“Wascawwy” weasels in winter

Recent storms have added to the snowpack at the rim of Black Canyon. Hot summers and dry winters over the past 20 years have made survival difficult for much of Colorado’s wildlife.

It isn’t hard to find Elmer Fudd online. He was a character in the Warner Bros. Looney Tunes cartoon series, and best known for being a persistent hunter of Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and other characters in the pantheon of Saturday morning cartoons.

Paul Zaenger

Paul Zaenger has been a supervisory park ranger at Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park since 1993. Other park assignments include Mount Rushmore National Memorial and Glen Canyon National Recreation Area.

Elmer Fudd, voiced by Mel Blanc, had a speech impediment particularly in pronouncing the letters “R” and “L.” His quarry was usually Bugs Bunny who was indeed a rascal. More than being a trouble-maker, the definition of rascal includes being lean, ill-conditioned, a trickster or rogue and often jocular (humorous and playful).

The term rascal perfectly describes the long-tailed weasel. These weasels are among the most rigorous hunters in nature. For them, winter is more than a season. Adaptations that enhance their scoundrelly nature make up who they are and remind us of a world that needs the season of snow at a time when sufficient snow is in short supply.

Skinny and lithe, weasels have success with hunting because their flexible joints are can contort in underground and under snow tunnels. The bones of the spine are linked in such a way that they can turn tight corners in burrows of their prey. One researcher watched a weasel leap into a hole and saw the head come out before the tail went in. This and their lightning-quick action puts fear into the hearts of mice, voles, rabbits and other species that are on the menu.

The rounded low-hugging ears make them look adorable, but are formed tightly to the head to keep dirt from falling inside. Instead of large exterior ear flaps, the middle ear has an enlarged tympanic membrane supported by bony struts. The hearing capability of weasels is among the most sensitive among mammals.

Tunnels lead to the cafeteria that includes rodents and rabbits which make up the most tasty of meals — rabbits above the snow in winter, mice often moving through on-the-ground tunnels under the winter snow pack.

A long-tailed weasel is a live-wire of energy. Its metabolism can be 50% higher than more compact mammals. These weasels need to constantly hunt to fuel their body’s demand. Years ago, a few of us watched a weasel take down a rabbit weighing as much as 4.5 pounds. The weasel, weighing in at a half pound, dragged the carcass away (slowly). If you weighed 150 pounds and had that ability, you could carry nearly 1.5 tons of groceries home.

Earlier this winter, I saw a weasel along the roadside near Black Canyon’s entrance sign. Its fur had molted to winter white and it stood out against the tan, brown and golden colors of the trees and plants which had gone dormant.

The early winter change is gradual as the base of each individual brown follicle deepens into the skin. The root of a new follicle forms there and grows forward out alongside the old follicle. Eventually, the old brown hair is shed, sometimes weeks later.

The whole business is set in motion by the shortening day length in the fall. Less daylight creates a hormonal change that triggers the molt; colder temperatures in the fall can accelerate the process. Few mammals in North America change their fur color. In weasels only the tip of the tail remains black.

The weasel I saw was dramatically different and out of place. Camouflage is not only an asset for hunting; it keeps the weasel safe from larger predators happy to munch down a weasel for its own dinner.

Drought has persisted in much of the west. Winter snows come later and drop off earlier. As temperatures warm and the climate shifts, the rascally weasel’s survival is put in doubt. Elmer Fudd was a poor hunter. The weasel, a great hunter, has much more at stake.

Winter ebbs and flows as sunny days give way to winter squalls, laden with moisture, that are driven into America’s Southwest. The cloud banks roll, wave after wave, across the valleys. Gray, lavender, indigo and a host of other shades turn and reel while tempests toss snow, blowing it onto the landscape.

The mountains are cheered. The landscape rests. We need the storms; wildlife needs the storms. To embrace the weasel is to embrace winter. To embrace winter is to embrace our changing planet. Summer is four months away. Our warm winter should bring to mind the hot dry conditions we endured only four months ago.

The weasel reminds us that from the least to the greatest of animals, all rely on winter as an essential part of the rhythm of the west. What might we do today to reduce the conditions that put winter at risk?

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