14 different species of wildlife that play a role in Tahoe ecosystem
Tahoe Daily Tribune
Nature is something that people who live and those who visit Lake Tahoe are privileged to experience. Whether it is a howl of a coyote or a screech of a soaring eagle, these are the sounds that make Tahoe what it is.
The Washoe Tribe who seasonally inhabited the basin for thousands of years had a reciprocal relationship with the land, plants and wildlife in the basin.
Wildlife plays an integral role in the creation stories of the Washoe, highlighting the importance and responsibility as humans, to take care of all earth’s inhabitants.
Mule Deer got their name after their massive ears that closely resemble those of a mule. According to the Forest Service Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit, these migratory deer spend their winters in the Carson Valley and in the summer they can be seen in meadows such as the one behind Baldwin Beach in the early morning or evening hours.
According to Herman Fillmore, culture and language resources director for the Washoe Tribe, hunting your first deer is a right of passage and coming of age for younger men in the tribe.
While the deer is used to feed relatives, the animals were never hunted by the tribe for trophy. “All animals are sacred,” said Fillmore. “We are placed here to keep that balance as we are not separate or above nature.”
While the American beaver is generally not seen due to their shy personality, nawed trees and dams can be spotted around certain parts of the lake and nearby rivers including Taylor Creek. For subsistence, they eat the inner bark of cottonwood, aspen, and willows. Due to a pair of upper and lower incisors that continuously grow, they chew to keep the size manageable.
For their ability to create a habitat for other species, they are known as a keystone species. “They can turn a trickle of water into a wetland,” said Denise Upton, animal care director at Lake Tahoe Wildlife Care.
These infamous birds can have a wingspan of nearly 7 feet and are distinguished by their white heads.
Since the 1980’s, groups have gone out once a year to count the number of bald eagles they see within a three-hour time period at over 20 different locations around Lake Tahoe. The 2021 bald eagle count took place in January and this year a total of 42 Bald Eagles were tallied, which was significantly up from the prior year.
Not only are eagles known as the nation’s symbol but the prominence of the eagle is also intertwined in the traditional stories of the Washoe Tribe.
Eagle feathers are sacred to the tribe and the birds are highly respected. Fillmore made it clear that these birds were never killed for their feathers.
Porcupines, infamously known for their sharp quills, roam around usually at night in the basin. Their quills are barbed at the end which can become lodged in skin if encountered. They are part of the rodent family — the largest in the rodent family too — and eat mostly the inner bark of trees. The Washoe Tribe used the quills of the porcupine for quill work and as another good food source.
Raccoons, known for black eye masks and their brave endeavors into trash, can be frequently seen in the basin. They eat nearly everything including nuts, fruits, roadkill and the list goes on. As scavengers, they play a beneficial part in cleaning up carrion. Adorably enough, these critters are even known to dip their food into water before eating it. Both porcupines and raccoons play an integral role in the Washoe Tribe creation stories as well.
Black bears are the symbol of Lake Tahoe. While they can be mistakenly called brown bears for their light color from the sun, Lake Tahoe only has black bears. These black bears are the largest carnivore in the Sierra Nevada. Black bears have been known for their seed dispersal through their poop which is a benefit to the ecology of the forest.
Fillmore said that the Washoe people didn’t typically hunt the black bear and viewed them with respect. “A brother relative in a direct sense,” said Fillmore when describing the animal. Stretching over 100 years, the tribe’s traditional knowledge also includes bears with large humps on their back, which points to Grizzly Bears in the basin.
As the population of residents in the basin continues to grow, the need for coexisting with wildlife is ever so imperative. Traditionally, bears would seek out grasses, roots and shoots as their first source of natural food out of hibernation but as humans have moved into their natural ecosystem, they have grown accustomed to the reliability of trash.
LTWC and Bear League urge communities to persuade the bears to stay away from trash and return to eating their natural food sources by securing access to trash.
Many are familiar with the sound of the song dog as the coyote has become a true symbol of the west. Known for their bushy tails and loud yips, coyotes are omnivores and their diet consists of mice, insects, snakes, lizards, rabbits, rats, voles and other small mammals which make up about 80% of their diet along with vegetables and fruit.
Because the coyote is a scavenger, their diet helps keep rodent and rabbit populations in check while also cleaning up the roads by consuming roadkill. “Rodent population would be out of control without coyotes,” said Upton. “Their habitat is shrinking and becoming surrounded by development. Our wildlife is here for a reason and they have their place, education is huge.”
While coyotes are frequently targeted, they are part of the landscape and traditional culture of the area. The coyote has a significant role in the creation story of the Washoe people as Gewe (the coyote) brought the people to the homeland surrounding Lake Tahoe.
Wolves have also been part of the traditional knowledge of the Washoe from the 1800s. In stories, the coyote and the wolf are sometimes even intermixed.
Mountain lions, who are distinguishable from bobcats because of their long tails, are rarely seen in the basin, but have been spotted mostly at Kingsbury and Tahoe Mountain. Mountain lions are also known as cougars, panthers, or pumas and these big cats can even weigh between 65 and 150 pounds. Upton says that about 90% of the calls they recieve about mountain lions turn out to be bobcats. As top predators, mountain lion’s keep other species’ populations balanced while keeping habitats from being overgrazed.
“Coyotes and mountain lions need to be in our ecosystem,” said Fillmore. “When we look at predators as a danger, we don’t realize their benefit.”
Fillmore said that the Washoe Tribe have mutual respect with mountain lions and that “these animals have every right to be here as we do.”
Bobcats have short “bobbed” tails and look similar to a larger version of a regular house cat, especially when they are young.
Upton says that the basin didn’t historically have bobcats, but after a huge boom in the rabbit population roughly a decade ago, she had seen more. “The evolution of wildlife keeps changing here,” said Upton.
If you are lucky enough to see one of these marmots, it means you are probably at high elevation during the summer months as they hibernate in the winter. Known for their high-pitched screeches, marmots are also sometimes called groundhogs or woodchucks.
The Washoe Tribe would have seasonal gatherings at Lake Tahoe and the mountain whitefish was one of the fish that made up a big part of their diet. After European contact, the accessibility changed and soon the species became overfished as settlers would take wagon loads to Reno and Virginia City.
Golden-Mantled Ground Squirrel
The golden-mantled ground squirrel has white stripes going down their back. The little critters are known to eat nuts, seeds, grasses, fruits and carrion. These squirrels are also often confused with a chipmunk, but are quite larger.
Douglas squirrels, also known as chickerees usually have dark brown backs with a bushy dark tail and silver tips. As a Tahoe staple, these little critters are usually heard chatting away with another as they run around their forest playground. Fun fact about these squirrels is that they are also monogamous.
While it might be hard to distinguish a swallow in the sky, they are notorious for their mud nests and harmonious songs. They usually have blue backs, silver wings and can be found throughout the basin. “They are a very beneficial species. Swallows are known for eating thousands of mosquitos,” said Upton.
“We live amongst wildlife and it’s an honor to,” said Upton. “Wildlife is here to stay.”
Editor’s note: This story appears in the 2021 summer edition of Tahoe Magazine.
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