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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


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.


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

An Incredible Bear Story–Addendum to Previous Post

The Greater Yellowstone Coalition (GYC) of Cody sponsored a hike today in the Francs Peak area.  The Shoshone National Forest Bear Biologist, Andy Pils, led the hike.

I had an opportunity to speak extensively with Andy about various bear subjects; but the most incredulous thing happened when I told Andy about my sighting last Sunday of a Grizzly mom and her three cubs of the year at Sawtooth lake.  Andy told me that those bears got a huge food reward, unfortunately, and this is what happened.

Grizzly mom and cubs

If you read that post, you’ll find that I walked the rocky road to Sawtooth Lake, approximately three miles.  At 1/4 mile from the lake, the road descends sharply and becomes even more treacherous to drive.  Parked on that rise was a Toyota 4-runner with Montana plates.  I wondered why they drove their vehicle on such a boulder-stricken road.

At the lake, I heard gunshots.  The Montana fellows were target shooting from a beach at the lake’s input, about 200 yards east around the lake front. I was traveling west to little Sparhawk Lake so I ignored them. Around 12:30 I began the hike back to my car.  I passed their 4-runner and entered a small meadow. That’s where I heard, then saw, the grizzly sow and her three cubs. The sow was running, heading directly to the lake.  I considered the fellows down there, thought maybe I might head back and let them know a grizzly was around, but then felt not only would the bear get there before me, but also they were way out on the east end at a beach, not near where the bear would enter.

Grizzly cub

This is where the story gets quite strange. Andy Pils tells me that just about the time the bear was approaching the lake, these guys were walking around the lake back to the road.  They’d just approached the road’s end at the lakefront when they saw the bear and her cubs, although they reported seeing only two cubs. When they saw the sow, they completely freaked out, dropped their packs, fishing tackle and rods, plus left their cooler full of food and ran back to their car.  Once at the car, they raced back to their home in Billings, MT.

By the next day I suppose they started to think about their encounter, and they had the “brilliant” thought that people finding their stuff strewn around might believe the bear ate them.  So they called the Forest Service to report they were still alive and told Andy what happened.

When Andy Pils heard they left their cooler there, he told them that was a huge mistake.  Their response “But it was a 1000 pound grizzly!” They of course had no bear spray.  Andy went to the lake to clean things up.  He found that the bears had demolished the cooler and ate all the food, throwing all the trash around. But the fishing tackle and backpacks were intact.  The Montana fellows told Andy they wanted their stuff back (“There’s about $1000 worth of stuff there”.  “No way” says Andy, just a cooler and some backpacks), but they said getting to Cody would take some time because they broke their car axle leaving Sawtooth Lake.

There are so many parts to this story that are incredulous, and downright full of stupidity.  Let me break it down:

  1. Not one of these guys had bear spray
  2. Greater Yellowstone Bears do not weigh 1000 pounds.  Being a sow she probably weighed about 300-400 pounds.
  3. They did everything wrong when they saw this bear, and who knows how far away she was when they even spotted her.  They should have talked to the bear and slowly walked to their car.  More than likely she would have taken her cubs away from the area.
  4. They ran.  Number one NO NO rule.
  5. They gave her an incredible food reward.  Now those cubs will never forget and will associate humans with food.  Maybe not this year or next, but at three years old when they are out on their own, they might become nuisance bears.  Fed bears are dead bears, period.
  6. That bear and her cubs were bothering no one.  I do not know for certain why she was running along the trees when I saw her.  I postulate that she smelled me and was taking her cubs away.  Therefore, she would have done the same with these guys if given a chance.

This story made me so angry.  The only thing they did right was not shoot those bears.  (As an aside, I was pretty shaken up when I got to the lake and heard gunshots.  I only hoped they had enough sense not to shoot across the lake. Having hiked into a beautiful pristine area, the last thing I wanted to hear was gunshots going off when it was not hunting season.)

If people are going to recreate in bear country, they need to know at least the most basic simple rules and take precautions.  I asked Andy about those young twin grizzlies that were moved which I wrote about here.  He said lots of cars stopped on the Beartooth Highway to watch them and he was certain a motorist had given them a food reward. Once that happened, they became nuisance bears and were moved to a remote section of the south Shoshone.

Bears are having a difficult season, with a poor berry crop, few nuts and a bad moth year, bears are being seen more than ever in the low country because they are very hungry. I worry how hunting season will go this year.

On a lighter note, here are some photos of our hike today:

Wood River Peaks

Wood River

Gray Jay

Gray Jay


Lunch at the summit

Lunch at the summit

Sparhawk Lake, Beartooths; ATV’s and Grizzly Bears

An old-timer told me about a forest service cabin down at Sparhawk Lake which J.K. Rollinson had stayed in.  “His cowboy boots are still sitting there.”

That I doubted.

J.K. Rollinson is well-known in our little valley.  He was one of the first rangers in Sunlight and wrote a book that included his time here in the early 1900s.  His book, Pony Trails of Wyoming, describes trips to this Beartooth cabin, peppered with stories about dangerous lightening storms in the high country and leading scientists to collect grasshoppers in Grasshopper Glacier.

I wanted to see if the cabin still existed so I drove to the dirt pullout to Sawtooth Lake across from the Island Lake turnout.  The road is excellent for the first 1.5 miles, then turns to a rocky mess.  I parked and walked the final 2.5 miles to Sawtooth Lake.

Sawtooth Lake, Beartooths

Sawtooth Lake, Beartooths

It just so happened that the Northwest Wyoming ORV club had arranged an outing with the Shoshone Forest Service last Thursday to look at a possible loop trail extension from Sawtooth over to the Morrison Jeep Trail.  The Forest Service, in their 20 year plan, has promised three new ATV loop trails. I couldn’t go on that trip and I wanted to see the road conditions for myself, so I included it in my walk-through. The Forest Service and ORVer’s had driven the road (of course).  I feel you can see much more if you are on foot.

The day was lovely and there was no one on the road–not one ATV or hiker. As I approached Sawtooth, I saw a parked car above the lake.  At the lake I heard gunshots. People were target practicing on a beach at the lake.  I hoped they weren’t shooting in my direction.  I headed opposite from them, in the direction of the adjacent Sparhawk Lake.

The road ends at Sawtooth in a large turnout, but I found an illegal ATV use trail that was headed around the lake perimeter towards my destination.  I followed it until the thick trees around Sparhawk prevented the ATVer from going further.

This is an illegal ATV road that follows the northwest boundary of the lake

This is an illegal ATV road that follows the northwest boundary of the lake

Heading through the trees, I quickly came to the cabin, at least what remained of it. And the Forest Service had placed a nice plaque there. No cowboy boots though.

Sparhawk Forest Service Cabin built in 1908

Sparhawk Forest Service Cabin built in 1908

Another view of the cabin

Another view of the cabin

Plaque on rock

Plaque on rock

Close up of plaque

Close up of plaque

I wondered why they didn’t build the cabin at the adjacent, and very large, Sawtooth Lake.  Here’s a photo of pretty little Sparhawk Lake.

Sparhawk Lake

Sparhawk Lake

I made my way back to Sawtooth and began the return walk.  Less than 1/4 mile from the lake, by a small meadow surrounded by trees, I heard a very strange sound.  A deep and sonorous honking was repeatedly coming from the forest. I stopped, hoping to glimpse what was making these strange noises.  Suddenly a big grizzly was running along the forest edge followed by a cub of the year. Seconds later another cub, and after a minute another cub!  Something had spooked them to run down towards the lake.  I was far enough away, with the wind in my face, that I wasn’t worried. Here’s a link to a black bear cub making a similar noise. Hearing this, I assumed the sound I heard was from the last little cub who became separated from mom.

This area where the ORV club wants a loop trail is in the PCA (Protected Conservation Area for grizzly bears) and with my sighting, it’s obviously a critical area for these bears. What’s proven is that traffic, especially these loud machines, is very disruptive for bears. A loop trail will bring more traffic here. As of now, people are camping right next to the lake creating fire rings. There are no bear boxes to store food in, and car/ATV campers invariably bring more trash in and tend to not pack it all out (or throw it in their campfire rings).

Young grizzly in the meadows by my house

Young grizzly in the meadows by my house

This year we’ve already had several bears destroyed because they were food adapted. There have been stories of restaurants next to, or even in the Park, dumping their grease outside. Bears that find any food rewards graduate to problem bears which become dead bears.

I’m not necessarily against this area looping with the Morrison Jeep road.  By Sawtooth Lake, it’s only less than 1/4 mile to loop the two roads.  But as ATV’s become more prevalent, their riders need to take responsibility for self-policing illegal off-shoots and keeping a clean camp.  The intense noise factor needs to be considered.  In addition, taking your vehicle into the back country and shooting off guns should be made illegal unless it’s hunting season.

Koda’s Blog

This is to let you know that Koda will now be posting to his own blog site.  I’ve encouraged him to post his stories, which have been so popular on my own site.  He says he will, but first he just had to advertise the book he is writing for other dogs.  So his first post is just that–a preview of his book by a dog for dogs. Here is the link to Koda’s blog.



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