National Wildlife Refuge System

Mammal Madness: Who Gets Your Vote?

four mammals

Poor basketball fans. How do you cope with having just a month to go wild over contests between, say, wildcats and wolverines, or cougars and tigers?

In the National Wildlife Refuge System, celebrating its 115th birthday on March 14, Mammal Madness isn’t just a spring event. Refuge mammals draw attention all year. We can root for our favorites whenever we like, just by visiting a national wildlife refuge — online or in person.

Which of the animals in these pairs gets your vote?

Moose vs. Bison

 moose vs bison
Top: A bull moose eats coyote willow along the banks of the Green River at Seedskadee National Wildlife Refuge in Wyoming. Bottom: A bison gets a dusting with snow at Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge outside Denver. (Photos: Tom Koerner/USFWS; John Carr)

Size conveys power and majesty. That helps explain why, for refuge visitors, both of these heavyweights have a special moxie. Which one is your favorite?

A bull moose can weigh up to 1,500 pounds. That’s reason enough to give it a wide berth: Moose will charge humans who come too close, especially in spring (calving season) and fall (mating season).  The word moose is derived from the Algonquian Indian word meaning twig eater. 

A bison can tip the scales at more than 2,000 pounds. Millions of the massive beasts once roamed North America, providing Native Americans with food, clothing and shelter. But settlers hunted the animals almost to extinction, and by the late 1800s only a few hundred remained.

At Rocky Mountain Arsenal Refuge, where bison were reintroduced in 2007, the animals rank high on visitors’ viewing lists. Other Western refuges where bison have been reintroduced include Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge in Oklahoma.

More about moose and bison.

Polar Bear vs. Kodiak Bear

polar bear vs Kodiak bears
Top: A polar bear and her cub share a moment at Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. Bottom: A Kodiak brown bear and her cub play at Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. (Photos:  Cameron Teller/Share the Experience; Lisa Hupp/USFWS)

Who doesn’t view bears with awe? Pick your favorite top-of-the-food-chain predator.

Kodiak brown bears, world famous for their commanding size, are found only on Alaska’s Kodiak Archipelago. Kodiak Refuge is home to some 2,000 to 3,000 of them. People travel to the refuge from the world over, hoping for a glimpse of these giants.

The safest way to view Kodiak bears is by guided tour that may include a stay at a remote lodge or a flight in a float plane.

Farther north, polar bears are icons of the Arctic — and the world’s largest and most ferocious bears. Males can top 1,400 pounds. Every winter, hundreds of them congregate along the northern coastal plains of Alaska and Canada, to feed, rest and den. They prey heavily on seals.

Polar bears evolved from grizzly bears hundreds of thousands of years ago. They are protected from capture and hunting under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

More about Kodiak brown bears and polar bears.

River Otter vs. Beaver

river otters v beaver
Top: River otters line up on a snowy bank at Loess Bluffs National Wildlife Refuge in Missouri. Bottom: A beaver hangs out near the water’s edge at Trempealeau National Wildlife Refuge in Wisconsin, with its broad, flat tail showing. (Photos: Courtesy of Kenny Bahr; Larry Palmer)

You like your wildlife sleek and slippery, equally at home on land or in water? Got it. So which team do you favor in a matchup between river otters and beavers?

If there’s one thing river otters seem to like better than rolling on logs and sliding on their bellies, it’s doing it in groups. Play is a social activity for these semi-aquatic animals. Dense fur containing nearly 160,000 hairs per square inch insulates otters in cold waters.

Busy as a beaver is more than a saying. The thick-haired rodent incessantly gnaws trees and builds dams for dens and lodges. One of the largest beaver dams — seen on a satellite image in 2007 in Alberta, Canada — reaches more than half a mile deep. Dams help protect beavers from predators and keep their lodge entrances ice-free.

Because their fur pelts were so prized for hats, beavers were almost wiped out in North America. If silk hats hadn’t come into fashion around 1900, beavers might not have survived. Beavers can improve water quality; boost water retention; and create habitat for many other species.

More about river otters and beavers.

Coyote vs. Panther

coyote v panther
Top: A coyote hunts for prey from the cattails at Seedskadee National Wildlife Refuge in Wyoming. Bottom: In an image captured by a remote-action trail camera, a rare Florida panther patrols its turf at sunset at Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge in Florida. (Photos: Tom Koerner/USFWS; USFWS)

Here’s where dog lovers and cat lovers part ways.

The coyote, like the wolf and the fox, is a canine. The panther, like the ocelot and the lynx, is a cat. But the two animals share some traits. Both are shy animals and skilled predators. They generally hunt alone, mostly at night. Panthers are strictly meat-eaters. Coyotes prefer meat but will eat plants now and then.

Most of the coyote’s diet is smaller mammals, such as voles and cottontails, but it also eats birds and snakes. The name coyote comes from the Aztec word coyotl.

Panthers’ prey includes feral hogs and white-tailed deer. They will also eat rabbits, rats, birds and even alligators.

Once common throughout the Southeast, the Florida panther was heavily hunted in the 19th century and squeezed by agriculture and urbanization in the 20th. Today, the species remains only in south Florida, where Florida Panther Refuge was established in 1989 to protect habitat for its namesake animal.

More about coyotes and Florida panthers. More on panthers from the National Park Service.

Ferret vs. Manatee

ferrets vs manatee
Top: Black-footed ferret kits look out from their burrow at the National Black-Footed Ferret Conservation Center, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service facility near Fort Collins, Colorado. Bottom: A Florida manatee joins a school of mangrove snappers in an underwater ballet at Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge in Florida. (Photos: Kimberly Fraser/USFWS; Keith Ramos/USFWS)

What crazy pairing is this? It’s no mismatch. In the sweetheart category, these two teams both boast standout rankings.

Across the Great Plains, where they once flourished, black-footed ferrets are trying for a comeback, with help from humans. One look at these wily animals and visitors are often smitten.

A primary goal at ferret recovery sites, including Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge near Denver, and UL Bend National Wildlife Refuge in Montana, is management of sylvatic plague. When plague kill ferrets’ primary food source – the prairie dog – ferrets starve. Scientists have been spreading peanut-butter-flavored oral vaccine pellets to immunize prairie dogs against plague.

At Crystal River Refuge, visitors can’t get enough of the gentle aquatic mammals that swim in the refuge’s warm waters. Manatees inhabit refuge waters year-round, but their numbers spike in winter when they seek refuge from colder coastal waters.

Manatees can reach lengths of 14 feet and weigh more than 3,000 pounds. They feed on plants such as turtle grass and mangrove leaves.

See photo essay, Another Chance for Ferrets. Enjoy a virtual swim with a manatee at Crystal River Refuge.

Fruit Bat vs. Bighorn Sheep

fruit bat in top of photo vs bighorn sheep in bottom portion of photo
A young Mariana fruit bat hangs out at Guam National Wildlife Refuge in the Pacific. A bighorn ram shows off his curved horns at National Elk Refuge in Wyoming. (Photos: Anne Brooke/USFWS; Ann Hough/National Elk Refuge volunteer)

Another topsy-turvy contest. But hey, both these teams are both known for their ability to upend expectations and hang tight despite the odds.

Unless your travel takes you to the remote Pacific — and even if it does — you may have to settle for photos of Mariana fruit bats. Guam Refuge provides habitat for the last of these on Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands.

Bats are important pollinators for Pacific island forests. They fly around at night fertilizing plants that bear the berries and fruit they depend on. Bats are the only mammals that can fly on wings.

Bighorn rams (they’re the ones with the trademark headgear) use their large curling horns to assert dominance or vie for mating rights. Rivals charge each other at more than 20 miles per hour, horns hitting with a loud crack. These battles may last as long as 24 hours.

Bighorn sheep were once widespread throughout the West. But disease killed them off in many states. Biologists have re-established them in some states, like Wyoming. Bighorn sheep are popular draws at National Elk Refuge, where visitors are urged not to stop for them on the Refuge Road because chemicals that they lick on car surfaces make the animals sick.

Bighorn sheep have a gravity-defying ability to climb steep mountainsides and cliffs.

More about the Mariana fruit bat. Photo essay: “Bats: ‘The Coolest Mammals on Earth’”

More about bighorn sheep and photos of them at National Elk Refuge.

Compiled by , March 14, 2018