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Otters (video footage), connectivity, and Bison

Today I went back to Abbott’s Lagoon to do some tracking on my own.  I arrived late, around 11, and by then at least a dozen people, kids and adults, had tracked around the dunes.  Being vacation week, there were more people than usual during the weekday.  But I managed to find a lot of tracks regardless.

The first thing I came upon were four otters playing right under the bridge.  No other people were around so I took the opportunity to stay quiet and watch them with my camera.  They swam in and among the vegetation, then three of them got up on the sandy bank and rolled around.  Here’s a link to my YouTube video of them rolling.  From watching them, it appears they were cleaning and drying themselves with all that rolling, helping to maintain the insulative quality of their fur.

Otter print

Otter fresh scat (you see the otter leaving it in the video link)

Despite all the human prints, there were lots of pristine areas on the dunes with only animal activity, and boy was there a lot of it.  Bobcat, coyote, rodent, raccoon, and skunk as well as birds and these otters were visible.  Black-tail deer hang in the fields on the hike in.   The dunes are alive at night when the people are gone.  Its amazing to think all these animals are living and thriving so close to humans.

Every morning I walk the five minutes to Muir Beach and run the dog.  This morning the weekend crowds were gone and I was the only person out there at 8am.  On the way back to the parking lot, I noticed some fresh scat, left while I was at the beach, by a bobcat.

Marin County, which is part of the North Bay, is a fairly unique area being so close to the city.  Just across the Golden Gate bridge, it has tremendous amounts of open space.  Besides the Golden Gate National Recreation area, Muir Woods National Monument, Mount Tamalpais State Park, Point Reyes National Seashore, and Samuel P. Taylor State Park, all in one county, Marin has protected its watersheds.  Unlike San Francisco which imports its water from Hetch Hetchy in the Sierras, Marin supplies its own water from rainfall, with some imports from the Russian River in Sonoma County.  Mount Tamalpais is the weather-keeper mountain in the county.  Fog and rain patterns are determined by the mountain and all of its surrounding lands are part of Marin Municipal Water District.  The drainages providing the water runoff feeds into several lakes and reservoirs on the mountain slopes.  These are all protected lands, never to be developed.  In addition, Marin topography is a series of valley and hills.  The hills, in general, are protected Open Space, while the valleys are populated.  There are few connecting roads between the valleys over these hills.  Throw into the mix Marin Agricultural Land Trust, a trust formed by the large ranches patchworked around Point Reyes, and you have a lot of open space.

What makes this unique is that animals have a chance to move; there is a corridor of connectivity of open, protected lands that allows movement of animals all the way to the next county north.  Marin provides a template of how we can protect land in urban highly populated areas that allows for wildlife as well.  Cougars even live here and there has never been any incidents with people or dogs.  Even an occasional black bear has been sited here and probably there will be more in the future.  These are not wild lands, but urban lands with connective open space for humans and wildlife to live side by side.

The other night I was having dinner with some friends.  They indulged me for 10 minutes and listened to my impassioned spiel on how important our last remaining wild lands are, for our soul, for our grand children, and for the great megafauna of North America.  I can get lost in these passions.  At the end of it, my friend asked me “If you could suggest one thing I could do, what would it be?”  What a great question.  At that moment I had no answer.  I told her that I’ve racked my brain thinking about that myself.  I didn’t think what she wanted to hear was ‘Donate to such-and-such an organization’.  What she wanted to hear was what the one thing she could do to make a difference, despite the fact that it’s not her main passion and she lives in a city.

So today, at the beach, I thought about one main thing.  Its the one main thing I have for today.  Tomorrow I could change it.  I suggest the one main thing would be to visit Yellowstone and see the bison.  As you see the bison, read a one or two page article summarizing their complicated situation and plight.  Sure, everyone knows something about the wolves and their plight.  But the bison situation really tells the story about everything that is constipated and locked up right now with megafauna.  They are managed not as wildlife, but as livestock under the completely wrong federal agency.  They are not allowed room to roam.  And all the reasons why, the issues between the Cattlemen’s Association and bison advocacy groups, the culling that goes on by the Park, the difficulty acquiring winter habitat outside the park with connectivity, and the fact that bison are America’s iconic animal, one that was almost slaughtered to extinction…I think the plight of today’s bison should be the one thing every person in the United States should learn about.  The story of the bison might communicate to even a person living in New York why we must advocate for connectivity, wildlands, and room to roam.

The Iconic Bison

Ancient Buffalos in Sunlight

I’ve walked this drainage at least fifty times.  Its right next to my property, filled with old dying and dead aspens and young conifers. The forest service plans to cut, clear, and burn here within the next few years to encourage new aspen growth.  Its a narrow cut of a ravine, right next to the main dirt road, but hidden by shrubs and trees.  The moose hide there and deer rest inside its cover.  Basically, with all the dead fall, its a mess to walk through and few people do.

Since its low and north facing, its been full of snow all winter.  I decided to see if I could walk it, just for fun.  I enjoy its secretive quality, just like the animals do.  I needed to stay on the high south facing side to avoid the snow.  Maybe because there has been so much moisture and the slow spring melt heaves the ground, or maybe because a newly fallen tree revealed secrets underneath, I came upon an incredible find.  There, in full view, all above ground, was an ancient bison skull.  You could see it had been mostly buried by the discoloration, but it was laying as if waiting for me now.

I hauled it home, not more than 1/4 mile, but it was certainly heavy, even though it wasn’t complete.  I showed it to my old neighbor, who grew up here.  “That’s an old one.  I’ve found a few, but none with as much horn as that one.”  I told him how I’d walked there many times and seen nothing.  As if in agreement, he said “One time I was working around Spring Creek.  I’d been in this area hundreds’ of times.  But this time there was a horn sticking up from the creek bed.  I pulled it up and there was the buffalo skull.”

These finds are gifts from beyond.  I never go hunting for finds like this.  If you do, you never encounter them. They are given to you, for whatever reason.  Maybe for you to remember, to dream, to respect, and to encourage you to do the work and the magic to protect our inheritance.  I still dream of the day when bison will roam again in Sunlight Basin, even if only on the nearby ranch, replacing those funny looking bovines that reside there now, which the wolf packs in the valley can so easily pick off in the summers.  And I long to get a glimpse in my lifetime of tremendous herds once again on prairie lands.  I believe we all, together, can dream it back into existence.

Back of ancient Bison skull

Ancient bison skull. This is the front all eaten and eroded away

Map of Ancient buffalo drive area on the nearby 2 dot ranch

Our keystone species: Bison and their restoration

I’m reading a book that, for the first time for me, pops to life what it meant that there were 60 million Bison here before the white man arrived.

Bison bison, the survivor amongst many large mammals that became extinct in North America, were tough and well suited for this continent.  Surviving -50 degree winters, summer droughts and waterless days where he could drink prickly pear juice if needed.  They lived long and remained fertile into old age, were sure-footed and could swim if needed.  They lived at sea level, on the high plains, and in the high mountains.   A keystone species, their roaming and fertilizing of the soil conditioned it for native grasses as well as provided food for the bears and wolves that freely lived amongst them.

When the Spanish arrived, they found Buffalo north of the Rio Grande and inward into Florida.  Bison covered the continent from Canada to Mexico north.  Bison were in Georgia, along the Mississippi, in Pennsylvania and along the Niagara.

When spring ice floes began, Bison that had fallen through the cracks while crossing the river drowned and were carried downstream.  Thousands of carcasses floated down western rivers.  One trapper counted over 730 until he got tired and stopped counting. Rivers were a continuous brown flow and these carcasses formed complete dams.  Bodies of Bison flowed day and night in the spring.  Grizzlies waited for these spring ‘run-offs’.

Calf loss of Bison was set around 50%.  With 15 million new calves born each year, that meant 7 1/2 million calf carcasses strewn across the country.  Audubon’s party camped on a low island on the Missouri covered with dead Bison calves.

The Bison were so thick that people didn’t count them by individuals.  Instead they counted them by how many days it took to pass one point.  One trapper counted 5 days before the herd passed a point completely.  One man wrote that while traveling up the Arkansas 15 miles a day and able to see for 15 miles on each side of the trail, in 3 days he’d seen about 1350 square miles of land entirely covered with Buffalo.  The herds were “in such immense numbers as to defy computation.”

"Thick as gnats" was one expression used. Native Americans called the country "one robe".

When the buffalo were reduced to only bones covering the plains, people were making money collecting and selling them for fertilizer or glue or for sugar factories.  Railroad cars filled to the brim operated day and night hauling bones.

A few Bison escaped the slaughter by holing up in Yellowstone National Park.  In the early days of the Park, even these few animals were being poached.  By 1902, only 25 or 30 Bison remained in the herd.  An intensive protective breeding program brought these last genetically wild Bison back from the brink.

Controversy remains today.  Bison leaving the Park are subject to slaughter over brucellosis.  Only 3000  of the once 60 million of the wild herd remains, confined within Park boundaries.  If this isn’t a definition of an American tragedy…

Bison footprint

Memory is short.  I suppose it could be touted as a conservation success story, saving the Bison from extinction, running them through a very narrow genetic bottleneck to pop out with 3000 in the Park in 2010.  But what of the other many millions?

An apology from the government is long overdue to the Bison.  A presidential pardon.   And then a place, a very large place in the mid-west they can call their home, should be granted to them, to let them live again and build their numbers as they please.  This idea isn’t new.  Its’ been floating around since the late 1980’s when Drs. Frank and Deborah Popper proposed The Buffalo Common, an area set aside where dying farming communities are.  The Poppers were given a lot of grief over their ideas, but it seems that, with the shrinking of family farms and many towns in the Mid-West folding up, this idea is now being considered as not only realistic, but money making (the key to everything capitalistic!).

There is not one national park in the mid-west.  Imagine herds of thousands of Bison roaming their old habitat.  The short and tall grass prairies would be restored, the soil would sing again, and tourists would come from all over the world to see these magnificent animals, found no where else on earth,  just as they now come to Yellowstone. 

Poised to be a dreamer for bison

Bison are on my mind.

A tiny slice of what once was

A tiny slice of what once was

There is already a lot written about Yellowstone Bison being hazed, killed, confined and abused. Our last remaining wild herd, a mere 3000 out of 60,000,000! And it is hugely controversial.

Calves and moms

Calves and moms

In my own mind, Yellowstone is not the issue. This controversy is small  (and I don’t mean to minimize it at all) compared to the largeness of what should be being addressed. I suggest the real issue begins with restoration of wild bison to larger tracts of land, rather than the confinement to a zoo-like existence.

I hike the mountains to the East side of Yellowstone and encounter old Bison bones, teeth, and sometimes skulls. This was their habitat—the mountains, valleys, and plains. It’s easy to imagine chance encounters with these beasts in the woods, or roaming the valleys where the summer herds of cattle presently reside. I watch the cows. Their presence doesn’t move me. There is a dim hint of intelligence there and no magnificence.

I move cautiously through a herd of cattle grazing on Forest Service land. Today a huge mama stood her ground on the trail, swinging her head back and forth as if to warn me not to get too close to her baby. I chided her and she sheepishly moved away into the watershed below, a product of centuries of breeding the wild out of her. A bison on the trail would have been something formidable, nothing to mess with. It would have chided me and I’d have given him large berth. Meeting a bison, my wild yet cautious nature, instead of my hubris, would have stepped forth. That is the kind of contact that serves me well, serves my depth of being.

A modern day Bison walking the road

A modern day Bison walking the road

Lewis and Clark talked of seeing 10,000 bison in one glance, at times so unfamiliar with humans that they’d come right up to investigate. One entry noted how a calf was following them back to camp. Our land grew up with bison. The bison educated the bunch grasses. Their wallows were important sources of seed banks. Their tough hides and instincts served them well in the blizzards of the Plains. Their meat fed the peoples, their skins and hides warmed them and were their shelters.

They are adapted to survive the cold of the plains

They are adapted to survive the cold of the plains

When Europeans came here, they brought what they knew, their wheat and cattle. They renamed places to remind them of their homes—New England, New Hampshire, New York. They almost brought the bison to extinction in order to exterminate the Native American population.  One hundred and fifty years later, amazingly, we are still defending our cattle instead of restoring what belongs here, what has evolved here with the grasses, the weather, the wildlife, the watersheds. We spend time, effort and money restoring damaged ecosystems, but fail to include the keystone species of the Plains. After 150 years, I am amazed that we still defend our injustices and our cattle, instead of publicly apologizing and making a way for the bison.


Bison Footprint

Once someone has visited the Lamar Valley in Yellowstone (or even seen a working ranch of bison) and watched the bison, they can’t tell me that they have the same pleasure sitting and watching cattle graze. There is something so primeval, so basic and ancient, in hearing the mysterious grunts and sounds of the herd, seeing a buffalo paw through snow for food, or a herd lined up following a leader making track through deep snow. This is a pleasure that needs to be reinvigorated, expanded. We can begin to make up for old transgressions and reinvigorate our connection to wild nature at the same time. We can begin a new conversation.

Where the Buffalo Once Roamed

I took the research students over to the dead coyote today.  The guys have quite a bit of experience, between their schooling, hunting and trapping, I thought they might know what had killed it.  They had no qualms about touching it (which I had as I am always wondering about diseases I might catch).  Since they touched it, turned it over, felt its coat–I did the same.  They also thought it looked really healthy, and said its coat was perfect.  The guys discussed the coyotes leg for a while and if that could have been made by a trap.  The upper part of the leg was exposed to the bone.  After much debate, the guys felt that neither a trap nor a snare could make that wound.  It was too high for a trap and too low for a snare.

T___ felt the coyotes’ ribcage and noticed several broken ribs on one side.  Since the coyote was lying next to a field where the elk come nightly in large numbers, he guessed the coyote, a male, might have been feeling especially hubristic, trotted through the crowd of elk, and got a good kick where he then bled internally.  The gnawing might have come after he was dead.

I took a walk with Koda in the afternoon up on Riddle flat.  The elk have been swarming around there–laying everywhere, eating everything.  Koda found several stray legs scattered around.  The other day on the flat, I bent down and picked up a buffalo horn, a smallish one, probably a calf’s.  Buffalo haven’t been in my valley in over 150 years.   The horn was so old it looked like layers of bark, peeling, with lichen on it.  But it has a point at the end and, being a landscaper, I know wood when I see it, and this ain’t wood! I thought that was just fine; an unexpected and wonderful rare find.  That was just 2 days ago.

Yet today I backtracked home across the other end of Riddle flat, bent down again and picked up another Bison horn, much more massive than the other one.  J___ was coming over for dinner.  His family homesteaded in this valley since 1915.  He was born on the mountain, his mother trying to get to Cody and never making it.  He’s even shown me the branch of the tree he was born under–he’s got it hanging in his home.  (Note:  Was I ever jealous of that.  I want a tree that I was born under!)  I got home just as J___was walking up to my door.  “I’ve got something to show you” I have to yell really loud when I speak to J__ because he’s 84 and hard of hearing.  I pulled the Bison horn out.  “That’s a Buffalo” he confirmed.  “I’ve found them all over.  They haven’t been here for a really long time.  I’ve even found whole skulls. I found one that had a bullet in it and one that was Indian killed.”  I asked how he knew the Buffalo skull he’d found had been killed by Indians.  “It was hit over the head.  They always took the brains out to eat.”

Bison Horns with matchbook for size

Finding that Bison horn, peeling, almost petrified, was like finding a little bit of left over magic–magic that might be called our North American Dreamtime.