Mesa Verde National Park: The Wild Side

Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado

by Samantha Adler

Check out my first Mesa Verde installment: Withering Heights

I stepped back on solid ground and gripped the metal fence separating me from the canyon below. I had just completed a heart pounding journey through one of Mesa Verde’s high-up cliff dwellings. I took a glance back at the man-made structure; brown solid walls, windows and tunnels, all nestled into a little alcove, carved out of a towering cliff, up high in a vast canyon, that cut through an even larger desert forest.

These man-made wonders of Mesa Verde spark so much curiosity and hold so much cultural significance, that they sometime overshadow the fact that Mesa Verde is a national park blooming with diverse plant and animal life.

I certainly forgot.  It wasn’t until after I wandered starry eyed from exploring thousand year old cliff dwellings, started up the car and drove up the windy road to the park’s campsite, that it hit me

I wandered into the camp store looking for snacks and firewood. While I had noticed a diverse array of plant life and trees on the drive, the smiling plush toys in the camp store seemed out of place. A mountain lion stuffed buddy? A smiling owl? A fluffy bobcat?

You guys don’t belong here.

I grabbed a rock solid frozen breakfast burrito and a bundle of wood and went to check out. The cashier handed me a list of guidelines and an event itinerary. A park ranger was giving a wildlife talk after sunset that night. I had to go because A. park rangers are the coolest and B. I was eager to find out what critters dwelled secretly in this park.

The tent site was set within a field of tall, tan grass. The sun was beginning to set in a cascade of striking warm colors when I started to put the tent together and defrost the block of ice, egg and cheese over the fire. I heard a rustle in the brush and shot up. All those little fluffy faces in the camp store popped into my head, only now they were muscly, toothy and hungry. I froze with fear and excitement.  I squinted in the dusk and saw a deer meandering in the hazy light, like she ran the whole show and I was zero threat.

After finishing off dinner and putting out a short lived fire, I grabbed a flashlight and made my way to the ranger talk at the amphitheater. The amphitheater was an outdoor semi circle of concrete benches, with a raised platform for a stage. The presentation had begun and I snuck into a seat amongst a crowd of children and a few parents. The ranger at the front had an image of a curious hare pull up on a large projector. She began explaining that the animals that lived in Mesa Verde have gone through some amazing adaptations to live in this climate.

Mesa Verde’s 5200 acres are sandwiched between the lush forests of the Rockies and the desert of the SouthWest. This gives the park a mostly a semi-arid environment at a 6000 ft elevation. While it seems like a tough environment, the park boasts 640 species of plants, 74 species of mammals, 200 species of birds, 16 species of reptiles, five species of amphibians, six species of fishes (four of which are native), and over 1,000 species of insects.

This includes the threatened Mexican Spotted Owl. The park boasts several protected breeding areas for these rare birds. The unique climate here actually provides a rare pocket for niche animals, plants and insects to thrive.

The ranger clicked through photos noting adaptations such as camouflage, clawed footing for climbing and quick mobility to escape predators. I joined the kiddos in their Oooh’s and Ahhh’s. The ranger then pulled up the apex predator and one of the most beautiful animals in North America: the mountain lion.

It’s adaptations seemed more fitting for conquering than surviving: the ability to leap from fifty feet above, speed and strength. While beautiful, these animals were not to be messed with. However, sighting one of these big cats was rare as they keep to themselves in the canyon.

Then the presentation ended in the best possible way: baby animal photos. She knew how to win the crowd over. Suspense, danger...cute baby animals.

I walked with the crowd of giggling children, flashlight in hand to my campsite. The light shone a bright white circle in front of me. My peripherals were a black darkness and I chose to ignore any rustle, chirps or movement. I hopped into my tent and gazed up towards the sky. Now knowledgeable of ALL the possibilities that might lie in that brush, I closed my eyes, imagined the adorable baby versions and hoped to encounter them in the morning.

A reminder that the wildlife you learn about at national parks are indeed...wild. Follow the National Park Service guidelines when you're exploring, camping or hiking to keep things wild and free:

  • Feeding wild animals is dangerous to you and unhealthy for them.

  • Wild animals can carry deadly diseases, including hantavirus, plague and rabies.

  • Repeated human contact with wildlife may cause animals to lose their natural fear of humans and become aggressive.

  • Always view wildlife from the safety of your car or from a distance.

  • Do not approach animals to feed or take photographs, and teach children not to chase, tease, or pick up animals.

  • Please report any animal that may appear sick or injured.

  • Keep your food, cooking equipment, and garbage in your vehicle with the windows closed, hard-sided trailer, or food locker.