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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.

The wickiup

Last week my friend W__ and I hiked up almost to the ridgeline on the steep slopes across the river from my cabin.  That entire hillside used to be owned by Doc Firor, the original owner of my cabin.  Unfortunately, it had been sold after he died and divvied up into  6 acre parcels with cabins on it.

That is the south facing side and is basically granite, which means its mostly treeless down below and there’s very little water run-off.  In fact, over these last 10 years of drought and climate change, many of the springs have dried up.We hiked almost to the ridgeline

W__ had been up there several years ago with a local and found some evidence of Sheepeater houses.  “My friend pointed to some old logs and said ‘these are them’.  I really had to use my imagination.”

The hike is tough and pretty much straight up.  You climb through a series of level meadows followed by steep ascents.  The first 2/3 consists of scattered limber pines and doug firs.  W__ couldn’t remember exactly at what height he had seen the ruins, so we wound up climbing almost to the base of the cliffs.  Several levels below the cliff-line is open forests with stunted trees.  We were right below the cliffs

Most of the time we followed deer or elk trails.  We would stop and inspect a level area, then move on to higher ground.  At one point I spotted a tiny obsidian flake.  I have no idea how I found it amidst all the duff and debris.  We joked that the obsidian flake and the crow feather we found meant we were ‘hot on the trail’.

Pretty soon, after not encountering any sheepeater evidence, I forgot all about looking for ancient artifacts and enjoyed the forest.  The rolling gurgle of Sandhill cranes in the distance, migrating in, spoke of winter breaking.  The views were magnificent as we were about 2,000 feet above the valley.The view was magnificentAfter a lunch break we began heading back.  We descended slightly down to a lower yet still forested level that we hadn’t inspected.   Suddenly W__ spotted some old timber.  In a flat clearing, butting up against the hillside, was a distinct squared off area constructed of ancient logs.Sheepeater hut

Another view

I looked around and noticed that behind me was access to the cliff areas, while in front was a complete view of the valley.Access to the cliffs behind

Site looks over the whole valley

A spring used to run nearby that’s now dry since the homeowners below diverted it for their own use.   Several hundred yards directly east we encountered an opening to a gully that ran east/west.  We walked along the top of the unusual drainage, now full of snow.  It was long and wide, narrowing into a natural boxed trap.  I could almost imagine the Sheepeaters driving Bighorn into the small canyon where they’d easily be trapped and killed.  Probably this dwelling, I thought, was just a temporary shelter used in winter.  The haul of the kill back down the valley to the Bugas-Holding site, not exactly nearby, must have been tough.  The Sheepeaters used dogs with travois to do a lot of their carrying.

The one thing that made me uncertain was that all the pictures I’d ever seen in books had Sheepeater ‘houses’ as teepee style structures, with logs piled on top of logs.  This was definitely a square structure.

When I returned I showed the photos to my old neighbor JB who grew up in the valley.  He further cast doubt on the sheepeater theory as he thought the structure looked more like an old bear trap.

“There’s a tree in the middle with only one exit.  They’d tie a horse as bait for the bear.  I bet that’s what that is. The Indian houses were teepee log structures.”

Somehow I couldn’t imagine those old homesteaders climbing way up the mountain to bait a bear.  “Heck”, I thought, “if I was going to bait a bear, I’d do it in the drainages down below where they usually hang out. And I wouldn’t have to trek way up here.”  W__ thought it was all wrong.  “No”, he said, “the logs are really old.  That’s a sheepeater’s structure.

Several days later I decided to take another look.  I found an easier route from the road.  Although not as much climbing was involved because I started higher up, I had a lot more ground to cover.  Taking another look at the structure, it had absolutely no exit.  There were four complete sides.  And the dead tree inside was too young compared to the timber used to construct the dwelling.  Still I had no way of being certain.  I don’t have the expertise and there’s always the unknown factors.

On my way down the hillside, I ran into some locals.  The woman was from the University of Wyoming extension.  They knew the area and knew of the wickiup.

“Several years ago that was discovered by one of the ranch hands doing some work on the stream.  He called George Frison who came out and looked at it.  Frison said it was the real thing–a Sheepeater dwelling.  It used to be more intact, had more height to it.  It’s deteriorated since we first saw it.”

I had to wonder how the structure had deteriorated so fast over the last 20 years compared to the fact that its probably at least 150 years old.  These are special sites and need to be watched over.  When the ’88 fires came through here, the forest service was cutting break lines.  If it hadn’t been for one of the locals pointing out a sheeptrap to them, they would have cleared it completely.

Fire is destroying the evidence of these ancient peoples.  There is a concerted effort going on to find and GPS as many of these sites as possible before they are destroyed.  Interestingly, although fire will destroy wood structures, it also clears duff and can expose artifacts buried below.  The Boulder Basin site is a perfect example.  It had been explored since the 1970’s.  Although sheep traps were evident, Archaeologists thought that the sites had been cleared and looted because little other cultural evidence was found.  After the fires, the site was re-visited and hundreds of projectile points, bone fragments, stone implements, and other important artifacts were uncovered, some simply scattered above the burned ground.

These are Americas’ Acropolis, our Pyramids.  They stir our imagination and resonant with the collective unconscious of humankind.  I see these old timbers and dream the dream of what it might have been like to be living here so long ago; to be dependent on one’s community and the earth; to be a wanderer, a hunter-gatherer; to be so intimate with the natural world.  These are important places, for us, for our children, for all mankind.

The bighorn sheep of Little Bald Ridge

The ranch manager told me yesterday that the three wolves who were shot last summer for cattle predation were terribly mangy.  Mange is the latest big problem with wolves in the GYC.  Mange is a mite that burrows into the skin of an animal, causing it to scratch.  It doesn’t kill the wolf, but in a harsh winter they can die with the thin coat.  I heard that mange was brought into this country early last century to kill coyotes but I haven’t been able to verify that.  One of the interns told me he thought that if a wolf can make it through one winter with the mite, he’ll do o.k. after that.  Maybe some kind of resistant or tolerance occurs.

Last summer I did have a fairly close encounter with a wolf.  That black wolf was beautiful and fluffy; no mange there.  I was walking through a lightly wooded area off-trail when my dog stopped about 8 feet in front of me and stared at something in a shallow gully off to my left.  The whole scene took place so fast I barely had time to register what was happening.  I looked to my left and saw a smallish black animal, about the size of my dog but fluffier, about 12 feet away.  I thought it was a small black bear.  By the time I realized it was a wolf (about a millisecond later!),  my dog was gone.  Usually I carry an electric zapper on my dog for just these occasions, but the zapper was still in California from my move.

I think my incessant screaming, and the fact that that wolf was a lone yearling, scared that wolf so much that she ran off, but not before she had thrown up the contents of her stomach which I found later after my dog returned and I had calmed down.  After what seemed like an eternity, Koda came prancing back, with a shit-eating grin on his face.  In the span of those few seconds, I had both surrendered to the idea that my dog might never come back, and if he did come back, decided he was going back to the trainer’s for some additional dog-to-dog training.

Wolves kill other canines in their territory.  Doesn’t matter if its a coyote, another wolf, or a dog.  They don’t eat it, just really tear it to pieces.  Being a dog owner in wolf country means you have to be responsible and watchful.  The ranch hands at a large ranch across the river told me that the winter is really the time they need to be careful.  Although they have wolf activity there year round from the Beartooth Pack, their property is full of elk in the winter and the wolves come down more and the nights are long.  Many of the wealthy ranches here have heated kennels for their dogs.  She told me a story that last winter the dogs were out of the kennel on a cold winter day.  Luckily she was working nearby because she looked over and there was a small pack surrounding their three dogs.  She ran over, made a big ruckus, and scared the wolves away.

Another local told me he was hiking with his five year old Black Lab.  The Lab ran over and behind a large bush where he was attacked by two wolves.  Luckily, the dog lived.  But the next year they were hiking off-trail and the lab started whining and came close to this man’s leg.  In the woods about 50 feet away, several wolves ran through.  Guess that dog learned a lesson.

Yesterday I planned to hike up Little Bald Ridge where there’s always sheep.  As I drove down the dirt road, I could see tracks of two large wolves that had run down the road early morning. Climbing up Little Bald Ridge They always like to use the thoroughfare of that spot in the valley to go between two ridges.  As I drove bye, I noticed one of the cows just had a new calf.

Bighorn Sheep are always up on that ridge.  I tried hiking up there earlier, but the wind and snow got to me.  Today was warm and windless though and some of the drifts would have melted.  As I hiked up to the buttes, I stopped 2/3 up in a small high meadow that looks out over the entire valley below.  No wind, the silence was incredible.  A herd of elk came through the trees farther up and stopped to watch me.  They’re always skittish.  They decided I was something to be afraid of and ran up the mountain and out of sight.

The hike isn’t Annapurna, but its a wind stopper for sure.  Its up, up and up and I hoped that when I got to the top the sheep would be in sight.  As I rounded the bend, there they were.  I kept counting, and then kept counting some more.  There were about 2 dozen sheep.  Mostly young and ewes, but I saw one nice ram.  The ewes kept watch while the ram lazed away–typical!  Bighorn are really ‘cute’.  Every time I go up there, they’re so curious.  Unlike the elk who always just run, the sheep stare and stare the closer you get.  If I didn’t have the dog, I suppose I could almost have walked up to them.

Bighorns depend on their elders to find their wintering grounds.  This small herd is right near the stone sheeptrap that I wrote about the other day.  Of course, to be called Sheepeaters, there had to be so many more sheep around here.  My understanding was that this country was thick with sheep, not just 2 dozen.  The interesting thing is that if you look around, there are plenty of exactly similar buttes right nearby where those sheep could have been.  But every year during the winter, this is the butte they go to.  You can count 100% on finding them there.  To me, this means they have an ancient honing device in them.  They must automatically go to the same forage that their ancestors went to.

I had been wondering for some time what happened to all those sheep.   After some research, I found Bighorns had no immunity to the diseases domesticated sheep carry.  Domesticated sheep grazing on open pastures and private lands were and still are, wiping out the Bighorn population.  And to the Bighorns, domesticated sheep just look like sheep; and being so friendly, Bighorns like to mix it up, unlike wolves.

The Bighorns on Little Bald had several yearlings, but I only saw one baby, at least so far.  After a while they got used to me and Koda, and went back to their business of eating.  The ram finally got curious enough to stand up for me to view him.  The baby ran with his mother.  The yearlings stayed in a small group with some ‘nurse ewes’ who watched over them, nuzzling occassionally.  I would have stayed for hours and watched them, but it was getting pretty cold and windy up there on the ridge.

The Sheepeaters

One of the interns gave me a book of Robert Service poems.  Oh, how I like so many of them.  Here’s a few verses from one of my favorites called ‘The Spell of the Yukon”

The summer — no sweeter was ever;
The sunshiny woods all athrill;
The grayling aleap in the river,
The bighorn asleep on the hill.
The strong life that never knows harness;
The wilds where the caribou call;
The freshness, the freedom, the farness —
O God! how I’m stuck on it all.

The winter! the brightness that blinds you,
The white land locked tight as a drum,
The cold fear that follows and finds you,
The silence that bludgeons you dumb.
The snows that are older than history,
The woods where the weird shadows slant;
The stillness, the moonlight, the mystery,
I’ve bade ’em good-by — but I can’t.

There’s a land where the mountains are nameless,
And the rivers all run God knows where;
There are lives that are erring and aimless,
And deaths that just hang by a hair;
There are hardships that nobody reckons;
There are valleys unpeopled and still;
There’s a land — oh, it beckons and beckons,
And I want to go back — and I will

Its interesting how one can feel a place.  Up the dirt road towards Yellowstone, there’s an area that just feels good.  The wolves like to den there, the Bighorn sheep hang on the cliffs there, and the Sheepeaters had winter camp there for 5000 years.  Keep going farther up that road, about 20 miles, closer to Yellowstone, and the feeling changes.  Something about that area always feels ominous to me.  As the valley narrows, the Absarokas close in.  Volcanic in nature, the mountains tell the story of fire and ice with their knife edge ridges and slopes of scree.  I’m always a little uneasy up there.  Its beauty and wildness belie ancient and ominous secrets.  I’m wondering ‘What happened here?’

But my story is about the area that feels good.  Last summer I spent a long time looking for a ‘sheep trap’.  I’d been told about one that was a small cleft in the rock face.

W___ had told me there was a sheep trap up in the timber, yet everytime I looked I couldn’t find where he said it was at.

Sheeptraps were used by the Native Americans who lived around here.  A sub-group of the Shoshones, they were named Sheepeaters because their primary diet consisted of Bighorn Sheep.  They made the finest bows out of horn, used no horses, and went back and forth into the Park.  These sheeptraps were one of their ways of hunting.  Usually placed along a game trail and on the downhill slope (Sheep always see what’s coming from below, but never tend to look up for danger), the traps had drive lines of dead wood that lead to a pen.  Once in the corral, then animals were usually bludgeoned to death.

I spent many days looking for the trap.  My mistake really was to go on W___ ‘s advice.  There WAS a trap he knew about up there, but it wasn’t the natural rock formation one.  He’d only been there once, and since he didn’t know this area well (he’d gone with another person who did) his directions were weak.  One time I hiked way up the mountain through several meadows.  I was tired and it was getting late. Turned out I was only a few hundred yards from the trap in the woods.  But when W__ did take me there later on, I didn’t feel so badly, for I talked with several hunters who’d walked right by the trap and never saw it.

Partially buried sheep trapThe wooden trap was awfully small, but when you looked closely, it was obvious that it was buried deep.  The wood was old and it was amazing the construction was still intact.

I knew that there must be another trap somewhere else.  I decided to walk along the cliffs farther down the meadows.

Fall was in full force and the days were short.  One afternoon I took a few hours and hiked up to the bottom of the cliffline.  I walked its edge.

The view was fabulous from up high and I stopped to investigate a natural arch.  There was nothing inside but packrat remnants.

Farther along the wall, I came to an extremely narrow notch in the wall.  Some unknown force drew me to climb up it to the landing above to investigate.  I hesitated.  The light was getting low, I was running out of time, and this seemed like just a curious sidetrack.  But I couldn’t resist.  I scrambled on all fours through some snow and debris up the cleftt to small flat area above.  Walking around on top of the rock, I noticed a second but larger cleft between two gigantic boulders.  The boulders narrowed sharply and a tree was growing at the base.  It was a curious natural formation.  A few pieces of wood and debris were inside.  I looked around but saw no evidence of any drive lines.

I climbed back down the notch and continued making my way along the wall.  In short order I came upon a dry creek bed and an old game trail that led to the landing up above.  It was then that it hit me–That cleft WAS the pen, just a natural one.  It was so obvious.  I raced back up the ravine as the sun was starting to set.  Sure enough, the game trail passed a few hundred feet above that cleft.Looking from above

And now I noticed random wood above the cleft, probably strewn around for the last hundred and fifty years, once used as the drive line.  The whole setup seemed so ingenious to me, with the minimal expenditure of energy.  The ancient game trail right there, the Sheepeaters waiting in the timber above, the natural pen below.  If you walked from the cliff line below, you’d never notice this pen because of the tree and a good amount of debris placed there to block the exit.

I sat down at the top of the rock and watched the setting sun.  I marveled at how by trusting a feeling I found this place.  And the moment of ‘Ah ha’ that came from the inside out.    It was getting cold now.  But I took a little time to sit and say ‘thank you’ to whatever bought me here.