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The Fox and the Study Area

I’ve been itching to start the rounds in my study area again, but winter hasn’t set in and so there is no consistent snow on the ground.  One day its’ 50 degrees, the next a few inches of snow that melts off.  Last winter I began in earnest a systemic, almost daily, investigation of a specific area near my home.  Using tracking methods, I plotted out where the martens lived, the size of an ermine’s territory, the population of squirrels and voles and deer mice.

Vole bound.  You can see it's tail drag

Vole bound. You can see it’s tail drag

I followed a resident cougar who lead me several times to the end of her trail where a pack of wolves obscured her tracks.  One time at the end of the trail lay a dead deer, maybe killed by the cougar who was driven off her prize by the wolves.


So I’ve been content to lay out a camera bait trap and see who’s around.  Hunting season is still on, but the general deer season is over here and the quotas for elk and deer are very limited for the next month or two.  The animals will start to come down within the next few weeks as the weather turns and the traffic subsides.

Trapping season has started .  There are a few people who trap martens here.  Bobcat trapping season begins on the 15th.  For these reasons, I would never reveal where my camera traps are set, nor where my study area is.

After a week, I went to check my camera trap and was surprised to see a beautiful fox.Here is the link for the fox video.  You can see she’s digging for the deer liver I set in a covered hole.

And a few stills


What a great tail

Red fox

Digging around for the deer liver treats I left

Another positive effect of having wolves in the valley is that they keep the coyote population under control, and by doing that, foxes are returning.  I’ve talked with some old timers here who told me that in all the time they lived here, they never saw foxes.  Yet I’ve seen them, or their sign, now every year. With fewer coyotes, there is room for foxes.

Fox on Beartooth Highway

Fox on Beartooth Highway

Using my study area last year, I began to notice the interrelationships of  wildlife.  Wildlife are all finely attuned to each other.  They know the comings and goings, the patterns of movement, the subtle changes. Even with this camera trap of covered meat, once the fox stole the food, the resident mother deer with her two fawns stopped bye and spent a long time smelling the empty hole and upturned dirt.  Then she walked over and looked at the camera.  Something was just not right for her.   I think she sensed this was a ‘human event’.

Nature is a dance, an interplay of relationships. As humans we’ve disconnected ourselves for so long from the dance that we are no longer  part of the music, no longer have a feeling for its rhythm.  My hope with this study area project is to wander again onto the dance floor and pick up, with some luck and intuition, a bit of the cadence and beat that wildlife so naturally swings to.

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.