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Elk, Eagles, and an equinox moon

I took a hike up Little Bald Ridge to see the Bighorn Sheep.  They’re usually there in the winter.  On the way I spied a herd of about 700 elk grazing on the hillside.  It was a gorgeous day after a light snow.  The trek up there can be hard if the snow is deep.  Usually in March it is.  But we’ve had so little snow this year, interspersed with warm days where the snow has melted off, that only a few inches were on the ground.

Elk herd resting mid day

Large elk herd

(Here’s is a video I took from inside of my cabin the other day when the herd came through at dusk)

This video doesn’t exist

By the time I got to the top of the ridgeline, there were no sheep to be found.  I walked and glassed all along the top without any luck.  They must have gone elsewhere.

An immature Golden Eagle played on the currents.  I’d seen a nesting pair last year up here.  The Eagles like these cliffs to nest in.  I supposed this was one of their offspring.  Hope he finds a mate this year.

Valley after a light snow

Although I found no sheep, I did find an elk kill in the valley. The kill was made right at the fence line of the local ranch.  At first I wasn’t sure if the elk had gotten caught trying to jump the fence.  This happened last year.  But the ranch manager assured me it was a kill, although we don’t know from what.   He hadn’t seen any wolves on it, and the last kill I’d seen the wolves had been there all week, nibbling.

I parked at dusk close bye and watched, wondering if any wolves might come around.  The crows and magpies were going to town on it.  Suddenly, the immature eagle swooped in and all the smaller birds flew away.  I watched the eagle pick at the remains.

Eagle on kill

Then an odd thing happened.  A group of 5 yearling cows came trotting over.  The eagle, feeling threatened, fled.  The young cows edged slowly over to the carcass and one by one, sniffed at it.  A big mama cow walked over.  Standing right by the carcass, she mooed at the yearlings, over and over, as if to shoo them away.  I liked to imagine her as the wise cow elder, telling these yearlings “If you don’t watch your p’s and q’s, you might end up like that.”

J__, the ranch hand, and I chatted on the road as the crescent moon rose in the equinox evening.

“I saw those cows going over towards the kill and thought I should check on what’s going on with them.  I used to take care of a herd of Bison and I’ve seen them do the same thing—go sniff out a carcass.  Strange.”

Immature Golden eagle

It was a perfect equinox day and night, or is that redundant?

A busy spring rolls in

It seems to be busy around here.  There’s a nesting pair of bluebirds in a box right outside my front door.  I was sure they were going to leave last week because of all the noise around here.  I needed to work on my driveway because, surprise, this winter I couldn’t get in.  I was able to plough it initially, but everytime there was a melt, the ruts just got deeper and deeper.  Pretty soon I was parking down the road at my neighbors for the last few months. There’s been some pretty big equipment happening all week, taking giant scopes of limestone and rock from my personal ‘quarry’–my hill–and laying it all along the road.

But this morning a head popped out and there was madame Bluebird.  She must be sitting on her eggs now, because she hasn’t moved.  I’ll be leaving for a few weeks on Monday for California and then the Greater Yellowstone Coalition Annual Meeting in Jackson, so she’ll have some nice peace and quiet.

When I snagged the photo, I didn't see the butterfly till I printed it.

When I snagged the photo, I didn't see the butterfly till I printed it.

Several hawks came through while I was watering today.  A pair of red tails soared by.  I know there’s a nesting pair down the road by the bridge so they might be the ones.  An unidentified buteo–two toned black underneath which I think was a Merlin–visited.  And a kestrel snagged a ground squirrel (or something the equivalent in its mouth) while I watched from the front yard.

Ahh, motherhood

Ahh, motherhood

So cute!

So cute!

A moose popped in this afternoon.  I was working in the shed sanding a table when Koda started barking.  It was the kind of bark you just know its not a person.  I keep Koda on a shock collar usually.  That’s in case a wolf or bear comes along.  But around the house he’s usually off-shock.  Luckily, he responded nicely, came when called, laid down and stopped barking.  The moose seemed pretty unperturbed.  A barking dog is like an annoyance when she’s used to dealing with wolves.  She was alone and I know there’s a pregnant cow down the road in the swampy area.  But this lady was lean. She ambled up from the trees, paused to consider the barbed wire fence, jumped it awkwardly, then slowly made her way up the hillside through the meadow.

Moose eating in marsh nearby

Moose eating in marsh nearby

Yesterday I saw some incredible rams just up the road.  I was hiking up a steep ridge when two white ‘rocks’ appeared on the ridge below.  W__ spotted them.  They were the rumps of two rams with 3/4 curl horns.  I rarely expect to see sheep up here in the summer.  A lot of them head higher up, towards Yellowstone and the Absarokas.  Maybe these guys were just hanging around because of all the snow there still.

The flies are out, the ticks are here, the mosquitos are biting, and the wildflowers are changing everyday.  Spring is here and it is only for a moment. Soon summer will be in full bloom, the rivers will recede enough to be crossable, and the elk will all disappear for higher grounds.

I’ll be back in two weeks and everything will be different.  I’ll certainly be missing all the action.  But I’ll be posting when I can from California and I intend to fully report on the GYC meeting in Jackson.

Some spring shots:

Calypso bulbosa

Calypso bulbosa

Swainson Hawk hunting in irrigated cattle field down the road

Swainson Hawk hunting in irrigated cattle field down the road

Draba oligosperma...Whitlowgrass

Draba oligosperma...Whitlowgrass

Alpine Forget-me-not, Eritrichum nanum

Alpine Forget-me-not, Eritrichum nanum

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

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

Clark’s Fork hike and the vilified wolf

The dump is just up the road about 20 minutes.  Its an auxiliary dump, meaning its for locals and basically a large canister with a locked fence around it.  The whole idea is to prevent bears from getting in, and to help locals with their trash and bear management.  Last year though I did see a horse that was dumped off there outside the bear management fence.  Although the bears couldn’t get into the trash, they sure did get into the horse, along with the wolves.

I really don’t know many people up in the Crandall area yet, nor do I know too many of the hikes.  I hiked with the wolf study gals last fall there a lot, but mostly that was through brush directly to GPS sites where their collared wolf had lingered for more than an hour.

So I stopped and introduced myself at the Hunter Peak Ranch.  Its an old dude ranch that now mostly houses guests and horsebackriding.  The owner, Shelley Cary, was very gracious and I talked for a while with her and her family.  They serve dinner to guests and outsiders with advance notice.  Something good to know for any guests I have.  They also had some great ancient photos on the walls of homesteaders from the Crandall area.  Several names I’d heard of.  One of them, Norman  and Mrs. Dodd, homesteaded in my area.  Apparently people always had to refer to Norman’s wife as Mrs. Dodd.  They lived ten hard miles from the meeting house, which was a one room schoolhouse, and came by a team of mules pulling a buckboard.  Another photo was of the old post office, a long wooden building in disrepair.

I took a short 5 mile hike along the Clark’s Fork trailhead. The Clark’s Fork trail is well marked and well used by horses.  Its in open sagebrush, so if a hiker does encounter a bear, there’d be plenty of room to move.

Geum triflorum.  Prairie Smoke

Geum triflorum. Prairie Smoke

Claytonia lanceolata.  Spring beauties.  Edibles.  Purslane family

Claytonia lanceolata. Spring beauties. Edibles. Purslane family

I’ve been on this trail before and knew of a wonderful secret spot where the river drops into a gorge.

Lunch spot

Lunch spot

I wandered off-trail to the waterfall.

Allium.  Wild onion. Spicy addition to lunch.

Allium. Wild onion. Spicy addition to lunch.

There was plenty of moose sign in the willows around the river, as well as a pair of nesting ospreysKoda and I sat and hung with the fish hawks for a while.  The female was sitting on her nest, although she took some time out to try and scare me off.  The male sat nearby with a piece of fish in his talons.

Female sitting on her nest

Female sitting on her nest

Male osprey nearby nest, with fish in talons

Male osprey nearby nest, with fish in talons

There’s always a plethora of anti-wolf talk in our area.  Besides aggrieved hunters and ranchers, I once talked with a woman whose parents ran an outfitting company.  She was only 16 and hated wolves.  She told me a story about how they had taken their supplies in the fall up to a campsite in anticipation of bringing some hunters up there the next day.  They’d left three dogs with the supplies, alone, overnight, way up near the Yellowstone border.  This was something they were used to doing, for years.  But this year was different.  When they returned the following day, one of their dogs had been killed by wolves.

After lunch, on the way back to the trail, I ran into a fellow resting his horse.  I introduced myself and found out he was a local.

“Find any horns?” he asked.

Horns refers to antlers.  People around here spend lots of time looking for antler sheds in the spring.  They can be worth big money.

“Nope, wasn’t looking for any.” I replied.  “But I did find a pair of nesting ospreys and moose sign.”

“I saw four wolves up on table mountain.  They’ll eat your dog, you know.  Just like that.”

“Yep, that’s why I keep him on that electronic collar.  We have an agreement he and I.  I protect him from wolves and he watches for bears.”

“Those frickin’ wolves, they’ve ruined everything.  There used to be so many bull elk here.  I wish they’d never put them here.”

“I like them.”

“They’re everywhere.  They ran after an elk right through the trailer park the other day.”

I didn’t think he heard me so I said it again.  “I like them here.”

“There’s no more moose anymore.  They’re history.  They’ve frickin’ ruined it all.  Things used to be good.”

“I seem to be seeing a lot of moose this year.  Maybe their numbers are coming back.”

“Oh, where you live maybe, but not here.  Wolves have ruined it all.  Last year we found three bull elk kills up Crandall creek.  They just hone in and kill them.  There’s no more left around here.”

I didn’t bother to tell him that I knew the elk study coordinator had hiked up there this winter and taken samples of the bull kills he’d seen.  He said their marrow was like jelly, an indicator of poor health.  I mentioned all the grizzlies in the area.

“Oh, those grizzlies don’t do much.  Its those damn wolves.”

That’s a typical conversation I’ve had many times.  There is a lot of animosity and anger about the wolf introduction.  These are people who live on the land and know the land, at least in a certain way.  They know where the wolves are denning even though the Game & Fish keep it secret.  They see grizzlies when they’re out. They feel comfortable in the outdoors, but they have been used to not having wolves around for a very long time.  And they resent having to take them into account now.

Its a most controversial matter, wolves.  I tend to be on the side of the wolves, but I also am sympathetic towards the ranchers.  I feel that its’ important to work with ranchers and begin to develop practices that protect their livelihood.   I also know that these large ranches are one of the last ways we can protect the land here.  If the ranches and ranchers are not taken into account, if they loose their land, then those large tracts will be sold and chopped up for development.  That in itself is even more of a death blow to wildlife, especially grizzlies and wolves.  New ranching management practices are critical for wildlife protection as well.  As one of the wolf researchers said to me last year “Something’s got to change. There’s just too much killing going on” in reference to all the wolves killed by Wildlife Services in retaliation for calf predation. (For a video of wolves in my valley, click here)

Wolf on carcass

Wolves on carcass

In contrast, I was reading in the Wind River Reservation Wolf Management Plan about how some of the elders of the tribe view wolves.  There is controversy on the reservation as well, the report says, because many Native Americans have livestock.  But there is magic, wisdom, and most importantly, respect, communicated in their ancient views.   Here is an excerpt from that report.

Traditional views recognize wolves as kin, as strong, as deserving of respect and placed here by the Creator for a purpose. The Shoshone word for wolf means “big coyote.” Wolves lived a long time, were very smart and observant, and listened well. When wolves appeared in a vision, one was to follow what the wolf showed you. The wolf was secretive and special and used to talk with people through telepathy. Wolves were helpers. Wolves were sacred and to be left alone, however sometimes people had to kill them. People were to be careful around them. Wolves could teach virtuous things to people. They were an example of how to care for family members because they took good care of the young as well as the old. The packing behavior of wolves showed people that they should not go out hunting alone. Wolves also showed people to use the entire game animal (the meat, bones, hooves, marrow, skin, etc.) – not to waste any of it. Wolves wandered to wherever the food was, like earlier people did. They did not know boundaries. Now wolves are being confined to certain areas like Native Americans have been confined to Reservations.Gray wolf