• 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

More cat stories from Ghostwalker – Lynx, Bobcat, and Snowshoe Hare

Another story that was cut from the final version of my new book Ghostwalker, Here is one about lynx and their prey, snowshoe hares.

Today was a beautiful clear day, seventeen degrees when I started out on a snowshoe trek.  I’d heard from my friend Don that while hunting up Reef Creek last October, an area closed in winter except to foot traffic, he’d seen so many snowshoe hare tracks they were like scribbles in the snow.  Most winter visitors head farther north to the Beartooth Mountains to snowmobile, so this off-limits trek is a quiet respite.  Being a north-facing slope, the road had accumulated over three feet of snow.  A recent snowstorm left the snow soft and snowshoeing was a workout.

These “reefs” are a series of layered limestone plateaus. The access road climbs along the far edge of the two benches, winding to the second reef, where a maze of old logging roads carve even higher up into the mountains. Spring through fall, this is a wet place, as hidden springs run underground, emerging through the cracks in the limestone.

dscf0034.jpg

Limestone reef

With deep snow, it’s a heart workout in my snowshoes, through thick forest on both sides, to reach a sharp turn in the road where a locked gate accesses a telephone line service road. I know that after I pass this first bend, the climb steepens, hugging layered slabs of limestone cliffs on one side, with a vertical drop on the other, until I reach the second reef. Don told me this second reef was where he saw the hare runs. I’m thinking of heading there, until I see the road is blocked farther ahead by an avalanche of snow at its most narrow juncture. I decide to explore the first reef that lies beyond the access road, but while snowshoeing back down to the gate, I’m hit with an explosion of hare tracks. Snowshoe hare tracks are exciting because they are so big, and testify to how well adapted these animals are to snow-covered habitat. Their oversized hind feet are generously covered with fur, and where I’m sinking they are having a party in the snow.

snowshoe hare tracks

Snowshoe hare tracks

DSCN5632

What’s interesting to me is not just these tracks, but their feeding evidence. This mountain has experienced a lot of logging as well as fire activity, resulting in numerous copses of young spruce. The evidence testifies the hares are standing on their feet, chewing off the lower tips of spruce branches. Nipped twigs and gnawed off branches are strewn everywhere underneath these groves.

Several summers ago, I saw a woman juggling armloads of equipment walking to the forest across from my home. We chatted for a while, and I asked what she was doing. She told me she was an independent contractor doing a job for the Forest Service.  “I’m working on a vegetation study.”

The Forest Service, she said, was using her information to understand if this was good lynx habitat. I knew the Shoshone Forest Service was working on their twenty year management plan at that time, a massive undertaking that revisits guidelines for everything from timber to grazing, oil and gas, to wildlife issues. I asked her how her work was helping the Forest decide management for lynx; what was the connection between our local vegetation and the meat-eating lynx? The connection, it turns out, is the hare; that speedy animal that the well-adapted lynx prey on.

Lynx, being listed under the Endangered Species Act as a threatened species, needed proper consideration and protection in the Forest’s plan. It wasn’t clear exactly how this woman was measuring good habitat with her surveying equipment by tying flagging of various colors to trees.  But that conversation piqued my interest in lynx. So I’m heading up to Reef Creek on this February day to investigate—are there any lynx here along with these hares?

640px-Canada_Lynx_(6187103428)

Lynx

I’d occasionally seen snowshoe hare in the forest she was surveying, as well as few tracks in other locations around the valley. We also have white-tailed Jackrabbits, and their tracks are very similar in size to snowshoe hares so easily confused. Today though, this higher elevation spruce forest was clearly snowshoe hare habitat. After a few hours of exploring for tracks, the only other spoor I saw came from coyotes. With increasing access roads and snowmobiles trails, coyotes are having an easier time venturing farther into deep snow areas of the winter backcountry where snowshoes live. One theory goes that coyotes are competing with lynx for food by reducing the snowshoe population. Less snowshoe hares, less lynx.

Lynx are made for snow with their huge paws, and the Yellowstone region is at the southern tip of their historic range, which made them uncommon historically in the Park. But there have been several sightings in the last fifteen years, mostly through confirmed tracks. A set of tracks was found in 2014 near the northeast entrance, just a skip and jump over the mountains from Reef Creek. In fact, looking on the Park’s website, they have a map with some red dots indicating confirmed DNA lynx evidence. There are only two measly dots in my valley.

Truthfully, I wasn’t sure if I could tell a lynx from a large bobcat, which I’d seen many times, hanging out in trees along my driveway or hunting in the neighbor’s yard. Anecdotally I’d also heard that our mail lady, who lived here most of her life, (which immediately qualified her, in the mind of the local gossip machine, to be able to discriminate between a lynx and a bobcat) had seen a lynx at my mailbox. Maybe a case of mistaken identity, but maybe not.

bobcat tracks

Bobcat tracks

Those nipped buds and twigs, along with the large tracks, in a dense yet young spruce/fir forest, educated me about proper lynx habitat. Ten miles up my dirt road, heading west just a few miles from the Yellowstone Park boundary line, in an area that like Reef Creek had experienced burns and logging in the 1940s and 50s, has similar habitat. The following spring I looked around and sure enough, lots of snowshoe hare evidence there as well. So we have hares!

Hare populations, like other rabbit populations, run in cycles. Dr. Charles Preston at the Draper Museum, when I asked him what caused these cycles, joked that if he could figure that out he’d die happy. These boom and bust cycles regulate the rabbit populations, and with it the bobcat and lynx as well. Yet nature always throws a wrench in the works, and I’d read that in some southernmost hare populations, like the area around Yellowstone, these cycles don’t occur, but instead the hares remain stable at low densities. Maybe this might explain the persistent low population of lynx around here?

Even with all my exploring, lynx tracks weren’t forthcoming. Yet I did begin to consider the three cats that live here, their interactions, and what kinds of ‘cat fights’ might ensue. Lynx and bobcat obviously share similar food preferences. Mark Elbroch says that makes it difficult for them to share similar habitat.

“Where they share range, lynx typically stick to the higher elevations, where deeper snows give them the competitive advantage, and bobcats take control of the lowlands, where they assume the dominant role and exclude lynx through aggressive interactions.”

Elbroch also goes on to say that they occasionally hybridize. My winter explorations of the valley’s higher elevations had borne this out. Although I wasn’t seeing lynx tracks, the hares seemed to be living higher up, in densely wooded areas, whereas I knew cottontails filled the plateaus in the lower end of our valley at 6500’. Since I’d seen bobcats (and not lynx) with my own eyes, I decided to begin my quest for their tracks in winter, with the intention of understanding their habits.

bobcat

 

Advertisements

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

The Snowshoe Hare

My latest interest is in the smaller animals around here.  Winter snow tracking can help find the critters and I’ve started keeping my eye out for Marten tracks, which I’ve yet to find.  Today was a beautiful clear day running around 17 degrees when I started out on a snowshoe trek.  I’d heard from a hunter friend in October that he’d seen a lot of snowshoe hare tracks up Camp Creek, an area closed off in winter except to foot traffic.  Since most winter visitors up here are interested in snowmobiling, this is a quiet and steep hillside with no traffic.  Being a north facing slope, the forest service road had accumulated over 3′ of snow.  A recent snow storm left the snow soft and snowshoeing was a work-out.

Looking over the habitat in a summer photo from a viewpoint--'88 burn, some clear cutting, older douglas fir forests

Just as my friend said, I quickly saw a lot of snowshoe hare tracks.  What I really am interested in is lynx activity.  I’m not familiar with lynx, but I can recognize a cat track.  The snow being so soft, the large loping tracks I saw were difficult to identify, but appeared to be a lone coyote.

There were hare runs all over the place.  It was interesting to see how long the runs were, and how far out into open areas the hares ventured.  With the deep snow, areas under roots and limbs made for good cover.  This is a typical snowshoe hare habitat–fir and spruce forest.

full set of all four feet slows to go under a fir root

Sit down track

 

Back foot length

Track group size

Two years ago the Forest Service hired a contractor to look at snowshoe hare habitat in my valley.  The company was doing a vegetation study for snowshoe hare to see if this was good lynx habitat.  I don’t know if the results are out yet, but just down the road a few miles I can say for certain that there is good hare habitat with lots of hare.  Now, to see if I can find a lynx!

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.