Claws, Fangs and Teeth: A Guide to Big Bend’s Big Mammals

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Okay, please tell me I’m not the only person who waited, with bated breath, for the newest animal pages to stick in this bad boy:

8960482Every few weeks I would be sent a few new pages, full of delicious facts about every animal under the sun. Each page found a proud space in my Wildlife Fact-File binder and helped kindle my slight obsession with wildlife that carried me through my younger years (I have distinct memories of forming the Kids versus Extinction club with my playground friend in 2nd grade).

Panda bear page insert
Yes, panda. Tell me all of your secrets.

So, naturally, as I got older, my appreciation for wildlife stuck like a fungus (except prettier and less smelly). I vividly remember, aged twelve, visiting Colorado for the first time. My binoculars were glued to my face for the entire week, and the moment I saw a coyote way up on a hillside. It was, without exaggeration, one of the happiest moments of my life to that point. Yeah, I was that kind of dweeb.

Riding the Gondola with my dad and brother. Binoculars at the ready!
Little me riding the gondola with my dad and brother. Binoculars at the ready!

National Parks are, of course, one of the best ways to see wildlife.  It’s been the highlight of many of my trips growing up, and I always love to learn about the natural environments of these creatures.

So, naturally, when I visited Big Bend National Park last month, one of the aspects I found most interesting was the wildlife. I’ve already highlighted the unique contrasts offered by the park — from lush mountains to seemingly barren deserts — which create an incredibly diverse set of ecosystems for animals to roam in.

As a result, Big Bend has a ton of wildlife. It has more bird variety than any of the other National Parks (ever wonder where birds go when they fly south for the winter?).

Today, though, I want to focus on the big draw. The mammals. The big, hairy beasts that fascinate us and give our children nightmares. Big Bend has some truly awesome mammals, and you can read about many of them in detail on the park’s website.

Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately?) I didn’t come across any of the animals featured below when I was on the trail, but they are seen regularly at Big Bend, which means that it’s a good idea to know about them — including how to protect yourself!

Big Mammals of Big Bend:

Black Bear

Black Bear
Black bear, black bear, what do you see?

Aw, aren’t they adorable? Really, they are — so long as they’re far away. Big Bend is bear country, which means that any food is fair game and one misstep could put you toe to claw with a protective mom and her cuddly cubs.

Okay, maybe it isn’t quite that perilous. The park goes to great lengths to protect its visitors against an unwanted visit. Bear containers are available at most campsites, and all of their waste containers are designed to keep trash in and hungry bears out. Vigilance is still important, of course, especially when you’re out on the trail, or if you’re camping out in the back country. These fuzzy guys can get mean when there’s food — or cubs — involved. And they love food. They love all of your food.

Mountain Lion

Mountain_lion
Meow?

Okay, is it bad that I’m kind of sad I didn’t get to see one of these guys? I mean, they’re terrifying, right? But they’re also so amazingly gorgeous.

For the most part, sightings of the 24 mountain lions living in the Big Bend area are rare, so it’s no big surprise that I didn’t see one. There are about 200 mountain lion sightings each year, most of which happen along the roadside.

If you happen to spot one from the safety of your car, enjoy it! These animals are gorgeous, graceful, and as elusive as they are intriguing. Take care on the trails, though. The last thing you want is for a mountain lion to mistake you for a tasty snack.

Javelina

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Pronounced “have-uh-leen-uh”

It looks like a pig, right? Wrong. Pig-like it may be, it is actually in a completely different family. They belong to the peccary family, which I’m sure Tara could tell you loads more about than I can. Full disclosure — I had absolutely zero idea what these odd creatures were prior to my visit to Big Bend. In fact, I had so much trouble remembering the name that I eventually just started calling them jicama pigs.

Totally the same thing, right?
Totally the same thing, right?

 

Unlike the other animals on this list, the javelina is not a predator. They tend to eat fruits and tubes from beneath the desert dirt. They also travel in family groups, which is where they can become a bit of a problem. They love a free meal and if they think your campsite offers something tasty you might find yourself overrun. While they have a bad rap for being aggressive, they will defend themselves if they feel threatened.

Coyote

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Look at that smile!

Is there anywhere the coyote doesn’t live? I love these lone hunters, from their graceful gait to their lovely songs. I’ve spent many nights awake in my tent listening to them yip and yowl from miles away. Like the mountain lion, coyotes tend to keep to themselves. They can be scavengers, so if you leave any food out at your campsite don’t be surprised if it becomes a quick meal.

If you’re lucky enough to see a coyote, make sure you keep your distance and don’t try to interact with it. Usually it will leave you alone and go on its way.

Safety Precautions

For being in the middle of the desert, Big Bend has a surprising number of predators (and pig-like non-pigs). Because of this, make sure that when you visit the park you come prepared.

It’s important to remember that all of the animals at Big Bend (and any National Park) are wild. They are not pets, they are not domesticated, and they should be treated with a healthy dose of respect. When you’re in a park you are no longer at the top of the food chain. It’s also worth mentioning that these animals are not ‘vicious or ‘cruel’. They are doing what they were born to do. You are a guest in their natural habitat, and that means playing the game according to their rules. As such, you need to prepare yourself.

Carry a Bear Bell

Annoying as they may be, bear bells go a long way towards warning any curious black bear that humans are a-coming. Lucky for you, most bears want to see you about as much as you want to see them, and the sound of the bell will urge them in another direction.

Seal Your Foodpixel 429px-Bear_resistant_food_storage_canister_2

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The quickest way to find a bear or javelina at your camp is by leaving something tasty for it to investigate. Make sure your food is in sealed containers that hide not only the contents, but the smell. There are portable bear canisters made specifically for this purpose. Most of the campsites at Big Bend offer a place to store your food, and if you are carside camping you can always toss it in the trunk. If you are hiking through the backcountry, though, there will be nowhere to store your food,  so make sure you come prepared.

Don’t Look Like Prey

This might seem a little obvious initially, but let’s think about what it actually means. What does prey look like? Well, it tends to be small, and it likes to run away from things that are big and scary and might eat it. So what does that mean for you on the trails? A couple of things.

  1. Keep Children Close: Children are small and like to run. This makes them appear to be the perfect prey. So be cautious about letting them run ahead on the trails. Keep them near you at all times and don’t let them run on the trails.
  2. Avoid Trail Jogging in Low-Traffic Areas: Trail jogging is great way to stay in shape (although it honestly sounds ungodly hot in Big Bend). I remember seeing trail joggers galore when I was in Colorado. While it’s a good workout, it also puts you in the category of “something that looks like it’s running away,” which a predator, such as our friend the mountain lion, may misconstrue as potential prey. If you are going to go trail jogging, try to stick to high traffic areas.

Be Vigilant at Dusk and Dawn

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Many animals tend to be the most active around these times, including the mountain lion and coyote. This is when you’re most likely to spot one, so make sure you keep your ears and eyes open.

Don’t Run

Seriously, if you think for one second that you can outrun a mountain lion you need to do some serious reconsidering. You are not superhuman. But guess what — they are. If you see one of these guys, odds are (with the possible exception of the javelina) they knew you were there a long, long time ago. Tactics like crouching down or running away only make you look small and scared — exactly like a prey animal. If you see one of these animals and it’s way too close for comfort (or seems aggressive) make yourself look like a threat, not a meal. Stand up tall, wave your arms, shout, throw rockswhatever you can do to make the animal think that you’re the bigger, badder beast.

Let People Know Where You Are

Always leave an itinerary with someone at home and let the people you’re traveling with know where you’re going if you decide to wander away from camp. Most of Big Bend has no cell service, so it’s important that at least one other person is always aware of where you should be, and how long you should be gone for. Don’t ever wander off alone without telling anyone first.

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Now that I‘ve thoroughly terrified everyone, I should take a moment to mention that wildlife sightings are one of the most rewarding aspects of visiting a national or state park. If you happen to see a wild animal — be it a mountain lion or a harmless hare — make sure you take a moment to enjoy the experience. The vast majority of the time you’ll be able to do so without incident and bring home some really cool stories.

Have you ever run into a predator in the wild? What was your experience?

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