After a few frozen winter weeks, Southern Nevada is enjoying a spell of warm weather that will likely have many Las Vegans out in their yards or visiting neighborhood parks.
But also just a few short weeks ago, we had a visceral reminder that humans aren’t the only predators inhabiting our urban environment. Toward the end of January, Nevada Department of Wildlife officers decided to euthanize a mountain lion that had wandered into Pahrump and grown accustomed to living near people.
“There’s a lot more wildlife moving through the city than people realize. We think that, because we build this big metropolis, we’ll never see it. But that’s just not true.”—Doug Nielsen, Nevada Department of Wildlife
Yes, Pahrump is a tad more rural than Las Vegas. But don’t fool yourself, wild animals still visit the urban areas of the Valley and live among us even though people have made this part of the desert Southwest home for a long time.
Archaeologists estimate that humans first inhabited the Las Vegas Valley 13,000 years ago. They encountered a landscape cut by desert washes, dotted with spring-fed meadows and inhabited by animals that had, over thousands of years, adapted to the feast-or-famine habitat of the desert.
And while that ancient landscape is largely gone, today replaced by casinos and the clay-tiled roofs of the suburbs, the animals are still here. It’s just that we don’t usually see them.
Just ask Doug Nielsen, regional public affairs and education supervisor for the NDOW. He’s the one who gets called when desert animals make a more prominent appearance. He is charged with handling encounters between people and the deer, mountain lions, raccoons, great-horned owls and other animals that inhabit Southern Nevada.
He says people are often shocked and scared when they come into contact with these animals, even the ones that are harmless to humans.
“We do have wildlife that lives here,” he says. “And there’s a lot more wildlife moving through the city than people realize. We think that, because we build this big metropolis, we’ll never see it. But that’s just not true.”
Of course, when bobcats or other wildlife decide to leave the mountains surrounding the Las Vegas Valley, they don’t simply stroll down Highway 159 and onto Charleston Boulevard like the wild burros of Red Rock Canyon.
Nielsen and his colleague Joe Barns, a wildlife diversity supervising biologist, say that when animals visit the city, they take the same route and live in the same locations they’ve used for millennia: the desert washes. Animals use the washes both as pathways through the Valley and also as homes, because the washes have the food and water they are looking for, the wildlife experts explain.
“Just look at the natural washes or even the ones that have been covered in concrete. They have long been wildlife highways,” Nielsen says.
Barns agrees. “Pittman Wash is a great example of that. … It’s been kept [with] vegetation that acts like a natural screen.”
Animals using the washes include coyotes, bobcats, foxes, ring-tailed cats, roadrunners, quail and even mountain lions, a thought that may unsettle some people. There are likely more mountain lions in the Valley than people probably think, but the cat’s stealthy nature makes seeing one extremely rare.
“I’ve lived my entire life in the Southwest, and I’ve only ever seen one,” Nielsen says.
Some animals don’t require brush-covered washes to make their homes. Some simply fly over our heads. Las Vegans may be used to hummingbirds, ravens, mockingbirds and other common Southwestern avians, but more uncommon types can be our unknown neighbors.
According to Barns, a surprising diversity of raptors live in and around Las Vegas, including Cooper’s hawks, peregrine falcons, great-horned owls, red-tailed hawks, barn owls and burrowing owls. There are bald eagles in Southern Nevada, he says, but they are typically found at Lake Mead.
Peregrine falcons have taken a special liking to Las Vegas. These birds, the fastest animals in the world, have made their home on the sign of the Westgate (formerly the Las Vegas Hilton), as well as on the towers of other hotel-casinos. They are also frequently spotted on the top of The Smith Center or hunting for bats around the beam of the Luxor. These locations give peregrines the vantage point from which to spot and hunt their prey, which is often pigeons, Barns says.
While peregrines have established homes in many cities in North America—where pigeons are abundant—other raptors and animals are attracted to Las Vegas for one specific reason: drought.
“The reason that they are here is because we are in a long-term drought,” Nielsen says. “Food, their prey, has been greatly reduced in the desert. They’re looking for food. Their whole life is spent preparing for winter. They want a food source that requires the least expenditure of energy.”
As a result, Barns and Nielsen say you’ll often see various raptors and other animals in and around parks. That is, if you can recognize them.
“A lot of people mistake the fox for a dog,” Nielsen says. “The average person thinks a coyote looks like a domestic dog walking down the street.”
Once they do recognize the animals, people, especially those new to the desert, often become frightened. Nielsen says that’s because we are so unfamiliar with these animals that we don’t know what to do when we encounter them.
“The key is to remember that animals are minding their own business,” he says. “Nine times out of 10 they are doing their own thing.”
However, some people are even afraid of animals that are clearly not a threat. Nielsen describes one situation in which a person found a great-horned owl near his home. Even though the big raptor will not hurt people, the person was quite upset.
“If you don’t grow up around [these animals], there’s a real fear,” he says. “And it’s bona fide because people don’t understand these animals, so we try to educate them.”
Here are a few good places to see some of the desert’s wildlife:
Hemenway Park: 401 Ville Dr., Boulder City. Nielsen says Bighorn sheep regularly congregate in this Boulder City Park.
Pittman Wash: The Pittman Wash trail runs from Pebble Road and Topaz Street to the Arroyo Grande Sports Complex at 298 N. Arroyo Grande Blvd.
Clark County Wetlands Park: All of Las Vegas Valley’s washes and flood channels funnel down to this lush park that teems with wildlife, including beavers. 7050 Wetlands Park Lane.
Description: The coyote is a member of the dog family (canidae) and resembles a medium-size shepherd-collie type dog. Distinguishing characteristics include sharp pointed ears, a pointed nose and a long bushy tail. The legs of a coyote are generally slimmer and the feet smaller than those of a comparable-size dog. The coat is predominantly gray, changing to tan along the belly, legs, muzzle and ears. Some guard hairs, as well as the tail, are tipped with black.
Size: Coyotes average 24 inches tall at the shoulder and are approximately 4 feet in length, including the tail. Coyotes in the desert weigh about 20 pounds, while those found in mountainous areas average twice that. Females are slightly smaller than males.
Life span: 6-8 years in the wild.
Description: The bobcats of Nevada are composed of three races. All species appear twice the size of a domestic cat. The bobcat’s fur is a dapple or mottle of brown and tan fur with a white belly and dark markings. Often the cats have noticeable tufts of fur on the ear tips. The tip of the tail is black. The three races are noted by their more general color-shades as gray (lynx rufus pallescens), darker color (lynx rufus californicus) and reddish coloring (lynx rufus baileyi). Bobcats are digitigrade, meaning they walk on their toes, and have sharp, retractable claws.
Size: The average bobcat is about 32 inches total length, with females weighing 19 pounds and males weighing 26 pounds.
Life span: 12-13 years.
Description: The short, dense fur of Nevada mountain lions varies from yellow to tawny to rusty brown to gray. The underside is white, and the tail is tipped in black. The back of the rounded ears and the sides of the nose are also black.
They have muscular shoulders and hindquarters and are exceptionally strong relative to their weights. Their claws are constructed so that the harder their prey struggles, the tighter they grip. The paws are well-padded, with the back paws smaller than the front. They have four toes with three distinct lobes at the base of the pad.
They are easily distinguished from other wildcat species in Nevada. Mountain lions are much larger than bobcats and have a long tail, which may measure one-third of their total length.
Size: An adult male lion can stand 30 inches at the shoulder and measure up to 8 feet in length from nose to tail. Females are 3-4 inches shorter in height and a foot shorter in length. In Nevada, the average adult male mountain lion weighs 137 pounds and the average adult female weighs 98 pounds. Males up to 180 pounds have been documented, but are rare.
Life span: 12-15 years in the wild.