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    A COMPENDIUM FOR THE DRY GARDEN

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Wandering after a waxing moon

Snowshoe hare tracks and White-tailed Jackrabbit tracks can be easily confused, as I am finding out.  Size of their tracks, front and back overlap.  Their stride and group length overlap.  And even their habitat.

I’ve been doing a lot of research trying to discern the differences and what we have in my area.  And its important because Snowshoes are the primary food for Lynx, a threatened and rare cat around here.

Its always good to take a hike around my mountain after a snowstorm.  We’ve had a few inches of snow and some cold temps, making the snow almost perfect.  The waxing gibbous moon insures more predators are out hunting, and with the snow crusted over, the smaller animals are out and about.

For weeks all I’ve seen are the usual suspects–deer and squirrels.  But today was different.  My first encounter was with weasel tracks.  I’ve asked Jim Halfpenny if one can tell the difference between an ermine and a long-tailed weasel by the trail width. We have both here and Halfpenny notes that its very difficult.  Tracks over 2″ trail width can often indicate a long-tailed weasel, but not for sure.  The ‘dumbbell pattern’ of two dots [the feet], a dash [drag mark], and two dots can be typical for ermines, yet not always.

Weasel tracks next to my footprint

Weasel tracks next to my footprint.  Notice the 2×2 gait

up close

up close

I have a bird feeder near the house and this weasel was taking advantage of the rodents that visit the dropped seeds.

I have been spending quite a bit of time trying to discern vole from mouse tracks. Most mouse tracks are quite obvious as they use a bound, with the back feet in front of the front.  Voles tend to trot but I think they bound more in snow and have a much narrower trail width than a mouse.  I’m still trying to discern the difference.  I think these narrow tracks are typical vole tracks.

Vole

Vole heading into small hole

Typical vole gait on snow

Typical vole gait on snow

Higher up I ran into a Marten.  And later on another Marten.  Martens, like ermines, don’t use animal trails.  They are explorers of every hole, seeking out rodents.

Marten tracks

Marten tracks

Typical marten gait 2x2

Typical marten gait 2×2

And here’s where we come back to the two hares. I came across these tracks, which look like typical Snowshoe hare tracks.  Yet the country puzzled me.  This hare, which I followed up the hillside for some ways, stayed in the small meadows between the forested areas, moving through the trees out of cover, rather than staying in cover like a Snowshoe would.  And although this is Douglas Fir/Limber Pine territory, which Snowshoes like, most of the trees are older so the low browse is sparse.  Yet according to this study conducted in Yellowstone National Park, White-tailed Jackrabbits are much rarer at my elevation and annual snow accumulations–though certainly not impossible.  White-tailed jackrabbits are fairly rare in Yellowstone; even once erroneously thought extinct.  Most of the Park has too much snow and too much tree cover.  In fact, in the study, 3/4 of the few sightings were in the 5000-6000′ range in open sagebrush country [mostly all in the northwest corner of the park around Mammoth], while only 1/4 were in the 6-7000′ range in montane country–country akin to where I live.

I went over my measurements, yet all of them came up that it could be either a Snowshoe or a Jackrabbit.  I remembered that at one point, Halfpenny had said to me “are you sure its not a Jackrabbit” when I described to him some prints I’d found in a deeply wooded area north of here.

I followed these tracks amongst the small forest meadows and down through an open area into the brush.  I came to the uneasy conclusion that this must be a Jackrabbit.

Jackrabbit

DSC00212

DSC00211

 

And then I looked at a photo from last year, taken at around 6800′ deeper down my valley.  I had my trail cam along an old ditch.  On the upside of the ditch was dense woods, while the downside soon became treeless and led to a very large expanse of meadows.  According to the Yellowstone study above, this was the upper end of White-tailed jackrabbits in the Yellowstone area [although White-tailed Jackrabbits have been reported in places like Colorado as high as 14,000 feet].  Here was my definitive answer that, yes, we have plenty of White-tailed Jackrabbits here.

White tailed Jackrabbit

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What I’m doing this winter

My animal interest is not discriminating; I have a fascination with all species.  But I do notice the rhythm of my encounters goes in waves.  And as the encounters go, so does my fascination with that particular species.  I’ve had my wolf and bear periods, now I’m into my bobcat and marten epoch.

Last winter, walking to my mailbox at dusk, I caught a glimpse of something low in a nearby tree watching me.  The light was dim, I couldn’t see well, only a vague outline.  At first I thought it was an owl, a large one, maybe a Great Horned.  But then, something told me I was missing the mark.  I looked again.  It was a bobcat, watching Koda and I peacefully.  It’s repose came from its certainty of the dim light hiding its form, its’ knowingness that humans have bad night vision and that a canine can be fooled by staying still.   I’ve caught that guy on my camera, but the camera wasn’t working right, the photo was blurred, and this winter I’m determined to get some good photos and track him further.  Bobcats have become my new favorite animal.

My only bobcat photo which is terrible. That's a track plate apparatus a la Jim Halfpenny in the background

People trap bobcats up there.  Last year their pelts were going for over $500.  What a crime!  If I see a trap, although by law I could be fined, or jailed, for damaging it in any way, including putting a suffering animal out of its misery, there is no crime for peeing around the trap.  I pee around every trap I see.  That tells the animals “This is my territory so don’t go here.”  Save an animal by urinating.

This year my other fascination is martens.  There are plenty of martens around here.  I hadn’t learned their tracks last year, but now I know it.  I followed some trappers last year to understand how to find them. Although I don’t agree with trapping, I admit that trappers have to know their animals well.  So after asking them some questions of where to look, now I know.  I’ll set up a photography trap, one with bait that only takes pictures, not kills animals.  I’m looking to figure out those martens.

This is a marten

Another in the weasel family is the elusive mink.  We have mink in the river.  This summer I tracked them, as well as cast their tracks.  I got a ‘bead’ on where they’re hanging out and I want a good trail camera video of them.  They don’t hibernate, so I’m hoping to get some winter footage.

Hard to see but these are mink prints

Two other animals pose a great attraction for me this winter.  Snowshoe hares and lynx.  They are connected to each other too, one the food for the other.  The more snowshoe hares, the greater the chance of seeing lynx.  A recent study in Yellowstone found that before the introduction of wolves, the booming coyote population feasted on snowshoe hares.  As their population dropped so did the lynx.  Lynx decline had been thought to be related to climate change, but now that the hare is recovering (‘Amazing alert’:  wolves do what no humans can do–reduce coyote populations!), lynx are coming back there too.

I know there are a few lynx here, but I’ve never seen them.  A few summers ago the forest service even did a vegetation study in the valley to determine food sources for snowshoe hare.  Really it was a lynx study.  A friend of mine who hunts the hares in the Big Horns said he saw zillions of tracks in an area that will be closed in the winter to traffic.  Its high up on a series of reefs.  I can easily snowshoe the road in winter and check out the tracks.

tracks of the snowshoe hare

 The last on the list would be another in the weasel family.  This is an animal I’ve longed to see my entire life, ever since I was seventeen, backpacking in the Tetons, when I heard that the only animal that will take on a grizzly is a wolverine.  Yes, I’d love to see a wolverine.  They are essentially endangered, though not yet listed.  Several years ago an intensive study was done in the GYE, including Sunlight valley and the Beartooths.  No wolverines were found here during that study.  They used a variety of methods, including winter traps that look like miniature log cabins and regular fly overs during the winter months, the best time to see tracks.  Wolverines have incredibly large territories.  Glacier National Park, one of the few places in the lower 48 to boast a population of wolverines, can only support 6 or 7 males territory-wise.

Although these mountains are prime wolverine territory, the study found wolverines only in the southern Absarokas, and none in these more northern parts of that range. They also found wolverines in the Wind River Mountains.   I still like to think there’s some wandering around out here though.  If you see their tracks this winter,  report them.  Doug Chadwick wants to know about it.  A movie that has fabulous footage of wolverines is called Running Free.  Essentially targeted for middle school age kids, the movie isn’t half bad but worth the watch just to see all the footage of wolverines.