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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

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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