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Bighorn Sheep’s Gordian Knot Part I

When I began research for my book Ghostwalker, I learned about the messy politics surrounding reintroductions of bighorn sheep into isolated ranges of the Southwest where they once lived yet disappeared centuries ago. This noble endeavor to reintroduce a once thriving species to these sky islands and basin/range habitats had a dark underbelly. The idea was to eradicate mountain lions from the targeted range beforehand in order to enhance the sheep’s success.

Because bighorns are so fragile, because their restoration has been so fraught, I felt for the sheep. Yet the method seemed arcane at best: the lion through no fault of his own, doing only what lions do, traded for the success of a small herd on a tiny mountain range. The emotions, the circumstances, all very complicated. Therefore I left this vital piece out of my book as it begged for much further research. But the problem stayed with me. This year I decided to do a deep dive into the issue.

But to begin to wrap our heads around bighorn sheep issues, there is a lot to understand. Therefore this will be a series of posts. In my first post, I’ll begin in the area where I live with Rocky Mountain bighorns. All bighorns came to their present delicate circumstance through the same doorway, so beginning with my Rocky Mountain bighorns will lay a good foundation for understanding the more complex issues with desert bighorns.

First, my title. Truth be told I stole it. It’s been used to describe the relationship of mountain lions and desert bighorns. But having spoken with many people and done some research, I do not feel that is an adequate nor comprehensive description of what plagues bighorns. Therefore, here is a Gordian Knot as described by the dictionary:

The Gordian Knot is a legend of Phrygian Gordium associated with Alexander the Great. It is often used as a metaphor for an intractable problem (untying an impossibly tangled knot) solved easily by finding an approach to the problem that renders the perceived constraints of the problem moot.


In 2015, in the Tendoy Mountains southwest of Bozeman, Montana Department of Fish Wildlife and Parks did something unusual—they sold 311 hunt tags for any bighorn sheep in an area of only thirty sheep. Drawing a bighorn ram tag in any western state is akin to winning the lottery. Many hunters put in year after year and probably will never draw a tag in their lifetime. But this fall in Montana was different. Why? Because the Tendoy herd had been struggling for years with a respiratory disease complex with die-offs and low lamb recruitment. The heart-breaking answer the department came up with was to eliminate the entire herd and start anew. What hunters didn’t kill, the department would. Five years later, in 2020, the department announced they’d begin transplanting sheep into the Tendoys again, this time from Flathead Lake.

If you think this is a strange anomaly, it isn’t. Eliminating an entire herd that struggles with a disease complex called Mycoplasma ovipneumoniae (MOVI for short) has been done over and over in the West. But the fault lies with humans, not with the sheep.

Bighorn advocates have compared the disease to how European diseases decimated Native Americans. When European settlers brought their sheep and goats throughout the West, those animals were carriers of these bacterial diseases. Yet the domestics had built up immunity over thousands of years. But for our native bighorns, these were novel pathogens. Between disease, market hunting, habitat loss, and forage competition, native sheep populations plummeted. Original numbers throughout the Western states may have been as high as 1-2 million. By the early 20th century, they were at less than 25,000.

To restore bighorn populations where they were lost, restoration projects began in earnest in the 1960s. The most obvious idea was to move sheep. And that is what wildlife managers did, from one state to another, from one mountain to another, wherever sheep could likely thrive or had been in the past. Canada was a big exporter. So was Wyoming. It was a well-intentioned mass effort. Unfortunately, though somewhat successful, we only added to the problem. Kevin Hurley of the Wild Sheep Foundation described it to me succinctly,

“Somewhere in the future a geneticist is going to look at this and go ‘What the hell were they thinking back in the 70s, 80s, and 90s where they just blended so many sheep from so many sources’.

“The analogy I always use is a daycare. If you put a kid in a room with twenty other snotty-nosed kids, at the end of the day they’ve swapped about as much spit and goo as they can.”

In fact, it wasn’t until around 2007 or later that the lightbulb went off. Up until then, we just didn’t have the technology to understand what was really killing sheep.

When you listen to the wildlife disease experts, the terminology gets way into the weeds. When the question section comes up in zoom public meetings, the one always asked is “Can’t we just create a vaccine?” Yet that is why its called a “pneumonia complex”, because the entire issue is complex. MOVI is what HIV is to aids, it weakens the immune system, leaving it vulnerable to a host of other diseases that might not have otherwise killed a sheep. Biologists called it a “set-up artist”. The fine hairs in the respiratory tract called ciliary are damaged, the sheep are coughing, their lungs slowly destroyed. Some develop nasal tumors which make it harder to slough the disease off, becoming super spreaders (we are all familiar with that term now). Maybe they don’t even succumb to the disease, but being a life-long carrier, a typhoid Mary. The ewes that survive pass the disease along to their lambs through breast feeding. The herd then has adult death and zero recruitment. Usually the die-off of the entire herd, or a large portion, is swift.

Another major problem is that rams, looking for mates and to spread their genetics, do walk-abouts, usually in large circles encompassing 30-40 miles. Even if they begin their journey healthy, they might run into domestic lambs or goats, contract the disease, then bring it back to their herd. One ram came from Colorado into southern Wyoming, traveling over 400 miles and through three different bighorn sheep herds. Wyoming Game and Fish only knew this because the ram was collared and they were alerted by Colorado game agency. Sheep are gregarious—sheep like sheep. They don’t need to touch noses to get infected. They might even be kilometers away if the wind is right. Because Game and Fish had no idea if this ram came into contact with domestic stock, be it a large herd or a hobby rancher, they couldn’t take a chance. This one ram could cost hundreds of sheep lives and devastate entire herds. The ram was euthanized.

From Doug McWhirter 2020 presentation. Lamb Survival in three Wyoming ranges

The deeper microbiologists and veterinarians delve into the bighorn disease issue, trying to find the silver bullet cure, the messier the problem becomes. Although MOVI is a major culprit, there are a whole host of diseases. Although just in the last ten years its been accepted that domestic sheep and goats are carriers, there is now a question if cattle can add to the disease problems as well. Add to that mountain goats who are also susceptible and inhabit the same terrain, the problem thickens. Although we are clear disease is the main issue with sheep die-off, there are still major puzzles to be solved.

The Absaroka mountains have the only bighorn herd in the United States that has never been transplanted into nor out of. It is a pure, native herd with between 3500 and 4000 sheep. Although the historical evidence says that mountain goats were never native to Wyoming, a very few were transplanted in the 1960s for hunting, and have migrated into the Absarokas, sharing similar terrain with the native sheep. From a lot of blood work and studies, at last count in 2020 these native Absaroka sheep had the full compliment of pathogens. In other words, they were all carriers as far as the story told by the captured individuals. And although there have been some ups and downs in the population with disease outbreaks, their population remains stable. The mountain goats, which might present a problem in one area as they did recently in the Teton range, don’t seem to present a problem as far as researchers can tell, with the Absaroka herds. One explanation was given to me by Doug McWhirter, Wyoming Game and Fish biologist who has spent his career studying bighorns.

“Some of these pathogens could still be cycling from being introduced decades before. It tends to cycle in those animals. You could have pathogens that are residing in live animals that they pass down to offspring that don’t kill them under most circumstances, but if they are stressed by a weather event, then their immune systems can be comprised, and then at that point in time those pathogens either spread, or become more virulent and that’s when those impacts can take place.”

Veterinarian Jennifer Malmberg’s simple graph of MOVI crash in bighorn sheep population

Even though there are no domestic sheep allotments on the forest today, the Beartooths were last retired as recently as 2001, and up untill the late 1980s, the headwaters of the Greybull River as well as Carter Mountain had domestic sheep on the forests. My neighbor who passed away a few years ago and grew up in this valley, born in 1926, once told me there were sheep herders all over the valley. I described a strange log structure I discovered in a nearby narrow drainage once. The drainage led to a high meadow with old campsites littered with rusty tin cans. “There were thousands of sheep up there in the summer. The log structure was probably a food cache.”

The Absarokas are littered with old Shoshone Indian sheep traps as well. Trapper Osborne Russell wrote in the 1830s how he saw thousands of sheep on the mountains surrounding the Lamar Valley of Yellowstone. Our native sheep have been exposed to domestics for a long time. Yet another pristine herd in Wyoming is crashing, probably soon to go extinct. The Whiskey Mountain herd in the Dubois area has never received sheep, but have provided many throughout the Western states. Whiskey mountain was a major supplier from the 1960s through 1990. In 1991 the die-offs began, in multiple stages, and the herd has never rebounded. Although both the Absaroka and the Whiskey Mountain herds carry the complete composite of pathogens, what makes one more resilient than the other? Biologists don’t know, but possibly environmental factors come into play—weather, food stresses, minerals like selenium, the jury is still out.

With so many unknowns, wildlife managers and conservation advocates are focusing on what they can control. Where it used to be predator controls (and still is in many respects. More on that later), the main focus has shifted to attempting to control separation between bighorns and domestic sheep and goats. That requires producers to acknowledge their sheep are the problem carriers, and then get them on board. One strategy has been offering to retire allotments, or switching allotments to non-problem areas.

Believe it or not, the expansion of grizzlies and wolves has presented real opportunities for bighorn sheep. Permittees in some circumstances are more willing to take the cash offers from private organizations to retire their grazing allotment. Yet the code of the West that enshrines livestock and private property owners has, in my opinion, strangled some of this progress. Take for instance the story of Josh Longwell. Longwell had long been in disputes with federal agencies over grazing, right-of-ways, and wildlife. As retribution, which some might call “wildlife terrorism”, Longwell abandoned grazing cattle on a high elevation grazing allotment in the Owl Creek Mountains and substituted domestic sheep, knowing they’d co-mingle with native sheep. For the Game and Fish, the risk was great, and an infected ram from the Owl Creeks that rubbed noses with Longwell’s sheep could walk-about over to the Whiskey Mountain herd and even north towards the Cody area. The Governor approved an emergency early season and licenses issued for up to 34 sheep. Longwell smugly declared this was an issue between private property and wildlife. And he may have characterized it correctly, and the government caved.

Organizations that have fought hard and long to restore bighorn sheep throughout the West have long tried to work cooperatively, versus litigating. And that is a good avenue to begin. But when it comes to the most sensitive species, an iconic species with multiple strikes against it that we are trying to restore, there are limits. Longwell represents one of those.

Kevin Hurley started our interview with a line that sums up the life of a bighorn sheep.

I go back to the early 80s, Tom Thorne, he was our wildlife vet back then. I’ll never forget the article he wrote back then in Wyoming Wildlife magazine. It was called ‘Born Looking for a Place to Die’. The whole point was they live in tough country but they’re pretty wimpy, respiratory speaking.


Stay tuned for Part II.

The Health of the Land

With the warm temperatures, the December snows are melted off in most places around here. Because of that, some friends and myself ventured into some high areas that are usually inaccessible this time of year.

The Absarokas and elk

The Absarokas and elk

A glorious day in the high 50’s (how strange for ‘winter), we began the hike without snowshoes.  Sometimes we had to venture through large drifts briefly.  Lots of elk sign but no elk visible.  This is an area where I know a large herd of elk overwinter so I expected to see them at any moment.  As we approached the high meadows, about 250 elk moved down into the valley below and up to the meadows on the opposite side.

Elk

As we watched, two wolves called back and forth from the cliffs above the elk.  Interestingly, the elk continued grazing uphill in their direction as they called to each other.  Clearly, these elk were not disturbed by the wolves presence.  I have always maintained that wildlife are more in tune with each other than humans are with them.  After a while of howling, the wolves went on their way, making distance between themselves and the herd.  Those weren’t the calls of hungry wolves and somehow the elk knew that.

elk moving up the hillside

We moved on and came to a large herd of over 30 ewes, lambs and young rams grazing.  A band of about eight rams grazed on a meadow beyond.  A second herd of over 250 elk was working their way up the hillside.

Bighorn sheep

 

Bighorn sheep

 

Ram group

Ram group

On the way back through the willows, four moose were relaxing and munching.

What a brilliant day and great sightings.  I was especially happy to see all the bighorn sheep we have this year in our area.

Moose mom and male calf

Moose mom and male calf

Bighorn Sheep–the poster child for extreme management

In a quick trip to Dubois area to see friends visiting from California, I took one friend to the National Bighorn Sheep Interpretive Center.  Dubois is the nearby town next to the Whiskey Mountain Sheep Preserve.  Whiskey Mountain holds the most Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep in North America, over 1000.  The Preserve is a seed population for sheep transplants all over the Rockies.

My friend is an outdoors person, avid hiker, and has been to the Rockies to backpack many times.  And although she has seen bighorn sheep, like most people she knew little of their plight.  The Center tells the story well, in pictures, of the dire situation bighorn sheep are in.  As I’ve talked about before, bighorn sheep are susceptible to domestic sheep diseases when they co-mingle.  Although it’s been over 150 years since domestic sheep grazing on the West, our native sheep just don’t have the immune systems to fight off these disease.

Consider this quote from Journal of a Trapper by Osborne Russell in 1835. Russell was in the Dunoir area, northwest of Dubois, in the Absarokas.

We left the stream and crossed the valley in a NE direction ascended a high point of mountain thickly covered with pines then descended over cliffs and crags crossing deep gulches among the dark forests of pines and logs until about noon…On the North and West were towering rocks several thousand feet high which seem to overhang this little vale–Thousands of mountain Sheep were scattered up and down feeding on the short grass which grew among the cliffs and crevices: some so high that it required a telescope to see them.

Jade Lake near Bonneville pass in the Dunoir

Jade Lake near Bonneville pass in the Dunoir

I saw no sheep in the Dunoir when I was there dayhiking.

After my friend left the Center, she had a poignant remark that got me thinking.

“It’s take so much effort and money just to maintain the wildlife we have today.”

Take the Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep for example.  A wonderful documentary that won awards, available on the link here, is Counting Sheep: Restoring the Sierra Nevada Bighorn.  The doc chronicles over twelve years the immense efforts to restore this tiny population (less than 300 at the time) of iconic bighorns.  Successive transplants and removal of grazing domestic sheep worked for a while, but then cougars, who have always preyed on bighorns, moved in and the population began to dwindle.  So the researchers approached the Cougar Network to enlist their help and support, as cougars are not allowed to be legally hunted in California.  At first they resisted any cougar kills, but then they saw the situation and SURGICAL cougar kills, killing of cougars that were VERIFIED had killed sheep, was supported.  Slowly the population is growing again.Cougar

This extreme disruption was initially caused by human predation and domestic sheep diseases–not by cougars kills.  But now a lot of attention and management is needed just to begin to restore what once was.  When I was in southern CA in the desert a few years ago, the bighorn sheep habitat was extremely endangered, not due to cougars, but to new housing developments.Rocky Mountain Bighorn sheep

“It’s take so much effort and money just to maintain the wildlife we have today.”

My friend’s statement applies to all of our wildlife today–predators especially, but in many areas, elk and deer as well.

When multiple use increases, so does conflict and disruption to wildlife.  I wanted to visit the Dunoir because although it is considered a Special Management Area, snowmobiling and mountain biking still continue.  This year the Shoshone National Forest will break out it’s 20 year plan.  No new wilderness is being proposed.  If the Dunoir were proposed for Wilderness (even though Congress still has to pass a new Wilderness Area), stricter rules would apply.  This is prime grizzly bear habitat and elk calving grounds.  Bears are highly disturbed by motorized and unmotorized use i.e. bicycles.

And my friend is correct; unfortunately it takes a lot of effort to just maintain what we have.  Let’s put in that effort.

Brooks Lake Western Dunoir area

Brooks Lake
Western Dunoir area

One last note:  You may have noticed my new book cover in the upper section of the blog pages.  The book The Wild Excellence:  Notes from Untamed America (Wordsworth Publishing) will be out this month in August and available directly from Amazon.  It chronicles my move and wildlife adventures in this wild area, one of the last intact ecosystems in the temperate world.  I’ll have more on this in later blog posts.

Bighorn Sheep, Sheep Eaters and Soapstone

I’ve been thinking about sheep and the peoples whose diet centered around  them.

For quite some time, I”ve wanted to make an authentic Sheep Eater soup with a steatite bowl .  Since I knew I wouldn’t be able to buy one, the only solution was to make one myself.  Steatite is another word for soapstone, and the Sheep Eater Indians would quarry the stone and make bowls from them.  Few of these bowls have been uncovered , probably because they broke over time.  It appears they were passed down through the women, and possibly made by women as well.  The men might have quarried and shaped the starting blocks.

The bowls, being heavy, were  left at campsites, stashed for use when the peoples came back to the area.  Most of the sites seem to be very high up, above 3000 meters.  That is because these quarries are located high in the mountains.  The bowls were carved right close to the quarries, which makes sense considering how heavy the rock is.

Soapstone, or steatite, bowls were used for cooking Sheep Eater stews consisting of sheep, bulbs and forbs.  The bowls could be placed right in the hot coals.  Once removed from the fire, the bowls stayed hot for a long time.  One of the most difficult items for native peoples in any culture to obtain were containers.  Containers were prized possessions, whether they were constructed of fiber, pine needles, gourd or rock.  I’m sure that is why these bowls were passed down generation to generation.

YNP Archives Sheep Eater bowl

YNP Archives Sheep Eater bowl

Last year I set about trying to find a quarry.  I knew there was one in Dillion MT.  Since I was on my way to California for December, I thought I could find one there.  California has several soapstone or Talc quarries but none of them were operating.  I found a woman in Northern California who imported various stones for carving.  She sold me a block of Brazilian soapstone, warning me that a lot of soapstone has asbestos in it and hers didn’t.

In geology language, rocks are graded on a scale of 1-10 for their hardness qualities, with soapstone being a 1 and diamond a 10.  Since I thought all soapstone was equal, I began work on this block of brazilian stone.  After several months, lots of drill bits, dremel bits, chisels, etc., I had made little progress.  Apparently soapstone itself can have a variety of hardnesses.  This brazilian stone was awfully hard, and didn’t have the ‘soapy’ consistency that is associated with soapstone.  Complaining about my trials to a local friend, he immediately made a few calls and found me an original Wyoming piece of soapstone, quarried naturally from a secret spot out of Tensleep in the Big Horns.  The block he gave me had a strange shape, difficult to cut a piece out of for a bowl, but I managed.

Odd shaped Wyoming soapstone block

Odd shaped Wyoming soapstone block

I’d seen a video where Richard Adams said it took about 30 hours to make a finished bowl.  With the Brazilian stone, there was no way I was going to make a bowl in that time.  I’d already invested more than that and hadn’t come far.  So I wasn’t sure what to expect when I began working on the Wyoming block.  But the going was easy, and in about twenty hours I had a decent bowl that I could call finished enough to cook in.

My almost finished bowl

My almost finished bowl

DSCN1393

Requires lots of elbow grease. I learned a lot working both pieces of stone

Here is a photo from the Park achives outside of Gardiner (worth making an appointment to see the new building) of what Adams calls a pre-form, or an unfinished bowl.

YNP archives

YNP archives pre-form bowl

YNP archives unfinished bowl

YNP archives unfinished bowl

Yesterday, after working on my bowl for several hours, I took a hike up nearby Margarite draw.  Last year I found a cougar den up there and I wanted to see if there had been any occupation this year.  As I hiked higher and higher through the trees, I spotted a low saddle and headed for it.  At the ridgeline the view of the Absarokas was breathtaking. Absaroka spring 2013 I saw a few elk grazing down below, but I had a hunch if I glassed these rocky hills I might see some sheep.  Sure enough, a group of ewes was farther along the ridgeline.  With the wind in my face, I figured I might be able to sneak up on them and get some good photos.  What little I know about bighorn sheep is that when spooked they always go higher.  So in approaching a group, if one approaches from higher up, they rarely look up to spot you.  I tried the tactic and sure enough, it worked fairly well.Bighorn sheep Young bighorn sheep

At the end of my several hour hike, I ran into the herd again, now grazing on the other side of the hills.Bighorn sheep

Pretty soon I’ll try out my new bowl.  The green-up is beginning and I saw some Pasque flowers.  Soon there will be Spring Beauties to add to my soap along with other greens.  A friend who shot a Bighorn sheep a while back will give me a bit of mutton to add so I can make an authentic Sheep Eater stew in my homemade steatite bowl.

What do Americans find Sacred? Bighorn Sheep, the Winds and Selenium

The Light in High Places. Wow, this is a great book by Joe Hutto.  I love the Wind River Mountains so I took this book from the library with that in mind.  But I was surprised how beautiful and poetic Huttos’ prose is.  Although a trained biologist, Hutto is a fantastic writer who expresses his feelings in a rhythm that is natural to Wyoming and close to the pace of the high country of the Winds.

Hutto teams up with John Mionczynski (who has been studying the Bighorn Sheep of Whiskey Mountain since the 70’s) to understand more fully why our native Sheep are in so much trouble.  Starting sometime in and around 2001, he spends his summers living high up on Middle Mountain, in a tent, above timberline at 12,000′, alone.  He sets up rainfall catches, watches ewes, lambs and rams all day, encounters bears, wolverines and a lone black wolf.  He comes to know, summer by summer, each sheep by sight, is accepted by them as almost another herbivore who can mingle among them, and fully describes what its like to live in this rarified environment day by day.

The middle of the book digresses and describes Hutto coming to Wyoming in the 70’s.  He lived on Red Canyon Ranch and worked cattle before the Nature Conservancy bought it; rode and hiked all over the area around Lander and the southern Winds; and tells some wonderful tales of iconic cowboys he knew.

Strangely enough, Hutto and Mionczynski’s findings about Bighorn Sheep were not what I supposed. Although the sheep are vulnerable to domestic sheep diseases, the difficult and puzzling downhill plight of the bighorn sheep is not so simple as exposure to domestics.  The Whiskey Mountain sheep herd do not come in contact with domestic sheep yet their numbers are shakey.  Why?  Many ungulates need Selenium to stay healthy.  Ewes that have experienced selenium deficiencies as lambs will tend toward early mortality, contributing fewer lambs to the herd.  Young lambs require relatively high doses of Se to avoid a form of nutritional muscular dystrophy.  The lamb’s body mines the bones in search of Se when there are deficiencies, causing the lamb to become weak, crippled, have a weakened immune system, and predisposing it to pneumonia and other diseases, as well as predators.

So, what is suddenly causing this lack of Se in these high pristine environments?  Hutto’s answer, from their research, is acid rain.  The rainfall is so acid all summer long, between 3.8 to 4.2 (normal should be on the side of slightly acidic side of neutral which is 7.0), that this in turn changes the soil chemistry which changes the uptake in minerals and nutrients in the surrounding vegetation.  In Hutto’s words:

“The term acid rain is a simplistic epithet that in reality involves not merely a good dosing of nitric or sulfuric acid, but also a veritable witch’s brew of accompanying chemistry including the entire spectrum of heavy metals resulting from fossil fuel and other industrial emissions.  Each time a drop of water falls, these mountains are being doused with a chemistry that includes not only acid in the form of nitrate and sulfur compounds, but could include mercury and other toxic elements that can continue migrating up the food chain.  It is the snow, rain, and glacial meltwater from these mountains that feed the Wind River in its entirety, and the Wind River in turn fills the Boysen Reservoir…”

Are they the 'canaries in the coal mine'?

Supporting their theory was the fact that when a long term drought came to the Winds in the mid-2000’s, the herd became healthier and produced more healthy lambs.  Less acid rainwater, more normal levels of selenium in the surrounding vegetation.  Yet drought also produces less available water in these high places.  A vicious cycle.

This book is science and beautiful prose, but mostly it’s Hutto’s expression of his love for Wyoming, its wildness, and the sheep.  You will not be overwhelmed by facts and figures, but his easy personal style will draw you in.

“Because of the oil and gas boom, formerly protected areas are being opened to new roads and drilling.  Most disturbing perhaps in our immediate vicinity is the opening of formerly inaccessible areas of the Red Desert by the Bureau of Land Management to new drilling operations in spite of the objections and desperate cries of the concerned residents of Wyoming.  The Red Desert is not only the highest desert in North America but a great fragile expanse characterized by a multitude of unique geological, ecological, paleontological, historical, and prehistorical features.  The greater Yellowstone ecosystem, the Wind River Mountains, and the Red Desert are the richest and most environmentally diverse expanse of wilderness left in the lower forty-eight states–the jewel in the crown of American environmental conservation.  Any large-scale industrial development in this remaining wonder of the natural world that contains meager petroleum reserves can only beg the question, What in fact do Americans find sacred.”

Hutto and Mionczynski’s preliminary findings are a warning to all Americans and especially to those of us who live, play and work here.  We live here because of this incredible Land that we love and its wildlife.  Just in my area, politicians are pushing the BLM to open the entire Big Horn Basin to oil and gas drilling.  Right now, we have a healthy Sheep herd in the Absaroka-Beartooth Front. Here’s another reason to rethink this kind of avaricious planning.

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.

A Grizzly story

Elk from the trail camera

I set up my trail camera for the last two weeks, hoping to catch some bears or wolves.  Mostly I got a lot of elk.  But I did capture 3 bighorn rams and a coyote.

The crazy part is that on the way up there I was following a grizzly’s perfect tracks in the snow.  The tracks were actually solid ice and super clear.  I was trying to figure out how they turned to ice.  I thought “Maybe he went up in the early morning or evening over thin snow that melted under his heat and then iced over.”  The ranch hand neighbor thought he just melted actual ice with his heat.  But everywhere around the tracks was snow, except for his tracks.  Any enlightening thoughts would be gladly accepted folks.

I chatted with J___ at the nearby ranch on my return.  He told me that that same grizz had walked right through the cows, looking for their mineral lick that they used to keep every year.  Its gone this year but probably its the same grizzly.

Then he told me a great grizzly story:

“You remember last year they were trapping and collaring.  They caught 3 grizzlies on our property all in one morning.  The traps are just 55 gallon barrels.  The bear goes in for the meat and the door closes behind him.  The doors on both ends are just metal grates.”

“Well Mark Bruscino was there (note: he’s the G&F Bear specialist in Wyoming) and asked if I wanted to come see as this was unusual.  They’d never trapped 3 bears all at once and it was 2 sows and one cub, so it was going to be interesting which bear belonged to the cub.  They trap the bears, then dart them with a light sedative.  Mark said ‘look inside that barrel at that grizzly’, so I looked.  And the bear, instead of looking out the grate, was looking sideways at the wall of the can.  I looked from one end, then I looked from the other end.  But each time I looked, the bear looked away, as if shy or something.

” ‘What’s going on?’ ” I asked Mark.

” ‘That bear is embarrassed.  She’s been caught before and she’s embarrassed that she got caught again.’ ”

“Well Mark sedated her and looked at her ear tag.  That bear, Mark said, was the first bear he’d ever caught and collared, 11 years back. She was 3 years old then.”

” ‘That bear has only been handled by people twice, both of them me.  She remembers me.  Bears are smart.  Most people would be shocked to learn how smart bears are,’  Mark said”

“You know the bear can hear you when they’re sedated.  And Mark was talking to that bear saying things like “Hi, you remember me.”  She’d be sure to remember something like being caught in a trap.

“Mark said that that bear had been in Dubois, caught and transferred for cattle killing.  She was put here and didn’t get into any trouble for all those years, until last year when she killed our pigs.  A year later she was tracked, by her collar, down in Dubois, but since then the collar’s fallen off.  When you think about it, how does a bear know, after being trapped in Dubois, then flown here by helicopter, not even driven here, but flown…how can they know how to get back to Dubois.  They don’t go the same route, she had to cross 3 highways, and its really rugged country between here and there.”

“Mark said we had about 1/2 hour before those bears woke up.  I helped them pull them out of the cans.  I was trying to be really gentle so as not to twist her paw or whatever.  Mark said there’s no handles on the bears, you just pull on their fur. ‘Don’t worry about hurting them.  These are massive creatures.  They’ve been over rock cliffs and in all kinds of situations.’

I told J___ that was a great story. Next time they’re trapping I hope to get a photo or maybe even ‘pet’ a sleeping bear.  J___ got too and so did all their dudes that day.

Yellowstone after Arnica

This will be my last trip to Yellowstone this fall. The Park is winding down and, because of the fires and snow, a lot of the roads were closed.  I went with some friends from BBHC through the East entrance.  Dunraven Pass and the road to Lake were closed.  Old Faithful access from the south (Madison to Norris access has been closed for repairs for the season a long time ago) was closed as well, but open from 12-1 only, I suppose so people could get out of the hotels. So, we had no choice but to head towards Canyon and Mammoth via Norris.

The day started late, around 8 am, but with a bang.  Way before the Park gate, on the Northfork, we spotted two moose–a young bull and a cow.  On the way up Sylvan pass there was another young cow moose.

Near Sylvan Pass

Near Sylvan Pass

There was lots of snow up and over the pass, and Sylvan Lake had a partial ice cover.  We headed for Norris Geyser Basin with a stop at the Mud Volcano.  Mud Volcano

Norris Geyser Basin

mud pot

mud pot

Colors in hot springs

Colors in hot springs

I realized that I’d overlooked this wonderful area.  Norris Geyser Basin has got to be one of the best geothermal spectacles in the Park, and yet its tucked way back in near the Junction so I think people whiz bye without thinking to stop.

Norris Geyser Basin

Norris Geyser Basin

Hot springs plants in fall color

Hot springs plants in fall color

Norris

View of part of the lower basin at Norris

View of part of the lower basin at Norris

Once in the car and on the road we spotted some tourists standing literally at the edge of a hot pool in the meadow, taking photos!  Yikes I could just imagine that thin crust breaking and cooking them.  Really folks, that’s a stupid idea as those pools are hot.

After lunch at Mammoth, we headed down towards the Lamar.  We hadn’t gone too far when we spotted a wolf.   Besides spotting wildlife yourself, the trick is to watch the tourists.  Check for the ones with the spotting scopes set up.  These are the real serious wildlife watchers, usually looking for wolves or bears.

We parked and watched a collared wolf hunting voles in the grass along the river bank.  Every so often he’d pounce way up in the air for his prey.  One of the bystanders said “That’s a coyote.  I’m leaving.”  Well yes, the coloring was similar, but the size and shape of the head was the giveaway.  Besides, he had a collar.

Collared wolf.  Compare his size and colors to coyote

Collared wolf. Compare his size and colors to coyote

He (or she) looked pretty healthy.  No mange and that was good to see.  On down the road we saw about our 10th coyote for the day.  So many tricksters in one day, and all were busy hunting voles.  I’d swear the purpose of rodents on this earth is for eating.

Coyote hunting voles

Coyote hunting voles

Although Dunraven was closed, we were able to get up from the Lamar side as far as the Specimen Ridge overlook.  Several ewes were grazing along the road.  It is incredible to realize that they get up and down the sides of these mountains with ease.  Way down below near the river there’s natural mineral licks they’ve used since ancient times.Ewe and view

Ewe

On the way out of the East Gate, we spotted a snow goose, rare in these parts.

Snow Goose

Snow Goose

All in all, we spotted six moose.  The last one was on the way out again, past the East Entrance, not too far from Pashaska Teepee on the National Forest.  Another nice thing is seeing Bison on Shoshone National Forest.  There are no grazing allotments on the forest outside the East Exit of the Park so the Bison wander there, especially in winter.  I sure wish Montana would ‘cowboy up’ and do the same at the North and West Exits.

All in all, for one day in the park that’s a lot of wildlife watching–6 moose, 10 coyotes, lots of bison and elk, one wolf, several bighorn sheep, trumpeter swans and various waterfowl.  A woman we met said she saw a cougar near Mammoth that morning.  One fall day in the Park can’t be beat!

Northfork moose

Northfork moose

A busy spring rolls in

It seems to be busy around here.  There’s a nesting pair of bluebirds in a box right outside my front door.  I was sure they were going to leave last week because of all the noise around here.  I needed to work on my driveway because, surprise, this winter I couldn’t get in.  I was able to plough it initially, but everytime there was a melt, the ruts just got deeper and deeper.  Pretty soon I was parking down the road at my neighbors for the last few months. There’s been some pretty big equipment happening all week, taking giant scopes of limestone and rock from my personal ‘quarry’–my hill–and laying it all along the road.

But this morning a head popped out and there was madame Bluebird.  She must be sitting on her eggs now, because she hasn’t moved.  I’ll be leaving for a few weeks on Monday for California and then the Greater Yellowstone Coalition Annual Meeting in Jackson, so she’ll have some nice peace and quiet.

When I snagged the photo, I didn't see the butterfly till I printed it.

When I snagged the photo, I didn't see the butterfly till I printed it.

Several hawks came through while I was watering today.  A pair of red tails soared by.  I know there’s a nesting pair down the road by the bridge so they might be the ones.  An unidentified buteo–two toned black underneath which I think was a Merlin–visited.  And a kestrel snagged a ground squirrel (or something the equivalent in its mouth) while I watched from the front yard.

Ahh, motherhood

Ahh, motherhood

So cute!

So cute!

A moose popped in this afternoon.  I was working in the shed sanding a table when Koda started barking.  It was the kind of bark you just know its not a person.  I keep Koda on a shock collar usually.  That’s in case a wolf or bear comes along.  But around the house he’s usually off-shock.  Luckily, he responded nicely, came when called, laid down and stopped barking.  The moose seemed pretty unperturbed.  A barking dog is like an annoyance when she’s used to dealing with wolves.  She was alone and I know there’s a pregnant cow down the road in the swampy area.  But this lady was lean. She ambled up from the trees, paused to consider the barbed wire fence, jumped it awkwardly, then slowly made her way up the hillside through the meadow.

Moose eating in marsh nearby

Moose eating in marsh nearby

Yesterday I saw some incredible rams just up the road.  I was hiking up a steep ridge when two white ‘rocks’ appeared on the ridge below.  W__ spotted them.  They were the rumps of two rams with 3/4 curl horns.  I rarely expect to see sheep up here in the summer.  A lot of them head higher up, towards Yellowstone and the Absarokas.  Maybe these guys were just hanging around because of all the snow there still.

The flies are out, the ticks are here, the mosquitos are biting, and the wildflowers are changing everyday.  Spring is here and it is only for a moment. Soon summer will be in full bloom, the rivers will recede enough to be crossable, and the elk will all disappear for higher grounds.

I’ll be back in two weeks and everything will be different.  I’ll certainly be missing all the action.  But I’ll be posting when I can from California and I intend to fully report on the GYC meeting in Jackson.

Some spring shots:

Calypso bulbosa

Calypso bulbosa

Swainson Hawk hunting in irrigated cattle field down the road

Swainson Hawk hunting in irrigated cattle field down the road

Draba oligosperma...Whitlowgrass

Draba oligosperma...Whitlowgrass

Alpine Forget-me-not, Eritrichum nanum

Alpine Forget-me-not, Eritrichum nanum

A Glorious spring day.  Koda and I hike up Elk Creek Meadows.

A Glorious spring day. Koda and I hike up Elk Creek Meadows.

An Advertisement for Yellowstone!

Happy Mother’s day.

Since my son is in New York, I gave myself a present.  The last few days have been either too busy or too cold to go into the Park.  I heard the road opened earlier than the scheduled date, Friday, the 8th.   So on Thursday I headed up towards Cooke City.  I never made it because of a snow storm.  Not that the snow was so bad, but I figured the animals wouldn’t be out.

This morning I woke up early and was out the door by 7am.  I’m only 40 minutes from the Park’s entrance; an hour from the Yellowstone Institute in the Lamar Valley.  Because I had the dog, my plan was to visit for 1/2 day, and take a hike outside the Park the other half, with the dog.

In the span of those 3 hours in the Lamar (or on my way there), I saw: (disclaimer…sorry my photos up close are not great.  I just have a small digital camera that I use because its lightweight for hiking.  Maybe I need to get a better one as well.)

Elk in my Valley.  I thought elk on left looked quite pregnant.

Elk in my Valley. I thought elk on left looked quite pregnant.

First thing on the way to Chief Joseph were some early morning grazing elk.  They are getting ready to calf soon.  My neighbor, on whose pasture these elk are grazing, called me yesterday to tell me to watch my dog as a wolf walked past her daughter yesterday.

Moose on Chief Joseph Highway

Moose on Chief Joseph Highway

These two moose were up past the 212 turnoff to the Park, right alongside the road.  I didn’t see any moose in the Park, although usually some hang out in the river right past the NE entrance.

This one just sat and watched me.  She had frost on her fur.

This one just sat and watched me. She had frost on her fur.

Here’s the approach to the NE entrance.  There was no ranger at the gate today, so no entrance fees.  Happy Mother’s day.

Entrance to Park

Not too far into the Lamar Valley, I stopped by a crowd with scopes.  I watched 2 wolves for a long time, one a collared gray female and the other a black.  They seemed to be trying to figure out how to cross the creek and road to get back to their den on the other side.  There was a lot of howling and prowling.

This is through the scope.  He was way across the Lamar river.

This is through the scope. He was way across the Lamar river.

Pronghorn were all over the hillsides.  Bighorn sheep were grazing high up.  I continued down the road a bit, still wanting to see some Bison babies, when I was distracted by another black wolf of the Druid pack, very close to the road.  I stopped and watched with my naked eye.  He was walking back and forth along the stream bed.  He was so close to the road that I thought he wanted to go to the other side as well.   Suddenly, he had something in his mouth.  It was a fish!  He brought the fish over to a nearby snowbank (all this within 200 feet or so of the road), played with it,  rolled on top of it, then devoured it as a magpie watched.

Wolf eating a fish he just caught

Wolf eating a fish he just caught

Wolf eating a fish

Wolf eating a fish

Finally I moved on to see the Bison calves.  The one animal we don’t have in our valley next to Yellowstone is Bison.  They wouldn’t be allowed to migrate out of the park.  Granted, they do shoot a lot of wolves outside the park, but they return and soon reform local packs.  In addition, each state is required to have a certain amount of wolves in their delisting program.  But Bison no state will tolerate because of the perceived threat of brucellosis to cattle.

Here are the baby pictures:

Bison calf

Bison calf

Mom with two calves in the grass nearby

Mom with two calves in the grass nearby

If all this wasn’t enough (I’d barely driven a mile within the Lamar), I went a short distance down the road to view the Grizzly hanging out within 100 feet of the highway.  He’d been there all morning.  On my way, another black wolf walked through a herd of grizzlies.  He was joined by a grey and they both began howling.  They were answered by a wolf on the other side of the road, not visible to me, near their den site.  A coyote began yipping in tune to the wolves, and then he sauntered across the road.  Several Red Tail hawks circled overhead, while Sandhill Cranes walked along the water’s edge.

Here is the bear:

This grizzly spent hours upturning Bison paddies for insects underneath

This grizzly spent hours upturning Bison paddies for insects underneath

Grizzly rooting around

Grizzly rooting around

I’ve oftened pondered what makes for that special nurturing quality of Yellowstone.  I left the valley and could feel its warm embrace.  There is so much life there.  The animals seem at peace, not threatened.   They are simply doing what they do, going about their business.  There is always a palpable feeling in the air there, like a slice of heaven.  Is it the volcano living underneath?  All the hot springs?  I think its where the natural order of things are in place.  In Yellowstone, man is not the top predator.  This has been so for generations upon generations of wildlife and they ‘know’ it.

It is time to acknowledge Yellowstone for what it truly is–the serengeti of North America–and treat its surrounding environs as such.  Outside of the Park, they are supposedly ‘protected’, but special interests always come first.  Buffalo cannot migrate to lower ground in the winter or they are killed; wolves even when they weren’t delisted were killed regularly (they know what the sound of a helicopter means outside of the Park); right now is bear hunting season in my valley.

The income from open grazing or from hunting tags pales in comparison to tourists coming to see our ‘Serengeti of wildlife’.  Having the Cattle or Sheep lobbyists win every legislative battle is old school.  It is time we see what we have here that is truly of value, and so unique.  It is time to preserve this land of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, not just Yellowstone Park, and manage it with wildlife as the number one priority.

There couldn’t have been a better advertisement for Yellowstone as this mornings two hours in the Lamar Valley.