I recently watched an excellent zoom presentation by Dan MacNulty entitled “New insights into the ecological effects of wolves in Yellowstone National Park.” MacNulty is a professor at Utah State University who has done extensive work in Yellowstone since 1995 on the effect predators have on the ecosystem. MacNulty presented an historical view of wolves and elk in Yellowstone, concentrating particularly on the effect wolves have had on elk and on aspen growth. The two summary take-aways are that:
1.a whole suite of predators (wolves, bears, cougars, and humans) have affected elk in the Northern Range (the study is inside and outside the northern border of the Park as elk migrate with the seasons), and that
2. wolves really have not had a significant trophic cascade effect on aspen (i.e. elk were pushed by wolves so that they were no longer over-browsing aspen sometimes called the Landscape of Fear) that these previous studies suggested. MacNulty did a long-term extensive study on a variety of aspen plots inside the Park which showed the Landscape of Fear theory did not hold up.
Much of the zoom presentation material wasn’t new, but several things caught my attention. A chart MacNulty presented showed that wolves take older elk, those aging out of fertility. (Chart screen capture below). He presented another chart showing that hunters tend to take younger aged female elk, the most reproductively fertile in a herd (screen capture not shown). Add that to calf predation which is mostly by black and grizzly bears, followed by wolves, coyotes, and cougars, and you have an all-age class predation by all predators (humans included). One other chart MacNulty showed was that if we eliminated the hunt on cow elk, the Northern Range population would rise to around 11,000-12,000, about double what it is now.
But what interested me was MacNulty’s comments on how elk are not disturbed by wolves unless they are actually hunting. Arthur Middleton’s study on the two Cody herds also showed the same information. Interns spent countless hours observing elk feeding. Middleton’s conclusions were that elk showed no concern for wolves unless they were within about 1/2 mile. Middleton also told me that he spent time observing elk calmly grazing on a hillside in front of an active wolf den.
When the idea of a Landscape of Fear came out several years ago, it never sat right with me. Certainly elk have changed their habits since wolves appeared, their age-old predator. Elk in Colorado for instance, where no wolves exist, will chomp on grass on golf courses, hang around roads, and show no concern. Why should they? They have become like cattle, unhinged from their natural wild instincts. Yet here in the Yellowstone ecosystem, having now adjusted to wolves returning (along with cougars and grizzlies) doesn’t mean elk are now living in a state of fear.
To me, the idea of a Landscape of Fear applies to us humans who rarely enter into an ecosystem where we are not the top predator. We take a walk or hike in grizzly country, thinking all the while there is a bear behind every bush. Or in cougar country where we have a gnawing fear for our lives. We are visitors and have no real knowledge of the habits of what would be our neighbors if we lived in daily contact with them. For wildlife, the natural world IS their home and they know their territories very well. Even migratory herds, like elk and deer, are not only following eons-old routes, but they are faithful to them. They know the habits of their animal neighbors and are well aware of the wildlife that are nearby at any time. Wildlife do not live in constant fear; they live in an Awareness of their surroundings.
Living in fear is not a useful emotion, for humans nor for wildlife. Living with Awareness is. So when MacNulty said their findings did not suggest elk were triggered by wolves (except of course when they are actively hunting them), this made sense. And then it would follow that aspen recruitment isn’t especially affected; that there are many other factors at work relative to aspen regeneration.
One very interesting comment by MacNulty was that was mountain lions, not wolves, changed elk behavior. MacNulty didn’t go into this much further. I certainly would like to hear more about this, but my guess, based on speaking with Dr. Toni Ruth for my book Ghostwalker, is that cougars of course are ambush predators and are quite competent of killing an elk wandering off into the trees. It is more risky and difficult for cougars to take down an elk in the open where elk have the advantage.
I just want to end on another note. The short youtube video called How Wolves Change Rivers went viral many years ago. Although wolves don’t change rivers nor especially help regenerate aspen, I don’t object or fault this story. Humans are storytellers and story driven. False stories like the wolves that were reintroduced are non-native Canadian wolves motivated an entire group of wolf-haters to believe and spread that narrative. On the other hand, wolves changing rivers and enhancing wildlife is a positive story that stirs our appreciation for wolves. Good stories will help foster an appreciation for wolves and other predators.
Yesterday I hiked to one of my trail camera sites planning on retiring the camera for the summer. Because our deer and elk migrate into the high country around Yellowstone starting in May, there is little action with large predators. Grizzly bears start to disappear around early July. On the east side of Yellowstone in the high elevation cirques of the Absarokas, moth sites feed the bears. Cougars are following our deer which make one of the longest migrations in the ecosystem. Wolves probably completed denning and will be taking their pups to rendezvous sites with a babysitter or two, while the other adults forage for food.
So you can imagine my surprise when I looked at my camera videos. My newest male cougar is still hanging around, marking his territory with scrapes. He appears to have beat off another large male that has one eye, the other probably lost in a fight. One-eye was last seen at the end of March.
Even more exciting, I caught a mating pair of grizzlies. By the time of the year, and the fact that these are two adults, you can be sure this video is a male following a female in estrus.
In summer, when grizzlies disperse for high elevations, the black bears take over. Male black bears will make sure to display who is boss by tree rubbing, destroying cameras, and stomping which also puts down their scent. Interestingly, grizzlies know they are the real top of the food chain and could care less about cameras, although they do rub trees, both males and females. Here is a video of a grizzly female with two cubs spending time tree marking with her cubs following suit.
On a very interesting note, I camera-captured two blonde animals this spring—a fox and a black bear—both fairly rare. To understand this in greater depth, I contacted Jim Halfpenny, well-known mammalogist and tracker. Jim told me he had never seen a fox this blonde, whether at fur sales or in the field. He thought maybe this fox could be a fur farm escapee, but in my inquiries we haven’t had a fox farm in the Big Horn Basin since 1996, plus I live in the high mountains next to Yellowstone so the mystery continues. In addition I’ve never had a fox show up at this location before. This little blonde red fox continued to visit this site over the course of several months, which adds to the mystery.
The blonde phase black bear is also unusual around these parts. Halfpenny told me he had only seen one briefly around the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, and never as blonde as this one. Color phases of black bears are not unusual, but the blonde phase is the rarest. Here is a link to an interesting breakdown of color phases of black bears in North America. Although it is presented by a hunter, it is informative. I do NOT support any trophy hunting, but I encourage you to watch this for information. No actual hunting is in the video.
A large carnivore biologist who I showed the videos to had an interesting thought. “Wonder if this is a genetic expression due to the initiation of climate change,” he wrote me. Thinking outside the box leads to interesting possibilities.
Finally, my new book Shadow Landscape is now available on Amazon. These are stories of wildlife encounters I’ve wanted to tell for a long time. I appreciate all my readers and followers. Thanks for your interest in our iconic wildlife.
For those of us who care about the fate of the grizzly bear, for those who love to see grizzlies in Yellowstone National Park and its outer ecosystem, Engineering Eden by Jordan Fisher Smith is an important chronicle of the bear’s recent history and how we almost lost him.
Many do not know that it was Yellowstone Park Superintendent Jack Anderson and Yellowstone’s chief biologist Glen Cole who almost brought Yellowstone grizzlies to extinction following the 1967 maulings in Glacier National Park known as The Night of the Grizzlies. The reaction to the night of August 13th, when two women were mauled to death in two separate incidents by grizzly bears, led to the quick closing of Yellowstone dump sites. The closings were over the objections of Frank and John Craighead.
The Craighead brothers had been conducting the first in-depth grizzly study in the Park. In an 11 year continuous study beginning in 1959, the brothers invented the first radio collars, collaring and ear-tagging 256 bears in the Park during that time. Their study shed light on where grizzlies denned, the size of their home ranges, and how bears homed back to where they were captured. From the results of their research, the Craigheads proposed the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem—linking Yellowstone, Grand Teton, five national forests, and two national wildlife refuges into a single landscape. It was apparent to them that the boundaries of the Park itself were not sufficient to protect nor contain the food sources and wanderings of grizzlies.
While Anderson and Cole wanted to immediately close all the Yellowstone dumps, the Craigheads, knowing these bears had grown up adapted to receiving food rewards and understanding the bears better than anyone, advocated for a slow change-over, dropping road killed carcasses at the Trout Creek dump site. In other words, a slow wean rather than cold turkey. In the end, the Craigheads were right. Without the additional food sources of the dumps, the bears began heading into campgrounds, rummaging for food. At that time campers were not protecting their food, nor were there bear-proof cans provided. Everything happened too fast. Rangers were employed to kill problem bears and the bear population crashed to below 150 bears. Since bear reproduction is extremely slow, even after the bears had been on the Endangered Species list for ten years in the mid-1980s, most scientists thought the Yellowstone grizzly would soon be extinct. By 1990, the Greater Yellowstone grizzly population had dipped to 99 bears. Slowly, it began to creep back up to present day estimates of about 750 bears.
Engineering Eden uses as its focal a lawsuit trial centered around the death of a young man named Harry Walker. Walker was passing through Yellowstone in 1972 with a friend. They camped about a mile outside the designated campgrounds in Old Faithful, left their food out, set up a tent, then went back to the lodge for the evenings entertainment. Trying to find their way back to camp after midnight on a moonless night, Walker was mauled and killed by a grizzly who’d found their food. The family sued the United States government, and in a high profile case, Starker Leopold, son of Aldo Leopold, testified as an expert witness for the government while Frank Craighead testified for the family. Smith uses the trial, going forward and backward in time, to bring to light all the events surrounding the case, even discussing black bears in Yosemite that were also garbage bears.
If you don’t know about The Night of the Grizzlies, there’s a Montana PBS special worth watching, or a short but excellent book by Jack Olsen. Yet it is worth recapping that night since this was the spark that ignited what followed in Yellowstone.
The two fatal incidents occurred on the night of August 12, 1967, two different bears, separated by eight miles and a formidable mountain named Heavens Peak. Since the Park’s creation in 1910 there had not been a single fatal encounter with a grizzly bar. So these two attacks on the same night raised a lot of controversy. But they were actually a long time in the making which included other non-fatal maulings that had occurred in Glacier. Food dumps and trash from the growing number of visitors attracted bears, black and grizzly, for years. Granite Park Chalet, the site of one of the maulings, had been dumping garbage just 200 yards from the building. The year before, the Park Service provided an incinerator, but the sheer volume of visitors created more trash than could be burned nightly. Plus, the nightly arrival of grizzlies was a tourist attraction that was coveted. The dumping continued.
With a long term drought depressing the berry crop, critical food for grizzlies in the Northern Continental Divide, bears had grown particularly dependent on these dumps. At Trout Lake, on the other side of the Livingston Range, one bear in particular had been trouble throughout the summer. She was old, underweight, and unafraid of humans. That summer there were reports of this old female marauding campers and campsites, even confronting them while on horseback. She had been hanging around a private outfit called Kelly’s Camp at the head of McDonald Lake getting into their garbage. Yet no action was taken by the Park Service. Things were different in those days and with no grizzly bear major incidents since the Park’s opening, policies were lax.
Michele Koons had hiked into Trout Lake earlier in the day with a few friends. This bear had come into their campsite earlier and they drove her off. The group then moved their site closer to the lake and built a large bonfire. At 4 a.m. the bear returned, sniffing out their sleeping bags. Although her companions escaped up trees, Michele, unable to slip out of her bag, was carried into the woods. With first light, Koons’ companions hiked out to the McDonald Ranger Station to report the mauling. When the rangers found her body, it was mauled beyond recognition.
“Trout Lake was typical of all the other campgrounds at that time in Glacier National Park,” said Bert Gildart, the ranger who responded to the grizzly attack at Trout Lake in an interview with the Great Falls Tribune in 2017. “I think all the campgrounds in Glacier National Park were a mess. When the chief ranger and I flew back in there a few weeks later, we picked up an immense number, probably 17 burlap sacks we loaded into a Huey helicopter and it was all full of garbage that people had left behind.”
Meanwhile, since the Granite Park Chalet was over-flowing with visitors the evening of August 11, Julie Helgeson and her boyfriend Roy Ducat decided to camp at the campground 500 yards down the trail. A similar scenario played out, with the grizzly first mauling Ducat in his sleeping bag. When he played dead, the bear turned to Helgeson. Ducat climbed out of the bag he was sharing with Julie, and ran for help as the bear dragged Helgeson down the ravine. A search party found her alive, although she died soon thereafter from excessive loss of blood and shock.
Rangers were dispatched to kill the offending bears. Bert Gildart and Leonard Landa shot the old female at Trout Lake. “It was determined on the spot that this bear had glass embedded in its teeth,” Gildart told the Tribune. “So here you had a bear with difficulty chewing and eating in the first place and as well a bear that was horribly emaciated or run down. It couldn’t eat. It weighed slightly over 200 pounds. It wasn’t a big bear at all. It was about 20 years old, an emaciated sow. That’s the reason why it probably fed on the girl.”
Up at Granite Park Chalet, following the mauling, Ranger David Shea was told to kill any bear that came to their dumpsite. The result was three dead bears, including a sow with two cubs. One cub was shot in the jaw by a second ranger, survived the winter, then killed in the spring when he returned to feed on garbage.
From these two incidents, immediate changes in Glacier policies were initiated. “Pack it in, Pack it out”, backcountry campgrounds were concentrated, cables for hanging food were set up, education programs began. But of course all the cleanup of the backcountry along with de-habituating bears took time.
For years I could not make sense of what happened to my friends and I in Glacier National Park in the summer of 1972. My friends Karen and Sarajo and I had spent our high school free time backpacking with other teenagers and a parent chaperone in the Sierras and high mountains of the San Bernadino forest. We thought of ourselves as pretty experienced. We understood cleaning up our cooking site and hanging our food high in trees. In those days, there wasn’t any freeze-dried backpacking food sold. We brought rice, lentils, and other grains that needed cooking for an hour. Smells wafted through the air. But still, a clean camp could be kept.
That summer my friends and I were on a journey typical of teenagers who had just graduated high school. It was the beginning of the rest of our lives and we were excited. We’d hitchhiked to Waterton Lakes National Park with the intention of a through-hike. We stopped at the visitor center for maps and information. Two Canadian rangers stared at us from behind the counter. When we told them our plans, they both looked genuinely alarmed.
“There’s a 10 mile hike that follows a lake. A ranger station is at the lake’s end. From there you can continue on into the United States. You know there are bears out there, grizzlies and black?”
“What about grizzlies,” I asked. We knew what to do about black bears, being an abundant nuisance in the California Sierras.
“You have three choices if you encounter one that charges you. You can climb a tree. Grizzlies can’t climb trees. You can drop to the ground and play dead. Lie on your stomach, put your hands behind your neck.”
“What’s the third option,” Karen asked.
“Play chicken. Stand in place and stare him down. More than likely that bear will run and veer off at the last minute. But not a guarantee.”
I didn’t give his advice much second thought, but playing chicken isn’t in my nature. Climbing a tree sounded doable.
We camped at the visitor center campground that night and set out in the morning. Much of the hike paralleled the lakeshore. The day was overcast, drizzling on and off. By early afternoon we found a suitable campsite by the lake, built a small fire in a clearing adjacent to the lake and began to prepare dinner.
Our pot, blackened on the bottom from being set over the open flames, wafted aromas throughout the forest. Although the rain abated during our dinner hour, a dark overcast sky signaled a possible storm, so we set up our tents. Gear in the 1970s was heavy and expensive, and as teenagers we had no extra cash for backpacking tents anyways. Instead we’d brought “tube tents”, $2 tubes of orange plastic that hung on a rope between two trees. A clip held the ends loosely together to keep rain out. It was a lousy system. If you really needed it, condensation might be just as bad as the pouring rain outside. But it held in a light rain.
The clouds were closing in as we finished dinner around the fire. We cleaned up and dutifully hung our food high in a tree. Dusk settled and conversation about our trip and the long day began to flow. In the dimming light, Sarajo spotted something moving in the trees at the clearing’s edge.
I looked up to see an enormous black bear lumbering towards our hung food. He stopped directly under the food sacks, spent some time pondering them, then obviously decided it wasn’t worth the effort to climb the tree and shimmy the branch. Bears don’t see well, I knew this, but he looked like this wasn’t his first food rodeo as he began beelining towards our fire.
In all my backpacking days up till then, I’d never had a bear encounter, but we instinctively knew what to do next. We yelled and grabbed our pots, banging like our life depended on that noise. It was a tin chorus but the bear wasn’t fazed. The pots were battered but the bear kept coming. Something seemed off with this bruin.
These were our two tried and true methods—hang your food, make a lot of noise—and they were not working. Our packs leaned nearby against a tree. Although there was no food in it, I was sure the packs smelled from our dinner’s cooking. The bear began rummaging around the packs, sniffing and exploring all the openings. Meanwhile we were building up the fire until it was a roaring blaze. I contemplated jumping in the lake. It was close by, and maybe the bear would be discouraged and gone soon. It didn’t take me long to nix that idea—a glacial lake with darkness descending—it was clearly a terrible idea. I glanced around at the trees, remembering what the ranger had told us. Of course, this was a large black bear, not a grizzly. But at that moment it didn’t seem to matter. Yet this forest was not like those in the southern Sierras, full of trees that were stout with lower branches. This Canadian forest had trees that were mere sticks with slender narrow trunks. They required shimming up and I wasn’t sure I could do that. So I threw more wood on the fire.
Meanwhile, the bear now seemed quite comfortable exploring our campsite. He finished with our packs and turned towards us. We sat perfectly still, breathless. I was wedged between Karen and Sarajo. Keeping one eye on the bear, the other on the fire, we’d all run out of ideas what to do next. Banging pots hadn’t worked. A clean camp failed. So we sat still as statues in front of a blazing hot fire.
The bear first approached Karen. I could feel his hot breath. He paused behind her jacket, sniffing the fabric. The jacket must have absorbed our lentil dinner aromas. He then switched to her pants. He slowly opened his mouth and began placing it around her leg. Before he had a chance to test her leg any further, Karen let out a loud yelp. The bear jumped back.
Still not startled enough to retreat by Karen’s reaction, he turned his attention to the fire itself. Lurching his entire head between me and Karen, he leaned in towards the flames, his muzzle touching my arm. To our amazement, he was fascinated with the fire and wanted to explore it further. His huge face settled next to my shoulder, his eyes fixated on the fire. I stared at him, yet felt no fear. That surprised me. He leaned in towards the flames. As he felt the heat, he quickly pulled his head back beyond my arm, swiping his nose several times with his paw. He almost looked cute.
Having enough of the fire, he moved behind and around me to explore Sarajo, who was squeezed to my right. Still fascinated with the smell on our down jackets, he started nipping at her jacket’s fabric, but when she pulled quickly away, the bear decided we just weren’t that interesting nor edible.
At that point our bear moved to explore the tube tents. With our sleeping bags already laid out inside, he went back and forth, inside and out, while we tried to formulate a plan on how to get rid of this bear. By now it had been over an hour and I’d had enough.
I picked up some pebbles without moving from my log by the fire, and began throwing them into the woods. To my surprise, the ploy worked. The bear perked up his ears, looked towards the noise, and moseyed off to investigate. That bear got so curious he forgot all about us, continuing his exploration into the forest.
After a restless sleep, the next morning we quickly packed our gear and headed the remaining miles to the lake’s end for the ranger station. Karen said she was sure she saw that bear come around in the morning. Something seemed “off” about this bear. He had no fear of humans. None of the usual techniques worked to deter him.
The ranger station was plush. It had a bathroom with electric lights. We all went to wash up. Sarajo told us she started her period. Karen was complaining about a sore leg. Pulling her pants away exposed a huge black and blue mark in the shape of an upper and a lower jaw. The size of the bruise was shocking, it wrapped her entire thigh like a tattoo. Luckily the skin wasn’t broken. The bear barely clamped down, but that bruise was a mark of how powerful he was.
The ranger met us and we reported what occurred and how we handled it.
“You girls know there were two women killed by grizzles just a few years ago in Glacier. Pretty close to here too.”
What? Why would I know that? I’m seventeen, not from around here, and certainly don’t read the news on bear maulings.
He was descriptive and detailed in his story. ”They were killed on the same night, in different parts of the Park, by two different bears. One mauling was on a mountain, the other by a lake. Pulled them right out of their sleeping bags. The Park Service said both of these women were menstruating at the time. They say the smell of the blood drew the grizzlies in. The bears were thinking another bear was in their territory, so they killed them.”
If we weren’t scared by that black bear, we now were terrified with this new information. And Sarajo had just told us her menstrual cycle had started. Our plans to continue our backpack needed to change. We decided, for now, we needed to spend the next several days camped right next to the ranger station. The ranger said if we took day hikes and made lots of noise while we hiked, we’d probably be fine.
Every day it drizzled a fine mist. The skies were overcast. The enormous mountains surrounding the lake were shrouded in clouds. The dense forest cast off its wetness as we day hiked to pass the time, yelling as we hiked. It was awful. The whole reason we enjoyed the back country was the solitude, the quiet, the wildlife. Now all we could think about were grizzlies coming for Sarajo, probably around every corner. After five days, her menstrual cycle over, the three of us hiked the ten miles back to the Waterton Lakes Visitor Center. We surveyed the crowds of eager tourists, felt the pressure of the relentless rain and ominous clouds that enveloped the viewscape, and stuck out our thumbs to head south to Grand Teton National Park, a sunny country far from grizzly bears in 1972.
Only years later did I watch the Montana PBS special and realize we were dealing with a highly conditioned bear. We were just lucky that he wasn’t aggressive. During the feeding of black bears in Yosemite, there were many cases of injuries from frustrated bears.
As far as the myth of menstruation motivating the Glacier bear attacks, Smith writes this about it:
The August 1968 report concluded that, indeed, Michele Koons had been menstruating. Menstrual pads had been found in her personal effects. And it stated that Julie Helgeson, whose pack contained menstrual supplies, might also have been expecting the onset of menstruation. The document postulated that menstrual odor…may have attracted the bears that killed them.* [*It is worth mentioning that the Park Service’s report on the grizzly attacks of August 13, 1967, was written by men, who may not have known that many women have menstrual supplies in their personal effects whether they are menstruating or not.]
Following the Glacier report’s release the menstruation story took on a life of its own, as it was recited by rangers throughout the national parks. In some cases female Park Service employees were forbidden to work in areas where they might encounter bears during that time of the month. Later, an exhaustive study of bear attacks by Stephen Herrero…failed to find any correlation between menstruation and bear incidents.
Why is it worth reading and revisiting the details of this? Haven’t we learned the lessons of food storage? Although there are still plenty of incidents with grizzlies outside the National Parks getting into chicken coops, grain bins, or just unprotected trash, in general the Park Service, surrounding National Forests and Game Agencies have done a good job getting the information out and providing proper storage cans to protect food. Yosemite, that once had hundreds of bear incidents in the 1970s, (i.e. 979 in 1975 alone) now has less than 40 a year.
Besides the historical value of how we almost lost Yellowstone grizzlies due to mismanagement and political pressures, I think we are again at a crucial moment. Yellowstone grizzlies are back on the endangered species list, along with Montana’s bears, but that will not be for long. Montana is right now having discussions about delisting protocols. The lawsuit that put the bear back on the ESA will be challenged and eventually the bear will be off again, for better or worse. Acknowledging that we’ve succeeded in saving the bear from extinction in Yellowstone and the lower 48 is cause for celebration. But how we move forward is the question of the moment.
Bears need movement, corridors for genetic meet and greet. They need habitat preserved. And we need to do all we can, more than we even have, to protect them into the future. Montana growth bulges, how will we respect and give space to grizzlies?
I think one of the things this history shows us is how fragile grizzlies actually are. In my mind, our task now is to continue not to hunt grizzlies once they are delisted, to protect and acquire corridors which includes conservation easements on private lands, to educate newcomers and old timers alike in food protections (including livestock small and large), to appropriate funds and education for ranchers for non-lethal methods of livestock protections, and to support these efforts through general funds for game agencies so as not to rely on hunting licenses. Many groups have been working on all these points. Gaining public support and dollars, especially once the bear is delisted, is probably key.
Climate change along with population growth are growing new threats to the bear. We have seen in the past how quickly we almost lost him. It is possible to happen again.
Six years ago, I had the idea that my dog Koda could speak, in his own words, about his wildlife adventures. At the time, Koda was almost seven years old and lived most of his life in the mountains adjacent to Yellowstone National Park. He’d had encounters with wolves and grizzlies, but also watched elk give birth, been caught in a trap, lived with a pika, and many more experiences rare for most domestic dogs. I thought telling stories about wildlife through the eyes of a dog would excite children. Yet as I worked on the manuscript, the essence of Koda’s nature just wasn’t coming through. I put the book aside, unable to figure out how best to let Koda tell his story.
In October of last year, Koda took his last breath and the unfinished manuscript began to gnaw at me. The book wasn’t right, yet I didn’t have any idea how to change it. I decided to put pen to paper so to speak and begin again. This time the story flowed. Instead of a series of chapters with different animals, Koda’s real tale was represented through his smells and encounters with the valley’s wolves. At the heart of every dog sleeps a wolf, echoes from deep within their genetic past.
When I moved with Koda to my home east of Yellowstone, wolves were still protected and close encounters were not uncommon. Several wolf packs vied for dominance in the valley every winter, and the drama played out before our eyes. Koda and the Wolves tells the story of a dog’s attraction to wild nature embodied in his kin, the wolf; but also how a dog’s naivete of the wolf’s intense territoriality can be his downfall.
Every story in the book, told in Koda’s voice, really happened. My hope is that Koda’s story will bring us all to a better understanding and kinship with his brother, the wolf.
To support that vision, I am pledging 100% of the profits from the book beginning May 2020* through July 2020 to support wolves. In order to maximize donation dollars (due to the tiered, very tight, structural profit distribution in the publishing industry) only books that are bought directly through my website (lesliepattenbooks.com) will be able to provide donations. Donations will go to Wolves of the Rockies.
UPDATE: With the donation campaign over, I’m happy to announce we raised over $1000 for Wolves of the Rockies. If there is interest, WofR and I might repeat this campaign after the holidays in 2021. Thanks to all who participated. Koda and the Wolvescan be purchased through Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or your local bookstore. If you want a signed copy, please order directly through my website and click on the PayPal link.
The second edition of The Wild Excellenceis out. With ten new photos and updated information on grizzly bears, I’ve included below a piece from the new preface. Order direct from Amazon and tell your local bookstore to please order from their distributor for in-stock local availability.
In October 2018, my new book on mountain lions, Ghostwalker, will be available. Ghostwalker: Tracking a mountain lion’s soul through science and story is an account of my personal journey to understand as much as possible about this elusive, secretive animal. To that end, I conducted dozens of interviews–with cougar researchers, conservation organizations, wildlife managers, houndsmen and trackers. You’ll find the latest, cutting-edge research explored in the book. More info to come later.
“His cowboy boots are probably still sitting there.”
Jim was relating the story of J. K. Rollinson, the first Forest Service Ranger in the valley where I live. Rollison helped build a government cabin in the Beartooth Mountains in 1908. My new friend Jim, a slight man in his mid-80s yet still in excellent shape, had guided me the week before to another historic Beartooth site—a crumbling stockade from the 1860s hidden within a copse of spruce. Jim grew up in the Big Horn basin where he worked in an array of outdoor jobs throughout his life, including with the Forest Service. The cabin, he said, if it’s still there, was at Sparhawk Lake.
I knew the Beartooth Range pretty well, but hadn’t heard of Sparhawk. Jim said the lake was named after Ranger Frank Sparhawk. Sparhawk, along with Rollinson, used the cabin as a summer refuge while overseeing livestock operations in this high alpine environment. The small cabin saved the rangers a ten-mile rugged horseback trip from the Crandall Ranger Station. I was curious if any remnants were left. Pouring over a map, I found the tarn not far from Sawtooth Lake, a large body of water wrapped at the base of a mountain bearing the same name. A rough dirt road off the main highway leads to Sawtooth’s lakefront. The road is in good shape for the first mile and a half, then turns into a rocky, rutted mess. I pulled off where the road loses its shape and walked the final two and a half miles to the lake.
Spruce and whitebark pine forest, interspersed with verdant meadows of high alpine wildflowers, make this scenic dirt access road a popular weekend ride for off-road vehicles. The course is along a ridgeline overlooking a U-shaped wetland of marsh and lakes. The adjacent eastern ridgeline, visible at times from the Sawtooth road, is also a popular route. Called the Morrison Jeep Road, it’s an historic trail used as a connector route from the 10,000 foot Beartooth Plateau down to the desert mouth of the Clark’s Fork Canyon. The local ATV club was anxious for a loop trail joining Sawtooth Lake with the jeep trail. To accomplish that, the Forest Service would have to build a new road into and through the marsh up to the opposite ridgeline. That was another reason I wanted to walk this road. I had to see what kind of habitat damage that would create.
A few hundred yards before the final approach to Sawtooth Lake, I encountered a parked Toyota 4-Runner with Montana plates. That last stretch is too rough and eroded for even the toughest vehicle. I also heard gunshots. It was early September, not yet hunting season, but these fellows were using trees for target practice on the far side of the lake. I couldn’t see them, but sure could hear their antics. No one else was around, and thankfully the route to Sparhawk was in the opposite direction.
A small jewel hidden within dense tree cover, I found the remains of Sparhawk’s cabin by the side of the lake, along with a Forest Service plaque commemorating his service. Only the log outline of a tiny cabin, but no cowboy boots, remained. I ate lunch, then returned the route I came. Walking the road back up the steep hill, I found the 4-Runner still parked on the small knoll. From this point, the road opens into a meadow edged with dense tree cover on its far side. Breaking the forest’s silence, a deep sonorous barking suddenly roared through the trees. I stopped and listened. The mysterious low-pitched “honk” came again, then again. I looked across the meadow just in time to see a large grizzly bear running through the woods, followed by a tiny cub. The barking continued and another cub ran to catch up with her bear mother. These little cubs, born last winter, referred to as cubs of the year or COY for short, were incredibly cute. All this raucous was far enough away, with me downwind, that I wasn’t afraid. Mom was headed for the lake at a quick clip. The barking continued, like an old man with a wheezy cough and a megaphone, and after a few minutes a third cub appeared.
Mesmerized by this scene, I momentarily forgot about the men still down by the lake who were probably fishing by now. Instead I reflected on the increasing use by grizzlies of this alpine area. The Beartooths are good habitat with intact whitebark pines—now a rarity in the rest of the ecosystem due to widespread beetle kill. Females who eat whitebark pine nuts are known to have larger litters. Here was a successful grizzly mother utilizing these resources.
When the bears were out of sight, I remembered the men. No chance for me to let them know those bears were on their way towards them. The quartet of bears would be at lakeside before I could even turn around. Hopefully the men would not run into them, or at the very least keep their cool….
Here’s a sequence at a scrape I put together. It is believed these linear impressions, made by males using their back feet, are intended to mark territory as well as attract mates.
Biologist Max Allen and his colleagues worked on analyzing puma scrapes in California’s Santa Cruz Mountains and Mendocino County. Allen put up trail cameras on puma scrapes, hoping to find answers to research questions. How are cougars using scrapes to communicate? Why do they go to such elaborate means, rather than simply urinating as canines do? After analyzing more than one thousand videos of scraping behavior, he concluded that lions could distinguish not only the freshness of scrapes, but also the individual lions who made them. This knowledge is only an icebreaker; biologists are still in the dark as to what information cougars learn from scrapes.
In this video, you can see how a male makes a scrape. A few evenings later several coyotes come to investigate. They leave their own calling card. Then a female cougar arrives to smells the scrape.
Interestingly, Allen, who was working in northern California where the top predators are cougars and black bears, discovered foxes were routinely cheek rubbing on puma scrapes, and doing this more frequently on the fresher ones. Cheek rubbing releases chemicals from the sebaceous gland, allowing animals to deposit their own scent, but it can also be a way of accumulating scent from the object rubbed. Since the fox cheek-rubbing visits didn’t correlate with fox breeding season, or with how recently other foxes had visited, Allen believes foxes were applying puma scent for protection from larger predators like bobcats and coyotes. In other words, foxes, being the crafty animals they are, were attempting to disguise themselves as pumas.
Here in the Yellowstone Ecosystem where cougars are subordinate to wolves, black bears and grizzly bears, red foxes don’t use this camouflage technique since smelling like a cougar might be an attractant, not a deterrent.
But cougar researcher Mark Elbroch discovered a different unique behavior of Yellowstone’s crafty red foxes. Elbroch wonders if foxes might be following pumas around in wintertime, since foxes seem to locate a cougar kill so quickly. On the Panthera Teton Cougar Project in Jackson Wyoming, with the advantage of G.P.S. collars, Elbroch might, for instance, see a cougar make a kill at 4:00 a.m., and he would be at the site by 8:00 a.m. When the crew arrived, there’d be a fox on it already. Foxes take great risks, he told me, and, incredibly, they are rarely killed.
Research on cougars in Yellowstone National Park used trail cameras on scrapes. Dan Stahler, project manager for the current Yellowstone cougar study, has video of scores of other animals investigating these scent marks, including a grizzly bear that laid down on the scrape and napped for the day.
If you’ve enjoyed learning a little bit about cougars (sometimes called pumas, mountain lions, panthers, and many other names), then look forward to my new book that will be published in 2018 called Ghostwalker: Tracking a Mountain Lion’s Soul through Science and Story.
Toni Ruth conducted the second of three major cougar studies in Yellowstone National Park. The first Yellowstone cougar study was led by biologist Kerry Murphy between 1987 and 1996, pre-wolf days.
Ruth’s study took place after the wolf reintroduction in the Park and her aim was to understand how wolves might be affecting cougars, since their prey overlap.
Working under the auspices of the Hornocker Wildlife Institute/Wildlife Conservation Society, Ruth radio-collared eighty-three cougars between 1998 and 2006.
Trudging through the deep Yellowstone snow, Ruth found that cougars were killing mostly elk, the major prey during the winter months in the northern area of the Park. But a few of Ruth’s collared lions also became experts in killing other animals as well as their primary winter diet of elk.
One surprise from the study was a collared lion who had a penchant for coyotes. The study was monitoring a female lion who had two seven-month kittens traveling with her.
The wolves had made a kill in the Sluice Creek valley, which they’d subsequently left a few days earlier. When this female lion approached the kill site, the researchers wondered what she was doing. “That’s pretty risky behavior.
She must not be doing too well,” they thought. The following day the researchers, monitoring her collar activity, noticed she brought her two young kittens to the kill site. “What is she doing? This is crazy behavior because the wolves may not be at the kill, but they certainly aren’t too far off either.”
When the researchers approached the kill site to their surprise they found two dead coyotes. Analyzing the snow track evidence, Ruth determined that this cougar never did scavenge on the kill.
Instead, she just hung out to the side of the kill, ambushed the coyotes, and then went back to retrieve her kittens to feed on them.
That same female repeated this behavior from under the Lamar Bridge. The lioness sat on the south side of the bridge, watching a group of coyotes on the opposite bank up the hill.
With the river frozen, she emerged from behind a tree, crossed the river and went into a stalk. As she inched closer, she ambushed one coyote, drug it under the trees where she cached it. She then returned with her kittens to feed on her kill.
These kinds of stories and more will be in my upcoming book Ghostwalker: Tracking a Mountain Lion’s Soul through Science and Story due out in 2018.
I’ve become fascinated by cougars. Maybe because they are elusive, secretive, more akin to a ghost than an animal of flesh and blood. Which of course, begs the question: How do you get people to care about and protect an animal that they never see, nor probably will never see in their lifetime?
Visitors to Yellowstone National Park can be almost guaranteed, if they are persistent and patient, to view wolves and bears, elk, bison, and bighorn sheep. But only the rare individual will have the opportunity to see a cougar in the Park. They’ve been spotted at Calcite Springs, hanging on the basalt walls and occasionally through a scope from the Hellroaring overlook. Usually the Park sightings are called in by wolf watchers. Once radioed around, tourists hear about it through the airwaves, then flock to those locations. Sometimes the cat might be hanging out, either on a kill or just sunning himself, for hours.
In all my winter tracking I’ve done, I’ve never seen a cougar. In fact, the people I know who have seen cougars, it’s usually from the car when a cat suddenly runs across the road at dusk.
I sat down with Jim Halfpenny for an interview about cougar tracking stories. Jim is a famous tracker who lives in Gardiner, Mt. As a Mammalogist and expert tracker, he has worked all over the West and Canada. His puma tracking includes the deserts of Arizona and Utah as well as the mountains of the Greater Yellowstone.
Jim used to live and work in Colorado. His interest in cougars began in 1982 when the Forest Service called him in to investigate a bear-killed horse within the small town of Nederland CO. Jim told them “this is not a bear that mauled the horse. It’s a cougar” The Forest Service thought the kill was made by a bear because there were five claw marks on the horse’s neck. If you look at a cat paw, there are four claws and a dew claw high up, like on a dog. On a cougar print, the dew claw doesn’t show and it’s not bone attached, it’s tendon attached. But Jim knew that dew claw, called ‘the killer claw’, would show on a kill because it wraps around it’s prey. Thus the five marks. Jim asked himself “What is a cougar doing in a town?” and so began a research project.
I asked Jim if he had tracked cougars without dogs and still seen them. “Oh, many times. I’ve hardly ever used dogs. He told me several of those stories but two stand out.
“I got a phone call from a woman when I lived in Boulder. There was some snow on the ground but it was thin, only about 2 inches. I followed the tracks, and soon I was about 50 yards from the back of this cougar. He looked up and his face said ‘Who are you, what are you doing following me?’
That cougar took a few strides and disappeared but I observed he was cutting a big letter ‘C’; so I cut across the ‘C’, and began following his tracks till they suddenly disappeared. I looked around. No tracks. And then I looked up and there he was, in the tree, looking at me. I got some good photographs of him in that tree. I’ve got more photographs in the wild than anybody not using dogs or set cameras.”
Halfpenny told me another great story from the Boulder era. “I got a phone call from a woman who said she watched a cougar kill a deer from her window. It was three in afternoon went I got there. I found that deer and chained it to a tree. Then I did a necropsy on it and saw it was pregnant. I walked one hundred steps off the carcass and sat down. Pretty soon that cougar returns. He’s knows I’m there, and begins trying to pull that deer away to a hidden spot. And he’s pulling for all he’s worth, but that deer is chained to the tree. The cougar looks like ‘What! I don’t understand this. I just killed the thing, and I can’t move it!’
“I watched that cat way into the night, filmed and photographed her. After dark, in came mature kittens. Our crew took turns watching from Friday 3pm to Monday 3pm. Over that time we had foxes, coyotes, domestic dogs and the cougar. It was as if all these animals were waiting on the edges to come in. There were multiple cycles of this.”
Most of us will never see a cougar in our lifetime, even if they are living right around us. I intend to write more about cougars with the hope that people will know them and feel the urge to protect them.
It was June of 2012 when a man approached me on the top of Dead Indian Hill asking for directions to Parker Peak. At first I was perplexed where this Peak actually was. There are a lot of famous Peaks in the Greater Yellowstone that people come to climb. Parker was not one of them. Then he explained it was at the end of Sunlight road in the Park and I knew it was in Hoodoo Basin. He had a strange urgency about him, and seemed driven by an unseen need to get to this insignificant peak.
The hike to Hoodoo Basin, where Parker Peak and Hoodoo Peak form part of the bowl, is epic. I’ve been wanting to do it for ten years from the end of Sunlight Road., and finally completed it this week. It’s six hard uphill miles and 2500′ gain to the Park Boundary. Then another five miles of high meadows and up and down to the campsite below Parker Peak. The Peak is just a ‘run-up’, nothing special, except this year the only water source was a small pond generated by the last bits of a snowfield. The pond edge was laden with tracks of elk, deer, sheep and bear.
In the shadow of the eerie formations of the Hoodoos, I told my companions the story of the driven man who needed to get to Parker Peak (emphasizing Paaarr-ker said in an ominous voice). Based on some observations at the top of Parker, below is what I imagined his story might be….
See my notes on the Basin at the end of the Story…
I heard it held a mysterious Presence, a palpable vibration, an unmistakeable aura. Where I heard this, I do not remember. But it all began with the dreams. The first dream was of a mountain made of crystals, a mountain that could heal. On the very summit of the mountain peak I saw, in my dream vision, a large petrified stump. I touched the stump and found its top was broken. I pushed the lid aside to reveal a hole that went deep underground. So I climbed into that dark hole, deeper and deeper, till I was within a maze of tunnels. Almost spontaneously a little person appeared. I had no fear. It was if I knew this person, yet I’d never seen him before.
“Come, follow me” the little person said. He guided me through the underground passage, and although it was dark, a soft greenish-blue light emanated from his body, illuminating the tunnels. The little man stopped at a shaft of light that shone from an opening above. On the ground before us were bones, big piles of bones. A natural trap cave where animals had fallen inadvertently into from high above.
“Do you know whose bones these are?”
“No” I answered.
“Bones of animals past that once roamed these mountains. You were once here, hunting Short-faced Bears and Cheetahs.”
We continued on till the cave passage opened wide, revealing extensive views of deeply cut valleys and steep ravines.
The little man pointed. “This is the Center of the World, formed by Fire and Ice.”
I looked out over the land. It was dry, smoke was blowing in from different fires. The air was hot.
It was then I awoke in a cold sweat.
Using the Internet as my guide, I came to the conclusion that what I saw that had been formed of Fire and Ice was Yellowstone Park, and my viewpoint was Parker Peak. Parker Peak held a mystery meant for me to solve. Now I had to go there.
June. I packed up my car and drove the twenty hours from Chicago to Cody. From my research, the shortest route to Parker Peak was from the end of a dirt road called Sunlight. It looked easy from the map, maybe ten miles. I planned on a day hike. I’d take some water and a lunch, hike in an out during the longest day of the year so I had plenty of daylight. Now just to find Sunlight Basin. I inquired at a Cody, WY gas station and they directed me to Chief Joseph Highway. The highway climbed out of the high desert into the mountains.
This must be it. I thought as I approached 9000 feet. I turned onto a dirt road near the top of the summit. I knew Parker Peak was around 10,000. Easy climb in and out I figured. The road ended after a mile and I saw a distinct trail. I parked and began my hike. It was then I saw two locals hanging around a sign that said ‘Wilderness Boundary’.
“Is this the Sunlight Road?” I enquired of them.
“No. Sunlight Road is another seven miles down the mountain.”
I told them I was off to Parker Peak from the end of the road for a day hike.
“You have to get past the Bear Gate, but that’s not open to cars for another month. So you’ll have an extra 5 or 6 miles of hiking to the Hoodoos. Why do you want to go there.”
“Just need to get to Parker Peak.”
“Well, you can’t make it in a day hike. Do you have bear spray with you?”
“Huh? Do I need that?”
“Big grizzly area back there. Lots of other peaks around here that are nicer and accessible now. Why don’t you go to the Beartooths? Or climb some other peaks in the Park? Parker is just a walk-up. Not that interesting.”
“Just gotta get to Parker Peak.” How could I tell them. They just wouldn’t understand the magic of this mountain. “I’ll come back in August.”
It’s been three years since that day in June and I still haven’t made it to Parker. But the dreams keep coming and someday, someday, I just know, I’ll get there.
At the top of Parker Peak there is a large petrified tree stump. And the summit has rock striations made of clear crystals.
The Hoodoo Basin is laden with chippings of obsidian flakes everywhere. My friends hiked up Hoodoo Peak, a scramble on talus which I do not like. Then they easily walked the ridge about 1.5 miles to Bootjack Gap, the passage between the Crandall drainage (Papoose trail) and the Park. Large obsidian pieces were scattered all over the ridge. Hoodoo to Sunlight and Miller Creek to Crandall Creek were hard-trodden Indian trails for thousands upon thousands of years. Native peoples traveled to Obsidian Cliff (and other cherished spots for stone to work) in spring to obtain new material for atlatls and later for arrowheads. Just like the deer and elk, they ‘surfed the green’ or followed the green-up, gathering roots and plant material. In the fall, they probably stayed in Hoodoo Basin to gather pine nuts from the Whitebark Pines there.
Today about 70-80% of those Whitebarks are dead, stricken down by beetles. (See photo below). The native peoples are gone, but the grizzlies are not and they are dependent on these nutritious high-fat nuts to make brown fat for the long winter. It was terribly sad to see so many dead trees, and once again made me think about the future fate of the grizzly with a delisting and subsequent hunt so close to being approved.
In addition to obsidian material everywhere, I understand there were at least forty wikiups observed by Superintendent Norris when he visited the Hoodoos or ‘Goblin Land’ as he called it. These wikiups are no longer standing but still visible. I searched for them but was unable to find any, although I saw one that looked like a possibility. The wood would be down in a pile and very old. According to Orrin and Lorraine Bonney’s classic ‘Guide to the Wyoming Mountains and Wilderness Areas’, in 1880 when Norris and companions explored the Hoodoo area they
…found on the North side of [Parker Peak] a favorite campsite of raiding Indians with its commanding view of all approaches and handy striking distance to the high passes of Crandall Cr. He also found gory remnants of border raids–white folks’ blankets, clothes, china, bedding in & around the 40 rotting lodges.
In the four days we were in the Basin, we did not see another person. The country was very dry, so this usual summer feedgrounds for elk were barren of elk and deer. Only old scat was around. We did see evidence of one grizzly bear and bighorn sheep. I also had an experience with five Short-eared Owls flying low over my head that rates among my top ten wildlife encounters.
Several years ago I came across a small rock cave in a narrow drainage high up near a sheer rock face. There was cougar scat outside in a large cougar latrine. I crawled inside and peeked around. At the very back of the cave, some animal had made a nice bed out of soft debris. You could see the large rounded depression where the animal had rested.
Over the years I sometimes passed by this cave and wondered if a cougar might have used it as a den. I showed a photo of the rock enclosure to Toni Ruth, cougar biologist. She speculated that probably it had been used by many cougars as a resting place, but did not look like a den site normally does.
The cave sits high above a small valley used by many hunters in the fall because of it’s easy access and good game. Yet the placement of this rock site was too steep, and obscure, for humans to pass by. The only reason I happened to find it was because sometimes I hike in crazy and steep places just for fun, and I like to follow deer and elk trails.
After several years, in the spring of 2015 I decided to place a trail camera on the cave. I was deeply involved in a personal cougar study, and wanted to settle once and for all–den or lay. I hiked to the spot in May of 2015, placed one camera, and didn’t return for several months. What I found completely surprised me.
During the summer our elk,deer and bear travel into the high country and the predators follow. The valley is fairly quiet then and so my camera recorded lots of squirrel, pack rat and rabbit activity. In the winter, this particular area is closed to human presence. Before the closure, I hiked to the cave once again, and place my best trail camera, a Reconyx that takes film and stills, at the site. The camera sat till the reserve opened again in the spring.
I put together this short film that documents a year at the rock cave. Enjoy.