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    A COMPENDIUM FOR THE DRY GARDEN

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Did ‘Limpy’ the Coyote survive?

Many mornings I venture out early and explore who’s been out during the night.

Sunrise

Sunrise

If nothing else, I’m guaranteed to see the elk, deer and moose.  Last night there seemed to be quite a party.  Plenty of coyotes and the wolves were moving around. Yesterday I saw a bald eagle fly into the valley.  There must be a kill around, but I could not find it.

I wish I could figure out the coyote territories in the valley.  I have a guess, based on howling and tracks, but its only a guess.  I suspect there are at least three different packs within the front valley itself.  It appears the pack sizes go up and down and I wonder how much the wolves have an impact on that. Some years there are many more wolves here, other years their numbers are down and the coyote numbers seem to jump up.  When the coyotes increase, I see less fox sign.  The coyotes have definitely gotten bolder over the years relative to their older brother, the wolf. Look at this example:

This coyote ran right over three wolf tracks

This coyote ran right over three wolf tracks

Last winter I spotted a lone coyote several times that had a badly injured left rear foot.

Here's the fellow.  Who knows what happened to his leg.

The lame coyote from last winter

The first time I saw him, he was hobbling through a field.  Then one early morning he was stealing some left-overs from a wolf kill.  No other canines were around.  He ‘ran’ with his prize through the field while I watched.  Leery of my presence, he made his way up the hillside into the trees to eat in peace.  I took some photos of his interesting and sad track.

The arrow points the direction he was headed

Last Year: The arrow points the direction he was headed.  The ‘dot’ is his injured leg’s imprint. One can see the trouble he is having by his difficult gait.

 

You can see the small imprint of his left hind leg.  The back legs are in front because he is running

Last Year:  You can see the small imprint of his left hind leg. The back legs are in front because he is running

This morning there were several groups of coyotes in different areas.  And one large grouping was around the area where I spotted ‘Limpy’ last year head for the hills with his stolen bone.  About 5 coyotes were running together, and one of them had a bad left rear leg!

Spot the limpy coyote.

This winter:  Can you Spot the limpy coyote?

Coyote running.  rear feet are in front of front feet.  Notice the 2nd print from top.  That is the left rear and its noticeably smaller

This winter:  Coyote running. rear feet are in front of front feet. Notice the 2nd print from top. That is the left rear and its noticeably smaller.  But compare this photo with the one from last winter. A more normal gait!

The foot is turned inward and the print is smaller meaning he can’t put so much weight on it.  Yet given the difference in last year and this year, he is able to put much more weight on it.  Last year that coyote was barely putting his foot on the ground.  Now he is using it!

Of course, I cannot be sure it’s the same coyote. But given that it’s the same rear left leg, and the coyote was spotted in the same general area, its a good possibility.  And if it is ‘Limpy’, now he, or she, is running with a pack instead of alone.  Now maybe he has had a happy ending after all!

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Speak for Wolves

I just returned from 2 nights and 2 days of a Speak for Wolves event in Gardiner, MT, the first one of its kind.  The event was a great success, with some very prominent speakers and filmmakers in the field of conservation.

The event at Arch Park.  YNP historic arch in background

The event at Arch Park. YNP historic arch in background

Friday night I saw Bob Landis’ new film ‘She-Wolf’ which is now on sale in the Park.  She-Wolf is the interesting and unique story of wolf 832f , better known as the Lamar Valley’s famous ’06 who was shot and killed in the very first Wyoming wolf hunt.  Bob answered questions at the end of the film.

This story is extremely personal to me as not only had I watched ’06 many times up close and personal in the Lamar Valley, but after her death in late December 2012, the entire Lamar pack (minus the remaining alpha male) spent the winter in my valley.  During that winter of 2013 I had the opportunity to watch the pack behind my house many times as well as track them.  With the death of their alpha female, they seemed at a loss of how to kill elk, even though there were thousands all around them, and they mainly killed deer.  In the spring they all dispersed–which is a typical disruption when pack members are killed.

'06 swims the Lamar river, emerges onto the road right in front of tourists.

’06 swims the Lamar river, emerges onto the road right in front of tourists.

On Saturday there were speakers such as Nathan Varley who runs a wolf watching business in Gardiner with his wife.  He spoke of how these last several years of wolf hunting around the Park boundaries has made his business even harder.  His yearly gross revenue of over 1/2 million dollars brings a lot of business to the Park and surrounding communities. People come from all over the world to see wolves as the best place for viewing them in the wild is Yellowstone.  But some of the viewable packs are gone.  Lamar Valley used to be the premier place for wolf watching, but now has only two wolves that are rare to see.

Louisa Wilcox of Center for Biological Diversity spoke of some of the knotty politics.  Appropriately enough, thunder and lightning cut her talk short.  Public lands ranching and trapping demonstrations–one of the main ways wolves are killed in Montana and Idaho–completed the day’s activities.

Coyote pups

Coyote pups

Saturday night was film night.  Two short films on Wildlife Services (Exposed: USDA’s Secret War on Wildlife) and how they indiscriminately are killing wildlife were shown.  Then Camilla Fox, Director of Project Coyote, presented a film on how Marin County (my old alma mater) ranchers have done away with Wildlife Services and implemented a program of natural protections.  These include guard dogs, better fencing and llamas.  The county has saved over $60 million dollars plus most ranchers have seen either no predation or very little predation by coyotes.  All this and the biggest plus is they are no longer poisoning wildlife.  Instead, the coyotes are doing their job of controlling the rodents around the ranches.

Dr. Robert Crabtree, who has done all the major research in the Park on coyotes, was present for the panel discussion afterwards, as well as George Wuerthner, Western Watersheds Project Oregon Director and author.

Sunday’s event included a wonderful talk and ceremony by Jimmy St. Goddard of the Blackfeet Tribe.  Here’s a short clip of Jimmy giving a prayer in Blackfeet.

Doug Peacock gave a great talk about the plight of the grizzly bear, who the USF&W and the states are just itching to delist in 2015, and how that might impact the numbers of the Great Bear.

All in all it was a great event with talks from dedicated individuals who are working hard to make a difference in our treatment and perception of wildlife and wildlands.

Since I traveled through the Park to and from Gardiner, here are a few of the wildlife shots I took on my journey.

Moose on highway 212 outside the Park

Moose on highway 212 outside the Park

Little Black bear in Yellowstone

Little Black bear in Yellowstone

Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle

Elk lounge on the high school field in Gardiner

Elk lounge on the high school field in Gardiner

Muskrat photo finally!

Muskrat photo finally!

Great Horned baby with mouse

Great Horned baby with mouse

Bison and baby

Some winter musings

So far this winter has been a roller coaster of temperatures.  December brought weeks of sub- zero temps, while almost every day in January was in the high 30’s and 40’s.  All our snow in the valley melted and the ground was bare.  Then one day two feet of snow fell, and didn’t stop. One constant has been wind–a lot of it and up to 50 mph.

Before all the deep snows came, I spent a lot of time watching for wildlife and sometimes seeing them.  I had several glimpses of a lame coyote, with a hurt or broken back left leg.  One day I saw him scurry across a wide field.  I wondered if he’d make it through the winter, with his lameness as well as wolves to watch out for.  Then a few weeks later I saw him stealing a large bone from a recent deer kill.  It was early morning when I noticed the coyote.  He saw my car and started running for cover.  It was then I saw it was my limpy friend.  I took a few photos and was on my way.

Here's the fellow.  Who knows what happened to his leg.

Here’s the fellow. Who knows what happened to his leg.  In his attempt to flee, he dropped his prize bone.  That’s when I left, allowing him to return to it.

Poor guy had it tough enough without me making it harder.  But on the way home I checked for his tracks.  I was curious what a useless left back leg would look like in the tracks.

The arrow points the direction he was headed

The arrow points the direction he was headed

coyote limp

You can tell what a difficult time he is having because his gait is so uneven.  Look for that tiny imprint of his lame foot.

You can see the small imprint of his left hind leg.  The back legs are in front because he is running

You can see the small imprint of his left hind leg. The back legs are in front because he is running

One ski tour I took a few more photos of tracks.  This time a Snowshoe Hare and a Marten track

Distinct weasel-type prints 2x2

Distinct weasel-type prints 2×2

Front feet are in the rear and the back feet on top.  Look how big and wide the back feet are, like a snowshoe.  Hence, the name

Front feet are in the rear and the back feet on top. Look how big and wide the back feet are, like a snowshoe. Hence, the name

Here’s a photo from January on the flats behind my house.  Where’s all the snow?

This is a large herd of about 350 elk.  No snow in January

This is a large herd of about 350 elk. No snow in January

Here’s a puzzle.  We had a few days of intense snow without a let-up.  During a short let-up of the storm, I took a walk around our woods and discovered this interesting ‘hole’.  It doesn’t go anywhere, but was obviously a temporary snow shelter dug out during the storm just above the base of a tree on a hillside.  The hole measured about 6 or 7 inches across, big enough for a fox or a skunk.  I have seen skunks once here, but they are rare.  So are raccoons at this altitude.  I wondered what could have done this.  All tracks were obliterated by the recent snows.

Hole that doesn't go anywhere dug out for a temporary shelter.

Hole that doesn’t go anywhere dug out for a temporary shelter.

I found bobcat tracks around my house.  Bobcats have become quite rare around here because of intense trapping.  Bobcat pelts can go for up to $1000! and so a lot of newbies want to cash in.  Wyoming has no limit on how many bobcats a person can trap and the season is long, pretty much all winter.  So I set up a camera trap to get some photos.  I’ve never been successful catching photos of bobcats, except the few times I’ve seen them myself.  But instead of catching a bobcat, I caught a shot of this fox.Fox

I understand from some old timers around here that foxes used to be quite rare.  Canines are territorial and will kill other canines in their area.  Wolves kill coyotes, coyotes kill foxes.  I’ve seen foxes quite a lot since I’ve lived here and I think the wolves are keeping the coyotes either ‘in check’ or enough on their toes so that there is room for foxes again.

I discovered a secret game trail that is quite a hike from my house.  An old water diversion ditch, it appeared the wildlife were using it frequently.  I also found a deer kill nearby.  To confirm my suspicions, I set my trail camera up and left it there for 6 weeks.  I got a lot of photos of rabbits, deer, elk, coyotes, and wolves.  Here are a few.  Look at the temperature on the two nighttime wolf photos.  Its -33 degrees!

Wolf

Wolf stares into camera

Wolf

Bull elk

Nice Bull Elk

Wolf

see the second set of eyes in the background

I really do live in a special place, right next to Yellowstone National Park!

Wildlife update

Of course this wildlife update could never be completely accurate; its just my own observations and the result of a few conversations.

As I noted in an earlier post, up around Camp Creek where there is a nice mosaic of young and old spruce/doug fir forest plus open meadows, I saw sign of an abundance of Snowshoe hares with a coyote or two hunting them.  But down here in the valley, cottontails are rarely to be found.  Today I saw my first sign of a cottontail in the willows by my house.  But on a walk near the upper bridge where I usually see a lot of sign, there were no bunnies to be seen.  The same is true with the Jackrabbit population in the valley.  Rabbits are subject to boom and bust cycles.  I had thought it had a lot to do with the predator/prey cycle, but my boss at the museum told me its more complicated than that.  In fact, so complicated that scientists don’t really know the cause.  But, one prominent theory is that it actually has to do with plants.  The theory goes that the plants the rabbits eat begin to build up toxins as a defense to over-consumption.  The toxins get so high they eventually cause the massive mortality in the rabbits.  The rabbits that remain of course, are the survivors and have the tolerance they pass on to their little bunnies.  Eventually, the population builds up again.

With the lack of bunnies, you’d think the bobcat population might be down, but there’s been the usual one hunting in my neck of the woods.

Bobcat track

I’ve seen sign of him tracking turkeys.  The turkey population on the other hand, seems to be holding its own.  Regularly there are 10-15 wandering threw the woods, making a nice racket.

Turkey in snow

turkey tracks

Wolves this year are down in the valley.  From 4 packs in the range last year, down to just two struggling packs of about 4 wolves each.  The Sunlight pack has just disappeared, and the once ten strong Hoodoo pack that roamed from the northeast Park boundary of the Absarokas into Sunlight was reduced this summer by at least half due to cattle predation.  What’s left of that Hoodoo pack has been the main wolf pack in the valley and apparently are not great hunters, as they have been struggling to kill the wise cow elks and are mostly predating on deer.

A wolf lopes through the snow away from a kill site

That being said, coyotes seem to be on the rise and in control of the valley.  Their tracks are everywhere and their calls are heard nightly.  When I arrived back here in January, I found an adult elk that they had killed.  Today I found a dead pup, death unknown.  But where I usually had seen wolf tracks regularly, for instance running down the roads, now I am seeing mostly coyote tracks.

Coyote caught on trail camera

I found a dead fox, dead from an injury to its leg.  Its leg was mangled, maybe due to a trap or a fight with a coyote.  The fox population seems to be getting healthier here, probably because of several years of wolves keeping coyotes in check.

A fearful fox lopes in snow before dying

Fox caught on trail camera

I would assume that the deer and elk are having a better year than last as there is much less snow with higher temperatures.  There’s been fewer times when I’ve seen large herds of elk on Riddle Flats, maybe because there is plenty of clear ground in many places in the valley.

500 head of elk on Riddle Flat

I’ve seen a few Golden Eagles, but no Bald Eagles this winter.  I saw some grouse today by the river happily foraging.  And despite the fact that a completely insane hunter poached a cow moose and her baby this fall in the valley, the moose seem to be doing o.k.  One resident told me she saw two bull moose and there are a few cow/calves hanging around. I have one cow and her calf by me.  Moose normally have twins, but I’ve noticed the cow that hangs around my area hasn’t had twins for several years now.

I haven’t heard of any sightings of bear tracks, which surprises me because we’ve had such warm weather.  I am still waiting to catch some marten tracks or an actual marten on my camera.  I recently bought a new stealth camera, a Reconex which is made in the USA and is the top rated trail camera on the market.  I need to get a sim card and batteries for it, then I’ll be setting it up first with the intention of catching that bobcat.

Goodbye to a long Winter

The snows are melting and although Sunlight creek is still not in the spring run-off phase, you can feel the weather breaking.

Last night it snowed lightly, but today its raining.  It’s a slow warm-up, but it’s coming.  My old neighbor who grew up in this valley tells me this was a normal winter in terms of snowfall, but I suspect its still not as cold as when he was growing up.  His wife says that -25 degrees was regular then.  Not now.

Several years ago I helped an elderly woman stage her landscape in order to sell her home.  Her husband had been a great friend of mine and fellow beekeeper.  Once he died Dorothy packed up the family home and moved to Idaho where her kids were. That was the year I bought my cabin in Wyoming and along with so many other strange coincidences, it turned out her father had been the Chief Engineer in Yellowstone from the spring of 1925 through the spring of 1930.  The last two years he was the Assistant Superintendent at Mammoth under Horace Albright  His name was Merrill Daum and the family had interviewed him and transcribed his memoirs. Dorothy graciously gave me a copy of the section from his time in the Park.  Here are a few of his stories of snow in those days:

There were no concessionaires living in the park in the wintertime.  They closed up everything.  We had to go down to Gardiner and Livingston to do our shopping.  We had cars and oh yes, the road was open.  We only had light snow in that country.  We could keep the road from the park open up to Mammoth with our own equipment, but from there on it was generally open.  They had a train running in there every so often, so many days a week, so we had train service at Gardiner.  So much of that country was rough and hot that the snow was not very thick on it.

I don’t know much about Middle Geyser basin.  It wasn’t a good place to stop and just put a road through to yell at Old Faithful.  That’s where we turned off from and went cross country to the Lake and Canyon or kept on going out to West Yellowstone or to Old Faithful.  We had ten cabins about every ten miles on the ranger patrol station because they would patrol all along that area, especially the southern part of the Park because there might be poachers come in to kill the game.  They’d go around in the winter time on skis.  That’s a long trip around that part.  Down towards the southern entrance there might be ten, twelve feet of snow.  I’ll never forget looking at one of the bridges; there was a stream going under and all that snow on top of the bridge.  One winter the bridge just broke.

The wintertime was mainly spent getting ready for the next year.  Then we had to get ready to remove the snow in the spring.  We started at Cody,Wyoming at the entrance.  About thirty miles from Cody up to the entrance.  We got as far as the Park with snow 12 to 15 to 20 feet deep.  We’d blast it out with TNT which Uncle Sam gave us.  That would start it thawing and then we’d take a big power shovel and shovel the stuff so we had a two-way highway through there to the east entrance of the park.  From there on we’d use our own equipment.  The deep snow was right there at the entrance.  That was the high point.  We’d generally try to get the Park open by the 1st of June.  By the 6th of June we were officially open, I believe. But you couldn’t make some of the interior trips that early.  It would be long in July before you could get away from the snow.

Here is a photo tribute to my 2010-2011 winter in Wyoming.  After this long and snowy winter, I think I am officially a Wyomingite!

The Basin in early winter from Dead Indian

This is a wolf howl machine, an experimental device to see if wolves are in the area

Two wolves side trot down the road

Coyotes on an elk kill

A coyote pair waits their turn on a nearby kill

The Yellowstone migratory herd resides in the valley in winter

Black wolf resting mid-day in the sun after a morning elk meal

Moose stands in deep snow

Sunset in a 2011 winter

After a day of skiing, dog tired


Shapeshifter

This is a great documentary, free online, by Canadian Geographic on coyotes.  Humans have been trying to eradicate coyotes for years, unsuccessfully.  In fact, whereas coyotes were confined to a small area of the West a hundred years ago, now they are ubiquitous, all over North America, from cities to suburbs, on islands and the countryside.  Why, no matter how much humans have trapped, shot,and  poisoned coyotes, do they come back in greater numbers than before?

Coyote hunting ground squirrels

Here in the GYE, wolves were eradicated by the 1930’s.  Since then, coyotes have been the bane of the sheep, cattle, chicken, and any other type of rancher.  Coyotes are considered ‘varmits’ and can be shot on sight in Wyoming.  Coyotes used to be blamed for all the troubles.  With the reintroduction of wolves, now wolves are blamed.  But if you want to keep coyotes under control, then you need to have wolves around.

According to YNP biologist Bob Crabtree who has been studying coyotes since before wolf reintroduction, since wolves came on the scene in Yellowstone, there has been an 80% reduction in the coyote population.  Coyotes are the oldest indigenous species in North America, some 3 million years old.  Their arch enemy is the Wolf.  Over the thousands of years of dealing with wolves, coyotes have become cunning and adaptable under that stress.  They have developed highly sophisticated strategies of dealing with high mortality rates.  For one, they breed rapidly when under attack and produce more litters.  For another, they can feed up and down the food chain.

Coyote pup

Each year in Yellowstone 1/3 of the coyotes are killed.  This makes the survivors much smarter:  Super Coyotes.  And although wolves are their nemesis, they also provide a smorgasbord of food.  Coyotes in Yellowstone mostly eat ground squirrels.  It takes a few to make a good meal.  But when wolves kill large prey, the wolf pack will eat their fill and leave the rest.  Coyotes can take advantage of their leftovers, which is like eating 100 ground squirrels.

Coyotes taking advantage of a wolf kill

So it pays to stick around the wolves, but not too close.  This stress has produced powerful survival skills. It seems coyotes evolved to do better in a state of flux.

Humans created conditions for coyotes that have allowed them to populate all of North America.  They’ve killed off their primary enemy, the wolf.  They’ve cultivated fields and created open spaces.  They’ve filled those open spaces with nice plump meat to raise pups with.  And by putting stress on coyotes through trapping and killing, humans are acting like wolves, making the coyotes breed more rapidly.

Everyone I know has a story about coyotes in the city and suburbs, close and strange encounters, bold coyotes.  I’ve watched coyotes kill a deer right next to a house.  I’ve  seen them lounging mid-day on the grass in a cemetery.  I know a friend whose daughter was walking her dog in the open space of Marin County who became surrounded by coyotes.  She started singing and they left.

Urban coyote rests mid-day in local cemetery

 

Singing brings up a good point.  Biologists who are studying coyotes in urban areas say, since we can’t eradicate them, we will need to learn to live with them.  One biologist says “They are teaching us things maybe we don’t want to learn yet.”  As top predators in an urban environment, there is a ‘nervous harmony’ that can be adapted to.  Humans need to learn to just scare coyotes away–use a hose, shout, sing, water pistols–make those coyotes think “These humans are so unpredictable”.

The documentary had some interesting things to say about the eastern coyote.  It seems they are growing bigger.  DNA studies reveals the eastern coyote is mating with the smaller Eastern (as compared with the larger grey wolf of the west) Wolf to create a super top predator–smarter, wilier, more adaptable.  It seems ancient Native Americans understood Coyote much better than us modern humans when they described him as ‘the trickster’, the ‘shapeshifter’.

I applaud Coyote.  Humans have taken over every inch of North America, as well as the entire world.  Rats, cockroaches, and a few other smaller species thrive around humans.  But Coyote is the only large predator that has adapted and fully populated all of our environments.  He truly is more cunning than us!

Coyote hunting voles

A brilliant and frigid day

Its -14 degrees tonight at only 7 pm.  Today it was a clear beautiful day and the mercury never got above -1 degrees F.  I got bundled up and went out for a ski, but my new skis have a big problem with their bindings.  I tried for 20 minutes and never got my shoes to hook in, but I got pretty cold in the process.  So I abandoned that idea, threw on my snow shoes, and headed out on the trail by the creek.

An enormous sun-dog, or halo, circled the sun.  The sky was clear blue and the air was so cold you could literally see ice crystals flying by.

Over the bridge there were some old coyote tracks.  This coyote was using a rotary lope.  He switches from one side to the next as you can see from the photo.  Maybe he picks up the pace over the bridge because he’s so exposed with out cover on either side.  I’m working hard on studying gait so I was thrilled to see and recognize this one.

Coyote lopes across the bridge. Notice change from one side to the next

Usually this walk has lots of wolf tracks but none today.  A moose has been walking around the willows

Moose droppings and tracks

.  I find an area near tree cover where several moose lay down.  At first I thought these might be a group of elk, but only moose scat was around and the bed measured 60″–too big for an elk.  Laying in that deep snow, a moose or an elk creates a deep depression with their weight and body heat.  The lay becomes a natural snow cave, insulating them and keeping them warm.

I watched a dipper feeding and bathing.  Wow they are stout little things.  It was so cold my hat was icing up and this bird was hanging in the stream.  Ice flowed by him.

Dipper

On the way out, the elk were spending their resting time mid-day in the upper meadows.  They were there yesterday too when it was just as cold but cloudy.  Usually they hide mid-day in the trees.  I wondered why they were hanging on the hillsides, exposed, during these bitter cold days.  On the way home, around 3:00, they were already out and grazing. Usually when the deer and elk feed early, that’s a sign of a storm coming.  Maybe they know something I don’t.

Why are the elk resting in the meadow mid-day?

On the way up to my cabin, I see a young cow moose running bye.  I suppose its a very cold and moosey day.

Moose by my house