May 23, 2019

Wild Encounters: What Kinds of Critters Call Zion Home

While you’re guaranteed to enjoy stunning views and beautiful scenery every time you visit Zion, encounters with wildlife are a bit more rare.

Zion National Park is home to nearly 80 species of mammals, 300 species of birds, and 37 species of reptiles. Every single one of these creatures has evolved to not just survive, but thrive in the desert heat. That means that many of them skillfully hide during the hottest part of the day, which also happens to be when most visitors drive, hike, or walk the park.

Whether you’re eager to catch a glimpse of a Mule deer or just want to make sure that you know what to do if a mountain lion crosses your path, keep reading to learn all you need to know about the wild animals that call Zion home.

Common Critters

You might not be guaranteed to see one every visit, but there are a few critters that are common enough in the park that, if you know where and when to look and the weather is fair, you’re likely to spot. If you really want to increase your chances of spotting common and uncommon creatures, plan a visit in the off-season when fewer crowds and cooler temps may cause bring them out into the open.

Mule Deer

Zion National Park, like much of the Southwest, is home to the Mule deer. These adaptable creatures thrive in a variety of climates, including the desert, dunes, mountains, grasslands, and forests. Named for their large ears similar to those of mules, they are one of the largest mammals you’ll see in the park.

It’s possible to see mule deer throughout the park, and at any time of day, assuming the weather isn’t too hot. But if you want to increase your chances of seeing one, especially during the summer, it’s best to head to the park early in the day or at dusk. This is when most of them descend from the mountains and forests to graze in grassy areas. Once the day begins to heat up, the deer head for cover and shade.

Mule deer aren’t aggressive; in fact, most are shy and won’t allow humans to get close. However, that doesn’t mean that you don’t need to practice care when they’re nearby. During “rut” in the fall, male mule deer will battle one another to establish dominance. While you should never approach any wildlife in the park, mule deer may be particularly dangerous during this time. Like other species of deer across the U.S., mule deer are also a danger to drivers. Watch for mule deer in the road while driving in and around Zion. Obey speed limits, and drive slower during foggy or otherwise obstructive conditions.

Rock Squirrels

Even more common than mule deer are rock squirrels. Unless you visit in the middle of the day on a day when temperatures are over 100 degrees, you’re likely to see these furry little animals throughout the park.

While visitors from the midwestern states or Canada may expect to see them in trees or grassy areas like the other species of squirrels they’re used to back home, rock squirrels prefer rocky terrain. Look for them scaling canyon walls or gathering near water sources.

Rock squirrels may look cute and cuddly, but they should never be approached or touched. Like other rodent species, they carry a variety of diseases that can be transmitted to humans.

Bighorn Sheep

A smaller number of visitors to Zion spot the famous bighorn sheep. But that has more to do with where in the park they make their home than their numbers. Bighorn sheep are adapted to living on rocky terrain and steep hillsides. This allows them to stay away from their only natural predators, mountain lions.

While bighorn sheep were once considered ‘extinct’ in the park, they now number more than 400. They’re most often seen between the Zion-Mt. Carmel Tunnel and the East Entrance of the park.

Rare Sightings

If you’re hoping to see wildlife besides mule deer and rock squirrels, you’re going to need a whole lot of luck; and likely some night vision goggles as well. That’s because many of the park’s creatures come out only after the sun goes down, spending the daylight hours in dens. Other rare animals may come out during the day but are stealthy enough to still make sightings rare.

Ringtail Cat

The ringtail cat is a small mammal that’s related to the raccoon family. It’s actually one of the most abundant animals in Zion, though few visitors ever see one. That’s because they emerge only under the cover of darkness, leaving their dens behind to climb the high cliffs of Zion in search of food.

Mountain Lion

This is one rare creature that you don’t want to come across on a hike. The largest predator in the park, mountain lions hunt mule deer and bighorn sheep in the higher regions of the park.

Lucky for us, mountain lions stay far, far away from humans and any evidence they leave behind. This is one reason why the mule deer population in the park is so large; their only predator has been driven away, into more remote areas away from the national park.

Desert Tortoise

One particularly rare animal that lives in Zion and elsewhere in the Mojave and Sonoran Deserts is the desert tortoise. These small tortoises grow to just 14 inches in length, though they can live for as long as 80 or even 100 years.

Desert tortoise sightings are very rare because they spend more than 95 percent of their lives in underground burrows. They hibernate through the winter and then emerge only occasionally when they need food or water. They have also been listed as a federally threatened species, meaning that loss of habitat and disease have thinned their numbers even more.

Spotting Wildlife in Zion

If you want to increase your chances to spotting wildlife like bighorn sheep or mule deer in the park, the best thing you can do is arrive early or stay till dusk, when temperatures aren’t as hot.

While many animals are rare, sometimes spotting come at less-than-opportune moments. Always drive with caution in the park, especially early in the morning or around sunset, when animals are likely to be more active. If you are lucky enough to spot an animal, keep your distance and never try to pet or feed them. And just like when enjoying the rest of Zion’s natural beauty, take as many photographs as you’d like!

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