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    A COMPENDIUM FOR THE DRY GARDEN

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The Mysterious Elk

When hunting season is over and the rush for Christmas trees or winter wood dies down, the elk return.  The elk that migrate to this valley are ‘Park’ elk–elk that summer in the high Absarokas of the Lamar drainages.  1500 to 2000 elk travel here when the snows push them to seek easier feed.  It’s in their DNA to make this trek.

Personally, I look forward to them arriving.  And although they are leery of my presence, I enjoy their company.  For many winters now I arise early, before dawn, several times a week and drive the valley’s dirt road.  It’s that early morning time when you have the potential to see wildlife–wolves, coyotes, elk and moose.  The elk and deer feed usually at dawn or dusk.  The predators have learned to travel at night.  Keeps the humans away!

Sunrise at my house

Sunrise at my house

And although these elk have been thoroughly studied, they still contain many mysteries.  For instance, for the past seven years that I’ve lived here, the elk have a ‘usual’ pattern of movement.  In January/February, they spend time in larger herds of up to 700.  They feed dawn and dusk on the flats behind my house and another large herd feeds across the river in various areas.  During the day they retreat to the cover of the trees to digest and rest. They move, but their movements are fairly predictable.  As the weather warms, they break up into smaller herds (are these ‘family’ groups?), feeding in areas that have been opened up from the snows. Usually by late April, they’ve gone to the high country to calve; if the snows linger then I’ve see them calve in the valley.

Coveted elk habitat on property that could be a subdivision

Coveted elk habitat on private property that could be a sold into a subdivision

Last winter the snows were constant and really deep, starting early February.  A large herd of elk stayed by my front yard, feeding in the willows and resting under cover at night.  Although over 70% of an elk’s diet is grasses, when snows are deep, elk will eat shrubbery such as aspens, willows, and even conifer bark.  Last winter was also constantly windy. I noticed the elk preferred a place in the meadows where the topography dipped slightly–a wind buffer.  So intelligent they are!

So far this year is a totally different, and mysterious, story.  Several years ago the large ranch in the valley replaced their 12′ high barrier fence with a low attractive wooden fence.

Elk stuck inside fence and can't get to safety

Elk stuck inside fence and can’t get to safety

The elk used to get trapped inside with only two gates open, ‘sitting ducks’ for wolves.  The ranch irrigated their fields and trucked their cattle in from May through October. Their fields were seriously overgrazed. When the high fences came down, elk moved through but not as much as I thought they would.  I supposed there was little feed left after the cows departed.   This year the ranch hands convinced the owner that the fields needed to rest, maybe as much as five years.  So they stopped irrigating, reduced the cattle to just a few head, and began the resting process.  And guess what?  The elk are herded up there, about 200 every day.

The new fence with lots of elk there this year.  They are resting these grasses so have reduced cattle grazing

The new fence with lots of elk there this year. They are resting these grasses so have reduced cattle grazing and stopped irrigating

Yet this is not what surprises me about this year’s elk movements.  For the first time ever, I’ve watched them graze heavily in an area of high sagebrush cover.  Also their groups are already smaller (not the usual large January herds)–between twenty to two hundred–and they are in all sorts of habitat. Plus the elk appear much more relaxed.   They are feeding beyond dusk or dawn–in fact, at all hours of the day.  The only thing I can figure is that we had such a great winter that the grass is nutritious and rich everywhere.  I just wish I understood what drives them to feed in these sagebrush areas as well–what kind of native grasses are there that they are enjoying compared to the stock grasses they also like on the cattle pastures.

G&F habitat that usually is never grazed by the elk.  This year they are loving it!

G&F habitat that usually is never grazed by the elk. This year they are loving it!

When I told one person about how relaxed the elk appeared, he replied that maybe the wolves are gone.  Not so.  I saw two wolves the other morning.  And these elk are adapted to our wolves who follow them.  Middleton’s own study on these elk showed that only when wolves are around 1 kilometer (1/2 mile) away do elk begin to react.

On the other hand, although I did see 2 wolves, I have seen very few wolf tracks.  If all the elk are here, where are the wolves?

Coyote travels one way while a wolf travels in the opposite direction

Coyote travels one way while a wolf travels in the opposite direction. Taken two days ago

Another mystery:  There is an elk carcass along the road–a young elk maybe 3 years old.  Although the elk was completely eviscerated, she has a lot of meat on her and is still completely intact as far as her skeleton and hide.  I’ve been watching it for five days, and haven’t seen any birds on it, nor any other predators.  A few coyote tracks, a few wolf tracks, and a lot of Koda, my dog, tracks!  Although there is no wolf hunt this year, the wolves never linger to be watched like they used to.  They have quickly learned that humans are their mortal enemies.  It just might be this carcass is too close to the dirt road for their comfort, even at night!

Koda, Koda’s ball, and wolf tracks

 

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Shed hunting

It’s that time of the year again–‘horn hunting’ season.  People do it for fun and for profit.  These ‘hunters’ are seeking deer, elk, and even moose sheds, which are not really ‘horns’ at all.  Horns are found in the bovine family, are a two-part structure, and are worn for the life of the animal.  The exception being the Pronghorn, which does shed them every year.  Horns are a two-part structure, with an interior of bone and a sheath of a type of hair follicle material, akin to your fingernails. So animals like sheep, bison, or cattle have horns for life.

Bison have horns

Bison have horns

Antlers, on the other hand, are also true bone but are shed each year and then regrown.  As the male adult animal ages, the antler gets bigger and wider.

Deer with emerging antlers--in velvet

Deer with emerging antlers–in velvet

When I first arrived in Wyoming, I knew the difference between antlers and horns and couldn’t figure out why everyone called this amusement ‘horn hunting’.  It was just wrong.  People who know the difference, like scientists, will usually refer to it as ‘shed hunting’.  But I’ve come to accept it and I suppose the h-h sound was adopted because it just slides off your tongue better.

Antlers are becoming big business and that’s why people go after them.  I personally saw a small 6 point elk antler in a California window with a $250 price tag.  Antlers are cut up and sold for dog chews, buttons, door handles,key chains, made into furniture, used as table centerpieces, or whatever art pieces you can think of.  But what’s really driving the market is the Asian desire for aphrodisiacs.  Although I think Viagra is cheaper and actually effective, the myth in the Far East is that antlers, ground up into a powder, will make a man virile.  I suppose people will believe anything as well as pay for it.

 

DSCN3686_2

This deer has a dropped tine, probably a genetic anomaly

DSCN1036

Last year I took all the old, broken, antlers that had been lying around my property when I purchased it.  I’d thrown them into a pile in the yard.  They were white and almost powdery from age, but a small loaded pick-up truck fetched over $250! New, browner, bigger antlers can get up to $10 pound.

So far this season, I’ve found about 10 deer antlers.  I don’t ‘hunt’ them.  I prefer to be gifted–‘shed gifting’.  I’m hiking around and there is a ‘present ‘ on the ground of a nice antler.  It’s a nice surprise.  And sometimes I leave them.  I enjoy making things out of antlers, but most of the people I’ve talked to say they just throw them in their garage, and now have a garage full of them.

Antlers provide calcium for small critters like mice, porcupines, and even coyotes will chew on them.  People ‘hunting’ them in early spring can ‘push’ the elk and deer at a critical time when they are still stressed from the winter and don’t yet have the benefits of a full green-up.  Sometimes I wonder if all this antler collecting isn’t robbing some of the smaller animals of valuable nutrients, as well as what shed antlers put back into the soil.

Just a last note.  If you are out shed hunting, carry your bear spray as grizzlies are out now.  Here is a great article touting the efficacy of bear spray vs. guns.   Bear spray had a 92% efficacy with the other 7% being minor, non-hospitalized injuries and all bears lived.  Guns on the other hand had only a 67% efficacy with a 100% fatality for the bear.

And one last note:  it is highly illegal to pick up and take home sheds from Yellowstone National Park.  You will be fined and probably barred for life from the Park if you attempt to take antlers home.

Elk–the poster child for an elegant chaos

Yesterday down by the river Koda found a large cow elk carcass.  I usually follow the dog when he’s intent on something as he invariably leads me to interesting stuff.  And he kept his promise, for this was no ordinary carcass. This elk had a collar, a VHF tracking collar.  I assumed, rightly so, that this was a collar left over from Arthur Middleton’s 3 year elk field study in my valley.  Just last month I caught an elk on my trail camera by my house wearing a collar.  I contacted Arthur because I was surprised there were still some elk with them.  Apparently some of the collars employed for the study were designed to fall off; but others were going to stay with the elk for life.

I decided the best thing was not to touch the collar, but to contact the game warden.  I knew they’d want the collar back, even if it no longer carried data or was active.  The collars can be refurbished and save the WG&F around $600. But I wasn’t sure if they wanted to check the elk’s health out, with the collar on, before I removed it for them.  Since the carcass was in a fairly easy access location, I did worry that someone would come bye and snatch the collar for themselves as a souvenir.  When I spoke with the warden, he requested that I go back, obtain the collar, and save it for him.

Predated elk with collar.  How the elk died, we don't know.  But she provided a good meal for a lot of predators.

Predated elk with collar. How the elk died, we don’t know. But she provided a good meal for a lot of predators.

I noticed that she only had one ivory.  When she was collared back in around 2008, they took one of her ivories (her eye tooth) to determine her age.  Judging by her teeth, she was an older cow, but once the warden retrieves the collar, they can match it up and determine her exact age at death.  At long last, she’ll get that collar off.  I did feel badly that she had to move around with that collar around her neck all these years.

Arthur Middleton’s study in my valley was commissioned to find out why this migratory elk herd has such a low cow/calf ratio.  He spent three years of fieldwork, and several more writing his thesis.  Since that time, Arthur was awarded a prize/grant to study the other 5 migratory elk herds in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.  You can read the controversial results of that study here on my blog, and here on the web.

One of the many interesting findings was the rate of vigilance displayed by elk relative to wolves.  Before the study, everyone was postulating that wolves were responsible for the low calf ratios.  The theory out there was that wolves were pushing the elk hard and therefore stressing them out.  This additional stress led to less foraging, more vigilance, and just less calving success.

About 2000 elk are in the valley in winter.

About 2000 elk are in the valley in winter.  These are the YNP Lamar elk herd.

The results debunked this theory.  First off, there was no more vigilance with the migratory herd than the non-migratory herd that was used for comparison in the study(where wolves are present although not as many; and they had normal cow/calf ratios).  But more interesting was that elk did not show any signs of stress or movement until wolves were within 1 km, and these wolf/elk encounters occurred, on average, once every 9 days.  These factors are important to what Arthur is now stirring up a storm of controversy with.

The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation helped fund Middleton’s study. But they seem to ignore the results of the study and still blame wolves for all the decline.  Included in the above 80% is the overpopulation of elk on the Northern range present before wolves.  YNP was killing elk for years to help reduce the herd.  One reason why wolves were introduced in 1996.

Just recently, Middleton had an op-ed in the New York Times.  In it, he contends that his results, as well as other studies, challenge the straight forward idea of wolves and trophic cascades.  In other words, that wolves herd the elk sufficiently to allow less browsing on aspens and willows, allowing them to regenerate.  The idea of trophic cascades is no doubt true (apex predators affect whole ecosystems), but Arthur is saying ecosystems have a lot more complexity to them then the simple fix of restoring top predators.

One of the ideas rattling around these days in biology is the Landscape of Fear.  I’m not a biologist, but the whole notion never sat right with me.  Simply put, the theory maintains predators will change the behavior of their prey, through fear, in ways that affects the their movement throughout the landscape, changing their feeding patterns and thus the plant material.  True, but maybe not the whole of it I think.  Ecosystems are varied and complex.  Arthur posted a photo of a wolf den with a herd of elk grazing nearby.  We humans have certain notions of fear-consciousness, yet this might not at all be what’s driving all the movements of wildlife.  As I said in that previous post, I still think nature has more to do with adaptation and awareness, than with so-called ‘fear’.

Recently I took a class with James Halfpenny in the Park.  He was asked about the wolf-coyote relationship.  It has been documented that wolves killed about 50% with the wolf reintroduction, but now their population seems to have recovered.  Coyotes are using the ‘inbetweens’ of the wolf territories to move around.  It didn’t take them long to work out, and remember instinctively, their age-old relationship with their big brothers and how to live with them (and take advantage of their kills).

And if wolves are herding elk from intensive aspen/willow foraging, I have to ask why the pack of six wolves in my valley was slacking on the job.  When the snows got really deep, the elk settled in my front yard and forest, topping every single aspen and willow they could reach.

Wolf wary of infared light

Wolf wary of infared light

 

Noisy and curious elk check out a photo-trap for a bobcat

Elk are smart and elk are curious. Lots of elk passed by this bobcat photo-trap (intended to camera catch a bobcat, not kill one! I used shiny objects and a road-killed bunny), and all of them were very curious. Most really liked that shiny DVD I hung up. Listen to the calls that are on the entire clip. This is mostly what one would call ‘cow talk’.  Elk are all real communicative, and ‘talking’ is just way they do it.  Rubbing noses, following their lead cow’s cues, and watching how others are responding to potential danger are some others. This all takes place on my property at around 7am. You can see elk in the beginning of the clip in the upper left feeding in my front meadow.

False spring or Climate Change?

Wow, its’ in the 50’s and 60’s for days now…in early March.  ‘Spring’ is the time we should begin getting our wet snows that deliver our moisture for the year.   Early and/or rapid spring run-off from the high country spells flooding and erosion.  All the grizzly bear signs warn ‘Grizzly bear season April-October.  Take precautions’ , but grizzly bears are being sighted already.

If you look at thirty years of data on the ‘green-up’ period in the high country, it is getting more compressed and earlier.  Warm temperatures like these suggest the trend is only going to continue.  If the grasses in the high country green up earlier and brown sooner, the elk in my valley that travel back to the Lamar to calf will once again have limited nutrition, all at a time when they need it the most to nurse their young.  This has been one of the major factors in their low calf-cow ratios

Elk herd in valley on a warm day

 

This fall I had an opportunity to go on a grizzly tracking adventure with Gregg Treinish of Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation.  On that wonderful trip I met Louisa Wilcox of the Montana NRDC.  I asked her about a premier Whitebark pine study that NRDC sponsored.  What she told me was eye opening.  The research botanist said as global warming progresses, we will see Gambel Oak (Quercus gambelii) in the mountains here.  Gambel Oak is the predominant oak of the Southwest United States.  I saw it growing in the canyons around Mesa Verde.

But for today, this week has been a nice break from winter.  We got a foot of snow just a week before these temps.  Here’s some of what we’re now missing, taken last week.

Wolf tracks with snow blown in

Bull Moose

Shows that he recently lost his antlers

Grouse tracks

Moose mom and male calf

More elk calves and a lesson in Life and Death

“…that feeling in your stomach of “I don’t want this to be happening.” You try to escape it in some way, but if somehow you could stay present and touch the rawness of the experience, you can really learn something.”  Pema Chodron

Yesterday, this morning, and today were all one large event, the event that is Life.

In my post yesterday, I wrote about the dead elk calf.  This morning the mama spent a long time bugling for her calf behind my house on the top of the rise…a mournful sound of a mother calling desperately for her newborn calf.  I went outside and watched her.   I felt tremendous sadness for her.  I knew she didn’t know what happened to her calf, just that it was gone.

It reminded me of a time two years ago in the spring in the Beartooths.  A car hit and killed a cub of the year.  The grizzly mom spent a week roaming and calling for her cub.

There is nothing so sad in the animal world as that sound–a mother calling for her baby that is dead.  But I felt it was important for me to allow myself to feel this elk mother’s cries fully, and not push my own feelings away, even though it was difficult.

I stayed with her and listened.  And those bugles were low, guttural; not the high pitched sounds you hear in the fall from the elk.  Her cries came from a deep and ancient place, not unlike the cries of humans mourning intensely.

Today was the first really warm, beautiful day.  I decided to go up to a favorite spot, a place that overlooks a deep canyon, and have lunch there. (Unfortunately, I took my cheap camera) Its about a 2 1/2 mile hike up to the top of this ridge-line.  You pass through a forest until you top out at some high meadows.  At the end of the meadows are sheer cliff drop-offs.

View from afar of the spot where elk is. This is the meadow and cliff

As soon as I broke through the trees and began crossing the meadow to the cliff edges, I spied a lone elk.  She seemed a bit nervous at my presence (not unusual) but then I saw something else.  A calf lay nearby.  A wet calf.  She had just given birth and probably just finished licking the calf clean of the afterbirth.  I made a large circle and hid behind some rocks out of the wind.

Mom had taken off and left her baby there, probably hoping that I’d be more interested in following her and so not find her newborn.  I watched that little guy for about an hour.  Within about 10 minutes, he tried to stand up.  He struggled unsuccessfully with his weak legs.  Exhausted, he spent another 10 minutes resting.  But soon he tried again.  This time, although he still couldn’t stand up easily, he was getting stronger.

Keep trying...

First attempt to stand

I had a good feeling about this mom and her choice of a birthplace.  High up, the only entrance was on one side.  She placed the calf near a rock that had similar coloring as the calf.  And not too far beyond the calf was the cliff, where no predator could come from.  On my hike up through the trees, I saw no grizzly sign.  Grizzly sign was on the other side of the canyon down below near the creek.  If this calf makes it past a few weeks, he’ll be too fast for the bears.  But then he’ll still have to contend with wolves, who do frequent the area.

Cliff edge near where calf lies

If he makes it through a month or so, when the snows melt, his mom will probably take him up to the Absaroka Divide and head to the Lamar.  He’ll have a good year this year, more similar to what his ancestors used to experience before the long drought, because the grasses will stay greener for longer.  Then next January I might see him again when he migrates back down here for the winter.  He’ll be taller but still a youngster and still vulnerable to the wolves and the deep winter snows.  But he might just be one of the tougher ones, the lucky ones, and live into his adulthood.  Live to mate and make more elk and not be caught by a hunter’s bullet.   I surely hope so.

Grizzlies and elk calves

Its unusual to see  the Cody backcountry herd grazing every morning and night this time of year.  Usually, by now, they’re headed over the passes to calve in the Lamar. But the snows in the high country are still too deep and the melt hasn’t even begun.

I’ve been watching this small herd from my window.  They come early morning and evening.

Elk May 20, 2011 still in Sunlight

The other morning I spied a lone elk.  I watched her for a few days going back and forth between the herd in the pasture and a patch of willows in the nearby forest.  She’d disappear into the willows and the forest by the road and seemed concerned.  I had a feeling she had a calf hidden in the brush there.

The lone cow with deer

But last night something strange happened which made me wonder if I was correct.  Instead of just this lone cow wandering over to this marshy area, a cadre of about 7 elk wandered over there with her and disappeared into the forest.

So this afternoon I took my bear spray and cautiously investigated while the elk were grazing.  In a muddy area of the creek, now widened by slash and blow downs from the logging last year, I spied a grizzly track moving in the direction of a small clearing.  A few yards up from the track, there was the calf, completely consumed.  Only the skin and legs remained.   It had been predated right where it had lain, for it was in a heap in the grass by a freshly fallen spruce bough.  I inspected the little legs and skin.  The small thing was deftly and perfectly skinned.  Certainly a bear, and my guess is it was that grizzly who made the track just a few feet away.

Grizzly in the Lamar feeding amongst the willows

I had hoped to spy a living calf, so I had a sicken and sad feeling.

Six out of 10 elk calves are predated within their first 10 days.  They are fairly helpless for those first two weeks.  Many people say the calves don’t have a scent, but I would disagree. I haven’t seen tracks in those marshy areas and this griz went directly to that calf.  The calf was not too far from the road, but at the edge of a wide swath of logged forest that includes a lot of swampy areas.  That bear did not wander about through the open woods looking for an elk, but clearly walked from the nearby meadow into the woods right to the calf.  Handling the calf’s skin, I could smell it on my hands.  It doesn’t have a strong smell, and staying on the ground low keeps it’s smell down.  But it does have a smell and to a grizzly, I’m sure its pretty strong.

I was in the Lamar Valley a few days ago and within an hour saw three grizzly boars in the valley. A friend told me in 2 days she saw 20 bears just in Lamar Valley.  The Lamar is becoming a favorite of the grizzlies.  I have wondered if these migratory elk, who usually calve in the Lamar, might have better success here.  Certainly there are bears here, but not as many as in the Lamar.  That’s a question I can’t answer.  Unfortunately for this little elk, it wasn’t the case.

And one more question I had:  Why, last night, did I see 7 or 8 elk accompany mama elk into the willows, not a route the elk ever take around here?  Was that a show of sympathy and support?  After that, the lone elk has not been alone anymore, and I haven’t seen her nor any of the others wander into the willows.

My heart felt saddened for that little calf and her mother.  But I can’t blame the grizzly.  How could I…I went home and enjoyed a BBQ’d bison steak myself.

Sleeping grizzly.