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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.

 

 

Predator control: Does it really work?

A few weeks ago our local Wyoming Game & Fish ungulate biologist held a public meeting to discuss the startling decline in our mule deer numbers. We’ve had several hard winters in a row, the worst being 2016-2017, a winter snowpack that locals hadn’t seen in over forty years. That winter was so difficult on our mule deer that as spring emerged, the amount of dead deer across the landscape was phenomenal. I hiked areas where every quarter mile I’d see a dead deer. And so it was a feast for emerging bears. The video below was taken mid-April 2017, just as bears were leaving their dens. This bear is so well-fed he looks like he’s going into hibernation, not coming out of.

 

Even this winter, although our snowpack was light December and January, February was intensely cold, with few days that cracked zero. The word from Game and Fish is that our herd objective (3 hunt areas) is 4000-6000 but the estimate is 2,900. An adjacent herd (6 hunt areas) objective of 9,600-14,400 is estimated at 6,900. And, according to G&F, the decline began even two years before winter 2016-2017.

 

Mule deer

Mule deer with fawn

Since I was snowed in and could not attend the public meeting, I spoke directly with the G&F biologist Tony Mong. Hard winters, and especially 2016, was acknowledged to be a major factor in the decline. I also found out that these two herds have never been robust, for reasons scientists have only recently discovered why—long migrations. In the last few years, these deer have been radio-collared as part of the Wyoming Migration Initiative. Researchers found they undertake a very long migration twice yearly into and out of the Park, among the longest in Wyoming mule deer herds. That alone takes its toll. I asked Mong if there had been a study on the low doe/fawn ratio to determine all factors. “Not yet.”

The following week I saw snowmobile tracks behind a locked Forest Service gate (foot traffic is allowed, though not vehicular traffic) that leads to winter elk habitat. I followed the tracks and found Wildlife Services (WS) was laying out bait on a small private inholding that’s surrounded by Forest Service lands. This is high country with windswept meadows, an area that bull elk especially like to frequent during winter months.

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Some friends that were shed hunting told me WS was baiting for coyotes, then planned to return and helicopter shoot them. These efforts to kill coyotes in this area will continue on foot through June, although our deer leave the valley late April/early May for their migration. The WS coordinator for Cody told me a dozen coyotes were killed by helicopter last week.

Coyote hunting

Coyote hunting ground squirrels

Concerned, I again spoke with Mong. He told me G&F usually likes to do controls where deer drop their fawns, but these deer fawn in the Park or in wilderness so they cannot do controls there. This was their best shot, literally. Who was funding this? Not Game and Fish. Private sportsmen organizations, at least one of them from Pennsylvania.

Mong’s explanation made no sense. These coyotes weren’t even the ones living in the fawning areas, so why the effort for little to no return? Even the WS chief told me they might save 20-40 adult deer this year from predation out of the 2,900 in the herd.

coyote

Coyote on wolf-killed elk carcass

Coyotes in Wyoming are considered predators and don’t come under the purview of G&F, but under APHIS, Department of Agriculture. That means they are the easiest targets. Next though on the predator list, would be mountain lions and their three year review is coming up this year with the G&F Commission. The zone that encompasses both herds has a consistent yearly quota of 20 lions and is supposed to be a  “Source” zone for lions, which means exactly what it says (Source, Sink, and Stable are the three types of management for mountain lion zones in Wyoming). And I have to wonder if what’s next will be hunters crying out for more wolves to be killed in our zone which is a trophy hunt area next to Yellowstone?

 

Obviously there are a lot of factors that control deer populations, weather and habitat probably being the most significant. As these deer migrate into the Park, surfing the spring green wave, quality of habitat is of special importance. One biologist reminded me how the ’88 fires created lush habitat for deer and elk. Now, thirty years later, young trees have crowded out many of those areas. And massive beetle-kill has created forests of impassible downed timber.

Beetle kill

Beetle-killed white bark pines dead on high trail in the valley

Panthera Teton Cougar Project recently published a timely study on this subject. Mark Elbroch and his team looked at how age structure in mountain lions determines food preference. The PTCP found that younger lions tend to specialize on smaller prey and deer. While cats five years and older specialize on elk. His conclusion:

Since younger cats specialize on deer, rather than elk, heavily hunted populations of pumas may put more pressure on deer populations than an un-hunted population with a higher average cat age. (Elbroch’s emphasis)

Another long term study was done in Idaho from 1997-2003 where researchers systematically targeted removal of coyotes and mountain lions in order to grow a mule deer population, one which had similarly low doe/fawn ratio as in my area. The study increased hunting on lions and coyotes, employed WS to kill coyotes winter through spring, targeted coyote killing in fawning areas, and decreased human hunting on deer. In other words, it was very intensive as to predator control along with other factors analyzed. Their results in a nutshell:

Our experimental efforts to change mule deer demography through removal of their 2 top predators had minimal effects, providing no support for the hypothesis that predator removal would increase mule deer populations…Population growth rates did not increase following predator reduction as predicted.

Isn’t it time we applied hard science to agency decisions when it comes to predators instead of bowing to non-scientific, knee-jerk reactions as a public relations ploy for pleasing the hunting community that agencies are “doing something”? Interestingly, I met with our Wildlife Services director to ask about the scope of this project. He acknowledged habitat and weather were actually the foremost critical factors in ungulate population numbers. “But unfortunately, predators are the low-hanging fruit.” His words, not even mine.

My October Surprise – A Wolf Poaching

The following events took place in October 2014, just after Wyoming’s wolf hunt was cancelled due to wolves being re-listed as Endangered.

October in Wyoming has the best weather. It can be raining, snowing, sunshine, or all of the above at once. Blustery one day, then in the 60s the next, Indian Summer seems to come and go until suddenly, one day, it’s winter.

I’m packing up for a work trip to California for several months, but before I leave I want to ‘say goodbye’ to my beloved valley and the mountains that envelop it. Today there are snow flurries off and on, low clouds obscuring the horizon. I’ve got a place in mind to hike to. It’s one of my special, or sacred, spots—an Indian Sheep Eater bighorn sheep trap. I especially like this place because not only is it high up above a cliff edge with a magnificent view of the Absarokas, but also the ‘trap’ is formed from two large boulders running into a ‘V’ shape. The acme of this formation is littered with ancient logs, hundreds of years old, preventing the sheep from squeezing out that end. Native peoples used a system of logs fanning out from the boulders to guide the sheep into the trap. Their dogs helped herd the animals, and possibly people were hidden along the trap line to scare the sheep in the proper direction. Medicine men assisted with the hunt, and I’ve read that male bighorn sheep horns and skulls have been found high up in trees, probably as part of their rituals.

Bighorn sheep

Bighorn Sheep Ewes

The last two years, October was the first month of the gray wolf hunt in Wyoming. Wyoming wolves were delisted in 2012. A ‘trophy’ zone outside Yellowstone and Grand Teton Parks allowed an October through December hunt, while in the rest of the state (85%) wolves were labeled as ‘predators’. Along with several other species like coyotes, raccoons, and feral domestic cats, predators can be shot or trapped year-round, without a second thought. Since my valley lies adjacent to the Park in the Trophy zone, we had lots of hunters looking to kill a wolf. Koda, my ninety-pound Golden Retriever, was forced to be humiliated into wearing an orange vest for those three months.

Koda catches a whiff

Koda, my red dog, enjoys a view

But this year the winds have changed for the wolf. The hunt was suspended just a week before the season was to begin. Environmental groups took Wyoming and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to court over their flawed delisting plan. And on the 23rd of September, a U.S. District Court judge ruled that Wyoming’s plan was not sufficient to support a hunt and the wolves were back on the Endangered Species list again. Money for wolf tags was refunded (at $15 a wolf tag, hunters paid a pittance), and the wolves have a stay for at least another year.

collared hoodoo.jpg

So on this blustery day, I drove down the valley to a trailhead. This fall, Koda doesn’t have to dress up. I’m on an outing with a purpose—to say ‘goodbye’ to my valley for the next few months. When I return, winter will have seriously set in and the deep snows will make it more difficult to get to this place. I prepare a small gift of some herbs and flowers held in a small deer hide bag—an offering that preserves my presence in this place while I’m gone, and honors the spirit of my beloved valley.

It’s a Saturday and the parking area is uncharacteristically full. I usually avoid the weekends, but since I’m leaving in a few days, this is my opportunity. The cars belong to hunters, yet on all my hiking in the valley, and even up this trail, I have never seen another person. People just don’t hike in grizzly bear country; so I still have the trail all to myself.

The first mile follows the stream, and then opens to a large confluence where two drainages meet in an open meadow. The narrow right-hand arroyo is what I want. I move up the dry canyon. To my left, the topography is a gentle slope that divides the two drainages. Yet to my right are the steep rocky cliffs that house a mesa high above. I look for an arch formed of broken slabs of limestone near the top of the bluff.

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I look for the arch that is my marker

That’s my sign to start climbing the steep sides up near the escarpment edge. Once I get to its flanks, I feel my way like a blind woman along the outcroppings. Then, suddenly, a narrow gap appears, barely wide enough to slip sideways through. I crawl upwards about thirty feet, where I emerge onto an unexpected plateau. It’s a trail known only to wildlife. And in front of me are the two house-size boulders, funneling down into the trap. There’s a strange, numinous beauty to this spot that I love so much. I place my offering on the ground, silently intoning my intentions, and then settle onto the rims to enjoy the view. The gully below ascends into a large meadow, eventually bordering wooded hillsides. I can clearly see the ridge that separates this ravine from the one beyond, colored in the gold and reds of the turning aspens.

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Fall colors in October

Time is standing still for me. I have nowhere to go. I snap a few photos and enjoy these last moments before leaving for California. Two figures appear on the ridge. They are dressed in bright orange, and although their origin is not in my view, I know they are coming from an area the locals call ‘Dry Lake’. I look at my watch. They’re deer hunters. I know this because October is open deer season in my valley. That’s the busiest time in this area, with hunters from in and out-of-state looking for a buck to fill their freezer. It’s 2:30 p.m., and a strange time to be hunting. From my vantage point, I haven’t seen any wildlife, and wouldn’t expect to at mid-day. They come over the ridge and appear to be leaving, walking down the drainage. There is no way they can see me, as I’m high up on a rib of rock obscured by trees.

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Koda and I watch as the two hunters appear over the ridge line

They sit down for a break and I pull out my binoculars. Yes, they are definitely hunters because I see their rifles. They rest for about ten minutes, and then continue on their route towards the parking area.

After they leave, I scramble down the terrace and take an alternate route back to my car. When I arrive back at the parking lot, I see the two hunters are already back too, and they are parked next to me. And I notice two other things: first they are unusually silent. They are not speaking to each other, nor do they look at me. Wyomingites are friendly folks, and hunters and outdoors people enjoy exchanging information and small talk. Yet these two fellows clearly do not want to engage me.

I also observe they are a father/son pair. I rarely see a father hunting with his son, so their mannerisms and facial features imprint in my mind more than they normally would. The young man appears to be about thirteen, yet he is tall and gangly for his age. The father is balding, about fiftyish. It’s three p.m. They silently load up their gear, then drive off.

In fifteen minutes I’m back at my house, packing to leave for California in a few days. By mid-January, I return home to a landscape blanketed with snow. Attached to my door is a business card. It’s from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Senior Special Agent, Office of Law Enforcement.

           “Please give me a call—hoping you can help with some information”

When I call Officer Rippeto, he tells me there was a wolf poaching the day that I was parked at the trailhead.

“The Warden rode up on horseback on Sunday morning. He found the dead wolf by Dry Lake. He figured it was shot on Saturday.”

I asked how he knew I was there that day.

“A Forest Service ranger drove up on Saturday and took down descriptions of all the vehicles parked in the lot. That’s routine. The warden recognized your car and told me where you lived. I’d like to come up and take a statement from you.”

I ask if the wolf was collared. Apparently, the wolf was a yearling and had no collar.  I tell Office Rippeto that I’d snapped some photos from my view spot. Unfortunately, I didn’t take any photos of those hunters. But I do have a time stamp on my pictures, which were taken immediately before they came into view. And I relay my description of them.

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Yet the one thing I did not notice was what their vehicle looked like (people in Wyoming always identify others by their vehicle) nor did I check to see if their license plate indicated they were locals. Being that it was general deer hunting season, these two people could have been from anywhere. And deer hunting up here is not a limited tag quota. It’s statewide.

Last I spoke with Officer David Rippeto, he still hadn’t found the wolf poachers. I cannot be certain that this father and son were the culprits, but I suspect they were. Rippeto too was suspicious of their conduct, and the fact that they quit their hunt at an hour when they should be about to begin hunting.

I think about what kind of example that father taught his son. He taught him that poaching was acceptable behavior. And he also gave him the clear message that wolves are not welcome here in Wyoming.

_______________

Update: October 2016. Wolves are still on the Endangered Species list in Wyoming. Wyoming and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife recently brought the case to court. We have not yet heard the decision of the Federal Appeals court.

 Wyoming continues to refuse to acknowledge that listing wolves as predators in 85% of the state is an antiquated and egregious view of wolves, a relic of the 19th century, when predators were exterminated for the benefit of the livestock industry.

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Did ‘Limpy’ the Coyote survive?

Many mornings I venture out early and explore who’s been out during the night.

Sunrise

Sunrise

If nothing else, I’m guaranteed to see the elk, deer and moose.  Last night there seemed to be quite a party.  Plenty of coyotes and the wolves were moving around. Yesterday I saw a bald eagle fly into the valley.  There must be a kill around, but I could not find it.

I wish I could figure out the coyote territories in the valley.  I have a guess, based on howling and tracks, but its only a guess.  I suspect there are at least three different packs within the front valley itself.  It appears the pack sizes go up and down and I wonder how much the wolves have an impact on that. Some years there are many more wolves here, other years their numbers are down and the coyote numbers seem to jump up.  When the coyotes increase, I see less fox sign.  The coyotes have definitely gotten bolder over the years relative to their older brother, the wolf. Look at this example:

This coyote ran right over three wolf tracks

This coyote ran right over three wolf tracks

Last winter I spotted a lone coyote several times that had a badly injured left rear foot.

Here's the fellow.  Who knows what happened to his leg.

The lame coyote from last winter

The first time I saw him, he was hobbling through a field.  Then one early morning he was stealing some left-overs from a wolf kill.  No other canines were around.  He ‘ran’ with his prize through the field while I watched.  Leery of my presence, he made his way up the hillside into the trees to eat in peace.  I took some photos of his interesting and sad track.

The arrow points the direction he was headed

Last Year: The arrow points the direction he was headed.  The ‘dot’ is his injured leg’s imprint. One can see the trouble he is having by his difficult gait.

 

You can see the small imprint of his left hind leg.  The back legs are in front because he is running

Last Year:  You can see the small imprint of his left hind leg. The back legs are in front because he is running

This morning there were several groups of coyotes in different areas.  And one large grouping was around the area where I spotted ‘Limpy’ last year head for the hills with his stolen bone.  About 5 coyotes were running together, and one of them had a bad left rear leg!

Spot the limpy coyote.

This winter:  Can you Spot the limpy coyote?

Coyote running.  rear feet are in front of front feet.  Notice the 2nd print from top.  That is the left rear and its noticeably smaller

This winter:  Coyote running. rear feet are in front of front feet. Notice the 2nd print from top. That is the left rear and its noticeably smaller.  But compare this photo with the one from last winter. A more normal gait!

The foot is turned inward and the print is smaller meaning he can’t put so much weight on it.  Yet given the difference in last year and this year, he is able to put much more weight on it.  Last year that coyote was barely putting his foot on the ground.  Now he is using it!

Of course, I cannot be sure it’s the same coyote. But given that it’s the same rear left leg, and the coyote was spotted in the same general area, its a good possibility.  And if it is ‘Limpy’, now he, or she, is running with a pack instead of alone.  Now maybe he has had a happy ending after all!

Wolves, Management, Cattle and Wyoming

Buffalo Bill Center of the West today’s lunchtime speaker was Mike Jimenez of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Wolf Recovery program.  Mike was scheduled months ago to speak about the success of the federal wolf reintroduction.  But as timing would have it, just days ago wolves were relisted in Wyoming.

Mike has been a wolf biologist for over thirty years.  He headed up the Rocky Mountain Region (RMR) wolf recovery for USF&W and still works for them.  The re-listing put him in an awkward position, as the Feds along with Wyoming are the defendants in the lawsuit.  His talk stuck to the history of wolves in the U.S., when they were listed under the ESA and why, and how the program was conducted and how it progressed.  He’s a biologist, not a lawyer or a politician, and he tried to be non-biased and fair in his assessment of this extremely controversial issue–wolves!Lamar pack wolf

Personally, I think the Wyoming Game and Fish has struggled to maintain wolves above the minimum level and done a good job. Although I disagree with how their hunt zones have been managed [I’d like to see either a science zone label for areas around the Park with no hunting; or at a minimum have the areas around the Park have a one month season in October when wolves are not following elk as they move outside the Park].  But WG&F has their hands tied politically, just as the Feds do. And that is why things have ended up back in the courts.

Jimenez’s assessment of the ‘two’ sides of the wolf issue was, I thought, overly-simplistic–characterized as the pro- or anti-wolf—cuddly/cute, or killing machines.  People who think about wolves know it is more nuanced than that and I’m sure Jimenez knows that too.

Not today's wolf but here is an example of collaring.

Collaring a wolf by Wyoming Game and Fish

I’d like to address my feelings on some of these issues.

First why was Wyoming targeted for a relisting lawsuit?

Wyoming is the ONLY state that has a predator listing for wolves in the RMR. Although one could argue that most of the state is unsuitable habitat for wolves (true), Montana has the same issue.  Montana is a bigger area state, with its entire eastern side unsuitable habitat.  But Montana does not have a predator zone.  Predator status means that an animal can be shot, run over, trapped at any time of the year.  There are other animals, such as foxes and coyotes or badgers that receive that status in Wyoming.  In general, ‘predator’ status in most U.S. states was abandoned back in the 1920’s and replaced with hunting/trapping seasons.  Wyoming is still in the caveman era on this.

As wolves are delisted in other states, such as Washington and Oregon, a ‘predator’ zone will not fly.  Wyoming is a lone wolf here so to speak here.  The Predator Zone must go before wolves should be de-listed here.

Hard to see, but the small dot in the foreground is the wolf mousing amongst the cattle

Hard to see, but the small dot in the foreground is a wolf mousing amongst cattle

In addition, Wyoming, in a back door deal with Governor Mead and, at that time, Secretary of the Interior Salazar, came up with a ‘flex-zone’, ostensibly to insure habitat connectivity for genetic diversity.  In other words, a portion of the state near the Idaho border is a trophy zone during the hunt season, then a short few months rest, then reverts to predator status.  This too is ridiculous and no other state has this, nor will they.  This was a pure political ploy, and not based on science.

But apart from how Wyoming got itself into this relisting mess, I want to address the issue of predation and wolves.  As far as objections to wolves because they eat elk and ‘hurt’ hunters, this is not even an issue to address, but just whining on the part of hunters.  Hunter elk success in Wyoming has been at an all time high for the past two years.  And although elk numbers in some areas are down, there are many reasons, including wolves, for this.  In fact, some of the reasons, like in the Northern Range in Montana, have to do with over-hunting by humans! Wolves as competition for hunters is a non-issue.

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But wolves predation on livestock is an issue that needs addressing.  Jimenez rightfully pointed out that wolves will and do take down cattle and sheep, especially when their preferred prey–elk and deer–is unavailable.

When wolves were brought into the RMR under the ESA, Jimenez pointed out that the agreement with ranchers was that they wouldn’t have to change any of their practices. Under the 10J rule, the USF&W would surgically kill wolves that had predated on livestock, and Defenders of Wildlife would pay compensation.  As a general rule, that seemed to work out well.  Cattle predation since 2006 went down, wolf population in the states went up.  This kind of agreement was necessary to keep ranchers happy.  But it is not a long-term solution, and I will tell you why.

Mike pointed out the Service tried several non-lethal means like fladry and loudspeaker noise to deter wolves, but because wolves are smart, they all failed as solutions for large ranches.

In my work as a landscape designer and horticulturist, although I didn’t work with livestock, I did work with wildlife issues relative to plants.  In Marin county where there is essentially no hunting, deer are abundant and people have made their homes in deer habitat.  Deer are a big problem in terms of a nice garden.  Especially in August/September, plants that deer normally might not touch, deer will eat in order to find water.  Deer, like wolves actually, are very smart and adapt to your methods of ‘control’.  And like wolves and bears teach their young what to eat, deer will do the same.  Even in a small county like the North Bay of San Francisco, deer in different areas will eat different plant material.  And non-lethal control methods have to be constantly changed.

In addition, a much bigger issue than deer are gophers and moles.  Gophers are abundant in Marin’s Open Space.  Once you till soil, they move in even if they weren’t there before.  They can destroy even a 5 year old Redwood Tree, making it disappear into hole overnight.  Moles don’t eat plants, but dig tunnels next to roots.  The roots of the plants than dry up and the plant dies.

Skunks and Raccoons are abundant too.  They eat grubs and love to dig in gardens, especially new lawns or new plants, seeking insects.

These are all big problems for homeowners who spend big bucks on their landscape installation; or for small farmers who supply specialty crops to restaurants.  I’ve worked with all these critter problems.

Expensive landscape losses are no different for a rich homeowner than the loss of cattle for a rich cattleman

Expensive landscape losses are no different for a rich homeowner than the loss of cattle for a wealthy cattleman

These folks, and especially the farmers [which is a direct equivalent to ranchers because this is their livelihood] experience the same sorts of frustrations that ranchers do with wolves or coyotes.  I know, because I’ve been on the other end.  It becomes easy to ‘hate’ something that continues to damage your crops or your cattle.  It is then not much of a step to turn to lethal, and easy, means to deal with the problem.  Poison the rodents, kill the deer, shoot the coyote or wolf, etc.

Yet our wildlife is valuable.  They are making a living themselves; plus they have value on the landscape. Wolves control the coyote population.  Coyotes control the rodent and raccoon population. etc.

Over the course of twenty years of working with wildlife ‘problems’ in the landscape, my solutions evolved to be non-lethal yet creative.  If the wildlife are outsmarting you and your only solution is to kill them–how smart are you?  Wildlife can be outsmarted non-lethally, but it’s a matter of working with the land, with your livestock or your plants. Really, its part of your job as a grower or a rancher.Deer and fawn nursing

I’ve created entire wedding flower gardens in deer areas and the neighbors were amazed.  How did you do that?  They’d ask.  I used plants that deer like but also didn’t like, interspersing them in certain ways so as to deter, and fool, deer.  Instead of endlessly poisoning gophers, we used a bitter tablet that plant roots uptake and makes the plant taste bitter to them.  Edible gardens must be fenced and so on.

I have worked creatively with the land to minimize wildlife damage in non-lethal ways. That is the pact one takes on when working with plants and animals.  Aldo Leopold called it ‘The Land Ethic’ and it still holds today.

So although the initial ‘promise‘ to ranchers when reintroduction began was that ‘things won’t change’, now that wolves are to stay, things with the ranching industry must change.  Ranchers need help and education in how to manage creatively.  And it’s time they make that commitment.  These predators, such as wolves and grizzlies, have so few areas they can live, the RMR needs to be one of the places where wildlife comes first.  Federal lands should not have ‘kill’ orders’  Federal lands are where wolves, and bears, survive.  Ranch at your own risk on public lands would be the first important change.  If that means cowboying more frequently, or not putting calves out on the allotments, then the ranchers need to make those changes if they want less predation.

Grizzlies too are killed for cattle predation on public lands

Grizzlies too are killed for cattle predation on public lands

It also would mean that a rancher is not reimbursed on federal lands.  Every year I see cattle killed on the highway by me.  They are on the road because the rancher, whose cattle are on public land allotments, doesn’t want to bother to turn the electric fence on or cowboy them off the road.  I’ve been told ranchers just factor these losses into their bottom line.  Its easier and more economical than sending a cowboy out.  So if car losses don’t matter on public lands, why should the miniscule amount of wolf predation?

On private lands, ranchers will probably have to be issued a shoot-to-kill permit.  But this should come with help and education, implementing methods to reduce predation.  Livestock reimbursement, and Wildlife Services, should be phased out slowly.  Reimbursement should only come with evidence of livestock non-lethal predation management.  Money should be spent helping the rancher, not giving him a handout which only encourages complacency.  I’ve run many businesses, and the federal or state government never reimbursed me for business losses.

Lastly, there are now many ranches in our state that are not making a living ranching, but using the generous subsidies that come with livestock to reduce taxes for extremely wealthy one-percenters.  These billionaires are still receiving not only reimbursement for predation losses, but receive Wildlife Services assistance on our public lands to kill wolves and other predators. This is plain abuse of even our existing broken system which was implemented to assist subsistence ranchers.

Especially in our Western States, we need a new model.

 

Speak for Wolves

I just returned from 2 nights and 2 days of a Speak for Wolves event in Gardiner, MT, the first one of its kind.  The event was a great success, with some very prominent speakers and filmmakers in the field of conservation.

The event at Arch Park.  YNP historic arch in background

The event at Arch Park. YNP historic arch in background

Friday night I saw Bob Landis’ new film ‘She-Wolf’ which is now on sale in the Park.  She-Wolf is the interesting and unique story of wolf 832f , better known as the Lamar Valley’s famous ’06 who was shot and killed in the very first Wyoming wolf hunt.  Bob answered questions at the end of the film.

This story is extremely personal to me as not only had I watched ’06 many times up close and personal in the Lamar Valley, but after her death in late December 2012, the entire Lamar pack (minus the remaining alpha male) spent the winter in my valley.  During that winter of 2013 I had the opportunity to watch the pack behind my house many times as well as track them.  With the death of their alpha female, they seemed at a loss of how to kill elk, even though there were thousands all around them, and they mainly killed deer.  In the spring they all dispersed–which is a typical disruption when pack members are killed.

'06 swims the Lamar river, emerges onto the road right in front of tourists.

’06 swims the Lamar river, emerges onto the road right in front of tourists.

On Saturday there were speakers such as Nathan Varley who runs a wolf watching business in Gardiner with his wife.  He spoke of how these last several years of wolf hunting around the Park boundaries has made his business even harder.  His yearly gross revenue of over 1/2 million dollars brings a lot of business to the Park and surrounding communities. People come from all over the world to see wolves as the best place for viewing them in the wild is Yellowstone.  But some of the viewable packs are gone.  Lamar Valley used to be the premier place for wolf watching, but now has only two wolves that are rare to see.

Louisa Wilcox of Center for Biological Diversity spoke of some of the knotty politics.  Appropriately enough, thunder and lightning cut her talk short.  Public lands ranching and trapping demonstrations–one of the main ways wolves are killed in Montana and Idaho–completed the day’s activities.

Coyote pups

Coyote pups

Saturday night was film night.  Two short films on Wildlife Services (Exposed: USDA’s Secret War on Wildlife) and how they indiscriminately are killing wildlife were shown.  Then Camilla Fox, Director of Project Coyote, presented a film on how Marin County (my old alma mater) ranchers have done away with Wildlife Services and implemented a program of natural protections.  These include guard dogs, better fencing and llamas.  The county has saved over $60 million dollars plus most ranchers have seen either no predation or very little predation by coyotes.  All this and the biggest plus is they are no longer poisoning wildlife.  Instead, the coyotes are doing their job of controlling the rodents around the ranches.

Dr. Robert Crabtree, who has done all the major research in the Park on coyotes, was present for the panel discussion afterwards, as well as George Wuerthner, Western Watersheds Project Oregon Director and author.

Sunday’s event included a wonderful talk and ceremony by Jimmy St. Goddard of the Blackfeet Tribe.  Here’s a short clip of Jimmy giving a prayer in Blackfeet.

Doug Peacock gave a great talk about the plight of the grizzly bear, who the USF&W and the states are just itching to delist in 2015, and how that might impact the numbers of the Great Bear.

All in all it was a great event with talks from dedicated individuals who are working hard to make a difference in our treatment and perception of wildlife and wildlands.

Since I traveled through the Park to and from Gardiner, here are a few of the wildlife shots I took on my journey.

Moose on highway 212 outside the Park

Moose on highway 212 outside the Park

Little Black bear in Yellowstone

Little Black bear in Yellowstone

Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle

Elk lounge on the high school field in Gardiner

Elk lounge on the high school field in Gardiner

Muskrat photo finally!

Muskrat photo finally!

Great Horned baby with mouse

Great Horned baby with mouse

Bison and baby

The Fox and the Hound

O.K.  I exaggerate.  The hound would be Koda who found the carcasses but he never saw the fox, nor was he interested in a hunt.

Several days ago Koda found a dead yearling deer partially snowed over under a dead tree root.  I recognized the yearling as one of the babies that had been frequenting my yard this winter with his sister and mother. How he died I wasn’t sure.  His ribs exposed and his rumen still inside but all the organs eaten out, and the head missing.  He could have just died from the harsh winter, or possibly a cougar kill that had been buried in the snow, and exposed when the snow melted.

Cougars will frequently just eat just the internal organs as they lack the ability to manufacture Vitamin A.  It had snowed the evening before and there were no cougar tracks to be found, just a lot of canine tracks.  I’m not very familiar with fox tracks vs. coyote tracks, so I just wasn’t sure which one it was.  I put my trail camera on movie, and left it there for two days.  I wanted to make sure I didn’t run into any bears.  I heard they are starting to emerge, and they’d be looking for winter kills.  The boar grizzlies emerge first.  In the 6 winters I’ve been here, my limited experience is that while Yellowstone and the North Fork report bears in early March a lot of times, our area is slightly later by about a month.  We may just have more forest without homes, while the North Fork is a narrow corridor with a lot of cabins.

I returned in two days to find this video on my camera.

Now armed with the knowledge that these tracks clearly belonged to a fox, I checked all around and noticed a distinct path the fox had followed to, and from, the carcass up the hill.  This fox had followed his own trail to the carcass then back to his den or lay.  Clearly the trail was deliberate, not like a wandering excursion.  So I got my GPS out and followed his trail.

Wolf track lower left; fox track lower right.  Then they cross.

Wolf track lower left; fox track lower right. Then they cross.

Fox track and ruler

Fox track and ruler; foxes have lots of fur on their feet which makes for indistinct tracks

Following the fox’s track reminded me of when I followed a bobcat track up this same mountain last year.  Up and up he went.  Unlike coyotes or wolves who like to follow path (like deer paths), or course across a hill or mountain, this guy was going straight up and ignoring worn paths.

Fox track close-up

Fox track close-up

As I got higher, the snow softened and I kept ‘post-holing’; each footstep was sinking deep into the drifts and I had a hard time climbing.  The fox on the other hand was gliding across the snow.  Koda was sinking too.  Of course, Koda weighs 90 pounds and that fox might weigh 20 pounds.

Fox continues but I don't

Fox continues but I don’t

Finally, I could just go no more.  I was high up the mountain, on steep sides with deep snow.  I took a GPS reading, hung a bit of shiny stuff on a limb, and decided to return when the snows melted some and explore.

Where I had to stop because of deep snow

Where I had to stop because of deep snow

This is exactly what happened when I followed a bobcat last year.  I lost his tracks when the mountain turned into a jumble of boulders high up near its summit. Probably he had his den there as bobcats like rock shelters.

Foxes according to Rezendes, might be a link between canines and felines. He writes:

In fack, there was originally some dispute as to whether foxes should be classed taxonomically as dogs or cats.  Cats are direct-registering animals, and foxes are direct-registering animals.  Foxes have eyes similar to those of cats; their pupils dilate elliptically, up and down, rather than in a round fashion, as dogs’ eyes do.

And gray foxes can climb trees, the only canine that can do so.  Plus they have semi-retractable claws.  A lot of times their claws do not show in tracks.

Red fox pelts come in the full variety of colors, from red to black, grey to white. But always they have the white tip.  Red foxes are native to North America.

Just a few of the possible fox coat colors

Just a few of the possible fox coat colors

 It is believed they crossed into North America sometime during the last ice age about 35,000 to 11,500 years ago.  Foxes of this wave are closely related to the European, and Canadian red fox. But in the Beartooth mountains by my home, there is another red fox that is being studied.  These foxes are believed to have arrived during the Illinoian glacier period, 310,000 to 128,000 years ago, and could be the ancestors to a genetically isolated populations of red fox living in the Western U.S.  They live high up (7000-10,000 ft.).   I suppose since I’m at 6800′ I could be seeing some very ancient ancestral foxes.

Fox on Beartooth Highway

A Beartooth fox at 10,000 feet

How to collar a wolf

The spotter plane has been flying very occasionally because either its too windy or snowing. When the spotter flies in January, its because the Wyoming Game and Fish are looking to find wolves.  They need to complete their annual count and do collaring.

Here's how its done although this pix is of cargo.  The wolf would be wrapped in a net.

Here’s how its done although this pix is of cargo. The wolf would be wrapped in a net.

This morning was beautiful.  Four inches of new snow and no wind–perfect conditions to fly and look for wolves against the snow.  I saw the helicopter head up a neighboring drainage and knew they’d found wolves there.  It just so happened that I was on my way to meet a friend in Cody when I saw the copter returning to a trailhead pullout with a sling hanging from it.  The copter hovered while a cadre of Game and Fish employees guided the net to the ground, then carried the cargo to a lowered tailgate of a truck.  I knew what was happening so I turned my vehicle up the dirt road to get a closer look.

Lying on the tailgate was a small sedated wolf.  A female, she was this year’s pup and only about 70 pounds.  Her teeth told the tale as they were white and perfect, but her paws said she’d be growing bigger by the spring.  Usually I keep my camera in the truck, but this morning the elk were in my front yard and I was taking their pictures.

About 2000 elk are in the valley in winter.

About 2000 elk are in the valley in winter. 

So no photos folks, you’ll just have to believe me when I say I touched her fur, and held her foot.  And the truth is I didn’t feel badly about no photos.  Photographing a sedated wolf felt like I would be violating her dignity.

I asked one of the fellows how long before she awoke. “About 1/2 hour till the drug wears off.”  He told me.  “It’s the same drug the vet uses to sedate your dog.”

One person will stay with her till she wakes, then she’ll just have to find her way back to her pack by herself from the parking area–although far in human walking terms, probably no great feat for a wolf, who can travel up to 30 miles in a night.  She can surely scent her way, or howl her way, back to her family.

Not today's wolf but here is an example of collaring.

Not today’s wolf but here is an example of collaring.

I’ve been volunteering for many years now in the Draper lab at the Buffalo Bill Museum of the West.  About six months ago the lab acquired over 100 frozen wolf heads from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife.  USF&W managed wolves when they were still listed. They shot wolves for livestock control.  These wolf heads, and some carcasses, were saved for DNA and other scientific purposes.  The lab also is receiving wolves from Yellowstone National Park that died from various causes, usually wolves that killed other wolves.  With this repository of skulls from all over the GYE, the museum will be in a unique position of holding essential DNA information which could help ensure the Greater Yellowstone wolf population has sufficient genetic diversity so as not to go extinct again.

Draper lab Buffalo Bill Museum of the West

Working at the lab, I’ve held and worked on many wolf skulls, but of course all dead wolves. Seeing a living wolf so close up is definitely a thrill.  But I have mixed feelings about collaring and so much interference.  Wolf collaring outside the Park is essential for only two reasons: first to count the population and track them, ensuring that the numbers of wolves do not fall below the critical 100 wolves and 10 breeding pairs; and second they take blood in order to make sure enough genetic mixing is taking place, again part of the delisting mandate.  Other than that, these wolves have been studied for over 15 years and now that hunting is taking place outside the Park, the study inside the Park has, I feel, been compromised with too many unnatural variables.

So, my reservations?  The amount of disturbance that wildlife in general is subjected to is constant.  There is general hunting season on ungulates from around September through December.  Collaring of wolves.  Fly over counts of sheep and elk.  Cougar hunting is seven months from September through March. Regulated trapping seasons on fur bearers such as martens, bobcats, and beavers.  Year round trapping on wolves in part of the state, coyotes, raccoons, badgers, rabbits.  Then there’s snowmobile activity in winter and ATV activity in summer.  The human pressures on wildlife never stops, in addition to their predation pressure and food needs.  And this is just around my area.  Many states have year round hunting and trapping regs depending upon the animal.

Putting all my concerns aside, it certainly was a magnificent day–awakening to hundreds of elk in my front yard and getting a close-up look and feel of their predator, the wolf.

Four wolves far away

Four wolves far away

 

 

The Fox and the Study Area

I’ve been itching to start the rounds in my study area again, but winter hasn’t set in and so there is no consistent snow on the ground.  One day its’ 50 degrees, the next a few inches of snow that melts off.  Last winter I began in earnest a systemic, almost daily, investigation of a specific area near my home.  Using tracking methods, I plotted out where the martens lived, the size of an ermine’s territory, the population of squirrels and voles and deer mice.

Vole bound.  You can see it's tail drag

Vole bound. You can see it’s tail drag

I followed a resident cougar who lead me several times to the end of her trail where a pack of wolves obscured her tracks.  One time at the end of the trail lay a dead deer, maybe killed by the cougar who was driven off her prize by the wolves.

cougar

So I’ve been content to lay out a camera bait trap and see who’s around.  Hunting season is still on, but the general deer season is over here and the quotas for elk and deer are very limited for the next month or two.  The animals will start to come down within the next few weeks as the weather turns and the traffic subsides.

Trapping season has started .  There are a few people who trap martens here.  Bobcat trapping season begins on the 15th.  For these reasons, I would never reveal where my camera traps are set, nor where my study area is.

After a week, I went to check my camera trap and was surprised to see a beautiful fox.Here is the link for the fox video.  You can see she’s digging for the deer liver I set in a covered hole.

And a few stills

fox

What a great tail

Red fox

Digging around for the deer liver treats I left

Another positive effect of having wolves in the valley is that they keep the coyote population under control, and by doing that, foxes are returning.  I’ve talked with some old timers here who told me that in all the time they lived here, they never saw foxes.  Yet I’ve seen them, or their sign, now every year. With fewer coyotes, there is room for foxes.

Fox on Beartooth Highway

Fox on Beartooth Highway

Using my study area last year, I began to notice the interrelationships of  wildlife.  Wildlife are all finely attuned to each other.  They know the comings and goings, the patterns of movement, the subtle changes. Even with this camera trap of covered meat, once the fox stole the food, the resident mother deer with her two fawns stopped bye and spent a long time smelling the empty hole and upturned dirt.  Then she walked over and looked at the camera.  Something was just not right for her.   I think she sensed this was a ‘human event’.

Nature is a dance, an interplay of relationships. As humans we’ve disconnected ourselves for so long from the dance that we are no longer  part of the music, no longer have a feeling for its rhythm.  My hope with this study area project is to wander again onto the dance floor and pick up, with some luck and intuition, a bit of the cadence and beat that wildlife so naturally swings to.

Wyoming’s wolf hunt hits hard

I’ve been checking the kill data sheets on the Wyoming Game and Fish predator site every day.  The data is divided into zones, with a quota in each except for the ‘predator zone’.  In the Predator area, which constitutes over 85% of Wyoming, a wolf can be killed, by any means, any time of the year.  In the Trophy Area, its October through December.

My zone is zone 2.  We’ve had early snows, which drives the game further down from the high meadows.  It also makes tracking easier.  Wolves follow elk and so do hunters.  The quota in my zone has been 4 wolves total.wolf

With the large quota of 8 wolves last year that dispersed and mostly destroyed the existing pack, there have been few wolves here.  Park wolves moved in this winter, although their pack was hit hard when several of the members moved outside the Park boundary and were killed, among them the Alpha female. Come spring the Lamar pack dispersed, a few had small litters, and although I’d watched a few lone wolves here and there, the wolf watching here, as well as Lamar valley in the Park, was poor.  Summer in general is a time when wolves are tending their pups and not running in packs.  Fall and winter they ‘pack up’.

This wolf, from my valley, was by the road two years ago.  With the hunts you will no longer see wolves so easily

This morning I looked at the Wyoming Game and Fish ‘harvest’ data (I hate that euphemism.  I ‘harvest’ vegetables and fruits; I ‘kill’ animals), and it appears that over the weekend five (5) wolves were killed in my zone–one over the quota even.  I don’t yet know the details, but I might assume they were running together, adults and pups, and all ‘harvested’ by elk hunters working high up with wolf tags in their pockets.

I find the whole wolf hunt, and how its being handled in Wyoming (as well as Montana and Idaho) a sad state of affairs.  The Wyoming Game and Fish wolf site is extremely lean on data and statistics which makes me distrust what their final count for 2013 will be.  They say they will have, at the end of this hunt, a total of 160 wolves.  Yet with 50 wolves killed this year already in the predator zone and as control, these additional 26 wolves for the hunt amounts to approximately 75 wolves harvested. Wyoming’s final data report for 2012 estimated 186 wolves as of December 2012.  Even with new pups, a kill rate of over 75 wolves will be cutting it close to the agreement with USF&W below:

Under the terms of the delisting agreement between Wyoming and USFWS, the state of Wyoming is required to maintain wolves at or above the minimum delisting criteria of ≥100 wolves and ≥10 breeding pairs in WYO, with YNP and WRR (Wind River Reservation) providing the additional buffer of ≥50 wolves and ≥5 breeding pairs necessary to meet the ≥150 wolf and ≥15 breeding pair requirement for the state.

My valley which is directly adjacent to the Lamar Valley, is a rich corridor that allows for genetic exchange.  The Lamar elk herd migrates here in the winter, returning to the Park in the spring.  The herd has been studied for its low cow-calf ratio, but the results of this study are not being used to make management decisions.  The study shows the biggest impact to this herd has been compressed ‘green-up’ reducing feed quality (think climate change and drought), and to a lesser extent, grizzly take on young as the bears food (specifically cutthroat trout) has been reduced.  With zone 2 as one of the largest quotas in the state for wolves, WG&F is trying to eliminate wolves in this area in order to build up the elk herd population–even though their own studies indicate wolves are not the herd’s main problem.

What must be said, that isn’t being said enough, is what is a landscape devoid of its full suite, bereft of predators, lacking that intricate network of fundamental relationships? Wolves operate as a family unit; they have emotions like ours.  There is something magnificent and whole about having an abundance of wildlife, all of the members of one’s ecosystem, present.  The Land itself becomes alive.  That is why I love living here, and not in a ‘wilderness’ of only pretty views.wolf

I end this post with a quote from Joe Hutto.  He spent a year raising a brood of wild turkeys.  Here he reflects upon his youth when he hunted turkeys for food.  I would like to believe that this is what motivates hunters to kill for trophy or sport, killing an animal that you don’t even eat.  I like to think these wolf hunters are attempting, unknowingly, to touch something magnificent, more alive, and more fully conscious.  And possibly one day they might wake up and instead of killers of wolves, they will be advocates.

“I try to recall whether in my young mind, at that moment, I could have imagined, anticipated, or even longed for the irony of the present moment and this strange continuity.  Like an arrow shot high and blind, it seems as though I have traveled very far although my path was peregrine.  It appears, in retrospect, that my trajectory could only have brought me eventually to this singular experience.  I realize now that as a young hunter, my intent was not merely to kill for food this elusive bird, but was rather my clumsy way of reaching toward something that enchanted and mystified me.”