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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.

ReWilding the Beartooths

It’s happening.  Grizzlies are re-inhabiting the Beartooth Mountains.

grizzly warning sign in the greater yellowstone area

Grizzly warning sign in the lower elevations. Now bears are returning to the high elevation Beartooths

In the last few years, Grizzly activity has increased along the flanks of the Beartooth Front, the southeastern base that nestles the community of Red Lodge and the long north and eastern drainages where berries and other fall foods are abundant. Red Lodge is now getting its share of grizzly bears. But still there were few reports of bear activity in the high alpine forests.

Certainly bears have used the lower drainages on the west side of the Beartooths like Crazy Creek,  Soda Butte, or Lily Lake.  These are low elevations that provided a corridor through Cooke City into and out of the Park.

Years ago I heard of a sow who lost her young cub in the spring to an automobile.  She bawled for a week around the Clay Butte/Beartooth Lake area, looking for her cub.  Yet although I’ve backpacked frequently, and spend a lot of time in the summers day-hiking the western Wyoming side every year, I’ve never seen any bear sign–tracks or scat.

The Beartooths still offer bears great habitat.  The excessive moisture brings a lot of plant food opportunities in the way of grasses, forbs and roots.  And they still have healthy stands of White Bark pines.  White Bark pines in the GYE are 90% dead.

Avalanche Peak, Yellowstone.  Dead whitebark pines

Avalanche Peak, Yellowstone. Dead whitebark pines

The exception to that rule are the Wind River Mountains and the Beartooths.

White Bark pines in the Winds.  Healthy stands

White Bark pines in the Winds. Healthy stands

And those Marmots have traditionally been a favorite protein for bears.

Marmot

Marmot

So when I began my hike today from Hauser Lake down to Stockade Lake, I figured that there were no bears around these parts–especially so high.

Losekamp Lake (around 9600′) sits at the base of Tibbs Butte (10,676′).  Grizzly bear watchers will tell you that these bears mysteriously disappear around the 4th of July.  For years no one knew where they went, until a pilot flying over high talus slopes in the mid-80s saw bears congregating there.  These bears were taking advantage of Army Cutworm moths who feed on alpine plants and summer here.  My understanding is that the Beartooths, although high and abundant in these talus slopes, do not have moth sites, although the Wind Rivers does.

Losekamp and Stockade lakes are rarely visited, being on the less popular southern side of the highway.  I was alone on my walk.  Koda and I made our way down to Stockade Lake, where I tooled around for a bit looking for an elusive Sheep Eater trap I was told was once there.

Stockade at stockade lake

Stockade at stockade lake

Stockade Lake

Stockade Lake, Beartooths, WY

With little wind and mosquitos too thick for a lunch break, we headed back towards Losekamp lake.  Koda a bit ahead, went off the trail about 10′ to smell something behind a boulder.  All of a sudden he growled–a sure sign of an animal he got scared of–and I looked up to see a sleepy bear rise from the boulder.  I quickly called Koda back, and grabbed my bear spray.  We stopped for a moment to access.  The bear, surprised and probably a bit scared himself, immediately began eating, displacing his fear to food.  He seemed sleepy and not about to run away, nor be aggressive.  He pondered us.

Young bear

Young bear

Grizzly bear

A young grizzly, probably just kicked out this year, I did wonder if his mama was around.  Lucky for us she was no where to be seen.  I gave the bear a big berth, going off and around the trail, while talking to him gently, apologizing for waking him up.

Most grizzly encounters end this way, with the bear usually running off. A few weeks ago around my area, Koda alerted me to a grizzly that was also sleeping by the trail, awakened by our presence.  Koda kept by my side, and the griz, about 200′ away, pondered us for a moment, then ran off.  Dogs will alert you and keep you safe if they are well-mannered and under good voice control.  A dog that runs all over the hills and is not very responsive poses a grave danger for a person, as the dog might bring the bear back to you in his fear, with the grizzly following.   The best book to read for safety with grizzlies is Hiking with Grizzlies by Tim Rubbert, or watch online The Edge of Eden: Living with Grizzlies with Charlie Russell and observe Charlie’s body posture when dealing with bears and using bear spray.  Stay away from those books about Grizzly attacks.  It’s like reading a book about fatal car accidents instead of actually learning how to drive safely.

Robin egg, hatched

Robin egg, hatched

Upon returning to the car at the trailhead, I stopped at the Top of the World Store to deliver some of my Wild Excellence books.  I told Kristi Milam, the owner, about my bear experience and she told me there’s been a lot more sightings this year than ever before.

One other note on the Beartooths:  it’s becoming an excellent place to possibly see, or hear, wolves.  I’ve been seeing tracks of the Beartooth pack around this same area for weeks, as well as Clay Butte and lower elevations like Crazy Creek drainage.  Wolves were spotted up at Top Lake just weeks ago in the meadows. Elephant's head

With Grizzly Bears and wolves returning to the Beartooths, they are finally re-wilding.  Carry bear spray and be safe.

Spring, Grizzly tracking, and What’s up with Delisting

It’s spring and that means the bears are out.  But so is everyone else. Pups are born and need to be feed; elk are calving; birds are nesting. It’s a busy time and a great time to go into the Park.  There you can also see the bison babies.

But here in my valley right next to Yellowstone, all the same activity is taking place, just a tad more hidden.

Coyote relaxing before she goes mousing again

Coyote relaxing before she goes mousing again

Young bull moose

Young bull moose

Sandhill Crane

Sandhill Crane

Ruddy Duck with Horned Grebes

Ruddy Duck with Horned Grebes

I live in a ‘drop off’ place for bears that get into trouble.  Bear trouble around here always means trouble that people make for bears like not putting up their food stuff correctly, or not watching their stock so calves or lambs are killed.  The Interagency Bear Management Team drops bears off here hoping they will go into the Park.  Usually they ‘home’ back to where they came from; but because the Agency has been moving them around for so long, all the drainages around here are already occupied by other bears.

The spring is when bears hang around down low as they follow the seasonal warm-up. They spend time eating grass, or, if they can find it, winter kills, and dig for roots. Hiking at this time of year here in the valley it’s inevitable that you will see grizzly tracks and it’s worth knowing what they look like and how to identify them.  For instance, the other day I hiked a drainage and saw what appeared to be a single boar grizzly roaming that area.  Another drainage nearby revealed a sow and a two year old–a combination I definitely needed to be watchful of.  It seems like every hike either you are ‘following’ a bear or maybe the bear is ‘following’ you.  Yet keep in mind that grizzly and black bears are mindful of their own business and are not looking for an encounter with a human.  The best advice is to be alert, awake, aware.  Carry bear spray and know how to use it quickly. Take your time in the woods–no power walking or headphones.  Stop every so often and look around like a deer might.

Bear tracks are easy to identify–they look a lot like human footprints, but bears have their big toe opposite than humans and walk pigeon-toed.  Telling the difference between a grizzly and a black bear takes more practice and is not always a certain thing.  The Palmisciano method is the recommended technique, working only on front tracks.

Jim Halfpenny says if you have a good, clean track, it is very accurate. But he also notes that ‘anyone who says it is always easy has not done much tracking’.

Since I.D.ing that the print is a bear is easy, what takes practice and is much more pertinent is being able to pick out a track when it’s very faint.  With practice, I find that bear prints are so distinguishable that they are probably the easiest to pick out even when hard to see.  Here are a few examples.

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

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

This one is easy of course.  The next one isn’t so hard but you could miss it in the puddle.

Bear print in a puddle

Bear print in a puddle

The puddle print is a perfect example of how difficult the Palmisciano method can be, especially with just one print.  The above print appears to be a black bear, but since I was following this bear for about a mile on a dirt track, I had other prints that were much more distinct.  I also know the area is frequented by grizzlies and not blacks.  So the above print, although it appears like a black bear print, is actually the front print of a grizzly.

Below prints are pretty easy too.  Note the back foot is in front of the smaller front foot. That’s a typical gait for a bear called an amble.

Can you see these two bear prints, front and back?

Can you see these two bear prints, front and back?

Now look at this one.  Koda has stepped on part of it and mostly the metatarsal pad is what is strong.  If you look to the top of the photo you can barely make out his left front foot.

Faint grizzly print

One saying trackers have is that it’s not the track you can see, but the next track that you cannot see that teaches you how to track.  Keeping that in mind, follow a bear’s footprints and measure or use a stick to see the distance between right and left tracks. Soon you will come upon a track that is not visible, but with the stick as a measure you will know where it is.  Study that ‘print’ and soon it jump out at you.  After a while of doing this, you’ll find yourself walking along and then ‘see’ a print that seems invisible to others.  Seeing that print might just keep you safe as it will heighten your awareness and let you know there’s a grizzly in town.

Koda shows the size of this bear scat

Koda shows the size of this bear scat

Grizzlies are ‘on the chopping block’ to be delisted.  The IGBT and Sally Jewell are itching to return their management to the states. Once that happens, they will be hunted.

I disagree with delisting for a wide variety of reasons.  In the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem (NCDE) which is basically the area around Glacier National Park, there are approximately 750 grizzly bears.  In the Greater Yellowstone Area (GYE) there are about the same.  But the connecting corridors in-between have few to no bears.

NCDE bears can connect for genetic diversity up into Canada.  But how can our bears here, in the GYE, connect?  Studies have shown that without any infusion of new genes, these GYE bears will eventually die out.

When grizzlies were listed back in 1975, there were about 120 bears in the GYE.  It has taken over 40 years to get to this point where we have over 700 bears.  If hunting begins, the ‘easy’ bears, at the edges of the Ecosystem, will be killed.  Those are the bears that would connect north with their cousins.

And more importantly, living with bears and seeing how intelligent they are, I cannot see how we can hunt them.  Like the tribes who are united against delisting, I have come to feel a powerful spirit connection with grizzlies.

Please read my op-ed below that appeared in the Powell Tribune a few weeks ago.  I tell the story of ‘The Woman Who Married a Bear’ and how we are like that woman today.

Patten Guest Column_5.5.15

More about Grizzly Bears! Grizzlies, the PCA, and the Wind River White Bark Pines

What is the PCA?  If you care about grizzlies, then this knowledge is important.

The PCA stands for Primary Conservation Area and is a designated area within the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem with special rules to protect and insure that the grizzly bear population will thrive into the future.  This area has special rules regarding activities that would disturb bears, such as excessive roads, ATV’s, numbers of elk hunters, etc.  The aim is to ensure genetic diversity and keep a minimum of 500 bears.  This area was first outlined during the bear’s period of recovery.  The PCA rules will still apply even after grizzly bears are delisted, which will probably come in 2015.

Primary Conservation Area in Blue. Suitable habitat for bears in Red.

 

Now look at the above image.  The actual designated PCA is in blue.  The suitable habitat is in red.  Notice there is an ‘Italy-shaped’ leg in the lower right that is not in the PCA but is suitable habitat.  The majority of this is the Wind River range.  See there is a main highway between Riverton and Jackson that cuts right through a small section of the PCA.  In order for bears to inhabit the Winds, they have to cross this highway, and the main corridor into the Wind River range from the north side (Gros Ventre/Upper Hoback area) of the highway to the south is through the Upper Green River Valley.  Per Wyoming Game & Fish own conservation guidelines:

Based on current road densities, presence of domestic sheep and current levels of conflict with livestock, the upper Green River area on Forest could also be considered unsuitable for grizzly bear occupancy. However, important biological issues make the Upper Green River area very important in ensuring CS (Conservation Strategies) population and distribution objectives will be met long-term.The Upper Green River area is presently occupied by grizzly bears and is important contiguous habitat that links the bear population between the Gros Ventre/Upper Hoback area, Upper Wind River Range, and core bear habitat north of this area.

So why am I talking about this?  Because it is rare, and I mean rare, for a bear to get through the Green River corridor without getting into trouble with livestock.  That valley is saturated with sheep and cattle allotments (these are on public forest service lands with some 7500 sheep and 22,500 cattle in a 323 square mile area).  Bears are moved, or removed lethally.  Recently the ‘take’ quota for grizzly bears was just raised in that area and even more important, the limit for female grizzlies kills was eliminated there.  Therefore, it is difficult for a bear to get pass through this bottleneck corridor into the Wind River habitat. Yet the Winds provide excellent, essentially uninhabited habitat.

Another red flag for the Winds and bears is that the southern portion of the range is excluded from conservation strategies because of several factors.  First because there are still very active sheep allotments there (these are sheep allotments on Wilderness).  Also because of heavy backpacker summer use. But I am here to tell you that the best and healthiest white bark pines are in the southern portion of the Wind Rivers.

I’ve been backpacking the Winds every year for over 15 years.  I’ve seen many of the northern and central Wind River White Bark Pines face a heavy toll from the beetles.  Not as heavy as the rest of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, where White Bark Pines could be considered to be functionally dead.  Reading my previous post, you’ll note that even the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team admits their own transects are 75% dead.  But it appears that even in the worst portions of the Winds, its more like 40-50%; while my recent trip to the Shadow Lake area of the Southern Winds, I’d estimate the mortality at around 20-30%.

Notice the tops of the tree.  Cones are produced on the new growth.

Notice the tops of the tree. Cones are produced on the new growth.  Tree is full of cones!  See how healthy these pines look.  This is the pass near Washakie creek.  Notice the dead trees in the background.  This is a good visual estimate for your reference of dead vs. live percentage.

And while the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team noted that this years cone production was ‘good’ at 20 cones per tree, my estimate in the Washakie Creek environs was more like 70-100+ cones per tree!  Yet, not one grizzly bear will be able to reach this area!

Another pine full of cones

Another pine full of cones

Although the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team completed their legally required study on the grizzly bear diet last year, they  stated that while white bark pines will not last in the Greater Yellowstone, bears will find other foods.  I feel this statement makes assumptions that cannot be known.  Rocky Mountain grizzlies are not like Alaskan bears that eat salmon with high protein and fat. Our bears depend on limited sources of fall fattening foods–essentially moths and pine nuts.  If we want to ensure the bear’s survival, we should be opening up all the ‘suitable habitat’ in the GYE.

Avalanche Peak, Yellowstone.  Dead whitebark pines

Avalanche Peak, Yellowstone. Dead white bark pines make up this dead forest

Corridors like the Upper Green, full of livestock on public lands, need tighter livestock rules, not dead bears. These are not private land ranchers, but ranchers using public lands at very low rates.   Rules like running cowboys with cattle, removing sheep or at least penning them at night with guard dogs, need to be set down by the Forest Service.  And public lands ranch-at-your-own-risk should be another.   And even cattlemen do this in other circumstances.  Cattle are run over on highways regularly.  Cattlemen who run herds on open range factor these losses into their bottom line.  They just figure they’ll lose a certain amount to cars every year and so don’t bother moving their herds.  In my area, they don’t even turn on the electric fences that the forest service provides them.  So why don’t they factor in predation by bears on these same lands?

One other thing that irked me in their conservation strategies comments was that because of high use of summer backpackers in the southern Winds, the area is unsuitable for bears.  Just like the rest of the PCA, backpackers and hikers need to learn to hike and live with bears.  The southern winds are particularly heavy use because of the Cirque of the Towers, an awesome array of granite peaks that attracts climbers from all over the world.  People have to adapt and begin to carry bear spray and learn to share the area.  Bears are quite good at avoiding people, using corridors at night, bedding in hidden places during the day.  Grizzlies in the winds will heighten hikers awareness–a good thing.

Yellowstone grizzly

Yellowstone grizzly

Hiking in this fabulous bear country, seeing all those wonderful nuts, yet observing no bear sign, contained a certain sadness for me.  In my own area next to Yellowstone Park, 90% of the white bark pines are dead and bears are roaming around looking for food. Here I was surrounded by their prime fall food going to waste due to inept human management.

I like to remember what Native Americans called Grizzlies–‘humans without fire‘.  Let’s treat them with that kind of respect.

 

 

More about Bears, Pine Nuts and Delisting

The Clark’s Nutcrackers are starting to hang around, making a ruckus with their characteristic nasal loud call.  They’re waiting for the Limber Pine cones to ripen.  The cones are still green; maybe a few more weeks.  But they’re anxious to begin their ancient fall ritual of collecting and storing seeds–tens of thousands each year–and incredibly they remember these locations.  The seeds that aren’t retrieved might just grow into young pines.

A Forest Service botanist gave me two hints when planting Limber Pine seedlings:

1.  Put two or three seedlings in one hole to imitate how a Nutcracker might have stored those seeds and

2.  Collect some soil from around a mature Limber Pine and place it in the planting hole.  That soil has the correct mycorrhiza (fungi) that is symbiotic with the pines.

I’ve been inspecting the cone production this year and although it seemed better than last year’s very low production, it appears not to be a boon year.  Many trees have no cones.  Others just a few.  I’d judge that around my home the production is going to be medium-low.

I was curious what the Whitebark production is this year.  Sometimes the Limber mirrors the Whitebark, other times it’s a good substitute.  In a hike up Windy Mountain yesterday, our last remaining live stands of Whitebark are up there.  There are lots of dead trees and a few young trees, but there are still some standing mature live trees.Grizzly cub

Whitebarks and Limber Pines cone at the top growth only.  Trees that are in the open will produce more cones.  Windy mountain has a fairly tight forest with upright trees.  Looking at the potential 2014 cone production, I estimated about the same amount as my Limbers. That got me wondering what the official report for 2014 of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team is from the transects they use.

The IGBST is reporting a medium high cone production for 2014.  They define a ‘good’ production of average of 20 cones per tree, vs. 5 cones per tree last year. But here is the catch.  Total mortality on their transects (read ‘dead trees’ from beetles specifically) since 2002 is 75%.    So there are 3/4 less trees from which to obtain food, even if there is good production on those remaining trees.

At least 75% of this Whitebark forest is dead; in other places on Windy it is more like 90%

At least 75% of this Whitebark forest is dead; in other places on Windy it is more like 90%

The IGBST did the Whitebark Pine study required by a judge before delisting.  They concluded that the bears will find other foods in the ecosystem and so can be delisted.  The states are pushing for that delisting status in order to begin a hunt, for which they can charge high dollars for a grizzly bear tag.

Recently I was at a landowners’ meeting where a county commissioner gave a short talk. He mentioned he was on the grizzly bear committee, representing Park County.  This man is no scientist.  He is a politician first and foremost; and he said to this group of landowners that the study ‘proved’ the bear is doing fine without Whitebark pine nuts.  Don’t believe it.  He was simply chanting the line that politicians and state managers have been saying for years in order to delist.griz

I firmly disagree with delisting the Grizzly.  The bear has been dependent on these nuts for making ‘brown fat’ for hibernation.  Without this nut you can be sure to see the Greater Yellowstone Grizzly wandering into the bottomlands where more people live, eating foods like Russian Olive nuts that grow in the drainages, or even livestock.

There are several reasons why I am NOT for delisting the Grizzly:

1.  Grizzly bears are highly intelligent animals, at least as smart as the Great Apes, which puts them on par with humans.

2.  Bears primary food sources–pine nuts and cutthroat trout–are compromised

3.  Climate Change is a big unknown for food for these large carnivores.  Moths that the bears rely on are also a fragile food given pesticides loads in the prairie states.

and one of the most important reasons:

4.  Bears confined to the GYE do not, at this point, have adequate corridors for genetic diversity and may over time die out.   The IGBST delisting plan calls for flying in bears to the ecosystem if and when genetic diversity is compromised.  I’ll say that again  “FLYING IN BEARS”!

To compensate for reduced primary foods, as well as provide a buffer for climate change and provide genetic diversity, bears need to be able to move in and out of the GYE. Yellowstone to Yukon (Y2Y) targets this need.  Presently there are large bear unoccupied areas of this natural corridor; swaths of public and private lands that were formerly bear territory (Central Idaho Complex is an unoccupied example).

It took over 30 years to bring the GYE grizzly numbers up to about 650 bears, from less than 200.  If delisting, and hunting, returns, it won’t be long before those numbers begin to decline again.

Grizzly bears are not just critical to the ecosystem.  They provide something critical to man–the power of the Present moment.  There is nothing more wonderful than that ‘alive’ feeling of walking through woods where grizzly bears at present.  The grizzly bears gift to man is the Power of the Present.  Let us honor that.

This tree has a blaze and to the left a bear left its own blaze

This tree has a blaze and to the left a bear left its own blaze

Bears and wolves

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

Wolf Print

Wolf Print; Quarter for size at left

Symphoricarpos berries

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

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

Grizzly bear

Grizzly bear

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

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

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

Fall is a’coming

The Clark’s Nutcrackers are congregating, waiting for the Limber Pine cones to ripen.  You can tell they’ve arrived as they are a noisy bunch.  As Jays, they are super-intelligent birds.  Every year they cache tens of thousands of seeds and are able to memorize the location of their stashes.  Clark Nutcrackers have a distinctive ‘wing-whirl’, which is a loud noise they make when flying.  Although the pine cones aren’t ready yet, they seem anxious, waiting for just the right moment to steal the seeds away from the waiting red squirrels who also cache the cones for winter food.  I’ve been watching the birds  eating insects while they while away their time.

This year is not only a bad cone year for White Bark pines, but the Limber Pine cone production is  down as well.  This bodes poorly for bears.  But the good news is that with all the rain we’ve had, the berry crop is up.  The chokecherry crop is one of the best in years and I’m waiting with my trail cam for some bears to spend time stripping the berries off the branches before the birds get to them.  The bears seem to know the exact time when they’re ripe, and come around for that week only. And with all the beetle kill, the forests are opening up and changing.  I’ve seen new understories packed with chokecherry bushes–all full of cherries.  

Grizzly bears evolved in the plains.  They can’t climb trees like their forest adapted cousins, the black bears, and their massive claws were meant to dig out roots.  Pushed from their native habitat into the mountains, they prefer burn areas and meadows, places that emulate their native past.  Our mountain forests are rapidly changing with all the downed timber, creating good habitat for the Great Bear.

Young bear yesterday coming to look for berries

Young bear yesterday coming to look for berries

The little forest next to my house is a perfect example and a fine study area of a rapidly evolving landscape.  With seven springs emerging from the limestone base, there is sufficient water ground water.  The  old growth Englemann Spruce are dead and dying, falling to the ground and leaving large openings where new chokecherry bushes, dogwoods, raspberries, gooseberries, and aspens are rapidly emerging.  This is an area we specifically asked the Forest Service NOT to put in their logging plans.

In contrast, the lands adjacent to the springs are private and were logged by the homeowners through the State Forestry Office (who were concerned about fire protective barriers) 5 years ago.  Approximately 90% of the trees were cut or were blow downs.  This land too has aspens, gooseberries, and grasses–but much of it has a very high ratio, maybe 10:1, of invasives, particularly Canada Thistle.  The combination of moisture, sun, and rapid disturbance provided a perfect storm for the invasives.  The invasives rob moisture and space for other natives that might get a stronghold.  In the non-logged side, the lesson is clear:   slower is better and the forest can naturally restore itself with little interference by man.

 

Turning my head upside down about Grizzlies

The Grizzly Bear, by William H. Wright, first published in 1909, is one of the best all around books ever written on the subject.  His books shows a hunter becoming a naturalist:  Wright first studied the grizzly in order to hunt him, then he came to hunt him in order to study him.”  Frank C. Craighead, Jr.

That’s quite a recommendation from Frank Craighead, one of the most well known grizzly bear experts.  Craighead was instrumental in having this out of print book republished.  Not only is this a highly readable book, but fascinating if you can get over all the grizzly bear hunts and killing he describes in the first half.  But Wright was a product of his time.  No hunting quotas, tags or seasons.

Grizzly in Lamar

Grizzly in Lamar

But Wright is not just a bear hunter; he’s a fascinating character.  He knows grizzlies inside and out.  He sees a track and, even if he is not hunting bears, he gets in the mood to follow the griz for two days.  He’s eight hours behind him, but because he understands grizzly habits, he figures he’ll eventually catch up.  He describes where and when the bear was digging, if the bear was successful at catching his marmot or ground squirrel (and how many), when the bear took a nap, how it paused to sniff for danger…all in the tracks.  Then when night comes and he still hasn’t caught up with the bear, Wright finds a large rock, builds a lean-too and a fire and beds down.  Then he starts out again the next morning, all in unfamiliar territory. At last he finds the bear in dense shrubbery and kills it.  Wright never baits bears as he considers it not fair chase.  He only uses his own cunning pitted against the bear, whom he considers the smartest animal there is.Grizzly cub

In one narrative, Wright is guiding two fellows on a bear hunt in the Bitterroots.  The men are back at camp while Wright is fishing with the dogs.  Wright and the dogs spot a grizzly.  The dogs run after the bear and corral him in a hole.  As the bear swats at the dogs, Wright, who left his gun back at camp and  in his attempt to save the dogs, takes out his pocket knife and starts swinging at the bear.  Long story short, Wright kills the bear with his pocket knife.

Grizzly minding his own business

Grizzly minding his own business

Wright realized that grizzlies were endangered and becoming extinct.  He loved these bears and admired their intelligence and had already begun photographing them in the wild in the attempt to save them.  In 1906 he went to Yellowstone National Park to use some new photography methods.  His was essentially the first ‘trail camera’.  He used a sewing thread as a trip wire.  One end he attached to an electric switch which exploded a flash and sprung the shutter of his camera.  The other end of the trip wire was tied to a small stake driven into the ground beyond the trail.  He located a heavily used bear trail, set up the apparatus, then hid in the bushes to watch, mostly at dusk and into the night.Grizzly front foot

From there he reports on the various bears that came bye.  In every instance, whether mom with cubs, or three year olds, or old boars, the bears all stopped short of the thread, sniffed the thread, sometimes bolted, sometimes explored the thread up to the stake and down to the switch.  Most all of them refused to go beyond the thread.

So Wright left the Mt. Washburn area and headed toward Lake.  He set up the apparatus, but this time he found the thinnest wire he could, so thin that he himself couldn’t see it from ten feet away.  He then chose a trail that was covered with grass in order to conceal the wire.  Then he waited some two hundred yards up the trail and watched.  Again, all the bears detected the wire, nosing along it inquisitively.  Wright even recognized a few of the bears from the Washburn area on this trail.  Grizzly scratches on pine tree

Thinking that maybe these Yellowstone bears were quite adapted to people, Wright tried walking up and down the trail first to human scent it, then hiding behind the tree.  But this only made the bears more inquisitive, some of whom came, under cover of darkness, within ten feet of him.  Wright remained still in order not to frighten them.  When they got close enough to figure out he wasn’t a stump, they all ran off.

Wright describes the grizzly temperament as very wary of danger.  He says they are habitually cautious and alert, and the veru least scent or sound or sight sends them into the farthest hills.  

Reading Wright has made me think again about grizzlies.  My usual take on grizzlies is that they have not a care in the world as they are top predators.  I think of them as swaggering through the woods, meandering from food source to food source.  Yet Wright describes them completely differently, and says he found the protected Yellowstone bears no different than any other wild bears he had encountered in the Selkirks or the Bitterroots.  Reading his tracking narratives, it appears these grizzlies are peaceable animals, not only wary of dangers, but mostly interested in sleeping and digging for foods.  Without having such direct and repeated experiences with grizzlies, it’s impossible for a person to know their nature like Wright does.  So instead, tales get told and assumptions are made, and all we can go on is what we’re told to do in case we actually run into a bear while hiking or camping, and usually this involves a gun or bear spray.  With more bears inhabiting our region, it’s good to read all we can.  I highly recommend Wright’s book.

A Grizzly track found by the river

A Grizzly track found by the river

Ernest Hemingway, Bears, and Sunlight

My neighbor who was born in the valley in 1924 told me the other day that September 16 was his cut-off day.  “Usually snows on that day, or anytime soon afterwards”, he said.  Well, things are definitely a’changin because it rained, hard, on Sept. 16.

Besides the climate, Sunlight has changed a lot since my neighbor homesteaded here.  In 1929, when he was just 5 years old, Ernest Hemingway came to the Basin and stayed at a ranch called the L-T, owned by the Copelands.  Hemingway, with his wife Pauline and their young son, came to write, rest and hunt in these mountains intermittently over the next 10 years. Apparently, he wrote “The Green Hills of Africa”“Death in the Afternoon” and “To Have and Have Not”  here in a small cabin.

But these facts are findable online.  What interested me was a wild story I heard from a reliable local; a story that apparently is famous around Cody.  Here’s the tale I was told:

Hemingway made a bet with some friends that a grizzly bear could take on an African lion.  In order to prove it, he concocted up a scheme.  He hired one of the Crandall locals to catch him a live grizzly.  Being that this was in the 1930’s, there were of course no tranquilizer guns nor other easy methods to catch a live bear.  So the hired fellows dug a very large and deep pit; threw in some attractive bait, then covered up the pit and waited.  Soon enough a griz appeared and fell into the pit.  The question now was how to haul the bear up, and keep him alive.  One of these locals was an excellent roper.  He roped the bear’s front and back legs, and after a lot of pulling, they got the bear out of the pit.  They tied a rope around the bears neck, and apparently easily led the bear to a waiting cage.  This poor unsuspecting grizzly was then transported to Las Vegas, where an African lion awaited him.  The griz was led into the ring with the lion, and within seconds killed that lion. So Hemingway won his bet.

What happened to that grizzly after the match?  That part of the story was omitted, but I suspect he was made into a rug which lies somewhere now.

This is such a wild story that I’d love to hear from any locals that can add tidbits or fill in with details.

Grizzly minding his own business

And it is the season to tell bear stories as the bears come low down, in hyperphagia and getting ready for winter.  Here’s a cute grizzly cub I caught on my trail camera the other day–way too small to take on a lion.

Bear Search in the Centennials

Several weeks ago I joined a NRDC funded project in the Centennials under the leadership of Greg Treinish of Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation looking for sign of Grizzly Bears there.  If we found sufficient evidence for the great bear, then more protections would be put in place.

This was the 2nd of 3 ‘adventures’ Greg is conducting; the next and last one is in October. Greg gave us an introduction and short class in Grizzly vs. Black bear hair, where and how to look for tree and fence post rubbings, and use of a GPS.  We bagged any hair we found and took a GPS reading.  Most of the two days were walking along old fence line, looking for hair caught in the barbed wires.

The Centennials border the Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge, rising more than 9,000 feet above the Centennial valley wetlands.  The wetlands provide habitat for dozens of species of birds including the Trumpeter Swan.  On the second day, I walked across the valley along a road, watching for hair samples along the fenceline.  Harriers accompanied us most of the day.

Here is a nice short video David Gaillard of Defenders of Wildlife put together of our weekend.  Scroll down to the 9/22 entry entitled ‘Short Movie of Centennial Bear Study in September’