Nature is something that people who live and those who visit Lake Tahoe are privileged to experience. Whether it’s the howl of a coyote or the cry of a soaring eagle, it’s the sounds that make Tahoe what it is.
The Washoe tribe who have seasonally inhabited the Basin for thousands of years had a two-way relationship with the land, plants, and wildlife of the Basin.
Wildlife play a vital role in the creation stories of the Washoe, emphasizing the importance and responsibility as humans to care for everyone on earth.
The mule deer got its name from its massive ears which look a lot like those of a mule. According to the Forest Service’s Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit, these migrating deer spend their winters in the Carson Valley and in the summer they can be seen in grasslands like the one behind Baldwin Beach in the early morning or evening.
According to Herman Fillmore, director of cultural and linguistic resources for the Washoe Tribe, hunting your first deer is a right of passage and a right of passage for the young men of the tribe.
While the deer is used to feed relatives, the animals have never been hunted by the tribe for the trophy. âAll animals are sacred,â Fillmore said. “We are placed here to maintain this balance because we are not separate or above nature.”
While the American beaver is generally not seen due to its shy personality, dwarf trees and dams can be seen around parts of the lake and nearby rivers, most notably Taylor Creek. For their subsistence, they eat the inner bark of poplars, aspens and willows. Due to a continually growing pair of upper and lower incisors, they chew to keep the size manageable.
For their ability to create habitat for other species, they are known as a key species. âThey can turn a trickle of water into a wetland,â said Denise Upton, director of animal care at Lake Tahoe Wildlife Care.
These infamous birds can have a wingspan of almost 7 feet and are distinguished by their white heads.
Since the 1980s, groups have come out once a year to count the number of bald eagles they see over a three-hour 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 counted, which is considerably higher than the previous year.
Not only are the eagles known as the symbol of the nation, but the importance of the eagle is also linked to the traditional stories of the Washoe tribe.
Eagle feathers are sacred to the tribe and birds are highly respected. Fillmore made it clear that these birds were never killed for their feathers.
Porcupines, infamous for their sharp quills, typically roam the pond at night. Their quills are barbed at the end which can lodge in the skin if encountered. They are part of the rodent family – the largest of the rodent family as well – and primarily eat the inner bark of trees. The Washoe tribe used the quills of the porcupine for quillwork and as another good source of food.
Raccoons, known for their black eye masks and courageous efforts in the trash, can be seen frequently in the pond. They eat almost everything including nuts, fruits, traffic accidents and the list goes on. As scavengers, they play a beneficial role in cleaning up carrion. Adorably enough, these creatures are even known to soak their food in water before eating it. Porcupines and raccoons also play a vital role in the creation stories of the Washoe tribe.
Black bears are the symbol of Lake Tahoe. Although they may be mistakenly referred to as brown bears for their clear sun color, Lake Tahoe only has black bears. These black bears are the largest carnivore in the Sierra Nevada. Black bears are known to disperse their seeds through their poop, which is beneficial for the ecology of the forest.
Fillmore said the people of Washoe generally do not hunt black bears and regard them with respect. âA parent sibling in the straightforward sense,â Fillmore said in describing the animal. Spanning over 100 years, the tribe’s traditional knowledge also includes bears with large bumps on their backs, which denote grizzly bears in the basin.
As the resident population of the basin continues to grow, the need to coexist with wildlife is increasingly imperative. Traditionally, bears have sought grasses, roots and shoots as their first natural food source after hibernation, but as humans have moved through their natural ecosystem, they have become accustomed to the reliability of the waste.
The LTWC and the Bear League are urging communities to persuade bears to stay away from garbage and resume eating their natural food sources by securing access to garbage.
Many know the song of the dog because the coyote has become a true symbol of the West. Known for their bushy tails and loud barking, coyotes are omnivorous and their diet consists of mice, insects, snakes, lizards, rabbits, rats, voles, and other small mammals that make up approximately 80% of their diet with vegetables and fruits.
Because the coyote is a scavenger, its diet helps control rodent and rabbit populations while cleaning up roads by consuming road waste. âThe rodent population would be out of control without the coyotes,â Upton said. âTheir habitat shrinks and becomes surrounded by development. Our wildlife is here for a reason and there is a place for it, education is huge. “
Although coyotes are frequently targeted, they are part of the landscape and traditional culture of the area. The coyote has an important 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 since the 1800s. In the stories, the coyote and the wolf are sometimes even intertwined.
Pumas, which are distinguished from bobcats because of their long tails, are rarely seen in the basin, but have been spotted mainly in 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 about 90% of the calls they get about mountain lions turn out to be bobcats. As top predators, pumas maintain the balance of populations of other species while preventing overgrazing of habitats.
âCoyotes and pumas need to be part of our ecosystem,â Fillmore said. âWhen we see predators as a danger, we don’t realize their advantage. “
Fillmore said 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 “cut” tails and look like a larger version of an ordinary house cat, especially when they are young.
Upton says the basin historically had no bobcats, but after a huge rabbit population boom about a decade ago, she had seen more. âThe evolution of wildlife keeps changing here,â Upton said.
Yellow bellied marmot
If you are lucky enough to see one of these groundhogs, it means that you are probably at high elevations during the summer months as they hibernate in the winter. Known for their high-pitched calls, groundhogs are also sometimes called groundhogs or groundhogs.
The Washoe tribe had seasonal gatherings at Lake Tahoe, and mountain whitefish was one of the fish that made up a large part of their diet. After contact with Europeans, accessibility changed and soon the species became overexploited as settlers took wagons to Reno and Virginia City.
Golden-mantled ground squirrel
The golden-mantled ground squirrel has white stripes on the back. Little critters are known to eat nuts, seeds, herbs, fruits, and carrion. These squirrels are also often mistaken for a chipmunk, but they are much larger.
Douglas squirrels, also known as chickerees, typically have dark brown backs with a bushy dark tail and silvery tips. As a Tahoe staple, these little creatures are usually heard chatting with one another as they run around their forest playground. The fun fact about these squirrels is that they are also monogamous.
Although it can be difficult to make out a swallow in the sky, it is known for its mud nests and harmonious song. They usually have blue backs, silver wings, and can be found throughout the pelvis. âThese are very useful species. Swallows are known to eat thousands of mosquitoes, âUpton said.
âWe live among wildlife and it’s an honor,â Upton said. âThe wildlife is here to stay. “
Editor’s Note: This story appears in the Summer 2021 edition of Tahoe Magazine.