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How the Eastern U.S. Puma was exterminated

This excerpt, edited out of the final version of my new book Ghostwalker: Tracking a Mountain Lion’s Soul through Science and Story, is a quick history of how the mountain lion was exterminated from the eastern U.S. due to attitudes brought by European settlers.


Europeans had long since removed their own top predators, and from the beginning of stepping foot on new soil, they carried with them an attitude of removing wolves, bears, and cats in the New World as well. With their arrival, a dark chapter began for the mountain lion, and all large predators, in North America.

As early as the late 1500s, barely a century after the Spanish stepped foot in the Americas, Jesuit priests in California were offering a bull for the killing of a cougar.  The first recorded cougar bounty on the East Coast was in 1680 and by 1742 Massachusetts followed suit. In early America, these new inhabitants feared and loathed lions, wolves and bears. Stories were spun that cougars were malevolent, evil, even supernatural beings that killed wantonly. Europeans brought their pigs and cows into the New World under a silent compact that they would flourish. And indeed the domestic animals did thrive, in the marshlands, in the oyster beds of coastal New England, and in the newly cleared forests. Euro-Americans left behind a homeland where African lions had been exterminated centuries before, and wolf extermination began in earnest after the Black Death in the mid-1300s. By 1684 in Scotland, and 1770 in Ireland, wolves were gone, while the rest of European wolves quickly followed. Now the colonists were confronted with a wide new array of predators, and their stance was stanch that extermination without mercy was their God-given right.

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Wolves, who traveled in packs, and howled across the countryside, were easily spotted by men who carried with them the folklore and prejudices from the old country. Because of this, they received the most visible and ongoing persecution. Cougars, on the other hand, with their secretive, surreptitious nature, received less attention in lore but were persecuted and eliminated none the less. A story from Jon Coleman’s Vicious illustrates not only the settlers relentless cruelty towards wolves, but also their attitude towards all predators, from the largest to smallest meso-predators such as raccoons and fishers. On the Maine coast in the 1660s, a group hunting for waterfowl along the beach happened upon a wolf. Their dogs, led by a large female mastiff, chased after the wolf up the coastline and pinned it down by the throat.

“The hunters bound the animal’s paws and carried him home swinging ‘like a calf upon a staff between two men.’ That night, they unleashed the predator inside their living room. The beast sank to the floor. No biting, no snarling, he just slouched there, staring at the door. The men tried to rile him up with the dogs, but the pack was listless and uninterested, too worn out to care following that afternoon’s long chase. Their evening’s entertainment ruined, the hunters took the wolf outside and crushed his skull with a log.”

Individuals in early America who took matters into their own hands, enjoyed weaving tales that celebrated their valor, and manhood, while also characterizing the animals they killed as vicious and aggressive to bolster their reputation. As more people arrived with their livestock, individual efforts were soon not enough. Circle or drive hunts soon emerged in eastern frontier towns. These drives killed many more animals in a shorter period of time with less effort. Some of these drives were duly recorded.

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In 1753 citizens of three surrounding villages in Massachusetts combined forces to rid the forests of wolves and other predators. In 1810 in Vermont, a large group of men, women, and children used an ever enclosing circle to capture and kill six wolves. Local papers and fliers announced these drives, asking citizens to turn out with the hopes of killing sheep-eating predators. These early hunts laid the groundwork for the ritual of circle hunts throughout New England. The preferred method was a ringleader would send out an invitation to the men living in the surrounding areas. A description of one of these drives included over 400 men, advancing to the center “under the direction of the local militia officers. When the hunters could hear the shouts of their cohorts across the circle, their commanders ordered a halt….the best marksman among them, entered the ring and killed the wolves and foxes trapped there. The farmers scalped the wolves and marched to the town clerk’s office to collect the bounty.” Just as colonists came together for barn raising, and other tasks done as a community effort, the circle hunt became part of the communal tradition: first build the cabin, then clear the woods of predators

A vivid accounting of a circle hunt took place in the woods of Pennsylvania in 1760. Black Jack Schwartz organized two hundred townspeople into a drive so wide it practically encircled the entire county. Men armed with guns, fire, and noisemakers created a circle thirty miles in diameter, slowly driving all the game towards the center, then began shooting indiscriminately for several hours. A few terrified animals escaped the ring, yet the final tally revealed a slaughter of 41 Panthers, 109 wolves, 112 foxes, 114 mountain cats, 17 black bears, 111 buffalo, 98 deer, and more than 500 smaller animals. The animals were skinned, the bison tongues taken, and all the carcasses were heaped in a pile “as tall as the tallest trees” and burned. The stench was so dreadful that settlers vacated their homes for over three miles. Black Jack’s reputation with the Indians of the area, who only killed game as needed for food and clothing, was so unpopular after the drive that he was ambushed and killed while on a hunting trip. The last of these drives was held in 1849 in Pennsylvania.

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On the Pacific coast, the Spanish tradition of roping grizzlies and pitting them against bulls for sport is well-documented. These bull-bear fights included betting and even after-church festivities in arenas built specifically for the sport. In California Grizzly Storer and Tevis describe a bear-panther fight near Big Sur that took place after California was admitted to the Union. The gold rush brought in hundreds of thousands of new settlers, and with the arrival of these new residents, grizzlies were being killed in greater and greater numbers. The Spanish bull-bear spectacle continued for a few years until the dearth of bears caused the sport to dwindle. The event in 1865 was described by a young Frank Post who witnessed the event when he was only 6 years, yet never forgot it.

“The lion, which seemed to have no fear, leaped onto the bear’s back and while clinging there and facing forward scratched the grizzly’s eyes and nose with its claws. The bear repeatedly rolled over onto the ground to rid himself of his adversary; but as soon as the bear was upright, the cat would leap onto his back again. This agility finally decided the struggle in favor of the lion.”

The old growth hardwood forests of the East were cleared so quickly that by 1800 residents of the Hudson Valley in New York worried about the scarcity of firewood. By the mid 1800s, from 50% to 90% of the eastern landscape had been cleared for agriculture. Game were so diminished that even by 1639 hunting seasons were closed. Between habitat and food loss, along with human persecution, cougars were effectively eliminated east of the Mississippi River by the mid- to late 1800s. The rugged, arid West and Southwest remained as the only suitable hiding places and cover for mountain lions.

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Grizzly Bears in the News

Grizzly bears have been in the news a lot.  On August 13 a seasonal employee, Lance Crosby, was hiking a short loop trail by Lake in Yellowstone National Park when he was attacked, killed, and partially consumed by a female grizzly with two cubs.  Although Crosby was 1. off-trail and 2. not carrying bear spray, there is absolutely no need to blame the hiker.  Possibly even with bear spray Crosby might not have survived or prevented an attack, especially if he came upon the bear at extremely close range.

A grizzly bear was recently rummaging around trash for food just five miles north of Cody. Since the bear had been moved for breaking into trash before, this bear was euthanized. People were talking about how close to town the bear was.

Heart Mountain, a prominent feature outside the Cody area, has been seeing more bears than ever this year–something like 5 grizzlies have been spotted on the mountain. Heart Mountain was part of grizzly bears native original habitat and where one of the last bears was killed in the early 1900s.

A recent headline in the Billings Gazette states that more livestock was killed by bears in Montana than in 2014.

Grizzly Bear

All this news comes on the heels of the USF&W preparing to announce whether they are going to delist the bear this year.  These kinds of headlines puts bears in the crosshairs.  But let’s take a breath and consider the whole picture.

The states have been putting a lot of pressure on the feds for quite a while to delist. There will be a lot of money in tags for grizzly bear hunts and the states, already experiencing declining revenue with decreased hunters, are itching for those dollars.  One writer writes in the Enterprise “Grizzly Bear attacks will continue as long as species remain protected”.  But what does that mean?  Dead bears are taught a lesson?  Grizzly bears are normally solitary animals except for moms with cubs.  Unlike wolves who might see pack members killed by hunters, bears will just be dead without bear company to learn from.  Black bears are hunted and I still see them.  In fact, in Wyoming, black bear baiting is legal in most areas.  Does baiting bears mean live bears will no longer seek human garbage?  Of course not.

If grizzlies are delisted, we’ll see images such as this one

This article in the Cody Enterprise sums up the arguments for and against delisting pretty well.  Pro delisting: bears are above the delisting quota of 550 (officially the present count is 756 but it seems that the numbers being thrown around liberally are 1000 bears.  Bears are hard to count because they are solitary) and it’s time. Although Whitebark pines are 90% dead in the ecosystem, bears are creative and can find other food sources.  Con delisting: Those numbers are not accurate because bears are moving farther out looking for other food sources as their primary fall fattening-up food, pine nuts, is diminished.  Climate change is unpredictable as to what will be happening with the ecosystem’s food sources, and so bears need to be able to have connective corridors to roam north–for food and for genetic connectivity. The delisting plan does not account for connectivity but confines grizzlies to a virtual zoo in the GYE PCA.

Grizzly bear

Grizzly bear

I have several thoughts here:

Just looking at this year’s fall foods for bears, we’ve had strange weather.  Lots of spring rains instead of snows made for good grass for ungulates, but a poor berry crop. My chokecherries are having the worst crop since I’ve been living here for 10 years and I’ve noticed the huckleberry, buffalo berries and raspberry crops are very poor.  In addition, there are almost no cones on my limber pines, an alternative crop when Whitebark crops are poor. The transects done this year on the Whitebark pine crop indicates a poor year according to Dustin Lasseter, who spoke with me at a Landowner’s meeting in early August.  He’d accompanied the IGBT checking a transect.  The 2015 report will be available here when published.

According to Doug Peacock, around the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, the most important fat-containing foods for bears in the fall are moths and whitebark pine nuts.  Boar bears will eat more meat than females, as they are able to displace females and younger bears.  Fat is essential for hibernation.  Without whitebark, or the limber pine nut to substitute (Limber pine nuts are smaller, but nutritious and high in fat.  They are stolen from squirrel middens just as the whitebark nuts are), where are these bears going to get enough fall fat?

Grizzly mom and cubsChris Servheen, the biologist who helped bring the bear back from the brink says ““Bears will tend to move around more, looking for alternative foods, and movement usually increases conflicts”.  But Servheen goes on to say:

Even with a poor berry crop, however, Servheen said grizzly diets can include hundreds of different foods, so the bears still have plenty of options available. While huckleberries can provide an easy source of calories as the bears begin to fatten up for their winter sleep, they will also find roots, tubers, moths, ants, hornet nests and a variety of other berries such as those from hawthorn and mountain ash.

According to Peacock, none of these can substitute for fat-rich pine nuts in the GYE.

But whitebark pine in the Yellowstone park area is nearly gone: No amount of science or management will bring the trees back in our lifetime. With whitebark pine nuts eliminated from grizzly bear diets — and this seems to be the case — grizzlies in this island ecosystem will be severely stressed. The bears could be on their way out.

Grizzly bear

Second, as Peacock says in the linked article above, bears will need room to roam to connect with alternative food sources as well as linkage to other bears.  This one issue addressed may save, in the long run, the grizzly bear population in the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem.

Third, people and bears can co-exist and it is up to us humans to make that effort.  In short, that means protecting food sources such as chickens, grain, and human garbage.  The bear that had to be killed near Cody was trash adapted.  Maybe those residences never expected a bear that close, but it’s time we all did. Take for instance the black bears of the California Sierras. They have completely changed their habits because backpackers are now required to use a bear canister.  If you don’t, then a ticket is issued.  Bear canisters can even be rented for next to nothing from the Park or Forest Service in the Sierras.

Cattle and sheep that are on Forest Service allotments in sensitive bear corridors of the GYE, such as the Green River basin, should be reduced in herd size or eliminated, and a range rider needs to be with them.  Those animals lost to bears are already being compensated at 3 times market value.

Lastly, we need new stories about bears, not just horror stories.  We need to re-imagine what it’s like living with this awesome creature and realize we are blessed to live in the last remaining place in the lower 48 where these bears still exist–less than 2% of their former range.  We can give them at least that little bit.  We’ve spent the last forty years restoring their population–from 125 bears to around 750 bears.  Delisting the bear at this critical juncture is too premature, as we are just starting to feel and understand the forces of climate change.  Once delisted, hunting will take place. Hunting an animal as smart as the Great Apes just for trophy is close to a crime. The world was up in arms over trophy hunting a lion named Cecil in Africa.  Why would this magnificent animal be so different?

Young grizzly bear

Young grizzly bear

Co-existing with Predators

In helping homeowners over the years deal in natural ways with small critters like moles and gophers, as well as larger animals like deer, I found that there is one necessary ingredient–the homeowner has to want to co-exist rather than resort  to lethal controls.

That same principle applies to larger predators in the landscape such as cougars, wolves, bears, or coyotes.  The wolf reintroduction has generated a lot of fear.  But if we want wolves to remain in the landscape, then ranchers will need to learn new methods.  I have always advocated that, just like the homeowners I helped and educated, ranchers need and deserve a helping hand.  This should include public and private monies for education and training.  Instead of ranchers just given a ‘kill tag’ or being reimbursed ad infinitum for predations, they need to be aided in new protection methods with the goal of incorporating those techniques into their regular routine.

There are several private organizations doing just that:  working with ranchers to discover ways to protect their herds and flocks.  Below is a fantastic informative video I hope you’ll watch.  Well produced with the added benefit of wonderful scenery and wildlife footage, ‘A Season of Predators’ gives you a vision of where we must be headed if we are to have bears and wolves remain in the landscape.

One additional note I’d make:  Although this video concentrates on wolf management, we, the public, are spending millions of dollars a year funding government killing of predators and ‘nuisance’ animals.  This arm of the USF&W is called Wildlife Services and its main job, unlike its title, is killing predators.  One local man who works for WS told me that he trapped and killed 400 raccoons last year for one farmer.  He also had to kill dozens of feral cats as part of his job.  Ironically, he was also killing the local coyotes that would have kept the raccoon and feral cat population in check.  This is the kind of government subsidization that is ‘old school’.  Instead of simply killing wildlife as well as throwing away all that money that not only doesn’t teach the farmer any practices, but doesn’t teach the local wildlife anything, Wildlife Services could have used those dollars exploring new methods and instructing this farmer in sustainable practices in co-existence.

Having worked with over-populations of deer in suburban areas, I know that deer damage can be controlled.  For instance, deer actually are trainable.  Does teach their fawns what to eat.  Deer can be browsing on one type of flower in the landscape, but miles away won’t touch that plant but prefer another.  Through a variety of means that don’t even include fencing, deer can be ‘taught’ not to eat a particular plant.  As you’ll see in this video, wolves can be taught too, but it takes a bit more work than simply a trap, a gun, or a poison.  This is the kind of ‘work’ where your psyche and body meld into the land.  You’ll have some loss, but the goal is to minimize.  You are working with the wild, not against it, and in doing so there is great pleasure and satisfaction, with the rewards being a feeling of oneness with the Land.

 

Turning my head upside down about Grizzlies

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

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

Grizzly in Lamar

Grizzly in Lamar

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

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

Grizzly minding his own business

Grizzly minding his own business

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Grizzly track found by the river

A Grizzly track found by the river

Grizzly videos from my driveway

A large (pregnant maybe?) grizzly has been visiting my chokecherry bushes nightly. Since I can’t post video, but I’ve got lots of 30 second clips from my trail camera, start here  at my Youtube site for a great shot of her shaking her butt on the way to the berry bush.  Then see my other clips of her from 2 nights ago.

Bears are now in hyperphagia or that stage of eating where they are gorging, trying to fatten up for winter hibernation.  This is the time to really be careful.  Its hunting season, and a bear on a gut pile is a very protective bear not to mess with.

Griz on chokecherries at 1 a.m.

 

 

 

Yellowstone adventures and a close call

I came back a few weeks ago from an advanced tracking class with Jim Halfpenny in Gardiner.  But before the class, I spent a day and an evening hiking around the Park.

Tuesday late afternoon called for a trek up Mt. Washburn, which I’d never done.  They say if you only have time for one hike, Mt. Washburn is your ticket.  Its a great view for sure of the Yellowstone volcano, but what’s more impressive is that during the ice age only 30,000 years ago, Mt. Washburn was the only land not covered with glaciers from there to the Tetons.  The hike is not far but a good uphill and the alpine wildflowers were impressive.  A group descending came bye and told me to watch for a grizzly they’d seen near the summit.

View from Mt. Washburn of the Yellowstone caldera

Polemonium

Pedicularis

Gentian close-up

At the top, a ranger is stationed and there’s a free telescope for viewing (Wow, something actually free!).

Wednesday morning after camping at Mammoth, I headed up past the Golden Gate looking for a nice dayhike.  I thought I’d do Solfatara Creek.  I parked at the isolated trailhead.  Not my favorite kind of trail presented itself.  An ’88 burn area, the trail was thick on both sides with young lodgepoles so tight you can’t move nor see ahead.  Essentially, these kinds of trails are like tunnels and I don’t like them because if you come upon a bear there’s no where to go.

I decided to try the trail and see if it opened up.  If it didn’t, I’d find another to hike.  Sure enough, after about 700 yards, the trail opened to meadow and an unburned forest.  As I approached the hot springs of Solfatara Creek, the trail showed lots of fresh bear sign.  The creek was a beautiful and unusual greenish-blue, warm, slow water, but the mosquitos were thick.  Between the bugs and the bear scat, which was thickening in tune with the mosquitos, I decided that since I was hiking alone I’d prefer to find another trail, one more open and less buggy.

I retraced my steps and when I got to the meadows, I noticed a troop of rangers off trail looking like they were doing some kind of vegetation studies.  I figured they must have come through the ‘tunnel’ that was approaching, so maybe they’d scared off any bears.  But just in case, as I always do when I can’t see well in front of me, I took my bear spray out of its holster, uncapped it, and held it in my right hand as I came through the trees.

About halfway through the forest, I came around a corner almost directly into a lone bison bull rubbing its horns on a sapling.  I watched for a moment while debating where to go to get out of its way.  He was coming my direction and I was headed towards him.  If I went backwards from whence I came, I’d be stuck in the narrow thicket of trees on the trail in his way.  I couldn’t slip pass him. Beside me was a teeny, tiny clearing of about 5′ square.  I moved as far as I could into the clearing.  He began to trot on the trail past me, but just at the last second he changed his mind and decided to charge me.  At only about 6′ away, he lowered his head; his horns now directly facing my chest.  Instinctively, I sprayed him with the bear spray I’d luckily been carrying unhinged and uncapped.

Immediately he made a right turn and trotted off down the trail, swinging his head side to side since his eyes were stinging.  I left the trail, totally beefed up on adrenaline and thanking my lucky stars that it wasn’t my day to die.  Bison scar me way more than bears as I feel they are much more unpredictable, way more dangerous, and definitely not as smart.  This guy didn’t seem threatened by me.  For him, it was more like I was challenging him, offering him a chance to have a sparing match. An old lone bull like him is a cranky old man.

Lone bison but not my bison

Grizzly lake, my destination after Solfaterre

On the way back to Mammoth, I got stuck in a bear jam.  Two black bears were feeding on one side of the road and decided to cross over.  What amazed me wasn’t the bears, but that people got out of their cars and ran as fast as they could towards the bears, getting as close as they dared to take photos.  Luckily these bears were used to people, but not all bears in the park are that amenable.

Guy in the white T shirt on left is almost right on the bear

In this one you can see the bear and the lady in front not even paying attention!

Halfpenny always leads a fabulous class, highly recommended.  The mornings were spent in the classroom and the tracking museum.  He has a fantastic collection of plaster casts and other assorted items to help you to learn to track.  The afternoons were spent in the field.  Here is a track of a badger of which I made a cast.  The upper left hand corner contains a coyote track as a bonus.

Badger track (coyote track upper left). Notice long claws

Young bull moose

Yellowstone in June

A blustery, unpredictable June brought with it fantastic wildlife watching in my three days in the Park.  I spent two nights in Mammoth and did several hikes.  On one, we ran into that herd of Rams you see.  150 years of no hunting leaves the wildlife very relaxed around people.  The rams hardly noticed us, moving slowly across the trail and up the hillside about 20 feet away.

From what I heard today, so far not too many cubs of the year (COY) have been spotted.  But I was a lucky one to get to watch a mom and 2 cubs for about fifteen minutes before they disappeared into the trees.  The cubs spent the entire time playing, rolling around, and then catching up with mom…..soooo cute!  One the way home I watched a courting pair of grizzlies.  The female was collared.  They rested together for quite some time under a tree while dozens of people watched about 100 yards away.

Yellowstone in May/June is the best time of the year.  One woman told me she spotted 71 bears last year in two weeks.  In early July grizzly bears move up into the high country to hunt for moths.  The elk follow the grasses higher up as well.  Wolves tend to follow the elk.  So although you may see these animals in summer, the sightings will be fewer and more difficult to find.

The wildlife, the thermal activity, the incredible setting–that is the magic of Yellowstone and spring is the best time of year to come.

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.

Into the fold–working with Mother Nature’s garden

I’ve got big planting plans–at least for me, up here.  When I moved here, I was happy to NOT have a garden.  Don’t get me wrong, I love plants, designing with them and caring for them, but you know, it is work.  I grew hundreds of species of plants in my California yard for pleasure and to learn about them.  All professional gardeners, at least the good ones, need their laboratory.  I always said, it you haven’t killed dozens of plants and moved plants dozens of times, then you’re not yet initiated into the fold.

That being said, when I moved here, wild nature was my self-tending garden and Oh, what enjoyment.  It still is and forever will be.  But the itch remains, and I do believe we humans can be caretakers and tenders in a good way.  So this year, not only am I continuing the ritual of planting tree liners, but I’m adding a few things to my plant order.

First, the liners.  My elevation and environment is chock full of Limber Pines.  Douglas firs move in naturally in a process called succession as the pines die off.  Higher up on the ridges are the favorite nuts of the bears–White Bark Pine nuts.  White Bark Pines in the GYE are functionally extinct.  I think its about 70% are dead and the others are dying…first weakened and dying from Blister Rust and then the final blow is coming from the beetle infestations rampaging the West.  But the bears will resort to Limber Pine nuts (a favorite food for the Indians that lived around here as well) in poor White Bark nut years.  Limber pines are smaller, and more difficult to extract, but they’ll do to fatten the bears up.  But Limber Pines are also in the Whitebark Pine family and susceptible to the rust (a European import from the 20’s; we’ll say that’s NOT good tending and caretaking).  The beetles are killing the Limber Pines as well.

A beautiful windswept Limber Pine in the Clarks Fork Canyon

My understanding of White Bark Pines is that it takes 50 years before they make seeds!  Wow.  Probably Limber pines are similar.  So I’m trying to replant seedlings now for later with the hopes of them being around when I am not and helping future bears.

One note of worth is that my two oldest limber pines on the property, probably 200-300 years old, were riddled with beetles last summer and I wept.  Beetles like older trees.  Neither are red-needled yet so I’m dancing with prayers around them metaphorically.  One is questionable as 1/2 of it is dying, but the other, the very oldest, so far is good.  I put up a painted elk skull on it last spring to ward off evil spirits and evil beetles.  Maybe it worked.

I order my ‘liners’, essentially seedling trees about 2″ tall, from the local conservation service in town–30 in a bundle.

Last years liners Douglas firs and Limber pines

Last year they told me they didn’t have my Limber Pines in stock, but at the last minute they found some.  This year they definitely don’t have any.  So I am trying a BIG experiment.  I ordered 30 Pinyon Pines.  They say they can make it at this altitude (for sure I’ve seen them higher up in lower latitudes in Nevada), and since our winters are not as cold as they used to be, I’m giving it a shot.  Good nuts for bears in the future.

Polymer crystals are an essential when planting in dry areas without irrigation

But my old gardening bug seems to be itching, and I’m purchasing 5 bare-root elderberries from the nursery, as well as, get this, 2 plum trees.  The plums are a big experiment in Bear country.  I am not crazy enough to plant apples, but my neighbor has a pear tree and not only gets pears but the bears don’t touch it.  So I’ll try two plums and see how it goes.

As for the Elderberries, they are native to around here, both black and red.  When you see them in moist locations, the deer keep them munched all summer to around 2-3′!  Elderberries can grow 10′ tall.  We have a riparian area, and I’m going to plant and cage these from the deer.  Supposedly the variety can get 10’x10′, so after 5′ I won’t have to worry.  Good food for me, the birds and the bears.

The right thing to do…Niagara falls and Yellowstone

I just returned from helping my son with location scouting at Niagara falls.  Its strikingly beautiful, especially in the winter.  The crowds are gone and its bitter cold, but there are ice floes in the river and parts of the falls are frozen.  The Canadian side still lights up the falls at night and the sheer power and magnitude of so much water flowing (in fact only 50% is allowed to release as the other 50% is used for power) overwhelms and puts us humans in our proper perspective relative to the awesome power of nature.

Falls at night

Power of the falls

But along with my visit to Sedona, Arizona last year, (which also is a natural wonder but not a National Park) what really stood out was its contrast to where I live now, the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

Although I live next door to a National Park, I don’t of course live within the Park, but within what was designated a few decades ago as its larger ecosystem.  This is an actual mapped area, you could call it a ‘buffer zone’ where its recognized these large megafauna need room to roam to survive.

And, true to its name, I regularly see all the large and small animals that make up this complete ecosystem in the lower 48, which includes wolves, grizzlies, elk, and the occasional bison that is allowed to leave the Park.

So what’s so great about this area  you might say, as opposed to Niagara or Sedona?  Both have the power to overwhelm through their sheer beauty and immense landscape.  The difference are the animals.  Even the Sierras, as incredible a jewel as they are, are NOT a complete ecosystem.  Many animals that were there just 150 years ago are gone forever.

What Lewis and Clark encountered 200 years ago on their journey West is no longer, but a sliver of it can be glimpsed here in the Yellowstone Ecosystem.  Just a sliver, but that sliver is our history, our heritage.  No one would think of selling Monticello to create senior housing or a Walmart!  Why should we not value our original landscapes and the animals that were here before us in the same way?

Everywhere in the United States, with the exception of Alaska, animals have been pushed out to accommodate the biggest and toughest animal–humans.  And that is no exception in the Yellowstone ecosystem.  The controversy rages here too as to who should have primary use of the lands–hunters, atvs, developers, ranchers, oil and gas?.  Wolves are villified for killing elk that hunters could have taken.  Grizzlies are constantly moved around when they get into lands too close to homes or into unprotected garbage.  Bison are not allowed to leave the Park boundary.  Ranches are sold to developers who parcel up the land into lots, crowding out habitat for large animals.  Snowmobilers feel they should have the right to go wherever they choose, including the Park even when the science says differently.  The animals are last on the list.  And when that is how the priorities are set, what becomes of the land is Niagara Falls, Sedona, or at best a ‘safe’ wilderness like the Sierras; at worst we become like Europe, where their natural history is in the so-distant-past that its entirely unreachable in present-time.

Yellowstone and its ecosystem, unlike Alaska, is easily accessible by car to people from all walks of life, rich or poor.  It is an opportunity to view in the flesh our rich natural past.  Any person can do that from the safety of their car, and watch wolves or bears in the Lamar Valley.  Or one can take more risks and venture into the back country.  Even today, with this area protected and the reintroduction of the wolves, thereby completing the ecosystem fauna, the landscape doesn’t hold a candle to the enormous amounts of wildlife that was once beheld by the mountain men in the 1830’s.  Yet, they are all still here, thanks to the enormous efforts of many men and women conservationists through the century.

Black wolf

In the U.S., there are many unique and beautiful areas, but there is no where like this area.  Here we have the Serengeti of North America.  And in my mind, we are not valuing nor protecting it enough, nor are we holding it in the proper perspective.

Our Serengeti

The proper perspective:  This area, as well as more large tracts of contiguous land (Yellowstone to Yukon idea) is a wildlife first policy.  This is our gift to our children and the future.  This is our gift to the wildlife here.

Once we all realize what we have here, a jewel that is found no where else in the U.S. (Do we really want the last place where wild animals roam to be in Alaska, out of the reach of most ordinary folks?), we will change our approach and our views on a daily basis.  No longer will we have on the Wyoming books archaic 1890 laws that allow trapping, an indiscriminate way to kill wildlife.  No longer will we confine bison to the tiny Island of the Park because the cattle industry fears losing their brucellosis stamp.  Nor will people call for the extermination of the wolves because they are having a harder time hunting in the spots they are used to.

We will make new laws to help support the wildlife in any way we can and preserve this area; not for ourselves or for any use we desire today, but because we recognize its’ specialness, and because, frankly, its the right thing to do.

There was a time, not long ago, when out of 60 million Bison that once roamed the entire United States, only 100 survived.  In fact, it was thought that all bison were extinct, and that was what we, as a country, as a government, was trying to achieve.  But in the early 20th century, around 100 Bison were found living in Yellowstone.  An immense effort was made to bring at least some bison back and the bison that you see today living in Yellowstone are the result of that effort–the last pure genetic stand of bison living today.

When you go to Yellowstone, there is a power, a respect, a wordless reverence that wells up in your being just seeing these animals.  Something deep and ancient reverberates in their presence.  Imagine if those bison hadn’t been preserved?  Those conservationists who helped preserve the bison of Yellowstone did an incredible service to future generations.  We, living today, are the beneficiaries of their efforts.

We must make those same efforts today for generations that will be living 100 years from now, just as they did for us 100 years ago.  That is how we should be looking at the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.  That is how we should be making our laws, our plans, our actions.

“You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one…”