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Tracking a Mountain Lion

A few weeks ago when I was out looking for mountain lion sign, I noticed that a male was making scrapes in a very defined route. I followed through the narrow corridors where he was putting his sign down and came to a rise that looked out over the valley. Just below the viewpoint was another tight drainage. I’d seen this pathway before but never ventured down that way. I knew it went down to a C-shaped plateau that linked the creek, a heavily forested area I’d been to before and had seen lion sign. I decided to return and explore the narrow passage, and see if it was a good corridor for wildlife down to the river.

Last week I made that trip with my trail camera in hand, as well as a GPS. To my surprise, not only was the corridor fairly easy to traverse, but this lion had marked it with scrapes about every 150 feet, and killed a deer along the way. I marked a few of the cougar canyon

scrapes with the GPS as you can see and put my camera on one of them. When I got down to the wooded canyon, the C-shaped plateau is fairly flat, one side which easily leads to the creek while the other is steep and filled with brush. Scrapes (which I did not mark on the GPS) continued all along the forest floor, with several deer kills, as well as two scrapes with a large amount of covered lion scat.

I was hoping to see the male lion on my camera who was responsible for all this marking. I went today to retrieve the photos. It’s only been a week, and although lions have very regular routes (I know I will see him) he may not return this way for 2 weeks or more.

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Black wolf

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Grizzly bear

No cat yet, but bears and wolves.

Mark Elbroch, in puma studies in Northern California and Colorado, found that pumas likely killed more prey when bears are around. The cats are pushed off their kills more quickly, losing precious calories, forcing them to kill their next prey sooner than they might otherwise. The study found that many bears were on a puma kill within just forty-eight hours after the kill was made.

That’s a big bear that was ‘following’ that puma. I retrieved my photos and started up the corridor drainage, with bear spray in hand as the visibility is poor. Halfway I came upon that bear’s day bed, along with a very large scat that smelled terrible. Bear scat usually just smells sweet, from all the grass and plants they eat. But when they eat meat, watch out! The whole zone smelled bad.

Bear Scat

Bear Scat

Bear day bed

Koda by the Bear day bed

Lions in Texas Part 2

I wanted to do another short lion post on Texas. Short because there is literally nothing going on with protections for mountain lions there; hasn’t been since the Mexican-American war. Truthfully, every time I think about the status of Mountain Lions in Texas, it infuriates me. I would hope it begins to infuriate others, especially Texans.

Cougar

I spoke with Jonah Evans whose the mammalogist for the entire State. A study done by Joseph Holbrook in 2011 compared the genetics of South Texas, West Texas, and New Mexico. It showed that cougars in South Texas had decreased by at least 50% historically, were inbred, and generally not doing well.  The Trans-Peco region of West Texas was still holding up o.k. The Trans-Peco region has immigration from mainly Mexico and probably some cougars from New Mexico. It is an area with large ranches, a lot of them older ranchers trying to eek out their living. In addition there are large ‘game’ ranches where people come to hunt deer and exotic species, paying the big bucks. Those ranchers hire trappers to rid the area of cougars who kill their commodity. South Texas by comparison is contiguous with sheep and goat ranchers, easy prey for cougars. Immigration would come mainly from Big Bend National Park.

Texas immigrants

Confirmed sighings of lions in Texas in the last ten years

The reality is that Texas is a state with almost no public lands and where private landowners have a lot of political power. It comes down to a private rancher or landowner who might not care if he has cougars on his property, and so lets them live. This makes for a hodge-podge of lands that cougars move through, some safe and others not.

Mountain lions are considered a nuisance animal–varmit–and can shot anytime, anywhere, without telling anyone. There also are no trapping regulations on cougars. At this point the only reason why Texas has any mountain lions at all is because of immigration from Mexico. cougar print

One thing Jonah Evans mentioned (that I could tell upset him as well) is that the usual trapping regulation for fur-bearing animals in Texas (36 hour trap check) do not apply to Mountain Lions. They also do not apply for bobcats and coyotes. There are trappers out there, he told me, that leave their traps out for a month, big steel bear sized traps, without checking them and it’s perfectly legal.

Cougar

Cougar exhibits a flehmen response

In 1992 the Sierra Club did a campaign for several years trying to bring attention to the plight of the Texas Mountain Lion with the hope of changing their status to trophy game with a legal hunt. It was all over the news, but got no traction. The biologists I’ve spoken with all told me about that effort as if it had been yesterday. Since then, nothing’s happened.

Jonah felt that if people actually knew the status of mountain lions, the trapping that is not regulated, and the shoot on sight policy, they’d want change. As it is, Texas is definitely the Lone Star state, as all the other Western states identify mountain lions at the very least as a valuable animal that deserves game status and regulations.

three cougars

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Lions on the Edge in Texas

I’ve been digging into everything about mountain lions, talking with biologists, houndsmen, trackers, and conservationists. In the predator war that began with settlers moving West, bounties were placed on mountain lions in all the Western States. Cougars had already been eradicated in the Mid-West and East. The arid, broken country of Western deserts and steep terrain of rugged mountains saved the Western cougars from disappearing completely. The actual total number of cougars killed through bounties and government agents is unknown, but just to blow your mind, here are a few estimates from state bounty records (after records started being kept): California 1,754; Montana 1,897; Oregon 6,752; Washington 3,143; Utah 3,895; Idaho 1,407; Animal Damage Control 1937 through 1970-7,255; Arizona 7,800. Remember these are just numbers of cougars killed while states had bounties.

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This infamous photo of the severed heads of 11 mountain lions was taken by an outraged employee of the Arizona Game and Fish Department. These animals were among 24 lions killed by the federal agency Animal Damage Control (now called Wildlife Services)

Then in the 1960s and early 70s, a sea change occurred, or as Rupert Sheldrake might call it, morphic resonance. Western states eliminated the bounty, and over the course of just a few years, states changed the status of the mountain lion from predator to game animals. That monumental change created hunting seasons, quotas, and fines on poaching for lions. The lion population began to grow again.

The one exception to this Western metamorphose was Texas. Granted, Texas does have the least amount of public lands of all the Western states, a measly 2%. Yet forty years later, Texas still classifies mountain lions as non-game unprotected animals, able to be killed year round regardless of sex, no bag limit, trapped, snared, shot or poisoned.

So what is with Texas? Still living in the 19th century, is Texas just slow, maybe ten, twenty years from now they will follow the rest of the West? Or does Texas have some kind of immunity to the morphic field?

Texas cougar

To find out, I called Orie Gilad, a biologist who did a study on cougars in Texas about 10 years ago, and maintains the Texas Mountain Lion website, that has all the current Texas lion information. Just like the website says, the picture is grim. Lions are few in Texas because Texans like to kill them. Lions in Texas are immigrating from Mexico and a few from New Mexico. West Texas is difficult, hard scrabble desert where generational ranching families try to make a living with sheep and goats, as well as cattle. Although lions and sheep are generally a recipe for loss, old prejudices against predators in the ranching community die slowly. In West Texas, this may mean one funeral at a time. If lions head east, towards mid and east Texas, they are quickly picked off. Game farms where deer are hunted for profit will not tolerate a lion on their ranch. The main areas where lions are tolerated are Big Bend National Park  (because it is a National Park and no hunting is allowed), some private ranches, some ranches in Western Texas that have been abandoned by families who no longer want to tough ranching out, and oddly enough, Jeff Bezos Space launch site, Blue Origin, almost 300,000 acres where no hunting is allowed, though Bezos isn’t doing that because mountain lions are endearing to him, yet protection it is.

three cougars

Besides excessive killing of lions, a new potential threat to the few lions left in west Texas is Trump’s border wall. Trump wants to build a 30 foot concrete wall. Animals like coyotes which can usually dig under a fence can’t dig under a concrete footing for a 30′ wall. And although lions are great jumpers, the usual is about 20′ from standing. If a wall like that becomes a reality, cougar immigration will stop, which would spell the end of the Texas mountain lion population.

Every three years representatives from western states, including researchers and biologists, gather for a Mountain Lion Workshop to share new science and talk about management. Missing is Texas. Why? Because research is just not going on there. In the past, some has gone on in trickles, mostly in Big Bend. But Texas does not even show up at the biggest, baddest, cougar conference among cougar scientists and managers!

I asked Orie Gilad if there was any hope in Texas’ future for lions, besides old ranchers dying. She mentioned that there is a young persons, and artists, immigration surge. Education, she says, is key, and so her website. If mountain lions are to survive, and someday thrive, in Texas, they will need all our voices.

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The Ghost Walker

What if you could hike into the British Columbia Selkirk range, and find a place where no hunters, trappers or people ventured all winter long. Where wolf packs, mountain lions, wolverines, elk, moose and deer were abundant. You then packed in, by canoe, a store of supplies for your winter stay of six months, then carried these bit by bit to a wide meadow edged by timber you had scoped out beforehand. Before the snows arrived, you’d build yourself a small cabin, reusing mostly old timbers from an ancient miner’s cabin. Then you’d explore the countryside before the snows set in, and build yourself two or three shelters in various parts of your new found wilderness where you could spend the night if needed after spying on mountain lions for several days.DCIM100MEDIA

 

This is exactly what R.D. Lawrence, Canadian naturalist and writer did in the late 1970s. His goal? To study pumas in a direct and deep way. In order to make sure he had located an area where there were pumas, he first hired a small plane to fly the countryside, while he leaned out the side door, using his binoculars to spy at least one big cat that had its territory there. When he spotted one, he took out his maps, charted a course and territory, and spent an entire winter living on just the rations he took into the wilderness, and his wits. He tracked and trailed mostly at night using moonlight. He’d take a pack and spend days and night beyond his small cabin he built, using the lean-to shelters he stashed around the mountains.

Thompson Cabin

He found an old miner’s cabin and used the wood to construct his own shelter

And during the course of the winter, he found a male tom and a female. He watched the male many times make kills, then sat 100 feet away while the cat fed. He heard the female caterwauling in the night when in estrus, calling for the tom. He found the female’s den, climbed to a hill with a week’s worth of food, then sat and watched her three kittens play outside the den.

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One night, after trailing the tom cougar for hours in moonlight against snow, then watching him unsuccessfully make a kill, a fierce storm came barreling in. Lawrence was fighting the wind and blinding sting of the snowfall, trying to make it back to his cabin. The storm grew wilder and he was tired and cold. He decided he needed to make a shelter quickly by digging in the snow. He searched for an appropriate spot and found a small rise where he could make what he thought would be a snow cave. As he began digging, the snow fell away and a small cave was revealed. So relieved to find such a perfect shelter, he left his pack and crawled inside, when he suddenly felt some breathing in the back of the cave. He flashed a light, and found he was inside a grizzly den, with a bear that was waking up and angry to be disturbed.

Grizzly Bear

This is a wonderful book of what are now bygone days. Today its hard to find anyplace in this crowded world where not only such a wealth of wildlife lives, but lives undisturbed all winter long. And the world of the traditional naturalist, living in the field, using traditional methods of observation, stretching the limits of his or her human endurance, has been replaced by the techno-gizmos of GPS collars and computers.

Well written, engaging, I recommend Lawrence’s The Ghost Walker for every wildlife lover’s library.

Cougar Stories

I’ve become fascinated by cougars. Maybe because they are elusive, secretive, more akin to a ghost than an animal of flesh and blood. Which of course, begs the question: How do you get people to care about and protect an animal that they never see, nor probably will never see in their lifetime?

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Mom and six month old kitten

Visitors to Yellowstone National Park can be almost guaranteed, if they are persistent and patient, to view wolves and bears, elk, bison, and bighorn sheep. But only the rare individual will have the opportunity to see a cougar in the Park. They’ve been spotted at Calcite Springs, hanging on the basalt walls and occasionally through a scope from the Hellroaring overlook. Usually the Park sightings are called in by wolf watchers. Once radioed around, tourists hear about it through the airwaves, then flock to those locations. Sometimes the cat might be hanging out, either on a kill or just sunning himself, for hours.

In all my winter tracking I’ve done, I’ve never seen a cougar. In fact, the people I know who have seen cougars, it’s usually from the car when a cat suddenly runs across the road at dusk.

I sat down with Jim Halfpenny for an interview about cougar tracking stories. Jim is a famous tracker who lives in Gardiner, Mt. As a Mammalogist and expert tracker, he has worked all over the West and Canada. His puma tracking includes the deserts of Arizona and Utah as well as the mountains of the Greater Yellowstone.

Jim used to live and work in Colorado. His interest in cougars began in 1982 when the Forest Service called him in to investigate a bear-killed horse within the small town of Nederland CO.  Jim told them “this is not a bear that mauled the horse. It’s a cougar” The Forest Service thought the kill was made by a bear because there were five claw marks on the horse’s neck. If you look at a cat paw, there are four claws and a dew claw high up, like on a dog.  On a cougar print, the dew claw doesn’t show and it’s not bone attached, it’s tendon attached. But Jim knew that dew claw, called ‘the killer claw’, would show on a kill because it wraps around it’s prey. Thus the five marks.  Jim asked himself “What is a cougar doing in a town?” and so began a research project.

cougar print

cougar print has only four paws showing. Dew Claw doesn’t show

Cougar print

Big cat print

I asked Jim if he had tracked cougars without dogs and still seen them. “Oh, many times. I’ve hardly ever used dogs. He told me several of those stories but two stand out.

“I got a phone call from a woman when I lived in Boulder. There was some snow on the ground but it was thin, only about 2 inches. I followed the tracks, and soon I was about 50 yards from the back of this cougar. He looked up and his face said ‘Who are you, what are you doing following me?’

That cougar took a few strides and disappeared but I observed he was cutting a big letter ‘C’; so I cut across the ‘C’, and began following his tracks till they suddenly disappeared. I looked around. No tracks. And then I looked up and there he was, in the tree, looking at me. I got some good photographs of him in that tree.  I’ve got more photographs in the wild than anybody not using dogs or set cameras.”

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Puma uses his vomeronasal organ on the roof of mouth to pick up smells better

Halfpenny told me another great story from the Boulder era. “I got a phone call from a woman who said she watched a cougar kill a deer from her window. It was three in afternoon went I got there. I found that deer and chained it to a tree. Then I did a necropsy on it and saw it was pregnant. I walked one hundred steps off the carcass and sat down. Pretty soon that cougar returns. He’s knows I’m there, and begins trying to pull that deer away to a hidden spot. And he’s pulling for all he’s worth, but that deer is chained to the tree. The cougar looks like ‘What! I don’t understand this. I just killed the thing, and I can’t move it!’

“I watched that cat way into the night, filmed and photographed her. After dark, in came mature kittens. Our crew took turns watching from Friday 3pm to Monday 3pm. Over that time we had foxes, coyotes, domestic dogs and the cougar. It was as if all these animals were waiting on the edges to come in. There were multiple cycles of this.”

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Cougar caught on camera

Most of us will never see a cougar in our lifetime, even if they are living right around us. I intend to write more about cougars with the hope that people will know them and feel the urge to protect them.

 

Not a Wildlife Blog today

At a loss for words, these were the words that became my voice today. Maybe nobody will read this, and many will not agree with me, but I needed to post this blog today. It is not about wildlife, nor about gardening, but a personal reflection that needed to be said.

January 9, 2016

Both my grandparents came to the United States to avoid genocide on Jews. This wasn’t the genocide of Hitler’s Nazi Germany. These were the pogroms of the late 1800s and early 1900s in Russia and Eastern Europe.

My father grew up in Danbury, Connecticut where his father worked in a hat factory. Danbury was a hat factory center, and immigrants could obtain low-paying jobs working with dangerous chemicals, like the mercury used to stiffen hat brims. Although Danbury was a small town of many immigrants, mostly Italians, there were few Jews and much anti-Semitism. Being a Jew in a Gentile town, he had no friends. I remember my father telling me how he wanted to play stickball with the other boys in the neighborhood, but they only let him be the water boy, calling him names like ‘Jew-Boy’.

My grandmother on my mother’s side came to the United States from Poland when she was only thirteen, around the late 1890’s, probably on a boat by herself, and then the rest of her large family followed in early 1900. It wasn’t until 1939 that she became a naturalized citizen. Although she worked for years, she never learned to read.

My parents met and married in the 1930s, living in New York City. After the war they moved to Los Angeles where my father started his own business. My father’s last name was Brownstein. My father had not forgotten his earlier struggles with anti-Semitism, and since there were few Jews in California, my parents decided to shorten their last name to Brown, hoping to make it easier on their children in school, and in their new business career.

My parents never forgot where they came from and how hard it was for people to get a leg up. They slowly built a garment manufacturing company from scratch in the downtown Los Angeles area. They hired people of all colors and races including Latinos, African-Americans, Europeans, and whites. Most of their employees with managerial positions were Black women. During the lunch hour, my parent’s office door was always open. Employees would come in, sit down and talk about whatever they wanted. Many times my parents gave loans to employees to help them buy a first home, or bring a family member in legally from Mexico. I remember my mother telling me that if I needed something, to write to my local Congressman. She wrote many letters of requests for visas for her Mexican employees. Their employees, fiercely loyal, stayed for twenty, sometimes more than thirty, years.

My father sold his business at the age of 75, and the New York company which bought him out immediately changed the work customs. There was no longer a lunchtime open door policy. Managers brought in from New York did not mingle with the factory workers. For the first time, the employees unionized. Three years after my father sold his business, which he’d owned for over thirty years, the business went bankrupt. I think it was the biggest heartache for my father. My father died at age 86. Even though it had been over ten years since he retired, 100 former employees came to his funeral, many giving emotional speeches.

My mother used to tell me that “I learned a lot from my employees”. By the time I was six years old, my father had about 100 employees. I remember fondly the times I went to my parent’s factory, racing all around like a happy kid and visiting my adult friends that were of all races and creeds. My parents won an award for one of the first integrated factories in Los Angeles.

Today, with Donald Trump winning the Presidency, after a campaign dominated by hate speech directed at immigrants, people of color, and Muslims, I am thinking about my grandparents and the country they came to in which to escape genocide. I am thinking about what my parents must have gone through as Jews to create a better life for their children, a life that was free of prejudice and where we could worship as we pleased without hatred or bigotry. I am thinking of how my parents gave a hand-up to so many people, how they never forgot their own roots and struggles. This is the America I know. And this is the America they taught me about.

One thing is certain, we cannot allow the hatred and bigotry that this man, now our President, has stirred up, to fester and take over what America stands for at its core. Truly, I am at a loss for words. Maybe that is why all I can think of on this dark day are the hopes and dreams of my parents and grandparents, and what they envisioned for their children. My generation is the beneficiaries of the work of people like my grandparents, parents, and so many others. Let us continue to fight the good fight.

A Lesson from History: the California Grizzly

One of the special privileges of living in the Greater Yellowstone Region is seeing grizzly bears. In the fall, they are hungry preparing for hibernation. Rosehips, chokecherries and limber pine nuts lure them nearer to our homes, where they forage mainly at night to avoid people. In the early spring, when they emerge from their dens, young sprouts in the local pasture is roughage for their systems. 14238317_10207623170481489_6094538779973207194_n.jpg

The presence of grizzlies makes a difference when I am hiking. I see their large tracks or fresh scat and remember to stay alert, awake, and aware. I carry my bear spray ‘weapon’, which I’ve never used on a bear, but have used on a bison, and it saved my life.

Grizzly Bear Print

Print looks even larger because its in mud, but you can see his claws

Yet this rarity of wildness in our modern world carries with it great responsibility. If I want to live, work, and enjoy this last remaining wild place in our country (and also one of the last intact temperate ecosystems in the entire world), then I, like my cousin the grizzly, must make sacrifices and accommodations–small yet important and life saving for the bear. Special garbage cans; no bird feeders; Bar-B-Qing precautions; and most importantly, a tolerance for wildness. The Great Bear himself has been accommodating us humans for centuries, and mostly paying for it with his life.grizzly warning sign in the greater yellowstone area

Probably our best lesson in grizzly history comes from California, where the bear adorns their state flag. And the very best historical account of the Great State’s grizzlies is California Grizzly by Tracy Storer and Lloyd Tevis Jr.  Storer painstakingly poured through every historical documented account of grizzly bears back to the Spanish Missions. He collects them together into an easily readable book first published in the 1950s. My paperback edition has a wonderful foreword by Rick Bass. I would say the only section not fully accurate is ‘Habits of California Grizzlies’, which includes erroneous data such as grizzlies being able to give birth at two or three years of age. Bringing grizzlies back from the brink here in Yellowstone has yielded much new data.

It’s unknown how many grizzlies were in California before the Spanish arrived and brought their cattle in the early 1700s. But Storer estimates California may have had as many as 10,000 bears in the early to mid-1800’s. California during Spanish rule was a different place than when American settlers came out during the gold rush.

During the Spanish period, not more than thirty such [land] grants were made; but after Mexico threw off her allegiance to the crown, the lavish generosity of the new provincial government brought some eight million acres into the possession of about eight hundred grantees. Each rancho, an empire unto itself, grazed thousands of cattle, sheep, and horses; supported hundreds of Indian servants, and was an economically independent, self-sustaining community.

In addition to cattle, wild horses brought in by the Spanish were so numerous that there were recorded herds twenty miles long. This overpopulation of horses depleted the range for livestock so thousands were killed, sometimes driven over cliffs or lanced by vaqueros. There were frequent slaughters of livestock during severe droughts, as well as natural deaths in these enormous herds. Missions and ranches had private butchering grounds, where only the choice meats were taken and the rest thrown in large piles. Grizzlies came at night to the ravines near the slaughter-corrals. Storer reports that in 1834 the missionaries, who anticipated secularization, disposed of 100,000 cattle just for their tallow and hides, leaving the rest for wild animals.

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Rancho Cahuenga, near the location of the present Hollywood Bowl, as it appeared in January, 1847, at the signing of the Treaty of Cahuenga.

This abundant new and easy source of protein is what fueled an accelerated bear population growth, so by the time early Americans began arriving, grizzly bears were commonly seen in large numbers foraging together.

In January, 1827, Duhaut-Cilly wrote that ‘bears are very common in the environs; and without going farther than five or six leagues [a league is about 3.5 miles] from San Francisco, they are often seen in herds”

George C. Yount, among the first American pioneers in California, arriving in February 1831 [of Yountville fame in Northern California] …said “they are every where–upon the plains, in the valleys, and on the mountains…so that I have often killed as many as five or six in one day, and it was not unusual to see fifty or sixty within the twenty-four hours.”

John Bidwell, in the Sacramento Valley in 1841, saw sixteen in one drove and said that “grizzly bear were almost an hourly sight, in the vicinity of the streams, and it was not uncommon to see thirty to forty a day”

While bears were a problem for the Spanish in the 1700s when trying to grow their herds, by the early 1800s cattle, sheep and horses were sculpturing every hill in the coastal region. The Spanish now viewed these lands as a playground, and grizzlies as part of a new sport.They roped grizzlies for bear-bull fights (another chapter in the book which is fascinating yet hard to read). These animal fights were even commonly conducted right after church in stoutly built arenas. 1393_photoBut although the Spanish engaged in this cruel entertainment, California was underpopulated and grizzlies benefited from the increased food supply. When gold was discovered in 1849, a spectacular invasion of Americans came, and grizzlies were now doomed. In the span of just 25 years after California became a state in 1850, most all the grizzlies were gone. A few stragglers remained until early 1900s.

Storer includes so many fascinating facts about the bear in California. One would suspect that grizzlies rarely hibernated in that warm climate. Although no one was keeping scientific records, grizzlies were seen year-round except in the high Sierras, as evidenced from that above quote in January by Duhaut-Cilly. Probably females denned for part of the winter in order to give birth to their helpless newborns. Before white men cleared the land, grizzlies inhabited dense growths of trees, vines, and cattails that bordered lowland rivers and creeks. They pastured in tall grasses and clovers in the spring and ate acorns in the fall. Along the entire coast, grizzlies foraged on the continuous supply of marine animals that washed ashore, supplementing with berries from manzanita bushes that grew nearby. Tall manzanita thickets were common places for grizzlies to shelter, while place names remain as ghostly evidence such as Bear Valley, Big Bear, or Oso Rio.

What is to be learned from California–a land so rich and blessed with near perfect climate, where once grizzlies freely roamed? It demonstrates how quickly a large population of top predators can be extirpated; or how a dense, rapid growth in human population spells demise for the great bear; how abundant human food waste leads to habituated bears. And reading through the entire account in this book reminds me that Europeans have a very dark history when it comes to wildlife. The wanton slaughter and intolerance for grizzlies is still evident today when we see signs such as this one which seem to have one purpose in mind, without any appreciation nor feeling for the animal itself:

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With a bit of mindfulness, we can enter fully into a new legacy, one that values wildness and wilderness, preserves vast lands for top predators like the Great Bear, sees the worth of connectivity between public and private lands, and makes good choices as to how we live with grizzlies in our midst. This is the future I envision for our country and it’s wonderful heritage of wildlife.