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Ecology of Mesa Verde National Park

Learn more about the ecology of Mesa Verde National Park. 


Like many of the other parks in the Four Corners region, the plants and animals in Mesa Verde’s ecosystem are strongly tied to its geology, topography, and semi-arid climate. The relatively low annual rainfall favors organisms adapted to be able to handle drought, though some species also thrive along streams and microclimates created near seep springs. Ongoing ecosystem research in Mesa Verde focuses on migratory birds, bats, and invasive species management, as well as climatic effects on ecosystems, wildfire recovery dynamics, and soil health.

The plant ecosystems in Mesa Verde vary by elevation and tends to increase with elevation. From the lowest to highest altitude, they are the shrub-steppe, pinyon-juniper woodland, the mountain shrub system, and the Douglas fir/Ponderosa pine woodland. There are additional non-elevation dependent ecosystems, including microclimates created by seep springs, and the riparian (river edge) ecosystem along the river banks. Water seeps through the permeable sandstone and limestone, sustaining plant and bacterial life.

Water is a limiting factor for plant and animal life in the park. Some parts can be quite dry, and plants are adapted to survive (and thrive) with only intermittent rainfall. Animals are also dependent on the amount of water but tend to have wider ranges because they can move to seasonal water sources. Despite being a relatively small area, the park has high biodiversity due to the variety of zones and niches.


Over 70 species of mammals (including many species of bats), 200 species of birds, and 1000 species of insects and other invertebrates can be found in the park. The number of animal species found in the park can vary throughout the year as migratory animals pass through this protected land. Some species are endemic, meaning that they can only be found in this area. Bobcats, coyotes, mule deer, rabbits, rabbits, weasels, lizards, snakes, owls, and more can all be found within the park.  


More than 640 species of trees and plants, including many varieties of wildflowers, can be found within Mesa Verde National Park. You can easily find oak trees, Utah juniper, snowberry, skunkbush, yucca, cacti, and Oregon grape. Plant species that are vulnerable to changing environmental conditions include the Cliff Palace milkvetch, Mesa Verde wandering aletes, and Mesa Verde stickseed.

Oak and juniper trees frame a cliff house dwelling
Bright green oak trees (foreground), darker green juniper (lower right), and fire damaged trees (upper right) frame the cliff dwelling at Step House.
Purple lupine and yellow wildflowers and are abundant in late June in Mesa Verde National Park.
Purple lupine and yellow wildflowers and are abundant in late June in Mesa Verde National Park.
Sword-like yucca, yellow wildflowers, and red Indian paintbrush
Sword-like yucca, yellow wildflowers, and red Indian paintbrush thrive in the semi-arid, low soil environment of Mesa Verde National Park.

The importance of fire

While generally thought of as disastrous, in certain situations wildfires play an important and necessary role in ecosystem dynamics. In dry areas like Mesa Verde, naturally occurring fires have always been somewhat common. Trees and plant communities, where burned, give rise to new communities. These burned areas start with grasses, but the trees gradually regrow.


Burned juniper trees from a wildfire
Burned juniper trees from a wildfire. 
Burned trees on horizon at Mesa Verde National Park
Burned trees line the horizon of many high plateaus within the park. Younger grasses and juniper have regrown since the last fire.