Bears and wolves

They usually go together–bears and wolves that is.  They’ve adapted and lived with each other for thousands of years; more than we’ve been around.  So it was no surprise when I saw some fairly fresh wolf tracks and then saw a nice looking grizzly bear scouting around for food before his winter slumber.

Wolf Print

Wolf Print; Quarter for size at left

Symphoricarpos berries

They say this year’s White Bark Pine crop is down which drives grizzlies elevationally lower looking for food.  Those lower elevations are where we, people that is, like to live.  White Bark Pines grow around 9000 feet or higher.  Their seeds, collected by squirrels and placed in middens, are robbed by bears and provide a lot of fat and nutrition, concentrated in a small seed.  Bears are physiologically driven in the fall to put on weight for their long sleep, during which time they do not eat, drink, urinate or defecate till spring.

I went out yesterday in pursuit of a Sorbus bush to dig up–Mountain Ash. They provide good berry food for critters and I want some in my yard. Although I found no Sorbus, I did find a lot of bear scat, so I knew there was a bear in the neighborhood.  Besides a lot of grass and rose hip seeds in the scat, what surprised me were Snowberries (Symphoricarpos albus).  I’d always read that snowberries (named as such because they are pure white and usually white berries are poisonous) were poisonous and not edible.  On the other hand, in general, 80% of a bear’s diet can be eaten by humans, except grass which we can’t digest.  What I’d been finding in Grizzly and Black Bear scat is A LOT of snowberries, and they looked fairly intact, as if they went through whole and didn’t provide much of anything nutritionally.

Grizzly bear

Grizzly bear

Snowberries are a member of the Honeysuckle family, along with another familiar berry–Elderberries. Their berries contain saponins which is widely found in plants and is a glucoside poison:  it destroys the membranes of red blood cells and releases the hemoglobin. Fortunately, saponin is not easily absorbed by the digestive system, and most of what we eat passes straight through the body.  So plants like beans, spinach, and tomatoes that contain saponin are rendered harmless to us.  Saponins stimulate the digestion and clean out the intestine.  They facilitate the body’s use of certain substances like calcium and silicon.  And they forth or whip up into a white foam that can be used as a soap.  They also can be used (illegally though) as a fish poison because fish assimilate saponin into the blood stream directly through their gills, but won’t harm the fisherman who eats them. Plant books say snowberries are poisonous, causing vomiting and diarrhea.  Yet here are some Native American uses:

Common snowberry fruit was eaten fresh but was not favored by Native Americans in Washington and Oregon. The fruits were also dried for winter use. Common snowberry was used on hair as soap, and the fruits and leaves mashed and applied to cuts or skin sores as a poultice and to soothe sore, runny eyes. Tea from the bark was used as a remedy for tuberculosis and sexually transmitted diseases. A brew made from the entire plant was used as a physic tonic. Arrowshafts and pipestems were made from the stems

And one more thing:  Snowberries make a great garden plant addition.

Yellowstone in June

A blustery, unpredictable June brought with it fantastic wildlife watching in my three days in the Park.  I spent two nights in Mammoth and did several hikes.  On one, we ran into that herd of Rams you see.  150 years of no hunting leaves the wildlife very relaxed around people.  The rams hardly noticed us, moving slowly across the trail and up the hillside about 20 feet away.

From what I heard today, so far not too many cubs of the year (COY) have been spotted.  But I was a lucky one to get to watch a mom and 2 cubs for about fifteen minutes before they disappeared into the trees.  The cubs spent the entire time playing, rolling around, and then catching up with mom…..soooo cute!  One the way home I watched a courting pair of grizzlies.  The female was collared.  They rested together for quite some time under a tree while dozens of people watched about 100 yards away.

Yellowstone in May/June is the best time of the year.  One woman told me she spotted 71 bears last year in two weeks.  In early July grizzly bears move up into the high country to hunt for moths.  The elk follow the grasses higher up as well.  Wolves tend to follow the elk.  So although you may see these animals in summer, the sightings will be fewer and more difficult to find.

The wildlife, the thermal activity, the incredible setting–that is the magic of Yellowstone and spring is the best time of year to come.

The right thing to do…Niagara falls and Yellowstone

I just returned from helping my son with location scouting at Niagara falls.  Its strikingly beautiful, especially in the winter.  The crowds are gone and its bitter cold, but there are ice floes in the river and parts of the falls are frozen.  The Canadian side still lights up the falls at night and the sheer power and magnitude of so much water flowing (in fact only 50% is allowed to release as the other 50% is used for power) overwhelms and puts us humans in our proper perspective relative to the awesome power of nature.

Falls at night

Power of the falls

But along with my visit to Sedona, Arizona last year, (which also is a natural wonder but not a National Park) what really stood out was its contrast to where I live now, the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

Although I live next door to a National Park, I don’t of course live within the Park, but within what was designated a few decades ago as its larger ecosystem.  This is an actual mapped area, you could call it a ‘buffer zone’ where its recognized these large megafauna need room to roam to survive.

And, true to its name, I regularly see all the large and small animals that make up this complete ecosystem in the lower 48, which includes wolves, grizzlies, elk, and the occasional bison that is allowed to leave the Park.

So what’s so great about this area  you might say, as opposed to Niagara or Sedona?  Both have the power to overwhelm through their sheer beauty and immense landscape.  The difference are the animals.  Even the Sierras, as incredible a jewel as they are, are NOT a complete ecosystem.  Many animals that were there just 150 years ago are gone forever.

What Lewis and Clark encountered 200 years ago on their journey West is no longer, but a sliver of it can be glimpsed here in the Yellowstone Ecosystem.  Just a sliver, but that sliver is our history, our heritage.  No one would think of selling Monticello to create senior housing or a Walmart!  Why should we not value our original landscapes and the animals that were here before us in the same way?

Everywhere in the United States, with the exception of Alaska, animals have been pushed out to accommodate the biggest and toughest animal–humans.  And that is no exception in the Yellowstone ecosystem.  The controversy rages here too as to who should have primary use of the lands–hunters, atvs, developers, ranchers, oil and gas?.  Wolves are villified for killing elk that hunters could have taken.  Grizzlies are constantly moved around when they get into lands too close to homes or into unprotected garbage.  Bison are not allowed to leave the Park boundary.  Ranches are sold to developers who parcel up the land into lots, crowding out habitat for large animals.  Snowmobilers feel they should have the right to go wherever they choose, including the Park even when the science says differently.  The animals are last on the list.  And when that is how the priorities are set, what becomes of the land is Niagara Falls, Sedona, or at best a ‘safe’ wilderness like the Sierras; at worst we become like Europe, where their natural history is in the so-distant-past that its entirely unreachable in present-time.

Yellowstone and its ecosystem, unlike Alaska, is easily accessible by car to people from all walks of life, rich or poor.  It is an opportunity to view in the flesh our rich natural past.  Any person can do that from the safety of their car, and watch wolves or bears in the Lamar Valley.  Or one can take more risks and venture into the back country.  Even today, with this area protected and the reintroduction of the wolves, thereby completing the ecosystem fauna, the landscape doesn’t hold a candle to the enormous amounts of wildlife that was once beheld by the mountain men in the 1830′s.  Yet, they are all still here, thanks to the enormous efforts of many men and women conservationists through the century.

Black wolf

In the U.S., there are many unique and beautiful areas, but there is no where like this area.  Here we have the Serengeti of North America.  And in my mind, we are not valuing nor protecting it enough, nor are we holding it in the proper perspective.

Our Serengeti

The proper perspective:  This area, as well as more large tracts of contiguous land (Yellowstone to Yukon idea) is a wildlife first policy.  This is our gift to our children and the future.  This is our gift to the wildlife here.

Once we all realize what we have here, a jewel that is found no where else in the U.S. (Do we really want the last place where wild animals roam to be in Alaska, out of the reach of most ordinary folks?), we will change our approach and our views on a daily basis.  No longer will we have on the Wyoming books archaic 1890 laws that allow trapping, an indiscriminate way to kill wildlife.  No longer will we confine bison to the tiny Island of the Park because the cattle industry fears losing their brucellosis stamp.  Nor will people call for the extermination of the wolves because they are having a harder time hunting in the spots they are used to.

We will make new laws to help support the wildlife in any way we can and preserve this area; not for ourselves or for any use we desire today, but because we recognize its’ specialness, and because, frankly, its the right thing to do.

There was a time, not long ago, when out of 60 million Bison that once roamed the entire United States, only 100 survived.  In fact, it was thought that all bison were extinct, and that was what we, as a country, as a government, was trying to achieve.  But in the early 20th century, around 100 Bison were found living in Yellowstone.  An immense effort was made to bring at least some bison back and the bison that you see today living in Yellowstone are the result of that effort–the last pure genetic stand of bison living today.

When you go to Yellowstone, there is a power, a respect, a wordless reverence that wells up in your being just seeing these animals.  Something deep and ancient reverberates in their presence.  Imagine if those bison hadn’t been preserved?  Those conservationists who helped preserve the bison of Yellowstone did an incredible service to future generations.  We, living today, are the beneficiaries of their efforts.

We must make those same efforts today for generations that will be living 100 years from now, just as they did for us 100 years ago.  That is how we should be looking at the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.  That is how we should be making our laws, our plans, our actions.

“You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one…”

Becoming Bear

This fall I followed bears around so much I began to feel that I was becoming sympathetic with ‘bear consciousness’.

Its not that I was actually seeing lots of bears, although I did see a black bear as well as a Mama Grizzly (not Sarah Palin by the way) and her 3 cubs, but I was tracking and back-tracking them, exploring their sign and where they’d been feeding.

This fall was a lean year for the bears.  Poor pine nut crop combined with a lousy spring made for difficult foraging.  In addition, the ecosystem is full and their habitat needs to expand.  But every time a Grizzly tries to move into range not outlined in the ESA as reintroduction habitat, he gets moved.  I’d swear that the WG&F Grizzly guys must spend their entire summer moving bears–from Jackson to Crandall, Crandall to Dubois, Dubois to Gardiner.  Its really crazy, and there is plenty of good habitat beyond the designated reoccupation areas–habitat that has few people, but may have a lot of forest service grazing allotments–in other words, cattle and sheep.  Our government at work protecting cattle on our public lands.  A negative cash flow investment every year and meanwhile our nation’s grizzlies are caged in a large ‘zoo’ called the GYE.

So, that being said, there was more bear activity and close encounters reported this year than any other year.  Hungry bears were coming around looking for anything they could find.

In September, on my quest in the Wind Rivers, I had a profound dream-image of a Black bear who pointed the way for me.  Soon after that, Black bears began leaving sign everywhere around my property.  Almost every afternoon I backtracked a black bear and watched him dig up every Limber Pine middens on the flats above me.  Limber pines are not bears’ favorite pine nut.  They are smaller than White Bark Pine nuts and so carry less bang for the buck.  Also White Bark pine cones easily shatter or dehisce when they open, while Limber pine cones are difficult to open and full of sticky sap.  That means the bears must rely on the squirrels to do all the work instead of doing some of it themselves.  Robbing Limber middens in the spring is usual, but not as much in the fall when the bears prefer the White Bark at the higher elevations.  But this little black bear robbed every midden he could find.  His scat was full of pine nuts, mostly.  Occasionally I’d find one with rose hips, another favorite fall bear food.  Bears need lots of fat in the fall to get ready for hibernation.  Nuts do that, rose hips don’t.

Black bear in my driveway

One evening after tracking this bear I walked up my driveway to find a roll of barbed wire in my neighbors yard displaced about 10′.  After inspection I saw some bear hair and realized the bear had gotten tangled and dragged the roll of wire along until he’d gotten loose.  I tried to haul the wire back to its location but couldn’t make it budge.  That roll must have weighed 75 pounds!  I was duly impressed with this bears strength.

On another occasion I was driving out the driveway, came around a corner and there was a huge log in the road.  I stopped and got out to move it off the driveway.  The log had obviously rolled down a steep embankment.  As I pushed it out of the way, I noticed from where it had come:  a gargantuan old midden way up at the top of the hill.  This midden was surrounded by logs and that bear had pawed his way through the stumps and completely devastated the middens.  A squirrel chattered away at me.  “I’m not your culprit”  I told her.

Those two incidents taught me about Bear Power.

October was an unusually hot month here in Sunlight and Cody.  Days were in the high 60′s.  One afternoon I took the car up a draw on a bad dirt road.  As the road got more and more rutted, I decided to walk the rest of the way. The view was wide as the gradual uphill was surrounded by sagebrush.  The road paralleled a narrow gulch where spring runoff once flowed before our 10 year drought.  A lone pine tree grew in the dry stream bed.  Koda was in front of me as we walked up the road.  Koda the sentinel, the sign talker I call him, as he is my alert signal, watching for sign along the way.

Koda suddenly stopped, sniffed the air and looked around.  I stopped too.  But after a few moments he continued on his way, and I suspected all danger had passed.  But to my right, from under that lone tree, a black bear appeared.  He must have smelled Koda and I because we had made no noise.  That bear took off roly-poly as fast as he could across the sagebrush and straight up a hill.  He was the bear of my dream from a few weeks previous.

I was at the grocery store in Cody when I ran into my neighbor.  “My son heard a noise on the porch of his cabin in the middle of the night.  He looked out and saw a grizzly and 3 cubs.”  I had heard about this bear but hadn’t seen, after over 2 months of walking my woods and land, any sign of grizzly, just sign of my black bear friend.  I doubled my attention-efforts, always mindful of sign, noise, and bear spray close bye, but saw nothing after several weeks.

One day late in October a hunter illegally shot a buck by my property (I say illegally because the buck was shot less than 25 feet from the road and dragged across my neighbors property).  Then he gutted the deer out and left the gut pile right by my mail box.  That was no picnic.  Although I enjoy tracking bears, even ones on my property, I’m not interested in feeding and drawing them here with gut piles.  Nevertheless, I saw it as a rare photo opportunity and set up my trail camera.  Next morning the gut pile was gone with bear tracks around it but the camera was conveniently broken!  That was a double cursing moment.

Bear sign was everywhere this fall hunting season.  I went with the Forest Service archeologist up a dirt road to a nearby old Indian hunting grounds.  Koda found a gut pile by the road and grizzly tracks were everywhere.

It was only at the end of October that I saw her.  It was my birthday.  Koda had finally lost all of his tennis balls.  It was near dusk and I decided to help him find balls, so we walked into the meadow by my house.  I didn’t have my bear spray with me as I wasn’t going anywhere.  I walked along the meadow, our usual route to my nearby stream when something caught the corner of my eye.  It was a stump that, like so many stumps, looked like a bear.  Usually I pay those stumps no mind and since all the logging that was done last year in those woods, there are plenty of those stumps that fool me all the time. But for some reason I morphed that peripheral glance into my full direct attention and by golly, it was a bear!  And a grizzly at that.  Then I noticed the 3 cubs with her.  They were all quietly feeding in the woods about 75 yards away.  Strangely, they hadn’t noticed me nor the dog, nor had the dog noticed or smelled them.  I called Koda to me and we began slowly and deliberately walking back towards the house.  And we were getting pretty close too, except Koda realized we were going back so soon and began to balk.  He was crying and jumping “Let’s play”, and it was then, when I had to reprimand him, that that Mama Grizzly took notice of us.

I saw at once her moment of decision.  She had that question of “Flight, or Fight” going through her body.  I could feel it.  I handled the dog and we kept slowly walking back towards the house, me without my one time of bear spray!  But she decided we weren’t a threat, her cubs were close, and they all loped towards the forest.  I got back to the house with even enough time to get a fuzzy photo of  two cubs before they disappeared into the woods.

Fuzzy Wuzzy was a bear photograph

A few days later I went to check what those bears were digging for at this time of the year.  That Mama had to feed 3 hungry cubs.  Those bears weren’t digging middens, but digging up thistle roots.  Hungry bears and not much nutrients there.

The denouement of this long story comes in CA.  Just after my birthday bear sighting, I left for 6 weeks of work in CA.  One evening I was relaying a few bear facts and stories to some friends at a party.  I then walked into their kitchen to see the headlines of the local Independent Journal:  Bear spotted at Point Reyes. Now this is a big deal because although there are bears up the coast in northern counties, there haven’t been bears around the Marin/Point Reyes area for over 100 years.  The article said not to worry, as its only one black bear and there’s thousands of wild acreage out there.

I saved the article and a few weeks later was visiting a friend who is the head of the Marin tracking club at his home in Point Reyes Station, the town near the National Seashore.  Interestingly enough, he told me that along with biologists and Forest Service people, he was called out to verify that this was a bear track (although how you can mistake a bear track for any thing else, I can’t figure).  So he actually saw the track!  In addition, two different people gave him scat that they wanted to have verified as from a bear.  One person was in Inverness which is part of Point Reyes, but the other person lived in Lagunitas, a good 15 miles away inland.  Richard brought out two baggies with the sample scats and yes, there were both bear scat.  In his analysis, the one bear from Point Reyes had lots of bird seed in his scat, probably from a bird feeder on the person’s property.  The other scat was full of apple peel and seed, from that womans orchard.  Clearly if suburbanites are going to live around bears, they are going to have to change some of their habits.

So that ends my fall bear saga.  Something about tracking bears, following their flow, gets one into a bear mindset.  One night while I lay down to sleep, after days and weeks of tracking bears and seeing bears, I almost could ‘feel’ the consciousness of a bear.  It wasn’t that I now ‘know’ about bears.  But it was more like the beginnings of a ‘feeling’ sense, a bear feeling sense.  That was good.

Tell Bear stories

Its a perfect time to tell bear stories.  The bears have been foraging around, soon to bed down for the winter.  Last week a mama griz and her three cubs wandered through my adjacent forest.  Its been a bad year for bear food…lack of fattening pine nuts, the late cool spring, has made for poor forage.  These bears were digging up thistles and eating the tops of the roots.

But for me they were ‘birthday bears’ because I saw them on my birthday…signs of luck and power, and they all looked healthy with winter coats.  I felt as if I was walking close to a bear village, so many bears right by me and Koda.  I was reminded of this wonderful myth by the Haida peoples of Canada.

HAIDA BEAR STORY

Long ago, a group of girls of the tribe were out gathering huckleberries. One among them was a bit of a chatterbox, who should have been singing to tell the bears of her presence instead of laughing and talking. The bears, who could hear her even though some distance away, wondered if she was mocking them in her babbling. By the time the berry-pickers started home, the bears were watching.

As she followed at the end of the group, the girl’s foot slipped in some bear dung and her forehead strap, which held the pack filled with berries to her back, broke. She let out an angry laugh. The others went on. Again she should have sung, but she only complained. The bears noted this and said, “Does she speak of us?” It was growing dark. Near her appeared two young men who looked like brothers. One said, “Come with us and we will help you with your berries”. As the aristocratic young lady followed the, she saw that they wore bear robes.

It was dark when they arrived at a large house near a rock slide high on the mountain slope. All the people inside, sitting around a small fire, were wearing bearskins also. Grandmother Mouse ran up to the girl and squeaked to her that she had been taken into the bear den and was to become one of them. The hair on her robe was already longer and more like a bear’s. She was frightened. One of the young bears, the son of a chief, came up to her and said, “You will live if you become my wife. Otherwise you will die.”

She lived on as the wife of the bear, tending the fire in the dark house. She noticed that whenever the Bear People went outside they put on their bear coats and became like the animal. In the winter she was pregnant, and her husband took her to a cliff cave near the old home, where she gave birth to twins, which were half human and half bear.

One day her brothers came searching for her, and the Bear Wife knew she must reveal her presence. She rolled a snowball down the mountainside to draw their attention, and they climbed up the rock slide. The Bear Husband knew that he must die, but before he was killed by the woman’s brothers, he taught her and the Bear Sons the songs that the hunters must use over his dead body to ensure their good luck. He willed his skin to her father, who was a tribal chief. The young men then killed the bear, smoking him out of the cave and spearing him. They spared the two children, taking them with the Bear Wife back to her People.

The Bear Sons removed their bear coats and became great hunters. They guided their kinsmen to bear dens in the mountains and showed them how to set snares, and they instructed the people in singing the ritual songs. Many years later, when their mother died, they put on their coats again and went back to live with the Bear People, but the tribe continued to have good fortune with their hunting.

__________

Bear walking

“…myth-makers were trying to raise human existence to a greater level of participation in the total context of natural existence. Therefore, myths were, originally, psychic tools for the achievement of magical, mystical, and Spiritual “intoxication” and ecstasy, or the Realization of a psychic state of non-separateness, non-fear, and Ultimate Unity.”

–Adi Da Samraj

Squirrels, Bears, and birds: What’s the connection?

The Clark’s Nutcrackers have been very busy over the last month.  So have the squirrels.  They’re both competing for the Limber Pine seeds that grow around here.  The birds extract and stash seeds.  The squirrels create middens with stored seeds and cones.  The bears let these animals do their work, then rob the middens.

Clark's Nutcracker

It is really amazing to watch the Nutcrackers.  They are so adept at using their beak to extract the seed.  Limber pine cones are full of sap, really sticky.  I’ve watched a bird work a cone, sometimes to just get sap or a bad seed.  The bird cleans it’s beak quickly and works another seed hole.

Squirrels too can work a cone very quickly and efficiently.  Both squirrels and Nutcrackers seem to know exactly which seed is viable or not.  I’m sure it has something to do with its weight.  Sometimes I find a cone on the ground with a few seeds left in it.  Invariably those seeds are empty, either with worm holes or they just didn’t mature.

Meanwhile, after working hard on caching all these seeds, the bears are coming around robbing all the caches they can find.

There’s a black bear working my neighborhood intensely, day after day.  His scat is everywhere,  mostly full of pine shells.  The scat even smells like pine nuts…you can smell the rich fatty odors.

Loaded with pine nut debris

Yesterday I drove down my driveway only to find a huge stump in the middle of the road.  I got out to move it, I looked up the hillside where it had rolled down from, and saw that this bear had completely worked over an old middens.  He’d turned over the soil so much that the chickadees were having a field day.

Dug out middens on my hillside near the house

What a nice circle of feeding and robbing…birds and squirrels feed the bears who feed the birds.

Squirrel above robbed middens angry at me. "I didn't do it" I told him

The Bear Facts

When I took Jim Halfpenny’s tracking class last year, he gave me a small pamphlet entitled  Bear Ecology.  Yellowstone Ecosystem. The pamphlet consists of lots of charts, so I’ll try and digest a few for you, literally.

Since I’ve been watching bear evidence and their scats a lot lately, here are a few facts:  About 80% of the nutritive value of Grizzly bear food comes from herbs. From this they get mostly protein.  Less than 20& comes from animals, where they get fat and protein.  The rest comes from shrubs and pine nuts.

Of the plants that Grizzlies in Yellowstone National Park consume:  78% or more of their plant diet comes from Sedges and grasses.  A whopping 6% comes from Claytonia lanceolata or Spring Beauties.  Further down in value importance are Cirsium (thistle), Clovers, Yampa, Biscuit root, onion grass, horsetail, and whitebark pine.  But if you look at the nutritive values of food, the only two that provide fat as well as protein are animal and pine nuts.  Therefore, they need these to increase their brown fat for winter hibernation.

On this chart, as far as animal foods, cutthroat trout are at the top of importance.  After that comes gopher, voles and marmots, elk, deer, and bison.  Below that are ants.

Another interesting chart is about the differences between Black Bear and Grizzly Bear den types.

Black Bears evenly split their types of dens between boulders, crevices, and outcrops.  They only dig 13% of their dens.

black bear digging for ?

Grizzlies, on the other hand, dig 86% of their dens and rarely use caves.  Which might explain why in these charts, which are not that up to date, Black bears were denning almost a month earlier than Grizzlies.  Grizzlies need to wait for more snow cover.

I’ve been intrigued with bear diet this year especially since I know that the White Bark Pine Crop is poor.  I keep wondering how these bears, that are so huge and strong, survive on mostly vegetarian diets.  These breakdowns help explain some of how they are able to use plants and convert them into useable proteins.  

So far, living at 7000′, we’ve had no snow yet on the eastern side of the Absarokas.  Today it rained some, October 17th.  I wonder how global warming will affect the denning times of black and grizzlies.  I wonder what plants they will find when its not cold enough to den but not warm enough, nor the days long enough, for good plant growth.

Mark Bruscino was on Wyoming PBS friday night.  He said an interesting thing.  He said that Grizzly bears are as intelligent as the Great Apes, making them the most intelligent wild animal in North America.  Surely they are an animal worth protecting, and giving more room to move into habitat that supports their needs as we, and the bears, face new challenges ahead.

The Year of the Poor Pine Harvest

Well, what a drag.  After a week of frustration with my Bushnell Trophy Cam, I finally diagnosed that the camera is broken.  And the reason it’s a drag is because yesterday someone left a gut pile at the bottom of my driveway.  Here’s the story:

Early yesterday morning some deer came out to graze in the private pasture across the road.  It’s deer hunting season and I noticed a nice 3 point buck hanging with the does.   Around 1 pm I heard 2 shots coming from behind my property.  At sunset, Koda and I took a walk beyond my back acreage and returned via the main dirt road.  It was almost dark when we crossed over the cattle guard marking the forest service boundary line.  I petted the horses on one side of the road while Koda was busy in the ditch on the other side.  I went to investigate and in the dark I could see the gut pile left from the buck, lying by the roadside.  With my camera not working, all I could do was check the area in the morning, knowing that probably a grizzly would be bye during the night.  With the pile so close to the house, I made sure Koda and I stayed inside that night.

In the morning, after walking around the area, from the blood evidence, this hunter illegally shot from the road.  He waited till the deer wasn’t on private property, then shot him.  But the easy access was through private property, so he dragged the deer under the boundary fence and through my neighbors’ property to the nearby road just about 25 feet away.  I can’t say I hate hunters because I know quite a few.  Many are ethical and kill for the meat.  I myself like elk and deer meat.  But I do despise the ones that break the law, or are too lazy to walk or ride in, or hunt just for trophy, or complain incessantly about wolves making it harder for them to find elk.

What giveth, taketh away, and then giveth again.  My little buck friend saw its last day and had its last meal this morning.  But grizzlies are hungry this year.  It is the Year of the Poor Pine Nut Crop, and that is what fattens grizzlies up for their long winter sleep.  This grizzly gorged himself on the gut pile, then left a scat of his last meal or meals, which clearly consisted of rose hips.  His scat was full of rose leaves and fruit, and although rose hips don’t taste too bad, especially after a frost or two, they’re not gonna put much weight on the bear.

 

Bear scat consisting of lots of wild rose and hips

 

I felt sad for the buck, but it was a nice stroke of luck for this grizzly and I was glad for him.

After checking the area, I went for a hike down a spectacular secret slot canyon.  Its secret because most of the year there’s a stream running through it.  In summer the brush is so thick you can’t paw your way through.  But in the late fall, the leaves of the Cornus (Dogwood) shrubs are gone and the stream has dried up.  Its only about 50 yards through the 5′ wide canyon to the main creek.  The creek, surrounded by high canyon walls, is inaccessible except for this narrow slot canyon.  But the game know the way and there were grizzly tracks down through the muddy canyon floor.  I crossed the creek and came into a wide wooded valley surrounded by high granite walls.  Large Junipers, Douglas Firs and a few Pines populated the area.  Exploring the canyon, it was obvious a grizzly had been hanging around here for quite some time.  He too was eating rose hips, but he had been spending a lot of time invading middens for pine nuts.  These aren’t from Pinus albicaulis, the White Bark Pine, but Pinus flexilis which is also in the white bark family.  The grizzlies seem to have been eating quite a lot of these this year.  Even the grizzly who ate the gut pile had old scat nearby with Limber Pine shells in it.   Although Limber Pine has been hit heavily by blister rust and beetles, we still have large stands around here and apparently the grizzlies are taking advantage of them in a bad White Bark year.  They certainly are not as big and fat as White Bark, but they’ll do in a bad year.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the bears, how resourceful they must be, how they’re mostly herbivores, how they have to spend so much of their energy foraging for food with so little calories.  I’ve been thinking about those reports I’ve read this summer about undernourished bears.  I am amazed how they are able to make a living out there.  What a wondrous animal.

The magnificent and endangered grizzly

There’s been plenty of hubbub regarding bears this summer in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, mainly grizzlies.  If you haven’t followed it, we had two deaths just on the eastern side of the Absarokas from grizzlies this summer, one of them occurred just up the road from where I live.  In addition, there’s been 38 grizzly deaths just this year, 31 on those caused by humans.  And many of the bears causing trouble have been found to be underweight, or their cubs were malnourished.  Grizzlies were put back on the Endangered Species list just this summer because one of their main food sources, White Bark pine nuts, is also in trouble and in major decline.

Grizzlies have been coming down into hay fields, down into the flats where there are towns and farms.  Why? Because they need more habitat, they need food.  Let’s not forget that grizzlies were actually plains animals, following the Bison and ‘Buffalo Wolves’ on the prairie.  Grizzlies can’t climb trees and their enormous claws are adapted for digging.

 

Grizzly rooting around

 

On the other hand, the smaller Black Bear is a forest bear.  It can climb trees.

It’s not just that ‘we have too many bears’.  Its that we’ve decided Grizzlies can only be in places where people don’t want to live year round–the high mountains–or where we’ve protected the land, such as Yellowstone Park.  And even in those places we barely tolerant them, calling on the feds to move or kill a bear (Grizzlies get three strikes before they’re out, dead out that is) that interferes with our ‘rights’.  In an area north of Gardiner, a sow with her two underweight cubs were moved for raiding a chicken coup.  Chickens are bear bait, and having one just north of the north entrance to the Park makes your chickens a restaurant for a bear.  I don’t understand why we have to waste good tax dollars and federal employees’ time on moving bears for stupid people.

My valley happens to be one of the places the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service moves bad bears, with the hopes they’ll go into Yellowstone.  My valley has good access into the Park, but most of these bears just quickly ‘home’ or return to their territory.  This I’ve been told by one of the bear coordinators. (“You don’t have to worry about the relocated bears.  They leave fairly quickly.”)

So why relocate?  These dedicated federal employees seem to spend a lot of their summer moving ‘bad’ bears here and there–from Jackson to the East Entrance, from Dubois to Cooke City, from Cody area back to Jackson–or they have the dirty and terrible job of euthanizing ‘problem’ bears.  Problem hardly ever means human/bear conflicts, but mostly cattle/sheep/horse/chicken conflicts or just too-darn-close-for-comfort conflicts.

We just have to begin to make a concerted effort to live with bears and give them more habitat.  A few things I can suggest (and there are many more that could be added to the list by people ‘in the know’):

1.  Use bear-proof garbage cans and food containers.  Several bears were euthanized in 2010 because of ‘food rewards’.  The article above said that after euthanizing a bear roaming around West Yellowstone, the feds discovered lots of unsecured food containers.  That’s just a crime!  West Yellowstone is exactly adjacent to the Park.  If you want to live there, secure your food or pay the consequences.  Should the bears pay the consequences for stupid people?

2.  We need contiguous wildlife corridors from here to the Canadian Border, with planned wildlife crossings over highways.  This is very important.  These bears and other wildlife need to be able to migrate out into other food sources when their own territories get too cramped.  And for God’s sake, at least slow down in Yellowstone.  This summer alone there were several bears killed by cars in the Park.

California is now putting the grizzly bear on all CDL.  If you hold your license up to the light, there’s a bear there; the same bear that’s on their flag and the exact same one that was shot to extinction in the early 1900′s.  If you’re going to tout it, then bring it back.  California has good habitat for grizzlies.  Let’s move some there.

3.  We need prairie where Grizzlies and Bison and wolves can roam again.  Grizzlies are already moving into eastern Montana.  Support the American Prairie Foundation and tell them to not just bring Bison back (already beginning to happen there) but wolves and grizzlies as well.  With the extinction of the White Bark Pine by the end of this next decade, bears will need a different food source.  We need to be thinking about recreating some of the kinds of habitat they lived in when Lewis & Clark were here.  L&C didn’t find game in the mountains; the game was abundant in the prairies.  Restoring bison to the prairies along with wolves makes for more game for grizzlies, along with all the small mammals and roots they like to dig for.

This summer I was fortunate enough to see three grizzlies–2 in the Park and the other one we slowed down while the bear crossed the road near here.  What a beautiful magnificent animal.  There is nothing like hiking in grizzly county, knowing that you are not at the top of the food chain.  It makes you alert, alive and aware.  Let’s preserve that.  It keeps our human ‘hubris’ in check.

 

Grizzly track with penny for sizing

 

Report on the Clark’s Fork elk herd

It snowed about 4″ here last night but I braved the drive into town early in order to hear Arthur Middleton’s talk at the Buffalo Bill Museum.  Arthur is the PhD student that’s in charge of the study on why the Sunlight elk herd has such low calf/cow ratios.  He’s been working up here in the field for 3 years, and now he expects to crunch all the data for another 3.  But his preliminary findings were what he wanted to report today to the public.

First off, I’ve seen his interns up here for the past two years and gotten to know them and Arthur.  I can’t say enough about how focused, diligent and hardworking these students are.  Up at dawn in the dead of winter to observe elk in the freezing cold.  As Arthur put it today, they had 4 behaviors that were noted:  feeding, bedding, vigilant, and running.  That’s about all the elk did, day after day.

Arthur did a great job of presenting all this info to the public in lay person’s terms.  He used slides and began step by step explaining some of the biology necessary to understand the complexity.  Simply put, there are many factors to consider, and I do remember at last years’ good-bye party for the interns listening to Arthur thinking all the factors through.  Here’s my summary of Arthurs’ points and I hope I’m doing justice to it all.

1.  First there are two herds that he studied, one migratory (Sunlight herd migrates here in winter and to the Park in the spring/summer/fall); and one non-migratory which is down north of Cody.  By looking at data from a lot of years ago, the elk have changed their patterns.  There used to be no non-migratory herds around here.  Migration, as Arthur pointed out, is a fairly fixed behavior taught by cow to calf, so it takes many years to make a change.  Arthur explained the advantages of migration, mainly better food quality as the elk follow the new grasses up as the snow melts.  There might be some predation advantages too as the predators den in the spring and stay put for a while as the elk move higher up.

Elk from the trail camera

2. Arthur explained how lactation takes a lot of energy from the mother (as all of us mothers know!).  Basically, non-lactating elk have 50 pounds more fat on them than those that lactate.  While the normal pregnancy rates for elk is 90% (and the NON-migrating herd is at that bar), the Sunlight (migrating) herd is at only about 60%.  The premier finding of this study was that the Sunlight herd cows are only getting pregnant every other year.  By doing that, they save energy vis a vis body fat that helps them through the winter.

3.   Displaying a slide of the rainfall patterns over the last hundred years, and comparing that with satellite data that looks at greening rates (especially in the months of June/July during lactation), we could see that this area has been in a severe drought, as well as compressed warming trends (i.e. shorter winters).  A photo of the high mountain pass between Sunlight and Yellowstone in June showed not as much green as should be expected.

4.  Another interesting find was behavior, what the interns were watching during those months they were here.  The vigilant behavior time was the same for the non-migratory and the migratory.  But where they differed was that the non-migratory herd spent more time bedding while the migratory herd spent more time feeding.  The nutritional quality of the migrators just wasn’t as good.  Factors governing the non-migratory herds were irrigated pastures and intentional low grade fires set to improve grazing in areas where cattle are.  The migratory Sunlight herd goes up through wild and high country where natural fires and rainfall determine feed quality.

More elk

5.  Lastly, looking at predation, Arthur showed a chart from research in Yellowstone pre -wolves on calf predation.  Predation was looked at by bears (main predator of calves), coyotes, cougars, natural causes, and survival rate.    He compared that to a more recent chart that included wolves.  Interestingly enough, wolves were almost about the same as the coyotes in the first slide but the bear predation had increased 3 fold. Lots more bears are in the Park since the 80′s.

This grizzly spent hours upturning Bison paddies for insects underneath

Although Arthur has more data to analyze, it seems obvious that the main factor that is affecting this herds’ decrease in cow/calf ratio is quality of feed.  These elk, smartly enough, are compensating for the nutritional loss by having calves every other year, instead of every year.  Add to that the increased predation on calves by bears in the park, with the new factor of wolves predating at the same rate as coyotes approximately, and you pretty much get your 30% drop.

Bull and cow mating in Yellowstone

One other comment Arthur made was that most of the migratory herds are doing well in Wyoming.  Sunlight as well as one other herd stood out as extremely low on a comparison chart and that was why this study was conducted.  Why this herd suffers more from drought than other herds–you’d have to look at each herd individually.

After the talk I went to the local hairdresser to make an appointment for next week.  As I was waiting at the counter, I noticed a large poster ready to put up, advertising the ‘Wolf Rally’ in Cody on May 22 by hunters, like the one in Jackson several weeks ago.  These guys are blaming wolves for all their woes and want the Wyoming delisting plan enacted which would give the wolf  predator status all over the state (meaning you can shoot on sight).  On the tag line of the poster there was an invitation to ‘Come and learn the science of what’s happening with the wolves and elk’.  Somehow I don’t think so.

Nature is a beautiful complexity that takes much time and pondering to put some of the pieces together that Man can understand.  What I learned from so many of my biology classes is that things are just not as simple as you think.  I watched Arthur over these last several years thinking through so many pieces of this puzzle in a questioning way, trying to piece parts together.   Its much easier to have an emotional opinion, play the game of scapegoat, and rally around a cause.

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