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Winter Must be Coming as the Muskrats are building their Homes

For quite some time I’ve been fascinated with Swamp Lake, a large swamp off Chief Joseph Highway. Massive Cathedral Cliffs provides not only the backdrop, but all the water from these limestone massifs drain into the low meadows below. Rare plants, birds, grizzly bears and wolves travel through here. But I’ve been interested in the muskrats that live there.

Over 700 acres of wetland lies beneath these cliffs

Over 700 acres of wetland lies beneath these cliffs

Muskrats aren’t rare or endangered, but around our mountains this is the only place I’ve seen them. Rumor has it that a long time ago a man was raising muskrats for their fur in the lakes. These days they live in peace as I’ve never seen any trappers in these swamplands.

Muskrats spend most of their time in the water, and can dive for up to fifteen minutes at a time. That’s why it’s hard to spot them. Last spring, every time I passed a pond on my way to the Park, I stopped and watched for a muskrat. Once I saw one swim to a log that lay half onshore, climb on it, only to scent-mark it. Occasionally, yet rarely, I’d catch them swimming. Here’s a lucky photo I took of one swimming near the road.muskrat

In winter I look for their ‘push-ups’ which are the smaller equivalent of beaver lodges. When you start to see the push-ups appearing, you know winter will be here soon. When I passed by the ponds in mid-October, I saw no sign of little houses. But this weekend, here they were.

Distant pushups

Muskrat house

I counted five pushups in this large pond. The swamp is huge, with myriads of convoluted connector corridors so there are others push-ups, yet I’ve found most of them in this particular area. Which brings up some questions. I understand that muskrats are territorial, so how many muskrats might be living in this pond with 5 houses? And why do I see the majority of push-ups here?

These homes will be added to. Here’s one from two winters ago. They don’t last but one season. You can see on the photo below that it is surrounded by ice. The pond freezes, but not completely solid so the muskrats can use these holes to sleep in and store their food.

Close up of a constructed house.  These don't last more than a season usually

Close up of a constructed house. These don’t last more than a season usually

The swamp lies between the forested cliffs and the highway. The old dirt highway runs at the base of the cliffs. Facing north with little sun in winter, the snows are deep there. I like to ski this isolated road in winter where animal tracks abound. Wildlife use it as a secretive corridor. Occasionally there are even tracks across the frozen lake. Wolves, martens, weasels, snowshoe hare, coyote and deer are the most common tracks.

Here’s a great Youtube video from the 1950s in Idaho. It shows the Idaho Fish & Game live trapping muskrats, martens, and beavers to relocate them. The best part of the video is how beaver were reintroduced into remote wilderness area by parachuting them in little boxes.

Grey Owl–trapper turned conservationist

In the 1930’s, a white man by the name of Grey Owl, living in the Canadian wilderness, made his living trapping. He married an Iroquois woman named Anahareo.  He had no remorse about his profession until one day he killed a mother beaver leaving two young kits. As he was about to raise his gun to shoot them, Anahareo intervened. “Let us save them,” she cried.  “it is up to us, after what we’ve done.”  And so began Grey Owl’s transformation.

Grey Owl and beaver kit

Beavers are among the 2% of land mammals that live in social groups.  His beaver kits quickly became part of his family.  He described how they were like children–playful, intelligent, mischievous, and hungry for affection.  They liked to sleep against their pillows, cuddle with him and Anahareo, and were extremely sensitive to the moods of their human caretakers.

Grey Owl began to understand those animals which he previously sought to only kill for their pelts.  He vowed to give up trapping altogether, though he didn’t take this lightly as it was his sole means of livelihood being a mountain man.

A number of incidents had contributed to this line of thought.  About the first of these was the sight of a mother beaver nursing one of her kittens whilst fast by one foot in a trap.  She was moaning with pain, yet when I liberated her, minus a foot, she waited nearby for the tardy and inquisitive kitten, seeming by her actions to realize that she had nothing to fear from me….The spectacle of a crippled beaver with only one hind leg and three stumps, doing his best to carry on, had moved me to put him out of his misery…I was getting sick of the constant butchery…but this had not, however, prevented me from going on to the next lodge, and setting my traps as carefully as ever; and like many another good business man I had justified myself…they had seemed to me to be just foolish dupes who took my lures, beasts that were put on earth for my convenience, dumb brutes who didn’t know the difference.

And now had come these small and willing captives, with their almost child-like intimacies and murmurings of affection…they seemed to be almost like little folk from some other planet, whose language we could not yet quite understand.  To kill such creatures seemed monstrous.

Grey Owl was not an educated man.  His winter with Anahareo and the two beaver kits was long and desolate, deep in the wooded backcountry of Canada in a one room cabin which they’d quickly built during a November snowstorm. Swearing off trapping, Grey Owl no longer had any means to pay off his debts accrued in buying supplies for winter.  He had the idea to write an article on the beaver kits and his experiences as a woodsman.  He walked 40 miles to town in January, dropped the article in the mail off to a prestigious English magazine, and so began his writing and speaking career to save the beavers of Canada.

Trappers had outtrapped Canada; loggers had cut down large swaths of forest. Things didn’t look good for the beavers of Canada in the 1930s.  Yet Grey Owl continued to write and speak and gained enough notoriety that the Government of Canada approached him about making a short silent, film with his beavers.  

Soon the Canadian Government had found a new home for Grey Owl and his beavers where trapping and logging was illegal.  At Prince Albert National Park, a new cabin for Grey Owl became his permanent home.  The cabin can be visited today.  Grey Owl had turned from avid trapper to a prominent and vocal conservationist for wildlife and wildlands.  You can see a very interesting 9 minute documentary here and another a narrated one here in the Canadian archives.

In 1999 David Attenborough directed a film called Grey Owl, starring Pierce Brosnan. Attenborough as a boy had seen Grey Owl speak, and was greatly affected, perhaps even to the point of influencing his future profession.

Grey Owl’s book Pilgrims of the Wild chronicles the journey I’ve described above. A wonderful read.

We need to re-examine our views on beavers.  We can work with beavers, using them as a tool to:

  1.  store water and off-set some of the problems we face with a warming climate and declining water sources
  2. restore salmon and trout populations
  3. create good habitat for our declining moose populations due to a warming climate
  4. create wetland habitats for songbirds and other wildlife, especially as the climate warms.
  5. repair stream incision

Here are some good, easy-to-read references on line.  As well as some short talks by experts.

  1. Will Harling, director of the Mid Klamath Watershed Council, “we need to encourage beavers to build dams and to increase fish habitat where it’s feasible.”
  2. Working together to restore beavers to fight climate change
  3. This is a very interesting article how to channel beavers to work for us in designs that we want.

 

Doug Smith, Yellowstone Beavers and Salmon

Although most people hear the name Doug Smith and associate him with the Yellowstone Wolf Biologist, he also wears another hat.  Smith did beaver projects beginning as far back as 1984 at Voyageur’s National Park, then went on to study beavers in five national parks.  He completed several aerial surveys looking for beavers in Yellowstone National Park, the first in 1996 and the last one documented in Yellowstone Science was in 2007.

I won’t go into the whole report here, but essentially beaver colonies have increased over the last 20 years in the Park due to several things:

  1. Willow regeneration, probably due to reduced browsing, and most importantly…
  2. A rapid re-occupation of beavers along the northern range, especially along Slough Creek, because Dan Tyers of Gallatin National Forest released 129 beavers in drainages north of the Park between 1986 to 1999.

Tyers did a survey of the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness in 1985 and found no evidence of active beaver populations.  He talked with old-timers, sheep herders, outfitters, and MTFWP employees about the area’s history.  What they told him was that beavers were abundant until around the 1940’s and 1950’s. There was general agreement that the decline was due to persistent over-trapping, some disease, and a decline of willow stand (beavers in the GYE mostly use willow) due to over-browsing by moose and elk.

In 1996 there were 49 known beaver colonies in the Park.  In 2007 the number had stabilized to around 127.  These sites overlap fairly consistently with willow stands and slower water–mostly in the southeast, the southwest, and the northwest of the Park. The re-introduced beavers just north of the Park jump-started this healthy increase.

In the Sunlight Basin area, there used to be beavers, but they have been consistently trapped and removed.  Even recently as noted in my previous post, a beaver colony began making some headway down at Russell Creek on mostly forest land, but once on private land, the homeowners trapped and killed them.  A lot has been said about the reduced moose population in the basin over the last thirty years.  If we had beavers here, moose habitat would greatly expand.

So why all this animosity towards these large rodents?  Beavers, as we all know, gnaw down large trees.  They also can plug up culverts and irrigation ditches and flood fields. Yet if you want to have a healthy ecosystem, you need beavers. They are considered a keystone species, building habitat for birds and mammals literally from the ground up. They reduce stream incision, slowing water and creating a soil base for plant life that wildlife feeds on.  And if you’re willing to work with beavers, there are many ways to prevent culvert damage.

In a new twist, beaver dams once thought to be a deterrent to salmon swimming upstream and so were removed, are now thought to be the only thing that can save the West Coast salmon population.  Not only can the salmon easily cross beaver dams, but since beavers slow water, they also raise the water table.  Stream restoration in California that included beaver dams more than doubled salmon production.

“Beavers are the single most important factor in determining whether Coho salmon persist in California,” MKWC executive director Will Harling says.

What’s more, Pollock’s work shows that by slowing a river’s flow and allowing water to soak into the ground, beaver dams can raise the water table under the land. “So they don’t just help fishermen,” he says, “but can help ranchers and farmers save on water pumping and irrigation costs.”

Garreth Plank, a cattle rancher on the Scott River, has always welcomed the animals to his land. As a result, he has found that the beavers save the ranch significant amounts of money each year. “One of our largest expenses is electricity for pumping water,” Plank says. “With beavers on the land, the water tables are higher, and we’ve had a 10 percent to 15 percent reduction in pumping costs.”

“Due to their benefits, we started planting more trees, and instead of calling it riparian and shade plantings, we call it ‘beaver food.’ “

We need new ways of thinking about this little engineer.  Smith says that in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, drought may be advantageous to the rodent.  Drought slows down spring melts and allows more areas where the beavers will build.  And in a warming climate, the Greater Yellowstone may need beavers to increase water conservation, and habitat for wildlife.

Are Beavers the real drivers of trophic cascades in Yellowstone?

First, full disclosure.  I’ve only actually observed beavers twice–once in Escalante National Monument before it was an official Monument.  The other time a few years ago at Colter Bay Campground in Grand Teton National Park in a small backwater inlet.

But lately I’ve been thinking a lot about beavers.  It all started upon reading a new book about Yellowstone wildlife, (Yellowstone’s Wildlife in Transition). With over thirty scientific contributors, the book covers a lot of ground, and much of it demands a tedious and close read.

The general public has latched onto the story of Yellowstone’s wolves causing a trophic cascade, regenerating willow and aspen growth in the Park which in turn creates habitat for songbirds, beavers, and fish.  The short video How Wolves Change Rivers went viral, with over 15 million hits.  It’s a nice story but…

In Yellowstone’s Wildlife in Transition this notion is examined by the science community. The jury is still out and scientists are still researching and debating exactly what is happening with the landscape changes since the wolf reintroduction.  Along these lines, one chapter in particular caught my attention. It was the story of how wolves might be the ‘top down’ influence, but beavers are the ‘bottom up’ influence, and that it just might be the beaver doing most of the willow-aspen changes in the Park, not the wolf.

The ‘top down’ idea is that wolves keep elk on the move and out of the bottomlands and riverbeds where they munch new growth aspen.  With yearly munching, the aspens are stunted, never growing beyond elk munching height. Yet now, with elk moving around to avoid wolves, aspen and willows are returning.  Christine Eisenberg’s The Wolf’s Tooth expounds this viewpoint.

By the 1990’s beavers had become scarce in the Park.  Theories abound as to why–climate change and lower stream flows; overpopulation of elk outcompeted them for food–but without the beavers, riparian corridors were reverting to grasslands. Beavers need willows, and willows need beavers. Dam building by beavers raises local water tables, trapping fine sediments, and producing conditions perfect for willow establishment.  Beavers use willows to reinforce their dams and lodges.  Even after a beaver pond drains, willows establish themselves in the bare sediment. But without a high water table, these areas will eventually turn to grasslands.

Beaver dam

Studying Yellowstone’s aging plants and soil structures, scientists found that locations where willows previously were abundant on the margins of beaver ponds had fine particle soils extending up to 40 meters from the center of these streams. Today these same areas had shifted to gravelly soils immediately adjacent to the stream. This pattern indicated that the width of riparian habitat establishment along stream corridors was 20-40 times greater in 1930 than in 1990! 

Experiments were conducted caging willows and aspens to protect them from browsing in areas with wolves and elk.  What became clear was that

“if willows have insufficient water to grow, then moderating browsing by elk will not promote growth. Although willows responded to removal of browsing, their response was slow unless they had access to elevated water tables. Moreover, it was clear from the experiment that willows with adequate water could tolerate high levels of browsing. This experiment implied that the loss of beavers may dramatically slow the recovery of willows. [emphasis added]. It follows that if willows are required by beavers, and beavers require willow, then the reintroduction of wolves will not rapidly restore willows to the conditions that prevailed before wolves were extirpated.”

In the late 1990’s Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks did a succession of beaver releases near the Park boundaries with the hopes these beavers would travel into the Park.   Several years ago I was speaking with Dan Hartmann in Silver Gate who told me that residents had spotted beaver dams around Fox Creek Campground.  On our northeast side of the Park, beavers have been extirpated since the late 1950’s.  I hunted around there for a day but couldn’t find anything.  A lot of clear cutting had gone on as well as a recent small fire started by the clear-cutting! But just a few weeks ago, I found evidence of beaver activity on Russell Creek, near where I live.  Mostly on Forest, these beavers had begun making a few dams by cutting down large aspens and some alders. But since I found no evidence of a lodge, I figured the nearby landowners had trapped and killed the beavers.  (I’ll save the phenomenon of ‘rodent hate’ for another blog post). How did these beavers get there?  They probably were from the Soda Butte creek reintroduction lineage by MFW&P years ago, traveling overland and through small drainages and washes.  Although I mourned their death, their recent presence was a good sign.

Beaver evidence on Russell Creek

Beaver evidence on Russell Creek

I will be posting more about beavers over the next months.   A fascinating story about how beavers can restore habitat and wildlife is the Martinez Beavers in the Bay Area.  Beavers in the San Francisco Bay Area!  I’ll be speaking about this and other beaver issues.  My recent ‘obsession’ is that we need these ‘bottom-up’ ecosystem restorers.  They will create moose and other ungulate habitat, bird habitat, and help stabilize creeks.

 

Muskrats

I spend a day a week working at the Cody Museum of the West in their lab preparing specimens.  We don’t kill any animals for specimens.  They are brought to us having died in various circumstances.  Some hit by cars; others maybe hung up in fences; in a few circumstances they were caught in traps intended for other animals.   Several years ago I was given a muskrat to prepare.  Apparently this poor muskrat was the victim of a man who didn’t know much about wildlife. The muskrat had gotten into his irrigation ditch; the owner saw the muskrat and killed him, thinking he was a dangerous animal.  You might call this ‘the killing reflex’ that some people have towards the unknown.

Muskrat or musquash

Anyways, I was able to handle this interesting animal that we rarely see.  And what stands out is that half their body length is their scaly tail, which is slightly flattened vertically.   Muskrats are not rats at all, but they are in the rodent family.   The ‘musk’ part of their name is appropriate though because they do have a scent gland which they use to mark their territory.   Beavers are our largest rodents, and muskrats would run second.  ‘Musquash’, (or moskwas) a Native American term for muskrats, might be a more appropriate name.  Muskrats play prominent in Indian legends, including many tribes creation myths.  In some tribes, muskrats taught the people how to build lodges and were clan animals; in others they are considered lucky and bestow wealth and hunting success on humans who treat them well.  Muskrats were thought to tell when winter was coming by observing when they built their houses.

Muskrats are aquatic animals, but unlike beavers who spend time on the land cutting trees, muskrats spend all their time in the water, or in burrows they make right at the water’s edge. They are important wetland animals as they eat vegetation, thus keeping the wetlands open and providing suitable habitat for birds.  They also are an important prey species for fox, coyotes, mink, eagles and hawks.  

I decided I wanted to get to know these critters a bit.  Up the road about 15 minutes there’s an area of 700 acres of wetland with a 10 acre swamp.

Over 700 acres of wetland lies beneath these cliffs

Over 700 acres of wetland lies beneath these cliffs

I headed there and explored some shallow ponds of the north side first.  When I didn’t see any muskrat evidence, I began exploring the large and extensive swamp on the south side of the road.  Right away I discovered 4 or 5 ‘homes’ close together, sometimes called ‘push-ups’.

Close up of a constructed house.  These don't last more than a season usually

Close up of a constructed house. These don’t last more than a season usually

Muskrats are not quite the builders like beavers but they can make houses of reeds and grasses which they use in winter.  These houses were in a smaller pond, near the shore which was beginning to freeze up.  In the large and extensive swamp nearby I could only locate 2 or 3 houses and this was perplexing, given how much acreage there was and I’d read how territorial muskrats are.  For some insight I began communicating with Bob Arnebeck, a naturalist back east who has extensively studied his local muskrat and beaver population.  I wondered if, because the large Swamp still had open water, the musquashs had no need to build homes.

Muskrat house near shoreline.  Note frozen water

Muskrat house near shoreline. Note frozen water

Bob thought this might be the case and that Swamp Lake could be too deep for push-ups (at least for now since its not frozen), that muskrats build in shallows and try to get it done before the freeze-up, and that open water in winter would be a great time to actually see the animals. He also thought that muskrats might not be quite as territorial in winter, which would explain why I saw these houses so close to each other.  Bob speculated that the muskrats might even use the numerous push-ups as a kind of ‘shell game’ for predators that explore them in the winter.   In frozen ponds, the animals are rarely seen except for their frozen bubbles under the ice, or where a mink or fox has gone out to explore their homes.

This winter, when it finally really comes, I plan to spend time out in the swamp area and see the stories the tracks in the snow can tell.  I’ll be reporting back, hopefully learning a lot more about these elusive creatures.

Goshawks, Porcupines and Wildflowers

I’ve got a new microscope and am having fun bringing flower samples home to view them.  Its a lot easier than using a hand lens.  My method is simple:  a small plastic baggie with a paper tower.  If I find samples, I wet the towel and wrap the plants.  They’ll stay viable for days until I remember to extract them from my daypack.

While looking for wildflowers, I had some unusual wildlife encounters.  Last week I disturbed a grizzly in his day bed, but he was a good bear and just ran off.  But today I was ‘mobbed’ by a Goshawk whose nest was nearby.  She was quite aggressive, dive-bombing me over and over again on my way up the trail.  But on the return, she was even more pissy and came quite close–I suppose thinking I hadn’t learned my lesson the first time.

Goshawk nest

Goshawk nest

Goshawk resting during dive-bombing me

Goshawk resting during dive-bombing me

I also saw my first porcupine.  Koda was a little ways up the trail from me peering around the corner.  He stopped and was wagging his tail.  I  knew something was up. Thankfully, he decided to just stay put instead of investigate.  I think he learned his lesson when he saw the grizzly bear last week.  I was able to capture the porc waddling away.

Porcupine waddling away

Porcupine waddling away

Here are the wildflowers for today’s post:
Sand Lily

Sand Lily

Twisted stalk

Twisted stalk

Unidentified mountain flower

Unidentified mountain flower

Pedicularis

Pedicularis

Valerian

Valerian

Woodland star

Woodland star

Unusual to see a white pasque flower

Unusual to see a white pasque flower

Round leaved Alumroot

Round leaved Alumroot

Western meadowrue male flowers

Western meadowrue male flowers

Musineon tenufolium/ Wild Parsley

Musineon tenufolium/ Wild Parsley

 

Meadow of Larkspur and Woodland star

Meadow of Larkspur and Woodland star

Common twinpod

Common twinpod
Nineleaf bisuitroot

Nineleaf bisuitroot

Subalpine fir new cones

Subalpine fir new cones

Sedum sp.

Sedum sp.

I Miss the Porcupines

Where are all the porcupines?

Last summer I asked several of my neighbors if they’d ever seen a porcupine up here.  I live in a forested area (mostly douglas firs, lodgepoles, limber pines and spruce), plenty of water, around 7,000 ft.  In all my hiking and tooling around, I’ve never seen any porcupine sign. According to Mark Elbroch Mammal Tracks and Sign

Porcupine scat can be found wherever there are porcupines, accumulating anywhere they feed or walk; it may be especially thick in crevices and hollows or even basements, where they rest.  In fact, scat accumulations may be so high at resting places that porcupines have to burrow through their own excrement to exit and enter.  Look for rivers of scat flowing from rock ledges where they hole up in the winter.  Some researchers suggest that this behavior may aid in providing shelters with insulations; winter scat is composed completely of tiny wood chips.

Scats are small, irregular tubes and pellets with rounded or pointy ends. Most scats curve over their length–this asymmetry helps differentiate them from deer scats.  Scats may also be linked and form chains.

Porcupine tracks are also very distinct:

While on a two week back pack trip in the Tetons, I was sleeping outside without a tent, my boots seated by my head.  In the middle of the night, I awoke to a strange sound, a munching sound.  It was pitch dark, no moon.  I looked around and saw nothing but a rock near my head.  I lay my head back down and the munching sound commenced again.  Then it hit me “That rock wasn’t there when I went to sleep.”  I sat up with a start and the ‘rock’ moved away into the darkness.  When I awoke in the morning,  the entire top part of my boot was eaten away.

Porcupines are notorious for chewing outhouse seats, leather, boots, etc.  They are looking for the salt.

When I began asking neighbors last summer about porcupines, I couldn’t find one that had seen any.  But the other day I did find one.  The winter ranch hand across the road has lived around here all of his 60 plus years.  He told me that in the 1950’s there were plenty of porcupines, so many that the Forest Service was asking people to shoot them.

“They didn’t like what they were doing to the trees.  We shouldn’t have shot them.  They weren’t doing nothin’ compared to these beetles.”

He said he hadn’t seen a porcupine for a long time.

Where have all the porcupines gone?  Its an unsolved mystery and no one has given me any answers.