Living with Wildlife in Los Alamos County

Published on January 24, 2024

image of a Grey Fox

Wildlife in Los Alamos County today are deer, elk, mountain lions, black bears, bobcats, coyotes, raccoons, skunks, and more. Here we often live or play in habitats used by these wildlife. 

Living with Large Predators...

Large predators in Los Alamos County include mountain lions, black bears, bobcats and coyotes. They can at times be dangerous. However, with a better understanding of these animals, we can learn to coexist. There are no definite rules about what to do if you meet a large predator. In most cases, the animal will detect you first and will leave the area.

Below is information about a variety of wildlife found on the Pajarito Plateau. New animals will be added throughout the year as we highlight an animal each month throughout 2024.

For more information regarding living with wildlife in Los Alamos County, please visit New Mexico Game and Fish at www.lacnm.com/nmgf.

Animal of the Month -GRAY FOX

The Gray Fox is smaller than most people think, averaging 10–15 pounds in size. They eat mostly mice, voles, bird eggs, rabbits, insects, and native fruits such as blueberries, blackberries, chokecherries, and black cherries. They’ll also eat poultry, lambs, piglets, carrion, and cats. Sometimes, they bury food for later use, especially around the den site, when raising their pups.

The Gray fox tends to live in forested and brushy areas, often found in drier piñon/juniper habitats. It typically dens in wood or brush piles, rocky outcrops, or hollow trees and will often reuse these dens from year to year. Foxes are solitary animals, except during breeding season, when mated pairs and their young live as a family unit.

Gray foxes are monogamous. They stay with their partner for life, and the male and female raise the young together. The average litter size is 3–7 pups, born March through April.

In the spring, Gray foxes may den underneath a porch or in a yard for a while while raising their pups. Foxes generally use more than one den to raise their pups and may move them as many as 2–4 times. They’ll usually leave by the end of June at the latest. These dens aren’t used during other seasons.

 

Black Bears

Black Bear in a tree
 
Be BEAR aware...

Spring is here, and the black bears of the Pajarito Plateau are waking up from their long winter nap. Bears eat almost anything available (i.e. insects, nuts and berries, plant matter, fish, birds, small mammals, and carrion), but rarely kill larger prey. Bears who have found available human sources, such as trash cans, gardens, and fruit trees, are more likely to seek them again. Follow these tips and tricks to minimize encounters as bears begin to look for food:

  • Never intentionally feed bears to attract them for viewing. 

  • Don’t leave pet food or food dishes outdoors overnight.

  • Never leave fruit from trees and bushes to rot on the ground as it is a powerful attractant to bears.

  • Bring in bird feeders at night. These are high-calorie treats, and bears may stay and look for other food sources nearby.

  • Never put meat or sweet-smelling food scraps in your compost pile.

  • Clean and store outdoor grills after use. Bears can smell sweet barbecue sauce and grease for miles.

  • Store garbage properly at all times. Only put roll carts out the morning of your trash pick up, and use bear-proof containers when available. 

Bobcats

Bobcat photo image

About the Bobcat

One of the four species of lynx, these wildcats are around twice the size of the average domestic cat and are fierce predators. Found throughout much of North America, they live in a diverse range of habitats, including forests, grasslands, swamps, deserts, and even roam into suburban areas. Although they are the most common wildcat in North America, these elusive, nocturnal animals are rarely seen by humans.

Bobcats can be identified by their short, black-tipped tail, which gives the species its name because it appears to be cut or “bobbed.” The tip of the tail is black all around, and the underside of a bobcat’s tail is white.

Bobcats live in warmer climates than their lynx cousins, so they have thinner coats and smaller paws without any of the 

Fun Facts About Bobcats

Bobcats emit an eerie scream that can be heard for miles. 

A bobcat's personal territory can span up to 30 square miles for males and five square miles for females. These territories are clearly marked by the bobcat's urine and/or feces.

Bobcats have excellent vision and hearing and a well-developed sense of smell.

Unlike the domesticated house cat, bobcats enjoy the water and are very good swimmers.

As incredibly skilled climbers, bobcats easily maneuver around rocky terrain and climb tall trees when pursuing their prey.

Bobcats are quiet hunters who pounce on their prey and kill it with one bite. These large cats are known to leap up to ten feet in the air.

Bobcat tracks are easy to distinguish - roundish paw, four toes, and no claw markings. 

Coyotes

Coyote stock image

 

About the Coyote

Late January through early March is the mating season for coyotes and they become more active during this time. Be proactive to prevent conflicts with coyotes with these actionable tips:

Protect pets

Dogs should always be supervised and on a leash. During the breeding season, coyotes become very active marking and defending their territories to protect their pack from other coyotes.

Remove food sources

Coyotes will utilize whatever food is available, including small animals, insects, and fruits, as well as artificial sources such as garbage, pet food, and compost.

Hazing

If you see a coyote in your yard, you should aggressively “haze” it by chasing it out of the yard, making loud noises, and throwing small objects, if needed, ensuring not to harm the coyote. Repeated hazing helps teach coyotes they are not welcome there.

Don’t be intimidated

It’s important to note that negative encounters with coyotes are rare, and attacks on people are even more rare. Do not be fearful of them.

Seek help if appropriate

Coyotes can be active at any time of day; however, if you encounter a coyote with concerning behavior like approaching leashed pets, closely following people, or not running off when hazed, contact NM Game & Fish for assistance.During the coyote's mating season, they become more active and visible in the community.

What does “hazing” mean?

Hazing does not harm the coyote. It is a method that makes use of deterrents to move an animal out of an area or discourage an undesirable behavior or activity. Hazing can help maintain a coyote’s fear of humans and deter them from backyards and play spaces.

The simplest method of hazing a coyote involves being loud and large:

Stand tall, wave your arms, and yell at the coyote, approaching them if necessary, until they run away, as demonstrated in this Humane Society video: https://youtu.be/EDm9wjfcdbw?si=gw1uFDWXFEmFqmJk

The coyote may not immediately run away when you yell at them. If this happens, you may need to walk towards the coyote and increase the intensity of your hazing.

The coyote may run away, but then stop after a distance and look at you. It is important to continue until it completely leaves the area. You may need to use different tactics, such as noisemakers, stomping your feet, or spraying the coyote with a hose, to get them to leave.

For more tips, tricks and information about hazing coyotes, visit the Humane Society website: https://www.humanesociety.org/resources/coyote-hazing

Deer

Deer - Buck image
 

All About the Mule Deer

It's a good time to talk about DEER on the Pajarito Plateau! Today, there are perhaps 300,000 mule deer and the less-common white-tailed deer combined in our state. Food, water, and productive cover govern the numbers of deer. Harsh winters may force deer to lower elevations, while mild summers will place them at timberline.

Suburban areas invite deer in with resources that are more easily accessible than in mature woods. Grassy parks, blooming gardens, and ornamental plants provide good nutrition, leading to excellent physical condition and higher reproductive rates of deer. Safe from hunting and predators, and sometimes fed intentionally, deer become habituated to people and occupy public and private spaces.

For some, the presence of deer is a welcomed wildlife viewing opportunity, while for others it means disturbed garden beds, a threat of disease, and road hazards. Competing attitudes towards deer lead to differing perceptions of severity and frequency of conflicts. Over the next month we will take a look at several issues regarding living with deer on the Pajarito Plateau, and how we can prevent conflicts, as well as support a healthy and safe living for these beautiful creatures.

DEER Fun Facts

Their sense of smell is 1000 times stronger than a human's. They can smell a person up to half a mile away and can detect water up to 2 feet underground.

A mule deer's eyes are located on the side of its head, providing 310 degrees of vision. Mule deer have better night vision than humans and can spot predators up to 600 meters away.

Antlers can grow up to 1/4 inch per day. Antler growth stops in August and then the antlers harden. Bucks will use their antlers to fight each other for a doe when in rut. Antlers are then shed after the mating season and re-grow in the spring.

Mule deer have no upper teeth, only a hard palate.

When startled, a mule deer will bounce away by pushing all four hooves off the ground at once. This is called "stotting." Mule deer can jump 2 feet high and up to 15 feet in distance. Mule deer can run up to 45 MPH.

Fawn curled up on a rock

Living with Mule Deer Fawns

Every year, Los Alamos County and NM Game & Fish receive numerous phone calls from the public concerning abandoned newborn fawns. In almost every instance, the fawns have not been abandoned and are waiting for the doe to return to nurse. People who find newborn fawns should never approach or pick them up—doing so dramatically decreases the probability that fawns will survive.

"Hiding" Behavior

Shortly after birth, mule deer fawns exhibit hiding behavior to avoid detection and maximize survival. Newborn fawns are licked clean by the doe to minimize scent and have a spotted coat to help camouflage them. Newborn fawns spend more than 95 percent of their time hiding. Fawns are typically alone, or within a few meters of their twin, during most of the day for the first week of life. They only stand a few times each day when the doe comes to nurse them. Once nursed, the mother nudges the fawn back to the ground and leaves the immediate area— usually remaining just a few hundred meters away. This pattern will continue for up to 3 weeks. By this time the fawns are mature enough to keep up with their mother and able to race out of real or perceived danger.

I’ve found a deer fawn (baby deer). What should I do?

Under most circumstances, the best thing a person can do is to immediately leave the area to avoid creating any additional disturbance near the fawn. Approaching or handling newborn fawns increases their stress level and threatens their survival.

The fawn was alone, with no mother protecting it. It is so small and helpless and it doesn’t even move when I approach it. Does it need help?

No, the fawn does not need your help. The fawn is well camouflaged and has very little odor, which helps it hide from predators. Fawns instinctively lie motionless when approached by a potential predator. A fawn's heart rate will also drop dramatically as another way of protecting itself.

It looks hungry, should I feed it?

People should never feed anything to a fawn. Just like an adult deer, fawns have very specific nutritional requirements and improper nutrition will make the fawn sick and may lead to its death.

My children touched or moved the fawn and I’m afraid the mother won’t take it back - what should I do?

The doe-fawn bond is very strong. A mother deer will not avoid her fawn if there are human or pet odors on it. Fawns are rarely abandoned, except in extreme cases where the fawn has defects that will prevent its survival. If moved, the fawn should be placed in or next to natural vegetation near the location where it was found to provide cover and protection. The doe will avoid the area until the disturbance has passed, after which she will search for the missing fawn. If more than 24 hours have passed, the fawn may need attention from a wildlife rehabilitator. In this case, call NM Game & Fish at 888-248-6866 (toll-free) or 505-476-8000. In an emergency, call 9-1-1.

Why we don't want to feed the deer: A Three-Part Series

Part 1: Does the forest support the deer population following a wildfire?

The natural pattern of recovery after a wildfire is referred to as “ecological succession.” This is the process whereby the land, plants, and wildlife move through various ecological stages to return to a state of relative stability. It’s like hitting the “reset” button on the life cycle of a forest.

Low-intensity fires burn close to the ground, “cleaning” and thinning the forest by removing thick and flammable vegetation from the forest floor. High-severity fires burn with high heat, climb into and remove the tree canopy, and can scorch the soil and tree roots, causing a more severe impact on vegetation and wildlife. More light reaches the forest floor post-fire, and fire-adapted plants regenerate.

After a fire, burned forests can be lush with shrubs and other vegetation that deer favor as summer forage. Deer generally prefer burned areas for about 20 years post-fire, which is the time it takes for the forest to move beyond the initial regrowth stage. Burns can create a win-win for deer: more food and less risk of being detected by a predator.

To learn more about wildfire in the Jemez Mountains and its impact on the ecosystem, visit the Valles Caldera Wildland Fire webpage.

Part 2: Jemez Mountain forest restoration, wildfire, and habitat selection by female mule deer

A brief history and the necessary response...

Decades of fire suppression, logging, and overgrazing have led to increased densities of small-diameter trees which have been associated with decreases in biodiversity, reduced habitat quality for wildlife species, degraded foraging conditions for ungulates [such as mule deer, elk, and sheep], and more frequent and severe wildfires. In response, land managers are implementing forest restoration treatments using prescribed fire and thinning to mitigate the risk of catastrophic wildfires and improve habitat conditions for a variety of wildlife species.

[source: Science Direct - link below]

Studies and observations...

In 2022, eleven years after the Las Conchas Fire, National Park Service staff began revisiting [burned] plots in the Valles Caldera National Preserve and graduate students from the University of New Mexico are analyzing the data to better understand post-fire ecological succession. This project is crucial in helping land managers understand the ecological role of fire and its long-term effects on the landscape in order to better preserve and restore this fire-adapted landscape.

source: NPS - NPS Article on Vegetation Recovery

Ecosystems are dynamic, with plants and animals responding to disturbances like wildfires and habitat loss. Researchers are monitoring the behaviors of four large mammal species - mountain lions, black bears, elk, and mule deer - to determine how ecosystem changes can impact their habitat preferences. How these large mammals respond to ecosystem changes over time will help park managers implement restoration treatments that mitigate wildfire risk and enhance habitats.

During this study, researchers captured and monitored 34 mule deer. The mule deer largely selected forest areas burned by prescribed fire and generally avoided wildfire-burned and thinned areas when they were [younger than] 5 years old. However, mule deer strongly selected thinned areas [at and over] 5 years old.

The next phase of the project is to analyze changes in habitat selection of these large mammals across a broad area of ecosystem disturbance. This analysis will help inform future decisions regarding forest management, wildfire mitigation, and habitat restoration at Valles Caldera National Preserve and beyond.

source: NPS - NPS Article on the Large Mammal Project

To learn more about research done by Science Direct in their Forest Ecology and Management study, as well as additional documented studies around wildfire in the Jemez Mountains and its impact on the ecosystem, mule deer, and black bears, click here: Science Direct Full Article

Part 3: What's wrong with feeding the deer?

Two important things to highlight have both ecological and physical consequences.

Deer support a healthy ecosystem…

Well-intentioned people will feed mule deer, under the assumption it will ensure their survival out of concern for lack of food sources. Unfortunately, feeding of any kind causes more harm than good to mule deer and only furthers their decline. Mule deer are adapted to their environment and specifically to the plants they rely on to survive. Throughout the summer they eat highly nutritious plants to build up their fat stores. Through the winter they eat less overall and transition to eating woody plants that are less nutritious while they utilize their fat stores for energy and survival.

Deer are browsers and will feed on tree bark, shrubs, grasses, forbs, flowers, and other nutrient-rich plant materials. Some of these plants rely on animals like deer and won’t germinate unless they pass through the digestive tract of an animal. The deer go to where food is readily available, which in a healthy ecosystem is the forest that provides them the food and nutrients they need. When fed by humans, deer will become lazy and stop foraging for food and doing their part in the life cycle of these plants, causing them to dwindle and become scarce. This negatively impacts the forest's healthy ecosystem and how it supports all the wildlife of the forest.

Deer have specialized digestive tracks…

Unlike elk, mule deer are highly selective foragers due to their specialized digestive system. Mule deer digestive systems contain specific bacteria that help break down only the plants they are meant to eat and are adapted to. The bacteria adjust slowly to match their diet through each season, and in the winter their gut contains the appropriate bacteria to digest only their winter diet of woody materials.

Any human-provided food sources, including hay, apples, corn, etc., are simply not digestible and cause an abundance of lactic acid, acidosis, dehydration, and ultimately death. Fed mule deer often die from starvation with full stomachs of food they cannot digest.

 

Mountain Lions

Stock image of a crouching mountain lion in the snow.

 

About the Mountain Lion

Mountain lions are usually tawny- to light-cinnamon in color with black-tipped ears and tail. Adult cats can weigh from 80 to 150 pounds and measure eight feet long, with the tail included. Most active from dusk to dawn, lions eat deer; however, they also kill elk, porcupines, small mammals, livestock, and other domestic animals. Historically the mountain lion has occupied all parts of Los Alamos County.

Mountain lion activity in Los Alamos becomes more common during the colder months as mountain lions head to lower elevations to find food. Though the risk to humans is low, we encourage community members to take precautions and be prepared if they encounter a mountain lion.

If you encounter a mountain lion, follow these quick tips:

STAY CALM if you come upon a lion. Talk calmly and firmly to it.

DO NOT APPROACH a lion. Most mountain lions will try to avoid confrontation. Give them a way to escape.

STOP or BACK AWAY SLOWLY if you can do so safely. Running may stimulate a lion’s instinct to chase and attack. Face the lion and stand upright. Do not crouch down or bend over.

Do all you can to APPEAR LARGER. Raise your arms. Open your jacket if you're wearing one. If you have small children with you, protect them by picking them up so they won't panic and run.

If approaching you, start THROWING THINGS at it.

To reduce the risk on your property:

Install outdoor lighting

Don't leave pets unattended outside, especially in the dark

Supervise children outdoors

Make your yard less attractive to lions by removing potential food sources

Raccoons

Raccoons on a fence

 

About the Raccoon

Raccoons are a common sight in Los Alamos but this doesn't mean they are safe or friendly to humans. In fact, raccoons can be quite dangerous if they get too close. Follow these tips for safety around raccoons:

Keep raccoons from coming too close

If a raccoon approaches too closely, make yourself appear larger: stand up, shout, and wave your arms. If it continues to approach, throw or spray water, or even stones, if needed.

Children should be warned against approaching raccoons and told to yell a set phrase if a raccoon approaches too close (such as "Go Away Raccoon!"). This will help alert adults that they need assistance.

A raccoon that is very aggressive–or too tame, or seems to be disoriented or staggers may be sick or injured. Do not approach the animal yourself, instead contact Animal Control at 505-662-8222 or 877-261-4090 or NM Game & Fish at 505-476-8000 or 888-248-6866.

Preventing conflicts between people and raccoons

Don’t feed raccoons. If fed, they may become aggressive, even biting or scratching.

Keep garbage out of reach.  Raccoons are very intelligent and will find ways to get into garbage. Secure garbage with a locking/clamping lid, rope, chains, bungee cords, or weights. On trash day, put the can out in the morning, as raccoons are nocturnal.

Do not leave pet food out. Feed dogs and cats indoors. If not possible, feed outdoor pets in the late morning/early afternoon. Always pick up food, water bowls, leftovers, and spilled food each day before dusk.

Keep pets indoors at night. Raccoons will attack dogs or cats if they feel threatened by them, and bites can cause disease or injury.

Keep pet doors secure. To reduce the attraction of a pet door, never place the pet’s food or water near the inside of the door. Pet doors should always be locked at night. 

Keep compost secure. Do not put food in a compost pile, rather, put it in a secure, raccoon-proof compost container or a closed structure. This keeps the raccoons from feeding, but it also keeps the compost free of droppings.

Clean up after barbecues. Always clean grills, grease traps, and the area immediately after cooking.

Rattlesnakes

Prairie rattlesnake curled up in desert grasses

About the Rattlesnake

The two common species of rattlesnakes in Los Alamos are the prairie rattlesnake and the western diamondback. Prairie rattlesnakes can grow up to 5 feet long and western diamondbacks average between 4 and 6 feet in length. These rattlesnakes are thermosensitive and have a heat-sensitive pit on each side of their head between the nostril and the eye, enabling them to detect and accurately strike in the dark.

Most rattlesnakes live in arid habitats and are nocturnal, hiding during the heat of the day in burrows or under rocks, and emerging in the evening or at twilight to hunt for prey, which consists primarily of small mammals, especially rodents. Rattlesnakes use their tails to make a rattling noise. This noise is intended to make predators aware of its presence.

 

If you encounter a rattlesnake, follow these TIPS:

  • Remain calm and do not panic.

  • Stay at least 5 feet away.

  • Do not try to kill the snake. This greatly increases the chance the snake will bite you.

  • Do not throw anything at the snake, like rocks or sticks. The snake may respond by moving toward you.

  • Alert other people to the snake’s location. Keep children and pets away from the area.

  • Keep your dog on a leash when hiking or camping.

  • If you hear a rattle, don’t jump or panic. Locate where the sound is coming from, so you don’t step closer.

  • If bitten by a rattlesnake, call 9-1-1 immediately.

Rocky Mountain Elk

Elk image

 

About the Rocky Mountain Elk

In Los Alamos County and the nearby region, Rocky Mountain Elk are often active near or on the roadways from dusk until the morning hours. In the winter months, they are often seen at lower elevations, and closer to town. Travelers should always watch carefully for these and other animals when traveling in the area.

Elk are usually copper brown to light beige in color and their legs and neck often darker than body. Adult cows (female elk) can weigh up to 500 pounds and measure four and a half feet in height at the shoulder. Adult bulls (male elk) can weigh up to 700 pounds and measure five feet in height at the shoulder.

Skunks

Skunk Photo

About the Skunk

Skunk Habitat Skunks are extremely adaptable and thrive in many different habitats, as long as food and shelter are available. Because they rarely travel more than 2 miles from their established dens, a skunk will typically settle down within 2 miles of a water source.

Dens are made in tree hollows, hollowed-out logs, brush piles, abandoned animal burrows, and underneath porches and other structures. Skunks will occasionally dig their burrows underground if no other shelter options are available.

Skunk Diet

Though they typically prefer to dine on insects and grubs, skunks are omnivores, consuming a vast diet of both plant and animal matter. Skunks are opportunistic eaters, and their diets are flexible, often shifting with the seasons. Some of the skunks' favorite foods include beetles, grasshoppers, grubs and worms, bird eggs, small rodents, frogs, fruit and berries, and mushrooms.

New meaning to the term "skunked!"

Nothing says "I love you" more than a strong smelling perfume...or rather "I don't love you, please go away!" as the skunk believes! It's officially skunk mating season, which is roughly two months long, usually beginning in February and ending in March. During mating season, neighborhoods may notice an increase in skunk odors. Males will come from up to six miles away to find a mate. While love is in the air, a female skunk can discourage a male’s advances by emitting an odor. The increased and pungent aroma is actually a sign of females repelling males in pursuit of the right mate.

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