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Yellowstone in June

A blustery, unpredictable June brought with it fantastic wildlife watching in my three days in the Park.  I spent two nights in Mammoth and did several hikes.  On one, we ran into that herd of Rams you see.  150 years of no hunting leaves the wildlife very relaxed around people.  The rams hardly noticed us, moving slowly across the trail and up the hillside about 20 feet away.

From what I heard today, so far not too many cubs of the year (COY) have been spotted.  But I was a lucky one to get to watch a mom and 2 cubs for about fifteen minutes before they disappeared into the trees.  The cubs spent the entire time playing, rolling around, and then catching up with mom…..soooo cute!  One the way home I watched a courting pair of grizzlies.  The female was collared.  They rested together for quite some time under a tree while dozens of people watched about 100 yards away.

Yellowstone in May/June is the best time of the year.  One woman told me she spotted 71 bears last year in two weeks.  In early July grizzly bears move up into the high country to hunt for moths.  The elk follow the grasses higher up as well.  Wolves tend to follow the elk.  So although you may see these animals in summer, the sightings will be fewer and more difficult to find.

The wildlife, the thermal activity, the incredible setting–that is the magic of Yellowstone and spring is the best time of year to come.

Grizzlies and elk calves

Its unusual to see  the Cody backcountry herd grazing every morning and night this time of year.  Usually, by now, they’re headed over the passes to calve in the Lamar. But the snows in the high country are still too deep and the melt hasn’t even begun.

I’ve been watching this small herd from my window.  They come early morning and evening.

Elk May 20, 2011 still in Sunlight

The other morning I spied a lone elk.  I watched her for a few days going back and forth between the herd in the pasture and a patch of willows in the nearby forest.  She’d disappear into the willows and the forest by the road and seemed concerned.  I had a feeling she had a calf hidden in the brush there.

The lone cow with deer

But last night something strange happened which made me wonder if I was correct.  Instead of just this lone cow wandering over to this marshy area, a cadre of about 7 elk wandered over there with her and disappeared into the forest.

So this afternoon I took my bear spray and cautiously investigated while the elk were grazing.  In a muddy area of the creek, now widened by slash and blow downs from the logging last year, I spied a grizzly track moving in the direction of a small clearing.  A few yards up from the track, there was the calf, completely consumed.  Only the skin and legs remained.   It had been predated right where it had lain, for it was in a heap in the grass by a freshly fallen spruce bough.  I inspected the little legs and skin.  The small thing was deftly and perfectly skinned.  Certainly a bear, and my guess is it was that grizzly who made the track just a few feet away.

Grizzly in the Lamar feeding amongst the willows

I had hoped to spy a living calf, so I had a sicken and sad feeling.

Six out of 10 elk calves are predated within their first 10 days.  They are fairly helpless for those first two weeks.  Many people say the calves don’t have a scent, but I would disagree. I haven’t seen tracks in those marshy areas and this griz went directly to that calf.  The calf was not too far from the road, but at the edge of a wide swath of logged forest that includes a lot of swampy areas.  That bear did not wander about through the open woods looking for an elk, but clearly walked from the nearby meadow into the woods right to the calf.  Handling the calf’s skin, I could smell it on my hands.  It doesn’t have a strong smell, and staying on the ground low keeps it’s smell down.  But it does have a smell and to a grizzly, I’m sure its pretty strong.

I was in the Lamar Valley a few days ago and within an hour saw three grizzly boars in the valley. A friend told me in 2 days she saw 20 bears just in Lamar Valley.  The Lamar is becoming a favorite of the grizzlies.  I have wondered if these migratory elk, who usually calve in the Lamar, might have better success here.  Certainly there are bears here, but not as many as in the Lamar.  That’s a question I can’t answer.  Unfortunately for this little elk, it wasn’t the case.

And one more question I had:  Why, last night, did I see 7 or 8 elk accompany mama elk into the willows, not a route the elk ever take around here?  Was that a show of sympathy and support?  After that, the lone elk has not been alone anymore, and I haven’t seen her nor any of the others wander into the willows.

My heart felt saddened for that little calf and her mother.  But I can’t blame the grizzly.  How could I…I went home and enjoyed a BBQ’d bison steak myself.

Sleeping grizzly.

Can we really Re-Wild?

I just came back from New York where I picked up a few interesting books.   Two of them present similar science on our vanishing wildlife but different approaches.  End of the Wild by the late Stephen M. Meyer  who was a professor of Political Science at MIT, says it is just too late to save the biodiversity on this planet.  It is known that in the next 100 years, more than half the planet’s species will disappear.  Meyer’s says that there will still be plants and animals, but they will be the weedy species that survive more easily around humans–from dandelions to coyotes, mosquitos to corn–species that survive in human disturbed eco-systems.  His is a pessimistic view.

The other book I’m reading, Rewilding the World by Caroline Fraser is a fascinating read, presenting a more hopeful view that will take work, though.  Scientists concur that ecosystems, to remain intact, need three things–Cores, Corridors, and Canines (or translate top predators).  For instance, a Core would be Yellowstone Park; a Corridor would be the Yellowstone to Yukon project; and the Canine would be the wolf in this case.

Y2Y map

One of the most fascinating bits of research Fraser quotes that began this kind of thinking amongst scientists was a study done in 1990 by John Terborgh, a biologist who studied a stranded hilltop ‘island’ created by a new hydroelectric dam in Venezuela that flooded a valley.  As the new lake filled, the predators fled, leaving only smaller creatures behind on the islands.  I quote the book below:

After a team studied the islands, the data painted a horrific picture.  Safe from predators, howler monkeys proliferated on some islands, but they were not enjoying their freedom from fear.  Normally social animals, they were living alone, attacking one another, and killing their own infants.  By denuding trees, they caused surviving plants to protect themselves with toxins, so meals provoked vomiting.  Many plants are capable of deploying extraordinary chemical defenses against herbivory by inducing a rapid rise in levels of toxins that can repel or kill those feeding on them.  On islands with howler monkeys, the instability caused by the absence of predators and superabundance of herbivores set off a vicious chain reaction.  

On other islands, predators of left-cutter ants were absent (armadillos and army ants) and the ants ran amok, carrying everything green off to their underground nests, leaving a…thicket of impenetrable throny vines, destroying all remaining life, plant and animal.  Terborgh and colleagues reported that after a few years almost 75 percent of vertebrate species had been lost from the smaller islands without jaguars or pumas.”

Fraser’s book examines corridor projects around the world, successes and failures.  She looks at central and south America, and large projects in Africa.  Many of the African projects are of interest, not only because of the great diversity of megafauna (particularly elephants which reck havoc amongst farmlands and villages and need very large corridors) but because they are multi-national endeavors–huge corridors that cross nation boundaries. Like the Greater Yellowstone, these Peace Parks (a concept first begun with Waterton-Glacier Park) include protected cores, as well as corridors where people live.

I can’t begin to describe all the different approaches here, but certainly the corridor projects that have been the most successful involve the local communities and take into account their needs.  One of the most botched plans was Paseo Pantera in central America, where good intentions became convoluted by developers getting involved and local peoples weren’t taken into account from the start.  The project degraded into an “integrated conservation and development project”

Large animals need large corridors.

Large Corridor areas for large animals

 And there is also the ‘problem with predators’, a human problem that has been obvious in the GYE since the wolf was eliminated in the 30’s in Yellowstone, and millions of coyotes, bobcats and other predators have been routinely destroyed with tax dollars for decades due to cattle predation.

Yellowstone to Yukon is a corridor concept that has been around since 1997. Its a conservation vision to preserve our North American great animals for future generations and for the earth.  Some work is being done already, like over- and underpasses for wildlife; wildlife friendly fencing, and species reintroduction.  But to be successful, it will take people living within this corridor to be involved and share the same vision, to do their small part whether it be active shepherding their livestock or replacing their fences for pronghorn passage, or saying ‘no’ to intensive housing developments in corridor areas, or as small as bear-proof garbage cans.  People need to realize when they live or move to these areas that they are becoming involved in wildlife corridors, which have special requirements, different than city or suburb living.  And help and education needs to be given to those people, such as ranchers, affected by corridors. Solutions must be community based but with the greater vision in mind.

Fraser states ” ‘Carnivorous animals are important.  We have to stop thinking of them as passengers on this earth and start thinking of them as drivers.’ Inevitably, an ecosystem robbed of its top predators begins a remorseless process of impoverishment.”  If we are truly interested in saving the great animals of North America, from wolves to bison, elk and pronghorn to grizzly bears, we who live here must all become involved in the Vision of Y2Y, stop our regional bickering and look towards the wholistic future.

Fraser’s book presents a glimmer of hope for Rewilding.  We, as a world culture, are fighting a strong current of species loss.  It is a great fight not just for these species, but for ourselves and the future of mankind on this planet.  Meyer’s vision of a world of limited weedy human-adapted species may sound livable, but boring, and missing the richness of magnificent mammals such as tigers, elephants, and crocodiles.  But Fraser’s admonition of the howler monkey hell, a potential future with the absence of diversity and predators, is a world not worth living in.

East of Yellowstone lies the Absarokas–Crow Country

East of Yellowstone lies the Absarokas, the Big Horn Basin, and the Big Horns.  To the southeast lie the Wind Rivers.  These were the original lands of the Crow peoples.  This is where I live. Below is a wonderful quote from a Crow Indian chief about 200 years ago.  If you stay here, you are in the Center of the Universe.  At the Center, things happen as they should and you will fare well, he says.  Wow,  two hundred years later and this is my experience too!

Big Horns from the Basin

 

“The Crow Country is a good country. The Great Spirit has put it in exactly the right place; while you are in it you fare well; whenever you go out of it, whichever way you may travel you fare worse.”

“If you go to the south, you have to wander far over great barren plains; the water is warm and bad and you meet with fever and ague. To the north it is cold; the winters are long and bitter and there is no grass; you can not keep horses but must travel with dogs. What is a country without horses?”

“On the Columbia they are poor and dirty, paddle about in canoes and eat fish. Their teeth are worn out; they are always taking fish bones out of their mouths; fish is poor food.”

“To the east they dwell in villages; they live well, but they drink the muddy water of the Missouri – that is bad. A Crow’s dog would not drink such water.”

“About the forks of the Missouri is a fine country; good water, good grass, plenty of buffalo. In summer it is almost as good as the Crow Country, but in winter it is cold; the grass is gone and there is no salt weed for the horses.”

“The Crow Country is in exactly the right place. It has snowy mountains and sunny plains, all kinds of climates and good things for every season.”

“When the summer heat scorches the prairies, you can draw up under the mountains, where the air is sweet and cool, the grass fresh, and the bright streams come tumbling out of the snow banks. There you can hunt the elk, the deer and the antelope when their skins are fit for dressing; there you will find plenty of white bears and mountain sheep.”

Absaroka high country

“In the autumn when your horses are fat and strong from the mountains and pastures, you can go down into the plains and hunt the buffalo, or even trap beaver on the streams.”

“And when winter comes on, you can take shelter in the woody bottoms along the rivers; there you will find buffalo meat for yourselves and cottonwood bark for your horses, or you may winter in the Wind River Valley, where there is salt in abundance.”

“The Crow Country is in exactly the right place. Everything good is to be found there. There is no country like the Crow Country.”

Arapooish, also known as Chief  Rotten Belly around 1830.

Shapeshifter

This is a great documentary, free online, by Canadian Geographic on coyotes.  Humans have been trying to eradicate coyotes for years, unsuccessfully.  In fact, whereas coyotes were confined to a small area of the West a hundred years ago, now they are ubiquitous, all over North America, from cities to suburbs, on islands and the countryside.  Why, no matter how much humans have trapped, shot,and  poisoned coyotes, do they come back in greater numbers than before?

Coyote hunting ground squirrels

Here in the GYE, wolves were eradicated by the 1930’s.  Since then, coyotes have been the bane of the sheep, cattle, chicken, and any other type of rancher.  Coyotes are considered ‘varmits’ and can be shot on sight in Wyoming.  Coyotes used to be blamed for all the troubles.  With the reintroduction of wolves, now wolves are blamed.  But if you want to keep coyotes under control, then you need to have wolves around.

According to YNP biologist Bob Crabtree who has been studying coyotes since before wolf reintroduction, since wolves came on the scene in Yellowstone, there has been an 80% reduction in the coyote population.  Coyotes are the oldest indigenous species in North America, some 3 million years old.  Their arch enemy is the Wolf.  Over the thousands of years of dealing with wolves, coyotes have become cunning and adaptable under that stress.  They have developed highly sophisticated strategies of dealing with high mortality rates.  For one, they breed rapidly when under attack and produce more litters.  For another, they can feed up and down the food chain.

Coyote pup

Each year in Yellowstone 1/3 of the coyotes are killed.  This makes the survivors much smarter:  Super Coyotes.  And although wolves are their nemesis, they also provide a smorgasbord of food.  Coyotes in Yellowstone mostly eat ground squirrels.  It takes a few to make a good meal.  But when wolves kill large prey, the wolf pack will eat their fill and leave the rest.  Coyotes can take advantage of their leftovers, which is like eating 100 ground squirrels.

Coyotes taking advantage of a wolf kill

So it pays to stick around the wolves, but not too close.  This stress has produced powerful survival skills. It seems coyotes evolved to do better in a state of flux.

Humans created conditions for coyotes that have allowed them to populate all of North America.  They’ve killed off their primary enemy, the wolf.  They’ve cultivated fields and created open spaces.  They’ve filled those open spaces with nice plump meat to raise pups with.  And by putting stress on coyotes through trapping and killing, humans are acting like wolves, making the coyotes breed more rapidly.

Everyone I know has a story about coyotes in the city and suburbs, close and strange encounters, bold coyotes.  I’ve watched coyotes kill a deer right next to a house.  I’ve  seen them lounging mid-day on the grass in a cemetery.  I know a friend whose daughter was walking her dog in the open space of Marin County who became surrounded by coyotes.  She started singing and they left.

Urban coyote rests mid-day in local cemetery

 

Singing brings up a good point.  Biologists who are studying coyotes in urban areas say, since we can’t eradicate them, we will need to learn to live with them.  One biologist says “They are teaching us things maybe we don’t want to learn yet.”  As top predators in an urban environment, there is a ‘nervous harmony’ that can be adapted to.  Humans need to learn to just scare coyotes away–use a hose, shout, sing, water pistols–make those coyotes think “These humans are so unpredictable”.

The documentary had some interesting things to say about the eastern coyote.  It seems they are growing bigger.  DNA studies reveals the eastern coyote is mating with the smaller Eastern (as compared with the larger grey wolf of the west) Wolf to create a super top predator–smarter, wilier, more adaptable.  It seems ancient Native Americans understood Coyote much better than us modern humans when they described him as ‘the trickster’, the ‘shapeshifter’.

I applaud Coyote.  Humans have taken over every inch of North America, as well as the entire world.  Rats, cockroaches, and a few other smaller species thrive around humans.  But Coyote is the only large predator that has adapted and fully populated all of our environments.  He truly is more cunning than us!

Coyote hunting voles

The wolves have a good day

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

Lots of elk tracks too on this beautiful day

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

Limpy wolf but seems to be doing fine

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

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

Tracks of four wolves 'booking it'

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

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