Saturday, January 18, 2020

Yellowstone's Observation Point by Headlamp

Leaving the warmth of our cabin, Mary and I step off the porch onto packed powder. In the glow of our headlamps, diamonds glisten on the snow’s surface. We round the corner and walk hand in hand past other cabins, windows dark, their occupants sleeping—as most reasonable people are at 5AM. The night is clear and the temperature hovers a few degrees above zero.

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“Wow, it looks like my breath is actually freezing when it hits the air!” Mary exclaims in a whisper. She tilts her head skyward, forms an “O” with her mouth, and puffs three times. A trio of white circles drifts and expands toward the black, star-spotted sky.

We continue past the Old Faithful Snow Lodge along a path bordered by knee-high snow. We pass the general store and gas station, both shuttered for winter. We cross a road, its snowy surface rough with the tracks of yesterday’s snowcoaches and snowmobiles. Once we are past the visitor center, our feet crunch on snow-free gravel, a testament to the subterranean heat that produces the dependable eruptions of Old Faithful, steaming just ahead.

When we reach the walkway that borders the famous geyser, we stop and look around. The cones of our headlamps, moving left and right, illuminate not another soul. The Upper Geyser basin is all ours—and that’s exactly why we awoke so early to an alarm. I point my light at a nearby bench and tug Mary’s sleeve. Her light melds with mine and we laugh at the perfect outline of a visitor’s rump in the six-inch deep pillow of snow atop the bench.

Mary’s light swings skyward. “It’s really steamy here in the basin,” she says. “I can’t see the stars now.”

I point in the direction of a low hill, a dark shadow against a darker sky. “How about we head up to Observation Point?”

“Let’s do it,” she says, forging ahead.

I catch her, and we follow the tunnel of our headlamps along the wide, empty boardwalk, its snowy cover tracked here and there by winter’s sparse visitors. What a contrast to summer when, as an eruption nears, this would be standing room only and abuzz with excited comments in many, many languages.

A while later, we turn right onto the narrow half-mile trail that climbs through Lodgepole pine to Observation Point.

“My boots are digging in well,” Mary says. “Looks like we won’t regret forgetting the snowshoes when we left the cabin.”

We laugh at our forgetfulness and pass through glittering clouds of elated breath. We settle into a slow procession, the silence broken only by the rhythmic crunching of our boots. I turn off my headlamp and walk behind Mary, her down-clad figure silhouetted in her lamp’s glow. I look around, admiring how snow-flocked pine branches reflect the light. Then I bump into Mary, who has stopped in the middle of the trail.

“Sorry,” I mutter. She seems not to notice. I shrug and return to tree gazing.

A moment later she whispers, “Look at this.”

I step beside her and we bend forward. I click on my headlamp and our beams converge on a track. “That’s a dog type of print,” Mary says as she places her hand, fingers spread, beside the smaller track. “Coyote, I’ll bet.”

I nod my head and my light bounces.

Continuing to climb, we spot fresh coyote scat. “Looks like he’s going up this trail just ahead of us,” Mary says.

We kneel down, inspect the scat, and find hair and bone fragments. We stand, brush snow off our knees and move on. A few paces farther ahead the tracks of a hare cross the trail.

“Whoa, he’s in a hurry,” I say. “There’s about five feet of untouched snow from one track to the next.”

“And the coyote tracks don’t follow them,” Mary adds. “Looks like that guy may have sensed Mr. Coyote and beat feet.”

We stop and study the snow, eager to create even more stories. I point to small tracks that start at the base of a Lodgepole pine, cross eight feet of virgin snow, and then materialize along the top of a downed tree. “That’s a squirrel, I bet.”

Nearby, Mary spots a three-foot-long trail of tiny tracks that disappear into a small snow cave created by the root ball of a downed tree. She kneels and sticks her head into the cave. “Maybe a mouse,” she says, her voice muffled. “It’s insulated by the snow and even has grass to nestle into. Nice digs.”

She stands and we leave the tracks, continue upward, and reach Observation Point, where we lean against a fence, our hips touching. In the distance below, the Upper Geyser Basin steams away, surrounded by the Firehole River on one side and a collection of Park Service buildings on the other. We turn off the headlamps and allow our eyes to adjust to the dim pre-dawn light.

“There’s the Big Dipper,” Mary says, pointing straight up.

“And a flashing planet off to the west just above the horizon,” I offer.

As I try to recall the planet’s name, Mary leans in close and whispers. “Listen…You can hear an eruption in the basin.”

I pull down my hood and lift the wool cap off my ears. I catch the rumble, splash, and hiss of one of the many geysers that make Yellowstone a marvel, that led to its becoming the world’s first national park. I point to a gray column undulating against the dark sky. “Look at Old Faithful steaming away.” 

We find each other’s gloved hands. A moment later we hear a loud splash, like someone cannonballing into a swimming pool, as a pre-eruption water column gushes from Old Faithful and smacks back down. A soft hissing follows as the run-off slides toward the river. Finally, we hear a quieter splash when the steaming drops join the Firehole on its journey to the Madison, Missouri, and Mississippi Rivers and eventually the Gulf of Mexico.

By the time those drops travel the thousands of water miles to the Gulf, we’ll be back in Gardiner, this moment a fond memory. But for now, it’s just us here, as we experience the joy of Observation Point in winter.

This post based on a chapter from the bestselling Deep into Yellowstone.

My bestselling In the Temple of Wolves; its sequel, Deep into Yellowstone; and its prequel, The Wilds of Aging are available signed

My books are also available unsigned or as eBook or audiobook on Amazon.

All photos by Rick Lamplugh and Mary Strickroth

Monday, January 13, 2020

Correcting Misinformation About Wolves in Colorado, Part 1

Proponents of reintroducing wolves into Colorado obtained enough signatures to place Initiative 107 on the November ballot and let voters decide whether wolves will return. The proponents' success kicks into high gear their opponents' misinformation campaign. Let’s correct some of the false claims.

Opponents claim this reintroduction is being forced upon Colorado by “out-of-state radical environmental groups.”

Two Colorado organizations, Rocky Mountain Wolf Project and Rocky Mountain Wolf Action Fund, are behind this effort to reintroduce wolves. Mike Phillips, a wildlife ecologist and Montana state senator, advises the two groups. That makes sense: Phillips was the leader of the project to reintroduce wolves into Yellowstone.

Opponents claim that allowing voters to decide on reintroduction is misguided since voters don’t have the knowledge needed to make a sound decision.

The fact is that voters won’t create the reintroduction plan. Initiative 107 will ask voters to approve a law that requires the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission to create the plan—using statewide hearings and the best available science—and reintroduce wolves on public lands west of the Continental Divide by the end of 2023. The commission would not be able to impose any land, water, or resource restrictions on private landowners to further the plan. The commission must fairly compensate owners for livestock lost to wolves. 

It is true that Colorado is the first state to use a voter-based initiative to decide whether to reintroduce wolves. There’s a reason that approach was necessary. In January of 2016 the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission issued a resolution opposing “the intentional release of any wolves into Colorado” because of conflicts with the livestock industry and big game management. With the commission refusing to consider reintroduction, proponents had to look for another strategy. They chose the innovative approach of asking voters to decide.

Opponents claim there is no need to reintroduce wolves into Colorado; wolves are already in the state and more will surely follow.

In 1995 and 1996 wolves were reintroduced into the Rocky Mountains in Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho. Since that reintroduction, wolves have dispersed to Montana, Washington, Oregon, and even California. In the 25 years since that reintroduction, wolves have not established themselves in Colorado—the only Rocky Mountain state still without a permanent wolf population. 

Some wolves have reached Colorado and most have ended up dead: poisoned, hit by a car, and shot by a hunter claiming he thought he shot a coyote. In July of 2019 a collared male from Wyoming’s Snake River pack arrived in Colorado’s rural Jackson County and is still being monitored. Recently Colorado Parks and Wildlife said they had evidence that a pack of perhaps six wolves was “likely present” in northwestern Colorado. 

That’s it: a confirmed lone wolf and a “likely” pack after a quarter-century of wolves spreading elsewhere in the Rockies.

Opponents claim that it’s the people who live on the urban Front Range, people who won’t have to deal with wolves, that favor reintroduction onto the rural Western Slope. 

Colorado Public Radio reported that one online poll found two-thirds of Colorado voters favor reintroduction and only 15 percent oppose. CPR added that the poll didn’t show much of a split between Colorado’s Front Range and the Western Slope, suggesting the issue might not divide urban and rural parts of the state.

There is resistance from certain Coloradans. Denny Behrens of Colorado Stop the Wolf Coalition told reporters that 23 Colorado counties have passed resolutions against reintroduction. Rob Edward of the Rocky Mountain Wolf Action Fund counters that these resolutions are from rural county commissions that are usually stacked with or friendly to agricultural interests. These resolutions, he adds, have no power over the ballot process.

Between now and the election, the misinformation campaign will be in high gear. 

I will follow closely and post again to correct inaccurate claims. Please comment or message me with any misinformation you find about wolves in Colorado. 

My bestselling In the Temple of Wolves; its sequel, Deep into Yellowstone; and its prequel, The Wilds of Aging are available signed

My books are also available unsigned or as eBook or audiobook on Amazon.

Photo of wolf OR-10 by ODFW

Friday, January 10, 2020

Meet Your Bear: An Excerpt from The Wilds of Aging

Chapter 5: Meet Your Bear

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After that worrisome winter passed and spring blossomed, the time came to arrange upcoming summer adventures. I faced a dilemma: I loved adventuring but sensed that if I was to grow through this floundering phase, I had to bail out of all upcoming external adventures with Mary and my friends and start a solo internal journey. I had to explore my fears, my mortality, and the concept of afterlife—the wilds of aging—just as I have explored wild lands.
Mary and my friends would eventually call this my morose period. Some saw it as an exercise in self-pity. But whether they liked it or not, whether I liked it or not, I felt compelled to make this my next adventure. Or, as Mary and I termed it on a trip to Yellowstone a few years ago, I had to meet my bear.
After we had spent several days and nights deep in Yellowstone’s backcountry and had grown more comfortable with its wildness, we planned to spend the day hiking into the middle of the upper Lamar Valley, where wolves, bison, and bears roam. We hoped to see some of these creatures, and the wide-open spaces of the valley would allow us to do so from a safe distance. We parked the car along the road, put on our daypacks, and started hiking toward the distant Lamar River.
As we walked along the valley floor, a solo hiker with long strides overtook us and stopped to chat. He looked to be about twenty-five years old. A faded green baseball cap pushed raggedly cut brown hair over the tops of his ears. His face was ruddy, with a strong chin accented by the red bandana around his neck.
When Mary asked where he was going, he turned away from us, pointed toward the distant mountains, and said that he had eleven more miles to go before reaching his campsite along the Lamar River.
While his back was turned to us, I studied his blue backpack. It was loaded, compact, and organized, the pack of an experienced hiker. That relieved me, as he was heading for a wild part of Yellowstone.
“Have you seen any wildlife?” Mary asked.
He turned back to us, smiled, and said, “I saw the same grizzly four times when I was camped along the Lamar last week.”
“Four times?” I asked in amazement. “And you stayed?”
“Yeah. And it definitely knew I was there. One time when I poked my head out of the tent it was upriver looking in my direction.”
“That must have been a little scary,” Mary said.
“It was,” he said, tugging his cap down tighter onto his head. “And that’s why I’m going back to the same spot.”
“So you can see the griz again?” I asked.
“I sure hope so,” he said with a dimpled smile.
After the hiker left, Mary and I walked on, holding hands and talking about him. He seemed like a capable backpacker, not a tourist in a hulking rented motor home asking where he might find a roadside bear to photograph. But still, he was returning to a potentially dangerous situation, one that had scared him just days earlier. He was, we decided, going to meet his bear.
That saying became shorthand we would use to describe intentionally going to places—mental, physical, or emotional—that scare us.
As I considered a solo journey to meet my bear, I understood that its challenges would not be measured in miles cycled or mountains climbed. Instead, the milestones would be emotions felt, bodily changes acknowledged, friends and loved ones lost, and maybe even wisdom gained.
Of course, I would journal, just as I had on adventures beside countless mountain streams or country roads. But on this journey I would write in our backyard.
And I would do more than write. After thirteen years away from serious gardening—at one time, digging in the garden was as predictable as spring equinox—I yearned to dig again, to see what I could nurture in the garden as I coaxed changes within myself. I would even try gardening year round, a new approach that would allow me to work—and write—in the garden whenever I needed to, be it spring, summer, fall, or winter. The garden would become my refuge where I could dig deeply into growing and dying.
As seasons came and went, I would see which plants grew, which feelings sprouted, which ideas blossomed. I would cultivate an understanding of where I had come from and where I was going now that the deaths of Jana, Daniel, and Misty and that tough summer of biking and hiking had finally smashed my wall, shattered that illusion of unending youth.
As my life felt up for grabs, I decided to meet my bear. To retreat to the garden.

Rick Lamplugh lives in Gardiner, Montana, and writes to protect wildlife and preserve wild lands. 

His bestselling In the Temple of Wolves; its sequel, Deep into Yellowstone; and its prequel, The Wilds of Aging are available signed

His books are also available unsigned or as eBook or audiobook on Amazon.

Monday, January 6, 2020

Recommitting to Advocating

I write, photograph, and speak to protect wildlife and preserve wild lands. And I have wolves to thank for leading me here. The path that I followed appeared one winter eight years ago. That was the first of three winters that my wife Mary and I volunteered and lived at the Lamar Buffalo Ranch in the heart of Yellowstone’s wolf country. Part of our job was helping seminar participants spot wildlife. Since wolves topped the list of animals to see, I watched wolves almost every day.

I learned to identify specific wolves and discovered with amazement the distinct personalities of some. I observed wolves interacting within their pack, and I watched rival packs battle over food, mates, or territory. I realized how wolves changed the behavior of elk. And I listened to many experts describe in depth what we saw each day. 

Slowly, I began to understand how essential wolves are. Not just in Yellowstone. Not just in the Rocky Mountains. Wolves are essential wherever they’re allowed to live.

Some evenings I’d go to our cabin exhausted from a day of wolf watching. I would journal about what I had seen or heard, felt or wondered. As the winters added up, I found myself wanting to learn even more about wolves. I read books and journal articles. I interviewed experts. Eventually those early journal entries and later research came together in a book, In the Temple of Wolves: A Winter’s Immersion in Wild Yellowstone.

As that book became an Amazon best seller, I realized that I owed wolves a debt. If I was going to profit from a book about them, I needed to pay them back. One way I could do that was to speak for wolves, to advocate for them. I waded in.

Over the last eight years, I’ve written articles and used social media to advocate. I’ve produced slideshows and podcasts. I’ve spoken to individuals and groups. I’ve talked with legislators at our state capital and in Washington D.C. I’ve written another book entitled Deep into Yellowstone: A Year’s Immersion in Grandeur and Controversy. All to protect wildlife and preserve wild lands.

And I have the wolves in Yellowstone’s Lamar Valley to thank for starting me down this challenging and satisfying path as an advocate.

As a new year and another Yellowstone winter unfolds, I want to reaffirm my commitment to another year of advocating for wildlife and wild lands. 

And if you’re an advocate, I would love to read a comment or a private message as to how you started down your path.

My bestselling In the Temple of Wolves; its sequel, Deep into Yellowstone; and its prequel, The Wilds of Aging are available signed

My books are also available unsigned or as eBook or audiobook on Amazon.

Photo by Mary Strickroth

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

How Wolves and Humans Are Alike

While some people see wolves as vicious killers to be feared, hated and eradicated, I see them as essential predators that we have much in common with. We have similar family structures, preferred habitats, diets, personalities, feelings, and codes of conduct.

[Note from Rick: Each year around this time I post this essay. The idea that we have much in common with wolves is important and helps keep me going as a wolf advocate. I want to share it with as many people as possible--whether they are reading it for the first time or rereading it.] 

Wolves once roamed almost all of the Northern Hemisphere. Wolves can live most everywhere we do: forests, prairies, tundra, mountains, deserts, and swamps. They can thrive even in areas crowded with humans such as Europe and Asia.

As humans did, wolves evolved in families, found strength in numbers. Members of any healthy family—human or wolf—assume specific roles. Like human parents, the alpha pair makes decisions and controls the pack. Other members contribute to the pack’s survival. In their families, wolves play, show affection, feed and discipline their young, and mourn their dead.

Photo by Bob Haarmans CC by 2.0

Wolves and humans both prey on large mammals living near them. In fact, we prefer the same meats. That mutual love for the taste of sheep, cattle, deer, and elk leads to most wolf-human conflict. If necessary, though, both wolves and humans can fast for a long time.

Wolves and humans can both travel long distances in a day. We are both territorial. Wolves howl and scent mark to claim territory. We string barbed wire and draw lines on maps. Wolves and humans fight to keep or take territory. Wolves killing wolves—often in turf wars—is the most common natural cause of wolf death. In a similar way, humans annihilate each other in wars.

Wolves communicate using their voices and their bodies, Their postures and facial displays express joy and sadness, aggression and fear, dominance and submission. In humans we call this non-verbal communication. Wolves have different personalities; some are loners, some are lovers, some are leaders.

Wolves, as well as coyotes, red foxes, and domestic dogs, experience emotions such as joy and grief. In his book, The Emotional Lives of Animals, evolutionary biologist Marc Bekoff writes that while animals may experience emotions that humans can't understand, we can understand many of their feelings. Observing is the key. Bekoff has observed, for example, that wolves "have more varied facial expressions, and that they use these expressions to communicate their emotional states to others. Wolf tails are more expressive, and wolves use more tail positions than do dogs or coyotes to express their emotions."

He describes how such body language revealed the grief a pack of wolves felt after losing a low-ranking female. The grieving animals lost their spirit and playfulness. They no longer howled as a group, but rather sang alone in a slow mournful cry. They held their heads and tails low and walked softly and slowly when they came upon the place where a mountain lion had killed their pack mate.

If wolves and coyotes experience many of the emotions that humans feel, can they also become mentally impaired? Bekoff asks this intriguing question and then concludes that since many psychological disorders have been diagnosed in dogs, "there's no reason why this couldn't be true for their wild relatives."

Wolves and coyotes also share another similarity with humans: both animals are moral creatures. Not long ago most scientists believed that animals lacked a moral compass. But times and attitudes change. When Bekoff and bioethicist Jessica Pierce wrote their book Wild Justice: The Moral Lives of Animals seven years ago, they reported that the “staggering amount of information that we have about animal intelligence and animal emotions” now leads more scientists to say that animals can act with compassion, altruism, forgiveness, trust, and empathy. “In humans,” say the authors, “these behaviors form the core of what we call morality.”

Photo by NPS

I don’t always associate the words compassion and empathy with wolves and coyotes. Sometimes when I observe these two essential predators, I see a Darwinian dog-eat-dog world: an alpha puts an upstart in its place, two packs battle over territory, a coyote dies trying to share in a wolf pack’s feast.

But wolves and coyotes live in tight social groups—in families—built on a network of relationships that depends on trust, reciprocity, and flexibility, just as human relationships do. Animals in such groups, say Bekoff and Pierce, live according to a code of conduct that prohibits some behaviors and encourages others.

One such code—fairness—is exemplified when coyotes play. “Highly aggressive coyote pups,” say the authors, “will bend over backwards to maintain the play mood with their fellows, and when they don’t do this they are ignored and ostracized.” Rules like this foster cooperation and coexistence.

The ability to get along, in fact, may determine the ultimate size of a wolf pack. For a long time scientists thought that available food regulated pack size. But Bekoff and Pierce point to research by wolf expert David Mech that shows pack size may be regulated by social factors and not just food. My interpretation of Mech’s findings: pack size is governed by the number of wolves in the pack that can bond versus the number of wolves viewed as competition. When those numbers are out of balance—not enough bonders, too many competitors—packs splinter. 

Four years ago, philosopher Mark Rowlands wrote Can Animals Be Moral? He believes that many animals—including rats, chimpanzees, and dogs—feel emotions such as love, grief, outrage, and empathy. When acting on those emotions, animals choose to be good or bad. He presents examples suggesting that animals know right from wrong. Though humans possess a more developed moral consciousness, Rowlands says that animals can act for reasons that require an awareness of and concern for others. They can act morally.

Also four years ago, a group of prominent scientists signed the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness. The scientists declared that rapidly evolving scientific evidence shows that many animals are conscious and aware in the same way humans are. And that animals act with intention. Consciousness, awareness, and intention are keystones of morality.

Photo by Serge Melki via CC BY 2.0

If we believe that animals can be moral beings, can experience emotions such as joy and grief, and can become mentally impaired, then we must make sure that our actions match our beliefs. We must, as Bekoff writes, treat other beings with respect, appreciation, compassion, and love. “There's no doubt whatsoever that, when it comes to what we can and cannot do to other animals, it's their emotions that should inform our actions on their behalf, and we can always do more for them.”

Yes, we can always do more for wolves. And we should do less to them. We are far too similar to wolves to fear and hate and kill them.

My bestselling In the Temple of Wolves; its sequel, Deep into Yellowstone; and its prequel, The Wilds of Aging are available signed

My books are also available unsigned or as eBook or audiobook on Amazon.

Photos man and wolf via public domain. Collage  by Rick Lamplugh.