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Know the West

The new animal voyeurism

Captured on film but still losing habitat.


I’m watching two mountain lions slip down the trail, haunches swaying, their long, tufted tails slung low behind them. The sight elicits in me a certain electric excitement that I can’t quite place. They move with a kind of nonchalant ease, as if aware of their status as apex predators. Had I encountered them in person, I almost certainly would have been breathless, my heart racing. But I was on my couch, staring into my iPad, watching trail-cam footage captured at night on my go-to front-country trail. The video was posted on Nextdoor, where a stream of comments had accrued, layer upon layer of surprise, wonder, appreciation and awe.

Sunrise over the Green River in the Browns Park area where Utah, Wyoming and Colorado meet.

Similar clips from wildlife cams, security cams and doorbell cams proliferate on Nextdoor. A new one appeared today: a bobcat this time, followed by a skunk. We seem to enjoy knowing who else is out there and what they do when we’re not there to see it. Commenters often respond with surprise that such creatures are “right here in our backyard!” They will even use those words, our backyard, to describe the foothills or the front country, as if the animals had somehow stumbled into the exclusive domain of the human species. But the truth is quite the opposite: It is we who are the encroachers. Habitat loss due to development is a major cause of threatened and endangered species across the West.

Even as new homes, subdivisions and strip malls push ever farther into the wildland-urban interface, enthusiasm for the wildlife “in our backyards” abounds online. I’m reminded of two black bears whose paws were badly burned during California’s 2017 Thomas Fire, which raged for 38 days. The bears were rescued and given temporary paw pads made of tilapia skin, so that their own paws could heal underneath the protective covering. In January 2018, they were released back into the mountains, and months later radio-collar data suggested that they seemed to be doing fine. While tracking the details of this incident, I found a large number of stories: not just in the LA Times and Ventura County Star, but Smithsonian, The New Republic, Mashable and Weather.com. National Geographic even posted a video of a veterinarian suturing fish skin to one of the bear’s paws. It’s a heartwarming story, a beautiful illustration of human concern for the well-being of other animals. But what gets missed in those moments of caring are the thousand thoughtless daily decisions it took to create the conditions for the unseasonable, unprecedented fire that burned those bears and torched 440 square miles of habitat for all manner of creatures.

Being good neighbors to wildlife — especially to apex predators — requires more than a tweet or a like or an awe-inspired comment. This issue’s feature story looks at wolves in Colorado and Wyoming, where their protected status is in flux. There is perhaps no more controversial animal neighbor in the West. Their recent delisting as a federally protected endangered species has led to a new patchwork of state laws, including one in Idaho that could allow the killing of 90% of the state’s wolves. Without protective laws, it’s not clear if humans can be good neighbors to wolves, allowing them places to howl plaintively and bed down safely with their pups.

Jennifer Sahn, editor-in-chief

The other night, on the same trail where the mountain lion video was captured, the animal noises grew increasingly persistent as I finished a hike after sunset. There were trills and screeches, flutters and scampers, and even some uncharacteristically loud footfalls in the brush. For my one set of eyes, focused mostly on the trail ahead, there were a multitude of others. Birds winged overhead, while others roosted in trees, calling out as night fell: This is where I am. I’m happy. I am just here singing my song.

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