Wildlife in Colorado

Before you go to Colorado, you need to know your moose from your elks. Not that you will worry about definitions if one walks out in front of your car, but itís part of the Coloradan scene, so good to know. A North American moose is what we Europeans like to call an elk. They are the largest of the deer family in North America, have palm shaped antlers and a chin beard. The American elk is what Europeans call red deer, more rust coloured than a moose, stick like antlers and about 180 kg lighter in weight. You might also get confused between a bison and a buffalo. Donít be. They are the same.

Bighorn sheep

The official state animal of Colorado, they are fairly elusive and hang out on the high peaks of the Rocky Mountains. Not to be confused with mountain goats, they are so called for their massive, curling horns and like most Coloradans you will meet on your travels, they are agile and at ease on the rugged terrain Ė although the sheep do favour the more hardcore rugged bits way up above the treeline in the alpine tundra regions. Both the male and female have horns, but the female ones are shorter and less curvy. They do not shed their horns, so they can grow to be as big as 120 cms in length. And yes the rams do use those big horns to rut out their differences with other rams, but otherwise they are very peaceful animals. They can be seen all over Colorado, but the Rocky Mountain National Park and Horseshoe Park are popular viewing spots. You can spot their relations, the desert bighorn sheep at the National Monument too, where they were reintroduced a few years ago.

Mountain lions

As most Coloradans will tell you, you wonít see one of these, and if you do it is too late. Also known as a cougar, they inhabit the Front Range region but attacks are extremely rare. In fact populations are dwindling anyway, due to both illegal and legal hunting. However, its presence does remind you that there are many wild, untouched places in Colorado, and it is not a theme park. They have a face as soft as a house cat, range from a tawny to reddish brown and can grow up to 2.5 metres in length. Mountain lions prey on deer and elk, wandering around the rocky foothills or the borders between forest and wetland meadows where they can watch for deer coming out to drink and eat. If you are hiking in mountain lion territory, make lots of noise, and keep children with the group. Do not run if you see one, but throw stones and make lots of noise and wave your arms around. But remember, sightings are extremely rare.

Black bears

In Colorado many black bears are actually blonde, cinnamon or brown. And they are not to be confused with their northern cousins, the grizzly, which are no longer in Colorado. The Rocky Mountain National Park is a favourite habitat and, although they are hard to spot, they come out to play in mid-March when their food of berries and grasses become available and then go back to hibernate in dens from mid-November. Although this makes up the highest percentage of their diet, they also eat meat, usually from carcasses. One of the biggest dangers for bears is human food, which is left in bins or around campsites, or in hikersí backpacks, attracting bears, changing their feeding habits and creating a danger for humans. So if you are hiking, keep your food with you at all times and when camping, all food or drink must be kept in bear proof containers from May until October. See the National Park Service website for more details.
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Hawks, kites and eagles

There are many bird species in Colorado, but it is the hawks and eagles that stand out most, swooping over these dramatic landscapes like masters of the wind. The bald eagle, with its white head, is always exciting to spot, and the State Forest State Park is a good place for sightings, but you might be lucky enough to spot one in Denver, as there are about a hundred along the South Platte River Trail. The San Juan National Forest is also a great breeding ground, and with 1.8 million acres to play with, this is definitely binocular territory.

The National Monument is also home to nine breeding species of raptors and has been designated as an Important Bird area (IBA) by the National Audubon Society. The red tailed hawk is the most common in the Rocky Mountain National Park, although these also head to the flatter eastern plains in the winter months, and are often spotted soaring as they search for prey. They favour the ponderosa pine which is so common in Colorado, but also enjoy swooping out across the open meadows and grasslands.

Wild horses

You canít have the wild west without them really, although some purists would say that they arenít indigenous, so they should fall into another category. In fact, they are descendants of horses used by Spanish conquistadors of the 1500's and American Indians acquired many of these horses in the 1600's so they have been around for a long time. However their presence is controversial in some areas, such as the Mesa Verde National Park, where they are not protected, unmanaged and seen by some purists as Ďtrespassersí, coming in from the nearby Ute Indian reservation when water is in short supply. Tourists can embrace their presence in the Little Book Cliffs Wild Horse Range, however where, as part of the 1971 Wild and Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act, they are protected and managed. Riding trips are available here.

Prairie Dogs

There are three species of prairie dog in Colorado: the black-tailed on the eastern plains, the Gunnison in the southwest and the white-tailed prairie dog which inhabits the northwest, all thriving on the dry sagebrush ecosystem in these regions. They arenít actually dogs at all, but burrowing squirrels, similar to chipmunks. They have reddish fur, large eyes, short ears and broad round heads and although they look very cute, they are considered a pest by many, damaging farmland and carrying disease. You can spot their colonies by a collection of mounds in the dry earth, often with little heads popping up to see what is going on. But be wary, snakes also like to cosy into these burrows.


First things first, most Colorado snakes are non-venomous. Of the 25 species of snakes in Colorado, the western rattlesnake and the massasauga are the only venomous species, the former being found pretty much everywhere and the latter only in the eastern grasslands. If you are out hiking, you can recognise the venomous ones by the rattles at the end of the tail, fangs as well as teeth, and a broad triangular head. If you get a bite from a suspected venomous snake, get to a hospital as soon as possible. And just in case you think it might be fun, donít pick up a dead one, as they can still emit poison until rigor mortis is complete.

Responsible Travel would like to thank the Colorado tourist office for their sponsorship of this guide.
Written by Catherine Mack
Photo credits: [Page banner: skeeze] [Intro: Muttnick] [Bighorn Sheep: grfx4] [Hawks, kites and eagles: Mathew Schwartz]