Capitol Reef Wildlife

Despite the seemingly inhospitable landscape that falls within Capitol Reef National Park, there actually is quite a varied wild kingdom here, though you might not see all its representatives.

Hot, arid summers keep most wildlife lying low in the park, though the Fremont River and the lush orchards and campground grounds attract the animals. Mule deer can be seen browsing the orchards' vegetation, while yellow-bellied marmots and rock squirrels are seen in both the orchards and surrounding meadows.

All three of those species are abundant and easily seen in the Fruita area. The marmots are commonly seen during from mid-March through July, but then they settle down in their burrows for the rest of the year.

Ringtails also hold a spot on the park's list of mammals, but are seldom seen, though they have been spotted in the Fruita and Pleasant Creek areas of the park. Named for their bushy tails, which feature alternating brown or black and white rings of fur, these animals prefer rocky desert and woodland habitats. Their dens are typically located near water among rocks, in small caves, or in hollow logs. They consume small mammals, birds, reptiles, carrion, invertebrates, and fruits. Though active year-round, they are nocturnal and secretive so seldom seen. They can be recognized by their long, bushy tail with distinct black and white bands, very large eyes, and pointed snout. They are very agile moving with ease through tree tops or rocky canyons.

Another elusive animal in the park is the mountain lion. These big cats are active year-round, both day and night, although most activity occurs at dawn and dusk. Their diet is composed primarily of large mammals such as deer and elk, but it will also feed upon small animals such as rabbits and rodents. It has been reported from various areas in Capitol Reef, including Fruita where it preys upon mule deer and other mammals.

Another prey of the mountain lion are the desert bighorn sheep that live in the park. This species once was common in the canyon country of southern Utah, and is widely depicted on rock art left by early inhabitants of the area. While bighorn sheep disappeared from the Capitol Reef area, presumably due to overhunting and disease, in the mid-1990s 40 desert bighorn sheep from Canyonlands National Park were successfully reintroduced to Capitol Reef.

Sheep are now commonly seen in areas south and east of Fruita, including the Grand Wash and Capitol Gorge areas. Another herd exists in the very southern end of the park. Sheep use steep cliffs and rugged, rocky terrain as escape routes to avoid predators. Bighorn sheep eat grasses in the summer and woody plants in the winter. They are primarily active during the day, with peak activity occurring during the early morning and late evening hours.

Overall, nearly 60 mammal species have been documented in Capitol Reef, ranging from mice, woodrats, and chipmunks to coyotes, cougars, and black bears, as well as 16 species of bats.

Birders won't be disappointed with a trip to the park, as more than 230 bird species have been seen here. Some species are seasonal residents, others pass through during migration, and a few make this their home year-round. Popular locations for bird watching in the Fruita area include the Fremont River trail that passes by the campground and orchards, the trees around the Ripple Rock Nature Center, the picnic area, and the riparian vegetation along Sulphur Creek. Trips to the northern and southern parts of the park can provide opportunities to see birds in other vegetation types including desert grasslands, desert shrublands, and pinyon-juniper woodlands.

Among the frequently seen bird species are common ravens, canyon wrens, and raucous pinyon jays. A non-native species that has taken up residence in the park is the Chukar, which is native to the Middle East and southern Asia. It reached the United States because of its popularity as a game bird, and was introduced to Utah in the 1950s. These days it's fairly common in the Fruita area.