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    A COMPENDIUM FOR THE DRY GARDEN

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We could have many more places like Yellowstone.

Living in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, adjacent to Yellowstone National Park, I enjoy the full suite of wildlife (minus bison, another story…) at my doorstep.  It’s not that I’m seeing large megafauna daily, yet if I hike around my valley or the nearby Beartooth Mountains, I see their evidence.

People who visit Yellowstone expect and hope to catch a glimpse of wolves, bears or other wildlife.  But Yellowstone is a protected habitat, free of human habitation.So what is it like to live with these animals in your neighborhood?

Today was a hot day in the valley.  When it’s hot, I like to take a half hour drive up to the Beartooth Mountains towards the summit via highway 120.  Although mosquitos are out, the air is cool and pleasant.  I took a hike along what’s known as the Morrison Jeep trail–an ATV road closed until July 15 that runs from the Beartooth Plateau all the way to the Clark’s Fork Canyon in the desert. Wildflowers are starting to abound.

Marsh Marigold

Marsh Marigold

 

Kalmia, used by some tribes to commit suicide as it is deadly poisonous

Kalmia, used by some tribes to commit suicide as it is deadly poisonous

And Koda had a great time in all the lakes.

In the Beartooths

Yet what makes this place so unique is this:

Wolf tracks

Wolf tracks

And the signs to watch out for grizzly bears.

Front and back grizzly tracks.

Front and back grizzly tracks.

Because this is a ‘road’–suitable only for ATVs–and it is closed now, few people were out.  I saw one group of returning backpackers.  They told me they saw two wolves this morning, one black and one grey, in the meadow.  Part of the Beartooth wolf pack I told them.

I recently visited northeast Wyoming and Devils Tower in The Black Hills.  It’s a gorgeous area and a striking sacred spot.  At the Devils Tower visitor’s center, I read a story of an Indian man that was interviewed in the 1930s.  He recalled coming to Devils Tower (known as Bear’s Lodge to the tribes) as a young boy in the 1850s.  At that time, he said, there were wolves there.  Yet no longer.

Devils Tower, WY

Devils Tower, WY

The United States has many beautiful parks and national forests, yet only the Yellowstone Ecosystem is complete with a full suite of native wildlife that once was abundant everywhere.  After living here, everywhere else feels bereft.

Grizzlies too are killed for cattle predation on public lands

I am not advocating that more people move here.  On the contrary.  I am advocating that we work to have these kinds of complete ecosystems in many other parts of the country where it makes sense.  Grizzlies, for instance, occupy less than 2% of their original habitat.

Like many animals that are losing their habitat, we too are losing ours.  How preposterous is it that a person must fly or drive thousands of miles just to view these animals as well as experience an un-fragmented ecosystem; even though there is plenty of suitable habitat for wolves, grizzlies, and other carnivores in forests and Parks in places like Utah, Colorado, and other lands in the West.

After living here for eight years, I’ve come to understand that scenery isn’t ‘everything’ and in fact, it’s nothing without the wildlife that was meant to inhabit it.  Without them, those beautiful lands feel empty.Rocky Mountain Bighorn sheep

Practically, what does that mean?  First, a change in attitudes. In larger landscapes, we can live with these large predators.  Yes, we’ll have to adapt with our garbage, bird seed, chickens, and other small livestock, but it can be done. Changing our attitude includes changing our hunting and trapping laws to be inclusive of these predators, instead of the outdated model of ‘more ungulates, less predators’.

Second, the livestock industry must change and use predator friendly methods of control where possible, including the realization that livestock losses on public lands are ‘at your own risk’.  Public lands are all wildlife have to make their living on. Bears, wolves, coyotes and other wildlife should not be shot on public lands if depredation occurs.  It should be the responsibility of the cattle rancher to ride the range with their cattle, stock them appropriately with perhaps a bull and mixed age groups.  Sheep need dogs watching them as well as a human shepherd.

People who live with bears and wolves and cougars daily know that these animals are not ‘behind every tree‘, waiting ‘to get you‘.  If they were, then they could easily kill a person.  Instead, they avoid people; make their living mostly at night; and seem to only get into trouble when people are leaving food out or not taking care of their livestock.

Having spent a lot of time in the Southwest, I would love to see wolves restored in that area.  But the year-round coyote trapping and bounty needs to stop first.  The northeast corner of Wyoming is the corridor in which cougars can expand eastward, but the hunting quota is either too high, or unlimited! That is just two examples of attitudinal and practical changes that need to be considered.

Once you’ve lived in a place like the Yellowstone Ecosystem, not only is there hardly anyplace like it on Earth, but you will want to restore your home, where ever that is, to its natural balance.

 

 

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.

 

Hunter gatherers and the Internet

A friend sent me an interesting link the other day.  Nicolas Carr, technology writer, discusses how our brains have changed over the centuries, beginning with the first maps all the way to the internet.  Maps, he argues, may have been the birth of abstract thinking.  Instead of using visual, verbal, or auditory clues to find one’s way around, we suddenly were using an abstract picture of where we were in space.

1890 map of the Tuscarora Indian Reservation

The written word, over the centuries, changed us from a brain of sensory perceptions to one dependent upon abstract thinking.   The written word required the brain to focus attention without distraction. This nurtured a propensity for deep contemplation, considered a great virtue in the Western world. The internet, on the other hand, requires multi-tasking skills. Rodin, Carr says, created the sculpture ‘The Thinker’ as the epitome of cultured man. Could you image if his work had been ‘The Multi-tasker’.

A man I know in California asked me, over the phone, ‘What do you do out there anyways?  I mean, like, how many emails do you get a day?’  The value or worth of one’s life seems to have been stripped down to this:  the amount of blips of conversation vis-a-vis tweets, texts, and emails you get on a daily or hourly basis!

This all got me thinking during a recent hike:  the skills I mentally use, the synapses that need connecting, are quite different than what society has adapted me to throughout my lifetime. And how different is my brain from the hunter-gathers here just a few hundred years ago?

Can you see the marmot in the hole?

I’ve definitely noticed a change in my attention skills since I’ve lived here full time over the last several years.  I was thrilled last October when a grizzly about 200 yards away in the trees caught my peripheral attention.  She wasn’t moving, just foraging, and looked like many of the logs in the forest, but something told me to stop and look.

Can you see the moose in the trees?

Just a few weeks ago, walking to my mailbox at dusk, I spontaneously (or so it seemed) looked to my left at a tree branch about 100 feet away.  The light was fading and I could barely make out an outline of a bobcat watching me from a low limb.  I regularly catch movements in the landscape.  I detect moose hiding in the willows or deer escaping through the brush.  One friend who visited me this summer from California commented that I see a lot of animals that she never noticed.  It wasn’t always this way.

Can you see a moose, at night?

This new-found skill is simply the resurgence of ancient ways of seeing.  How many more skills are lying dormant?  The old adage What is not used becomes obsolete–are there ways of seeing, of smelling, sensory skills that have fallen away over hundreds of years that no longer have the synaptic connections?

Coyote blends into the landscape

When I hike around these woods, I have to use a completely different set of skills than I might on the internet, or in a city.  Recently I was in New York City.  The amount of bombardment of information was overwhelming.  It was as if grizzlies were coming at me from all different directions.  But walking in the quiet woods, smells, movement, bird sign (i.e. gathering of crows and ravens could mean a nearby kill; small ground birds calling frantically might mean a hawk above)–all subtle information that could save your life, or give you the thrill of seeing wildlife, or, for a hunter-gatherer hundreds of years ago, could mean the next meal.

Can you see the Golden eagle as well as the Bald?

How about the skills of location?  Aborigines sang songs, called songlines, that were used as their maps in a featureless world.  Just the skill of orienting oneself without a compass, map, or road signs and finding your way around must be stored in a different part of the brain–not something we usually need to use today.

I once heard a scientist discuss orientation, and that if children are allowed to ‘wander’ freely, that they will have better orienting skills as adults.  Who trusts their children these days to wander freely around cities and suburbs?

A friend told me a woman showed up on his doorstep one afternoon.  She’d parked her car in the desert and taken her dog for a walk.  But she was so disoriented that she couldn’t find her car.  My friend, who knows the Oregon Basin well, easily found her car from the few visual clues she gave him.

Sense of time, sense of self, sense of community, sense of one’s surroundings and all its visual clues–I wonder how different my brain is from my fellow travelers who once roamed these mountains?