Into the wild: a look at Academy wildife

  • Published
  • By Amber Baillie
  • Air Force Academy Public Affairs
Whether you visit the Academy for the first time or drive through the green, 18,500-acre base on a regular basis, you might be surprised by the wildlife you encounter.

The Academy's plush, mountain setting consists of vast contiguous forest and open space that borders Pike National Forest and attracts an assortment of wildlife from squirrels, bull snakes and bald eagles to deer, bears and cougars.

That's not all. Brian Mihlbachler, the Fish and Wildlife Service's natural resources manager here, said most people don't realize animals like white-tailed deer, turkeys and elk also inhabit the area.

"People most commonly see mule deer but don't realize that we also have white- tailed deer on the eastern side of the Academy," Mihlbachler said. "We also have bobcats, short-tail weasels and foxes."

The reason for the wide range of animals: Mihlbachler said it's due to the variations in terrain and elevation in the area.

"We're in a unique position along the front range because we've got this elevational habitat gradient that goes from 8,000 feet on the west boundary down to 6,000 feet down south," Mihlbachler said. "There's a lot of elevational change, which causes habitat variations and generates a lot of variety in wildlife. We also sit south of the Palmer Divide and go from mountain to grasslands, so we have mountain and grassland species coming together."

For those who want to venture through different habitats, Mihlbachler said the Academy's road network passes through various creeks, forests and grassland areas. For those interested in seeing native habitats, Mihlbachler said you'll need to put on a pair of hiking boots.

"If you can get on a back country trail away from a lot of human activity, your chances of seeing wildlife goes way up," Mihlbachler said. "The Falcon Trail, a 13-mile loop through the interior of the base, will get you away from a lot of developed areas into better habitat where you're more likely to see animals that aren't being disturbed as frequently."
Mihlbachler said the New Santa Fe Trail is another hot spot for wildlife.
"Portions of the trail in Monument Creek are in riparian corridor wetlands that tend to support more wildlife diversity because of the association with the water," Mihlbachler said. "You tend to see more wildlife including birds, neotropical migrants and water fowl along the creek."

Diane Strohm, a forester and natural resource manager at the Academy, said you can sometimes spot a Great Horned Owl at the Academy.

"You don't see them very often, but they like to sit in the pine trees," Strohm said. "I love watching them, they're fascinating creatures."

Strohm said she has a soft spot for the Abert's squirrel.

"It's a beautiful squirrel that's usually black, has pointy ears and like ponderosa pine," Strohm said. "It's my favorite animal here."

Mihlbachler said an active peregrine falcon nest exists in the rocks above Stanley Canyon, a prairie falcon nest sits on Cathedral Rock, and last year a Golden Eagle nest existed on the forest service property off of the western boundary. He also said there were cougar sightings last year in the Monument and Palmer Lake area.

"There was a mom with her three cubs," Mihlbachler said. "It's pretty rare, but Stanley Canyon would probably be the best area if you wanted to see a cougar."

Strohm said it's unlikely you'll see a bear at the Academy but if you do, it will be of the black bear family.

"You can see them almost from a blonde to a cinnamon and to a black," Strohm said.
Mihlbachler said no one at the Academy has ever been injured or attacked by a bear but that occasionally someone will see one do a "bluff charge."

"They'll kind of charge at you, stop and might huff and puff at you a little bit," Mihlbachler said. "Bears have poor sight but a better sense of smell. A lot of times they'll rise up on their hind legs and try to elevate their nose to get a better sense of the area. Some people perceive that as being aggressive behavior when in fact, the bear is trying to get a better feel of what's going on with it and its immediate environment."

Other wildlife spotted at the Academy: hawks, mountain lions, rattlesnakes, antelope, sheep and coyotes.

Mihlbachler said to treat wildlife with respect, view them from a distance and not approach wildlife that would put you or them in harm's way.

"A good pair of binoculars goes a long way," Mihlbachler said. "You can see a lot of wildlife from a distance so there's no reason to put yourself at risk."