 1493. These Spanish Colonial horses came from several very ancient breeds or types native to Spain, the Iberian Peninsula, and other parts of Europe (and now mostly or completely extinct there), including those types known as Sorraias, Tarpans, and Jennets. Some of their ancestors may even be depicted in the very old cave paintings of modern France and Spain.

Today's Spanish Mustang in large part descends from these ancient horses.

Spanish Mustang showing primitive coloration (dun coloring and Zebra stripes on legs).

The Spanish Mustang is distinct from the "American Mustangs" you've heard so much about. While some Spanish Mustangs can still be found roaming free in the American west, most of the wild or feral horses you see today are more correctly known as American Mustangs. The typical American Mustang is a mix of many different breeds of horse, including those Spanish Colonial horses, Paso Finos, Morgans, Andalusians, Thoroughbreds, Quarter Horses, and many other European, Asian, and American breeds. They're sort of the mutts of the equine world (and I say that with much love and respect).

"Wild Heart" - oil painting of an American Mustang.

But for me, the Spanish Mustang is a hardy, sturdy, and independent breed whose bloodlines have withstood the centuries. It symbolizes hardiness, adaptability, endurance, and independence.

I recently had an amazing opportunity to mingle with a group of Spanish Mustangs at the Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary in Hot Springs, South Dakota. I stood among them, rubbed their noses, observed, and photographed them in a setting reminiscent of some of the lands their ancestors traveled.

While I was fascinated with their long history, at first there was a part of me that didn't want to like them so much. Weird, huh? But if you think about it, the ancestors of these horses were one of Spain's "weapons of mass destruction" back in the 16th and 17 centuries. Without sturdy horses, Spain would not have been able to wage such a brutal war on the Native People of this land, some of whom were my ancestors.

So I had mixed emotions when several came up to me wanting their noses rubbed.

But the Colonial Horses didn't ask to be used as weapons - they were simply a means to an end for the Conquistadors. They were what they were - horses serving masters that they had little control over. As soon as the Spanish Colonial Horses got the opportunity, many of them bolted from captivity and became almost-wild again in the wide open spaces of the American West. It was these escaped Spanish Mustangs who were the founding stock of today's "Wild Horse" (American Mustang) of the western US.

And no one can deny that the Native Americans themselves made full use of the descendents of these horses a century or two after the Spanish arrived.

Besides, how could you not love a face like this? When I rubbed the noses of these friendly equines, I realized that I was touching living, breathing history. Some of these horses' ancestors may be depicted in the ancient cave paintings of Europe, 20,000 to 30,000 years old.

Tater Tot - very friendly and just wanted attention from her two-legged visitors. Because, after all, we WERE there just to see her, right?

So I began to observe them for what they were: a band of horses just being themselves.

A band of Spanish Mustangs in the Black Hills of South Dakota.

Most were quite friendly, although some were standoffish.

I saw a definite pecking order: a few were very bossy, pushy, and dominant. Others were docile and easily bullied. Most were somewhere in the middle of these two extremes....very much like humans and our social maneuvering and office politics!

The grulla (gray) girls - a clique of gray Spanish Mustangs who are on the dominant side and have a bit of an attitude.

And, like humans, I also saw friendships and even "cliques" within the larger group. Woe to the outsider who tried to break in to an existing club!

Three of the older ladies stick together in a friendly grouping.

Some were quiet and low energy, others seemed to always be looking for trouble or stirring up the group. A few just wanted to run:

But none tried to be something they weren't. They seemed to be loving life as themselves, enjoying the freedom of hundreds of acres to roam. And while they may carry ancient bloodlines, it doesn't change who they are from day-to-day: beautiful, strong, spirited, independent animals who simply want to live the life they were born to live.

I can definitely learn a lot from them...

Note: While a few bands of Spanish Mustangs can still be found running free on BLM lands in the American West, most are now found in private hands throughout North America and Europe. If you look closely, though, horses with strong Spanish features can be found among the existing herds of American Mustangs on BLM lands.

If you'd like to experience Spanish Mustangs for yourself, visit the Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary in Hot Springs, South Dakota. At over 10,000 acres and 500+ horses, you'll see more mustangs in one place than your mind can comprehend. See for more information on hours, visiting, and tours.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Wild Horses: Pilot Butte near Rock Springs, Wyoming

Wild Horses are icons of the American West. While not specifically native (the current "wild" horses roaming the west originated in Europe and Asia so they're technically feral populations), they are gorgeous to watch and are historically important to those of us in the US and Canada.

Herd stallion at sunrise.

One place to see wild horses is about 5 hours' drive northwest of Denver, just outside of Rock Springs, Wyoming. The area around Rock Springs is home to several herds of horses in four distinct Herd Management Areas. This blog discusses just one of these: White Mountain (Pilot Butte), but check in with the local BLM office for information on the other horse herds.

These horses show quite different behavior from their more domesticated kin. Their behavior is more "wild" - stallions battle frequently for mares. Sometimes the battles are quite violent and may even draw blood.

The herds are almost constantly on the move looking for food and water, and avoiding the more harsh weather conditions. The horses are relatively shy and spook if you try to approach them. Remember, these horses are effectively wild animals and should not be approached. Your best bet is to stay in your vehicle. Your car will act as a blind and at the same time, provide you a measure of safety if the stallions start to battle.

Filly at sunrise.

Horses evolved on the North American continent many millions of years ago and migrated to Europe and Asia well before the last Ice Age. But by about 12,000 years ago, the horses of North America had died out. The Spanish re-introduced horses to the "New" World and some of the horses we see at Pilot Butte probably still carry genes from those original horses. The rest of the horses here descended from a variety of European breeds brought here by the early white settlers and armies.

The horses here display a variety of coat colors, but roans and solid reds/sorrels seem to predominate.  I've also seen quite a few "curlies" - horses with curly hair on their manes and coats.

Small band of horses on the move.

The BLM's genetic analysis of captured horses from this herd show they include a diverse mix of lineages including Spanish, Peruvian Paso, Andalusian, Thoroughbred, Morgan, American Saddlebred, among others.

If you go, enjoy your visit and make sure to bring your camera, batteries, and plenty of memory cards. 

When to Visit: During the summer, your best bet is to scout the area the day before you want to shoot. Locate where the horses are gathering by watching for the most poop piles (seriously). This is where you'll want to come the next morning - most of the horse activity will be where there is the most poop. The next day, set your alarm VERY early. For the best photo opportunities, make sure to get up onto the mesa before sunrise. Yep, that's right, you need to be up on the mesa and with the horses before sunrise. Colors at sunrise on a cloudless day are really spectacular. Midday light here is harsh and washed out, and photography on cloudy days is dismal - the colors in your photos will probably come out gray and boring. Being up on the mesa at dawn is really worth the short night of sleep.

Special Precautions: Make sure you have a full tank of gas in your vehicle. High clearance is a plus but not necessary. If the weather is rainy, or has been rainy, I'd suggest avoiding this area as the road will be thick, slick, sticky mud that will cling to your car and make travel miserable. Also note that there are no services available up on the mesa, so bring plenty of food and water for at least a 1/2 day of viewing.

To Get There: Pilot Butte is in the White Mountain Herd Management Area, north of Rock Springs, Wyoming. From Rock Springs, take Hwy 191 North (Elk Street) for approximately 14 miles. Follow the signs for the Wild Horse Scenic Loop, on your left.

Other Animals: You can also see Antelope, Golden Eagles, and Northern Harriers here while you're watching the horses. Prairie Falcons also hang out along the cliff sides.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Bison in Denver: Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge

Where in the world can you drive minutes from the downtown area of a major city and see bison, deer, coyote, eagles, prairie dogs, and a host of other wildlife? I'm not talking about a zoo either - these are animals in their natural setting on over 15,000 acres.

Mule Deer buck at RMA

It's Denver...and I'm talking about Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge.

The Arsenal sits on the northern edge of Denver, Colorado, and exists as critical habitat for Bald Eagles, Black-Tailed Prairie Dogs, American Bison, and many more species. It's also a favorite for local wildlife photographers, families, and visitors - there is no other place in Colorado where you can be surrounded by a bison blockade!

I have found mornings to be the best time of day to see the animals near the roads and trails, especially during the warmer summer months.

A bison blockade at RMA

Late spring and early summer welcomes the babies to the arsenal. If you're lucky, you might get a chance to see bison, deer, and prairie dog babies. Photographers love this time of year when the grasses green up and the the babies come out to play.

Baby bison with its mother, late May

Baby Prairie Dog, late May

Please note with the animals: they are cute and they are used to people, but these animals are not pets! Please stay a safe distance away from them. Bison are DANGEROUS! Do not leave your car when inside the Bison enclosure. If you find the road blocked by an animal, quietly pull off to the side if you can, and allow them to pass by. Do not honk or try to intimidate them out of the way - this will likely land you a ticket or jail time.

Please don't feed the animals, try to pet them, or in any way hinder their natural behavior. Avoid getting between a mother and her baby - this could get you horns to your ribs!

To get there: Please see this map. The Arsenal is north of Denver on Quebec, near Commerce City and the 270/70 interchange.

Hiking: Several trails in the park are open to the public. Pleas see a current trail map for a complete listing.

Fishing: Fishing is allowed, but check local regulations first before heading out.

Kids: The Arsenal is a great place for kids! Your kids will probably love the being surrounded by bison, or seeing the abundant Mule Deer. And yes, there are restrooms throughout the refuge in case you miss the one at the visitor's center.

Handicapped Access: Some areas and trails are accessible to folks with physical challenges. Restrooms are wheelchair accessible.

Access: Please respect "No Trespassing" signs as some areas of the refuge are currently off-limits to the public.

Monday, February 17, 2014

A Hidden Gem

There is a little jewel of trail along the southwest edge of the Denver metro area. You may not have heard about it, but it's been a favorite for locals for many years. It winds through a canyon where  lizards, eagles, hawks, ducks, beaver, bear, mountain lion, deer, and Bighorn Sheep make their home. Humans like it here too: the road up the canyon is closed to most vehicles, so you can see cyclists, hikers, runners, and fishermen most days of the year.

A view up the canyon.

The place is Waterton Canyon, and the road leading in to it marks the start of the Colorado Trail.

Young Bighorns dash along the trail in Waterton Canyon.

Waterton Canyon cuts back into the foothills of southwestern Littleton, Colorado. Flowing its length is the Platte River, although in the canyon the river looks more like a large stream. The trail, a road in its lower reaches, parallels the river and provides easy access into the canyon's beauty.

Moonset over Waterton.

It's different here. The plant life reminds me more of the canyon lands of the desert southwest than anywhere else in the area. Yuccas, cactus, bunchgrasses, and junipers are the main vegetation for the first 4-5 miles upriver, and when I need a pseudo-Utah fix for a few hours, I come here. Dramatic rock cliffs flank the river. In the warmer seasons of the year, you might even catch a glimpse of a lizard or two sunning themselves on the rocks. In the spring and early summer, flowers more at-home in the desert send up colorful offerings of blossoms to the sun.

For me, though, the main attraction really is the animal life. Nowhere else in the Denver area can you get up-close-and-personal to Bighorn Sheep, or have a chance of seeing a Black Bear or a Mountain Lion all within a few miles of your car.

Below are a few highlights from Waterton Canyon:

One of the big rams in Waterton Canyon.

A beaver munching on twigs.

A lamb, looking cute.

One thing to note with the animals, especially the Bighorns: they are cute and they are used to people, but these animals are not pets! Please stay a safe distance away from them. Bighorns Sheep may look small, but they are muscular and very strong. One head-butt could send you into the hospital...or the river. If they approach you, stay still and do NOT look them in the eye (especially the males). Quietly them them pass by you.

Please don't feed the animals, try to pet them, or in any way hinder their natural behavior. Avoid getting between a mother and her baby - this could get you horns to your ribs!

To get there: Take Wadsworth south from C-470 in Littleton. Turn left onto Waterton Canyon Road. The second parking area on your left is for the Canyon. Park in here and proceed to the trail at the west end of the parking lot.

Hiking/Cycling: The trail up into the canyon is relatively flat, very wide, and in good repair for at least the first 8 miles up. Xcel energy and Denver Water maintain the road for access to the dams and reservoirs in the upper parts of the canyon. For those more adventurous folks out there, go past the dams and reservoirs to hook up with the Colorado Trail and almost endless miles of hiking and cycling.

Fishing: Fishing is allowed along the river, but check local regulations first before heading out.

Kids: Waterton is a great place for kids! Access into the canyon is kid-friendly for the first several miles and all-terrain strollers are easy to use on the road. The road is wide and relatively flat with lots of things to see and do along the way. And yes, there are restrooms along the canyon in case you miss the one at the parking area.

Handicapped Access: The first several miles of the canyon are accessible to folks in wheelchairs and hand cycles. Restrooms are wheelchair accessible.

Access: Please respect private property and "No Trespassing" signs.