Rocky Mountain National Park

Rocky Mountain National Park

Flora & Fauna

Rocky Mountain National Park is home to about 900 species of plants, 281 types of birds and 60 species of mammals. Some are easy to spot while others remain elusive, but all are part of the park's eco-system. The incredible diversity of plant and animal life in the park reflects three distinct life systems that correspond to elevation—montane, subalpine and alpine. Riparian communities, which cross all of these zones, support flora and fauna along rivers and streams.

Rocky Mountain National Park is home to about 900 species of plants, 281 types of birds and 60 species of mammals. Some are easy to spot while others remain elusive, but all are part of the park's eco-system. The incredible diversity of plant and animal life in the park reflects three distinct life systems that correspond to elevation—montane, subalpine and alpine. Riparian communities, which cross all of these zones, support flora and fauna along rivers and streams.

Plants

On the dry, sunny slopes and open valleys facing south at the lower levels east of the Divide (7,000 to 9,500 feet elevation) you can find the Easter daisy (Townsendia exscapa) and the ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa), which is distinguished by its "puzzle bark." The north-facing, moister slopes support Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) and lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta) and a smaller population of ponderosa. The pasqueflower (Anem-one patens) blooms here in May at the same time as western wall-flower (Erysi-mum asperum). The fairy slipper (Calypso bulbosa), a member of the orchid family, blooms shortly thereafter.

Engelmann spruce (Picea engelmannii) and subalpine fir (Abies lasiocarpa) take over at this subalpine elevation (9,500 to 11,500 feet). Where fires have cleared the ground, lodgepole pine and huckleberry (Vaccinium) flourish. In windblown areas, limber pine (Pinus flexilis) is bent and twisted into bizarre shapes. Strong, cold winds may destroy new growth on the windward side of the trees leaving permanent growth on the protected side only. Such trees are often called, "banner" or "flag" trees. Approach-ing the tree line (above which trees do not grow), new seedlings often germinate only on sheltered sides of rocks where they can be protected from the wind. Growing only as high as the rocks that provide them protection, these stunted krummholz trees may be several hundred years old.

The alpine area, situated above the tree line (11,500 feet elevation and above), is a land of extremes. To survive here, you must be able to endure hurricane-force winds, arctic temperatures and a radically shortened growing season. To adapt, alpine plants such as the alpine avens (Acomastylis rossii) form ground-hugging, moss-like clumps with long taproots. Many tundra plants have dense hairs on stems and leaves that provide wind protection, or red pigments that convert sunlight into heat and screen out ultra-violet radiation.

Animals

Three thousand elk (Cervus elaphus) reside in the park. Before the park was formed, hunting had decimated the population, but careful management has since restored the herd, most of which live high in the mountains during summer. In the fall, the elk migrate to lower elevations where they are often seen in open meadows or at forest edges. During the rut (mating season), the bull elk bugle a combination of shrill whistles and grunts in an effort to attract a female. 

Because of the popularity of elk-watching, rules exist to ensure that the animals are not disturbed at this critical time. Bull elk are very unpredictable and dangerous. Check at a visitor center for more information about where and how to watch elk.

The largest member of the deer family, the moose (Alces alces) is, by nature, reclusive. They may occasionally be viewed among the willows in the Kawuneeche Valley. Males are endowed with enormous antlers that are shaped like clawed scoops, clearly distinguishing them from females which have none. Moose are strong swimmers and are capable of diving in search of food, staying underwater for several minutes at a time. Their long legs are an adaptation to living in a habitat covered with deep snow much of the year.

The mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus) is smaller than the elk and frequents the edges of meadows near park roads. Bound-ing, it usually touches all four feet to the ground at once. As delicate and gentle as they seem, mule deer are highly territorial and can cause serious injury with their sharp hooves and antlers. Do not approach them under any circumstances.

The beaver (Castor canadensis) is primarily nocturnal, but evidence of their presence is visible along the park's streams and ponds where they cut aspen trees and willows for food and to construct dams. The resulting stumps appear to have been sliced through at a sharp angle with two or three cuts of a hatchet. Without the beaver and its construction skills, evergreens would take over the meadows, rendering them useless as habitats for deer, moose and many other park animals. Damming streams, the beaver creates ponds that eventually fill in with silt and become meadows. The beaver then selects a new area for its dam and the process of habitat building continues.

Abundant and active, the yellow-bellied marmot (Mar-mota flaviventris), golden-mantled ground squirrel (Spermophilus lateralis), Wyoming ground squirrel (Spermophilus eligam), Colorado chipmunk (Tamias quadrivittatus) and chickaree (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) are rodents commonly seen at camp-grounds, along trails, in picnic areas and at -over-looks. Do not lure any animal with food—if they become dependent on handouts, they cease to live in their natural, wild state. As potential carriers of rabies, Rocky Mountain spotted fever and bubonic plague, all rodents should be admired from a distance.

Black bears (Ursus americanus), which actually range in color from blond to black, exist in small numbers (30—50) in the park, mostly in backcountry areas. Grizzlies once populated the area but were hunted to extinction here by 1920. Black bears, the grizzly's smaller cousin, can be seen occasionally along roads or in campgrounds. Keep all food out of sight in bearproof containers. While black bears are much more powerful than humans, they rarely pose a threat.

If you do encounter a bear, stand still or slowly back away until it leaves the area. If it doesn't leave in a few minutes, back away or circle the bear at a safe distance and continue in the opposite direction. Do not approach a bear, especially one with cubs.

The coyote (Canis latrans) is the most important predator in the park for maintaining the balance of nature. Its cousin, the wolf, once thrived here, but have been trapped and hunted to extinction. You may hear the coyote howling at night, but should you encounter one, keep your distance.

The mountain lion (Felis concolor), which feeds chiefly on deer, and the bobcat (Lynx rufus), which eats a variety of rodents and birds, are shy, secretive and rarely seen. It can be a thrilling experience to glimpse one of these elusive carnivores. Wildcats can be extremely dangerous and have been known to attack humans. If you encounter one, back away slowly without turning your back. Make yourself look as large as possible, keep small children with you and yell at it as loud as you can. 

If you are wearing something red, you may be startled when a broadtailed hummingbird (Selasphorus platycercus) flies within inches of you.

In midsummer, you will see great numbers of the rust-colored rufous hummingbird (Selasphorus rufus) that migrates through the park.

The mountain bluebird (Sialia currucoides) often nests in abandoned woodpecker nest holes. Once abundant in the West, its numbers have decreased as its principle habitat and suitable nesting sites have been cleared for development. Many civic groups are trying to revitalize the local population of this colorful bird by building birdhouses on fence posts and other suitable locations.

Osprey and other raptors are also commonly seen at lower elevations near Grand Lake.

The peregrine falcon (Falco peregrinus), which was nearly driven to extinction because of nest failure caused by DDT, has made a tremendous recovery since the toxic chemical was banned. Chicks born in captivity have been released into the park over several years and now there are nesting or breeding pairs. The fastest of all birds, the peregrine falcon can swoop down in a 200 mph vertical dive to capture its prey.