Rasping rattlesnakes, galloping horses and screeching eagles… These are sounds synonymous with any classic western, and humans have long been fascinated with the animals that inhabit the American desert
The landscape that captured hearts around the world has been immortalised in film and literature over the decades. The 1800s saw an eruption of violence, romance and action-packed adventure as early settlers established towns and pioneered industries. But long before the first spurred boots kicked up the desert dust, wildlife was evolving to inhabit the dry, open plains. Sun-loving reptiles basked in the baking heat, snatching small birds and burrowing rodents. Predatory birds soared high above the ground, searching for carcasses of animals that couldn’t survive the heat. Species adapted to live with little water and began to develop strategies to escape the deadly Sun.
When humans arrived, they were inspired to create totems and legends inspired by the stunning wildlife. At the same time, there was conflict between the native Americans and the animals of the desert, which continued when the European settlers arrived. Animals were used for entertainment, ruthlessly hunted and eradicated from land claimed for agriculture. Time progressed, however, and the impact of human civilisation became clear, so conservation efforts began in earnest. Struggling species have been re-introduced to several areas, wildlife is being closely monitored and daily advancements are being made in decoding behaviour and their uses of the environment. It seems Wild West wildlife continues to scuttle, scavenge and survive as these animals have evolved to live under the unforgiving Sun.
Able to live in forests, climb mountains and wade through swamps, the mountain lion is the master of every habitat the continent has to offer. The Wild West is no exception, and cougars thrive in dry habitats. Research suggests that cougars prefer hunting on steep canyon slopes, perhaps because a prowling cat has an advantage when leaping down on prey from above. Mountain lion habitat overlaps with wolf hunting grounds, and unfortunately these apex predators go head-to-head on a daily basis. Wolves strip the land of elk and steal carcasses from feeding felines, forcing them to find new prey. As solitary hunters, cougars aren’t equipped to defend themselves against a pack of hungry wolves, and are now starting to avoid wolf areas. With the largest geographic range of any land mammal, cougar territories can reach almost 650 square kilometres (400 square miles). These cats have serious power, capable of transporting prey many times their body weight. Carcasses are stored for days on end, meaning a cougar only has to hunt every ten to 14 days.
These wolves will do whatever it takes to survive, constantly adjusting their tactics to ensure they secure their kill. The packs found in Wyoming’s Yellowstone National Park take any prey, from rabbits to young bison that are under the supervision of their one-tonne parents. Outside of Yellowstone, moose is the biggest game, and even a lone wolf can take down the largest member of the deer family. Apart from hunting, maintaining territory is one of the most important aspects of a wolf’s life. Packs can control up to 6,200 square kilometres (3,900 square miles) and contain as many as 40 wolves. Each group is led by a dominant pair, and the other members are usually older offspring and the youngest pups that will stay with their family for two or more years. Sometimes wolves do go rogue. Creeping through territories of established packs, these animals have turned their backs on group life. These mavericks rarely breed, and instead focus on getting enough food for number one. As the animal ages, however, it may be adopted into a pack to replace a fallen breeder, so it can begin to settle into family life.
Rarely living longer than five years, up to 35 per cent of this badger species dies annually. Many populations comprise 80 per cent yearlings or younger animals. This species lives hard and fast, feasting on fast-moving mammals like prairie dogs and ground squirrels. Like their European counterparts they are exceptional diggers, but American badgers take this even further. They have sensitive nerve endings in their claws, which help them detect traces of movement in the soil. They can excavate through concrete and dig quickly to chase escaping prey. The burrows they create when in hot pursuit then become their home, often boasting up to ten metres (33 feet) of tunnels. These badgers have few natural predators but generally fall at the hands of humans. They are feared by many and regarded as pests, but thankfully they aren’t endangered.
Occasionally seen in daylight, these dogs modify badger burrows to provide shelter so they can sleep through the baking heat. The dens are used year after year, and the coyotes surface to urinate and defecate. They create scent posts with their waste – most likely to mark their territory – and to communicate with a wide range of sounds. They have three distinct calls, but can also interpret one another’s body language, such as ear movements and tail position. They are secretive animals and try their best to go unnoticed by other nearby wildlife. Coyotes generally avoid areas controlled by wolves, but when one is going it alone the two species will interact. Wolves are the coyote’s main natural predators, but without the pack’s support a lone wolf can fall prey to a group of hungry coyotes. Clashes can be extremely vicious, but there are documented cases of them teaming up to hunt and even interbreed.
Coyote vs lone wolf
Around four million years ago, North America was attached to Eurasia via a land bridge. It was at this time that prehistoric horses made their way from America to the rest of the world. They were brought back by the expanding Spanish Empire in the late 1400s and many made their return to the wild. Mustangs are grazers, feeding on plant matter and moving as a group for protection from predators. They are adapted for running, having just one toe that absorbs the impact of each thundering step. Male mustangs use manure to establish dominance, and herd leaders may fight for control of fertile mares. Young males are driven away from the group and join bachelor bands before working to establish their own harem.
Click the image below to discover more wildlife that makes it home in the canyons of the wild west
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