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Wild animals are better off watched from afar

May 16, 2013 Updated: May 16, 2013 at 2:53 pm

When the eagles first arrived at Fountain Valley School, school officials were happy to share the news.

A pair of bald eagles, a symbol of America, chose a tree on the school grounds to nest for the winter and raise their young. Teachers and students watched closely, and when The Gazette called in March, school officials were happy to talk about their guests.

But then came the crowds, people trespassing and sneaking past the gate to get a better look at the eagles. The "no trespassing" sign wasn't a deterrent, so last week the school installed a sign asking eagle watchers to stay outside the fence.

"We totally understand and appreciate people's desire and love of nature and wanting to see these eagles and take photographs, but it would be completely different if we were not a residential school," said Jeanne Olive, a communications director.

"We feel like we learned a lesson. We thought it was great to publicize this, but we did not anticipate the trespassing."

It isn't the only reminder this year that while people love wildlife, many could use a lesson on viewing etiquette.

Twice this year, wildlife officials, who prefer a hands-off approach, removed animals that were drawing too much attention from humans. An injured deer in Rockrimmon, which people were feeding, was tranquilized and moved in January. Last week, officials moved three great horned owlets in Mountain Shadows that were drawing crowds, including some who climbed the tree to get a better look.

When it comes to wild animals, the most important lesson is to keep your distance.

"We want to encourage people to enjoy wildlife. We want to encourage people to teach their children about nature by observing wildlife, but to do it in such a way you don't interfere with the wild animals' behavior," Colorado Parks and Wildlife spokesman Michael Seraphin said.

Other tenets of ethical wildlife watching include:

- Don't enter private property without permission.

- Don't feed animals or leave food out to attract animals.

- Don't get so close to animals that they respond to your presence.

- Avoid wildlife during sensitive times, such as mating, nesting, raising young or during winter, when the extra stress can reduce an animal's survival chances.

- Keep dogs at home or on a leash around wildlife.

- Give nests a wide berth.

- Never chase or harass wildlife.

- Don't put food in a bird feeder in summer when the birds have plenty to eat and it is likely to attract bears.

Said Seraphin: "As a general rule, the vast majority of wildlife watchers do so in an ethical manner."

Nowhere in Colorado is the potential for human interference as great as Rocky Mountain National Park, where 3.2 million visitors a year mingle with some of the state's larger populations of elk and moose, as well as other animals that thrive in an area protected from hunting.

The most troublesome time is the autumn rut, when bull elk become aggressive and fill the woods with an eerie bugling sound. Tens of thousands of people line park roads during this time, and while entire meadows are closed to the public, some people venture too close and risk antagonizing the animals and ruining the natural spectacle for everyone.

"People say, 'I've never seen an elk be aggressive,' and we say, 'Well, this might be the year that you do,'" park spokeswoman Kyle Patterson said.

Female elk and moose with young also can be aggressive, not to mention the black bears that roam the park.

"You don't know whether they have young nearby. You don't know if they're injured. You don't know if somebody else just came before you and got too close and now this animal is more aggressive," Patterson said.

"Some people think this is a zoo. 'These are animals that don't seem to be bothered by me and aren't reacting to me, and I'm going to push the envelope and get a little close.'"

There is no hard and fast rule for how close is too close, Colorado Parks and Wildlife watchable wildlife coordinator John Koshak said. If the animal stops what it's doing and looks up, you're probably too close.

"The last thing you really want if you're a wildlife photographer is a photo of a startled deer running away. As soon as you notice that their behavior has changed, then that's when you know that you're too far," he said.

It's also illegal to approach wildlife in the national park and to harass wildlife anywhere in the state, though citations are rare. Koshak said most citations occur when people let their dogs run after animals or when people chase animals with a car.

People often get too close to wildlife out of concern, such as when they see an animal that is injured or a baby that appears orphaned. People can report injured animals to Parks and Wildlife at 227-5200. Officials work with wildlife rehabilitation groups who might come rescue the animal.

And while a young deer, elk or pronghorn might look orphaned, sitting still and alone, the parent probably is nearby. Animals use stillness as a defense tactic.

Officials recommend waiting 24 hours before reporting an orphaned animal and never handling wildlife.

"It's pretty unusual for a mother to abandon its young," Koshak said. "When people decide they want to take it into their hands to feed them or help them out, it very rarely works out well for the animal."

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