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Cats in an ancient labyrinth

Here’s another excerpt that was cut from the final draft of Ghostwalker

Comb Ridge rises dramatically in the Utah skyline of desert. A geologic fold, the impressive eighty mile north-south ridgeline rises slowly from the east to a steep, formidable drop-off on its western side. Only a mile wide, the eastern approach contains deep canyons harboring ancient dwellings. These prehistoric homes lie under overhangs, fill canyon recesses, and are stuffed into cliff niches. Then there are the most obtuse communities where no entry can be found, except by rope ladders that long vanished with the desert elements. A hike into these canyon ruins reveals 1000-year-old dried up corn cobs, enormous metates, pottery shards, and walls spattered with clay-red handprints where women once ground corn into meal. Locals tell of an ancient highway that connected Comb Ridge to Chaco Canyon, two hundred miles away. There are stories of footholds etched into the western cliffs, enabling athletic Puebloans to climb the ridge, and complete their journey on the road to the sacred lands beyond.

I spent two months hiking Comb Ridge, and other canyons. One of the largest, Mule Canyon, is a wide valley wash surrounded by sheer sandstone cliffs. Mostly an open, sunny, easy hike, the few ruins are hard-to-spot since they hang far up the canyon walls. I was following a bobcat, his prints easily visible along the sandy canyon bottom.


Bobcat prints in sand

Bobcat prints in soft sand

He was on a direct route, according to his tracks, probably returning from a nightly hunt. The tracks engrossed me for over a mile, when suddenly they veered off to the right, into a narrow steep ravine. As I changed course to follow them, I looked up, and higher than I could climb, was my bobcat, sitting unperturbed amidst the alcoves of man-made walls and rooms. This large habitation, unoccupied since the 12th century, accessible only by rope or ladder, was now home to this shadowy predator, the perfect apartment for this nimble animal as a safe-house from humans.


The apartments were inaccessible by foot


Frank C. Hibben, author of the colorful and captivating Hunting American Lions, was given a grant from Southwestern Conservation League to spend a year studying mountain lions. Although Hibben documented prey and collected scat, researching lions in the 1930s mainly meant hanging out with professional lion hunters and going on hunts for control kills. In his book, Hibben tells of riding with his houndsman Giles Goswick, deep into the canyons of Arizona tracking a cattle-killing cougar.

The cougar was a skilled stealth artist, following narrow ledges along gulches with steep overhanging cliffs, perplexing the dogs who kept losing track of the animal. Following their lead dog through a narrow ravine, Hibben and Giles scrambled over centuries old fallen trees and canyon pools, with the barking of dogs echoing down the canyon. As the canyon walls became steeper, the chasm grew dimmer, the mysterious noises along with the din of barking grew louder, the little gulch grew eerier.

Canyon Moab

The canyon walls grew steeper as the echoing of dogs grew louder

Giles stayed ahead, concentrating on trying to find a lion track in the patches of sand on the canyon floor when suddenly Hibben shouted to him “Look up there—to the left. Up there in that shadow,” pointing and waving his hand. Giles undoubtedly thought Hibben had seen the lion on an overhang, but instead he found, shaded by the overhanging cliff, two caves, one above the other, with fragments of man-made adobe masonry and mortar housing a window cut-out.

Canyon in Moab

“Look up there—to the left. Up there in that shadow,” Hibben shouted.

Even with all the excitement of their lion chase, the dogs still howling in the distance, the men stopped to examine this ancient ruin. They surmounted a low ledge and stood at the lower cave entrance. Fragments of walls and partitions still clung to the cave floor.

habitat in Bears ears

They surmounted the wall and stood at the lower cave entrance.


Fingerprints of the long-dead builders were outlined in the mortar where they had pressed it hard between the stones. The usual pack rat occupants were making the cave their home, but perched on top of the rat’s stick and cacti mounds was a yucca sandal with the ties and strings still intact. There was even a visible hole in the heel of the sandal. Yet it was the cave fifty feet above this one that had the startling discovery. Not big enough for human habitation, as their eyes became accustomed to the shadows in this darkened environment, this small arched opening of the cave had sticks protruding outward in all directions. The ‘sticks’ were bound with bands of dark material, rings of blue and yellow color, with feathers on their ends.

Cave in Blanding

Yet it was the cave fifty feet above that had the startling discovery


“Giles! They’re arrows,” Hibben exclaimed, while Giles was already pulling out his lariat rope that he carried around his waist. Deftly, Giles threw his rope, barely reaching the lowermost of the protruding shafts, and three arrows fell at the men’s feet. The arrows were preserved perfectly by the dry climate—wooden arrows fitted with three feathers and a notch for the bow string. Maybe two or three hundred of these arrows protruded from the small opening above.

Koda in ancient cave dwelling

For a few moments, time stood still

For a few moments, time stood still. The men forgot where they were or why they were there, when suddenly the barking of the dogs brought them back. The cougar that had led them to this place had been forgotten momentarily. Carefully, they placed the arrows and the sandal on a ledge in the lower cave, to remain in situ, and as they looked up, they saw the dogs had treed their victim, who was hanging from a gnarled spruce limb at the end of the canyon.

Hibben ends his story by saying “The long-deserted cliff house in the narrow canyon with the ceremonial arrow cave above it created an atmosphere of antiquity which was not ordinary background for any cougar. Perhaps this lion was the reincarnation of one of the old cliff dwellers prowling yet the tumbled masonry and the dark caves of his forefathers.”

hands painted



More cat stories from Ghostwalker – Lynx, Bobcat, and Snowshoe Hare

Another story that was cut from the final version of my new book Ghostwalker, Here is one about lynx and their prey, snowshoe hares.

Today was a beautiful clear day, seventeen degrees when I started out on a snowshoe trek.  I’d heard from my friend Don that while hunting up Reef Creek last October, an area closed in winter except to foot traffic, he’d seen so many snowshoe hare tracks they were like scribbles in the snow.  Most winter visitors head farther north to the Beartooth Mountains to snowmobile, so this off-limits trek is a quiet respite.  Being a north-facing slope, the road had accumulated over three feet of snow.  A recent snowstorm left the snow soft and snowshoeing was a workout.

These “reefs” are a series of layered limestone plateaus. The access road climbs along the far edge of the two benches, winding to the second reef, where a maze of old logging roads carve even higher up into the mountains. Spring through fall, this is a wet place, as hidden springs run underground, emerging through the cracks in the limestone.


Limestone reef

With deep snow, it’s a heart workout in my snowshoes, through thick forest on both sides, to reach a sharp turn in the road where a locked gate accesses a telephone line service road. I know that after I pass this first bend, the climb steepens, hugging layered slabs of limestone cliffs on one side, with a vertical drop on the other, until I reach the second reef. Don told me this second reef was where he saw the hare runs. I’m thinking of heading there, until I see the road is blocked farther ahead by an avalanche of snow at its most narrow juncture. I decide to explore the first reef that lies beyond the access road, but while snowshoeing back down to the gate, I’m hit with an explosion of hare tracks. Snowshoe hare tracks are exciting because they are so big, and testify to how well adapted these animals are to snow-covered habitat. Their oversized hind feet are generously covered with fur, and where I’m sinking they are having a party in the snow.

snowshoe hare tracks

Snowshoe hare tracks


What’s interesting to me is not just these tracks, but their feeding evidence. This mountain has experienced a lot of logging as well as fire activity, resulting in numerous copses of young spruce. The evidence testifies the hares are standing on their feet, chewing off the lower tips of spruce branches. Nipped twigs and gnawed off branches are strewn everywhere underneath these groves.

Several summers ago, I saw a woman juggling armloads of equipment walking to the forest across from my home. We chatted for a while, and I asked what she was doing. She told me she was an independent contractor doing a job for the Forest Service.  “I’m working on a vegetation study.”

The Forest Service, she said, was using her information to understand if this was good lynx habitat. I knew the Shoshone Forest Service was working on their twenty year management plan at that time, a massive undertaking that revisits guidelines for everything from timber to grazing, oil and gas, to wildlife issues. I asked her how her work was helping the Forest decide management for lynx; what was the connection between our local vegetation and the meat-eating lynx? The connection, it turns out, is the hare; that speedy animal that the well-adapted lynx prey on.

Lynx, being listed under the Endangered Species Act as a threatened species, needed proper consideration and protection in the Forest’s plan. It wasn’t clear exactly how this woman was measuring good habitat with her surveying equipment by tying flagging of various colors to trees.  But that conversation piqued my interest in lynx. So I’m heading up to Reef Creek on this February day to investigate—are there any lynx here along with these hares?



I’d occasionally seen snowshoe hare in the forest she was surveying, as well as few tracks in other locations around the valley. We also have white-tailed Jackrabbits, and their tracks are very similar in size to snowshoe hares so easily confused. Today though, this higher elevation spruce forest was clearly snowshoe hare habitat. After a few hours of exploring for tracks, the only other spoor I saw came from coyotes. With increasing access roads and snowmobiles trails, coyotes are having an easier time venturing farther into deep snow areas of the winter backcountry where snowshoes live. One theory goes that coyotes are competing with lynx for food by reducing the snowshoe population. Less snowshoe hares, less lynx.

Lynx are made for snow with their huge paws, and the Yellowstone region is at the southern tip of their historic range, which made them uncommon historically in the Park. But there have been several sightings in the last fifteen years, mostly through confirmed tracks. A set of tracks was found in 2014 near the northeast entrance, just a skip and jump over the mountains from Reef Creek. In fact, looking on the Park’s website, they have a map with some red dots indicating confirmed DNA lynx evidence. There are only two measly dots in my valley.

Truthfully, I wasn’t sure if I could tell a lynx from a large bobcat, which I’d seen many times, hanging out in trees along my driveway or hunting in the neighbor’s yard. Anecdotally I’d also heard that our mail lady, who lived here most of her life, (which immediately qualified her, in the mind of the local gossip machine, to be able to discriminate between a lynx and a bobcat) had seen a lynx at my mailbox. Maybe a case of mistaken identity, but maybe not.

bobcat tracks

Bobcat tracks

Those nipped buds and twigs, along with the large tracks, in a dense yet young spruce/fir forest, educated me about proper lynx habitat. Ten miles up my dirt road, heading west just a few miles from the Yellowstone Park boundary line, in an area that like Reef Creek had experienced burns and logging in the 1940s and 50s, has similar habitat. The following spring I looked around and sure enough, lots of snowshoe hare evidence there as well. So we have hares!

Hare populations, like other rabbit populations, run in cycles. Dr. Charles Preston at the Draper Museum, when I asked him what caused these cycles, joked that if he could figure that out he’d die happy. These boom and bust cycles regulate the rabbit populations, and with it the bobcat and lynx as well. Yet nature always throws a wrench in the works, and I’d read that in some southernmost hare populations, like the area around Yellowstone, these cycles don’t occur, but instead the hares remain stable at low densities. Maybe this might explain the persistent low population of lynx around here?

Even with all my exploring, lynx tracks weren’t forthcoming. Yet I did begin to consider the three cats that live here, their interactions, and what kinds of ‘cat fights’ might ensue. Lynx and bobcat obviously share similar food preferences. Mark Elbroch says that makes it difficult for them to share similar habitat.

“Where they share range, lynx typically stick to the higher elevations, where deeper snows give them the competitive advantage, and bobcats take control of the lowlands, where they assume the dominant role and exclude lynx through aggressive interactions.”

Elbroch also goes on to say that they occasionally hybridize. My winter explorations of the valley’s higher elevations had borne this out. Although I wasn’t seeing lynx tracks, the hares seemed to be living higher up, in densely wooded areas, whereas I knew cottontails filled the plateaus in the lower end of our valley at 6500’. Since I’d seen bobcats (and not lynx) with my own eyes, I decided to begin my quest for their tracks in winter, with the intention of understanding their habits.




Trapping season for bobcats and martens is over!  Living here, it seems wildlife never get a break.  Between hunting, collaring, trapping, logging, snowmobiling, ATV’s, there’s always some disturbance, sometimes quite major like hunting, that is going on.  Cougar hunting is still on till the end of this month, although we have almost no snow and black bear spring hunt season begins soon.

Regardless, I have been worried that I haven’t seen any bobcat prints in the usual spots all winter.  Bobcat trapping is becoming of major concern because pelts are fetching up to $1000.  The Chinese and Russian market in particular are driving the prices, and every Tom, Dick and Harry is trapping the cats.  A big story out in the California desert is trappers who are scanning the internet for bobcat pictures unsuspecting amateur photographers post, then placing traps right outside these people’s backyards.  Other trappers are putting tons of leg hold traps on the border of Joshua Tree National Monument.

Although the rabbit populations are down in the desert, they are not doing so bad up here.  The cottontails are beginning to rebound, and the snowshoe hare population seems to be doing just fine.  But where are the bobcats?

So I was happy when right after a fresh snow the other day I came across this bobcat trail.

21" stride direct register made me think he was trotting or just a big bobcat walking

21″ stride direct register made me think he was trotting or just a big bobcat walking

I tracked the fellow for over two hours and let me tell you it was strenuous.  He seemed to be on a mission, heading directly, and mostly at a trot, up the steep slopes until finally, once high up, he stopped to stand on a boulder and look down over the valley.

Bobcat takes me up high

Bobcat takes me up high

Then he made a sharp left and zigged and zagged even higher up.  As the snow got patchier with the daytime temperatures warming, I was having a harder time finding his tracks. Finally, he led me way high, into the snow-covered scree base of the mountain. I figured he was going back to his daytime den, as the tracks were made early morning.  Everything in me wanted to follow him, but the difficult terrain and my own exhaustion said ‘Another Day’.

Cats like to walk on downed logs to help hide their scent

Cats like to walk on downed logs to help hide their scent

Nice direct register print with my 3' tape measure for size

Nice direct register print with my 3′ tape measure for size

This cat was almost completely direct registering but here he did a curious things

This cat was almost completely direct registering but here he did a curious thing.  Not sure of what happened with his gait here.  Any ideas?

Here’s another question to answer:  Bobcats are very habitual animals, using the same territory over and over again.  This bobcat was occupying cougar territory.  He was denning and hunting in an area where I’ve seen cougar sign over and over again.  I understand cougars sometimes kill bobcats. Last year I found bobcat and cougar tracks together in another area with almost the same freshness.  I wonder about this tenuous relationship, and how these bobcats are avoiding cougars.

Photo I took of a bobcat in Palm Springs wildlife zoo.  He looks like he wants to get out there.

Photo I took of a bobcat in Palm Springs wildlife zoo. He looks like he wants to get out there.

Cat Tracking and a wildlife bonanza

The Plateau

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

Rabbit prints with my own footprints too

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

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

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

This track measures 3"x3" approx.

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

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

Bobcat sitdown

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

Cougar hind track measuring 2.75 x 3.25

bobcat track measuring 1.75 x 2"

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

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

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

Cracking the Egg

This is an blog entry from a new guest writer, Richard Vacha, head of Marin County Tracking Club.  I am happy to have Richard as an occasional contributor.

To the early Apaches, Tracking and Awareness were the same word. This has taken me quite a while to really understand. Though certainly there are times in the life of a hunter-gather when tracks will be followed, the term “tracking” is also about noticing the details around us and putting the pieces together in an ongoing, dynamic realization. This is where modern nature appreciation meets up with ancient survival hunting, where immersion begins.

We have called this kind of tracking various things, from “holistic awareness” to “bringing the world back to life” or, simply, Awareness Tracking. It is a way of walking through the world, seeing the earth coming to life as we go forth, the whole panoply falling into patterns that make sense and reveal their interconnectedness.

Awareness tracking is concerned with weather history, seasonal cycles, landscape and topography, plant and insect communities, feeding sign, bird movements, and more. With a working knowledge of local animal populations, very small details quickly yield broad insights. A tracker develops a living sense of how animals are shifting in response to the progression of the seasons, where individuals live, what their territories are, and when they are active. When we approach nature this way, it is like cracking open a magical egg and watching an endless parade of surprises issue forth.

The smallest observations begin the process. On a walk near Limantour, I find a feather on the ground. A closer look reveals a cluster of feathers under a lupine bush: a bird kill. The pattern of the cluster and the location are not typical of a raptor, so I suspect that the predator was a mammal.  With a basic knowledge of feathers, I can see that this bird was a quail, and with that in mind, I begin to notice quail tracks covering the dusty gopher mounds surrounding this spot. Hmm. Lots of active gophers here implies both a healthy and growing grass base and the probability of other small mammals, such as voles and brush rabbits—and sure enough, the half-tunnel vole runs threading the grasses look recently used. Now that I’m looking, I notice little 4” circular holes in the grasses around the bases of the shrubs, like little doorways, with cleanly mown front porches, the way the cottontails love to keep house.

Rabbit tracks

In fact, I’m beginning to realize that this particular area is much richer and greener than much of the surrounding countryside. With its southern aspect and its slope and shape, the plant community has not gone into such a deep winter pause. It is actually a warm wrinkle. Insects are more active in the air, and so are the birds.

White-crowned Sparrows are busy in the surrounding brush and I realize that the scattered pattern on the ground, overlaid by the quail tracks, is the result of their foraging here earlier than the quail, and imply that a lot of seed has dropped to the ground to mix with the newly sprouted grasses after recent rains.

Now, looking carefully at the wing remains of the bird carcass, I can see that the primary feathers have been chewed off rather roughly, not as cleanly as a coyote would. A wider search soon turns up a moderately fresh bobcat scat, surface sheen beginning to dull, full of brown feather content…things are adding up. The scat also contains brown-tipped gopher fur, and, sure enough, jawbone fragments confirm this. This is clearly a productive hunting area right now.

Bobcat scat with feather content

As I scan the rough ground, my eyes see with this new intelligence and pick up otherwise nearly invisible details. One shaded edge of a Lupine is damp and Bingo!, there is a track, a couple of small circular impressions that prove to be the toes and part of the heel pad of a bobcat. It has weathered slightly, puffed up a little, and there are a few loose soil grains in the floor giving it a time scale, but given the still, cool days and nights lately, it would have aged slowly, so the track is probably a day or two old, which matches with the apparent age of the quail wing-recent but not from today. The placement of the bobcat scat, near a hiking trail, shows that this cat uses the trail and turns in here, hinting at its hunting routines. The cat is probably working a larger territory and only comes through here every few nights.

Meanwhile, I’ve noticed that the Sparrows have gone silent and I turn to see a “Marsh Hawk” cruising close to the ground in more open habitat nearby, with that wonderful tilting, slow speed flight style, giving me another indication of the fecundity of this particular hunting area. An inspection at the base of an old coyote bush snag, with signs that it is regularly used as a perch, reveals raptor cough pellets full of little caches of tiny bones and teeth in their fur-cushioned casings, the tooth patterns characteristic of the vole.

All of this has taken but a few minutes. The egg is cracking. The further I go, the richer the story gets and the more deeply enmeshed in this land I become, familiar, like walking with an old friend.

Richard Vacha leads the Marin County Tracking Club .  His Point Reyes Tracking School (PRTS) offers courses in Tracking; Professional wildlife surveys; and a variety of seminars, tracking walks and workshops.  His collected works of Tracking Notes is available through his website.

Wildlife update

Of course this wildlife update could never be completely accurate; its just my own observations and the result of a few conversations.

As I noted in an earlier post, up around Camp Creek where there is a nice mosaic of young and old spruce/doug fir forest plus open meadows, I saw sign of an abundance of Snowshoe hares with a coyote or two hunting them.  But down here in the valley, cottontails are rarely to be found.  Today I saw my first sign of a cottontail in the willows by my house.  But on a walk near the upper bridge where I usually see a lot of sign, there were no bunnies to be seen.  The same is true with the Jackrabbit population in the valley.  Rabbits are subject to boom and bust cycles.  I had thought it had a lot to do with the predator/prey cycle, but my boss at the museum told me its more complicated than that.  In fact, so complicated that scientists don’t really know the cause.  But, one prominent theory is that it actually has to do with plants.  The theory goes that the plants the rabbits eat begin to build up toxins as a defense to over-consumption.  The toxins get so high they eventually cause the massive mortality in the rabbits.  The rabbits that remain of course, are the survivors and have the tolerance they pass on to their little bunnies.  Eventually, the population builds up again.

With the lack of bunnies, you’d think the bobcat population might be down, but there’s been the usual one hunting in my neck of the woods.

Bobcat track

I’ve seen sign of him tracking turkeys.  The turkey population on the other hand, seems to be holding its own.  Regularly there are 10-15 wandering threw the woods, making a nice racket.

Turkey in snow

turkey tracks

Wolves this year are down in the valley.  From 4 packs in the range last year, down to just two struggling packs of about 4 wolves each.  The Sunlight pack has just disappeared, and the once ten strong Hoodoo pack that roamed from the northeast Park boundary of the Absarokas into Sunlight was reduced this summer by at least half due to cattle predation.  What’s left of that Hoodoo pack has been the main wolf pack in the valley and apparently are not great hunters, as they have been struggling to kill the wise cow elks and are mostly predating on deer.

A wolf lopes through the snow away from a kill site

That being said, coyotes seem to be on the rise and in control of the valley.  Their tracks are everywhere and their calls are heard nightly.  When I arrived back here in January, I found an adult elk that they had killed.  Today I found a dead pup, death unknown.  But where I usually had seen wolf tracks regularly, for instance running down the roads, now I am seeing mostly coyote tracks.

Coyote caught on trail camera

I found a dead fox, dead from an injury to its leg.  Its leg was mangled, maybe due to a trap or a fight with a coyote.  The fox population seems to be getting healthier here, probably because of several years of wolves keeping coyotes in check.

A fearful fox lopes in snow before dying

Fox caught on trail camera

I would assume that the deer and elk are having a better year than last as there is much less snow with higher temperatures.  There’s been fewer times when I’ve seen large herds of elk on Riddle Flats, maybe because there is plenty of clear ground in many places in the valley.

500 head of elk on Riddle Flat

I’ve seen a few Golden Eagles, but no Bald Eagles this winter.  I saw some grouse today by the river happily foraging.  And despite the fact that a completely insane hunter poached a cow moose and her baby this fall in the valley, the moose seem to be doing o.k.  One resident told me she saw two bull moose and there are a few cow/calves hanging around. I have one cow and her calf by me.  Moose normally have twins, but I’ve noticed the cow that hangs around my area hasn’t had twins for several years now.

I haven’t heard of any sightings of bear tracks, which surprises me because we’ve had such warm weather.  I am still waiting to catch some marten tracks or an actual marten on my camera.  I recently bought a new stealth camera, a Reconex which is made in the USA and is the top rated trail camera on the market.  I need to get a sim card and batteries for it, then I’ll be setting it up first with the intention of catching that bobcat.

What I’m doing this winter

My animal interest is not discriminating; I have a fascination with all species.  But I do notice the rhythm of my encounters goes in waves.  And as the encounters go, so does my fascination with that particular species.  I’ve had my wolf and bear periods, now I’m into my bobcat and marten epoch.

Last winter, walking to my mailbox at dusk, I caught a glimpse of something low in a nearby tree watching me.  The light was dim, I couldn’t see well, only a vague outline.  At first I thought it was an owl, a large one, maybe a Great Horned.  But then, something told me I was missing the mark.  I looked again.  It was a bobcat, watching Koda and I peacefully.  It’s repose came from its certainty of the dim light hiding its form, its’ knowingness that humans have bad night vision and that a canine can be fooled by staying still.   I’ve caught that guy on my camera, but the camera wasn’t working right, the photo was blurred, and this winter I’m determined to get some good photos and track him further.  Bobcats have become my new favorite animal.

My only bobcat photo which is terrible. That's a track plate apparatus a la Jim Halfpenny in the background

People trap bobcats up there.  Last year their pelts were going for over $500.  What a crime!  If I see a trap, although by law I could be fined, or jailed, for damaging it in any way, including putting a suffering animal out of its misery, there is no crime for peeing around the trap.  I pee around every trap I see.  That tells the animals “This is my territory so don’t go here.”  Save an animal by urinating.

This year my other fascination is martens.  There are plenty of martens around here.  I hadn’t learned their tracks last year, but now I know it.  I followed some trappers last year to understand how to find them. Although I don’t agree with trapping, I admit that trappers have to know their animals well.  So after asking them some questions of where to look, now I know.  I’ll set up a photography trap, one with bait that only takes pictures, not kills animals.  I’m looking to figure out those martens.

This is a marten

Another in the weasel family is the elusive mink.  We have mink in the river.  This summer I tracked them, as well as cast their tracks.  I got a ‘bead’ on where they’re hanging out and I want a good trail camera video of them.  They don’t hibernate, so I’m hoping to get some winter footage.

Hard to see but these are mink prints

Two other animals pose a great attraction for me this winter.  Snowshoe hares and lynx.  They are connected to each other too, one the food for the other.  The more snowshoe hares, the greater the chance of seeing lynx.  A recent study in Yellowstone found that before the introduction of wolves, the booming coyote population feasted on snowshoe hares.  As their population dropped so did the lynx.  Lynx decline had been thought to be related to climate change, but now that the hare is recovering (‘Amazing alert’:  wolves do what no humans can do–reduce coyote populations!), lynx are coming back there too.

I know there are a few lynx here, but I’ve never seen them.  A few summers ago the forest service even did a vegetation study in the valley to determine food sources for snowshoe hare.  Really it was a lynx study.  A friend of mine who hunts the hares in the Big Horns said he saw zillions of tracks in an area that will be closed in the winter to traffic.  Its high up on a series of reefs.  I can easily snowshoe the road in winter and check out the tracks.

tracks of the snowshoe hare

 The last on the list would be another in the weasel family.  This is an animal I’ve longed to see my entire life, ever since I was seventeen, backpacking in the Tetons, when I heard that the only animal that will take on a grizzly is a wolverine.  Yes, I’d love to see a wolverine.  They are essentially endangered, though not yet listed.  Several years ago an intensive study was done in the GYE, including Sunlight valley and the Beartooths.  No wolverines were found here during that study.  They used a variety of methods, including winter traps that look like miniature log cabins and regular fly overs during the winter months, the best time to see tracks.  Wolverines have incredibly large territories.  Glacier National Park, one of the few places in the lower 48 to boast a population of wolverines, can only support 6 or 7 males territory-wise.

Although these mountains are prime wolverine territory, the study found wolverines only in the southern Absarokas, and none in these more northern parts of that range. They also found wolverines in the Wind River Mountains.   I still like to think there’s some wandering around out here though.  If you see their tracks this winter,  report them.  Doug Chadwick wants to know about it.  A movie that has fabulous footage of wolverines is called Running Free.  Essentially targeted for middle school age kids, the movie isn’t half bad but worth the watch just to see all the footage of wolverines.

Call of the Wilds

I live in a wild place.  In winter there are only a handful of residents.  The wolves howl.  The elk find their way through the snows.  The grizzlies sleep.  In spring the mountains wake and thaw.  On weekends this valley is a favorite spot for locals from Billings and Cody.  ATV’s and RV’s roll in and find their favorite campsites.  Yet the mountains here are vast, the wilderness seems endless.  Its rare to see another person on any given trail.

This country is big enough for all who love it and steward it.

This country is big enough for all who love it and steward it.

This has been my first winter here.  I’d been here almost every month of the year, but only for weeks or a few months at a time.  Living here, knowing that these mountains are what I now call home, I find my rhythms slowly changing.  Life seems to be moving fast when I return to an area I’d just been last week and the snows have melted.  Or how did I miss the day when the rivers suddenly turned muddy and swollen?  Just two weeks ago I drove up that draw, but now its flooded.  Changes seems to be happening at breakneck speed.  What looks static to a visitor is a constantly changing kaleidoscope, an ebb and flow of interactions too great and wonderful to take in all at once.

Swamp Lake as the snows are melting

Swamp Lake as the snows are melting

Aspens starting to bud out.

Aspens starting to bud out.

Ribes blooming just the other day

Ribes blooming just the other day

Alpine columbine just blooming today

Alpine columbine just blooming today

I walk the woods and look for wildlife runs and markings, new smells or droppings, nests or homes, what was eaten today and what was killed.  At first I walked or hiked and noticed a few things here or there.  But now I find it difficult to be aware on all the levels I want to be.  There is the forest floor and its sign–scat, droppings, scratchings.  The treetops are where birds and small mammals also live so don’t forget to check up there as well.  The relics and evidence of the past such as buffalo bones or Native American sign.  If you only look for animal sign such as tracks or scat, you miss the wildlife presently around you.

Sandhill Cranes

Sandhill Cranes

Better watch for bears, and be careful with your dog as there are wolves around.  The forest and the meadows are alive.

Could these be bison (or cow) found in buried in a depression like a wallow.

Could these be bison (or cow) found in buried in a depression like a wallow.

Simple beauty

Simple beauty

A new awareness has also begun to creep in.  It is an understanding of the nature of life and death, of a circle of existence.  This is not an intellectual notion.  Everyday I find bones and skulls, or fresh kills large and small.  Everybody has to eat and you either eat plants or meat or both.  Death is not wrapped up in a nice package in the frozen section, or shoved off to the edges of society.  It is here and everywhere.

My neighbor H__ who has a horse farm, told me a story about the first horse he had to put down.  He was afraid to do it himself and asked our 85-year-old neighbor, a native to the valley, if he would do the deed for him.  JB replied “Its your horse.  You have to do it.”

“He was right”, H__ told me.  This winter he put two horses down in the upper pasture.  The wolves and coyotes were on it within days.

Just as in life, there is beauty and ugliness in death.  I’ve watched the coyote I found this winter in his process of decay.  First the animals ate their fill, but a lot remained and the ground was still frozen and cold.  Now the beetles are finishing him off.  He is food for others, and there is a certain rightness and sadness in that.  There is also a fascination and a repulsion in watching the process.  Yet I find a skull of a winter kill bull elk with both its antlers, the skull already cleaned off and perfectly white, and it looks beautiful to me.

Found winter wolf kill.  Beautiful in death

Found winter wolf kill. Beautiful in death

Coyote skull and bobcat skull

Coyote skull and bobcat skull

Old trees that have died are regal in their appearance, and house insects and the birds that feed upon them.  The ground squirrels in the yard are amusing to watch, yet I admire the Swainson’s hawk that deftly swoops and catches them.

Burnt trees.  Beautiful in death

Burnt trees. Beautiful in death

A deeper ‘knowing’ that I too am part of this whole process seeps into my core.  It may seem ugly or cruel to some, but it is only economical and the way things must be.  More than stark, there is a dreamlike quality to it all.  The animals are not bothered.  They have been born into this acceptance.

I walk with Koda.  He is always alert, on the ready, yet happy and relaxed.  His tension comes from awareness, instinct to check for danger, or to check for the fun of a chase with a squirrel.  I am learning here, in this complete ecosystem, with top predators just like me here, that I must walk and be aware, relaxed, and alert.  That life and death walk side-by-side always, only here they are in evidence.  That there are more levels to this dreamtime than I am yet aware, and that the natural world supplies a plethora of synchronicity and sign, if only one can take the time to deepen, relax, and learn to notice.

Some Scat

I thought I’d post a scat entry with photos.  Some I’m sure of, many I’m not.  Not all have size references.  Sorry about that.  I’m now starting to carry around a penny which I’ll put with future photos.  A penny is exactly 3/4″ in diameter.

Breaking up scat helps in identification and is a window into what the animal was eating.  Smelling scat (do not smell raccoon scat as they can carry a parasite that is fatal to humans) also holds clues.

Animals communicate vast amounts of information through markings and scat.  Many times I’ve watched Koda intently smell an area, then urinate on it.

Koda with his nose in a squirrel hole

Koda with his nose in a squirrel hole

One time he was smelling a log that had no obvious scat on it.  Because he is still a pup, he started licking the log to ‘uptake’ the smell better.  I got down and smelled the log and was overpowered by a extremely pungent smell.  Other times he spends a lot of time smelling an area and when I put my nose to the ground, I can’t discern anything.

One time in California I was at the tracking club meeting.  We were circling a large field and found mountain lion scat.  The group leader advised everyone to get down and sniff it.  One whiff of that scat and you’ll never forget it.  It made the hairs inside my nose stand on end for a long time.  Imagine your kitty litter box, then multiply that smell 10-fold.

Last year in the spring I had both my dogs with me in Wyoming.  My old dog started making a beeline for the woods.  I followed her to a fairly fresh turkey kill, probably from a coyote.  The kill was in the nearby vicinity of the cabin and the magpies were already on it.  The 2 dogs spent lots of time chewing and further demolishing it. Early the next morning, on the walkway in front of my house, a coyote left his fresh scat.  My old dog smelled it, but before I could hardly look at it, the 6 month old dog gobbled it up.  Koda was still learning about smells and scats, and eating it is another way to really remember it.  (I, personally, will not go that far!)  I had the distinct impression this particular scat was left for my dogs as a calling card, as if to say, ‘this is my territory and that was my turkey you fooled with.’

I’m a crazy beginner at this.  I find it’s a fun way to explore what’s happening around me. Learning scat takes practice and lots of direct experience.  I take photos, then go home and look at Mammal Tracks & Signs by Mark Elbroch.  Elbroch’s book contains tons of color photos throughout.  He includes photos of tracks, scat, as well as sign.  The book is thick at over 750 pages. Too bad he doesn’t include ‘scratch and sniff’.

Unknown scat

This one's unknown, found in the woods nearby

Marmot in hole with scat above

See Marmot scat at top of photo. Marmot's in his hole.

pack rat scat

Years of pack rat scat.

Canid scat

Could be coyote or wolf. 25% of wolf scat is coyote size.

Bobcat I think.  Smells like it.

Smelled like a cat. Bobcat I think. Cat's digest 90% of the bones.

Owl droppings

Owl on tree. Notice the white droppings.

Bear sweet smelling scat in the spring

Big pile of bear scat. All forbs/grasses. They clean themselves in the spring with grass.

Mustelid I think.  Smelly and strong.

Some kind of mustelid I think. It was skunky smelling.

Another mustelid, I think.  On the same trail as the other scat.

Another mustelid, I think. On the same trail as the other scat.

The Bobcat

It was a beautiful morning.  I walked outside around 9:30 and threw the ball for Koda.  A large cat-like animal appeared out from the marshy meadows and stood next to the fence line.  Immediately I recognized it as a bobcat.  JB had told me several days ago that he saw a bobcat in his fields across the road.  I called the dog and sat down to watch the cat.  He was beautiful.  Much larger and more muscular than a big tomcat.Bobcat watching a ground squirrel

The bobcat sat in the sun for a few minutes when something caught his attention.  I looked across the meadows and saw a ground squirrel sitting on his mound.  The bobcat crouched low and made his way slowly in the squirrel’s direction.  He ran along the fenceposts, stopping behind one for several minutes.  He crossed a short span of meadow, then ran low along the side of the nearby house till he was directly in line with the ground squirrel.  At a distance of about 15 feet from the rodent, the bobcat sat perfectly still, watching and waiting.  Bobcat stalking amidst grass

By now the squirrel seemed to have caught wind that something was going on and was back in his hole.  The cat waited patiently though.  I’d been watching all this for at least 15 minutes.  I went inside to use my scope for a better view and try to shoot a few pictures.  Finally, the bobcat got bored and ran off to find an easier meal.

About 5 minutes after the cat left, I glanced out the window and saw the squirrel not just looking around from his hole, but on top of the nearby septic clean-out pipe.  I might be anthropomorphising here, but that squirrel seemed to be gloating to me.Gloating ground squirrel

When I was in California, I belonged to a tracking club.  We met once a month at Abbot’s Lagoon in Point Reyes.  That beach had lots of activity–coyotes, mice, otters, deer, opossums, racoons–but the most reliable tracks were of a bobcat.  The bobcat had an obvious route.  He started out from somewhere in the thick brush and followed a track alongside the lagoon.  There were latrines along the way and always kill sites.  Seeing that that bobcat had a regular hunting route, I wondered if my Wyoming bobcat had one too, and if I had observed him on it.  I have been investigating how to use ‘track plates’ and maybe I’ll try and make some.

Half hour later as I was driving my dirt road, I started thinking about how that bobcat lost his meal.  I wondered what made him give up on the ground squirrel, just shy of it reappearing.

Without warning, a Unita ground squirrel ran across the road.  I tried to veer but he was too slow and I was too fast.  Getting out of my car, I pulled him off to the side of the road, maybe secretly hoping my bobcat would find him.  I was still pretty close to home still and the thought that it was so easy for me to kill this squirrel and so difficult for the bobcat, haunted me.  There was something awfully strange in this synchronicity.  Bobcat print