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Know the West

Wild times in the human weed patch

  I never knew how wild my corner of the West was until my daughter started playing volleyball. It had nothing to do with volleyball or the way it transforms giggling adolescent girls into snarling competitive animals.

It had to do with early morning practices.

"Builds character," my daughter's coach said. The kids' or the parents', I wondered, as I dragged myself out of a warm bed every Friday morning at 5:30 a.m. to drive Zoe to the middle school gym.

Once up and out the door, though, I discovered I like the hour before sunrise. It is a time of great clarity. Sometimes the moon is up, a yellow sliver hanging above the jet-black outline of the West Elk Mountains. Overnight, the stars have shifted from autumn to winter: Orion, bold and belted, takes center stage, while in the north, the Big Dipper turns upside down, pouring out stars instead of holding them.

Sound travels extraordinary distances. The crow of a rooster at the ranch a mile down the road seems a stone's throw away. From the irrigation ditch, the cattails rustle with the movements of creatures great and small.

It's the great creatures I fear, yet want to see the most. Our western Colorado home abuts some of the wildest country in the Rockies, and it is inhabited by some of the biggest wild animals North America has to offer, including black bear, mountain lion and elk. But these are not the creatures we encounter on our early morning drive. We see what every other American who gets up at 5:30 sees: raccoons and skunks, most of them flattened and smeared over the pavement.

It wasn't supposed to be this way. Sure, I'd seen raccoons and skunks every other place I'd lived. Like the raccoon who knocked over the garbage cans at our apartment in the hills outside San Francisco, then seemed to laugh at me as I wildly hucked three perfectly good tennis balls over his head. Skunks and raccoons also abounded in the suburbs outside St. Louis, MO, where I spent much of my childhood.

But this was the great American West. Raccoons and skunks had no business amid sagebrush, cactus and juniper.

Of course, I was wrong. They do have business here, as much as humans do. In fact, because humans do. Skunks and raccoons are part of the semi-wild menagerie that thrives in humanity's backyard. They are small opportunistic weeds following the giant path blazed by the mega-weed.

A scientist once told me that humans try to recreate a tropical environment wherever they are. It's sure true for the American West, where we have stored and diverted every drop of water to bloom the desert and line town streets with trees from the woodlands of the East. Biologists speculate that human-planted trees in towns across the Great Plains allowed many Eastern species of birds and animals to cross what was once an impenetrable grassland barrier. They jumped from one moist human island to the next.

Now, as the human islands in the West grow bigger by the day, plants and animals that like human disturbance dominate. Most animals I see are either exotic weeds --starlings, house sparrows, cats, dogs, livestock -- or native weeds - robins, magpies, raccoons, skunks. Only a few are the animals I associate with the wild, untouched West: golden eagles, mule deer, coyotes.

Even with these, the lines have blurred. The eagles feast on the bullet-shredded carcasses of prairie dogs left by ranchers. The mule deer thrive in the patchwork of cultivated and uncultivated land. And the coyote ... well, he makes a good living despite our best efforts to eradicate him.

The other morning, I slept in longer than usual. It was Saturday. No volleyball. As I walked into the kitchen, one of my 9-year-old son's chickens strutted by the kitchen window. "Zach, the chickens are out," I called.

As we stepped outside, my eyes caught the shape of a dog loping easily across the hay pasture. No,not a dog, a coyote. Damn. "Dad, two of the chickens are gone," Zach said.

We found feathers scattered in the dirt, but no other signs of the missing chickens. I told Zach of the coyote. Tears welled in his eyes.

"I'm gonna get that stupid coyote," he said.

For a moment, I felt the same way: We have to defend our animals from the wild ones out there. Yet I know the line we draw between wild and domesticated is artificial. The coyote is the perfect predator for the semi-wild West. It eats domestic chickens, semi-wild raccoons and wild prairie dogs alike. The coyote, and all of the other eclectic animals that fly, swim and crawl through our world, are the kin we have unwittingly gathered.

Paul Larmer is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado. He is the publisher of the paper.