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A Lesson from History: the California Grizzly

One of the special privileges of living in the Greater Yellowstone Region is seeing grizzly bears. In the fall, they are hungry preparing for hibernation. Rosehips, chokecherries and limber pine nuts lure them nearer to our homes, where they forage mainly at night to avoid people. In the early spring, when they emerge from their dens, young sprouts in the local pasture is roughage for their systems. 14238317_10207623170481489_6094538779973207194_n.jpg

The presence of grizzlies makes a difference when I am hiking. I see their large tracks or fresh scat and remember to stay alert, awake, and aware. I carry my bear spray ‘weapon’, which I’ve never used on a bear, but have used on a bison, and it saved my life.

Grizzly Bear Print

Print looks even larger because its in mud, but you can see his claws

Yet this rarity of wildness in our modern world carries with it great responsibility. If I want to live, work, and enjoy this last remaining wild place in our country (and also one of the last intact temperate ecosystems in the entire world), then I, like my cousin the grizzly, must make sacrifices and accommodations–small yet important and life saving for the bear. Special garbage cans; no bird feeders; Bar-B-Qing precautions; and most importantly, a tolerance for wildness. The Great Bear himself has been accommodating us humans for centuries, and mostly paying for it with his life.grizzly warning sign in the greater yellowstone area

Probably our best lesson in grizzly history comes from California, where the bear adorns their state flag. And the very best historical account of the Great State’s grizzlies is California Grizzly by Tracy Storer and Lloyd Tevis Jr.  Storer painstakingly poured through every historical documented account of grizzly bears back to the Spanish Missions. He collects them together into an easily readable book first published in the 1950s. My paperback edition has a wonderful foreword by Rick Bass. I would say the only section not fully accurate is ‘Habits of California Grizzlies’, which includes erroneous data such as grizzlies being able to give birth at two or three years of age. Bringing grizzlies back from the brink here in Yellowstone has yielded much new data.

It’s unknown how many grizzlies were in California before the Spanish arrived and brought their cattle in the early 1700s. But Storer estimates California may have had as many as 10,000 bears in the early to mid-1800’s. California during Spanish rule was a different place than when American settlers came out during the gold rush.

During the Spanish period, not more than thirty such [land] grants were made; but after Mexico threw off her allegiance to the crown, the lavish generosity of the new provincial government brought some eight million acres into the possession of about eight hundred grantees. Each rancho, an empire unto itself, grazed thousands of cattle, sheep, and horses; supported hundreds of Indian servants, and was an economically independent, self-sustaining community.

In addition to cattle, wild horses brought in by the Spanish were so numerous that there were recorded herds twenty miles long. This overpopulation of horses depleted the range for livestock so thousands were killed, sometimes driven over cliffs or lanced by vaqueros. There were frequent slaughters of livestock during severe droughts, as well as natural deaths in these enormous herds. Missions and ranches had private butchering grounds, where only the choice meats were taken and the rest thrown in large piles. Grizzlies came at night to the ravines near the slaughter-corrals. Storer reports that in 1834 the missionaries, who anticipated secularization, disposed of 100,000 cattle just for their tallow and hides, leaving the rest for wild animals.

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Rancho Cahuenga, near the location of the present Hollywood Bowl, as it appeared in January, 1847, at the signing of the Treaty of Cahuenga.

This abundant new and easy source of protein is what fueled an accelerated bear population growth, so by the time early Americans began arriving, grizzly bears were commonly seen in large numbers foraging together.

In January, 1827, Duhaut-Cilly wrote that ‘bears are very common in the environs; and without going farther than five or six leagues [a league is about 3.5 miles] from San Francisco, they are often seen in herds”

George C. Yount, among the first American pioneers in California, arriving in February 1831 [of Yountville fame in Northern California] …said “they are every where–upon the plains, in the valleys, and on the mountains…so that I have often killed as many as five or six in one day, and it was not unusual to see fifty or sixty within the twenty-four hours.”

John Bidwell, in the Sacramento Valley in 1841, saw sixteen in one drove and said that “grizzly bear were almost an hourly sight, in the vicinity of the streams, and it was not uncommon to see thirty to forty a day”

While bears were a problem for the Spanish in the 1700s when trying to grow their herds, by the early 1800s cattle, sheep and horses were sculpturing every hill in the coastal region. The Spanish now viewed these lands as a playground, and grizzlies as part of a new sport.They roped grizzlies for bear-bull fights (another chapter in the book which is fascinating yet hard to read). These animal fights were even commonly conducted right after church in stoutly built arenas. 1393_photoBut although the Spanish engaged in this cruel entertainment, California was underpopulated and grizzlies benefited from the increased food supply. When gold was discovered in 1849, a spectacular invasion of Americans came, and grizzlies were now doomed. In the span of just 25 years after California became a state in 1850, most all the grizzlies were gone. A few stragglers remained until early 1900s.

Storer includes so many fascinating facts about the bear in California. One would suspect that grizzlies rarely hibernated in that warm climate. Although no one was keeping scientific records, grizzlies were seen year-round except in the high Sierras, as evidenced from that above quote in January by Duhaut-Cilly. Probably females denned for part of the winter in order to give birth to their helpless newborns. Before white men cleared the land, grizzlies inhabited dense growths of trees, vines, and cattails that bordered lowland rivers and creeks. They pastured in tall grasses and clovers in the spring and ate acorns in the fall. Along the entire coast, grizzlies foraged on the continuous supply of marine animals that washed ashore, supplementing with berries from manzanita bushes that grew nearby. Tall manzanita thickets were common places for grizzlies to shelter, while place names remain as ghostly evidence such as Bear Valley, Big Bear, or Oso Rio.

What is to be learned from California–a land so rich and blessed with near perfect climate, where once grizzlies freely roamed? It demonstrates how quickly a large population of top predators can be extirpated; or how a dense, rapid growth in human population spells demise for the great bear; how abundant human food waste leads to habituated bears. And reading through the entire account in this book reminds me that Europeans have a very dark history when it comes to wildlife. The wanton slaughter and intolerance for grizzlies is still evident today when we see signs such as this one which seem to have one purpose in mind, without any appreciation nor feeling for the animal itself:

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With a bit of mindfulness, we can enter fully into a new legacy, one that values wildness and wilderness, preserves vast lands for top predators like the Great Bear, sees the worth of connectivity between public and private lands, and makes good choices as to how we live with grizzlies in our midst. This is the future I envision for our country and it’s wonderful heritage of wildlife.

Hoodoo Basin…an Eerie Place and a Story

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View from a peak in the Basin

It was June of 2012 when a man approached me on the top of Dead Indian Hill asking for directions to Parker Peak. At first I was perplexed where this Peak actually was. There are a lot of famous Peaks in the Greater Yellowstone that people come to climb. Parker was not one of them. Then he explained it was at the end of Sunlight road in the Park and I knew it was in Hoodoo Basin. He had a strange urgency about him, and seemed driven by an unseen need to get to this insignificant peak. 

The hike to Hoodoo Basin, where Parker Peak and Hoodoo Peak form part of the bowl, is epic. I’ve been wanting to do it for ten years from the end of Sunlight Road., and finally completed it this week. It’s six hard uphill miles and 2500′ gain to the Park Boundary. Then another five miles of high meadows and up and down to the campsite below Parker Peak. The Peak is just a ‘run-up’, nothing special, except this year the only water source was a small pond generated by the last bits of a snowfield. The pond edge was laden with tracks of elk, deer, sheep and bear.

In the shadow of the eerie formations of the Hoodoos, I told my companions the story of the driven man who needed to get to Parker Peak (emphasizing Paaarr-ker said in an ominous voice). Based on some observations at the top of Parker, below is what I imagined his story might be….

See my notes on the Basin at the end of the Story…

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Parker Peak

Parker Peak….

I heard it held a mysterious Presence, a palpable vibration, an unmistakeable aura. Where I heard this, I do not remember. But it all began with the dreams.  The first dream was of a mountain made of crystals, a mountain that could heal. On the very summit of the mountain peak I saw, in my dream vision, a large petrified stump. I touched the stump and found its top was broken. I pushed the lid aside to reveal a hole that went deep underground. So I climbed into that dark hole, deeper and deeper, till I was within a maze of tunnels.  Almost spontaneously a little person appeared. I had no fear. It was if I knew this person, yet I’d never seen him before.

“Come, follow me” the little person said. He guided me through the underground passage, and although it was dark, a soft greenish-blue light emanated from his body, illuminating the tunnels. The little man stopped at a shaft of light that shone from an opening above. On the ground before us were bones, big piles of bones. A natural trap cave where animals had fallen inadvertently into from high above.

“Do you know whose bones these are?”

“No” I answered.

“Bones of animals past that once roamed these mountains. You were once here, hunting Short-faced Bears and Cheetahs.”

We continued on till the cave passage opened wide, revealing extensive views of deeply cut valleys and steep ravines.

The little man pointed. “This is the Center of the World, formed by Fire and Ice.”

I looked out over the land. It was dry, smoke was blowing in from different fires. The air was hot.

It was then I awoke in a cold sweat.

Using the Internet as my guide, I came to the conclusion that what I saw that had been formed of Fire and Ice was Yellowstone Park, and my viewpoint was Parker Peak. Parker Peak held a mystery meant for me to solve. Now I had to go there.

_________________

June. I packed up my car and drove the twenty hours from Chicago to Cody. From my research, the shortest route to Parker Peak was from the end of a dirt road called Sunlight. It looked easy from the map, maybe ten miles. I planned on a day hike. I’d take some water and a lunch, hike in an out during the longest day of the year so I had plenty of daylight. Now just to find Sunlight Basin. I inquired at a Cody, WY gas station and they directed me to Chief Joseph Highway. The highway climbed out of the high desert into the mountains.

This must be it. I thought as I approached 9000 feet. I turned onto a dirt road near the top of the summit. I knew Parker Peak was around 10,000. Easy climb in and out I figured. The road ended after a mile and I saw a distinct trail. I parked and began my hike. It was then I saw two locals hanging around a sign that said ‘Wilderness Boundary’.

“Is this the Sunlight Road?” I enquired of them.

“No. Sunlight Road is another seven miles down the mountain.”

I told them I was off to Parker Peak from the end of the road for a day hike.

“You have to get past the Bear Gate, but that’s not open to cars for another month. So you’ll have an extra 5 or 6 miles of hiking to the Hoodoos. Why do you want to go there.”

“Just need to get to Parker Peak.”

“Well, you can’t make it in a day hike. Do you have bear spray with you?”

“Huh? Do I need that?”

“Big grizzly area back there. Lots of other peaks around here that are nicer and accessible now. Why don’t you go to the Beartooths? Or climb some other peaks in the Park? Parker is just a walk-up. Not that interesting.”

“Just gotta get to Parker Peak.” How could I tell them. They just wouldn’t understand the magic of this mountain. “I’ll come back in August.”

It’s been three years since that day in June and I still haven’t made it to Parker. But the dreams keep coming and someday, someday, I just know, I’ll get there.

_______________

At the top of Parker Peak there is a large petrified tree stump. And the summit has rock striations made of clear crystals.

_______________

The Hoodoo Basin is laden with chippings of obsidian flakes everywhere. My friends hiked up Hoodoo Peak, a scramble on talus which I do not like. Then they easily walked the ridge about 1.5 miles to Bootjack Gap, the passage between the Crandall drainage (Papoose trail) and the Park. Large obsidian pieces were scattered all over the ridge. Hoodoo to Sunlight and Miller Creek to Crandall Creek were hard-trodden Indian trails for thousands upon thousands of years. Native peoples traveled to Obsidian Cliff (and other cherished spots for stone to work) in spring to obtain new material for atlatls and later for arrowheads. Just like the deer and elk, they ‘surfed the green’ or followed the green-up, gathering roots and plant material. In the fall, they probably stayed in Hoodoo Basin to gather pine nuts from the Whitebark Pines there.

Today about 70-80% of those Whitebarks are dead, stricken down by beetles. (See photo below). The native peoples are gone, but the grizzlies are not and they are dependent on these nutritious high-fat nuts to make brown fat for the long winter. It was terribly sad to see so many dead trees, and once again made me think about the future fate of the grizzly with a delisting and subsequent hunt so close to being approved.

In addition to obsidian material everywhere, I understand there were at least forty wikiups observed by Superintendent Norris when he visited the Hoodoos or ‘Goblin Land’ as he called it.  These wikiups are no longer standing but still visible. I searched for them but was unable to find any, although I saw one that looked like a possibility. The wood would be down in a pile and very old. According to Orrin and Lorraine Bonney’s classic ‘Guide to the Wyoming Mountains and Wilderness Areas’, in 1880 when Norris and companions explored the Hoodoo area they

…found on the North side of [Parker Peak] a favorite campsite of raiding Indians with its commanding view of all approaches and handy striking distance to the high passes of Crandall Cr. He also found gory remnants of border raids–white folks’ blankets, clothes, china, bedding in & around the 40 rotting lodges. 

In the four days we were in the Basin, we did not see another person. The country was very dry, so this usual summer feedgrounds for elk were barren of elk and deer. Only old scat was around. We did see evidence of one grizzly bear and bighorn sheep. I also had an experience with five Short-eared Owls flying low over my head that rates among my top ten wildlife encounters.

It was an amazing journey. Worth the hard work.

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Park Boundary Line. Looking out into the Lamar Drainage

Hoodoo

Some of the Hoodoos in the Foreground. Hoodoo Peak in the background

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The Headwaters of the Lamar River. Smoke from fires makes the haze.

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Dead Whitebark Pines in the Hoodoos

Grizzly Bears Facing an Uncertain Future with Delisting Around the Corner

I’d like to provide several links for people to educate themselves more on the topic of Grizzly Bears and delisting. Dr. David Mattson is considered one of the leading authorities on Grizzly bear foods, studying bears for over 35 years, over fifteen of which were Yellowstone bears. A recent talk given in Jackson, WY outlines Mattson’s reasons why we are having more conflicts with bears in recent years.

The Interagency Grizzly Bear Team, in their annual report outline states that bear populations have stayed flat since around 2002, yet because they are using new methods of calculating population size, the number they are reporting for GYE bears has risen.  In other words, saying there are 750 (or even 1000) bears in the ecosystem in 2015 doesn’t mean we have increasing amounts of bears, but we are using different methods to figure out that population, which has remained flat since 2002. The Team’s reasoning for this is that the ecosystem is full. Mattson on the other hand shows in this presentation with a few interesting charts that the White Bark Pine losses to beetle kill (over 90% dead in the ecosystem) coincides with a rise in livestock conflicts hence grizzlies bears turning to meat for foods in fall. Notice that the loss of Whitebark coincides with that time period of 2002.

white bark pine bear conflicts chart

Mattson has a similar chart that shows a marked increase in hunter bear conflicts overlapping with diminished food sources, particularly white bark pine. Of course it is known that a good white bark pine season keeps bears up high, and pine cones fluctuate from year to year. But the marked increase coincides with loss of trees in the ecosystem.

Moreover, females who are the progenitor of the species, tend to avoid meat sources because of conflict with boar bears who might kill their cubs. The science indicates that sows with cubs who ate more white bark pine nuts tended to have 3 cubs while meat eating bears tended to have 2 and lose one or even one and lose that cub.

Put it all together, and Mattson’s argument is that first, our bears have flat-lined in population size since 2002, which the Agency Team agrees with. But his reason for the flat-lining isn’t that the ecosystem is full, but the bears are losing their primary food sources and extending out to the fringes of the ecosystem, looking for food sources that get them into human conflicts. 

Mattson’s conclusion is the only way to insure the survival of the Yellowstone grizzly bear is by connecting habitat to bears northward. This would allow for genetic diversity and greater food sources, as well as account for climate change that will certainly change bear food sources further.

He also argues that it takes years to see changes in the population so why not wait 10 more years to consider the delisting argument? After 40 years of protections necessary to increase the population of grizzlies from 125 bears to 700 bears, why rush to delist now? Bears are facing an uncertain future.  This year alone 43 bears were killed in conflicts, most of which were food related deaths. This number will increase for 2015 as hunters begin to go out into the field this fall.

To get a full understanding of what Grizzly bears in our ecosystem are facing, I highly recommend watching this talk.

More information on why it is premature to delist grizzlies can be obtained at this website here.

Grizzlies and their Nasty Image: The Journals of Lewis and Clark

It’s fall, and all I can think about are grizzly bears, so here’s another post.  I’ve written in previous posts about all the bears I’ve seen this season and about delisting issues.  Well, bear sightings continue here in the Upper Clark’s Fork. A few days ago I drove up the dirt road to a drainage called Beem Gulch.  In the spring, I saw tracks of a sow with two cubs of the year, though I never saw the bear. I had a feeling she might be around there now, as bears descend into the lower elevations spring and fall looking for food sources. There were about 4 trailers set up in the drainage, though unoccupied. They were wood cutter’s trailers, working on Forest Service slash pile sales.

I walked up a pretty drainage at road’s end, yet saw no bear sign. I was careful of course. Upon driving back down the pot-holed road, I saw her. The car had spooked them, and she was running with her two young cubs across the sagebrush field. Smart mom, she took them into a gully, mid-way, so they were hidden; then used the arroyo as a corridor.

Grizzly track

Grizzly track

That sighting, I figured, was the 7th grizzly sighting this season, and if you count the number of bears, then that makes 13 grizzly bears I’ve seen.  Normally my tally is zero when hiking or driving around outside of the Park.  All these bears were sighted outside of Yellowstone

Grizzly

On the drive home after seeing these bears, I chatted with the game warden.  He told me there were three boar grizzlies on a dead horse (horse died naturally) up the road, with one bear lying on top of the horse. The warden’s take on grizzlies mirrors the official stance of Wyoming Game and Fish, as well as the Interagency Grizzly Bear Team–that is, the ecosystem is full, there’s no where for these bears to go, so we need to manage (read hunt) them.

I’ve stated my views in other posts regarding the official view, so I don’t need to restate it here.  But I’ve been reading a wonderful book by Paul Schullery called Lewis and Clark Among the GrizzliesSchullery is a careful historian.  He dissects each and every mention and encounter that the Corps had with bears, trying to discern which were black bears and which were grizzlies. He notes that for over 150 years, Lewis & Clark’s journals, along with subsequent articles that sensationalized these encounters, shaped our views of grizzly bears as killers, monsters, Ursus arctos horribilis (note the horribilis that was added). Schullery pauses frequently to ponder how this might have occurred. Wisely, he notes that

  • The expedition was charged with a lot of tasks, though their main one was to find the route to the Pacific. Observing grizzly bears and their habits was not high on their list.
  • Every bear the expedition saw, they shot or tried to shoot. This kind of scenario does not make for observing the natural disposition of grizzly bears.
  • Neither Lewis nor Clark observed the customs Indians had relative to grizzlies, nor did they record any myths. Their only observations were of tribes wearing necklaces of grizzly claws.
  • Depending on how you break it down, the Corps saw between 37 and 62 grizzly bears on their entire journey.  Schullery used the larger number, being very generous in his interpretation. Remember that the Corps were unclear how to note the difference between black and grizzly bears, sometimes referring to grizzlies as ‘white’, ‘brown’, or even ‘variegated’.
  • Schullery notes that these bears were seen in a very narrow corridor that was traveled, and that the Corps killed only two females.  Therefore, most of the bears they saw and killed were males, representing only a tiny portion of the population.  Females with cubs were therefore very cautious.

Great Falls 1880

The most damning excerpt from the L&C journals that has helped create the myth of the ferocious blood-thirsty grizzly, was the Corps encounters during their portage at Great Falls. During that long portage of 18 miles whick took weeks, the Corps killed 6 bears and shot at several others. Lewis himself had an encounter that is the most famous, and widely quoted, of all their grizzly stories. Schullery dissects the Great Falls Bear Crisis.  There were dead bison in the stream below the falls; it was bear mating season; people had been using the Falls area for thousands of years. Perhaps the bears associated humans with carrion, piles of butchered bison at the bison jump described by Lewis on May 29

Great Falls today. When I visited last June, there was virtually no water in the run-off portion as all was diverted into the new generating station to the right.

Just recently the Cody Enterprise published an opinion piece stating grizzly bears will be a problem and threat to humans until they are hunted and can learn from dying. In order to understand this still-persistent view on grizzly bears, I highly recommend this book. This twisted attitude reflects stories citizens were told through re-interpretations of the journals.  Remember, people in the U.S. had never seen nor heard about grizzlies (only black bears lived in the east) till the journals became public. And even today we see how sensationalism, not science, sells!

Scullery ends the book with a beautiful reflection:

Today’s grizzly bears live in a tiny, pathetically restricted fragment of the habitat they occupied when Lewis and Clark met them. When we travel the Lewis and Clark trail we visit a former grizzly bear kingdom now lost under cities, ranches, and the very civilized landscapes that the captains and their president could only dream of…We stand along the Missouri River and where there are now dams and roads and cities we feel a vague longing to see what Lewis and Clark saw. Sometimes we can still see much of what they saw, and we strain to imagine the rest.

Grizzly bears are gone from almost every mlle of the routes traveled by Lewis and Clark. The bears survive only in isolated enclaves—a few mountain sanctuaries–places that at best the captains may have viewed from a hazy distance. The bears were gone long before we were born, but in some achingly vague, intergenerational way, we seem to recall them, and even miss them. In their absence these bears have become even more powerful symbols of the landscape than they were when they still roamed it so confidently. They are symbols not only of something lost, but of something we might decide to have again. Perhaps some day, we wonder, it might be possible to travel at least a few stretches of this immense, generous river and again have the chance Lewis and Clark had–to encounter this terrible, beautiful, unforgettable animal. What a discovery that would be.

COY

Grizzly sow with cubs. Yellowstone

Sparhawk Lake, Beartooths; ATV’s and Grizzly Bears

An old-timer told me about a forest service cabin down at Sparhawk Lake which J.K. Rollinson had stayed in.  “His cowboy boots are still sitting there.”

That I doubted.

J.K. Rollinson is well-known in our little valley.  He was one of the first rangers in Sunlight and wrote a book that included his time here in the early 1900s.  His book, Pony Trails of Wyoming, describes trips to this Beartooth cabin, peppered with stories about dangerous lightening storms in the high country and leading scientists to collect grasshoppers in Grasshopper Glacier.

I wanted to see if the cabin still existed so I drove to the dirt pullout to Sawtooth Lake across from the Island Lake turnout.  The road is excellent for the first 1.5 miles, then turns to a rocky mess.  I parked and walked the final 2.5 miles to Sawtooth Lake.

Sawtooth Lake, Beartooths

Sawtooth Lake, Beartooths

It just so happened that the Northwest Wyoming ORV club had arranged an outing with the Shoshone Forest Service last Thursday to look at a possible loop trail extension from Sawtooth over to the Morrison Jeep Trail.  The Forest Service, in their 20 year plan, has promised three new ATV loop trails. I couldn’t go on that trip and I wanted to see the road conditions for myself, so I included it in my walk-through. The Forest Service and ORVer’s had driven the road (of course).  I feel you can see much more if you are on foot.

The day was lovely and there was no one on the road–not one ATV or hiker. As I approached Sawtooth, I saw a parked car above the lake.  At the lake I heard gunshots. People were target practicing on a beach at the lake.  I hoped they weren’t shooting in my direction.  I headed opposite from them, in the direction of the adjacent Sparhawk Lake.

The road ends at Sawtooth in a large turnout, but I found an illegal ATV use trail that was headed around the lake perimeter towards my destination.  I followed it until the thick trees around Sparhawk prevented the ATVer from going further.

This is an illegal ATV road that follows the northwest boundary of the lake

This is an illegal ATV road that follows the northwest boundary of the lake

Heading through the trees, I quickly came to the cabin, at least what remained of it. And the Forest Service had placed a nice plaque there. No cowboy boots though.

Sparhawk Forest Service Cabin built in 1908

Sparhawk Forest Service Cabin built in 1908

Another view of the cabin

Another view of the cabin

Plaque on rock

Plaque on rock

Close up of plaque

Close up of plaque

I wondered why they didn’t build the cabin at the adjacent, and very large, Sawtooth Lake.  Here’s a photo of pretty little Sparhawk Lake.

Sparhawk Lake

Sparhawk Lake

I made my way back to Sawtooth and began the return walk.  Less than 1/4 mile from the lake, by a small meadow surrounded by trees, I heard a very strange sound.  A deep and sonorous honking was repeatedly coming from the forest. I stopped, hoping to glimpse what was making these strange noises.  Suddenly a big grizzly was running along the forest edge followed by a cub of the year. Seconds later another cub, and after a minute another cub!  Something had spooked them to run down towards the lake.  I was far enough away, with the wind in my face, that I wasn’t worried. Here’s a link to a black bear cub making a similar noise. Hearing this, I assumed the sound I heard was from the last little cub who became separated from mom.

This area where the ORV club wants a loop trail is in the PCA (Protected Conservation Area for grizzly bears) and with my sighting, it’s obviously a critical area for these bears. What’s proven is that traffic, especially these loud machines, is very disruptive for bears. A loop trail will bring more traffic here. As of now, people are camping right next to the lake creating fire rings. There are no bear boxes to store food in, and car/ATV campers invariably bring more trash in and tend to not pack it all out (or throw it in their campfire rings).

Young grizzly in the meadows by my house

Young grizzly in the meadows by my house

This year we’ve already had several bears destroyed because they were food adapted. There have been stories of restaurants next to, or even in the Park, dumping their grease outside. Bears that find any food rewards graduate to problem bears which become dead bears.

I’m not necessarily against this area looping with the Morrison Jeep road.  By Sawtooth Lake, it’s only less than 1/4 mile to loop the two roads.  But as ATV’s become more prevalent, their riders need to take responsibility for self-policing illegal off-shoots and keeping a clean camp.  The intense noise factor needs to be considered.  In addition, taking your vehicle into the back country and shooting off guns should be made illegal unless it’s hunting season.

We could have many more places like Yellowstone.

Living in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, adjacent to Yellowstone National Park, I enjoy the full suite of wildlife (minus bison, another story…) at my doorstep.  It’s not that I’m seeing large megafauna daily, yet if I hike around my valley or the nearby Beartooth Mountains, I see their evidence.

People who visit Yellowstone expect and hope to catch a glimpse of wolves, bears or other wildlife.  But Yellowstone is a protected habitat, free of human habitation.So what is it like to live with these animals in your neighborhood?

Today was a hot day in the valley.  When it’s hot, I like to take a half hour drive up to the Beartooth Mountains towards the summit via highway 120.  Although mosquitos are out, the air is cool and pleasant.  I took a hike along what’s known as the Morrison Jeep trail–an ATV road closed until July 15 that runs from the Beartooth Plateau all the way to the Clark’s Fork Canyon in the desert. Wildflowers are starting to abound.

Marsh Marigold

Marsh Marigold

 

Kalmia, used by some tribes to commit suicide as it is deadly poisonous

Kalmia, used by some tribes to commit suicide as it is deadly poisonous

And Koda had a great time in all the lakes.

In the Beartooths

Yet what makes this place so unique is this:

Wolf tracks

Wolf tracks

And the signs to watch out for grizzly bears.

Front and back grizzly tracks.

Front and back grizzly tracks.

Because this is a ‘road’–suitable only for ATVs–and it is closed now, few people were out.  I saw one group of returning backpackers.  They told me they saw two wolves this morning, one black and one grey, in the meadow.  Part of the Beartooth wolf pack I told them.

I recently visited northeast Wyoming and Devils Tower in The Black Hills.  It’s a gorgeous area and a striking sacred spot.  At the Devils Tower visitor’s center, I read a story of an Indian man that was interviewed in the 1930s.  He recalled coming to Devils Tower (known as Bear’s Lodge to the tribes) as a young boy in the 1850s.  At that time, he said, there were wolves there.  Yet no longer.

Devils Tower, WY

Devils Tower, WY

The United States has many beautiful parks and national forests, yet only the Yellowstone Ecosystem is complete with a full suite of native wildlife that once was abundant everywhere.  After living here, everywhere else feels bereft.

Grizzlies too are killed for cattle predation on public lands

I am not advocating that more people move here.  On the contrary.  I am advocating that we work to have these kinds of complete ecosystems in many other parts of the country where it makes sense.  Grizzlies, for instance, occupy less than 2% of their original habitat.

Like many animals that are losing their habitat, we too are losing ours.  How preposterous is it that a person must fly or drive thousands of miles just to view these animals as well as experience an un-fragmented ecosystem; even though there is plenty of suitable habitat for wolves, grizzlies, and other carnivores in forests and Parks in places like Utah, Colorado, and other lands in the West.

After living here for eight years, I’ve come to understand that scenery isn’t ‘everything’ and in fact, it’s nothing without the wildlife that was meant to inhabit it.  Without them, those beautiful lands feel empty.Rocky Mountain Bighorn sheep

Practically, what does that mean?  First, a change in attitudes. In larger landscapes, we can live with these large predators.  Yes, we’ll have to adapt with our garbage, bird seed, chickens, and other small livestock, but it can be done. Changing our attitude includes changing our hunting and trapping laws to be inclusive of these predators, instead of the outdated model of ‘more ungulates, less predators’.

Second, the livestock industry must change and use predator friendly methods of control where possible, including the realization that livestock losses on public lands are ‘at your own risk’.  Public lands are all wildlife have to make their living on. Bears, wolves, coyotes and other wildlife should not be shot on public lands if depredation occurs.  It should be the responsibility of the cattle rancher to ride the range with their cattle, stock them appropriately with perhaps a bull and mixed age groups.  Sheep need dogs watching them as well as a human shepherd.

People who live with bears and wolves and cougars daily know that these animals are not ‘behind every tree‘, waiting ‘to get you‘.  If they were, then they could easily kill a person.  Instead, they avoid people; make their living mostly at night; and seem to only get into trouble when people are leaving food out or not taking care of their livestock.

Having spent a lot of time in the Southwest, I would love to see wolves restored in that area.  But the year-round coyote trapping and bounty needs to stop first.  The northeast corner of Wyoming is the corridor in which cougars can expand eastward, but the hunting quota is either too high, or unlimited! That is just two examples of attitudinal and practical changes that need to be considered.

Once you’ve lived in a place like the Yellowstone Ecosystem, not only is there hardly anyplace like it on Earth, but you will want to restore your home, where ever that is, to its natural balance.

 

 

Fall is a’coming

The Clark’s Nutcrackers are congregating, waiting for the Limber Pine cones to ripen.  You can tell they’ve arrived as they are a noisy bunch.  As Jays, they are super-intelligent birds.  Every year they cache tens of thousands of seeds and are able to memorize the location of their stashes.  Clark Nutcrackers have a distinctive ‘wing-whirl’, which is a loud noise they make when flying.  Although the pine cones aren’t ready yet, they seem anxious, waiting for just the right moment to steal the seeds away from the waiting red squirrels who also cache the cones for winter food.  I’ve been watching the birds  eating insects while they while away their time.

This year is not only a bad cone year for White Bark pines, but the Limber Pine cone production is  down as well.  This bodes poorly for bears.  But the good news is that with all the rain we’ve had, the berry crop is up.  The chokecherry crop is one of the best in years and I’m waiting with my trail cam for some bears to spend time stripping the berries off the branches before the birds get to them.  The bears seem to know the exact time when they’re ripe, and come around for that week only. And with all the beetle kill, the forests are opening up and changing.  I’ve seen new understories packed with chokecherry bushes–all full of cherries.  

Grizzly bears evolved in the plains.  They can’t climb trees like their forest adapted cousins, the black bears, and their massive claws were meant to dig out roots.  Pushed from their native habitat into the mountains, they prefer burn areas and meadows, places that emulate their native past.  Our mountain forests are rapidly changing with all the downed timber, creating good habitat for the Great Bear.

Young bear yesterday coming to look for berries

Young bear yesterday coming to look for berries

The little forest next to my house is a perfect example and a fine study area of a rapidly evolving landscape.  With seven springs emerging from the limestone base, there is sufficient water ground water.  The  old growth Englemann Spruce are dead and dying, falling to the ground and leaving large openings where new chokecherry bushes, dogwoods, raspberries, gooseberries, and aspens are rapidly emerging.  This is an area we specifically asked the Forest Service NOT to put in their logging plans.

In contrast, the lands adjacent to the springs are private and were logged by the homeowners through the State Forestry Office (who were concerned about fire protective barriers) 5 years ago.  Approximately 90% of the trees were cut or were blow downs.  This land too has aspens, gooseberries, and grasses–but much of it has a very high ratio, maybe 10:1, of invasives, particularly Canada Thistle.  The combination of moisture, sun, and rapid disturbance provided a perfect storm for the invasives.  The invasives rob moisture and space for other natives that might get a stronghold.  In the non-logged side, the lesson is clear:   slower is better and the forest can naturally restore itself with little interference by man.