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Wolves, cougars, and the little woods

There is so much wildlife activity in the little piece of woods and meadows next to my home that I don’t need to venture much farther than ‘around the block’.  Sometimes just sitting on my front patio is enough.

Besides the nesting bluebirds and house wrens, the red-tailed hawk making its’ rounds, and the pair of Golden Eagles soaring above, there are morning and evening visits from does and bucks in velvet, and an occasional turkey.

But the unseen action is taking place when I’m sleeping.  Now I’ve caught two different wolves on my trail camera set up in the woods.  On the 2nd of May I clocked this black female passing south early morning.

Solitary female probably from the old Sunlight Pack that was killed off last year by another pack

And now on the 12th I caught another wolf, unknown, heading north almost at the same time in the morning.

first shot from trail camera

Yearling pup from the pack presently occupying the valley

Of course, coyote is always running through the woods so trail photos of him abound.

Coyote. Easy to tell wolf and coyote apart

Usually when I retrieve my trail camera I’m expecting to see dozens of only deer photos so I have been pleasantly surprised.  Here’s a nice buck photo.

Lastly though, here’s the most unexpected.  Last week Koda dragged me over to some strong smelling scat.  It was a large pile on top of an older pile, definitely cat, and I mean big cat.  The deer are still low and some must be having their fawns.  Of course, this winter I spent tracking a cougar and understanding in greater depth their sign.  Yet I was surprised to see that a cougar was this low and so close to the houses.  Granted, the summer residents aren’t here yet, but there is the occasional activity still.  I made a mental note of where the scat was–on the far side of the woods–but saw nothing else.

Then today while returning the chip to the trail camera, Koda got a sudden urge.  I’ve learned to trust his instincts and smeller so I followed him.  And not more than 50 feet off trail from my camera was a cat kill.  The deer had already been consumed with just its legs left, but there was the tell-tale mound of the formerly covered carcass, the plucked fur, and another smelly scat on top of it all.

Cougars pluck their carcasses. Bears pull the skin back.

I found a jaw of a young deer, although the legs were too big to be a fawn, so maybe this deer had been a yearling.  This is the first time I’ve seen cougar sign in the woods or a cougar kill so low.  The crazy thing is those cougars are so stealthy that there were no tracks, and besides, my trail camera was almost right there and I didn’t get any photos.  The cat, you see, didn’t use the game trail like the Canids and Ungulates do.

Telltale sign of where a cougar covered its’ kill. Plucked fur abounds.

Owls and more Owls

It seems that nature study comes to a person in batches.  In other words, what you think you want to study might not be what presents itself.

Last week on my way to town there was a road kill Great Horned Owl.  He seemed in good shape so I called the museum where I volunteer preparing specimens and asked if they wanted it.  Since they already have plenty of Great Horneds, they passed, but  this owl was a sign of what was to be a week full of owls.

The next morning, at 6am, I heard a strange owl call from the nearby forest.  I thought it might be a Great Gray, and sure enough, when I listened to its call, it was.   He was passing through on his way to a location north of here–maybe Reef creek or even Yellowstone.

The following week at the museum I was given a Long-eared Owl to prepare.  The tag said it was found in my area in Sunlight.  Her wing was broken and she’d died in rehab.  I suspected it had been struck by a car.  But when I saw the Game Warden the following day he told me he’d found a Long-eared Owl on the road before the area was opened to the public May 1st.

“That’s the owl I just prepared.  Unfortunately, it died in rehab.” I told him.  Who knows how it broke its’ wing.

Long eared owl

With all this owl activity, I decided to walk through my nearby woods with the intent of finding a roost.  A pair of Great Horneds live there.  Last year I watched one being mobbed by a Cooper’s Hawk.  Great Horneds are considered the ‘Lions of the Forest’.  They eat a lot of different foods, large and small.  When I was helping with a Spotted Owl study in California, we learned that Great Horneds kill Spotted Owls.  Watching that Coopers Hawk continuously swoop and peck at the Great Horned sitting on a dead fallen log confirmed how tough these owls are.  That Great Horned was unperturbed; in fact, he acted like the Coopers was an inconvenient fly.

Great Horned Owl

It didn’t take long before I found a large cache of pellets beneath a dead spruce.  The tree even had some owl feathers hanging from a high branch.  I threw them all into a bag and brought them home for inspection.

My stash of pellets

Just the week before my boss at the museum, Curator Chuck Preston, put a vole skull under a microscope to demonstrate how to determine its’ species.   The secret is to count the middle set of upper molars.  One species has four closed triangles while the other species in our area has three.

I dissected all the pellets and found that this owl was feasting on voles.  Dozens of voles and just voles were in these pellets.  Using a hand lens to see the molars, I determined these were all Montane voles (Microtus montanus).

Montane vole

With over 30 Montane voles in these pellets, there were two other distinct skulls, much larger, and from a different species of vole.  This was the Water vole (Microtus richardsonii).

Yesterday on a hike up Tipi Gulch, I came across another Great Horned Owl roost with some recent (seemed like that mornings) pellets.  Inside were several Montane voles and one Water vole.  Voles must be on the upswing and doing fine here this year.  Voles also don’t hibernate and are active at night.  Rabbits on the other hand have been scarce.

It was fun, and interesting, to check out what these owls are eating.  So much activity in such a tiny forest nearby.  Yesterday I retrieved my trail camera that was set up by my spring where I get my water.  Look what else is traveling through these woods.  As Thoreau says, you can spend a lifetime exploring a twenty mile radius.

Wolf with bad left hind leg

Goodbye to a long Winter

The snows are melting and although Sunlight creek is still not in the spring run-off phase, you can feel the weather breaking.

Last night it snowed lightly, but today its raining.  It’s a slow warm-up, but it’s coming.  My old neighbor who grew up in this valley tells me this was a normal winter in terms of snowfall, but I suspect its still not as cold as when he was growing up.  His wife says that -25 degrees was regular then.  Not now.

Several years ago I helped an elderly woman stage her landscape in order to sell her home.  Her husband had been a great friend of mine and fellow beekeeper.  Once he died Dorothy packed up the family home and moved to Idaho where her kids were. That was the year I bought my cabin in Wyoming and along with so many other strange coincidences, it turned out her father had been the Chief Engineer in Yellowstone from the spring of 1925 through the spring of 1930.  The last two years he was the Assistant Superintendent at Mammoth under Horace Albright  His name was Merrill Daum and the family had interviewed him and transcribed his memoirs. Dorothy graciously gave me a copy of the section from his time in the Park.  Here are a few of his stories of snow in those days:

There were no concessionaires living in the park in the wintertime.  They closed up everything.  We had to go down to Gardiner and Livingston to do our shopping.  We had cars and oh yes, the road was open.  We only had light snow in that country.  We could keep the road from the park open up to Mammoth with our own equipment, but from there on it was generally open.  They had a train running in there every so often, so many days a week, so we had train service at Gardiner.  So much of that country was rough and hot that the snow was not very thick on it.

I don’t know much about Middle Geyser basin.  It wasn’t a good place to stop and just put a road through to yell at Old Faithful.  That’s where we turned off from and went cross country to the Lake and Canyon or kept on going out to West Yellowstone or to Old Faithful.  We had ten cabins about every ten miles on the ranger patrol station because they would patrol all along that area, especially the southern part of the Park because there might be poachers come in to kill the game.  They’d go around in the winter time on skis.  That’s a long trip around that part.  Down towards the southern entrance there might be ten, twelve feet of snow.  I’ll never forget looking at one of the bridges; there was a stream going under and all that snow on top of the bridge.  One winter the bridge just broke.

The wintertime was mainly spent getting ready for the next year.  Then we had to get ready to remove the snow in the spring.  We started at Cody,Wyoming at the entrance.  About thirty miles from Cody up to the entrance.  We got as far as the Park with snow 12 to 15 to 20 feet deep.  We’d blast it out with TNT which Uncle Sam gave us.  That would start it thawing and then we’d take a big power shovel and shovel the stuff so we had a two-way highway through there to the east entrance of the park.  From there on we’d use our own equipment.  The deep snow was right there at the entrance.  That was the high point.  We’d generally try to get the Park open by the 1st of June.  By the 6th of June we were officially open, I believe. But you couldn’t make some of the interior trips that early.  It would be long in July before you could get away from the snow.

Here is a photo tribute to my 2010-2011 winter in Wyoming.  After this long and snowy winter, I think I am officially a Wyomingite!

The Basin in early winter from Dead Indian

This is a wolf howl machine, an experimental device to see if wolves are in the area

Two wolves side trot down the road

Coyotes on an elk kill

A coyote pair waits their turn on a nearby kill

The Yellowstone migratory herd resides in the valley in winter

Black wolf resting mid-day in the sun after a morning elk meal

Moose stands in deep snow

Sunset in a 2011 winter

After a day of skiing, dog tired


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!

The right thing to do…Niagara falls and Yellowstone

I just returned from helping my son with location scouting at Niagara falls.  Its strikingly beautiful, especially in the winter.  The crowds are gone and its bitter cold, but there are ice floes in the river and parts of the falls are frozen.  The Canadian side still lights up the falls at night and the sheer power and magnitude of so much water flowing (in fact only 50% is allowed to release as the other 50% is used for power) overwhelms and puts us humans in our proper perspective relative to the awesome power of nature.

Falls at night

Power of the falls

But along with my visit to Sedona, Arizona last year, (which also is a natural wonder but not a National Park) what really stood out was its contrast to where I live now, the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

Although I live next door to a National Park, I don’t of course live within the Park, but within what was designated a few decades ago as its larger ecosystem.  This is an actual mapped area, you could call it a ‘buffer zone’ where its recognized these large megafauna need room to roam to survive.

And, true to its name, I regularly see all the large and small animals that make up this complete ecosystem in the lower 48, which includes wolves, grizzlies, elk, and the occasional bison that is allowed to leave the Park.

So what’s so great about this area  you might say, as opposed to Niagara or Sedona?  Both have the power to overwhelm through their sheer beauty and immense landscape.  The difference are the animals.  Even the Sierras, as incredible a jewel as they are, are NOT a complete ecosystem.  Many animals that were there just 150 years ago are gone forever.

What Lewis and Clark encountered 200 years ago on their journey West is no longer, but a sliver of it can be glimpsed here in the Yellowstone Ecosystem.  Just a sliver, but that sliver is our history, our heritage.  No one would think of selling Monticello to create senior housing or a Walmart!  Why should we not value our original landscapes and the animals that were here before us in the same way?

Everywhere in the United States, with the exception of Alaska, animals have been pushed out to accommodate the biggest and toughest animal–humans.  And that is no exception in the Yellowstone ecosystem.  The controversy rages here too as to who should have primary use of the lands–hunters, atvs, developers, ranchers, oil and gas?.  Wolves are villified for killing elk that hunters could have taken.  Grizzlies are constantly moved around when they get into lands too close to homes or into unprotected garbage.  Bison are not allowed to leave the Park boundary.  Ranches are sold to developers who parcel up the land into lots, crowding out habitat for large animals.  Snowmobilers feel they should have the right to go wherever they choose, including the Park even when the science says differently.  The animals are last on the list.  And when that is how the priorities are set, what becomes of the land is Niagara Falls, Sedona, or at best a ‘safe’ wilderness like the Sierras; at worst we become like Europe, where their natural history is in the so-distant-past that its entirely unreachable in present-time.

Yellowstone and its ecosystem, unlike Alaska, is easily accessible by car to people from all walks of life, rich or poor.  It is an opportunity to view in the flesh our rich natural past.  Any person can do that from the safety of their car, and watch wolves or bears in the Lamar Valley.  Or one can take more risks and venture into the back country.  Even today, with this area protected and the reintroduction of the wolves, thereby completing the ecosystem fauna, the landscape doesn’t hold a candle to the enormous amounts of wildlife that was once beheld by the mountain men in the 1830’s.  Yet, they are all still here, thanks to the enormous efforts of many men and women conservationists through the century.

Black wolf

In the U.S., there are many unique and beautiful areas, but there is no where like this area.  Here we have the Serengeti of North America.  And in my mind, we are not valuing nor protecting it enough, nor are we holding it in the proper perspective.

Our Serengeti

The proper perspective:  This area, as well as more large tracts of contiguous land (Yellowstone to Yukon idea) is a wildlife first policy.  This is our gift to our children and the future.  This is our gift to the wildlife here.

Once we all realize what we have here, a jewel that is found no where else in the U.S. (Do we really want the last place where wild animals roam to be in Alaska, out of the reach of most ordinary folks?), we will change our approach and our views on a daily basis.  No longer will we have on the Wyoming books archaic 1890 laws that allow trapping, an indiscriminate way to kill wildlife.  No longer will we confine bison to the tiny Island of the Park because the cattle industry fears losing their brucellosis stamp.  Nor will people call for the extermination of the wolves because they are having a harder time hunting in the spots they are used to.

We will make new laws to help support the wildlife in any way we can and preserve this area; not for ourselves or for any use we desire today, but because we recognize its’ specialness, and because, frankly, its the right thing to do.

There was a time, not long ago, when out of 60 million Bison that once roamed the entire United States, only 100 survived.  In fact, it was thought that all bison were extinct, and that was what we, as a country, as a government, was trying to achieve.  But in the early 20th century, around 100 Bison were found living in Yellowstone.  An immense effort was made to bring at least some bison back and the bison that you see today living in Yellowstone are the result of that effort–the last pure genetic stand of bison living today.

When you go to Yellowstone, there is a power, a respect, a wordless reverence that wells up in your being just seeing these animals.  Something deep and ancient reverberates in their presence.  Imagine if those bison hadn’t been preserved?  Those conservationists who helped preserve the bison of Yellowstone did an incredible service to future generations.  We, living today, are the beneficiaries of their efforts.

We must make those same efforts today for generations that will be living 100 years from now, just as they did for us 100 years ago.  That is how we should be looking at the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.  That is how we should be making our laws, our plans, our actions.

“You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one…”

High drama

Nature is full of drama, usually of the life and death kind.

On a rare warm, windless, beautiful day, I loaded up with the dog and headed for a hike down the unplowed part of the main road.   Just over the crest of the flats, I saw about 600 elk corralled within the ‘elk fence’, nervous and jittery.  It was almost 11:00 and these elk should have been resting in the trees.  Besides, you never see elk inside this fence.

Elk stuck inside fence and can't get to safety

I’ve heard two stories about this fences’ beginnings from two different neighbors.  When this ranch was owned by a wealthy man named Bugas in the 70’s, so the first story goes, the county conservation services re-graded and drained the field so he could put his cattle here, or at least more cattle.  Then to keep the elk out of the grazing pasture, the county paid for the fence.  Your tax dollars at work!

The second story isn’t too different from the first but with some variation, yet still with cattle in mind.  In the hard winter of ’77-’78, when the snows were so deep you couldn’t see the tops of the fence posts, Bugas’ cattle were struggling and starving.  The elk were eating the feed that was set out for them.  So a temporary fence was erected for that winter only.

Since that time the property was sold to Earl Holdings, one of the wealthiest men in the world, the fence remains, and the elk can’t move through or over.  So to see the elk inside was very unusual and probably spelled trouble.  The fence borders the creek.  On the other side of the creek is the game preserve where the elk have been gathering every evening and morning to eat.  One gate to the ranch property is open from the creek side, which is how these elk got in.   And that is how they would need to get out of this very large enclosed pasture.

But why they were there was solved when I saw some birds circling in their winter pasture across the creek.  There was a kill over there. These elk were trying to get across the private pasture and into the forest beyond but were being prevented by the fence.  Now they were sitting ducks for the wolves.  The road is between the fence and the forest where they wanted to head but were prevented.  They were hanging around the fence line by the road and every time a car went bye, they stressed, running this way and that, confused, not conserving their energy, unable to head in any safe direction.

 

Golden eagle resting after feeding on carcass

Needless to say, I’ve hated this fence ever since I’ve been here, and here was more proof why it should go.  When I saw the kill I went back to get my scope,  On the return I ran into Ron.  He’s a citizen ‘Wolfman Jack’.  He does a great service by being totally obsessed with wolves and following them.  He knows more what’s happening with the packs around here than anyone, including the Wildlife Services folks.  He relayed the drama that had unfolded this morning.

The Sunlight Pack made a kill.  The Sunlight pack is about 10 strong , almost all young wolves.  While they were on the kill, Ron heard some barking.  At first he thought it was the ranch dogs nearby, but then here come the Absaroka Pack, mature wolves 7 strong. They pushed the Sunlight pack off the kill.  While we were talking a black wolf from the Absaroka pack came checking things out.

Ron told me that between the Sunlight Pack, the Absaroka Pack which seems to come around here as well, and the Hoodoo pack of 10 wolves up around Crandall (but they frequent the valley here as well), AND the Beartooth pack of now 10, there is more going on in this area than the whole of the Northern Range.  We’ve got a lot of wolves running around this valley.

Wolves are such social animals and their interactions and orders are constantly changing.  The U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologist, Scott Becker, told me that they have few collared wolves at this point.  The dynamics are constantly changing and hard to keep track of.

When Abby was doing her wolf study here several years ago, there were only 2 or 3 wolves in the so-called Beartooth pack.  That pack is located across the Clark’s Fork of the Yellowstone, where there are very few elk.  It didn’t seem like a very hospitable place, especially in winter.  Scott told me they must eat a lot of deer up there.

I continued on down the road and began my hike.  Resting in the pasture, I saw 3 wolves–2 blacks and a grey.  When they saw me, the grey hightailed it out of there, but I was able to get some good video of these blacks.

Report on the Clark’s Fork elk herd

It snowed about 4″ here last night but I braved the drive into town early in order to hear Arthur Middleton’s talk at the Buffalo Bill Museum.  Arthur is the PhD student that’s in charge of the study on why the Sunlight elk herd has such low calf/cow ratios.  He’s been working up here in the field for 3 years, and now he expects to crunch all the data for another 3.  But his preliminary findings were what he wanted to report today to the public.

First off, I’ve seen his interns up here for the past two years and gotten to know them and Arthur.  I can’t say enough about how focused, diligent and hardworking these students are.  Up at dawn in the dead of winter to observe elk in the freezing cold.  As Arthur put it today, they had 4 behaviors that were noted:  feeding, bedding, vigilant, and running.  That’s about all the elk did, day after day.

Arthur did a great job of presenting all this info to the public in lay person’s terms.  He used slides and began step by step explaining some of the biology necessary to understand the complexity.  Simply put, there are many factors to consider, and I do remember at last years’ good-bye party for the interns listening to Arthur thinking all the factors through.  Here’s my summary of Arthurs’ points and I hope I’m doing justice to it all.

1.  First there are two herds that he studied, one migratory (Sunlight herd migrates here in winter and to the Park in the spring/summer/fall); and one non-migratory which is down north of Cody.  By looking at data from a lot of years ago, the elk have changed their patterns.  There used to be no non-migratory herds around here.  Migration, as Arthur pointed out, is a fairly fixed behavior taught by cow to calf, so it takes many years to make a change.  Arthur explained the advantages of migration, mainly better food quality as the elk follow the new grasses up as the snow melts.  There might be some predation advantages too as the predators den in the spring and stay put for a while as the elk move higher up.

Elk from the trail camera

2. Arthur explained how lactation takes a lot of energy from the mother (as all of us mothers know!).  Basically, non-lactating elk have 50 pounds more fat on them than those that lactate.  While the normal pregnancy rates for elk is 90% (and the NON-migrating herd is at that bar), the Sunlight (migrating) herd is at only about 60%.  The premier finding of this study was that the Sunlight herd cows are only getting pregnant every other year.  By doing that, they save energy vis a vis body fat that helps them through the winter.

3.   Displaying a slide of the rainfall patterns over the last hundred years, and comparing that with satellite data that looks at greening rates (especially in the months of June/July during lactation), we could see that this area has been in a severe drought, as well as compressed warming trends (i.e. shorter winters).  A photo of the high mountain pass between Sunlight and Yellowstone in June showed not as much green as should be expected.

4.  Another interesting find was behavior, what the interns were watching during those months they were here.  The vigilant behavior time was the same for the non-migratory and the migratory.  But where they differed was that the non-migratory herd spent more time bedding while the migratory herd spent more time feeding.  The nutritional quality of the migrators just wasn’t as good.  Factors governing the non-migratory herds were irrigated pastures and intentional low grade fires set to improve grazing in areas where cattle are.  The migratory Sunlight herd goes up through wild and high country where natural fires and rainfall determine feed quality.

More elk

5.  Lastly, looking at predation, Arthur showed a chart from research in Yellowstone pre -wolves on calf predation.  Predation was looked at by bears (main predator of calves), coyotes, cougars, natural causes, and survival rate.    He compared that to a more recent chart that included wolves.  Interestingly enough, wolves were almost about the same as the coyotes in the first slide but the bear predation had increased 3 fold. Lots more bears are in the Park since the 80’s.

This grizzly spent hours upturning Bison paddies for insects underneath

Although Arthur has more data to analyze, it seems obvious that the main factor that is affecting this herds’ decrease in cow/calf ratio is quality of feed.  These elk, smartly enough, are compensating for the nutritional loss by having calves every other year, instead of every year.  Add to that the increased predation on calves by bears in the park, with the new factor of wolves predating at the same rate as coyotes approximately, and you pretty much get your 30% drop.

Bull and cow mating in Yellowstone

One other comment Arthur made was that most of the migratory herds are doing well in Wyoming.  Sunlight as well as one other herd stood out as extremely low on a comparison chart and that was why this study was conducted.  Why this herd suffers more from drought than other herds–you’d have to look at each herd individually.

After the talk I went to the local hairdresser to make an appointment for next week.  As I was waiting at the counter, I noticed a large poster ready to put up, advertising the ‘Wolf Rally’ in Cody on May 22 by hunters, like the one in Jackson several weeks ago.  These guys are blaming wolves for all their woes and want the Wyoming delisting plan enacted which would give the wolf  predator status all over the state (meaning you can shoot on sight).  On the tag line of the poster there was an invitation to ‘Come and learn the science of what’s happening with the wolves and elk’.  Somehow I don’t think so.

Nature is a beautiful complexity that takes much time and pondering to put some of the pieces together that Man can understand.  What I learned from so many of my biology classes is that things are just not as simple as you think.  I watched Arthur over these last several years thinking through so many pieces of this puzzle in a questioning way, trying to piece parts together.   Its much easier to have an emotional opinion, play the game of scapegoat, and rally around a cause.

Wolf etiquette in the backcountry

The local wolf pack has been starting to get into bits of trouble.  I saw the ranch hand from the dude ranch down the way.  His cows have been calving.  They only keep about 30 cows around in the winter, but this morning, early, one of them calved and they got to it just about 10 seconds before two wolves did.  They fired a shot and scared them away. 

Just a few days ago, the wolves killed an elk right at the pasture line where the cows hang.  And the students told me they saw the small black female hanging near the cow pasture on the bridge yesterday.

Where all good dogs come from. Black female wolf

The Sunlight Pack has gotten into trouble almost every summer.  In a few weeks, the rancher that owns most of the valley floor will be bringing his cattle up here, maybe over 500 head or more.  They overwinter down near Powell and calf down there.  Last year it was almost all yearlings up here.  Yearlings aren’t too seasoned and are too curious.  Not a good combo for wolf country.

I’m worried for the pack.  This is good wolf country and cattle really shouldn’t be up here anymore.  The open range leases should be retired; ranches for tax write off purposes should be retired as well.  My eternal fantasy is to win the lottery and buy the big ranch.  Then put Bison back on it and don’t worry if the wolves and bears get a few.   Bison belong here.  They used to be here.

Eventually, you can count on the wolves picking off a few cattle.  Wildlife Services, Dept. of Agriculture, can decimate the ‘bad’  packs each year, trying to get them not to have a taste for cows.  But its not that they love cows.  Its sometimes they are handy or easy.  Really, the wolves prefer elk.   You can’t really blame those wolves for hanging around when the cows are calving.  Calves are helpless when they’re first born, and an easy meal.  It’s really a smart strategy.  Just as smart as the little chipmunk who ate a hole in my bucket full of grain for the turkeys.  Easy meal; low expenditure of energy; biology 101 really.

The Valley that Sits in the Middle of the Land

The ranch hand told me his friend went ‘horn hunting’ by horseback last weekend near the ranch in the back country with his two dogs.  The dogs ran off and haven’t been seen since. I showed him the electronic collar I keep Koda on.

“They’re bird dogs, not people dogs like yours.”  We’re both thinking the wolves probably already got them.

Last spring a young experienced hiker and his dog went backpacking up the North Fork near the Park entrance.  There’s a wolf pack up there, and although he kept his dog close, when he went to set up camp in a meadow in the rain, his dog was sniffing around and got attacked a few hundred yards away in the trees by 8 wolves.  There had been a recent human encampment there, probably with some leftovers.  The hiker ran to his dog, the wolves ran off, but the poor dog died.

That hiker didn’t really do anything wrong.  He kept his dog close at least most of the time.  When I told this to a local who hikes with her dog, her reply was telling:  “That’s a risk you take hiking around here.”

I keep Koda close.  I watch him at all times and keep him on a shock collar I got through Cabelas.  He’s a dog’s dog, not really a people dog.  He has come to like people, and he’s loyal to me especially.  When he sees a dog, I can easily control his desire to run up and play.  But his response to a coyote or a wolf is different.  Some ancient wildness overtakes him.  He recognizes the dog part, but he senses the freedom part too.  In a moment he’s off and that could be the difference between life and death for him.  That’s when the shock collar comes in super handy.  But its no guarantee.

Koda with his toy.

Yet I do have to say, those fellows who took their 2 dogs out here, in wolf country, and didn’t watch them, let them run around where ever their noses took them–that is just irresponsible with your dog and certainly you can’t blame the wolves.

However you cut it, with the wolves and grizzlies here, I still prefer that wildness.  One of the students and I were talking about New Zealand.  He did an internship last fall in Antarctica and spent time on the south Island of New Zealand for vacation.

“Compared to Antarctica, it was great to be in a place with plants and trees, lush and fertile, where we could hike.  But to tell you the truth, as a biologist, it lacked.  They have no native animals there, except for a few birds.  The scenery was beautiful, but I missed the wildlife, especially the big animals, those ones that make you aware when you’re hiking around.”

Even if Chief Seattle didn’t really say it, its worth quoting:  “What is man without the beasts?  If all the beasts were gone, men would die from a great loneliness of spirit.”

Amen to that.

We love our dogs. Let's keep them safe.

The wolves have a good day

What a day!  Let’s begin with 4″ of fresh snow.  Then add 5 wolves running past my property, 4 greys and 1 black.    Throw in back tracking and tracking the wolves to explore what route they are using to come down into the valley.  And for the day’s finale, watching the wolves on two kills they’d made by the road this morning.

Lots of elk tracks too on this beautiful day

Around 1 pm, we heard the dogs barking and looked out the front window to see 4 beautiful wolves running along the nearby pastures through a herd of horses.  Those horses are used to dogs so they didn’t seem perturbed one bit.  And those wolves were ‘booking’.  They had someplace to go or a meeting to attend.  Within just a few minutes they were up on the opposite hillside and over the divide, a hike that takes me at least 45 minutes!  Then along came a limpy grey following way behind.  They all looked amazingly healthy, no mange.

Limpy wolf but seems to be doing fine

These are the new Sunlight Pack, pushed slightly south into Elk Creek because of a much larger pack of 10 wolves occupying their northern range.  Last winter I didn’t get a chance to see the Sunlight Pack as they were hanging deeper west in the valley, moving with ease back and forth (north and south) across the valley floor.  This has been their home range for several years.

There’s an elk study going on, in its fifth season, in the valley and they’ve been able to do some good collaring this year of wolves.  And so they’ve learned that the Sunlight Pack has been bullied a bit by this larger pack to the north.  In fact, all that howling I heard on Valentines’ day was the Hoodoo Pack making a kill on the northern side of the river, a side that used to belong to the Sunlight pack.

Tracks of four wolves 'booking it'

At around dusk I went up the road to get a closer look at the kills and see if there were any wolves still  on them.  The UofW crew said they processed the kills and they were two older cow elks, about 10 and 12 years old.  “How old is old for an elk?”  I asked.  “About 15.  Some can live till 20, but that’s really old. These were in pretty good shape,” they informed me.  

With some quick and dirty math, I figure that’s about 50 or 60 years in human terms.