• Available from Amazon paperback or Kindle

  • Now Available! Buy all 3 books in 1 for only $6.99 and save $2!

    A COMPENDIUM FOR THE DRY GARDEN

  • Recent Posts

  • Tracking Footprints

  • Archives

  • Top Posts

  • Pages

  • Advertisements

The Health of the Land

With the warm temperatures, the December snows are melted off in most places around here. Because of that, some friends and myself ventured into some high areas that are usually inaccessible this time of year.

The Absarokas and elk

The Absarokas and elk

A glorious day in the high 50’s (how strange for ‘winter), we began the hike without snowshoes.  Sometimes we had to venture through large drifts briefly.  Lots of elk sign but no elk visible.  This is an area where I know a large herd of elk overwinter so I expected to see them at any moment.  As we approached the high meadows, about 250 elk moved down into the valley below and up to the meadows on the opposite side.

Elk

As we watched, two wolves called back and forth from the cliffs above the elk.  Interestingly, the elk continued grazing uphill in their direction as they called to each other.  Clearly, these elk were not disturbed by the wolves presence.  I have always maintained that wildlife are more in tune with each other than humans are with them.  After a while of howling, the wolves went on their way, making distance between themselves and the herd.  Those weren’t the calls of hungry wolves and somehow the elk knew that.

elk moving up the hillside

We moved on and came to a large herd of over 30 ewes, lambs and young rams grazing.  A band of about eight rams grazed on a meadow beyond.  A second herd of over 250 elk was working their way up the hillside.

Bighorn sheep

 

Bighorn sheep

 

Ram group

Ram group

On the way back through the willows, four moose were relaxing and munching.

What a brilliant day and great sightings.  I was especially happy to see all the bighorn sheep we have this year in our area.

Moose mom and male calf

Moose mom and male calf

Advertisements

Tracking notes

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

Over time six wolves came trotting down the road

Over time six wolves came trotting down the road

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

Wolf print

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

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

I counted around 11 or 12 wolves

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

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

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

Hoodoo wolf prowling around

Hoodoo wolf prowling around

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

Here's my moose

Here’s my moose

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

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

The Tipping Point

Everything is up for grabs now relative to climate.   Climatic tipping point talk is abuzz about the scientific community.  All our efforts to save species have a large ‘unknown’ given rapid ecosystem changes due to climate instability.  The tipping point, researchers say, may be within just the next 10 years.

For the last several years, I’ve taken to setting up my trail camera all summer in the little forest by my house.  The forest is home to 7 springs that emerge from the limestone underground rivulets hidden deep within the abutting mountain.  These springs flow into private lands, much of which is soggy and marshy.  The forest also is a lively travel corridor.

Spring area, one spring

In previous summers I’d pick up my trail camera chip every few weeks.  Mostly I’d see deer, a few coyotes, and an occasional black bear.  By fall, the grizzly activity increased.  But this summer–the hottest on record and with an even hotter heat index making almost every day unbearable–activity has increased dramatically, and of course, always at night.  I’ve had scores of black bears, cougar, a boar grizzly, and even a moose a few weeks ago.  Given that moose go into heat stress at temperatures above 57 degrees, and anything above 80 degrees is unsuitable for them without refugia, I wondered how this poor moose was coping. (notice the temp and time!)

These animals would normally be higher up this time of year.  But my theory is that the constant heat and drought has forced them lower.  Of course, this is not the case across the board or we’d be seeing a lot of wildlife in the irrigated areas.  But I take this as a sign of the future–as we use diminishing precious water to irrigate pasture or grow crops, we’ll see more wildlife seeking refuge closer to us.  As prey move in, so do predators.  As forests die and meadows dry, animals will seek food and water wherever they can find it.

Couple that with the sad state of food for grizzly bears.  Today I took a long hike up the back side of Windy Mountain, once a stronghold for Whitebark pine nut food.  The trail begins around 8,400′ and heads up to 9400′.  I can say with confidence that 99% of all the mature Whitebark Pines are dead throughout that ecosystem.

Dead Whitebark Pine forest

The only good news is that there are young seedlings in many areas, especially on the north-west slope in a large burn area.  But these trees won’t bear for at least another 30 years–if they survive the dramatic shifts in climate.

A friend told me not long ago that all the still affordable lands are high up in mountainous territory.  These are the areas, he said, no one wants to live in because the climate is too harsh.  Real estate in places like Oregon, Washington, the Southwest, and California is beyond pocketbook reach anymore.  But evidence points to humans heading into the mountains in the Altithermal, a period of drought and dryness after the glaciers melted.  Animals, as well as people, may be heading higher up sooner than later.

 

Close to Open–Yellowstone Park

The NE entrance will be open on May 11th, they say.  We’re always the last for the Park to plow and I’m not sure why.  Its only a nine mile stretch and a heck of a lot easier to plow than the east entrance over Sylvan Pass.  Must be politics and economics driving the decisions. I had to see for myself today the snow pack left.  Besides, I was hoping to purchase a fishing license at the Crandall store.  So a friend and I took a ride.

Before we got too far, the Switchback Ranch on the other side of the Clark’s Fork was flying all their summer supplies over.  Unbelievably, there really is no access to this ranch from Clark, which is on that side of the canyon.  If you drive to the desert and up to the mouth of the Clark’s Fork Canyon, there’s a primitive (and I mean PRIMITIVE) jeep road that goes along the river’s edge.  At the 4 mile mark, the road climbs the side of the canyon in switchbacks–thus the name of the ranch.  I’ve been at the base of the climb, but not up it.  I understand that even in an ATV you do 3-point turns at every corner, and its’ a hairy scary ride.  The road itself along the river is more like driving in a dry riverbed, rough for even an ATV.

Look at the green area. That's the ranch across the canyon

The previous owner was connected with Ford Motor Co., a man named Bugas.  Bugas owned a lot of property in my basin as well.  The current owner is David Leuschen, a Wall Street Mogul.  Oddly enough when I first purchased my property I had a client in California whose husband is a trader.  While I was designing and installing their garden, he was over here on a retreat at the Switchback.

Because of the treacherous and arduous and impossible access to the Ranch, all the major supplies are flown over.  Their base is a forest service knoll by the highway, directly across from the Ranch.  The supplies are attached to a helicopter and flown over the Clark’s Fork Canyon, a thousand feet below.

Returning for a new load

All the gas and diesel fuel for the year are carried over in several passes

Catching the free line and ready to attach. A flatbed worth of seed

1500 pounds of seed in that sack.

Off it goes to the Ranch. The whole process there and back just takes about five minutes.

It’s a beautiful place but no matter how much money I had, I wouldn’t want my supplies and friends flown in.  The old Wright ranch on the Bench used to have a zip line across the creek and that was how you’d get over there.  Now there’s a bridge, but that’s up the road near Crandall.

For all of you thinking of trying to get into the Park early, I’d say not this week.  We got pretty far, but the snow was still over the road at around Lolo Pass.  Up on the Beartooth, you can drive quite a ways, but not as far as the lake yet.  The run-off though is beginning.  This is Beartooth creek taken from the road.

Spring runoff in the Beartooth is beginning

And a moose grazing happily undisturbed

Beartooth Cow Moose amidst last years logged area in Aspens

And home in my front yard

Buck with nubby antlers in front yard

Unfortunately, the Crandall store didn’t have their fishing licenses in yet.  Guess I’ll just have to go for another ride next week.

An afternoon hike in April

The snows are melting, early, and we don’t seem to be getting our usual spring wet dump of moisture.  These spring snows are what the eastern side of the Absarokas depend upon for their real moisture.  The winter snows are dry, while these spring snows put a lot of moisture into the ground.  But the high country still has snow and the rivers aren’t running much yet, so that means the elk are still hanging around.

The other day I took an easy hike up beyond a ridge.  On the way I spied a herd of over 500 elk, fattening up on new grass getting ready to drop their babies in the next few weeks.

Down below a moose and her yearling passed by.

This pond usually has Sandhill Cranes but not today.  I’ve heard them a few times and seen them flying.  Today only Mallards were enjoying the reflection of the snowy peaks.

One of the most interesting features in my valley is old volcanic sulphur deposits.  From my limited understanding of geology, the Absarokas were formed by active volcanism from 53 to 38 million years ago.  The Absaroka volcanics are more than a mile thick, and this volcanic activity is not related to the Yellowstone hot spot which is much more recent.  (Yellowstone’s first eruption occurred only 2 million years ago.)

There are several interesting sulphur deposits, but my favorite has a little creek associated with it.  During the spring, the creek crosses the road, the water turning a cerulean blue.  As you climb towards the area with the deposits, the creek turns milky white and smells distinctly sulphurish.  Unfortunately, the water is as cold as the snow melt that supplies the creek.

Sulphur deposits. Nothing growing

At the deposit area, there’s no greenery on the hillside, and the few hearty trees growing there are stunted.  The hillside also shows evidence of a massive slide in the past.

On this hike I spied something I’d never seen before. Not that they weren’t maybe there before, but there were these unusual ‘lumps’ of raised sulphur (I have no idea what the technical term is).  When the snow recedes some, I’ll climb the hill and inspect them better.  Could they be evidence of something active happening underneath?  I keep hoping for a warm creek to swim in.

Volcanic mounds. Are these evidence of new activity?

Wildlife update

Of course this wildlife update could never be completely accurate; its just my own observations and the result of a few conversations.

As I noted in an earlier post, up around Camp Creek where there is a nice mosaic of young and old spruce/doug fir forest plus open meadows, I saw sign of an abundance of Snowshoe hares with a coyote or two hunting them.  But down here in the valley, cottontails are rarely to be found.  Today I saw my first sign of a cottontail in the willows by my house.  But on a walk near the upper bridge where I usually see a lot of sign, there were no bunnies to be seen.  The same is true with the Jackrabbit population in the valley.  Rabbits are subject to boom and bust cycles.  I had thought it had a lot to do with the predator/prey cycle, but my boss at the museum told me its more complicated than that.  In fact, so complicated that scientists don’t really know the cause.  But, one prominent theory is that it actually has to do with plants.  The theory goes that the plants the rabbits eat begin to build up toxins as a defense to over-consumption.  The toxins get so high they eventually cause the massive mortality in the rabbits.  The rabbits that remain of course, are the survivors and have the tolerance they pass on to their little bunnies.  Eventually, the population builds up again.

With the lack of bunnies, you’d think the bobcat population might be down, but there’s been the usual one hunting in my neck of the woods.

Bobcat track

I’ve seen sign of him tracking turkeys.  The turkey population on the other hand, seems to be holding its own.  Regularly there are 10-15 wandering threw the woods, making a nice racket.

Turkey in snow

turkey tracks

Wolves this year are down in the valley.  From 4 packs in the range last year, down to just two struggling packs of about 4 wolves each.  The Sunlight pack has just disappeared, and the once ten strong Hoodoo pack that roamed from the northeast Park boundary of the Absarokas into Sunlight was reduced this summer by at least half due to cattle predation.  What’s left of that Hoodoo pack has been the main wolf pack in the valley and apparently are not great hunters, as they have been struggling to kill the wise cow elks and are mostly predating on deer.

A wolf lopes through the snow away from a kill site

That being said, coyotes seem to be on the rise and in control of the valley.  Their tracks are everywhere and their calls are heard nightly.  When I arrived back here in January, I found an adult elk that they had killed.  Today I found a dead pup, death unknown.  But where I usually had seen wolf tracks regularly, for instance running down the roads, now I am seeing mostly coyote tracks.

Coyote caught on trail camera

I found a dead fox, dead from an injury to its leg.  Its leg was mangled, maybe due to a trap or a fight with a coyote.  The fox population seems to be getting healthier here, probably because of several years of wolves keeping coyotes in check.

A fearful fox lopes in snow before dying

Fox caught on trail camera

I would assume that the deer and elk are having a better year than last as there is much less snow with higher temperatures.  There’s been fewer times when I’ve seen large herds of elk on Riddle Flats, maybe because there is plenty of clear ground in many places in the valley.

500 head of elk on Riddle Flat

I’ve seen a few Golden Eagles, but no Bald Eagles this winter.  I saw some grouse today by the river happily foraging.  And despite the fact that a completely insane hunter poached a cow moose and her baby this fall in the valley, the moose seem to be doing o.k.  One resident told me she saw two bull moose and there are a few cow/calves hanging around. I have one cow and her calf by me.  Moose normally have twins, but I’ve noticed the cow that hangs around my area hasn’t had twins for several years now.

I haven’t heard of any sightings of bear tracks, which surprises me because we’ve had such warm weather.  I am still waiting to catch some marten tracks or an actual marten on my camera.  I recently bought a new stealth camera, a Reconex which is made in the USA and is the top rated trail camera on the market.  I need to get a sim card and batteries for it, then I’ll be setting it up first with the intention of catching that bobcat.

Moose, wolves, and a false spring

Yesterday was another glorious early spring day.  Some friends came up and we took a drive north towards Crandall and beyond, as far as the road is plowed.  The lonely 11 or so miles between Pilot Creek, a parking pull-out for snowmobilers, and the NE entrance to the Park won’t be open for another 5 weeks yet, but they’ll have a lot of plowing to do.  There is still an incredible amount of snow everywhere.  It will be a while before you can hike the backcountry.

As the snowmobilers raced past us to begin their expensive thrills, we idled along looking for wildlife.  The banks by the side of the road have melted but still an easy 4′ high.  This gave good cover for a moose and her calf just on the other side of the highway along the Clark’s Fork River.

Mama with yearling

 

Because we could barely see over the snow bank, we quietly got out of the car to take photos.   Mama and baby kept browsing but mama moved between us and her calf.  What a good mother.

Mama Moose moves between us and her calf

On the way back I shot a photo of Crazy Creek, still solidly covered with snow and ice.  This creek, in a few months, will be an awesome volume of water.

Crazy Creek March 2011

Almost back to Sunlight, I asked my friends, who come up regularly on weekends, if they’d seen any wolves this winter.  They are avid photographers and would like a good shot.  They told me they hadn’t.  Not more than two minutes passed when we spotted 2 wolves by the side of the highway.  This was a most unusual sighting.  Almost 11:00, I’ve almost never seen wolves hanging so near the main road.  There were elk up on the hillside, along with deer, not too far away who didn’t seem too perturbed.  Two wolves would be hard-pressed to bring down an elk, so I suspected there was a kill higher up on the hillside, or possibly down below where they were wanting to cross to.  A big grey sauntered quickly up the hill and out of sight.  But a beautiful black loitered long enough to take some good photos.  Wolves I’ve met always seem intelligently curious.  This one certainly was.

After I came home and my friends were gone, I noticed a yearling moose walking back and forth along the fenceline across the road where the horses are.  The fence has a wooden top post and is very wildlife friendly, but this yearling wasn’t that tall and was very uncertain as to whether she could make the jump.  She moved back and forth for over 15 minutes, trying to find a spot she felt comfortable to cross.  Finally, a car drove up the road, spooked her, and forced her into making the leap.  She did clear, but not without her back leg stuck for a moment.  She ran up my driveway, because its the open line in the fence and stood in front of the house for a while, seemingly perplexed.  Where was her mom, I wondered.

Yearling moose will get kicked out before the mother gives birth again, but it did seem a little soon, but what do I know.  I thought maybe she was already on her own.  She made her way through the front meadow, where I’ve taken down some posts for a winter opening in a buck and rail fence of my neighbors.  It was then I saw her mom, who’d been watching the whole thing patiently.  She was standing in the tree line.  Soon mama and baby were united again.  I had to wonder if mother was, as I would be, gnawing worriedly and wondering if her baby could make the jump successfully, or if mom was treating her offspring to just another new lesson preparing her daughter for the big wide world.

Koda bored because he couldn't get out and play with the wolves!