“The Wild”

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Please, Get My Name Right By Stephanie Kroepfl

Pronghorn
Photo Credit: Encyclopedia Britannica

I had an idea for an article, but truthfully, I half-assumed there wouldn’t be enough interesting things to write about. I mean, it’s a little deer. Big deal. I may never have been so wrong. These creatures showed up in my consciousness when we were passing the biggest hill of the unfinished golf course, just beyond the I-40 and I-34 intersection toward Grand Lake. There had to be fifty antelope catching some rays. Did you catch my error? I’ve been calling these animals antelope since I moved to Colorado. But antelope live in Africa; pronghorns live in North America. If you’ve made the same mistake, you’re not alone. Even the RMNP calls them “pronghorn antelope,” but since there’s only been one confirmed sighting in the Park—ever—we can give them a break.

African antelope resemble deer, although they’re in the bovine family, whereas pronghorns are seriously unique. To start, their DNA more closely matches a giraffe than any other animal, even though they didn’t migrate from Africa eons ago. Experts believe pronghorns are the only large mammal alive today that originated in North America, and then these homebodies stayed here for another nineteen million years. They’re also the sole living species of Antilocapridae. Today, they live mainly in the U.S.’s Great Plains, with the largest number in Wyoming.

Depending on whether you more value sprinters or long-distance runners, they are debatably the fastest land animal on earth, clocking in at sixty mph. A cheetah is as fast, but they can only maintain that speed for short bursts, whereas a pronghorn can Forest Gump it for miles. “Wild Earth” contributor Tom Butler calls them a true ecological anachronism because they have no predator alive today that can match their speed (except for good ol’ boys in a pickup truck).

Even the growth on their noggin is a head-scratcher. It’s officially classified as a horn, although it’s forked, but the outer sheath is shed each year, which is more like an antler. The tips of their horn/antler curl backwards and its surface’s texture resembles glued-down, thick, black hair. Unlike most animals, the females also have little horns. At the front of their headgear is a small notch, or prong, that points forward. Hence their name.

Their communication style is also different. If they sense danger, they release a musky scent and raise the white hair on their rump, like my dog when she senses a fox. Pronghorns have exceptional eyesight and can notice movement from three miles away. But when that amazing trait is coupled with their extreme curiosity, it can get them in trouble big time. A sure way to bait them, for either photography or hunting, is to tie a brightly colored scarf to something above the grasses. They will compliantly come over to check out what it is.

Final cool pronghorn fact: they don’t need to drink! If water is unavailable, they are able to extract enough from the plants they consume. I now lower my head in shame for ever thinking these literally one-of-a-kind creatures are merely ordinary.

This article orginally appeared in Th

e Boardwalk newspaper, Grand Lake, Colorado.

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Lone Wolf by Stephanie Kroepfl

 

Gray Wolf
Photo by Dan Stahler.

At one of the many silent auctions we hold in Grand Lake for worthy causes, my husband won a T-shirt. I’ve studied this shirt’s graphic a lot because it’s (1) beautiful and (2) ridiculously incorrect. The bottom portion of the graphic proudly proclaims “Colorado” and at the top is an imposing, snow-capped mountain. In the center are four animals: a bull elk (check), bull moose (check), grizzly bear (?) and howling wolf (?). Was the artist purposing messing with tourists, or did s/he not think it important to, maybe, spend three minutes doing research on this new fangled thing called the Internet? Although there are grizzlies in Wyoming, the last confirmed sighting in Colorado was in 1979. Although there are wolves in Wyoming (what do you say we avoid camping there?), in Colorado wolves are an extirpated species, meaning they no longer exist here but still exist in the wild elsewhere. Wolves were purposely eradicated from our state and last seen in the 1940s. But . . . (“Everybody I know has a big butt”—juvenile, but it’s one of my favorite Pee Wee Herman lines) since then there have been TWO confirmed wolves in Colorado.

The first was found dead from consuming poison in 2009 in Rio Blanco County, the northwest part of the state. And the second was found in (drumroll, please) our own Grand County; Kremmling, to be precise. A legal coyote hunter shot an animal near Wolford Mountain Reservoir on April 26, 2015, and after DNA testing, it was confirmed to be a gray wolf. BTW, the hunter was not charged since he obviously didn’t leap to the conclusion that he’d found a lone wolf that had traveled 1,000 miles from Montana’s Mill Creek pack.

So, will we soon be regularly hearing a wolf howl at the moon? Most gray wolves live in Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin (for the geographically challenged, not near us) and Montana, Idaho and Wyoming (all less than 1,000 miles away). And, true, males who have been kicked out of their pack are known to wander for thousands of miles. But given the number of highways and guns between here and there, no one believes a large number of packs will naturally populate Colorado anytime in the near future. Also, in January 2016 the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission voted NOT to allow the reintroduction of wolves back into the state, at least for now. Due to the wolf’s wandering nature, I’m sure the debate is not over between cattle and sheep ranchers vs. those who believe wolves will re-establish a sustainable population of moose, elk and deer.

For a fascinating and insightful read about wolf behavior, and a guy who may be a little “off,” try “The Man Who Lives with Wolves” by Shaun Ellis and Penny Junor. True story—unlike the design by that slipshod T-shirt artist.

This article was originally published in The Boardwalk newspaper, Grand Lake,

Colorado.

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My Cabin is NOT an All-Inclusive Resort by Stephanie Kroepfl

The Culprit at my cabin.
The Culprit

WARNING: Do not read this article if you’re eating. Seriously.

We’d just spend a lovely long weekend on the Front Range, and when we returned home we were greeted by, well, to be blunt, a heck of a lot of crap. The piles of little brown nuggets started at the entrance of our driveway and continued every few feet, leading to the front steps, and then moving on to below our deck. When we cautiously rounded the corner, there he was. A young bull moose, staring at us sheepishly. And then he refused to leave! He doggedly stood firmly rooted on the shoveled path we created for the dog, defiantly dropping even more shiny nuggets.

I don’t know if he invited friends over for a kegger while the parents were away, or if he somehow did it all himself, but there are twenty-five (that’s 25, veinticinco, XXV) piles of scat littered around the cabin. Honest, I counted. And then there’s the ridiculous amount of huge yellow blobs marring the once pristine snow. Now, you’re probably wondering how he managed to produce all this waste. I’m sorry, I just can’t make myself document my tale of woe about what happened to all the trees I’ve lovingly nurtured over the years. Stinkin’ moose!

While having the opportunity to get up close and personal to the poop we were shoveling up, I got curious about the consistency. It’s perfectly formed, like chocolate covered almonds or giant cappuccino-flavored jelly beans (I said it looks like, not tastes like candy). But your mind just has to wonder what happens inside a moose cavity to produce something that’s admittedly kind of pretty.

Moose, which is Algonquin for “twig eater,” have a similar digestive system as a cow. They are ruminants, meaning they’re mammals who are able to acquire nutrients from plants by fermenting it in one part of their four-chambered stomach. Chewing their cud for up to eight hours a day to break down my decimated aspens and evergreens is all part of the process.

In the summer, moose need to eat thirty to forty pounds of vegetation a day. I’ve cleaned up moose poop then, and it’s a very different consistency than what’s lying around my property now. That’s because in the summer, moose eat wet leafy foliage, which causes the nuggets to soften and glom together. The scat comes out looking like a cow patty, and many people confuse it with bear scat. (Old joke: how can you tell the difference? Bear scat smells like pepper spray and has a little bell in it.) Seriously, bears are omnivores and have simpler digestive systems. When examining their scat, you’ll find more undigested stuff like berries, leaves, hair, etc.

I don’t have to tell locals that Grand Lake winters are long. Our moose will lose up to 25% of their body weight since food isn’t as plentiful—unless a certain lucky youngster spends his spring break at Casa de Kroepfl. Funny, I don’t remember inviting him to stay.

This article was originally published in The Boardwalk newspaper, Grand Lake, Colorado.

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You Can’t Choose Your Family by Stephanie Kroepfl

 

American Marten
Photo by Piet Knight

I come from a devout Catholic family, which means I have twenty-six first cousins on my mom’s side and almost as many on my dad’s. Given that, I consider myself a pretty good authority on how differently cousins can turn out. So when a friend in Columbine posted a picture of an American marten standing on his deck, I tried not to jump to conclusions about its disposition. The reason I say this is you may recall my previous articles about their weasel cousins, the otter and ermine. The highlights were that three otters tried to drown my neighbor’s Airedale terrier, which is how they kill their prey. And, ermine take over their latest meal’s burrow—and then decorates it with the unlucky animal’s fur and hide. Granted, they’re both adorable, but maybe not the kin you want to invite to Christmas dinner.

I’m happy to report that the American marten, also called a pine marten, doesn’t seem quite so . . . gruesome. They’re the only mustelid (family of 65 species of carnivorous mammals) that have semi-retractable claws. This enables them to lead an arboreal lifestyle in the trees as well as on the forest floor—they can even swim underwater. They often make their nests high in tree hollows or take over squirrel dens. They have fur on their soles to keep them warm, which creates a snowshoe effect that allows them to run atop the snow, and they burrow in the snow on chilly days.

As further proof of their versatility, they’re omnivores (they eat plants and meat). Their diet is based on voles (which only endears them to me more), snowshoe hares, small birds, fruits, conifer seeds, honey and even carrion if live prey is scarce. They’ll occasionally take a juvenile squirrel but they’re not as agile in the branches as adult squirrels and will usually leave them alone. And unlike the pine squirrel, pine martens help propagate forests since seeds pass through their gut intact. In fact, seeds have higher germination rates after, uhm, being processed compared to seeds that drop to the ground.

The American marten’s fur is shiny and luxuriant, resembling another of their many cousins, the sable. At the turn of the twentieth century, they were drastically depleted due to the fur trade. Their population has now stabilized and they’re not considered endangered, but deforestation due to us humans is always a threat. Like most states, it is legal in Colorado to capture them using live traps (only cage or box trap). Or, you can hunt them with a handheld bow, crossbow, handgun, rifle or shotgun – which given their cat-like size seems somewhat unproductive if you want to salvage any of their fur.

An article I read stated, “The marten is a rare animal that you’ll probably never see, save for paw prints in the snow.” Thanks to my quick acting friend for snapping this photo, which helps us all remember that you can’t judge someone’s character by what their family is like.

This article was originally published in The Boardwalk newspaper, Grand Lake, Colorado,

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Destructive Little Cuties by Stephanie Kroepfl

Pine Squirrel
Photo provided by National Parks Service

When your Denver mechanic excitedly says, “You’re not going to believe what we found!” and you live in Grand Lake, you know this isn’t going to be good. Our vehicle just didn’t have its usual oomph when climbing Berthoud Pass, so naturally I assumed it was time to replace the filters and spark plugs. Yes, it needed a tune-up, but what my old Highlander didn’t need was a friggin’ huge nest that has been there for who-knows-how-long packed tightly into the air filter box (fortunately, animal parts and babies were not present). A huge mass of dried grasses, twine from my drooping Christmas lights and cloth fragments from who knows where had been suffocating my car’s engine.

After a bit of research on the types of rodents that build humungous nests, I’ve sleuthed that the culprit was most probably a pine squirrel, also known as a chickaree. Here’s a description of the pine squirrel: “Like the Chihuahua who thinks it’s a pit bull, this squirrel thinks it’s a mountain lion.” It’s one of the most vocal animals in the forest. It chatters, stomps its feet, and if you’ve ever had the audacity to walk past a tree on your property, it scolds from its lofty perch for intruding in its territory. They are literally the sentries of the forest, alerting other animals of imminent danger.

Some tree squirrels work symbiotically by burying seeds to propagate new forests. This one, unfortunately, isn’t a tree-hugger. Pine squirrels are seed predators who live almost entirely on pine cones. They either eat the seeds immediately or store the cones in their secret larders where the seeds remain moist and have little chance of germinating. They can reduce cones and seeds by fifty percent. When you’ve seen that huge pile of pine cone debris under a tree—called midden—it’s the pine squirrel’s doing. And if that’s not destructive enough, you may have noticed the tips of your lodgepoles’ branches scattered across the snow. Yep, it’s safe to blame it on that ridiculously cute pine squirrel. But to put my ravaged lodgepoles in perspective, there’s a far bigger tragedy attributed to squirrels. One chomped through a power line to the New York Stock Exchange and literally stopped America’s commerce—twice.

A few more nerdy facts. A squirrel nest high in a tree is called a drey; a nest in a tree hollow is a den. Squirrel teeth grow six inches per year; however, their teeth stay short from constant wear as they nibble and gnaw. And, their back feet can turn 180 degrees, which is how they climb head first down trees. I’m, admittedly, torn about how to feel toward the tiny gray squirrel that busily scurries up and down the lodgepole outside my window. How can something make me smile after I plunked down savings towards car maintenance when it could’ve gone toward a beach vacation?

Originally published in The Boardwalk newspaper, Grand Lake, Colorado.

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Fox: The Cat-Dog by Stephanie Kroepfl

Gage, the fox-taunted Chesapeake Bay Retriever
Gage, the fox-taunted Chesapeake Bay Retriever

All winter long, a game has been played between our Chesapeake Bay retriever, Gage, and a red fox. The rules aren’t too complex  . . . for the fox. It boldly marks within feet of our cabin, prances across the snow as if walking on water, and then daintily perches itself on a nearby boulder. Gage’s turn. She snaps awake, nose twitching, barks her deep-chested warning and whines to be let out (hence, our crazy-high heating bill). With fur raised and huge attitude, Gage dashes out and races around the cabin, only to get distracted after smelling the fox’s challenge. She spends a ridiculously long time sniffing, vacuuming up every last scent molecule, and proudly struts through the door, confident that she’s protected her humans against certain death. Never once has Gage noticed the fox. Thirty feet away. Snickering. And then the fox lifts its leg again.

Since sneering at perceived lesser being’s ineptitude is more a cat’s behavior, I wondered if a fox is technically a cat or a dog. Here’s the answer: fox are part of the Canidae family that includes wolves, foxes, jackals, coyotes and domestic dogs. Canidae (Canines) are divided into two tribes: those related to wolves (Canini) and those related to foxes (Vulpini). So, scientifically speaking, they’re dogs. Except . . .

  • Foxes have vertical pupils that allow them to see in dim light, like cats, rather than rounded pupils like other canines. (If they had “puppy dog eyes,” I might be breaking the cardinal rule of not feeding wildlife).
  • Foxes walk on their toes, like cats. And—get this—many fox species haveretractable claws that allow them to climb. Some even sleep in trees. BTW, fox are nocturnal creatures, as are cats (dogs, on the other hand, sleep, like, always).
  • Similar to cats, foxes have sensitive whiskers and spines on their tongue. Foxes also have whiskers on their legs, which they use to help find their way. (Ladies, remember this explanation when you don’t feel like shaving).
  • Foxes are not pack animals, except when raising their young. They also prefer to sleep alone. (How many battles have you won for bed/couch space with your pup?)
  • Foxes hunt in a similar manner to cats by stalking and pouncing on their prey. They also play with their prey before eating it. (The dogs I know aren’t exactly patient when it comes to anything resembling food.)
  • No one would ever confuse a dog’s bark with a fox’s sharp, high-pitched shrieking/ screaming noise that’s on par with a cat in heat. It makes your skin crawl (as compared to how you feel when your neighbor’s dog is incessantly barking).
  • Baby foxes are called pups, kits or cubs. Male foxes are known as dogs, tods or reynards. Female foxes are vixens (not going there). A group offoxes is a skulk, leash or earth. (There may be a reason why they can’t agree on one name. Can we say “cat-dog”?)
  • Super nerdy factoid: fox harness the earth’s magnetic field to hunt. Other animals such as birds, sharks and turtles have this “magnetic sense,” but foxes are the first known to use it to catch prey.

Foxes are unique creatures unto themselves. Gage doesn’t have a chance.

Originally published in The Boardwalk newspaper, Grand Lake, Colorado.

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It Could Happen by Stephanie Kroepfl

 

Canadian Lynx
Photo by Norbert Rosing, National Geographic

Back on December 30th, a lynx was spotted at Purgatory Ski Resort in Durango. It’s worth watching the video that exploded across social media to marvel at the gorgeous animal sauntering by dozens of stunned skiers and snowboarders. At the time, a spokesperson from Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) stated that the animal may not be well since it was acting atypically. Unfortunately, last week there was an article in one of our local newspapers about how this same lynx was found dead, assumedly of natural causes. Although lynx sightings occur regularly in Southern Colorado, what are our chances of spotting one of these beautiful cats?

The shoddy reporters on the Web repeatedly state that Lynx were once EXTINCT in Colorado. I’m sure the followers of this column shook their heads knowingly. Lynx were an EXTIRPATED species, meaning they no longer lived here but still existed in the wild elsewhere. Fact: In 1999, the CPW began to reintroduce lynx in the San Juan Mountains, which is in the southwest. It is estimated that there are now between 150-250 lynx thriving across our state. The RMNP’s website shows a photo of a lynx and notes that they are found in the Park, although at present none are known to be permanent residents. So, since there is a chance of seeing a lynx—however slight—it’s always wise to get some learning under our belt.

There are four species of lynx; the aptly named Iberian (or Spanish) and Eurasian lynx are found guess where? The bobcat roams the lower 48 states, while the Canadian lynx is found in the remote northern forests of North America. The bobcat is snow-challenged since it doesn’t have fur on its soles, so don’t plan on seeing one in Grand Lake. But, our winter wonderland is perfect for the Canadian lynx since they love cold, snowy places that have a high density of their favorite meal, the snowshoe hare. They are so dependent on the hares, the lynx’s population ebbs and flows in direct correlation to an area’s snowshoe hare population, which tends to plunge every ten years. Although, if absolutely necessary, lynx will eat voles (yeah!), mice, squirrels and birds.

Canadian lynx are covered in very thick, spotted fur that is light brown in the summer and grey in the winter. They have unusually large paws that act as snowshoes, which is probably why they’re pretty bad runners. Instead, their hunting style is to hide and ambush. Their most unique traits are the black tufts on the tip of their ears and their stubby, bobbed tail (hence, how that wimpy species, the bobcat, was named). Lynx are very vocal, sounding cat-like with meows, purrs, and a method of communication that only cat lovers find endearing, hisses.

No matter your political bent, it’s been a stressful few months. Enjoy the accompanying photo; we all need a little sweetness in our lives. And, maybe just maybe, you’ll be one of the honored few who spot a Canadian lynx this frigid winter!

Originally published in The Boardwalk newspaper, Grand Lake, Colorado.

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The Christmas Visitor by Stephanie Kroepfl

Mountain Lion
Photo by Joy Wilhelm

The Wilhelms, who live at the end of North Inlet Road in Grand Lake, had a visitor as wondrous as Santa this Christmas morning. A mountain lion added to their celebration by strolling across their yard, just fifteen feet from their picture window. Joy Wilhelm was quick thinking and snapped the accompanying photo, and then a neighbor friend posted it on Facebook for the rest of us to enjoy. From everyone’s reaction, it’s clear that not many have had the opportunity to see a mountain lion this close . . . without also seeing their life flash before their eyes.

I’m calling this beautiful creature a mountain lion, but this species actually goes by more names than any other animal—85 to be exact. The most common are puma, cougar, panther and catamount; the more exotic include fire cat, ghost cat, Indian devil, mountain screamer and sneak cat. Given some of their more sinister names, humans have obviously feared this animal throughout history. So, my question is: does the mountain demon (yet another of their more colorful names) deserve this reputation?

Today, mountain lions thrive in fourteen Western states, including ours. There’s also a very small and endangered population, less than a hundred, in Florida. Given their solitary and elusive manner, it’s impossible to get an accurate count, but it’s estimated that somewhere between 3,000-7,000 mountain lions call Colorado home. (Yikes! That’s waaaay more than I personally expected.)

If you’ve ever hiked, I’m sure it’s crossed your mind that a mountain lion kills by jumping down from a tree, landing on the unsuspecting person’s back, and then clamping onto the base of the skull and breaking the neck with their seriously huge chompers. I’m not advocating blowing off this potential danger, but according to the Colorado Division of Wildlife, there have been less than a dozen fatalities as a result of mountain lion attacks in North America in more than one hundred years. Two took place in Colorado, with unfortunately one of those occurring in the Rocky Mountain National Park back in July 1997. There are an average of five non-fatal attacks across the U.S. and Canada each year. The last non-fatal attack in Colorado was in June 2016, just northwest of Aspen. Bottom line: mountain lions are definitely responsible for bad things, but probably not as often as any of us imagine.

Should you ever encounter a mountain lion without a protective pane of glass separating you from it, here’s what to do. First, do NOT run; it triggers their chase instinct. Maintain eye contact and never turn your back. Yell, wave your arms and try to look big. If that doesn’t work, fight back and do not play dead. Most importantly, protect your neck and try to remain standing.

The Wilhelms may not get another chance to view their king cat because a male’s territory is 100 miles and a female will regularly roam between 30-60 square miles. Their maybe-once-in-a-lifetime encounter was, luckily, filled with awe and wonder, just like Christmas morning should be.

Originally published in The Boardwalk newspaper, Grand Lake, Colorado.

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Brrrrr/Tweeeeet by Stephanie Kroepfl

Fluffed-up blue jay in winter.
Fluffed-up blue jay. Photo by Bee Haven Acres

I’m now timing my walks with my dog Gage to coincide with the highest temperature of the day—or at least I try (I don’t need to explain to any local that our weather reports are probably created using a magic eight ball). Gage is “big boned,” weighing in at eighty pounds, and has a gorgeous, thick coat that I just may need to repurpose when she no longer needs it. Bears and marmots hibernate and hummingbirds migrate, but what happens to those brave birds that choose to winter here instead of Lake Havasu?

In the RMNP, over 270 species of birds have been documented. Once I got the idea for this article, I’ve been paying more attention, and I’m frankly astounded by all the different kinds of birds that are still around. But how do they manage to survive the winter? Birds aren’t exactly chunky; a large blue jay weighs 3.8 ounces and a chickadee tips the scale at just 0.44 ounces. How did their tiny, stick legs not freeze during our recent -20+ degree nights?

In reality, a bird’s legs and feet are covered in scales, not living tissue. And they have an adaption in their circulatory system where blood is circulated between colder outer areas and warmer inner areas, which is why a duck’s feet don’t turn into popsicles when they paddle the icy lakes. When roosting, birds will either stand on one leg and tuck the other in, or they crouch down and cover both legs. Birds produce more feathers in the winter, and they fluff them out to create air pockets for additional insulation. When they’re cold, they shiver to raise their metabolic rate. They also have oil producing glands which are used to coat their feathers as a waterproofer. At night, birds like crows gather in large flocks and crowd together in a small, tight space so they can share body heat.

And how do they find food? Chickadees, crows and jays have spent all fall hiding caches of berries, nuts and dead insects. These little geniuses can remember literally a thousand locations, whereas I can’t ever remember where I left my one phone. The term “bird brain” shouldn’t be an insult, it should be synonymous with Einstein. On very cold nights, a chickadee will stuff itself, adding 10% more body weight, and then go into a stupor and slowly digest the food to provide enough energy to survive until morning.

The biggest thing we can to do help our feathered friends is to put out food and water so they don’t have to use up their precious energy searching. I’ve never had bird feeders because, call me crazy, I’m not into daily bear visits. But now that the bears are busy dreaming of unlocked garbage dumpsters, I’m going to put out bird food. Try suet, which is like bird peanut butter, or seeds that are high in fat. And when you’re outside, look up and appreciate who is keeping you company this winter.

Originally published in The Boardwalk newspaper, Grand Lake, Colorado.

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What is that Flash of White? by Stephanie Kroepfl

Ermine
Photo by saxzim.org

What keeps astounding me is how many critters live among us that I’m obliviously unaware of. This week one evening, I was hunkered down in my office that looks onto the patio beneath the deck. A flash of white outside caught my eye, but after not seeing anything, I resumed my writing. Then it happened again—a white streak crossing the window at eye level. What the heck? It’s not like Grand Lake has laboratories that a white mouse could have escaped from to save itself from cosmetic testing. Then I made a point of watching. Unbelievably, I soon saw a creature jump onto the table and then dive into the three foot pile of kindling I’d collected for our winter fires. It was pure white and the very tip of its short tail was black. It seriously took my husband quite a while scouring the Internet to figure out that I just encountered my first ermine.

This little scrapper actually has three correct names. “Ermine” is used when it’s fur is pure white, which happens in the winter, and it’s called a “stoat” when it has reddish-brown fur on its back and white fur on its belly, which is it’s summer coat. It’s also called a short-tailed weasel. Ermine can be found in North America, Europe and Asia in the subarctic and arctic climates (when winter is just rolling in, it’s kind of daunting to face the fact that subarctic mammals thrive here). Due to the ermine’s warm coat, it doesn’t need to hibernate, which is also what made its fur a prized material for the royals’ collars and coat linings in Medieval Europe. Despite that, the number of ermine in the wild is still large and stable.

And, like it’s adorable cousin the otter, it’s a ferocious carnivore. It will feed on pretty much anything it can catch—including the voles that scamper under the snow and continue destroying our lawns all winter (gorge to your heart’s content, Whitey!). Their sleek, flexible bodies allow them to easily enter their preys’ dens and burrows. The ermine will kill the inhabitant by inflicting a bite to the back of the neck, suffocating it by crushing the connection between the brain and body. After filling its white belly, it will save the excess meat for later. Then, instead of returning to its own home, the ermine will take over the now-vacant burrow . . . and then decorate the chamber’s walls and floor with the dead animal’s skin and fur. Yes, they’re seriously the Buffalo Bill (think “Silence of the Lambs”) of the Rocky Mountains.

But this wily badass doesn’t only go after small mammals. I watched a heart-warming YouTube video of a stoat (it was summer) chasing down and killing a rabbit ten times its size. And, when it can’t manage to catch the rabbit, it resorts to hypnotizing it with a “dance” until it can deliver the killing bite. So, here’s my question: do I really want to fight off the ermine for kindling all winter, or do I just resign myself to buying firestarter?

Originally published in The Boardwalk newspaper, Grand Lake, Colorado.