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Insentient Landscape

Three Hoodoo wolves. This pack is now gone after last year’s hunt

I was encouraged by The Sierra Club to write an op-ed on the dramatic changes I’ve experienced in my valley since the delisting and hunting of wolves here in Wyoming. With their help, the op-ed came out in The Salt Lake City Tribune.

The original op-ed was a longer more expressive piece which needed to be cut for the Tribune’s size qualification.  I thought I’d print that here.

ONE day in late spring when the light is low and dusk lingers for hours, I headed out for a short hike in a series of craggy volcanic contours of hills and narrow arroyos. Some of these gullies hold snow melt run-off for weeks, attracting bears and cougars. Following a narrow animal trail over slippery scree slopes, I slid into a tight channel with a trickle of water running through it to inspect for tracks. As I headed back up the incline to the makeshift trail, a wolf came trotting by. We saw each other simultaneously, less than ten feet apart. I relished the moment, but she didn’t. Startled, she jolted, eyed me for less than a moment, then darted off. This was two years ago and my last close wolf encounter. Although these close encounters are vivid in my memory, my multi-year observations of the impacts wolves had on my valley is the story I cherish most.

I was lucky. I bought a home in a remote valley next to Yellowstone in 2005, less than nine years after the Yellowstone wolf reintroduction. Wolves had been in the valley for a few years, managed by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and protected from hunting. Elk descend from the high country starting in December, and the wolves follow the elk. My first resolution was to wake up at dawn at least five days a week during January through March and observe elk, with the hopes of also seeing wolves.

Our coyotes were still learning about living with wolves, many times to their demise. With less coyotes, foxes were making a comeback. Locals told me they hadn’t seen foxes in years. I saw them frequently now. By watching winter bird activity like ravens and magpies, I could find kills. Golden eagles were always there, and surprisingly, bald eagles as well, who winter at lower elevations. The winter landscape was alive and tracking became a favorite activity of mine. Several times I tracked mountain lions to a kill site, only to see where wolves had taken over the cat’s kill. And of course, what a thrill to hear a wolf howl. February, the mating month, I heard wolves howling during the day as well as the early mornings. I saw blood trails during their estrus and my dog sometimes found cached meat under the snow.

At one point, after Idaho and Montana began their wolf hunts in 2009, our area had the highest number of wolves in the Northern Range, over 40 in several packs. I watched as these packs vied for territory, keeping their numbers in check to accommodate for territory and prey. I learned then that wolves self-regulate themselves.

During the spring and summer, when wolves left their pups at rendezvous sites, it wasn’t uncommon to encounter a lone wolf on a hike. I had made sure to have my dog well-trained so he never ran after wildlife, especially wolves. Our valley was alive, and slowly our elk herd was learning how to manage with the return of their ancient predator.

In 2012, the Feds delisted wolves in Wyoming, giving the state jurisdiction. First thing Wyoming did was to begin a hunt which lasted only two years until a Federal judge relisted them. But within those two years wolves developed a fearful relationship with humans. Before that time, watching a wolf pack from the dirt road in a vehicle didn’t bother them; encountering one on a hike, they’d observe you then run away. I never felt threatened by wolves. They are curious by nature, and like most animals, don’t want to have much to do with our species. Yet just a year after that first hunt, if they heard a car coming a mile away in the silent depth of a winter morning, they’d disappear.

From 2014 to 2016, wolves in Wyoming were back on the Endangered Species List. It was an odd interval because even though the Feds now had jurisdiction, they had not planned nor allocated extra resources for this turn of events. During the summer I ran into the USFWS biologist monitoring wolves. He asked me to let him know if I saw any wolves, especially pups. Few wolves were collared and no collaring was going on. The wolves had a short reprieve.

Then in 2017 our wolves were delisted again. Wyoming Game & Fish has decided my hunt zone, adjacent to the Park, is easier for wolf hunting opportunity because of backcountry access. That translates into the highest quotas in the Trophy Management Zone. I’ve asked why we have more harvest success here than other zones. I’m told by game managers that wolf hunters are now coming here just to kill wolves; and there are outfitters specializing in providing that killing opportunity.

With five consecutive years of hunting, I no longer see wolves nor hear them. Our winter nights are strangely silent. Sometimes I catch a few on my trail camera near my house. They always travel at night. There’s no need to look for ravens circling or golden eagles in the winter. Although our recent winters have been mild, dispersing our elk, other friends who hike confirm it’s rare to find kill sites anymore.

One of our wolf pack travels back and forth into the Park with the potential to supply fresh genetics. Last year they did not breed nor did our other main pack. Both were reduced, according to the 2020 report by Wyoming Game & Fish, to just three individuals. This year I was told that same pack was all but wiped out, a pack that has been our stronghold since I arrived in 2005.

Wyoming Game & Fish’s idea of managing wolves is hunting opportunity. But what about my opportunity? The opportunity to hear the primal howl of wolves, to observe them, and to witness all the amazing changes—changes that resulted in a landscape teeming with life. Without the natural play of all the varied wildlife, my valley, like so much of the lower 48, is a bereft landscape.

I am lucky. I’ve had so many unique wildlife encounters, memories I’ll cherish forever. I’d like my children and grandchildren to have those same opportunities. But until state wildlife agencies change their orientation, a posture that considers only hunting opportunity, disregarding ecosystem health and wildlife viewing opportunity, things won’t change. I’m using my sorrow and anger to express what we who cherish our wild lands and wildlife must do–speak up and press for change in state wildlife management outside our National Parks. Perhaps that means relisting wolves and revamping the parameters upon which jurisdiction can be given back to the states. If so, then that’s what must happen.

Until then, I’ll remember those rare and powerful moments I was privileged to experience. One evening while returning home at dusk, three wolves ran across the highway in front of my car. Beginning their night’s hunt, I was struck by their excitement, their intensity and force. They seemed the very embodiment of the immense and wondrous power that is the Universe itself.

Life can be suppressed, but it cannot be crushed. Wolves, in their ceaseless energy, their deep intelligence, epitomize the purity and dynamism of Life itself.


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.

Elk–the poster child for an elegant chaos

Yesterday down by the river Koda found a large cow elk carcass.  I usually follow the dog when he’s intent on something as he invariably leads me to interesting stuff.  And he kept his promise, for this was no ordinary carcass. This elk had a collar, a VHF tracking collar.  I assumed, rightly so, that this was a collar left over from Arthur Middleton’s 3 year elk field study in my valley.  Just last month I caught an elk on my trail camera by my house wearing a collar.  I contacted Arthur because I was surprised there were still some elk with them.  Apparently some of the collars employed for the study were designed to fall off; but others were going to stay with the elk for life.

I decided the best thing was not to touch the collar, but to contact the game warden.  I knew they’d want the collar back, even if it no longer carried data or was active.  The collars can be refurbished and save the WG&F around $600. But I wasn’t sure if they wanted to check the elk’s health out, with the collar on, before I removed it for them.  Since the carcass was in a fairly easy access location, I did worry that someone would come bye and snatch the collar for themselves as a souvenir.  When I spoke with the warden, he requested that I go back, obtain the collar, and save it for him.

Predated elk with collar.  How the elk died, we don't know.  But she provided a good meal for a lot of predators.
Predated elk with collar. How the elk died, we don’t know. But she provided a good meal for a lot of predators.

I noticed that she only had one ivory.  When she was collared back in around 2008, they took one of her ivories (her eye tooth) to determine her age.  Judging by her teeth, she was an older cow, but once the warden retrieves the collar, they can match it up and determine her exact age at death.  At long last, she’ll get that collar off.  I did feel badly that she had to move around with that collar around her neck all these years.

Arthur Middleton’s study in my valley was commissioned to find out why this migratory elk herd has such a low cow/calf ratio.  He spent three years of fieldwork, and several more writing his thesis.  Since that time, Arthur was awarded a prize/grant to study the other 5 migratory elk herds in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.  You can read the controversial results of that study here on my blog, and here on the web.

One of the many interesting findings was the rate of vigilance displayed by elk relative to wolves.  Before the study, everyone was postulating that wolves were responsible for the low calf ratios.  The theory out there was that wolves were pushing the elk hard and therefore stressing them out.  This additional stress led to less foraging, more vigilance, and just less calving success.

About 2000 elk are in the valley in winter.
About 2000 elk are in the valley in winter.  These are the YNP Lamar elk herd.

The results debunked this theory.  First off, there was no more vigilance with the migratory herd than the non-migratory herd that was used for comparison in the study(where wolves are present although not as many; and they had normal cow/calf ratios).  But more interesting was that elk did not show any signs of stress or movement until wolves were within 1 km, and these wolf/elk encounters occurred, on average, once every 9 days.  These factors are important to what Arthur is now stirring up a storm of controversy with.

The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation helped fund Middleton’s study. But they seem to ignore the results of the study and still blame wolves for all the decline.  Included in the above 80% is the overpopulation of elk on the Northern range present before wolves.  YNP was killing elk for years to help reduce the herd.  One reason why wolves were introduced in 1996.

Just recently, Middleton had an op-ed in the New York Times.  In it, he contends that his results, as well as other studies, challenge the straight forward idea of wolves and trophic cascades.  In other words, that wolves herd the elk sufficiently to allow less browsing on aspens and willows, allowing them to regenerate.  The idea of trophic cascades is no doubt true (apex predators affect whole ecosystems), but Arthur is saying ecosystems have a lot more complexity to them then the simple fix of restoring top predators.

One of the ideas rattling around these days in biology is the Landscape of Fear.  I’m not a biologist, but the whole notion never sat right with me.  Simply put, the theory maintains predators will change the behavior of their prey, through fear, in ways that affects the their movement throughout the landscape, changing their feeding patterns and thus the plant material.  True, but maybe not the whole of it I think.  Ecosystems are varied and complex.  Arthur posted a photo of a wolf den with a herd of elk grazing nearby.  We humans have certain notions of fear-consciousness, yet this might not at all be what’s driving all the movements of wildlife.  As I said in that previous post, I still think nature has more to do with adaptation and awareness, than with so-called ‘fear’.

Recently I took a class with James Halfpenny in the Park.  He was asked about the wolf-coyote relationship.  It has been documented that wolves killed about 50% with the wolf reintroduction, but now their population seems to have recovered.  Coyotes are using the ‘inbetweens’ of the wolf territories to move around.  It didn’t take them long to work out, and remember instinctively, their age-old relationship with their big brothers and how to live with them (and take advantage of their kills).

And if wolves are herding elk from intensive aspen/willow foraging, I have to ask why the pack of six wolves in my valley was slacking on the job.  When the snows got really deep, the elk settled in my front yard and forest, topping every single aspen and willow they could reach.

Wolf wary of infared light
Wolf wary of infared light


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

Cat Tracking and a wildlife bonanza

The Plateau

I’ve been hiking the plateau for several days now and, wow, what a lot of wildlife activity is going on there.  A few days ago on my first jaunt I ran into a fairly fresh elk carcass.  She was a very large and old elk.  I’d been seeing lots of wolf tracks on the plateau and of course there were fresh tracks leading to the carcass

Rabbit prints with my own footprints too

That same day I realized where all the cottontails are–on Dead Indian plateau!  The cottontails here seemed active and numerous and here I found and tracked a bobcat hunting them.

Several days later I explored a cliff edge on the plateau that looks out over Sunlight creek gorge.  There, on a prominence, were over a dozen Mountain Goats, safely grazing on the edges where no sane predator including humans would go.

But today was a bonanza.  There are plenty of deer on the plateau, and although there are elk tracks and other evidence of elk, I haven’t seen any with my own eyes.  But I do run into deer occasionally.  And with all the granite cliffs and rocks, that makes for perfect cat country.  After scrambling up a huge granite boulder, I saw from afar some interesting large tracks that at first glance could be mistaken for wolf.  But as soon as I got close enough to make them out, there was no question what they were–cougar tracks.  I followed them for a while into a heavy deer area when they disappeared under the blown snow from yesterday.  Some of the tracks were perfect ice.  Seeing those tracks takes one’s breath away.

This track measures 3"x3" approx.

It seemed like this cougar was following me, figuratively not literally.  As I lost the cougar farther back, I began concentrating on my bobcat that I found in virtually the same location as the other day.  He or she was weaving around, obviously hunting again.  Here is a photo of where the cat stopped to scratch in the snow.  

Here is a photo of the bobcat in a sit-down in front of a large sage brush.  Obviously something caught his attention there.

Bobcat sitdown

And there again was my cougar, making the rounds in this area too.  Here are two prints comparing a cougar print with a bobcat, for size.

Cougar hind track measuring 2.75 x 3.25

bobcat track measuring 1.75 x 2"

This rocky area is incredibly active–so much going on.  Partly because it is usually always windswept of snow, it is good ungulate habitat in the winter, which means food for predators.  In the fall bears frequent the area to look for limber pine middens.

It was great fun tracking big and small cats today; and knowing that you’re in the presence of a cougar your heart skips a beat.  Luckily, I have my personal wolf to protect me.

My great protector concentrating on his ball while a buck glides in the background

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

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…”

Learning gaits

I’ve been working hard to learn animal gaits.  What, you may ask, is that?  Its the pattern you’re going to see on the ground when an animal is moving, either walking, running, loping, trotting, hopping…you get the idea.

I’d been studying track identification for a number of years.  When I was in California last month I went to my old tracking club that meets once a month at Abbot’s Lagoon in Point Reyes.  We walk about a mile to reach a sand dune spit which is always full of life–bobcats, deer, coyotes, raccoons, otters, skunks and more.  This particular morning was a coyote and a bobcat station.  Both stations were about gait analysis.  The coyote switched from a trot, the natural rhythm for a coyote, to a side trot, then looked to the side, then stopped and started walking.  I really was confronted with my limited knowledge of gaits.

Gaits overwhelm me.  I have gait dyslexia it seems.  So what I did was use stiff cardboard and cut out footprints–F for front and R for rear.  Then I’ve been arranging them, using Mark Elbroch book ‘Mammal Tracks and Sign‘ as a guide, in different typical patterns.  Once arranged, I use all fours and mimic the gait.  I think its the only way to get this into my brain, as a kinesthetic exercise.  I once heard that you have to see an advertisement 300 times before its in the brain.  Probably I’ll have to do each gait 300 times before it begins to connect.

Straddle trot turning into a Side Trot (canines)


Transverse Lope

And of course, then you’ve got to go to the field.  Today I went out to a well-traveled back road that’s closed in the winter.  Well-traveled that is, by bunnies, coyotes, and especially the local wolf pack.  Last week the snow was very deep, but today it was hard packed with mostly wolf prints running back and forth.  I still am not very good at figuring out how many wolves were running down the trail, especially since there were tons of prints in both directions.  But at least 4 or 5 wolves.  I could see where they’d made a kill on the other side of the creek, but only a few parts were visible through my binoculars.

As I traveled further up the trail, one wolf was occasionally dripping blood.  I thought it might be too early for her to be in estrus.  The wound though wasn’t coming from the foot.  At one point the wolf shook and there were drips of blood in either direction of her trail.

I followed one wolf track that went off to the side of the trail.  The track stopped at a wide swath of compacted snow, like a lay.  But it didn’t seem that it was a wolf lay.  For one thing there were ungulate hairs in the depression.  Also the wolf’s tracks were fairly unbroken.  Koda was very interested, digging and sniffing the outline.

The bigger track is the front foot

We trekked a bit further to another spot where the wolf went off to the side again, with another depression.  Koda began digging furiously, and came up with a fresh deer skull!  That wolf had stashed the skull there.  Probably the other spot was a possible stash area, but then he changed his mind and stashed it further up.  That was fun and revealing for me because I had wondered if maybe that wolf had laid down.  But it didn’t add up with the ungulate hairs and no deer tracks leading to or from it.  Tracking is kind of like solving a mystery.

Koda, upon finding that wolf’s ‘stash’, took that deer skull and stashed it somewhere else.  I told him that that wolf would be mad with him for messing with his ‘stash’!

The wolves veered off the old road, under a fence line and into the woods.  I followed them out to where they crossed an iced over portion of the river.  They were just making their rounds and I was getting an idea of their route.  Interestingly enough, I saw some old bear tracks.  They were very degraded but were certainly bear.  Yet they weren’t that old because they were in the snow.  Although the winds have been blowing for days, this was a protected area under cover.  But our last snowfall was about a week ago.  These tracks were fairly fresh.  The fact that some bears are out still gave me pause.

So far in the last week, I’ve noticed a few things relative to the wolf pack here.  They use the easy routes to patrol the area.  They like to go up and down the main dirt road, then cut across the meadow through the willows to cross the river.  They circuit around from the closed road on the north side of the creek back to the main road.  When I walked the closed road all the way to the Game and Fish (which is closed during the winter for wildlife habitat), I’d thought the wolves would have continued on their trek through the boundary line.  Elk are in the meadows up there, but the snow is deep, so they use the easier routes for now.  Last year for certain they were coming and going through the habitat boundary, but last year held much less snow.

Also, last year the kills I saw were mainly elk.  So far this year, in just the two weeks that I’ve been watching along the road, they’ve killed not only elk (I saw one elk kill) but a yearling moose and now this deer.

Abbie Nelson out of University of Wyoming, worked up here for 2 summers and fall doing a wolf study.  She told me deer were the preferred food in summer when the elk are gone.  With thousands of elk now in the valley, all along the meadows beside the roads, I was surprised to see this deer kill in the creek bottom.

Tracking animals always gets me into their mindset.  And if I can begin to learn gaits, then I might be able to get in to their heads even more.  You can see which way an animal was looking, if they paused or speed up, and  then you ask yourself ‘Why?’.  It is a real study for sure.  I’m working on it.