Some tipi rings

The Bighorn Basin holds plenty of old secrets.  Prospectors, miners, strike-it-rich schemes. But what stirs my imagination most are Indian signs.

The history of the white man here is short and meager, a mere 150 years or so.  Wyoming only became a state in 1890.  The Bannock war of 1878 was the last Indian war around here.  Truly that wasn’t so long ago.

And although Lewis and Clark came through here 200 years ago, Native peoples have been living here for over 10,000 years, with the population rising and falling with the climate.  I went to an interesting talk last summer given by an archaeologist who had a unique way of assessing population correlated with temperature.  The time period known as the Altithermal, around 5,000 to 8,500 years ago, saw the fewest people living around the basin.  The Altithermal was a dry hot period and many of the native peoples moved higher, into the mountains, to survive.  Interestingly, the Altithermal termperatures in the Big Horn Basin are approximately the temperatures we have today, as our own temperatures are rising.

So when I was hiking around the desert last week and ran into some tipi rings, I couldn’t help  imagining what these peoples might have been doing and how they were living.

You can see the ring of rocks embedded in the dirt

You can see the ring of rocks embedded in the dirt

Another view

Tipi Ring

The rocks were used to hold down the tipi skirt.  Used over and over again, this location contained four visible rings, high on a hill.  Water was far below, although we did find a dry spring along the other side of the hill and closer to the rings.  My friend thought this was a hunting camp, since it was small and near in a prominent landmark.  And he might be right because the location was perfect for watching game, especially antelope and deer that might pass through.

Just outside of Cody there are a large amount of tipi rings above the Shoshone River.  You can tell they are more recent, say 150 years, as the rocks are not very embedded in the dirt.  The Crow used to winter down along the river and use the hot springs.  The hot springs is now on private land.

Another view of several rings outside Cody

Several rings outside Cody

 

It’s such a nice gift to run into these ancient signs.  They should be left untouched as they are part of our story and the story of the Land.

Rock circle big enough to sit in

A vision quest site I found

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The Mysterious Cougar

I find cougars fascinating.  The perfect predator, they are so large yet rarely seen.  In fact, if you do see one in your lifetime, consider yourself lucky.  I’ve tracked cougars around here many times, but never seen one. I’ve seen their kills, and other sign, but never a real live cougar.

A long term major study is taking place around Jackson, WY, called The Teton Cougar Project, sponsored by Panthera and Craighead Beringia South.

Cast of cougar prints--right side is rear on top, front on bottom.  Cougar was going at a fast trot.  Left print is a direct register

Cast of cougar prints–right side is rear on top, front on bottom. 

In a 900 square mile area, the project estimates there are around 15-20 resident adult cougars and these numbers have declined in the last 7-8 years.  Complete project data should be out soon when the study finalizes.  But some interesting tidbits they’ve found has been the social nature of cougars.  Previously thought to be solitary animals, with males and females coming together for only a short time to breed, the Cougar Project has documented, through VHS and GPS collars, females with young kittens helping feed orphaned yearling kittens as well as adult females spending time together.  They’ve seen males who not only know where the females are at all times, but pay visits when not mating.  Truly, the fabric of cougar society is complex, with a lot more communication and interaction than previously thought.

One of the major reasons for the Jackson study was to find out how three top predators are defining territory and their interactions–grizzly bears, wolves, and cougars.  It seems the cougars have been suffering losses of kittens to wolves.  And having to share their kills.  A recent National Geographic show called Cougar vs. Wolf featured cougar tracker Boone Smith looking for cougar/wolf interactions in the Bitterroots of Montana.  According to the documentary, Smith found cougars would win out defending their kills when the number of wolves in any pack (or interaction) was low.  A single wolf, or a small wolf pack, tended to leave cougar kills once the cougar showed up.  Not only that, but dead wolves killed by cougars have been found in the Jackson Hole study as well as the Bitterroots.  Smith shows a wolf killed by a lion in the NG show.  If you haven’t caught these two shows,  I highly recommend them.Cougar paw

Cougar hunting goes on during the entire snow season here in Wyoming, from September 1 through March 31, until the area quota is filled.  Some areas have unlimited quotas.  I called WG&F and asked how they set their mortality limits.  The answer proved that it’s vague.  When a hunter kills a lion, he or she is required to present the pelt and skull to the department.  At that time they determine the sex and take a premolar tooth to determine the animals age.  From this data, somehow they are extrapolating population sizes in each zone.  cougar teeth copy

Given the secretiveness of lions and the necessity of collaring in order to obtain the data of the Jackson thirteen year study, I highly doubt that a premolar check is going to give the required full data for setting kill quotas.  I tried doing a rough square area count.  For my zone, I came up with approximately 3000 square miles and the quota is 20 lions.  The area north of Jackson, zone 2, is roughly 2000 or 2200 square miles with a quota of 5, and now at the end of the season, is still one short at 4 killed.  Wyoming Game and Fish is helping fund the Jackson study.  From this study they now have a good idea of the number of lions in that area, and the quota is 1/4 the amount of my area.  A lot of my area, zone 19, borders the east side of the park, but more than half is in the desert which is in the wolf predator (or shoot on sight) zone.  Cougars might be more abundant. Still, doing the math used by Panthera of 15-20 resident cougars in 900 sq.miles, that means 1/3 of the adult cougar population is being hunted and killed every year!

Was this a cougar scratch that was next to a stashed kill?

Was this a cougar scratch that was next to a stashed kill?

I’d like to learn more about cougars.  I know where to reliably find tracks in the winter in my area.  I’ve tried to study how to identify the signs of a cougar kill.  I’ve heard people say ‘”Found a dead deer killed by a cougar near such and such a place”; but just finding a dead deer (cougars main prey is deer in the summer; and deer and elk in the winter) does not qualify it for a cougar kill.

When I go out to the area where I know I’ll find tracks, I spend time looking in obvious places for a kill.  Cougars like to drag their kills into brushy or more hidden areas.

Cougar dragged this kill to the forest edge where Koda now is enjoying it

Cougar dragged this kill to the forest edge where Koda now is enjoying it

They tend to cover their kill and continue to return till its gone.  Sometimes they just eat the internal organs.  A few tell-tale signs are the way the hair on the prey is taken off.  A canine will just rip the hair, tearing it away with skin attached.  A cougar shears the hair, making it look like the animal received a scissor-like haircut.

Haircut look.  Hair is sheared off.

Haircut look. Hair is sheared off.

A few days ago I found a dead elk. It had been killed in the open and dragged under some nearby trees.  I checked the skull and found two puncture wounds. All the evidence pointed to a lion kill.

Look closely on the left lower side of the photo and you will see 1 large and 1 small puncture hole

Look closely on the left lower side of the photo and you will see 1 large and 1 small puncture hole

I returned to a drainage where in the past I’d seen lion tracks.  I followed it until I came to a 1400′ drop down into the canyon.

What was the cat doing down here

What was the cat doing down here

I had wondered if the lion, whose tracks frequented this drainage, had a den here, but I saw no sign.  What was he doing down here?  There were no deer or elk in this area.  If I walked along the canyon edge, a precipice jutted out where I’d seen mountain goats a lot (but not today).  Could the lion be hunting them? When more snow melts and I can follow a steep trail to the precipice safely, I’ll go back and see if I can solve the mystery of the cougar.

Elk–the poster child for an elegant chaos

Yesterday down by the river Koda found a large cow elk carcass.  I usually follow the dog when he’s intent on something as he invariably leads me to interesting stuff.  And he kept his promise, for this was no ordinary carcass. This elk had a collar, a VHF tracking collar.  I assumed, rightly so, that this was a collar left over from Arthur Middleton’s 3 year elk field study in my valley.  Just last month I caught an elk on my trail camera by my house wearing a collar.  I contacted Arthur because I was surprised there were still some elk with them.  Apparently some of the collars employed for the study were designed to fall off; but others were going to stay with the elk for life.

I decided the best thing was not to touch the collar, but to contact the game warden.  I knew they’d want the collar back, even if it no longer carried data or was active.  The collars can be refurbished and save the WG&F around $600. But I wasn’t sure if they wanted to check the elk’s health out, with the collar on, before I removed it for them.  Since the carcass was in a fairly easy access location, I did worry that someone would come bye and snatch the collar for themselves as a souvenir.  When I spoke with the warden, he requested that I go back, obtain the collar, and save it for him.

Predated elk with collar.  How the elk died, we don't know.  But she provided a good meal for a lot of predators.

Predated elk with collar. How the elk died, we don’t know. But she provided a good meal for a lot of predators.

I noticed that she only had one ivory.  When she was collared back in around 2008, they took one of her ivories (her eye tooth) to determine her age.  Judging by her teeth, she was an older cow, but once the warden retrieves the collar, they can match it up and determine her exact age at death.  At long last, she’ll get that collar off.  I did feel badly that she had to move around with that collar around her neck all these years.

Arthur Middleton’s study in my valley was commissioned to find out why this migratory elk herd has such a low cow/calf ratio.  He spent three years of fieldwork, and several more writing his thesis.  Since that time, Arthur was awarded a prize/grant to study the other 5 migratory elk herds in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.  You can read the controversial results of that study here on my blog, and here on the web.

One of the many interesting findings was the rate of vigilance displayed by elk relative to wolves.  Before the study, everyone was postulating that wolves were responsible for the low calf ratios.  The theory out there was that wolves were pushing the elk hard and therefore stressing them out.  This additional stress led to less foraging, more vigilance, and just less calving success.

About 2000 elk are in the valley in winter.

About 2000 elk are in the valley in winter.  These are the YNP Lamar elk herd.

The results debunked this theory.  First off, there was no more vigilance with the migratory herd than the non-migratory herd that was used for comparison in the study(where wolves are present although not as many; and they had normal cow/calf ratios).  But more interesting was that elk did not show any signs of stress or movement until wolves were within 1 km, and these wolf/elk encounters occurred, on average, once every 9 days.  These factors are important to what Arthur is now stirring up a storm of controversy with.

The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation helped fund Middleton’s study. But they seem to ignore the results of the study and still blame wolves for all the decline.  Included in the above 80% is the overpopulation of elk on the Northern range present before wolves.  YNP was killing elk for years to help reduce the herd.  One reason why wolves were introduced in 1996.

Just recently, Middleton had an op-ed in the New York Times.  In it, he contends that his results, as well as other studies, challenge the straight forward idea of wolves and trophic cascades.  In other words, that wolves herd the elk sufficiently to allow less browsing on aspens and willows, allowing them to regenerate.  The idea of trophic cascades is no doubt true (apex predators affect whole ecosystems), but Arthur is saying ecosystems have a lot more complexity to them then the simple fix of restoring top predators.

One of the ideas rattling around these days in biology is the Landscape of Fear.  I’m not a biologist, but the whole notion never sat right with me.  Simply put, the theory maintains predators will change the behavior of their prey, through fear, in ways that affects the their movement throughout the landscape, changing their feeding patterns and thus the plant material.  True, but maybe not the whole of it I think.  Ecosystems are varied and complex.  Arthur posted a photo of a wolf den with a herd of elk grazing nearby.  We humans have certain notions of fear-consciousness, yet this might not at all be what’s driving all the movements of wildlife.  As I said in that previous post, I still think nature has more to do with adaptation and awareness, than with so-called ‘fear’.

Recently I took a class with James Halfpenny in the Park.  He was asked about the wolf-coyote relationship.  It has been documented that wolves killed about 50% with the wolf reintroduction, but now their population seems to have recovered.  Coyotes are using the ‘inbetweens’ of the wolf territories to move around.  It didn’t take them long to work out, and remember instinctively, their age-old relationship with their big brothers and how to live with them (and take advantage of their kills).

And if wolves are herding elk from intensive aspen/willow foraging, I have to ask why the pack of six wolves in my valley was slacking on the job.  When the snows got really deep, the elk settled in my front yard and forest, topping every single aspen and willow they could reach.

Wolf wary of infared light

Wolf wary of infared light

 

Ode to a Wyoming Spring

Yesterday I took a short hike on the Clark’s Fork plateau.  And I was again reminded that there is nowhere like the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and the Northern Spine of the Rockies where one can experience what I did in just a few hours in the lower U.S.  Frankly, it was a magical excursion.

I began my hike on a well-known trail that falls just 45′ down to the vast plateau above the rocky cliffs of the Clark’s Fork.  Within moments I came across cougar tracks in the melting snowfield.  After a following the tracks a few steps, the elusive cougar  disappeared.

Left Hind cougar

From the parking area above I’d spied a few elk, so I knew some were around.  But as I rounded a bend in the treeline, there was a small herd of about 75 elk in the meadows near the cliff edges.  Elk disband into smaller and smaller herd sizes as spring nears, until soon they disappear to calve and head into the high country.  The elk spied me and Koda, and were a bit skittish but quite curious.  As they ran one direction, then another to follow our movements (I was headed away from them and already at quite a distance), their hooves pounded on the frozen earth an ancient, but familiar hollow sound.

elk

I watched the elk briefly as they watched me, but I was headed for the river.  Within moments I spied fresh wolf tracks, 2 sets, as well as a lone coyote, on a sprint down to the river too.  I began following them as they lead me down the narrow gully that meets the river’s edge.

Two wolves side trot down the road

Two wolves side trotting towards the river

The wolves sidetracked up to a small meadow for a view and I did too.  From there, I glassed around, probably doing what the wolves did with their own eyes and good sense of smell.  Just a ravine away, there was a large gathering of birds on a melting ice field.  I detoured that way and watched them for a while.  Thousands of birds were gathering in trees, taking time for a drink.  Their chirping sounded like crickets, which I knew weren’t out yet because it was about 37 degrees.

After following the canine tracks down to the river, and seeing they’d crossed over, I made my way slowly to the cliff edge.  I wanted to spy for mountain goats that frequent the Clark’s Fork cliffs in the winter.  There is a special look-out area, where the meadows give way to trees, that soon fall precipitously over the 1000′ edge.  As I neared the trees and cliffs, I heard that strange ‘cricket’ sound again.  The flock had flown here and they were flying everywhere, from tree to tree, around the cliffs, thousands of birds.  These were Bohemian Waxwings and maybe there were beginning their migration north.  Beautiful birds, a bit smaller than robins, they caught my eye and senses.

Bohemian Waxwing

Whatever they were up to, the sheer force of their presence and numbers was magical.  The sun beat down through the trees.  I stood and allowed the new spring sun to warm my body, closed my eyes, and listened to them.  As I became quiet, they grew less concerned about my presence and became more active, flying all around me.  I felt like I was receiving a tiny bit of what America might have looked like hundreds of years ago–when wildlife was so abundant that this ‘small’ flock of a thousand birds or so was common.

What a wonderful two hour hike.  Only in a place like the Greater Yellowstone.  I was reminded of how precious, fragile, and necessary this place is.

The Fox and the Hound

O.K.  I exaggerate.  The hound would be Koda who found the carcasses but he never saw the fox, nor was he interested in a hunt.

Several days ago Koda found a dead yearling deer partially snowed over under a dead tree root.  I recognized the yearling as one of the babies that had been frequenting my yard this winter with his sister and mother. How he died I wasn’t sure.  His ribs exposed and his rumen still inside but all the organs eaten out, and the head missing.  He could have just died from the harsh winter, or possibly a cougar kill that had been buried in the snow, and exposed when the snow melted.

Cougars will frequently just eat just the internal organs as they lack the ability to manufacture Vitamin A.  It had snowed the evening before and there were no cougar tracks to be found, just a lot of canine tracks.  I’m not very familiar with fox tracks vs. coyote tracks, so I just wasn’t sure which one it was.  I put my trail camera on movie, and left it there for two days.  I wanted to make sure I didn’t run into any bears.  I heard they are starting to emerge, and they’d be looking for winter kills.  The boar grizzlies emerge first.  In the 6 winters I’ve been here, my limited experience is that while Yellowstone and the North Fork report bears in early March a lot of times, our area is slightly later by about a month.  We may just have more forest without homes, while the North Fork is a narrow corridor with a lot of cabins.

I returned in two days to find this video on my camera.

Now armed with the knowledge that these tracks clearly belonged to a fox, I checked all around and noticed a distinct path the fox had followed to, and from, the carcass up the hill.  This fox had followed his own trail to the carcass then back to his den or lay.  Clearly the trail was deliberate, not like a wandering excursion.  So I got my GPS out and followed his trail.

Wolf track lower left; fox track lower right.  Then they cross.

Wolf track lower left; fox track lower right. Then they cross.

Fox track and ruler

Fox track and ruler; foxes have lots of fur on their feet which makes for indistinct tracks

Following the fox’s track reminded me of when I followed a bobcat track up this same mountain last year.  Up and up he went.  Unlike coyotes or wolves who like to follow path (like deer paths), or course across a hill or mountain, this guy was going straight up and ignoring worn paths.

Fox track close-up

Fox track close-up

As I got higher, the snow softened and I kept ‘post-holing’; each footstep was sinking deep into the drifts and I had a hard time climbing.  The fox on the other hand was gliding across the snow.  Koda was sinking too.  Of course, Koda weighs 90 pounds and that fox might weigh 20 pounds.

Fox continues but I don't

Fox continues but I don’t

Finally, I could just go no more.  I was high up the mountain, on steep sides with deep snow.  I took a GPS reading, hung a bit of shiny stuff on a limb, and decided to return when the snows melted some and explore.

Where I had to stop because of deep snow

Where I had to stop because of deep snow

This is exactly what happened when I followed a bobcat last year.  I lost his tracks when the mountain turned into a jumble of boulders high up near its summit. Probably he had his den there as bobcats like rock shelters.

Foxes according to Rezendes, might be a link between canines and felines. He writes:

In fack, there was originally some dispute as to whether foxes should be classed taxonomically as dogs or cats.  Cats are direct-registering animals, and foxes are direct-registering animals.  Foxes have eyes similar to those of cats; their pupils dilate elliptically, up and down, rather than in a round fashion, as dogs’ eyes do.

And gray foxes can climb trees, the only canine that can do so.  Plus they have semi-retractable claws.  A lot of times their claws do not show in tracks.

Red fox pelts come in the full variety of colors, from red to black, grey to white. But always they have the white tip.  Red foxes are native to North America.

Just a few of the possible fox coat colors

Just a few of the possible fox coat colors

 It is believed they crossed into North America sometime during the last ice age about 35,000 to 11,500 years ago.  Foxes of this wave are closely related to the European, and Canadian red fox. But in the Beartooth mountains by my home, there is another red fox that is being studied.  These foxes are believed to have arrived during the Illinoian glacier period, 310,000 to 128,000 years ago, and could be the ancestors to a genetically isolated populations of red fox living in the Western U.S.  They live high up (7000-10,000 ft.).   I suppose since I’m at 6800′ I could be seeing some very ancient ancestral foxes.

Fox on Beartooth Highway

A Beartooth fox at 10,000 feet

Some winter musings

So far this winter has been a roller coaster of temperatures.  December brought weeks of sub- zero temps, while almost every day in January was in the high 30′s and 40′s.  All our snow in the valley melted and the ground was bare.  Then one day two feet of snow fell, and didn’t stop. One constant has been wind–a lot of it and up to 50 mph.

Before all the deep snows came, I spent a lot of time watching for wildlife and sometimes seeing them.  I had several glimpses of a lame coyote, with a hurt or broken back left leg.  One day I saw him scurry across a wide field.  I wondered if he’d make it through the winter, with his lameness as well as wolves to watch out for.  Then a few weeks later I saw him stealing a large bone from a recent deer kill.  It was early morning when I noticed the coyote.  He saw my car and started running for cover.  It was then I saw it was my limpy friend.  I took a few photos and was on my way.

Here's the fellow.  Who knows what happened to his leg.

Here’s the fellow. Who knows what happened to his leg.  In his attempt to flee, he dropped his prize bone.  That’s when I left, allowing him to return to it.

Poor guy had it tough enough without me making it harder.  But on the way home I checked for his tracks.  I was curious what a useless left back leg would look like in the tracks.

The arrow points the direction he was headed

The arrow points the direction he was headed

coyote limp

You can tell what a difficult time he is having because his gait is so uneven.  Look for that tiny imprint of his lame foot.

You can see the small imprint of his left hind leg.  The back legs are in front because he is running

You can see the small imprint of his left hind leg. The back legs are in front because he is running

One ski tour I took a few more photos of tracks.  This time a Snowshoe Hare and a Marten track

Distinct weasel-type prints 2x2

Distinct weasel-type prints 2×2

Front feet are in the rear and the back feet on top.  Look how big and wide the back feet are, like a snowshoe.  Hence, the name

Front feet are in the rear and the back feet on top. Look how big and wide the back feet are, like a snowshoe. Hence, the name

Here’s a photo from January on the flats behind my house.  Where’s all the snow?

This is a large herd of about 350 elk.  No snow in January

This is a large herd of about 350 elk. No snow in January

Here’s a puzzle.  We had a few days of intense snow without a let-up.  During a short let-up of the storm, I took a walk around our woods and discovered this interesting ‘hole’.  It doesn’t go anywhere, but was obviously a temporary snow shelter dug out during the storm just above the base of a tree on a hillside.  The hole measured about 6 or 7 inches across, big enough for a fox or a skunk.  I have seen skunks once here, but they are rare.  So are raccoons at this altitude.  I wondered what could have done this.  All tracks were obliterated by the recent snows.

Hole that doesn't go anywhere dug out for a temporary shelter.

Hole that doesn’t go anywhere dug out for a temporary shelter.

I found bobcat tracks around my house.  Bobcats have become quite rare around here because of intense trapping.  Bobcat pelts can go for up to $1000! and so a lot of newbies want to cash in.  Wyoming has no limit on how many bobcats a person can trap and the season is long, pretty much all winter.  So I set up a camera trap to get some photos.  I’ve never been successful catching photos of bobcats, except the few times I’ve seen them myself.  But instead of catching a bobcat, I caught a shot of this fox.Fox

I understand from some old timers around here that foxes used to be quite rare.  Canines are territorial and will kill other canines in their area.  Wolves kill coyotes, coyotes kill foxes.  I’ve seen foxes quite a lot since I’ve lived here and I think the wolves are keeping the coyotes either ‘in check’ or enough on their toes so that there is room for foxes again.

I discovered a secret game trail that is quite a hike from my house.  An old water diversion ditch, it appeared the wildlife were using it frequently.  I also found a deer kill nearby.  To confirm my suspicions, I set my trail camera up and left it there for 6 weeks.  I got a lot of photos of rabbits, deer, elk, coyotes, and wolves.  Here are a few.  Look at the temperature on the two nighttime wolf photos.  Its -33 degrees!

Wolf

Wolf stares into camera

Wolf

Bull elk

Nice Bull Elk

Wolf

see the second set of eyes in the background

I really do live in a special place, right next to Yellowstone National Park!

Noisy and curious elk check out a photo-trap for a bobcat

Elk are smart and elk are curious. Lots of elk passed by this bobcat photo-trap (intended to camera catch a bobcat, not kill one! I used shiny objects and a road-killed bunny), and all of them were very curious. Most really liked that shiny DVD I hung up. Listen to the calls that are on the entire clip. This is mostly what one would call ‘cow talk’.  Elk are all real communicative, and ‘talking’ is just way they do it.  Rubbing noses, following their lead cow’s cues, and watching how others are responding to potential danger are some others. This all takes place on my property at around 7am. You can see elk in the beginning of the clip in the upper left feeding in my front meadow.

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