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Bighorn Sheep’s Gordian Knot Part I

When I began research for my book Ghostwalker, I learned about the messy politics surrounding reintroductions of bighorn sheep into isolated ranges of the Southwest where they once lived yet disappeared centuries ago. This noble endeavor to reintroduce a once thriving species to these sky islands and basin/range habitats had a dark underbelly. The idea was to eradicate mountain lions from the targeted range beforehand in order to enhance the sheep’s success.

Because bighorns are so fragile, because their restoration has been so fraught, I felt for the sheep. Yet the method seemed arcane at best: the lion through no fault of his own, doing only what lions do, traded for the success of a small herd on a tiny mountain range. The emotions, the circumstances, all very complicated. Therefore I left this vital piece out of my book as it begged for much further research. But the problem stayed with me. This year I decided to do a deep dive into the issue.

But to begin to wrap our heads around bighorn sheep issues, there is a lot to understand. Therefore this will be a series of posts. In my first post, I’ll begin in the area where I live with Rocky Mountain bighorns. All bighorns came to their present delicate circumstance through the same doorway, so beginning with my Rocky Mountain bighorns will lay a good foundation for understanding the more complex issues with desert bighorns.

First, my title. Truth be told I stole it. It’s been used to describe the relationship of mountain lions and desert bighorns. But having spoken with many people and done some research, I do not feel that is an adequate nor comprehensive description of what plagues bighorns. Therefore, here is a Gordian Knot as described by the dictionary:

The Gordian Knot is a legend of Phrygian Gordium associated with Alexander the Great. It is often used as a metaphor for an intractable problem (untying an impossibly tangled knot) solved easily by finding an approach to the problem that renders the perceived constraints of the problem moot.


In 2015, in the Tendoy Mountains southwest of Bozeman, Montana Department of Fish Wildlife and Parks did something unusual—they sold 311 hunt tags for any bighorn sheep in an area of only thirty sheep. Drawing a bighorn ram tag in any western state is akin to winning the lottery. Many hunters put in year after year and probably will never draw a tag in their lifetime. But this fall in Montana was different. Why? Because the Tendoy herd had been struggling for years with a respiratory disease complex with die-offs and low lamb recruitment. The heart-breaking answer the department came up with was to eliminate the entire herd and start anew. What hunters didn’t kill, the department would. Five years later, in 2020, the department announced they’d begin transplanting sheep into the Tendoys again, this time from Flathead Lake.

If you think this is a strange anomaly, it isn’t. Eliminating an entire herd that struggles with a disease complex called Mycoplasma ovipneumoniae (MOVI for short) has been done over and over in the West. But the fault lies with humans, not with the sheep.

Bighorn advocates have compared the disease to how European diseases decimated Native Americans. When European settlers brought their sheep and goats throughout the West, those animals were carriers of these bacterial diseases. Yet the domestics had built up immunity over thousands of years. But for our native bighorns, these were novel pathogens. Between disease, market hunting, habitat loss, and forage competition, native sheep populations plummeted. Original numbers throughout the Western states may have been as high as 1-2 million. By the early 20th century, they were at less than 25,000.

To restore bighorn populations where they were lost, restoration projects began in earnest in the 1960s. The most obvious idea was to move sheep. And that is what wildlife managers did, from one state to another, from one mountain to another, wherever sheep could likely thrive or had been in the past. Canada was a big exporter. So was Wyoming. It was a well-intentioned mass effort. Unfortunately, though somewhat successful, we only added to the problem. Kevin Hurley of the Wild Sheep Foundation described it to me succinctly,

“Somewhere in the future a geneticist is going to look at this and go ‘What the hell were they thinking back in the 70s, 80s, and 90s where they just blended so many sheep from so many sources’.

“The analogy I always use is a daycare. If you put a kid in a room with twenty other snotty-nosed kids, at the end of the day they’ve swapped about as much spit and goo as they can.”

In fact, it wasn’t until around 2007 or later that the lightbulb went off. Up until then, we just didn’t have the technology to understand what was really killing sheep.

When you listen to the wildlife disease experts, the terminology gets way into the weeds. When the question section comes up in zoom public meetings, the one always asked is “Can’t we just create a vaccine?” Yet that is why its called a “pneumonia complex”, because the entire issue is complex. MOVI is what HIV is to aids, it weakens the immune system, leaving it vulnerable to a host of other diseases that might not have otherwise killed a sheep. Biologists called it a “set-up artist”. The fine hairs in the respiratory tract called ciliary are damaged, the sheep are coughing, their lungs slowly destroyed. Some develop nasal tumors which make it harder to slough the disease off, becoming super spreaders (we are all familiar with that term now). Maybe they don’t even succumb to the disease, but being a life-long carrier, a typhoid Mary. The ewes that survive pass the disease along to their lambs through breast feeding. The herd then has adult death and zero recruitment. Usually the die-off of the entire herd, or a large portion, is swift.

Another major problem is that rams, looking for mates and to spread their genetics, do walk-abouts, usually in large circles encompassing 30-40 miles. Even if they begin their journey healthy, they might run into domestic lambs or goats, contract the disease, then bring it back to their herd. One ram came from Colorado into southern Wyoming, traveling over 400 miles and through three different bighorn sheep herds. Wyoming Game and Fish only knew this because the ram was collared and they were alerted by Colorado game agency. Sheep are gregarious—sheep like sheep. They don’t need to touch noses to get infected. They might even be kilometers away if the wind is right. Because Game and Fish had no idea if this ram came into contact with domestic stock, be it a large herd or a hobby rancher, they couldn’t take a chance. This one ram could cost hundreds of sheep lives and devastate entire herds. The ram was euthanized.

From Doug McWhirter 2020 presentation. Lamb Survival in three Wyoming ranges

The deeper microbiologists and veterinarians delve into the bighorn disease issue, trying to find the silver bullet cure, the messier the problem becomes. Although MOVI is a major culprit, there are a whole host of diseases. Although just in the last ten years its been accepted that domestic sheep and goats are carriers, there is now a question if cattle can add to the disease problems as well. Add to that mountain goats who are also susceptible and inhabit the same terrain, the problem thickens. Although we are clear disease is the main issue with sheep die-off, there are still major puzzles to be solved.

The Absaroka mountains have the only bighorn herd in the United States that has never been transplanted into nor out of. It is a pure, native herd with between 3500 and 4000 sheep. Although the historical evidence says that mountain goats were never native to Wyoming, a very few were transplanted in the 1960s for hunting, and have migrated into the Absarokas, sharing similar terrain with the native sheep. From a lot of blood work and studies, at last count in 2020 these native Absaroka sheep had the full compliment of pathogens. In other words, they were all carriers as far as the story told by the captured individuals. And although there have been some ups and downs in the population with disease outbreaks, their population remains stable. The mountain goats, which might present a problem in one area as they did recently in the Teton range, don’t seem to present a problem as far as researchers can tell, with the Absaroka herds. One explanation was given to me by Doug McWhirter, Wyoming Game and Fish biologist who has spent his career studying bighorns.

“Some of these pathogens could still be cycling from being introduced decades before. It tends to cycle in those animals. You could have pathogens that are residing in live animals that they pass down to offspring that don’t kill them under most circumstances, but if they are stressed by a weather event, then their immune systems can be comprised, and then at that point in time those pathogens either spread, or become more virulent and that’s when those impacts can take place.”

Veterinarian Jennifer Malmberg’s simple graph of MOVI crash in bighorn sheep population

Even though there are no domestic sheep allotments on the forest today, the Beartooths were last retired as recently as 2001, and up untill the late 1980s, the headwaters of the Greybull River as well as Carter Mountain had domestic sheep on the forests. My neighbor who passed away a few years ago and grew up in this valley, born in 1926, once told me there were sheep herders all over the valley. I described a strange log structure I discovered in a nearby narrow drainage once. The drainage led to a high meadow with old campsites littered with rusty tin cans. “There were thousands of sheep up there in the summer. The log structure was probably a food cache.”

The Absarokas are littered with old Shoshone Indian sheep traps as well. Trapper Osborne Russell wrote in the 1830s how he saw thousands of sheep on the mountains surrounding the Lamar Valley of Yellowstone. Our native sheep have been exposed to domestics for a long time. Yet another pristine herd in Wyoming is crashing, probably soon to go extinct. The Whiskey Mountain herd in the Dubois area has never received sheep, but have provided many throughout the Western states. Whiskey mountain was a major supplier from the 1960s through 1990. In 1991 the die-offs began, in multiple stages, and the herd has never rebounded. Although both the Absaroka and the Whiskey Mountain herds carry the complete composite of pathogens, what makes one more resilient than the other? Biologists don’t know, but possibly environmental factors come into play—weather, food stresses, minerals like selenium, the jury is still out.

With so many unknowns, wildlife managers and conservation advocates are focusing on what they can control. Where it used to be predator controls (and still is in many respects. More on that later), the main focus has shifted to attempting to control separation between bighorns and domestic sheep and goats. That requires producers to acknowledge their sheep are the problem carriers, and then get them on board. One strategy has been offering to retire allotments, or switching allotments to non-problem areas.

Believe it or not, the expansion of grizzlies and wolves has presented real opportunities for bighorn sheep. Permittees in some circumstances are more willing to take the cash offers from private organizations to retire their grazing allotment. Yet the code of the West that enshrines livestock and private property owners has, in my opinion, strangled some of this progress. Take for instance the story of Josh Longwell. Longwell had long been in disputes with federal agencies over grazing, right-of-ways, and wildlife. As retribution, which some might call “wildlife terrorism”, Longwell abandoned grazing cattle on a high elevation grazing allotment in the Owl Creek Mountains and substituted domestic sheep, knowing they’d co-mingle with native sheep. For the Game and Fish, the risk was great, and an infected ram from the Owl Creeks that rubbed noses with Longwell’s sheep could walk-about over to the Whiskey Mountain herd and even north towards the Cody area. The Governor approved an emergency early season and licenses issued for up to 34 sheep. Longwell smugly declared this was an issue between private property and wildlife. And he may have characterized it correctly, and the government caved.

Organizations that have fought hard and long to restore bighorn sheep throughout the West have long tried to work cooperatively, versus litigating. And that is a good avenue to begin. But when it comes to the most sensitive species, an iconic species with multiple strikes against it that we are trying to restore, there are limits. Longwell represents one of those.

Kevin Hurley started our interview with a line that sums up the life of a bighorn sheep.

I go back to the early 80s, Tom Thorne, he was our wildlife vet back then. I’ll never forget the article he wrote back then in Wyoming Wildlife magazine. It was called ‘Born Looking for a Place to Die’. The whole point was they live in tough country but they’re pretty wimpy, respiratory speaking.


Stay tuned for Part II.

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The Fragility of Grizzlies

For those of us who care about the fate of the grizzly bear, for those who love to see grizzlies in Yellowstone National Park and its outer ecosystem, Engineering Eden by Jordan Fisher Smith is an important chronicle of the bear’s recent history and how we almost lost him.

Many do not know that it was Yellowstone Park Superintendent Jack Anderson and Yellowstone’s chief biologist Glen Cole who almost brought Yellowstone grizzlies to extinction following the 1967 maulings in Glacier National Park known as The Night of the Grizzlies. The reaction to the night of August 13th, when two women were mauled to death in two separate incidents by grizzly bears, led to the quick closing of Yellowstone dump sites. The closings were over the objections of Frank and John Craighead.

The Craighead brothers had been conducting the first in-depth grizzly study in the Park. In an 11 year continuous study beginning in 1959, the brothers invented the first radio collars, collaring and ear-tagging 256 bears in the Park during that time. Their study shed light on where grizzlies denned, the size of their home ranges, and how bears homed back to where they were captured. From the results of their research, the Craigheads proposed the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem—linking Yellowstone, Grand Teton, five national forests, and two national wildlife refuges into a single landscape. It was apparent to them that the boundaries of the Park itself were not sufficient to protect nor contain the food sources and wanderings of grizzlies.

Craighead Brothers move a grizzly (NPS photo)

While Anderson and Cole wanted to immediately close all the Yellowstone dumps, the Craigheads, knowing these bears had grown up adapted to receiving food rewards and understanding the bears better than anyone, advocated for a slow change-over, dropping road killed carcasses at the Trout Creek dump site. In other words, a slow wean rather than cold turkey. In the end, the Craigheads were right. Without the additional food sources of the dumps, the bears began heading into campgrounds, rummaging for food. At that time campers were not protecting their food, nor were there bear-proof cans provided. Everything happened too fast. Rangers were employed to kill problem bears and the bear population crashed to below 150 bears. Since bear reproduction is extremely slow, even after the bears had been on the Endangered Species list for ten years in the mid-1980s, most scientists thought the Yellowstone grizzly would soon be extinct. By 1990, the Greater Yellowstone grizzly population had dipped to 99 bears. Slowly, it began to creep back up to present day estimates of about 750 bears.

Engineering Eden uses as its focal a lawsuit trial centered around the death of a young man named Harry Walker. Walker was passing through Yellowstone in 1972 with a friend. They camped about a mile outside the designated campgrounds in Old Faithful, left their food out, set up a tent, then went back to the lodge for the evenings entertainment. Trying to find their way back to camp after midnight on a moonless night, Walker was mauled and killed by a grizzly who’d found their food. The family sued the United States government, and in a high profile case, Starker Leopold, son of Aldo Leopold, testified as an expert witness for the government while Frank Craighead testified for the family. Smith uses the trial, going forward and backward in time, to bring to light all the events surrounding the case, even discussing black bears in Yosemite that were also garbage bears.

If you don’t know about The Night of the Grizzlies, there’s a Montana PBS special worth watching, or a short but excellent book by Jack Olsen. Yet it is worth recapping that night since this was the spark that ignited what followed in Yellowstone.

The two fatal incidents occurred on the night of August 12, 1967, two different bears, separated by eight miles and a formidable mountain named Heavens Peak. Since the Park’s creation in 1910 there had not been a single fatal encounter with a grizzly bar. So these two attacks on the same night raised a lot of controversy.  But they were actually a long time in the making which included other non-fatal maulings that had occurred in Glacier. Food dumps and trash from the growing number of visitors attracted bears, black and grizzly, for years. Granite Park Chalet, the site of one of the maulings, had been dumping garbage just 200 yards from the building. The year before, the Park Service provided an incinerator, but the sheer volume of visitors created more trash than could be burned nightly. Plus, the nightly arrival of grizzlies was a tourist attraction that was coveted. The dumping continued.

With a long term drought depressing the berry crop, critical food for grizzlies in the Northern Continental Divide, bears had grown particularly dependent on these dumps. At Trout Lake, on the other side of the Livingston Range, one bear in particular had been trouble throughout the summer. She was old, underweight, and unafraid of humans. That summer there were reports of this old female marauding campers and campsites, even confronting them while on horseback. She had been hanging around a private outfit called Kelly’s Camp at the head of McDonald Lake getting into their garbage. Yet no action was taken by the Park Service. Things were different in those days and with no grizzly bear major incidents since the Park’s opening, policies were lax.

Michele Koons had hiked into Trout Lake earlier in the day with a few friends. This bear had come into their campsite earlier and they drove her off. The group then moved their site closer to the lake and built a large bonfire. At 4 a.m. the bear returned, sniffing out their sleeping bags. Although her companions escaped up trees, Michele, unable to slip out of her bag, was carried into the woods. With first light, Koons’ companions hiked out to the McDonald Ranger Station to report the mauling.  When the rangers found her body, it was mauled beyond recognition.

“Trout Lake was typical of all the other campgrounds at that time in Glacier National Park,” said Bert Gildart, the ranger who responded to the grizzly attack at Trout Lake in an interview with the Great Falls Tribune in 2017.  “I think all the campgrounds in Glacier National Park were a mess. When the chief ranger and I flew back in there a few weeks later, we picked up an immense number, probably 17 burlap sacks we loaded into a Huey helicopter and it was all full of garbage that people had left behind.”

Meanwhile, since the Granite Park Chalet was over-flowing with visitors the evening of August 11, Julie Helgeson and her boyfriend Roy Ducat decided to camp at the campground 500 yards down the trail. A similar scenario played out, with the grizzly first mauling Ducat in his sleeping bag. When he played dead, the bear turned to Helgeson. Ducat climbed out of the bag he was sharing with Julie, and ran for help as the bear dragged Helgeson down the ravine. A search party found her alive, although she died soon thereafter from excessive loss of blood and shock.

Rangers were dispatched to kill the offending bears. Bert Gildart and Leonard Landa shot the old female at Trout Lake. “It was determined on the spot that this bear had glass embedded in its teeth,” Gildart told the Tribune. “So here you had a bear with difficulty chewing and eating in the first place and as well a bear that was horribly emaciated or run down. It couldn’t eat. It weighed slightly over 200 pounds. It wasn’t a big bear at all. It was about 20 years old, an emaciated sow. That’s the reason why it probably fed on the girl.”

Up at Granite Park Chalet, following the mauling, Ranger David Shea was told to kill any bear that came to their dumpsite. The result was three dead bears, including a sow with two cubs. One cub was shot in the jaw by a second ranger, survived the winter, then killed in the spring when he returned to feed on garbage.

From these two incidents, immediate changes in Glacier policies were initiated. “Pack it in, Pack it out”, backcountry campgrounds were concentrated, cables for hanging food were set up, education programs began. But of course all the cleanup of the backcountry along with de-habituating bears took time.


For years I could not make sense of what happened to my friends and I in Glacier National Park in the summer of 1972. My friends Karen and Sarajo and I had spent our high school free time backpacking with other teenagers and a parent chaperone in the Sierras and high mountains of the San Bernadino forest. We thought of ourselves as pretty experienced. We understood cleaning up our cooking site and hanging our food high in trees. In those days, there wasn’t any freeze-dried backpacking food sold. We brought rice, lentils, and other grains that needed cooking for an hour. Smells wafted through the air. But still, a clean camp could be kept.

That summer my friends and I were on a journey typical of teenagers who had just graduated high school. It was the beginning of the rest of our lives and we were excited. We’d hitchhiked to Waterton Lakes National Park with the intention of a through-hike. We stopped at the visitor center for maps and information. Two Canadian rangers stared at us from behind the counter. When we told them our plans, they both looked genuinely alarmed.

“There’s a 10 mile hike that follows a lake. A ranger station is at the lake’s end. From there you can continue on into the United States. You  know there are bears out there, grizzlies and black?”

“What about grizzlies,” I asked. We knew what to do about black bears, being an abundant nuisance in the California Sierras.

“You have three choices if you encounter one that charges you. You can climb a tree. Grizzlies can’t climb trees. You can drop to the ground and play dead. Lie on your stomach, put your hands behind your neck.”

“What’s the third option,” Karen asked.

“Play chicken. Stand in place and stare him down. More than likely that bear will run and veer off at the last minute. But not a guarantee.”

I didn’t give his advice much second thought, but playing chicken isn’t in my nature. Climbing a tree sounded doable.

We camped at the visitor center campground that night and set out in the morning. Much of the hike paralleled the lakeshore. The day was overcast, drizzling on and off. By early afternoon we found a suitable campsite by the lake, built a small fire in a clearing adjacent to the lake and began to prepare dinner.

Our pot, blackened on the bottom from being set over the open flames, wafted aromas throughout the forest. Although the rain abated during our dinner hour, a dark overcast sky signaled a possible storm, so we set up our tents. Gear in the 1970s was heavy and expensive, and as teenagers we had no extra cash for backpacking tents anyways. Instead we’d brought “tube tents”, $2 tubes of orange plastic that hung on a rope between two trees. A clip held the ends loosely together to keep rain out. It was a lousy system. If you really needed it, condensation might be just as bad as the pouring rain outside. But it held in a light rain.

The clouds were closing in as we finished dinner around the fire. We cleaned up and dutifully hung our food high in a tree. Dusk settled and conversation about our trip and the long day began to flow. In the dimming light, Sarajo spotted something moving in the trees at the clearing’s edge.

“Bear.” 

I looked up to see an enormous black bear lumbering towards our hung food.  He stopped directly under the food sacks, spent some time pondering them, then obviously decided it wasn’t worth the effort to climb the tree and shimmy the branch. Bears don’t see well, I knew this, but he looked like this wasn’t his first food rodeo as he began beelining towards our fire.

In all my backpacking days up till then, I’d never had a bear encounter, but we instinctively knew what to do next. We yelled and grabbed our pots, banging like our life depended on that noise. It was a tin chorus but the bear wasn’t fazed. The pots were battered but the bear kept coming. Something seemed off with this bruin.

These were our two tried and true methods—hang your food, make a lot of noise—and they were not working. Our packs leaned nearby against a tree. Although there was no food in it, I was sure the packs smelled from our dinner’s cooking. The bear began rummaging around the packs, sniffing and exploring all the openings. Meanwhile we were building up the fire until it was a roaring blaze.  I contemplated jumping in the lake. It was close by, and maybe the bear would be discouraged and gone soon. It didn’t take me long to nix that idea—a glacial lake with darkness descending—it was clearly a terrible idea.  I glanced around at the trees, remembering what the ranger had told us. Of course, this was a large black bear, not a grizzly. But at that moment it didn’t seem to matter. Yet this forest was not like those in the southern Sierras, full of trees that were stout with lower branches. This Canadian forest had trees that were mere sticks with slender narrow trunks. They required shimming up and I wasn’t sure I could do that. So I threw more wood on the fire.

Meanwhile, the bear now seemed quite comfortable exploring our campsite. He finished with our packs and turned towards us. We sat perfectly still, breathless. I was wedged between Karen and Sarajo. Keeping one eye on the bear, the other on the fire, we’d all run out of ideas what to do next. Banging pots hadn’t worked. A clean camp failed. So we sat still as statues in front of a blazing hot fire.

The bear first approached Karen. I could feel his hot breath. He paused behind her jacket, sniffing the fabric.  The jacket must have absorbed our lentil dinner aromas. He then switched to her pants. He slowly opened his mouth and began placing it around her leg. Before he had a chance to test her leg any further, Karen let out a loud yelp. The bear jumped back.

Still not startled enough to retreat by Karen’s reaction, he turned his attention to the fire itself. Lurching his entire head between me and Karen, he leaned in towards the flames, his muzzle touching my arm. To our amazement, he was fascinated with the fire and wanted to explore it further. His huge face settled next to my shoulder, his eyes fixated on the fire. I stared at him, yet felt no fear. That surprised me. He leaned in towards the flames. As he felt the heat, he quickly pulled his head back beyond my arm, swiping his nose several times with his paw. He almost looked cute. 

Having enough of the fire, he moved behind and around me to explore Sarajo, who was squeezed to my right. Still fascinated with the smell on our down jackets, he started nipping at her jacket’s fabric, but when she pulled quickly away, the bear decided we just weren’t that interesting nor edible.

At that point our bear moved to explore the tube tents. With our sleeping bags already laid out inside, he went back and forth, inside and out, while we tried to formulate a plan on how to get rid of this bear. By now it had been over an hour and I’d had enough.

I picked up some pebbles without moving from my log by the fire, and began throwing them into the woods. To my surprise, the ploy worked. The bear perked up his ears, looked towards the noise, and moseyed off to investigate. That bear got so curious he forgot all about us, continuing his exploration into the forest.

After a restless sleep, the next morning we quickly packed our gear and headed the remaining miles to the lake’s end for the ranger station. Karen said she was sure she saw that bear come around in the morning. Something seemed “off” about this bear. He had no fear of humans. None of the usual techniques worked to deter him.

The ranger station was plush. It had a bathroom with electric lights. We all went to wash up. Sarajo told us she started her period. Karen was complaining about a sore leg. Pulling her pants away exposed a huge black and blue mark in the shape of an upper and a lower jaw. The size of the bruise was shocking, it wrapped her entire thigh like a tattoo. Luckily the skin wasn’t broken. The bear barely clamped down, but that bruise was a mark of how powerful he was.

The ranger met us and we reported what occurred and how we handled it.

“You girls know there were two women killed by grizzles just a few years ago in Glacier. Pretty close to here too.”

What? Why would I know that?  I’m seventeen, not from around here, and certainly don’t read the news on bear maulings.

He was descriptive and detailed in his story. ”They were killed on the same night, in different parts of the Park, by two different bears. One mauling was on a mountain, the other by a lake. Pulled them right out of their sleeping bags. The Park Service said both of these women were menstruating at the time. They say the smell of the blood drew the grizzlies in. The bears were thinking another bear was in their territory, so they killed them.”

If we weren’t scared by that black bear, we now were terrified with this new information. And Sarajo had just told us her menstrual cycle had started. Our plans to continue our backpack needed to change. We decided, for now, we needed to spend the next several days camped right next to the ranger station. The ranger said if we took day hikes and made lots of noise while we hiked, we’d probably be fine.

Every day it drizzled a fine mist. The skies were overcast. The enormous mountains surrounding the lake were shrouded in clouds. The dense forest cast off its wetness as we day hiked to pass the time, yelling as we hiked. It was awful. The whole reason we enjoyed the back country was the solitude, the quiet, the wildlife. Now all we could think about were grizzlies coming for Sarajo, probably around every corner. After five days, her menstrual cycle over, the three of us hiked the ten miles back to the Waterton Lakes Visitor Center. We surveyed the crowds of eager tourists, felt the pressure of the relentless rain and ominous clouds that enveloped the viewscape, and stuck out our thumbs to head south to Grand Teton National Park, a sunny country far from grizzly bears in 1972.

Only years later did I watch the Montana PBS special and realize we were dealing with a highly conditioned bear. We were just lucky that he wasn’t aggressive. During the feeding of black bears in Yosemite, there were many cases of injuries from frustrated bears.

As far as the myth of menstruation motivating the Glacier bear attacks, Smith writes this about it:

The August 1968 report concluded that, indeed, Michele Koons had been menstruating. Menstrual pads had been found in her personal effects. And it stated that Julie Helgeson, whose pack contained menstrual supplies, might also have been expecting the onset of menstruation. The document postulated that menstrual odor…may have attracted the bears that killed them.* [*It is worth mentioning that the Park Service’s report on the grizzly attacks of August 13, 1967, was written by men, who may not have known that many women have menstrual supplies in their personal effects whether they are menstruating or not.]

Following the Glacier report’s release the menstruation story took on a life of its own, as it was recited by rangers throughout the national parks. In some cases female Park Service employees were forbidden to work in areas where they might encounter bears during that time of the month. Later, an exhaustive study of bear attacks by Stephen Herrero…failed to find any correlation between menstruation and bear incidents.

Why is it worth reading and revisiting the details of this? Haven’t we learned the lessons of food storage? Although there are still plenty of incidents with grizzlies outside the National Parks getting into chicken coops, grain bins, or just unprotected trash, in general the Park Service, surrounding National Forests and Game Agencies have done a good job getting the information out and providing proper storage cans to protect food. Yosemite, that once had hundreds of bear incidents in the 1970s, (i.e. 979 in 1975 alone) now has less than 40 a year.

Besides the historical value of how we almost lost Yellowstone grizzlies due to mismanagement and political pressures, I think we are again at a crucial moment. Yellowstone grizzlies are back on the endangered species list, along with Montana’s bears, but that will not be for long. Montana is right now having discussions about delisting protocols. The lawsuit that put the bear back on the ESA will be challenged and eventually the bear will be off again, for better or worse. Acknowledging that we’ve succeeded in saving the bear from extinction in Yellowstone and the lower 48 is cause for celebration. But how we move forward is the question of the moment.

Bears need movement, corridors for genetic meet and greet. They need habitat preserved. And we need to do all we can, more than we even have, to protect them into the future. Montana growth bulges, how will we respect and give space to grizzlies?

I think one of the things this history shows us is how fragile grizzlies actually are. In my mind, our task now is to continue not to hunt grizzlies once they are delisted, to protect and acquire corridors which includes conservation easements on private lands, to educate newcomers and old timers alike in food protections (including livestock small and large), to appropriate funds and education for ranchers for non-lethal methods of livestock protections, and to support these efforts through general funds for game agencies so as not to rely on hunting licenses. Many groups have been working on all these points. Gaining public support and dollars, especially once the bear is delisted, is probably key.

Climate change along with population growth are growing new threats to the bear. We have seen in the past how quickly we almost lost him. It is possible to happen again.

You can also read this post on my website https://lesliepattenbooks.com/blogs/

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Some old and new thoughts on Moose

It’s been unseasonably hot in the NW Wyoming mountains this summer with very few traditional thunderstorms. The river is a nice retreat. I loaded the new puppy into the car and headed up the road to a fishing hole I know. For some unknown reason, I was dreaming of moose. So sensitive to heat stress, I wondered how they were faring this summer. Shaken out of my reverie, I looked to the river below the road and lo and behold, there was a female moose emerging from the water heading back into the trees.

Mama Moose and newborn calf

Believe it or not, moose and beaver are intricately connected. Beaver east of the divide here struggle to survive. The few we have probably migrated from an introduction at the Montana border, whose intention was to populate the NE corner of the Park. They traveled down the river corridor, found good habitat, and usually are promptly trapped in a few winters. I live in Hunt Area 1 which covers most of the state. Hunt Area 1 has unlimited beaver trapping.

But beavers create the habitat that help moose and other wildlife thrive. On a recent trip into the Gros Vente Wilderness, I saw a lot of beaver sign with prime moose habitat of generous willow growth. Just a day earlier, I’d run into a fellow who told me there were no moose anymore because the wolves had eaten them all. Of course, we saw plenty of moose sign along the trail. Maybe he didn’t know how to recognize it.

Getting ready to walk across a beaver dam, right side of photo

In celebration of seeing my moose yesterday, thriving amidst too hot temperatures, I thought I’d reprint text from an old post that has some succinct yet very basic and important facts about moose.

From April 23,2010 post:

I’d downloaded Scott Becker’s Master Thesis last fall and finally got around to reading it.  He did a study on the moose around the Jackson area, including Dubois, south Yellowstone, and the Tetons.  Here are some of the highlights from his study:

1.  Few, if any, moose existed in Wyoming prior to 1850.  Sporadic observations of moose occurred in NW Wyoming after 1850, but its believed the population didn’t begin to increase and expand until after the establishment of Yellowstone National Park.

2.  Moose suffer heat stress in winter when temperatures are above -5 degrees celsius (23F); 14 degrees celsius in summer provokes heat stress (57F) and above 27C for extended periods of time is unsuitable for moose without refugia (80F)

3.  Migrations between seasonal ranges follow traditional routes and that knowledge is passed from parent to offspring.  Thus it may takes several generations for moose to adapt to habitat alterations that impact seasonal movements and ranges.

4.  Some of the most important elements of habitat quality include coniferous forests, especially during spring when increasing ambient temperatures limit foraging activities of moose during the day.  Moose movement is very concentrated in winter and dependent on coniferous forests.  Moose population density and calf-cow ratios for the north Jackson herd began to decline shortly after the ’88 Yellowstone fires.

5. The north Jackson herd is in a steady decline.  When female moose are healthy, they usually have twins.  The results of Becker’s study indicate that nutritional quality, rather than the availability of habitat may be the most important determinant limiting population growth.

6.  The impact of predators on calf survival appeared to be minimal.  Although wolves did account for some adult female mortalities, the effect of wolf predation on this population appeared to be minimal.  The apparent preference for elk by wolves in the GYE was likely due to the greater abundance of elk in the area.  Also, because elk are in herds, its easier for wolves to follow and find them.  While moose are solitary and the occasional predation is usually due to happenstance.

7.  Management implications:  Mature coniferous forests are an important component of Shiras moose habitat selection in winter and summer.  Thus disturbances that reduce the amount of mature forests could negatively affect moose population performance.

8.  Becker concludes that nutritional quality of habitat is the most important factor in the declining moose population in the northern Jackson herd.  Habitat quality has been affected by large wildfires, insect outbreaks, widespread drought since the 1990’s, and global warming.  Predators are playing a minor role in the decline of moose in northern Wyoming.

Just Published: Biocircuits: The Natural Tool that Promotes Sleep, Boosts Energy, and Expands Awareness

I’m pleased to announce the release of a 2nd edition of the 1988 book Biocircuits, that I co-authored with Terry Patten. The new edition includes the double-blind study that Julian Isaacs and Terry Patten published thirty years ago, and it’s beautifully redesigned and laid out. It’s got a new subtitle:  Biocircuits: The Natural Tool that Promotes Sleep, Boosts Energy, and Expands Awareness.

The original book advanced public understanding of the nature and dynamics of the life energy in the human system, how it can flow, fail to flow, and be restored to its natural flow, how to correct hyper-arousal, and how to stimulate healing parasympathetic relaxation. The first edition went into two or three printings and ultimately sold over 25,000 copies, but it’s been out of print for at least a decade. 
The 2nd edition has a new introduction from myself and one from Terry Patten. The paperback has a summary of the double-blind study results. The eBook contains the summary along with the full 45 page study results and procedures.

Considering Biocircuits thirty years later, one fact stands out: I still use them! From 1989-1998, when Terry and I were choosing the products we would feature in the Tools For Exploration catalog, we tried out literally hundreds of subtle energy tools and consciousness technologies. Of all those technologies, biocircuits have stood the test of time. Any time I need to restore my life energy in a time-efficient way, I lie down on a biocircuit. I feel an intensification of energy and tension, and then a release, and then another wave passes through, and then another. Ultimately there’s a great depth of relaxation, the “parasympathetic release” we documented years ago. About twenty minutes after I lie down on them, I get up off my biocircuits feeling restored and rebalanced. They have stood the test of time!

The book is available in paper or eBook from Aerio , Amazon, or ask your local retail store to order it. 
Visit my website for more information

Koda and the Wolves. Evolution of a Children’s Book

Koda and the wolves

The first time I saw a wolf, I was one and a half years old.

Six years ago, I had the idea that my dog Koda could speak, in his own words, about his wildlife adventures. At the time, Koda was almost seven years old and lived most of his life in the mountains adjacent to Yellowstone National Park. He’d had encounters with wolves and grizzlies, but also watched elk give birth, been caught in a trap, lived with a pika, and many more experiences rare for most domestic dogs. I thought telling stories about wildlife through the eyes of a dog would excite children. Yet as I worked on the manuscript, the essence of Koda’s nature just wasn’t coming through. I put the book aside, unable to figure out how best to let Koda tell his story.

Koda runs after a bear

In October of last year, Koda took his last breath and the unfinished manuscript began to gnaw at me. The book wasn’t right, yet I didn’t have any idea how to change it. I decided to put pen to paper so to speak and begin again. This time the story flowed. Instead of a series of chapters with different animals, Koda’s real tale was represented through his smells and encounters with the valley’s  wolves. At the heart of every dog sleeps a wolf, echoes from deep within their genetic past.

Koda watches 06 swim the Lamar River

When I moved with Koda to my home east of Yellowstone, wolves were still protected and close encounters were not uncommon. Several wolf packs vied for dominance in the valley every winter, and the drama played out before our eyes. Koda and the Wolves tells the story of a dog’s attraction to wild nature embodied in his kin, the wolf; but also how a dog’s naivete of the wolf’s intense territoriality can be his downfall.

Every story in the book, told in Koda’s voice, really happened. My hope is that Koda’s story will bring us all to a better understanding and kinship with his brother, the wolf.

To support that vision, I am pledging 100% of the profits from the book beginning May 2020* through July 2020 to support wolves. In order to maximize donation dollars (due to the tiered, very tight, structural profit distribution in the publishing industry) only books that are bought directly through my website (lesliepattenbooks.com) will be able to provide donations. Donations will go to Wolves of the Rockies.

UPDATE:  With the donation campaign over, I’m happy to announce we raised over $1000 for Wolves of the Rockies.   If there is interest, WofR and I might repeat this campaign after the holidays in 2021. Thanks to all who participated. Koda and the Wolves can be purchased through Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or your local bookstore. If you want a signed copy, please order directly through my website and click on the PayPal link.

 

 

Cougar Action

The deer population in my zone has crashed over the last several years due to a series of very hard winters. Deer are about at 50% of what they were 4 or 5 years ago. Wyoming Game & Fish completed their mountain lion quota review, done every three years, this past summer. G&F decided to increase the cougar quota in our zone (zone 19) from 20 to 25 lions. Their logic was they’d adjusted the unit’s parameters, creating one unit that hugs along the Absaroka front, instead of two smaller units which went from mountains to desert. G&F figured the mountain area could withstand a higher kill rate, while the desert, zone 20, would be a ginormous year-round kill zone where lions wouldn’t be tolerated.

Lion print

Lion track

Unsaid at the review spring meeting was the hope killing more lions would increase deer–a logic that has been soundly debunked via scientific research. And although the G&F biologists know this, they also are placating deer hunters who don’t follow the science, but just know lions eat deer.

Apart from the “growing more deer” argument, a deep flaw in raising our quota is this: Zone 19 is considered by G&F a “source” zone. Wyoming uses a management tool for lions called source-sink-stable.  It works pretty much how it sounds. Sink is a zone where lions are not tolerated–in areas with more population. Stable just keeps the population as it is, and source is where lions disperse from to fill the rest of the state where they deem appropriate.  As a source zone, zone 19 abuts Yellowstone National Park, so it is a logical place for a “Source” population to come from.  Yet at our season setting information meeting last spring, when several houndsmen protested they were no longer seeing large males, that they’d been over-hunted, the G&F replied “You’re just not going to see what you used to before 2008.”  2008 was when the G&F cracked down on lions with higher quotas. With that reply, G&F pretty much admitted they were no longer managing zone 19 as a source population, that they’d abandoned their own management constraints.

G&F Lion quotas

A snapshot of today’s hunt quotas. Column 1 indicates zone. Column 2 is the quota for that zone. Column 3 is what has been killed so far in that zone. Column 4 are kills not counted towards quota. For instance, zone 26 is closed with a quota of 15 and kills of 17, with 1 not counted towards quota. Zone 20 is shaded because it is open year-round. Otherwise the lion season is Sept. 1-March 31.

Dr. Toni Ruth did a study in Yellowstone’s northern range. One of her findings was that road density outside the park determined quota fulfillment.

Lower elevations and increasing density of roads, particularly in areas open to cougar hunting north of Yellowstone National Park (YNP), increased mortality risks for cougars on the GYNR.

Here is a map from that study. You can see that the drainages east of the Park, where there is easy road access, is where kills are highest:

Ruth map source sink

If G&F were managing for a true “source” population, they would close off road access to vehicles, create walk-in access only, limit areas in zone 19 to photography only, have a zero quota on females, and other rules; not raise the quota. I requested a map from G&F showing where the three years of kills were approximately made in zone 19.  I did this before their review of quotas at the commission meeting last July. Predictably all the kills clustered around the main road in my valley and roads elsewhere in the zone.

I’ve been using trail cameras for over ten years in reliable cougar travel corridors. The last two winter seasons it has been obvious our cougar population is down. Where once a dominant male was regularly making scrapes, only bobcats now come. Where I’d always catch females with cubs, I haven’t caught any in several years, nor have I encountered many tracks. With the deer population down, it would follow our lion population would too. Females just wouldn’t be producing cubs or not very many at least.

Deer bed with lion print

Today I was thrilled to find a male lion track and follow him. I’d caught him briefly on my camera, but in a very different location than I’d seen before. I also found one of his kills. In addition, I filmed a wounded female last month at a site where in past years males made scrapes, yet there hasn’t scrapes at that site for three years. Here are a few photos.  Because of the sensitive nature of these cats, I will not reveal any location data.

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Wounded female at an old scrape site

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Here is the male I was following. I’ll be trying to get a better photo of him.

Following a cougar to a kill site

I finally put together a short video collage of the May 30th, 2019 cougar kill I found.  Youtube doesn’t have the greatest quality, but here is the link.

 

What is Wild?

I believe in magic. Not the song. The magic of Nature–a serendipity that suddenly transcends all time. Anyone who has spent time outside knows this. You step down to a quiet stream when out of nowhere you see a wolf just a few dozen steps away. Your eyes meet each other for a brief moment and then the wolf vanishes into the forest. Yet the magic of that encounter is embedded in your brain forever. Or a rare sighting of a marten descending from a tree. He studies you while you have lunch. Those were just two of my own magical nature moments on a trail. Or the time I watched a badger and her three kits wander from hole to hole.

marten

Marten

These sightings weren’t in Yellowstone, but in what is called The Greater Yellowstone where I live. My little cabin sits adjacent to the eastern national forest that abuts Yellowstone which many consider “backcountry”.

badger

Badger

Call it dumb luck that I moved here 14 years ago, coinciding with a wildlife sweet spot taking place in the ecosystem. Thirty-three wolves had been reintroduced into Yellowstone 10 years previously. By the time I bought my cabin, my valley had its own wolf pack. Even though Wildlife Services was constantly pounding them in summer when cows arrived on the forest allotments, they still weren’t hunted and their natural curiosity wasn’t yet stomped out. That meant lots of encounters, on the trails and the dirt roads.

wolf

Alpha male whose mate was killed in the first hunt in 2012 in my valley

With few ATVs in the area in the early 2000s, (they were still a new amusement), grizzly bears, who especially loathe vehicular interference, easily lived alongside our few residents. They mostly came through at night, avoiding homes and locals who camped in the forest on weekends.

Grizzly cub

Grizzly walks next to my house in summer 2011

I frequently saw wildlife and came to know their corridors which is where I’d place my trail cameras. Like humans, animals have routines. Living close to wildlife one gets to know some of them.

Yet slowly, or quite fast, things have changed. My “backcountry” has become “front country”.  And I blame a perfect storm of human interference–a disturbance in the force, a blitzkrieg of meddling that quenches magic. Maybe if it had only been one thing, for instance, more seasonal ATV use. But that has not been the case. To name just a few new items accelerating rapidly since 2012:

  1. Antler shed hunting Jan.-May. Dog chews and Chinese aphrodisiac claims bring hunters big bucks.
  2. Forest Service summer thinning projects and winter logging projects.
  3. Internet access has advertised the area with increased weekend use.
  4. Wolf hunts have a new extended season that now includes September. Then January wolf collaring. Weekly spring flyovers to den sites
  5. Grizzly bear collaring and drop-offs of problem bears
  6. Increased cougar hunting and increased quotas
  7. Trapping has skyrocketed due to worldwide increase in pelt prices
  8. A major stream restoration project using heavy equipment
  9. Wildlife Services baiting coyotes, using helicopters to shoot them, and going into their dens on foot.

So what happens when humans meddle too much? Wildlife retreat. There just is less wildlife on the landscape. This is obvious to anyone who lives here. An intrinsic “magic” occurs when nature can be allowed to take its course. Nature, the interconnected web of animal and plant life, is its own time zone. Too much human interference suppresses it. And the magic disappears, replaced by the familiar, the pedestrian, the irreverent, the unholy.

DSC01759

There is a reason we have a designated “Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem”. That is because these large animals cannot survive just inside Yellowstone Park. Elk and deer have enormous migration routes that wolves and cougars follow. Grizzlies need large tracts of land to find sufficient food. Isn’t it about time that we start treating not just the Park, but our larger landscape with the respect it deserves? That means less human interference in big and small ways. My lament is what has changed here for our wildlife. My hope is that we humans will change our ways.

cougar male resident

Following a lion to find a kill

A few days ago I found a pile of freshly collected dirt and pine needles under a large fir. It had the obvious signs of the only animal around here that covers its scat–felines.

I pushed aside the dirt and found cougar scat, so fresh that it was obvious this cat had just killed and eaten.

cougar scat

Fresh Cougar Scat

In researching my book, Ghostwalker, expert cougar biologist Toni Ruth described to me a typical lion-kill scene—the cougar will drag his kill usually under a tree and cover it. This aides in hiding the smell to keep scavengers away and helps keep it fresh.

A deer can take several days to consume. The cat eats, sleeps and sets up a latrine nearby.  Sometimes cougars will just eat the organs and leave. They need the nutritious organs since they lost the ability somewhere in evolutionary time to convert carotenoids like beta carotene into Vitamin A.

cougar kill

Buck in velvet killed by mountain lion. Lion covered the kill after it had entered through the rib cage and eaten the organs

Armed with this knowledge, I began hunting around in an ever-widening circle looking for the kill site. Yet I found nothing.  Giving up, I walked into the nearby forest where a light wet snow still covered the ground from the previous evening. There I found the cat’s prints.

I backtracked the cougar, who had crossed through several properties. I found the kill, a young buck, close to a garage whose owners are absentee most all the year.

I could see the cat had entered through the rib cage (typical) and only eaten out the organs so far. I ran home and placed a trail camera at the kill site.

My home is amongst a small cluster of 6-9 acre properties, all bordering National Forest. The valley is a patchwork of a few large ranches interspersed with public lands.

Most everywhere one looks is National Forest. A few miles directly west are the Absaroka mountains, the border of Yellowstone National Park. Deer are getting ready for their annual walk-about, following the green-up to the high country of Yellowstone.

They are a bit late this year as it’s been cold, green-up a bit late, and the snows still deep where they are headed, so bucks and does are still hanging around, many close to homes.

Sunlight in winter

The Basin in early winter from the pass. Public lands in all directions.

Another neighbor who owns a large horse ranch told me they’d spotted a young grizzly scouting their hay fields not far from this cat’s hidden kill.

It got me wondering if the bear would bounce the cougar off his kill. Cougars are subordinate predators, and bears kick them off their kills 50% of the time. A bear can smell a carcass up to 20 miles away. I was betting on the bear.

Grizzly

Young grizzly in the meadows by my house

But I had other questions. First, this cougar seemed to be acting somewhat like cougars that live in urban-wildland settings–its latrine was about 1/4 mile away and not used over and over; it was coming and going to its kill, returning only under cover of darkness.

With most homeowners gone in early spring, I believe this cat would have acted different. But this is Memorial Day weekend, and some of the nearby vacation homes are occupied. Even the usually vacant property where the deer stashed the kill, the owners had come out from the east coast for the weekend. Additionally, noise factor on the dirt road for the holiday weekend was spooking the cat.

So I asked myself “Would this cat return to its kill to finish up or just be satisfied with the organs it already ate?” “Would the grizzly bear overtake it?”  I waited a few days and went to retrieve the memory card in the camera.

3:45 a.m. First visitor: A lone coyote stays for about 15 minutes

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First visitor to the kill site

4:30 a.m. Cougar shows up. Leaves 40 minutes later

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9:28 p.m. Cougar returns. Leaves and comes back at 2:15 a.m. next morning.

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cougar burying kill

Here the cougar is re-burying it’s kill with its back legs.

So after the initial kill and eating the organs, this cougar has returned three times over the course of two nights. The bear apparently has moved on down the valley, more interested in grass and grains than meat. If this was fall, that bear would have definitely been on the carcass during hyperphagia.

Today was warm. This carcass was buried in a wet swampy area amidst trees. The flies were on it, but there is still plenty of meat. So now I wonder if that cougar will return again, even with the flesh beginning to spoil a bit. Or will the bear be back? Coyotes for sure, and maybe some wolves will come by as they are feeding pups now.  I added another camera that takes video, so, To be continued…

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Reviewing my photos. 3rd day and it is warm (63 degrees). The cougar wasn’t able to cover the carcass very well due to location and there are flies on it, but still plenty of meat.

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