Photos: Robert Body CC
The Klamath River Basin is home to a remarkable diversity of animal species. In addition to the more commonly known salmon, mule deer, skunk, and Roosevelt’s elk, to name only a few, there are other kinds of aquatic and land-dwelling animals that many people are unaware of. The ringtail, or Bassariscus astutus, is one such creature. Its nocturnal habits and chosen environment keep it out of most people’s way. Those same people might be surprised to hear that this cousin of the common raccoon has a range that stretches from Southern Oregon through Mexico and as far east as Texas.
Ringtails are compact animals with body lengths between a foot and 17inches and tails that are often as long as their bodies! As their name indicates, that long tail is decorated with alternating black and white rings. The fur on the rest of their bodies is mostly a greyish brown with some white patches on their stomachs and chins. Large, wide ears help them navigate dark nights and find prey.
Ringtails have a diverse, omnivorous diet that includes but is not limited to rabbits, rats, mice, small birds, toads, berries, various fruits, and insects. Their eating habits change dramatically according to seasonal availability and location. As adults, ringtails live solitary lifestyles that are only interrupted by the company of other ringtails during mating season.
When miners arrived en masse during the California Gold Rush, some found the ringtails to be an excellent alternative to domestic house cats. Their nocturnal nature, appetite for mice, and generally curious and friendly temperament led to their domestication in some mining communities leading to the moniker “miner’s cat.”
Ringtails were, and are, more than an efficient rodent controller for gold-hungry miners. They have lived alongside Indigenous peoples in the Klamath River Basin since time immemorial. Their historical presence and cultural value are represented in various forms of regalia created by Indigenous craftspeople before, during, and after settlers began moving into the Klamath River Basin in the late 1840s. People have interacted with these animals for a long, long time, but many people today are unaware that they even exist.
As with all animals that live in the Klamath River Basin, ringtail populations have been impacted by the construction of dams on the Klamath River. The Klamath River Basin consists of numerous complex and interconnected ecosystems whose “residents,” rely on one another to perform varied and essential tasks in the maintenance of the land. When any animal is impacted by development or the disruption of natural processes that it depends upon, its neighbors are affected as well. This is the case for ringtails: they may not be immediately impacted by the dams, but the other animals and plants they depend on certainly are and their ability to live solitary, colorful lives will only improve with the post-dam renewal of the Klamath River.