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Fishers, Neo-Cortex, The Killer Claw. What wasn’t in Ghostwalker.

What didn’t get into my new book Ghostwalker: Tracking a Mountain Lion’s Soul through Science and Story? A lot of fascinating information trackers, researchers, and others told me just couldn’t squeeze into the narrative. Here are some excerpts from interviews with trackers and a researcher I interviewed.

From Jim Sullivan, Sonoma County Tracker:

badger tracks dune slack

Our language causes us to think that when you say something you really ‘have’ it. It’s always in flux. I’ve studied lots of science, and one thing that’s really important to understand is that things don’t follow laws. Laws are like a grid we put on it in order to understand what’s happening. Not necessarily the way it is, it’s how it moves.

I’ll tell you a little about my teaching in my class. I teach a traditional native  style tracking. The native trackers tracked in sacred time and I started asking myself what that meant and what their spiritual life was like. What I understand about it is to make it into a spiritual practice and a meaningful part of your life, you got to look at tracking as a metaphor. So all the different things you do in tracking actually took place at a time when our neo-cortex was forming 2 million years ago. Our brain is designed to work that way because it came into being in order to solve tracking problems. You know how in tracking you have the four views? You have the eagle’s view, then you have the standing view, the kneeling view, and you are also instructed to go around the object so you can see it from different lights. That’s a metaphor to learning anything. A way of expressing it is that you have to look at everything from all the different sides. Most people tend to have kind of a laser focus. They know one version of it real well and then they speak with authority about it. But you’re not really an authority until you know all the main opinions. So that’s how I look at tracking. Even applying that to mountain lions. Things change depending upon your point of view, and also your presence and also other presences. When you make statements about wolves are a certain way, bobcats are a certain way, you have to do that, but it’s just a grid you’re putting on what the animals are actually doing. Takes the edge off it.

Matt Nelson told me how they set traps and tracked on Mark Elbroch’s Colorado study:

3TrishCarney_PUC_092817_G7A5514-2sm

It was pretty neat. We would set these traps where the cat had to set its foot exactly where you wanted it. It would jerk a little cable snare tight around its wrist and the cat was stuck there. One of the neat things about these methods nowadays is they have transmitters on them, both cage traps and snares. So as soon as that animal was captured, we’d get a signal on our radio and we would hustle in there and minimize the time that animal was trapped. Those were the three methods: Hounds, cage traps and snares.

The sooner we could get cameras into a kill, the more information we could get. We’d try and recognize the GPS data. We got pretty good; we knew the cat was on a kill the very next morning. We’d hike in there real quick. Typically you never saw the cat. But what we started doing was we started sneaking in. Real quietly and just trying to see them. And sure enough, we started seeing them. We’d watch a mama creep out with kittens and sneak away from us. Then we’d go back to the GPS data, and you’d see she had walked out a little ways, wait for us to leave, then walk right back down to their kill, the next hour. GPS collars are very accurate within a meter, but hand-held ones are not that good. Every time we walked into a kill was a tracking adventure. We’d find where the animal came in, and try to read the story of the kill as best we could depending upon what kind of sign there was. Then we’d piece it all together amongst ourselves. It was a lot of fun. I learned a lot in those months. Science is invasive. Darting an animal and collaring it is extremely invasive. Mark’s idea was if we’re going to be invading an animal’s life this much, let’s get all we can. Let’s make it pay as best we can to honor the cat.

I worked one winter and part of one summer. Obviously the snow holds tracks, but sometimes we were in waist deep snow and its not easy. In the summertime, if the substrate was good, we’d go out, take numerous GPS points from where the cat had been the previous day. We’d start at one point and trail the animal, and if we ever lost it we’d know know where to pick it up at the next GPS point. Sometimes you could follow an animal a great distance if the substrate was good and the conditions right. GPS was back up in case we lost the trail.

Jim Halfpenny, mammalogist and tracker from Gardiner Montana told me lots of great tracking stories:

My real interest in cougars started in 1982; I got called into Nederland, CO. A bear had mauled a horse inside the town of Nederland. Forest Service called me and I went in and looked at it. I looked around a little bit and I said This is not a bear that mauled a horse. It’s a cougar. Which really shocked people; a cougar in the middle of town. On the edge of the horse there were five claw marks, and Forest Service said it has to be a bear it has five claws. On a cougar, the dew claw doesn’t show on a print and it’s not bone attached, it’s tendon attached. It’s called the killer claw because it will wrap around something. If you ever have a house cat wrap around, you’ll get five marks. And the claw marks were thin not fat. Hey guys, I’m sorry. Cats leave five claw marks, you don’t realize this. I went home that night and started thinking about it. What is a cougar doing in a town? That’s what started a project.

Research ecologist Peter Stine based out of Northern California worked with Carl Koford who did some of the original estimates on mountain lion populations in the 1980s using track lines. Koford drove hundreds and hundreds of miles of dirt roads around the state to determine tracks per linear mile. Here Peter talks with me about fisher populations in the Southern Sierras and mountain lions:

DSCN1846

We started the study because the fisher is a forest carnivore, and the assumption is that fisher population are affected by forest management. We wanted to better understand how many fisher are there and how they are relating to their habitat. There’s a detailed study that was started just south of Yosemite. To cut to the chase, turns out the number one cause of mortality is predation and mostly mountain lions. Typically it appears they’re killing them but not eating them. Why and what’s the impact of predation on the fisher population? Fishers in the southern Sierra are very rare. They were petitioned for listing as an endangered species but that petition was ultimately denied. But the point is they’re rare and apparently declining, and predation by mountain lions appears to be a pretty significant factor. This prompted some more detailed work that’s going on right now in the Sierras to look at the whole predator complex in the Sierra Nevada and predator relationship to one another. Mountain lions much prefer deer over other prey species. The big question is: Is there enough deer in the Sierras for lions or are deer populations declining or at a low level because of forest management and densification of forests.? Does that have an influence on mountain lions and their behavior towards other predators?These are all questions that are important for us to understand, especially if we are going to address fisher population in its apparent imperiled status. Data we have on fisher is that they like closed forest, they like multi-layered canopy, they need den sites and rest sites distributed across their home range which is quite large. We don’t still understand what a healthy viable landscape should look like when you consider both fisher habitat requirements and other species like spotted owls, how that juxtaposes with resilient forests that have experienced frequent fire and that you’d normally consider to be a heterogeneous landscape that has dense forest and patches of opening which presumably based on everything we know was what forests looked like prior to heavy influence from European people.

There’s so much more great info I can share in future posts from interviews for Ghostwalker that I could not include in the book. Stay tuned.

cougar

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Yellowstone adventures and a close call

I came back a few weeks ago from an advanced tracking class with Jim Halfpenny in Gardiner.  But before the class, I spent a day and an evening hiking around the Park.

Tuesday late afternoon called for a trek up Mt. Washburn, which I’d never done.  They say if you only have time for one hike, Mt. Washburn is your ticket.  Its a great view for sure of the Yellowstone volcano, but what’s more impressive is that during the ice age only 30,000 years ago, Mt. Washburn was the only land not covered with glaciers from there to the Tetons.  The hike is not far but a good uphill and the alpine wildflowers were impressive.  A group descending came bye and told me to watch for a grizzly they’d seen near the summit.

View from Mt. Washburn of the Yellowstone caldera

Polemonium

Pedicularis

Gentian close-up

At the top, a ranger is stationed and there’s a free telescope for viewing (Wow, something actually free!).

Wednesday morning after camping at Mammoth, I headed up past the Golden Gate looking for a nice dayhike.  I thought I’d do Solfatara Creek.  I parked at the isolated trailhead.  Not my favorite kind of trail presented itself.  An ’88 burn area, the trail was thick on both sides with young lodgepoles so tight you can’t move nor see ahead.  Essentially, these kinds of trails are like tunnels and I don’t like them because if you come upon a bear there’s no where to go.

I decided to try the trail and see if it opened up.  If it didn’t, I’d find another to hike.  Sure enough, after about 700 yards, the trail opened to meadow and an unburned forest.  As I approached the hot springs of Solfatara Creek, the trail showed lots of fresh bear sign.  The creek was a beautiful and unusual greenish-blue, warm, slow water, but the mosquitos were thick.  Between the bugs and the bear scat, which was thickening in tune with the mosquitos, I decided that since I was hiking alone I’d prefer to find another trail, one more open and less buggy.

I retraced my steps and when I got to the meadows, I noticed a troop of rangers off trail looking like they were doing some kind of vegetation studies.  I figured they must have come through the ‘tunnel’ that was approaching, so maybe they’d scared off any bears.  But just in case, as I always do when I can’t see well in front of me, I took my bear spray out of its holster, uncapped it, and held it in my right hand as I came through the trees.

About halfway through the forest, I came around a corner almost directly into a lone bison bull rubbing its horns on a sapling.  I watched for a moment while debating where to go to get out of its way.  He was coming my direction and I was headed towards him.  If I went backwards from whence I came, I’d be stuck in the narrow thicket of trees on the trail in his way.  I couldn’t slip pass him. Beside me was a teeny, tiny clearing of about 5′ square.  I moved as far as I could into the clearing.  He began to trot on the trail past me, but just at the last second he changed his mind and decided to charge me.  At only about 6′ away, he lowered his head; his horns now directly facing my chest.  Instinctively, I sprayed him with the bear spray I’d luckily been carrying unhinged and uncapped.

Immediately he made a right turn and trotted off down the trail, swinging his head side to side since his eyes were stinging.  I left the trail, totally beefed up on adrenaline and thanking my lucky stars that it wasn’t my day to die.  Bison scar me way more than bears as I feel they are much more unpredictable, way more dangerous, and definitely not as smart.  This guy didn’t seem threatened by me.  For him, it was more like I was challenging him, offering him a chance to have a sparing match. An old lone bull like him is a cranky old man.

Lone bison but not my bison

Grizzly lake, my destination after Solfaterre

On the way back to Mammoth, I got stuck in a bear jam.  Two black bears were feeding on one side of the road and decided to cross over.  What amazed me wasn’t the bears, but that people got out of their cars and ran as fast as they could towards the bears, getting as close as they dared to take photos.  Luckily these bears were used to people, but not all bears in the park are that amenable.

Guy in the white T shirt on left is almost right on the bear

In this one you can see the bear and the lady in front not even paying attention!

Halfpenny always leads a fabulous class, highly recommended.  The mornings were spent in the classroom and the tracking museum.  He has a fantastic collection of plaster casts and other assorted items to help you to learn to track.  The afternoons were spent in the field.  Here is a track of a badger of which I made a cast.  The upper left hand corner contains a coyote track as a bonus.

Badger track (coyote track upper left). Notice long claws

Young bull moose