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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.

Grizzly Bears in the News

Grizzly bears have been in the news a lot.  On August 13 a seasonal employee, Lance Crosby, was hiking a short loop trail by Lake in Yellowstone National Park when he was attacked, killed, and partially consumed by a female grizzly with two cubs.  Although Crosby was 1. off-trail and 2. not carrying bear spray, there is absolutely no need to blame the hiker.  Possibly even with bear spray Crosby might not have survived or prevented an attack, especially if he came upon the bear at extremely close range.

A grizzly bear was recently rummaging around trash for food just five miles north of Cody. Since the bear had been moved for breaking into trash before, this bear was euthanized. People were talking about how close to town the bear was.

Heart Mountain, a prominent feature outside the Cody area, has been seeing more bears than ever this year–something like 5 grizzlies have been spotted on the mountain. Heart Mountain was part of grizzly bears native original habitat and where one of the last bears was killed in the early 1900s.

A recent headline in the Billings Gazette states that more livestock was killed by bears in Montana than in 2014.

Grizzly Bear

All this news comes on the heels of the USF&W preparing to announce whether they are going to delist the bear this year.  These kinds of headlines puts bears in the crosshairs.  But let’s take a breath and consider the whole picture.

The states have been putting a lot of pressure on the feds for quite a while to delist. There will be a lot of money in tags for grizzly bear hunts and the states, already experiencing declining revenue with decreased hunters, are itching for those dollars.  One writer writes in the Enterprise “Grizzly Bear attacks will continue as long as species remain protected”.  But what does that mean?  Dead bears are taught a lesson?  Grizzly bears are normally solitary animals except for moms with cubs.  Unlike wolves who might see pack members killed by hunters, bears will just be dead without bear company to learn from.  Black bears are hunted and I still see them.  In fact, in Wyoming, black bear baiting is legal in most areas.  Does baiting bears mean live bears will no longer seek human garbage?  Of course not.

If grizzlies are delisted, we’ll see images such as this one

This article in the Cody Enterprise sums up the arguments for and against delisting pretty well.  Pro delisting: bears are above the delisting quota of 550 (officially the present count is 756 but it seems that the numbers being thrown around liberally are 1000 bears.  Bears are hard to count because they are solitary) and it’s time. Although Whitebark pines are 90% dead in the ecosystem, bears are creative and can find other food sources.  Con delisting: Those numbers are not accurate because bears are moving farther out looking for other food sources as their primary fall fattening-up food, pine nuts, is diminished.  Climate change is unpredictable as to what will be happening with the ecosystem’s food sources, and so bears need to be able to have connective corridors to roam north–for food and for genetic connectivity. The delisting plan does not account for connectivity but confines grizzlies to a virtual zoo in the GYE PCA.

Grizzly bear

Grizzly bear

I have several thoughts here:

Just looking at this year’s fall foods for bears, we’ve had strange weather.  Lots of spring rains instead of snows made for good grass for ungulates, but a poor berry crop. My chokecherries are having the worst crop since I’ve been living here for 10 years and I’ve noticed the huckleberry, buffalo berries and raspberry crops are very poor.  In addition, there are almost no cones on my limber pines, an alternative crop when Whitebark crops are poor. The transects done this year on the Whitebark pine crop indicates a poor year according to Dustin Lasseter, who spoke with me at a Landowner’s meeting in early August.  He’d accompanied the IGBT checking a transect.  The 2015 report will be available here when published.

According to Doug Peacock, around the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, the most important fat-containing foods for bears in the fall are moths and whitebark pine nuts.  Boar bears will eat more meat than females, as they are able to displace females and younger bears.  Fat is essential for hibernation.  Without whitebark, or the limber pine nut to substitute (Limber pine nuts are smaller, but nutritious and high in fat.  They are stolen from squirrel middens just as the whitebark nuts are), where are these bears going to get enough fall fat?

Grizzly mom and cubsChris Servheen, the biologist who helped bring the bear back from the brink says ““Bears will tend to move around more, looking for alternative foods, and movement usually increases conflicts”.  But Servheen goes on to say:

Even with a poor berry crop, however, Servheen said grizzly diets can include hundreds of different foods, so the bears still have plenty of options available. While huckleberries can provide an easy source of calories as the bears begin to fatten up for their winter sleep, they will also find roots, tubers, moths, ants, hornet nests and a variety of other berries such as those from hawthorn and mountain ash.

According to Peacock, none of these can substitute for fat-rich pine nuts in the GYE.

But whitebark pine in the Yellowstone park area is nearly gone: No amount of science or management will bring the trees back in our lifetime. With whitebark pine nuts eliminated from grizzly bear diets — and this seems to be the case — grizzlies in this island ecosystem will be severely stressed. The bears could be on their way out.

Grizzly bear

Second, as Peacock says in the linked article above, bears will need room to roam to connect with alternative food sources as well as linkage to other bears.  This one issue addressed may save, in the long run, the grizzly bear population in the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem.

Third, people and bears can co-exist and it is up to us humans to make that effort.  In short, that means protecting food sources such as chickens, grain, and human garbage.  The bear that had to be killed near Cody was trash adapted.  Maybe those residences never expected a bear that close, but it’s time we all did. Take for instance the black bears of the California Sierras. They have completely changed their habits because backpackers are now required to use a bear canister.  If you don’t, then a ticket is issued.  Bear canisters can even be rented for next to nothing from the Park or Forest Service in the Sierras.

Cattle and sheep that are on Forest Service allotments in sensitive bear corridors of the GYE, such as the Green River basin, should be reduced in herd size or eliminated, and a range rider needs to be with them.  Those animals lost to bears are already being compensated at 3 times market value.

Lastly, we need new stories about bears, not just horror stories.  We need to re-imagine what it’s like living with this awesome creature and realize we are blessed to live in the last remaining place in the lower 48 where these bears still exist–less than 2% of their former range.  We can give them at least that little bit.  We’ve spent the last forty years restoring their population–from 125 bears to around 750 bears.  Delisting the bear at this critical juncture is too premature, as we are just starting to feel and understand the forces of climate change.  Once delisted, hunting will take place. Hunting an animal as smart as the Great Apes just for trophy is close to a crime. The world was up in arms over trophy hunting a lion named Cecil in Africa.  Why would this magnificent animal be so different?

Young grizzly bear

Young grizzly bear

Techno danger for Yellowstone Wildlife

I’ve become aware of a new concern for Yellowstone Ecosystem wildlife.  A few weeks ago a friend visited and told me this story.  He’s been coming to YNP for over 40 years and is a responsible person who knows how to handle himself properly around wildlife in the park.

In January we were driving through Lamar Valley when we encountered some bison crossing the road.  We stopped the car and turned off the engine to let them pass.  I usually never film with my phone, but for some reason I began filming these bison.  Suddenly one large male turned on us and attacked the car, causing $2000 worth of damage.  All recorded on my phone.  I sent the movie to some friends, then posted it on Youtube.  Overnight it went viral. A few months later I received a call from a company in England that wanted to buy the video and pay me royalties. Never in my wildest dreams would I have thought this would happen.  Apparently these companies purchase videos and sell them as ‘stock’ clips.

My friend wasn’t looking for fame or money, and his behavior around these bison was completely appropriate.  Yet his story clued me into why we might be seeing so many crazy, careless, and inappropriate behavior around YNP wildlife.

Bison close to car

Take this video of a young grizzly bear ‘attacking’ a car on the Beartooth highway.

 

It just so happens that I saw this same bear a few weeks ago and wrote about it here.

 

Young bear

Young bear

This same bear was frequenting the Beartooth Butte campground.  He and his young sister were captured and moved.  The WG&F Bear biologist told me that he’d never seen bear behavior like this before and that obviously these bears had been fed.  Just this week I noticed a note from a Forest Service ranger left on a parked truck at Beartooth Butte trailhead. It said they’d had to confiscate food left in the bed of the truck which might attract bears.

But my point is not that people are feeding bears.  When I saw this video I asked myself  “Why didn’t these people honk their horn, or just drive away?”

My answer came yesterday when I saw a piece of the same video again, but this time on ABC news online.  So did these people keep filming that bear, instead of doing the intelligent thing of honking their horn and scaring it off, just to have a ‘viral‘ video, and maybe make some money selling it?

This year there have been 5 bison attacks on people who came too close.  One women was taking a selfie of herself and her daughter with a bison in the background.  She was mauled by the bison, yet lucky for her not injured badly. Of course, this was simply a stupid act, but several days later I saw her interviewed on ABC.  Did she receive money for this?  From the attached link, you can see her selfie is owned by ABC.  Even if she didn’t receive money and just had her moment of TV fame, doesn’t this media attention only encourage more stupid acts that harm wildlife?

Here’s a story of a man attempting to touch a bison’s nose in Yellowstone Park last week.  

He had someone photograph him doing it.  Will he now sell his photo?

Whether these acts are for money, or just to say “we did it”, they are endangering wildlife.  Feeding bears or encouraging them to keep looking for food inside a car is a death sentence for that bear.  Those people should have used bear spray on that young bear. Then they would have taught that bear a lesson he’ll never forget.

Taking selfies with bison or other stupid acts with bison compromises years of hard work on a new Park bison plan which would allow these animals to migrate outside the Park boundary in winter months.

Our techno media-centric society needs to be educated in how these acts are a great disservice not to the public, but to our wildlife.

Keep our wilderness wild!

Keep our wilderness wild!

 

 

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

ReWilding the Beartooths

It’s happening.  Grizzlies are re-inhabiting the Beartooth Mountains.

grizzly warning sign in the greater yellowstone area

Grizzly warning sign in the lower elevations. Now bears are returning to the high elevation Beartooths

In the last few years, Grizzly activity has increased along the flanks of the Beartooth Front, the southeastern base that nestles the community of Red Lodge and the long north and eastern drainages where berries and other fall foods are abundant. Red Lodge is now getting its share of grizzly bears. But still there were few reports of bear activity in the high alpine forests.

Certainly bears have used the lower drainages on the west side of the Beartooths like Crazy Creek,  Soda Butte, or Lily Lake.  These are low elevations that provided a corridor through Cooke City into and out of the Park.

Years ago I heard of a sow who lost her young cub in the spring to an automobile.  She bawled for a week around the Clay Butte/Beartooth Lake area, looking for her cub.  Yet although I’ve backpacked frequently, and spend a lot of time in the summers day-hiking the western Wyoming side every year, I’ve never seen any bear sign–tracks or scat.

The Beartooths still offer bears great habitat.  The excessive moisture brings a lot of plant food opportunities in the way of grasses, forbs and roots.  And they still have healthy stands of White Bark pines.  White Bark pines in the GYE are 90% dead.

Avalanche Peak, Yellowstone.  Dead whitebark pines

Avalanche Peak, Yellowstone. Dead whitebark pines

The exception to that rule are the Wind River Mountains and the Beartooths.

White Bark pines in the Winds.  Healthy stands

White Bark pines in the Winds. Healthy stands

And those Marmots have traditionally been a favorite protein for bears.

Marmot

Marmot

So when I began my hike today from Hauser Lake down to Stockade Lake, I figured that there were no bears around these parts–especially so high.

Losekamp Lake (around 9600′) sits at the base of Tibbs Butte (10,676′).  Grizzly bear watchers will tell you that these bears mysteriously disappear around the 4th of July.  For years no one knew where they went, until a pilot flying over high talus slopes in the mid-80s saw bears congregating there.  These bears were taking advantage of Army Cutworm moths who feed on alpine plants and summer here.  My understanding is that the Beartooths, although high and abundant in these talus slopes, do not have moth sites, although the Wind Rivers does.

Losekamp and Stockade lakes are rarely visited, being on the less popular southern side of the highway.  I was alone on my walk.  Koda and I made our way down to Stockade Lake, where I tooled around for a bit looking for an elusive Sheep Eater trap I was told was once there.

Stockade at stockade lake

Stockade at stockade lake

Stockade Lake

Stockade Lake, Beartooths, WY

With little wind and mosquitos too thick for a lunch break, we headed back towards Losekamp lake.  Koda a bit ahead, went off the trail about 10′ to smell something behind a boulder.  All of a sudden he growled–a sure sign of an animal he got scared of–and I looked up to see a sleepy bear rise from the boulder.  I quickly called Koda back, and grabbed my bear spray.  We stopped for a moment to access.  The bear, surprised and probably a bit scared himself, immediately began eating, displacing his fear to food.  He seemed sleepy and not about to run away, nor be aggressive.  He pondered us.

Young bear

Young bear

Grizzly bear

A young grizzly, probably just kicked out this year, I did wonder if his mama was around.  Lucky for us she was no where to be seen.  I gave the bear a big berth, going off and around the trail, while talking to him gently, apologizing for waking him up.

Most grizzly encounters end this way, with the bear usually running off. A few weeks ago around my area, Koda alerted me to a grizzly that was also sleeping by the trail, awakened by our presence.  Koda kept by my side, and the griz, about 200′ away, pondered us for a moment, then ran off.  Dogs will alert you and keep you safe if they are well-mannered and under good voice control.  A dog that runs all over the hills and is not very responsive poses a grave danger for a person, as the dog might bring the bear back to you in his fear, with the grizzly following.   The best book to read for safety with grizzlies is Hiking with Grizzlies by Tim Rubbert, or watch online The Edge of Eden: Living with Grizzlies with Charlie Russell and observe Charlie’s body posture when dealing with bears and using bear spray.  Stay away from those books about Grizzly attacks.  It’s like reading a book about fatal car accidents instead of actually learning how to drive safely.

Robin egg, hatched

Robin egg, hatched

Upon returning to the car at the trailhead, I stopped at the Top of the World Store to deliver some of my Wild Excellence books.  I told Kristi Milam, the owner, about my bear experience and she told me there’s been a lot more sightings this year than ever before.

One other note on the Beartooths:  it’s becoming an excellent place to possibly see, or hear, wolves.  I’ve been seeing tracks of the Beartooth pack around this same area for weeks, as well as Clay Butte and lower elevations like Crazy Creek drainage.  Wolves were spotted up at Top Lake just weeks ago in the meadows. Elephant's head

With Grizzly Bears and wolves returning to the Beartooths, they are finally re-wilding.  Carry bear spray and be safe.

Spring, Grizzly tracking, and What’s up with Delisting

It’s spring and that means the bears are out.  But so is everyone else. Pups are born and need to be feed; elk are calving; birds are nesting. It’s a busy time and a great time to go into the Park.  There you can also see the bison babies.

But here in my valley right next to Yellowstone, all the same activity is taking place, just a tad more hidden.

Coyote relaxing before she goes mousing again

Coyote relaxing before she goes mousing again

Young bull moose

Young bull moose

Sandhill Crane

Sandhill Crane

Ruddy Duck with Horned Grebes

Ruddy Duck with Horned Grebes

I live in a ‘drop off’ place for bears that get into trouble.  Bear trouble around here always means trouble that people make for bears like not putting up their food stuff correctly, or not watching their stock so calves or lambs are killed.  The Interagency Bear Management Team drops bears off here hoping they will go into the Park.  Usually they ‘home’ back to where they came from; but because the Agency has been moving them around for so long, all the drainages around here are already occupied by other bears.

The spring is when bears hang around down low as they follow the seasonal warm-up. They spend time eating grass, or, if they can find it, winter kills, and dig for roots. Hiking at this time of year here in the valley it’s inevitable that you will see grizzly tracks and it’s worth knowing what they look like and how to identify them.  For instance, the other day I hiked a drainage and saw what appeared to be a single boar grizzly roaming that area.  Another drainage nearby revealed a sow and a two year old–a combination I definitely needed to be watchful of.  It seems like every hike either you are ‘following’ a bear or maybe the bear is ‘following’ you.  Yet keep in mind that grizzly and black bears are mindful of their own business and are not looking for an encounter with a human.  The best advice is to be alert, awake, aware.  Carry bear spray and know how to use it quickly. Take your time in the woods–no power walking or headphones.  Stop every so often and look around like a deer might.

Bear tracks are easy to identify–they look a lot like human footprints, but bears have their big toe opposite than humans and walk pigeon-toed.  Telling the difference between a grizzly and a black bear takes more practice and is not always a certain thing.  The Palmisciano method is the recommended technique, working only on front tracks.

Jim Halfpenny says if you have a good, clean track, it is very accurate. But he also notes that ‘anyone who says it is always easy has not done much tracking’.

Since I.D.ing that the print is a bear is easy, what takes practice and is much more pertinent is being able to pick out a track when it’s very faint.  With practice, I find that bear prints are so distinguishable that they are probably the easiest to pick out even when hard to see.  Here are a few examples.

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

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

This one is easy of course.  The next one isn’t so hard but you could miss it in the puddle.

Bear print in a puddle

Bear print in a puddle

The puddle print is a perfect example of how difficult the Palmisciano method can be, especially with just one print.  The above print appears to be a black bear, but since I was following this bear for about a mile on a dirt track, I had other prints that were much more distinct.  I also know the area is frequented by grizzlies and not blacks.  So the above print, although it appears like a black bear print, is actually the front print of a grizzly.

Below prints are pretty easy too.  Note the back foot is in front of the smaller front foot. That’s a typical gait for a bear called an amble.

Can you see these two bear prints, front and back?

Can you see these two bear prints, front and back?

Now look at this one.  Koda has stepped on part of it and mostly the metatarsal pad is what is strong.  If you look to the top of the photo you can barely make out his left front foot.

Faint grizzly print

One saying trackers have is that it’s not the track you can see, but the next track that you cannot see that teaches you how to track.  Keeping that in mind, follow a bear’s footprints and measure or use a stick to see the distance between right and left tracks. Soon you will come upon a track that is not visible, but with the stick as a measure you will know where it is.  Study that ‘print’ and soon it jump out at you.  After a while of doing this, you’ll find yourself walking along and then ‘see’ a print that seems invisible to others.  Seeing that print might just keep you safe as it will heighten your awareness and let you know there’s a grizzly in town.

Koda shows the size of this bear scat

Koda shows the size of this bear scat

Grizzlies are ‘on the chopping block’ to be delisted.  The IGBT and Sally Jewell are itching to return their management to the states. Once that happens, they will be hunted.

I disagree with delisting for a wide variety of reasons.  In the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem (NCDE) which is basically the area around Glacier National Park, there are approximately 750 grizzly bears.  In the Greater Yellowstone Area (GYE) there are about the same.  But the connecting corridors in-between have few to no bears.

NCDE bears can connect for genetic diversity up into Canada.  But how can our bears here, in the GYE, connect?  Studies have shown that without any infusion of new genes, these GYE bears will eventually die out.

When grizzlies were listed back in 1975, there were about 120 bears in the GYE.  It has taken over 40 years to get to this point where we have over 700 bears.  If hunting begins, the ‘easy’ bears, at the edges of the Ecosystem, will be killed.  Those are the bears that would connect north with their cousins.

And more importantly, living with bears and seeing how intelligent they are, I cannot see how we can hunt them.  Like the tribes who are united against delisting, I have come to feel a powerful spirit connection with grizzlies.

Please read my op-ed below that appeared in the Powell Tribune a few weeks ago.  I tell the story of ‘The Woman Who Married a Bear’ and how we are like that woman today.

Patten Guest Column_5.5.15

What is base line?

Driving the road early morning, looking for wildlife, gives me time to ponder questions like–why is it I see grizzly bears during the daytime in Yellowstone National Park vs. where I live just 20 miles east of the Park where they are basically nocturnal?  Bears have not been hunted outside the Park since 1975, and there are plenty of them in my valley.  Yet bears in my wild valley, like all wildlife, avoid the most unpredictable top predator–Man.

Until the hunt began two years ago in Wyoming, I used to see wolves.  In the winter, I’d see them on kills they made near the dirt road.  In the summer hiking in my valley, I had many close encounters with wolves, none of them eliciting fear.  It was obvious they were simply curious.  But since the hunt, they are no longer curious and they are no longer visible.  A good thing if they want to stay alive.

Yearling pup

Yearling pup

Today’s wildlife, and especially predators, are basically nocturnal or crepuscular, feeding, moving, hunting when Man is asleep.  I have to ask:  Has it always been like this?

Reading the journals of Lewis & Clark, they describe seeing herds of bison, wolves, grizzly bears and coyotes in the middle of the day going about their business.

“…we scarcely see a gang of buffaloe without observing a parsel of those faithfull shepherds [wolves] on their skirts in readiness to take care of the mamed & wounded”

Buffalo in Lamar Valley

Beaver, considered today to be nocturnal, were easily seen during the daytime in the early 1800’s.  A buffalo calf, unfamiliar with humans, followed Lewis around.  Game was “very abundant and gentle”.

“Immence quantities of game in every direction around us as we passed up the river, consisting of herds of Buffaloe, Elk, and Antelopes with some deer and woolves.”

According to Lewis’ account, when the presence of Man is minimized, prey and predator dance together, during the daytime.

WInter elk herd at dusk

When we study the nature, movements, and habits, of today’s wildlife, how can we know what is baseline?  What are their natural rhythms?

Coyote

Coyote during the daytime in Yellowstone National Park

Wildlife in the Park are confined to a virtual zoo, yet they have not been hunted for over 100 years [on the other hand, they are still being controlled.  For example, bison are under an agreement to be kept to around 3000 animals.  When they leave the Park in winter, they are killed to reduce their numbers.] Wildlife outside the Park are hunted and so, particularly the vilified predators, are rarely seen, moving among the shadows of the night.

Wildlife that live around cities, such as raccoons, coyotes, foxes–what we might call mesopredators–also avoid humans by wandering the streets when the humans are asleep.

Before 1492, New World numbers were estimated to be around 54 million peoples.  The pre-European native impact on the landscape reflected the cumulative effects of a growing population over the previous 15,000 years or more.  European entry into the New World abruptly reversed this trend. The decline of native American populations was rapid and severe, the biggest genocide ever. Old World diseases were the primary killer.  In the basin of Mexico, for instance, the population dropped from 1.6 million in 1519 to 180,000 in 1607 (89 percent); and in North America from 3.8 million in 1492 to 1 million in 1800 (74 percent).

So when Lewis & Clark came West in 1805, were they seeing wildlife baseline? Or just the result of a diminished native population? North American native peoples had their own rise and fall of civilizations–Cahokia, Ancestral Pueblo Culture, Poverty Point, and many others that were as equally sophisticated as the Aztecs or Mayans.  What were wildlife interactions during those times when many ancient peoples in the Americas lived in cities? Was wildlife again moving nocturnally?  Were they being hunted out?

Poverty Point artists rendition

What is baseline?  What is the natural rhythm for elk, or wolves, or grizzly bears? Today’s wildlife biologists use observation methods unknown in the past–GPS collars, trail cameras, plane flyovers, computer mapping–all very sophisticated.  But the interactions amongst predator-prey species are probably dictated more by human pressures than by each other.

When we postulate new wildlife theories, such as “The Landscape of Fear“,  what exactly are we observing?  Certainly not what Lewis observed in 1803 when wolves, coyotes, elk, deer and bison all traveled together–wolves following on the outside of these large herds.  New theories enlarge The Landscape of Fear to include not only top-down but bottom-up where the bottom has to do with beavers providing the habitat for willows and aspen rather than just elk avoiding drainages.  And scientists acknowledge that baseline is a moving target.

And so the answers to these questions will always be uncertain.  One thing I can easily observe–wildlife is more afraid of Man than they are of any other predator.  That, I believe, is an unfortunate thing.  Writer Mary Beck says in her book Seven Half-Miles from Home:

This one species has contrived to make himself feared and hated by most other creatures.  Since this fact is rubbed into my consciousness day after day by many creatures with whom I would be friends, I grow sensitive and ashamed of being one of such feared and hated beings.

 

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