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    A COMPENDIUM FOR THE DRY GARDEN

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The Cave Video: A year’s review

Several years ago I came across a small rock cave in a narrow drainage high up near a sheer rock face. There was cougar scat outside in a large cougar latrine. I crawled inside and peeked around. At the very back of the cave, some animal had made a nice bed out of soft debris. You could see the large rounded depression where the animal had rested.

Over the years I sometimes passed by this cave and wondered if a cougar might have used it as a den. I showed a photo of the rock enclosure to Toni Ruth, cougar biologist. She speculated that probably it had been used by many cougars as a resting place, but did not look like a den site normally does.

The cave sits high above a small valley used by many hunters in the fall because of it’s easy access and good game. Yet the placement of this rock site was too steep, and obscure, for humans to pass by. The only reason I happened to find it was because sometimes I hike in crazy and steep places just for fun, and I like to follow deer and elk trails.

After several years, in the spring of 2015 I decided to place a trail camera on the cave. I was deeply involved in a personal cougar study, and wanted to settle once and for all–den or lay. I hiked to the spot in May of 2015, placed one camera, and didn’t return for several months. What I found completely surprised me.

During the summer our elk,deer and bear travel into the high country and the predators follow. The valley is fairly quiet then and so my camera recorded lots of squirrel, pack rat and rabbit activity. In the winter, this particular area is closed to human presence. Before the closure, I hiked to the cave once again, and place my best trail camera, a Reconyx that takes film and stills, at the site. The camera sat till the reserve opened again in the spring.

I put together this short film that documents a year at the rock cave. Enjoy.

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Visits to a Cave

Several years ago I found a natural rock cave.  There was a lot of evidence this cave was used by cougars for many years, probably as a day bed.  The shelter is high up within a steep ravine.  Vertical cliffs complete the backdrop. I’ve always been curious who visits this cave.  So this May I put a trail camera on it.  I plan to leave the camera up through the fall but today I went to check what’s been happening.  Despite having to sift through hundreds of squirrel and packrat photos, the cave smells attracted lots of other visitors.Black Bear

Marmot

Elk

Another cougar

Cinnamon Bear

Cinnamon bear

Cinnamon Bear coming out of cave

Cinnamon Bear coming out of cave

Can you find this visitor

Can you find this visitor

Cougar

Cougar

Grizzly Bear

Grizzly Bear

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

Tracking notes

The other morning, after a nice light new snow, I drove the dirt road.  The elk were out, as always in the early morning, feeding, in a large group of over 700.  As I continued my drive, I came to a fresh track of two wolves that had run down the road.  They weren’t wandering, but directed towards somewhere.  In short order, another wolf came trotting in from the nearby meadows. Then another, and another.  Soon the tracks clearly showed 6 wolves running alongside each other.

Over time six wolves came trotting down the road

Over time six wolves came trotting down the road

Every so often I’d stop the car, get out, and examine the track.  These were the Hoodoos, a pack of stout, large wolves with the alpha tracks measuring around 5″ long x 4″ wide.

Wolf print

They didn’t appear in a hurry or threatened, for they were all side trotting with a stride about 30″. Their tracks sometimes overlapped or meandered.  Occasionally a few of them run off the road, then return at a different location.  These might have been the pups, exploring and meandering more than adults would.

Then a strange thing happened.  It appeared that more and more wolves were ‘returning’ to the road, all traveling in the same direction.  At one point I struggled to tease apart all the tracks and I counted eleven or twelve wolves!  I knew there was no way we had this big a pack in our area this year.  There are two packs around, but they don’t travel together.  I couldn’t figure it out.

I counted around 11 or 12 wolves

I counted around 11 or 12 wolves with all the tracks in the same direction and the same freshness

Then tracks ended by running off the roadside into a field of brush and willows, a haven for a young bull moose newly kicked out on his own this year.  I saw magpies hanging on the fence by the willow’s edge. So this was what all the ruckus of tracks was about!  I realized that these wolves had made a kill in the willows, fed for a while there, then headed off, only to circle back via the road and feed once more.

A few mornings later I walked out into the willows.  I was curious if that young moose had been their victim.  Moose are scarce here, having a hard time making a comeback between diseases, the ’88 fires destroying habitat, the warm summer and winter temperatures, as well as added predators.  Moose suffer heat stress in winter when temperatures are above 23 degrees.  Since early January most of our daytime temps have been above freezing, and many days in the 40’s and 50’s.  Thinking that it’s rare to find elk hanging in dense willow cover these days, I was afraid it was this moose that had been killed.

Hoodoo wolf prowling around

Hoodoo wolf prowling around

Yet the elk had been acting strangely early in the year–I’d seen them alone, in small groups, in tight areas, feeding mid-day, and not in the larger herds I’m used to.  But in the last several weeks, their ‘normal’ patterns have returned–normal for winters here means elk moving in large bunches from 100-700 elk and feeding early morning and late afternoons.  Although elk patterns are mysterious, I’m suspecting that when the elk came down from the Park in late December this year, the wolves were late in following them and were still higher up.  But as soon as the Hoodoos got to work, the elk became the herd animals nature intended.  Unlike many wolf packs in years past that resorted to killing deer, the Hoodoos are experienced hunters and know how to kill elk.

Here's my moose

Here’s my moose

With the help of a Koda sniff, we found the leg of the animal.  Not our moose but an elk, and it looked like a two or three year old from the look of the skin.  On the way back home, I saw that moose that had been hanging out in those willows for weeks on end.  He had moved up the road to a different area.

Sometimes it pays not to jump to conclusions, but instead be patient, and attempt to tease apart the puzzle of wildlife.

The Mysterious Elk

When hunting season is over and the rush for Christmas trees or winter wood dies down, the elk return.  The elk that migrate to this valley are ‘Park’ elk–elk that summer in the high Absarokas of the Lamar drainages.  1500 to 2000 elk travel here when the snows push them to seek easier feed.  It’s in their DNA to make this trek.

Personally, I look forward to them arriving.  And although they are leery of my presence, I enjoy their company.  For many winters now I arise early, before dawn, several times a week and drive the valley’s dirt road.  It’s that early morning time when you have the potential to see wildlife–wolves, coyotes, elk and moose.  The elk and deer feed usually at dawn or dusk.  The predators have learned to travel at night.  Keeps the humans away!

Sunrise at my house

Sunrise at my house

And although these elk have been thoroughly studied, they still contain many mysteries.  For instance, for the past seven years that I’ve lived here, the elk have a ‘usual’ pattern of movement.  In January/February, they spend time in larger herds of up to 700.  They feed dawn and dusk on the flats behind my house and another large herd feeds across the river in various areas.  During the day they retreat to the cover of the trees to digest and rest. They move, but their movements are fairly predictable.  As the weather warms, they break up into smaller herds (are these ‘family’ groups?), feeding in areas that have been opened up from the snows. Usually by late April, they’ve gone to the high country to calve; if the snows linger then I’ve see them calve in the valley.

Coveted elk habitat on property that could be a subdivision

Coveted elk habitat on private property that could be a sold into a subdivision

Last winter the snows were constant and really deep, starting early February.  A large herd of elk stayed by my front yard, feeding in the willows and resting under cover at night.  Although over 70% of an elk’s diet is grasses, when snows are deep, elk will eat shrubbery such as aspens, willows, and even conifer bark.  Last winter was also constantly windy. I noticed the elk preferred a place in the meadows where the topography dipped slightly–a wind buffer.  So intelligent they are!

So far this year is a totally different, and mysterious, story.  Several years ago the large ranch in the valley replaced their 12′ high barrier fence with a low attractive wooden fence.

Elk stuck inside fence and can't get to safety

Elk stuck inside fence and can’t get to safety

The elk used to get trapped inside with only two gates open, ‘sitting ducks’ for wolves.  The ranch irrigated their fields and trucked their cattle in from May through October. Their fields were seriously overgrazed. When the high fences came down, elk moved through but not as much as I thought they would.  I supposed there was little feed left after the cows departed.   This year the ranch hands convinced the owner that the fields needed to rest, maybe as much as five years.  So they stopped irrigating, reduced the cattle to just a few head, and began the resting process.  And guess what?  The elk are herded up there, about 200 every day.

The new fence with lots of elk there this year.  They are resting these grasses so have reduced cattle grazing

The new fence with lots of elk there this year. They are resting these grasses so have reduced cattle grazing and stopped irrigating

Yet this is not what surprises me about this year’s elk movements.  For the first time ever, I’ve watched them graze heavily in an area of high sagebrush cover.  Also their groups are already smaller (not the usual large January herds)–between twenty to two hundred–and they are in all sorts of habitat. Plus the elk appear much more relaxed.   They are feeding beyond dusk or dawn–in fact, at all hours of the day.  The only thing I can figure is that we had such a great winter that the grass is nutritious and rich everywhere.  I just wish I understood what drives them to feed in these sagebrush areas as well–what kind of native grasses are there that they are enjoying compared to the stock grasses they also like on the cattle pastures.

G&F habitat that usually is never grazed by the elk.  This year they are loving it!

G&F habitat that usually is never grazed by the elk. This year they are loving it!

When I told one person about how relaxed the elk appeared, he replied that maybe the wolves are gone.  Not so.  I saw two wolves the other morning.  And these elk are adapted to our wolves who follow them.  Middleton’s own study on these elk showed that only when wolves are around 1 kilometer (1/2 mile) away do elk begin to react.

On the other hand, although I did see 2 wolves, I have seen very few wolf tracks.  If all the elk are here, where are the wolves?

Coyote travels one way while a wolf travels in the opposite direction

Coyote travels one way while a wolf travels in the opposite direction. Taken two days ago

Another mystery:  There is an elk carcass along the road–a young elk maybe 3 years old.  Although the elk was completely eviscerated, she has a lot of meat on her and is still completely intact as far as her skeleton and hide.  I’ve been watching it for five days, and haven’t seen any birds on it, nor any other predators.  A few coyote tracks, a few wolf tracks, and a lot of Koda, my dog, tracks!  Although there is no wolf hunt this year, the wolves never linger to be watched like they used to.  They have quickly learned that humans are their mortal enemies.  It just might be this carcass is too close to the dirt road for their comfort, even at night!

Koda, Koda’s ball, and wolf tracks

 

Elk–the poster child for an elegant chaos

Yesterday down by the river Koda found a large cow elk carcass.  I usually follow the dog when he’s intent on something as he invariably leads me to interesting stuff.  And he kept his promise, for this was no ordinary carcass. This elk had a collar, a VHF tracking collar.  I assumed, rightly so, that this was a collar left over from Arthur Middleton’s 3 year elk field study in my valley.  Just last month I caught an elk on my trail camera by my house wearing a collar.  I contacted Arthur because I was surprised there were still some elk with them.  Apparently some of the collars employed for the study were designed to fall off; but others were going to stay with the elk for life.

I decided the best thing was not to touch the collar, but to contact the game warden.  I knew they’d want the collar back, even if it no longer carried data or was active.  The collars can be refurbished and save the WG&F around $600. But I wasn’t sure if they wanted to check the elk’s health out, with the collar on, before I removed it for them.  Since the carcass was in a fairly easy access location, I did worry that someone would come bye and snatch the collar for themselves as a souvenir.  When I spoke with the warden, he requested that I go back, obtain the collar, and save it for him.

Predated elk with collar.  How the elk died, we don't know.  But she provided a good meal for a lot of predators.

Predated elk with collar. How the elk died, we don’t know. But she provided a good meal for a lot of predators.

I noticed that she only had one ivory.  When she was collared back in around 2008, they took one of her ivories (her eye tooth) to determine her age.  Judging by her teeth, she was an older cow, but once the warden retrieves the collar, they can match it up and determine her exact age at death.  At long last, she’ll get that collar off.  I did feel badly that she had to move around with that collar around her neck all these years.

Arthur Middleton’s study in my valley was commissioned to find out why this migratory elk herd has such a low cow/calf ratio.  He spent three years of fieldwork, and several more writing his thesis.  Since that time, Arthur was awarded a prize/grant to study the other 5 migratory elk herds in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.  You can read the controversial results of that study here on my blog, and here on the web.

One of the many interesting findings was the rate of vigilance displayed by elk relative to wolves.  Before the study, everyone was postulating that wolves were responsible for the low calf ratios.  The theory out there was that wolves were pushing the elk hard and therefore stressing them out.  This additional stress led to less foraging, more vigilance, and just less calving success.

About 2000 elk are in the valley in winter.

About 2000 elk are in the valley in winter.  These are the YNP Lamar elk herd.

The results debunked this theory.  First off, there was no more vigilance with the migratory herd than the non-migratory herd that was used for comparison in the study(where wolves are present although not as many; and they had normal cow/calf ratios).  But more interesting was that elk did not show any signs of stress or movement until wolves were within 1 km, and these wolf/elk encounters occurred, on average, once every 9 days.  These factors are important to what Arthur is now stirring up a storm of controversy with.

The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation helped fund Middleton’s study. But they seem to ignore the results of the study and still blame wolves for all the decline.  Included in the above 80% is the overpopulation of elk on the Northern range present before wolves.  YNP was killing elk for years to help reduce the herd.  One reason why wolves were introduced in 1996.

Just recently, Middleton had an op-ed in the New York Times.  In it, he contends that his results, as well as other studies, challenge the straight forward idea of wolves and trophic cascades.  In other words, that wolves herd the elk sufficiently to allow less browsing on aspens and willows, allowing them to regenerate.  The idea of trophic cascades is no doubt true (apex predators affect whole ecosystems), but Arthur is saying ecosystems have a lot more complexity to them then the simple fix of restoring top predators.

One of the ideas rattling around these days in biology is the Landscape of Fear.  I’m not a biologist, but the whole notion never sat right with me.  Simply put, the theory maintains predators will change the behavior of their prey, through fear, in ways that affects the their movement throughout the landscape, changing their feeding patterns and thus the plant material.  True, but maybe not the whole of it I think.  Ecosystems are varied and complex.  Arthur posted a photo of a wolf den with a herd of elk grazing nearby.  We humans have certain notions of fear-consciousness, yet this might not at all be what’s driving all the movements of wildlife.  As I said in that previous post, I still think nature has more to do with adaptation and awareness, than with so-called ‘fear’.

Recently I took a class with James Halfpenny in the Park.  He was asked about the wolf-coyote relationship.  It has been documented that wolves killed about 50% with the wolf reintroduction, but now their population seems to have recovered.  Coyotes are using the ‘inbetweens’ of the wolf territories to move around.  It didn’t take them long to work out, and remember instinctively, their age-old relationship with their big brothers and how to live with them (and take advantage of their kills).

And if wolves are herding elk from intensive aspen/willow foraging, I have to ask why the pack of six wolves in my valley was slacking on the job.  When the snows got really deep, the elk settled in my front yard and forest, topping every single aspen and willow they could reach.

Wolf wary of infared light

Wolf wary of infared light

 

Ode to a Wyoming Spring

Yesterday I took a short hike on the Clark’s Fork plateau.  And I was again reminded that there is nowhere like the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and the Northern Spine of the Rockies where one can experience what I did in just a few hours in the lower U.S.  Frankly, it was a magical excursion.

I began my hike on a well-known trail that falls just 45′ down to the vast plateau above the rocky cliffs of the Clark’s Fork.  Within moments I came across cougar tracks in the melting snowfield.  After a following the tracks a few steps, the elusive cougar  disappeared.

Left Hind cougar

From the parking area above I’d spied a few elk, so I knew some were around.  But as I rounded a bend in the treeline, there was a small herd of about 75 elk in the meadows near the cliff edges.  Elk disband into smaller and smaller herd sizes as spring nears, until soon they disappear to calve and head into the high country.  The elk spied me and Koda, and were a bit skittish but quite curious.  As they ran one direction, then another to follow our movements (I was headed away from them and already at quite a distance), their hooves pounded on the frozen earth an ancient, but familiar hollow sound.

elk

I watched the elk briefly as they watched me, but I was headed for the river.  Within moments I spied fresh wolf tracks, 2 sets, as well as a lone coyote, on a sprint down to the river too.  I began following them as they lead me down the narrow gully that meets the river’s edge.

Two wolves side trot down the road

Two wolves side trotting towards the river

The wolves sidetracked up to a small meadow for a view and I did too.  From there, I glassed around, probably doing what the wolves did with their own eyes and good sense of smell.  Just a ravine away, there was a large gathering of birds on a melting ice field.  I detoured that way and watched them for a while.  Thousands of birds were gathering in trees, taking time for a drink.  Their chirping sounded like crickets, which I knew weren’t out yet because it was about 37 degrees.

After following the canine tracks down to the river, and seeing they’d crossed over, I made my way slowly to the cliff edge.  I wanted to spy for mountain goats that frequent the Clark’s Fork cliffs in the winter.  There is a special look-out area, where the meadows give way to trees, that soon fall precipitously over the 1000′ edge.  As I neared the trees and cliffs, I heard that strange ‘cricket’ sound again.  The flock had flown here and they were flying everywhere, from tree to tree, around the cliffs, thousands of birds.  These were Bohemian Waxwings and maybe there were beginning their migration north.  Beautiful birds, a bit smaller than robins, they caught my eye and senses.

Bohemian Waxwing

Whatever they were up to, the sheer force of their presence and numbers was magical.  The sun beat down through the trees.  I stood and allowed the new spring sun to warm my body, closed my eyes, and listened to them.  As I became quiet, they grew less concerned about my presence and became more active, flying all around me.  I felt like I was receiving a tiny bit of what America might have looked like hundreds of years ago–when wildlife was so abundant that this ‘small’ flock of a thousand birds or so was common.

What a wonderful two hour hike.  Only in a place like the Greater Yellowstone.  I was reminded of how precious, fragile, and necessary this place is.