Cougars, Thieves, Politics

Personally: After a several month hiatus healing from a surgery, I finally went out to check my trail camera. I walked a mile or more from a road, through heavy terrain, then dropped down into a hidden gorge where an ephemeral lake sits in an open meadow surrounded by thick forest. My camera was in the forest, in thick brush, focused on one tree. I choose this tree because, since its a large douglas fir, cougars have repeatedly made scrapes under it. Male cougars like to choose these kinds of trees with little snow underneath in the winter to mark their territory and scent for a mate. A scrape is just where the cougar pushed the dirt into a pile with his back legs, then sprayed a scent mark.

Cougar

Cougars have a vomeronasal organ on the roof of their mouths. This cougar is opening is mouth to uptake the scent of a scrape into that organ. Your house cat will do the same thing.

I’m telling you all this to illuminate that there is NO way a casual hiker (and no one hikes here in the winter) would ever come across my camera. So again, the trail camera was attached to a fallen log about 10′ from a tree, within a thick grove of trees that sat near a 500′ cliff in a very remote location. The camera also was chained and locked to the log.

But when I arrived, the camera was gone. Obviously stolen. I considered it for a moment and my conclusion is this: Cougar hunters have been out in force this year. The only person who would know where to look for a cougar scrape, or care, would be a hunter. Most probably he was either out scouting with his dogs and the dogs came upon the scrapes under the tree; or the dogs were actually chasing a cougar, which got away down the cliff edges, but the dogs found the tree. Upon seeing the camera, I can’t imagine this man would have a tool with him to cut through a thick bicycle chain, so he had to return later with the tool to steal my camera. Either he stole it just because he wanted it, or he thought it belonged to another hunter getting an ‘unfair’ advantage to see if a cougar was regularly returning to scent the area. I could see recent scrapes there. Maybe he even killed the cougar up that tree, and since all the snow had melted, and its been months since I’ve been to the camera, there were no fresh tracks.Cougar

More than angry, I’m disappointed at the ethics of this crowd. I personally do not consider cougar hunting ethical, and this kind of behavior might just go along with the mentality of shooting an animal that’s been followed then treed by your dogs.

Politically: There are some even nastier things going on in Wyoming that I hope will not come to fruition. Wyoming HB0012 has been filed to allow trapping and snaring of mountain lions  –  Introduced by Jim Allen (outfitter), Hans Hunt, Eli Bebout, and Larry Hicks. The bill may be brought before committee as early as February 8, 2016. As of now, mountain lions are hunted only with dogs in Wyoming, but this bill, if passed, would allow the use of snares and traps. This would mean indiscriminate catches, such as females, females with cubs, and cubs. Houndsmen who hunt are interested in killing large males, and in general do not kill females, especially ones with cubs. Wyoming Untrapped is asking people to contact their representative to protest this bill. On their website there is a list of ‘talking points’ as to why this would be very bad for cougars, as well as for our state. This takes our state backward into the 19th century, instead of using the best predator science for management in the 21st century.

cougar-kitten-250

Kittens could be indiscriminately trapped

Cougar Talk: In 2006 a cougar hunter’s dogs running after a cougar came upon a pack of wolves that had killed an elk and were feeding upon it. The pups were eating the elk while babysitter wolves were standing guard. When the pack of dogs charged in, the wolves were simply defending their kill and so one of the dogs was killed while the others ran back down to their owner.

IMG_1040

I had heard about this incident, and finally looked it up in the local paper. January 2006 was when it happened. Cougar hunting season goes from September through March, but in general it begins when the snow is thick, because its easy to find cougar tracks.

For years I never saw cougar hunters, yet in the last few years there’s been more and more each year coming back to hunt here. After the $3500 dog was killed the houndsmen stayed away. So what’s changed? We have two wolf packs here and they roam the valley and the surrounding hills. Why have the hunters gotten bolder? Do they just no longer care? Do they figure they’ll shoot if they see a wolf (wolves are back on the endangered list in Wyoming and even if there was a hunt, the season would be over December 31). One man who doesn’t hunt cougars, just ungulates, told me he thought they are not bringing their expensive dogs. I don’t know if that’s true, but I am sure curious why they are back without a care in the world for their dogs.

Cougar

Cougar caught on my trail cam

For those who don’t understand how these hunts work, the dogs are fitted with GPS collars. The hunter usually drives along the roads until he scouts a track in the snow. Then he unleashes the dogs. The dogs will ‘doggedly’ follow that scent until they come upon that cat. Cats don’t have large lungs. They are ambush hunters, not coursing hunters like wolves. So although they can run for a time, eventually they’ll tire and climb a tree to escape the dogs. A great strategy if there wasn’t a person with a gun coming. With the new technology of GPS, hunters only have to wait till their GPS shows the dogs are in one place. That means they’ve treed a cat. Given a cougar’s terrain, the hike could be rugged and a few miles. But the dogs will keep the cat in the tree. At this point all the hunter has to do is shoot.

2014-idaho-extreme-cougar-hunt-104

A treed cougar by hounds. You can see the dog’s GPS collars

Toni Ruth, a world renowned cougar expert, describes mountain lions as ‘the Clark Kent of the animal world’. And cougar hunting with dogs certainly demonstrates that. I’ve never heard of a treed cat, dog or no dog below, that jumped from that tree and attacked its pursuer.

Cougar Talk, just a bit more:  Cats and wolves have a long history. A 13 year study in Jackson just finished up and looked at this relationship. An excellent NGC show called Cougars Undercover with Mark Elbroch, study manager, described some of the findings. One thing they found is that over time, with the wolf reintroduction and cougars having to adapt, the female cats with kittens, usually solitary, began grouping up so they could defend their kills better. In addition, in the last few minutes of the show, Elbroch says that the reason they found cougars are in decline in the Jackson area didn’t have anything to do with wolf competition which is what they assumed. But instead with overhunting, quotas that were unsustainable for the population.

Although cougars have competition with wolves, they also have competition with other cougars, especially dispersing young males. Last year I found a dead cougar, killed by another cougar over a deer kill. I brought the skull to our local museum where it was cleaned and labeled. Here is the finished museum skull. You can see the puncture wounds from the other cat’s canines.IMG_1036

Does the Land Weep for Us?

I just returned from 7 weeks away. I had to leave for a surgery that I was unable to have performed here in town. I stayed with friends in my old haunts of the Bay Area; had Christmas with family; and when I felt well enough to haul my own wood and take care of myself, I returned home to my little cabin in the woods. I’m still not healed enough to hike, or even walk around much, but happy to be back in the wildest lands in lower America.

In California after a few weeks, I began dreaming of home. I flew into the Absarokas in a small plane, landing high up in rugged country. I found elk, moose, and bears living in Marin County so I tracked them. Eagles soared overhead, wolves howled in my dreams in friend’s homes where I stayed. I missed my home and my dreams said so.

DSC00895

Flying in my dreams over this place near my home

I arrived home last night. No moon, the stars crowded the night, shimmering like millions of ice crystals in the sky. This morning some young buck deer came into the yard, looking for corn I’d thrown out for the wild turkeys. The turkeys milled easily around the deer while both fed. At dusk I drove to the flats above the cabin where hundreds of winter elk feed. I knew they’d be there as they are the Lamar migratory herd that arrives in December.

elk moving up the hillside

Lamar migratory herd

It’s getting cold now and I’m back at the cabin, windows closed, when I hear familiar sounds calling faintly outside. The wolf pack is howling, getting ready for their nightly rounds.

(Wolf sounds I recorded last year)

Winter is the best time here. Tourists are gone. Local townspeoples are gone. Even the residents, mostly snow-birds, have left. The valley belongs to the wildlife and their evidence–tracks–is everywhere.

Back in California, I pictured myself walking through my little woods which I like to do on a daily basis. I’ve spent ten years here–appreciating, loving, serving this place and soaking it up with my whole being. And now this tierra and all its surroundings where I’ve wandered, have gotten deep into my blood.

But does the land miss my regard when I’m gone?  In some small way, I like to think it does. But I’m only one person. What the land, and its community of wildlife, was adapted to long ago was a tribal presence that cared, and did ceremonies of thankfulness.

When I lived in California, I learned about how native clans gathered yearly each October to harvest acorns, do ceremonies, dance, give thanks to the trees, find mates amongst the neighboring clans,and tell stories. Some clans had special Oaks they claimed and served. During the rest of the year they’d prune these trees, and clear brush by fire around them. Acorns were their life blood and also the king-pin for forest food of thousands of other animals.

Miwok preparing acorns

But now no one dances nor eats the fruits of the oaks. No one comes to tell stories and give thanks to the trees and the trees suffer with strange invasive diseases. I believe they are suffer from this lack of regard.

Maybe our trees in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, infested with beetles, suffer this loneliness as well.  Scientists study these trees, but perhaps a different approach is necessary for their healthy response. White Bark Pines shared a similar history for the native peoples in our area. Whole encampments centered around White Bark harvests; now those camps are buried and forgotten, and the trees weep with their sap.

Sheep Eater Shoshone harvest site called High Rise Village

Maybe in my absence, my nearby forest missed my presence just a little, as I missed it.

 

Delisting just around the Corner

I’ve been writing a lot of blog posts on grizzly bears for a good reason–to raise awareness that these magnificent animals are headed for delisting, and hunting, in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Grizzlies in the Northern Continental Divide will be next on the chopping block, but that’s for another round with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife.Grizzly Bear

Despite pleas from environmentalists and Native American Tribes across the West, who maintain the Great Bear is sacred in their histories, the Feds are moving forward fast at the behest of the state politicians.

Arguments on the delisting side say bears are at full capacity in the ecosystem and that is why you see them more frequently in areas near human populations. But according to David Mattson, a leading authority on bear food sources, our bears are just responding to diminishing food sources and moving out beyond the PCA boundaries.

Avalanche Peak, Yellowstone.  Dead whitebark pines

Avalanche Peak, Yellowstone. Dead whitebark pines

Feds are putting a relisting trigger at 600 or less bears. Their goal is to maintain around 674 bears. At the Spring Interagency Grizzly Bear Management Team, the report was 757 for 2014 as bears are counted when they emerge from their dens. Recently, the official count for 2015 was 714 bears, down 6% from last year. Yet so far in 2015, 59 bears have been killed by mostly human-caused mortalities–either directly or indirectly where the management team has euthanized a bear for food rewards. You can see each bear mortality here and the reasons.  That would bring our 2015 count down to 655 for 2015, already below their goal.

One might say rightly that this 2015 spring count minus this year’s mortalities does not account for new births. Yet grizzlies are notoriously slow to expand their population, as I’ve stated in other posts. Since we are most interested in females in the population, grizzlies are not ready to conceive until at least 5 years of age. Their young stay with them for 2.5 years, with a typical litter of 2-3 cubs. And with the high cub mortality, a female grizzly will, at best, only replace herself in 10 years. Grizzly front foot

If one does the math, it’s easy to see that between hunting (which will be legal but is not now; yet even now with hunter mistakes, several grizzlies are killed every year) and bears killed due to food rewards (either livestock or garbage), it will be very difficult to maintain the Feds goals that would include an official hunt.

In addition, add to this math the food pressures facing grizzlies–loss of Whitebark pines, cutthroat trout, poor berry years–plus the unknowns of climate change and one has a disaster in the making for the Great Bear.

What irks me the most is this statement:

Bears living outside the 19,300-square-mile Yellowstone “monitoring area” would not be counted toward the population goal. Similarly, bears killed outside the monitoring area would not count toward annual bear mortality caps.

This statement delivers the certainty of death for any genetic diversity in the GYE–signaling a slow decline over decades of the bears that are isolated in this ecosystem.

I’ve been interested in what happened to the California Grizzly Bear that made them go extinct so quickly. Interestingly enough, when the Spaniards arrived, they brought their cattle with them. Slowly these herds expanded into the thousands. Because the human population in California was low, few of these cows were used for meat. Mostly they were killed for their hides for leather goods. Monthly, or even weekly, they herded the cattle into killing yards, where they slaughtered and skinned them, leaving the meat to rot. Grizzlies soon learned of these cattle heaps and flocked to them. Grizzly numbers soared during the time when the Spaniards owned California because of easy increased food for bears. But of course the Spaniards had their own forms of cruelty. They roped bears for sport, pitting them against bulls after starving them for days while chained up.Grizzly mom and cubs

When the United States won the Mexican American war and gold was discovered in California, miners rushed by the thousands into the state. These men were ruthless. They killed anything that got in their way, which included Indians and Grizzlies. Within a short time, twenty years, both of these native populations had almost disappeared completely. Grizzlies became hard to find, until the last lone bear was killed in Southern California in 1908, lured into a beehive trap. It’s a terribly sad story, yet shows how fast this population can decline, from probably over 100,000 bears to almost 0 in twenty to thirty years.

Grizzly bear population in the GYE before delisting had declined to around 125 bears. After over forty years, millions of dollars, herculean efforts by many wildlife biologists and agencies, there are a little over 650-715 bears. Why is the USF&W bowing to political pressures from conservative states and rushing towards a hunt?

white bark pine bear conflicts chart

Correlation between bear/livestock conflicts and Whitebark Pine loss in the ecosystem

Winter Must be Coming as the Muskrats are building their Homes

For quite some time I’ve been fascinated with Swamp Lake, a large swamp off Chief Joseph Highway. Massive Cathedral Cliffs provides not only the backdrop, but all the water from these limestone massifs drain into the low meadows below. Rare plants, birds, grizzly bears and wolves travel through here. But I’ve been interested in the muskrats that live there.

Over 700 acres of wetland lies beneath these cliffs

Over 700 acres of wetland lies beneath these cliffs

Muskrats aren’t rare or endangered, but around our mountains this is the only place I’ve seen them. Rumor has it that a long time ago a man was raising muskrats for their fur in the lakes. These days they live in peace as I’ve never seen any trappers in these swamplands.

Muskrats spend most of their time in the water, and can dive for up to fifteen minutes at a time. That’s why it’s hard to spot them. Last spring, every time I passed a pond on my way to the Park, I stopped and watched for a muskrat. Once I saw one swim to a log that lay half onshore, climb on it, only to scent-mark it. Occasionally, yet rarely, I’d catch them swimming. Here’s a lucky photo I took of one swimming near the road.muskrat

In winter I look for their ‘push-ups’ which are the smaller equivalent of beaver lodges. When you start to see the push-ups appearing, you know winter will be here soon. When I passed by the ponds in mid-October, I saw no sign of little houses. But this weekend, here they were.

Distant pushups

Muskrat house

I counted five pushups in this large pond. The swamp is huge, with myriads of convoluted connector corridors so there are others push-ups, yet I’ve found most of them in this particular area. Which brings up some questions. I understand that muskrats are territorial, so how many muskrats might be living in this pond with 5 houses? And why do I see the majority of push-ups here?

These homes will be added to. Here’s one from two winters ago. They don’t last but one season. You can see on the photo below that it is surrounded by ice. The pond freezes, but not completely solid so the muskrats can use these holes to sleep in and store their food.

Close up of a constructed house.  These don't last more than a season usually

Close up of a constructed house. These don’t last more than a season usually

The swamp lies between the forested cliffs and the highway. The old dirt highway runs at the base of the cliffs. Facing north with little sun in winter, the snows are deep there. I like to ski this isolated road in winter where animal tracks abound. Wildlife use it as a secretive corridor. Occasionally there are even tracks across the frozen lake. Wolves, martens, weasels, snowshoe hare, coyote and deer are the most common tracks.

Here’s a great Youtube video from the 1950s in Idaho. It shows the Idaho Fish & Game live trapping muskrats, martens, and beavers to relocate them. The best part of the video is how beaver were reintroduced into remote wilderness area by parachuting them in little boxes.

Grizzly Bears Facing an Uncertain Future with Delisting Around the Corner

I’d like to provide several links for people to educate themselves more on the topic of Grizzly Bears and delisting. Dr. David Mattson is considered one of the leading authorities on Grizzly bear foods, studying bears for over 35 years, over fifteen of which were Yellowstone bears. A recent talk given in Jackson, WY outlines Mattson’s reasons why we are having more conflicts with bears in recent years.

The Interagency Grizzly Bear Team, in their annual report outline states that bear populations have stayed flat since around 2002, yet because they are using new methods of calculating population size, the number they are reporting for GYE bears has risen.  In other words, saying there are 750 (or even 1000) bears in the ecosystem in 2015 doesn’t mean we have increasing amounts of bears, but we are using different methods to figure out that population, which has remained flat since 2002. The Team’s reasoning for this is that the ecosystem is full. Mattson on the other hand shows in this presentation with a few interesting charts that the White Bark Pine losses to beetle kill (over 90% dead in the ecosystem) coincides with a rise in livestock conflicts hence grizzlies bears turning to meat for foods in fall. Notice that the loss of Whitebark coincides with that time period of 2002.

white bark pine bear conflicts chart

Mattson has a similar chart that shows a marked increase in hunter bear conflicts overlapping with diminished food sources, particularly white bark pine. Of course it is known that a good white bark pine season keeps bears up high, and pine cones fluctuate from year to year. But the marked increase coincides with loss of trees in the ecosystem.

Moreover, females who are the progenitor of the species, tend to avoid meat sources because of conflict with boar bears who might kill their cubs. The science indicates that sows with cubs who ate more white bark pine nuts tended to have 3 cubs while meat eating bears tended to have 2 and lose one or even one and lose that cub.

Put it all together, and Mattson’s argument is that first, our bears have flat-lined in population size since 2002, which the Agency Team agrees with. But his reason for the flat-lining isn’t that the ecosystem is full, but the bears are losing their primary food sources and extending out to the fringes of the ecosystem, looking for food sources that get them into human conflicts. 

Mattson’s conclusion is the only way to insure the survival of the Yellowstone grizzly bear is by connecting habitat to bears northward. This would allow for genetic diversity and greater food sources, as well as account for climate change that will certainly change bear food sources further.

He also argues that it takes years to see changes in the population so why not wait 10 more years to consider the delisting argument? After 40 years of protections necessary to increase the population of grizzlies from 125 bears to 700 bears, why rush to delist now? Bears are facing an uncertain future.  This year alone 43 bears were killed in conflicts, most of which were food related deaths. This number will increase for 2015 as hunters begin to go out into the field this fall.

To get a full understanding of what Grizzly bears in our ecosystem are facing, I highly recommend watching this talk.

More information on why it is premature to delist grizzlies can be obtained at this website here.

Grizzlies and their Nasty Image: The Journals of Lewis and Clark

It’s fall, and all I can think about are grizzly bears, so here’s another post.  I’ve written in previous posts about all the bears I’ve seen this season and about delisting issues.  Well, bear sightings continue here in the Upper Clark’s Fork. A few days ago I drove up the dirt road to a drainage called Beem Gulch.  In the spring, I saw tracks of a sow with two cubs of the year, though I never saw the bear. I had a feeling she might be around there now, as bears descend into the lower elevations spring and fall looking for food sources. There were about 4 trailers set up in the drainage, though unoccupied. They were wood cutter’s trailers, working on Forest Service slash pile sales.

I walked up a pretty drainage at road’s end, yet saw no bear sign. I was careful of course. Upon driving back down the pot-holed road, I saw her. The car had spooked them, and she was running with her two young cubs across the sagebrush field. Smart mom, she took them into a gully, mid-way, so they were hidden; then used the arroyo as a corridor.

Grizzly track

Grizzly track

That sighting, I figured, was the 7th grizzly sighting this season, and if you count the number of bears, then that makes 13 grizzly bears I’ve seen.  Normally my tally is zero when hiking or driving around outside of the Park.  All these bears were sighted outside of Yellowstone

Grizzly

On the drive home after seeing these bears, I chatted with the game warden.  He told me there were three boar grizzlies on a dead horse (horse died naturally) up the road, with one bear lying on top of the horse. The warden’s take on grizzlies mirrors the official stance of Wyoming Game and Fish, as well as the Interagency Grizzly Bear Team–that is, the ecosystem is full, there’s no where for these bears to go, so we need to manage (read hunt) them.

I’ve stated my views in other posts regarding the official view, so I don’t need to restate it here.  But I’ve been reading a wonderful book by Paul Schullery called Lewis and Clark Among the GrizzliesSchullery is a careful historian.  He dissects each and every mention and encounter that the Corps had with bears, trying to discern which were black bears and which were grizzlies. He notes that for over 150 years, Lewis & Clark’s journals, along with subsequent articles that sensationalized these encounters, shaped our views of grizzly bears as killers, monsters, Ursus arctos horribilis (note the horribilis that was added). Schullery pauses frequently to ponder how this might have occurred. Wisely, he notes that

  • The expedition was charged with a lot of tasks, though their main one was to find the route to the Pacific. Observing grizzly bears and their habits was not high on their list.
  • Every bear the expedition saw, they shot or tried to shoot. This kind of scenario does not make for observing the natural disposition of grizzly bears.
  • Neither Lewis nor Clark observed the customs Indians had relative to grizzlies, nor did they record any myths. Their only observations were of tribes wearing necklaces of grizzly claws.
  • Depending on how you break it down, the Corps saw between 37 and 62 grizzly bears on their entire journey.  Schullery used the larger number, being very generous in his interpretation. Remember that the Corps were unclear how to note the difference between black and grizzly bears, sometimes referring to grizzlies as ‘white’, ‘brown’, or even ‘variegated’.
  • Schullery notes that these bears were seen in a very narrow corridor that was traveled, and that the Corps killed only two females.  Therefore, most of the bears they saw and killed were males, representing only a tiny portion of the population.  Females with cubs were therefore very cautious.

Great Falls 1880

The most damning excerpt from the L&C journals that has helped create the myth of the ferocious blood-thirsty grizzly, was the Corps encounters during their portage at Great Falls. During that long portage of 18 miles whick took weeks, the Corps killed 6 bears and shot at several others. Lewis himself had an encounter that is the most famous, and widely quoted, of all their grizzly stories. Schullery dissects the Great Falls Bear Crisis.  There were dead bison in the stream below the falls; it was bear mating season; people had been using the Falls area for thousands of years. Perhaps the bears associated humans with carrion, piles of butchered bison at the bison jump described by Lewis on May 29

Great Falls today. When I visited last June, there was virtually no water in the run-off portion as all was diverted into the new generating station to the right.

Just recently the Cody Enterprise published an opinion piece stating grizzly bears will be a problem and threat to humans until they are hunted and can learn from dying. In order to understand this still-persistent view on grizzly bears, I highly recommend this book. This twisted attitude reflects stories citizens were told through re-interpretations of the journals.  Remember, people in the U.S. had never seen nor heard about grizzlies (only black bears lived in the east) till the journals became public. And even today we see how sensationalism, not science, sells!

Scullery ends the book with a beautiful reflection:

Today’s grizzly bears live in a tiny, pathetically restricted fragment of the habitat they occupied when Lewis and Clark met them. When we travel the Lewis and Clark trail we visit a former grizzly bear kingdom now lost under cities, ranches, and the very civilized landscapes that the captains and their president could only dream of…We stand along the Missouri River and where there are now dams and roads and cities we feel a vague longing to see what Lewis and Clark saw. Sometimes we can still see much of what they saw, and we strain to imagine the rest.

Grizzly bears are gone from almost every mlle of the routes traveled by Lewis and Clark. The bears survive only in isolated enclaves—a few mountain sanctuaries–places that at best the captains may have viewed from a hazy distance. The bears were gone long before we were born, but in some achingly vague, intergenerational way, we seem to recall them, and even miss them. In their absence these bears have become even more powerful symbols of the landscape than they were when they still roamed it so confidently. They are symbols not only of something lost, but of something we might decide to have again. Perhaps some day, we wonder, it might be possible to travel at least a few stretches of this immense, generous river and again have the chance Lewis and Clark had–to encounter this terrible, beautiful, unforgettable animal. What a discovery that would be.

COY

Grizzly sow with cubs. Yellowstone

The Wild Excellence. A Review

Here is the review of The Wild Excellence:  Notes from Untamed America, in this month’s latest issue of High Country News. There is also a link to the review online on the top sidebar of this blog.  The print version has a nice photo.

August 31, 2015 issue of High Country News Magazine

August 31, 2015 issue of High Country News Magazine

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