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Predator control: Does it really work?

A few weeks ago our local Wyoming Game & Fish ungulate biologist held a public meeting to discuss the startling decline in our mule deer numbers. We’ve had several hard winters in a row, the worst being 2016-2017, a winter snowpack that locals hadn’t seen in over forty years. That winter was so difficult on our mule deer that as spring emerged, the amount of dead deer across the landscape was phenomenal. I hiked areas where every quarter mile I’d see a dead deer. And so it was a feast for emerging bears. The video below was taken mid-April 2017, just as bears were leaving their dens. This bear is so well-fed he looks like he’s going into hibernation, not coming out of.

 

Even this winter, although our snowpack was light December and January, February was intensely cold, with few days that cracked zero. The word from Game and Fish is that our herd objective (3 hunt areas) is 4000-6000 but the estimate is 2,900. An adjacent herd (6 hunt areas) objective of 9,600-14,400 is estimated at 6,900. And, according to G&F, the decline began even two years before winter 2016-2017.

 

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Mule deer with fawn

Since I was snowed in and could not attend the public meeting, I spoke directly with the G&F biologist Tony Mong. Hard winters, and especially 2016, was acknowledged to be a major factor in the decline. I also found out that these two herds have never been robust, for reasons scientists have only recently discovered why—long migrations. In the last few years, these deer have been radio-collared as part of the Wyoming Migration Initiative. Researchers found they undertake a very long migration twice yearly into and out of the Park, among the longest in Wyoming mule deer herds. That alone takes its toll. I asked Mong if there had been a study on the low doe/fawn ratio to determine all factors. “Not yet.”

The following week I saw snowmobile tracks behind a locked Forest Service gate (foot traffic is allowed, though not vehicular traffic) that leads to winter elk habitat. I followed the tracks and found Wildlife Services (WS) was laying out bait on a small private inholding that’s surrounded by Forest Service lands. This is high country with windswept meadows, an area that bull elk especially like to frequent during winter months.

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Some friends that were shed hunting told me WS was baiting for coyotes, then planned to return and helicopter shoot them. These efforts to kill coyotes in this area will continue on foot through June, although our deer leave the valley late April/early May for their migration. The WS coordinator for Cody told me a dozen coyotes were killed by helicopter last week.

Coyote hunting

Coyote hunting ground squirrels

Concerned, I again spoke with Mong. He told me G&F usually likes to do controls where deer drop their fawns, but these deer fawn in the Park or in wilderness so they cannot do controls there. This was their best shot, literally. Who was funding this? Not Game and Fish. Private sportsmen organizations, at least one of them from Pennsylvania.

Mong’s explanation made no sense. These coyotes weren’t even the ones living in the fawning areas, so why the effort for little to no return? Even the WS chief told me they might save 20-40 adult deer this year from predation out of the 2,900 in the herd.

coyote

Coyote on wolf-killed elk carcass

Coyotes in Wyoming are considered predators and don’t come under the purview of G&F, but under APHIS, Department of Agriculture. That means they are the easiest targets. Next though on the predator list, would be mountain lions and their three year review is coming up this year with the G&F Commission. The zone that encompasses both herds has a consistent yearly quota of 20 lions and is supposed to be a  “Source” zone for lions, which means exactly what it says (Source, Sink, and Stable are the three types of management for mountain lion zones in Wyoming). And I have to wonder if what’s next will be hunters crying out for more wolves to be killed in our zone which is a trophy hunt area next to Yellowstone?

 

Obviously there are a lot of factors that control deer populations, weather and habitat probably being the most significant. As these deer migrate into the Park, surfing the spring green wave, quality of habitat is of special importance. One biologist reminded me how the ’88 fires created lush habitat for deer and elk. Now, thirty years later, young trees have crowded out many of those areas. And massive beetle-kill has created forests of impassible downed timber.

Beetle kill

Beetle-killed white bark pines dead on high trail in the valley

Panthera Teton Cougar Project recently published a timely study on this subject. Mark Elbroch and his team looked at how age structure in mountain lions determines food preference. The PTCP found that younger lions tend to specialize on smaller prey and deer. While cats five years and older specialize on elk. His conclusion:

Since younger cats specialize on deer, rather than elk, heavily hunted populations of pumas may put more pressure on deer populations than an un-hunted population with a higher average cat age. (Elbroch’s emphasis)

Another long term study was done in Idaho from 1997-2003 where researchers systematically targeted removal of coyotes and mountain lions in order to grow a mule deer population, one which had similarly low doe/fawn ratio as in my area. The study increased hunting on lions and coyotes, employed WS to kill coyotes winter through spring, targeted coyote killing in fawning areas, and decreased human hunting on deer. In other words, it was very intensive as to predator control along with other factors analyzed. Their results in a nutshell:

Our experimental efforts to change mule deer demography through removal of their 2 top predators had minimal effects, providing no support for the hypothesis that predator removal would increase mule deer populations…Population growth rates did not increase following predator reduction as predicted.

Isn’t it time we applied hard science to agency decisions when it comes to predators instead of bowing to non-scientific, knee-jerk reactions as a public relations ploy for pleasing the hunting community that agencies are “doing something”? Interestingly, I met with our Wildlife Services director to ask about the scope of this project. He acknowledged habitat and weather were actually the foremost critical factors in ungulate population numbers. “But unfortunately, predators are the low-hanging fruit.” His words, not even mine.

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How the Eastern U.S. Puma was exterminated

This excerpt, edited out of the final version of my new book Ghostwalker: Tracking a Mountain Lion’s Soul through Science and Story, is a quick history of how the mountain lion was exterminated from the eastern U.S. due to attitudes brought by European settlers.


Europeans had long since removed their own top predators, and from the beginning of stepping foot on new soil, they carried with them an attitude of removing wolves, bears, and cats in the New World as well. With their arrival, a dark chapter began for the mountain lion, and all large predators, in North America.

As early as the late 1500s, barely a century after the Spanish stepped foot in the Americas, Jesuit priests in California were offering a bull for the killing of a cougar.  The first recorded cougar bounty on the East Coast was in 1680 and by 1742 Massachusetts followed suit. In early America, these new inhabitants feared and loathed lions, wolves and bears. Stories were spun that cougars were malevolent, evil, even supernatural beings that killed wantonly. Europeans brought their pigs and cows into the New World under a silent compact that they would flourish. And indeed the domestic animals did thrive, in the marshlands, in the oyster beds of coastal New England, and in the newly cleared forests. Euro-Americans left behind a homeland where African lions had been exterminated centuries before, and wolf extermination began in earnest after the Black Death in the mid-1300s. By 1684 in Scotland, and 1770 in Ireland, wolves were gone, while the rest of European wolves quickly followed. Now the colonists were confronted with a wide new array of predators, and their stance was stanch that extermination without mercy was their God-given right.

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Wolves, who traveled in packs, and howled across the countryside, were easily spotted by men who carried with them the folklore and prejudices from the old country. Because of this, they received the most visible and ongoing persecution. Cougars, on the other hand, with their secretive, surreptitious nature, received less attention in lore but were persecuted and eliminated none the less. A story from Jon Coleman’s Vicious illustrates not only the settlers relentless cruelty towards wolves, but also their attitude towards all predators, from the largest to smallest meso-predators such as raccoons and fishers. On the Maine coast in the 1660s, a group hunting for waterfowl along the beach happened upon a wolf. Their dogs, led by a large female mastiff, chased after the wolf up the coastline and pinned it down by the throat.

“The hunters bound the animal’s paws and carried him home swinging ‘like a calf upon a staff between two men.’ That night, they unleashed the predator inside their living room. The beast sank to the floor. No biting, no snarling, he just slouched there, staring at the door. The men tried to rile him up with the dogs, but the pack was listless and uninterested, too worn out to care following that afternoon’s long chase. Their evening’s entertainment ruined, the hunters took the wolf outside and crushed his skull with a log.”

Individuals in early America who took matters into their own hands, enjoyed weaving tales that celebrated their valor, and manhood, while also characterizing the animals they killed as vicious and aggressive to bolster their reputation. As more people arrived with their livestock, individual efforts were soon not enough. Circle or drive hunts soon emerged in eastern frontier towns. These drives killed many more animals in a shorter period of time with less effort. Some of these drives were duly recorded.

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In 1753 citizens of three surrounding villages in Massachusetts combined forces to rid the forests of wolves and other predators. In 1810 in Vermont, a large group of men, women, and children used an ever enclosing circle to capture and kill six wolves. Local papers and fliers announced these drives, asking citizens to turn out with the hopes of killing sheep-eating predators. These early hunts laid the groundwork for the ritual of circle hunts throughout New England. The preferred method was a ringleader would send out an invitation to the men living in the surrounding areas. A description of one of these drives included over 400 men, advancing to the center “under the direction of the local militia officers. When the hunters could hear the shouts of their cohorts across the circle, their commanders ordered a halt….the best marksman among them, entered the ring and killed the wolves and foxes trapped there. The farmers scalped the wolves and marched to the town clerk’s office to collect the bounty.” Just as colonists came together for barn raising, and other tasks done as a community effort, the circle hunt became part of the communal tradition: first build the cabin, then clear the woods of predators

A vivid accounting of a circle hunt took place in the woods of Pennsylvania in 1760. Black Jack Schwartz organized two hundred townspeople into a drive so wide it practically encircled the entire county. Men armed with guns, fire, and noisemakers created a circle thirty miles in diameter, slowly driving all the game towards the center, then began shooting indiscriminately for several hours. A few terrified animals escaped the ring, yet the final tally revealed a slaughter of 41 Panthers, 109 wolves, 112 foxes, 114 mountain cats, 17 black bears, 111 buffalo, 98 deer, and more than 500 smaller animals. The animals were skinned, the bison tongues taken, and all the carcasses were heaped in a pile “as tall as the tallest trees” and burned. The stench was so dreadful that settlers vacated their homes for over three miles. Black Jack’s reputation with the Indians of the area, who only killed game as needed for food and clothing, was so unpopular after the drive that he was ambushed and killed while on a hunting trip. The last of these drives was held in 1849 in Pennsylvania.

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On the Pacific coast, the Spanish tradition of roping grizzlies and pitting them against bulls for sport is well-documented. These bull-bear fights included betting and even after-church festivities in arenas built specifically for the sport. In California Grizzly Storer and Tevis describe a bear-panther fight near Big Sur that took place after California was admitted to the Union. The gold rush brought in hundreds of thousands of new settlers, and with the arrival of these new residents, grizzlies were being killed in greater and greater numbers. The Spanish bull-bear spectacle continued for a few years until the dearth of bears caused the sport to dwindle. The event in 1865 was described by a young Frank Post who witnessed the event when he was only 6 years, yet never forgot it.

“The lion, which seemed to have no fear, leaped onto the bear’s back and while clinging there and facing forward scratched the grizzly’s eyes and nose with its claws. The bear repeatedly rolled over onto the ground to rid himself of his adversary; but as soon as the bear was upright, the cat would leap onto his back again. This agility finally decided the struggle in favor of the lion.”

The old growth hardwood forests of the East were cleared so quickly that by 1800 residents of the Hudson Valley in New York worried about the scarcity of firewood. By the mid 1800s, from 50% to 90% of the eastern landscape had been cleared for agriculture. Game were so diminished that even by 1639 hunting seasons were closed. Between habitat and food loss, along with human persecution, cougars were effectively eliminated east of the Mississippi River by the mid- to late 1800s. The rugged, arid West and Southwest remained as the only suitable hiding places and cover for mountain lions.

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Wolves, the Winds, and a Spotter Plane

I now have zero tolerance for mosquitos, and my annual visits to the Wind River Mountains for the last several years always come after labor day. Almost every September trip I can remember comes with at least one day of snow but not this year. Although a few nights were in the 20s, the days were warm enough for shorts. But along with warm weather came limited visibility from the fires in Montana, (and throughout the West) meant the craggy flanks of the Continental Divide mountains were barely visible.

This year I picked out a small area where I’d never been–Bald Mountain and Chain Lakes. My other choice was Sweetwater Gap, where I went last year with limited time to explore. Bald Mountain has the easier access via a paved eleven mile road outside of Pinedale to the Elkhart Park trailhead. With the easy access, I arrived at 3pm and hiked five miles to Sweeny Lake. Everyone was pouring out from the Labor Day weekend, most probably coming from popular Titcomb Basin. The trail up Elkhart takes you along a wooded ridge for five miles before it splits to either Titcomb or Pole Creek. An otherwise non-descript trek except for the evidence of beetle-kill. Large pockets of whitebark pines dead–a sad scene in one of the last strongholds for these trees in the Greater Yellowstone.

Sweeny and Miller lakes are in a bowl below the ridgeline and add only an extra 1/2 mile, well worth it especially since there’s no water for five miles till Elklund lake–a popular campsite destination. Sweeny is a gem with no one around and some good camping spots. The full moon rose orange from all the smoke and only a bugling elk broke the early morning silence. These lakes have been hit hard with beetle kill.

Sweeny Lake

Sweeny Lake in the Winds

My base camp destination was Chain Lakes, about another seven miles. The trail is rocky but easy, passing through granite knolls till it reaches the crossing at Pole Creek. Before the crossing I sat down for a snack when a deer suddenly burst down the trail headed for the river crossing, obviously spooked by something. When the deer saw me it did a quick 90 degree turn towards the brush. An outfitter appeared with two mules a few moments later, bound for his wall tent camp to pick up supplies. He’d be the last person I’d see for three days.

Setting up camp on a small rise between the larger upper Chain Lake and the lower, I found that no one had camped anywhere in this valley. There were no fire rings. I believe people see it as a pass through while either hiking further south on the highline trail, or venture into the Bald Mountain areas.

Chain Lake Wind River

Upper Chain Lake from my campsite. Smokey mountains in far back

The following morning I had a wonderful, yet strange and confusing experience. While making breakfast, wolves began howling directly across from my campsite, around 200 yards away on a wooded hillside above where the upper and lower lakes converge. A muddy rock hop stream divides the two lakes which I’d noticed was full of elk and wolf tracks. I ate my oatmeal breakfast on a rocky prominence and listened to the wolves singing, signaling an end to their night hunt. I’ve heard wolves in the Winds before, but never so close and their presence made me happy, signaling the return of the wilds in an area of Wilderness.

Pinedale area is right on the border of the Predator Zone (wolves were just delisted this spring) and I wasn’t sure if I was in a Trophy or Predator area, but knew I was borderline close. Hunting is legal in a wilderness area, and hunting for wolves in the predator zones is legal 365/24/7.

Still basking in the glow of ‘true wilderness’ calls, and the fact that I was the solitary human presence in this valley, twenty minutes after hearing the wolves, I hear another sound–a spotter plane coming into the valley, headed directly for the knoll where these wolves were howling. The plane comes closer and closer, finally to tightly circle over six times directly above the tree tops where I’d heard my wolves howling. I know Game and Fish spotter planes as they collar wolves in January in my home valley. This plane was white, unmarked, single engine with long wings. Who were these people then? The pilot was obviously trying to flush the wolves out of the trees, and also he had to have the GPS coordinates of a collared wolf in order to arrive just a few minutes after I’d heard their presence.

Wolf hillside

Small knoll where wolves were howling

After jumping up and down and yelling at that plane, they left after six tight passes only 50′ above the tree tops. Later that day I headed up the knoll to explore. A few nice small meadows indicated good elk food, lots of stock evidence of grazing of outfitter horses and mules, and…a dead mule about a month old, reduced to bones. This confluence of events confused me even more.

That morning, I headed up to the Baldy Lakes that sit directly below Mt. Baldy. What a beautiful high elevation spot. A series of small lakes leads to a waterfall and a high rocky meadow where a feeder trail merges with the Fremont Trail.

Bald Mountain Basin Wind Rivers

Baldy Lakes

Bald Mountain lakes

Another view of Bald Mountain lakes

I saw a black bear print in a muddy creek crossing on the way up here. Elk, wolves, deer, and a bull moose. Never seen so much wildlife in my Wind River visits over twenty years. After spending a few more days at Chain Lakes, every evening and early morning punctuated with wolf howls, I did an early morning hike out in the moonlight. Stopping for sunrise at Photographer’s Point (still smokey so the mountains looked like a Chinese silhouette painting), I realized in that windless moment why these mountains have such a poetic name. Fremont Creek roared deep below, pouring out from the Continental Divide’s numerous lakes. It sounded like a strong wind in the valley, yet the air was still. The Wind Rivers! I love this place like no other.

After my confusing experience with wolves and a plane, I headed to Jackson to the Wyoming Game and Fish where I spoke with Dan Thompson. I was concerned about poaching (even in the predator zone wolves cannot be killed aerially), or spotting (it is illegal to plane spot for game and trophy animals after July 31 in Wyoming). It turns out that Chain Lakes is barely in the Trophy zone and Thompson later emailed me that his pilot was flying ‘locating wolves to demonstrate recovery’. OK, I understand if it’s G&F doing legal flights, but what do you think about planes low flying 50 feet above the ground, circling in Wilderness during prime hiking season? It was incredibly emotionally disturbing, ruined my own ‘wilderness’ experience which I’d just hiked fifteen miles into the back country for, and seemed so intrusive for these wild animals. In twenty years of hiking and camping in wilderness designated areas, the only other time I’ve seen a plane was a search and rescue mission.

Topping my week off, I spent time in Dubois where I bought a fishing license for the reservation and drove up Dinwoody Creek to see some amazing petroglyphs. Here’s a taste.

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Dinwoody Canyon is beautiful and off-limits to non-tribal members as it is a sacred area. I’ve been to the top at Goat Flat via the Glacier trail, but it is illegal to hike into the valley. Interestingly, several years ago they found a buffalo jump on the high ridge pass at 11,000 feet and speculated that on occasion, when the buffalo ran there, native peoples would spend the winter at high altitude since they couldn’t carry that much meat to the lower elevations.

Dinwoody Canyon

Looking up Dinwoody Canyon towards Goat flat

My October Surprise – A Wolf Poaching

The following events took place in October 2014, just after Wyoming’s wolf hunt was cancelled due to wolves being re-listed as Endangered.

October in Wyoming has the best weather. It can be raining, snowing, sunshine, or all of the above at once. Blustery one day, then in the 60s the next, Indian Summer seems to come and go until suddenly, one day, it’s winter.

I’m packing up for a work trip to California for several months, but before I leave I want to ‘say goodbye’ to my beloved valley and the mountains that envelop it. Today there are snow flurries off and on, low clouds obscuring the horizon. I’ve got a place in mind to hike to. It’s one of my special, or sacred, spots—an Indian Sheep Eater bighorn sheep trap. I especially like this place because not only is it high up above a cliff edge with a magnificent view of the Absarokas, but also the ‘trap’ is formed from two large boulders running into a ‘V’ shape. The acme of this formation is littered with ancient logs, hundreds of years old, preventing the sheep from squeezing out that end. Native peoples used a system of logs fanning out from the boulders to guide the sheep into the trap. Their dogs helped herd the animals, and possibly people were hidden along the trap line to scare the sheep in the proper direction. Medicine men assisted with the hunt, and I’ve read that male bighorn sheep horns and skulls have been found high up in trees, probably as part of their rituals.

Bighorn sheep

Bighorn Sheep Ewes

The last two years, October was the first month of the gray wolf hunt in Wyoming. Wyoming wolves were delisted in 2012. A ‘trophy’ zone outside Yellowstone and Grand Teton Parks allowed an October through December hunt, while in the rest of the state (85%) wolves were labeled as ‘predators’. Along with several other species like coyotes, raccoons, and feral domestic cats, predators can be shot or trapped year-round, without a second thought. Since my valley lies adjacent to the Park in the Trophy zone, we had lots of hunters looking to kill a wolf. Koda, my ninety-pound Golden Retriever, was forced to be humiliated into wearing an orange vest for those three months.

Koda catches a whiff

Koda, my red dog, enjoys a view

But this year the winds have changed for the wolf. The hunt was suspended just a week before the season was to begin. Environmental groups took Wyoming and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to court over their flawed delisting plan. And on the 23rd of September, a U.S. District Court judge ruled that Wyoming’s plan was not sufficient to support a hunt and the wolves were back on the Endangered Species list again. Money for wolf tags was refunded (at $15 a wolf tag, hunters paid a pittance), and the wolves have a stay for at least another year.

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So on this blustery day, I drove down the valley to a trailhead. This fall, Koda doesn’t have to dress up. I’m on an outing with a purpose—to say ‘goodbye’ to my valley for the next few months. When I return, winter will have seriously set in and the deep snows will make it more difficult to get to this place. I prepare a small gift of some herbs and flowers held in a small deer hide bag—an offering that preserves my presence in this place while I’m gone, and honors the spirit of my beloved valley.

It’s a Saturday and the parking area is uncharacteristically full. I usually avoid the weekends, but since I’m leaving in a few days, this is my opportunity. The cars belong to hunters, yet on all my hiking in the valley, and even up this trail, I have never seen another person. People just don’t hike in grizzly bear country; so I still have the trail all to myself.

The first mile follows the stream, and then opens to a large confluence where two drainages meet in an open meadow. The narrow right-hand arroyo is what I want. I move up the dry canyon. To my left, the topography is a gentle slope that divides the two drainages. Yet to my right are the steep rocky cliffs that house a mesa high above. I look for an arch formed of broken slabs of limestone near the top of the bluff.

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I look for the arch that is my marker

That’s my sign to start climbing the steep sides up near the escarpment edge. Once I get to its flanks, I feel my way like a blind woman along the outcroppings. Then, suddenly, a narrow gap appears, barely wide enough to slip sideways through. I crawl upwards about thirty feet, where I emerge onto an unexpected plateau. It’s a trail known only to wildlife. And in front of me are the two house-size boulders, funneling down into the trap. There’s a strange, numinous beauty to this spot that I love so much. I place my offering on the ground, silently intoning my intentions, and then settle onto the rims to enjoy the view. The gully below ascends into a large meadow, eventually bordering wooded hillsides. I can clearly see the ridge that separates this ravine from the one beyond, colored in the gold and reds of the turning aspens.

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Fall colors in October

Time is standing still for me. I have nowhere to go. I snap a few photos and enjoy these last moments before leaving for California. Two figures appear on the ridge. They are dressed in bright orange, and although their origin is not in my view, I know they are coming from an area the locals call ‘Dry Lake’. I look at my watch. They’re deer hunters. I know this because October is open deer season in my valley. That’s the busiest time in this area, with hunters from in and out-of-state looking for a buck to fill their freezer. It’s 2:30 p.m., and a strange time to be hunting. From my vantage point, I haven’t seen any wildlife, and wouldn’t expect to at mid-day. They come over the ridge and appear to be leaving, walking down the drainage. There is no way they can see me, as I’m high up on a rib of rock obscured by trees.

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Koda and I watch as the two hunters appear over the ridge line

They sit down for a break and I pull out my binoculars. Yes, they are definitely hunters because I see their rifles. They rest for about ten minutes, and then continue on their route towards the parking area.

After they leave, I scramble down the terrace and take an alternate route back to my car. When I arrive back at the parking lot, I see the two hunters are already back too, and they are parked next to me. And I notice two other things: first they are unusually silent. They are not speaking to each other, nor do they look at me. Wyomingites are friendly folks, and hunters and outdoors people enjoy exchanging information and small talk. Yet these two fellows clearly do not want to engage me.

I also observe they are a father/son pair. I rarely see a father hunting with his son, so their mannerisms and facial features imprint in my mind more than they normally would. The young man appears to be about thirteen, yet he is tall and gangly for his age. The father is balding, about fiftyish. It’s three p.m. They silently load up their gear, then drive off.

In fifteen minutes I’m back at my house, packing to leave for California in a few days. By mid-January, I return home to a landscape blanketed with snow. Attached to my door is a business card. It’s from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Senior Special Agent, Office of Law Enforcement.

           “Please give me a call—hoping you can help with some information”

When I call Officer Rippeto, he tells me there was a wolf poaching the day that I was parked at the trailhead.

“The Warden rode up on horseback on Sunday morning. He found the dead wolf by Dry Lake. He figured it was shot on Saturday.”

I asked how he knew I was there that day.

“A Forest Service ranger drove up on Saturday and took down descriptions of all the vehicles parked in the lot. That’s routine. The warden recognized your car and told me where you lived. I’d like to come up and take a statement from you.”

I ask if the wolf was collared. Apparently, the wolf was a yearling and had no collar.  I tell Office Rippeto that I’d snapped some photos from my view spot. Unfortunately, I didn’t take any photos of those hunters. But I do have a time stamp on my pictures, which were taken immediately before they came into view. And I relay my description of them.

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Yet the one thing I did not notice was what their vehicle looked like (people in Wyoming always identify others by their vehicle) nor did I check to see if their license plate indicated they were locals. Being that it was general deer hunting season, these two people could have been from anywhere. And deer hunting up here is not a limited tag quota. It’s statewide.

Last I spoke with Officer David Rippeto, he still hadn’t found the wolf poachers. I cannot be certain that this father and son were the culprits, but I suspect they were. Rippeto too was suspicious of their conduct, and the fact that they quit their hunt at an hour when they should be about to begin hunting.

I think about what kind of example that father taught his son. He taught him that poaching was acceptable behavior. And he also gave him the clear message that wolves are not welcome here in Wyoming.

_______________

Update: October 2016. Wolves are still on the Endangered Species list in Wyoming. Wyoming and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife recently brought the case to court. We have not yet heard the decision of the Federal Appeals court.

 Wyoming continues to refuse to acknowledge that listing wolves as predators in 85% of the state is an antiquated and egregious view of wolves, a relic of the 19th century, when predators were exterminated for the benefit of the livestock industry.

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What Kind of Dogs are Wolves by Koda

Hi folks.  I’m going to try something different on my blog.  From time to time, I’ll post reminiscences from Koda, the dog who grew up in the Wyoming wilds.  Here’s the first one.  The stories below took place when Koda was about 7 months old.  We were still living in California and traveling by car back and forth to Wyoming.  After Soona died when Koda was about 1 1/2 years old, we moved to our cabin in Wyoming full time.

This is me.  And this is my first blog post

This is me. And this is my first blog post

After a long drive, Leslie (she’s my person), Soona (she’s my grandma) and I were at our new home, a place not at all like the city we came from. This place was vast—just mountains, trees, and more smells than I ever could have imagined.

A Glorious spring day.  Koda and I hike up Elk Creek Meadows.

A Glorious spring day.  Here I am on the trail in the mountains

One morning we were all up in the flats above the house. Leslie was piling little rocks. Soona and I were sniffing and watching. Without warning, Soona made a beeline for the woods. I was still little, only 9 months old, and didn’t know one smell from another, but I knew she smelled something that I didn’t, so I followed her. Leslie was worried for the old lady. The woods, she said, could be dangerous, especially for old dogs. So she followed us. And what do you know, Soona had a great find: a turkey partially eaten by a coyote! We munched on the bird for a while. I know turkeys because they live in California. But I didn’t know they were here in Wyoming too. From that time on I’ve watched them and got to know them. Leslie taught me to let them be. In the winter they come to our yard where I sit outside on the porch while they peck and pick for seeds and corn we sometimes lay out for them. Mostly they amuse me and, as long as don’t run after them, they pay me no mind.

Wild turkeys, not native

The flock of turkeys I’ve come to know. And they know me.

One day just Leslie and I went for a hike up a stream, leaving Soona at home. We returned a different way, a route through sparse meadows peppered with small trees and gullies. I stayed just a bit ahead, yet kept close to Leslie. We were on the side of a small arroyo when I smelled something watching us from behind a tree. I turned to look, and saw the most beautiful girl I’d ever laid my eyes on. She appeared to be a dog, yet she had a different aura about her. My heart jumped and an irresistible urge took over my entire body. It was if this black dog were a magnet drawing me towards her. I’d already met and played with many dogs in my life at that point. I was only 7 months old, but I already knew to ‘ask’ before I could go play. But this dog…she was like no other, and I just had to know what, and who, she was. She seemed to be the essence of what a dog is; a wildness that was wilder than I ever could be. Really, I just lost my head. And so I ran after her, silently.

What a beauty she was

What a beauty she was

I heard Leslie screaming for me, calling my name. But Leslie’s voice was like a dream in the background. That black dog was so fast that I finally gave up trying to catch her. But, I’ve got to tell you, that was the most exciting moment in my life!

I ran back to the little arroyo where I’d left Leslie. She hugged me and seemed so relieved to see me. She told me that I’d seen a wolf and I was lucky that there weren’t other wolves waiting for me there. That wolves weren’t like dogs and they didn’t want other wolves, or dogs, in their territory. But all I know was that was one truly wild and free ‘dog’.

This is a wikiup

This is a wikiup

We rested in a nearby wikiup in the meadows. Leslie petted me, then scolded me for running away. After a time, we headed back in the direction where I’d run after that wolf, till we came to a trail. And what do you think I found at the trail? That wolf got so excited she’d thrown up her lunch! I guess I made an impression on her too.

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.

 

 

The Health of the Land

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

The Absarokas and elk

The Absarokas and elk

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

Elk

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

elk moving up the hillside

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

Bighorn sheep

 

Bighorn sheep

 

Ram group

Ram group

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

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

Moose mom and male calf

Moose mom and male calf