Monday, March 30, 2020

The Bison's Last Ride

“I think it’s a female yearling,” Brian, the district ranger, says to the four of us standing across from him. The bison, a sad lump dusted with fresh snow, fills the space at our feet. 

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I nod toward him but can’t take my eyes from the bison calf; she’s beautiful, even in death. Short horns reveal her youth. Her brown eyes are still bright and inviting. I remove my glove and feel the long hair on her side; its softness surprises me. I run my hand down her thin leg to what looks like a smooth-sided hoof. But the hoof is encircled with tiny ridges, and I, fascinated, run a fingernail over each ridge. George, Karen, and Mary, squatting and kneeling, also caress her. We share a reverent moment, as you would at the bedside of a just-departed loved one.

Brian’s soft voice interrupts, “That makes me think it was hit by a car.” He points to the blood drying around the nose and mouth. 

That’s a possibility since the bison was found dead on the road before dawn east of here. At first light she was dragged for four miles behind a snowplow to this roadside pullout. Now we are going to sled her farther from the road.

We muscle the 500-pound calf onto a big, plastic sled. Then Brian pulls a radio from his jacket, listens, signs off, and says, “That was the Comm Center. They just had a call from two visitors who reported hitting a bison in the dark and snow this morning.” He pauses as if delivering a punch line. “They said the bison walked out in the road and hit their truck.” He shakes his head, and we all laugh. 

After a couple of months of driving along snowy park roads, we’ve seen how it probably happened. Calves are always with a herd, and often that herd is walking down the middle of the plowed road, the easiest path in winter. We’ve watched cars barge into a herd, impatient drivers rushing to get through. In a situation like that, a spooked animal could swing its head and get clipped. Such waste saddens me.

However death occurred, it’s time for the yearling’s last trip across the valley floor. I snowshoe alongside so I can video the procession. Breath billowing and bent forward, the four haul the sled to the top of a rise. When they head downhill, I notice that the sled is gaining on them. 

“Look out!” I yell.

Four heads snap around. Each team member jumps to the side. The sled stops where they had been. We look at one another and then laugh about how difficult it would have been to explain to our manager that three of her volunteers were injured by a sleigh-riding bison while the fourth videoed the mishap.

We continue on and about three-quarters of the way to the cottonwoods stop. The reality of our task hits: We are looking for the best place for others to dine on this beautiful, young animal. 

On the count of three, we hoist one side of the sled. The calf flops into the snow. The four of us volunteers encircle the bison, mourners at a graveside. A bald eagle lands high in the nearby cottonwoods, waiting. 

Brian pulls the sled away, and the others snowshoe in silence behind, family following the hearse from the cemetery. I stay and walk to the bison’s head. Snowflakes land on the eye and don’t melt. Beneath the cottonwoods, a coyote has joined the eagle. I whisper an invitation to the scavengers. I thank the bison for providing them sustenance and then turn and snowshoe toward the road. 

Three weeks and three snowstorms later, Mary and I return to the pullout from which we sledded the yearling. We want to see what remains of the carcass. The path we made for the bison’s last ride has disappeared. We don snowshoes and guess our way along, but we can’t find the remains. We squat down in the snow and wait. 

Just as we are starting to feel too chilled to stay, a magpie lands about twenty yards away and starts walking and pecking. We rise and move toward it. We spot strands of hair and fragments of bone and Mary drops to all fours and starts sweeping away snow. A few inches below the surface, she uncovers a frozen rug of bison hide. Nearby, she discovers a blood-stained bottom jaw with unworn teeth. I dig around, come up with a hoof attached to a leg bone. I take off my glove and again feel the hoof’s ridges.

With respect, I replace the leg and then snowshoe over to kneel beside Mary. She turns to me and her eyes hold both sadness and curiosity. She nods toward where she has been digging, and we begin to cover the hide and put the bones back. The bison’s return to earth isn’t done yet, and we don’t want to interfere. 

In a month or two, when the snow thaws and spring greens this valley, hundreds of species of beetles and other insects will dine on these scraps. Anything left will begin breaking down into minerals that will enrich the soil and feed the grass. Where we now kneel in snow will be a sweet spot for bison grazing near the swollen Lamar River. A mother and her calf could be drawn here by the scent of new grass. The calf, still young enough to be mistaken for a big, red dog playing near the herd, will eat its fill, enriched by the yearling we pulled here. 

Mary and I stand, hold hands, and snowshoe back toward the road, closing the circle on a touching farewell and funeral service. 

This post based on a chapter from the bestselling In the Temple of Wolves.

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 by Rick Lamplugh

Saturday, March 28, 2020

Thank You, Otter

Our walk started in slow silence. We were on a public dirt road that goes for miles, first through a small ranch, then up into hills, down into a meadow, and finally into a rocky canyon where Native Americans once trod. Several times I tried starting a conversation with Mary, but her answers were short and I finally understood: she needed her space. So did I. We were both lost in thoughts and worries and forecasts about this new world that had emerged just weeks ago. Are we safe? Are friends and family? Is our small town?

Occasionally I would catch the call of a raven or stop to stare at a mountain still speckled with snow. But mostly I just walked, waiting for the blood and oxygen coursing through my body to clear my mind. To help me abandon oppressive and obsessive thoughts and instead experience the natural world around me. No luck.

After four miles we came to a favorite spot, a campsite along the Yellowstone River. We passed beneath some massive, old, winter-naked cottonwoods and stopped at the edge of the bank. We gazed at the river flowing by fifteen feet below. The water green mid-river, clear in the shallows. 

As I stared at some riffles, Mary exclaimed, “Look, an otter!” I followed her pointing and there it was, nose and eyes above the water, a long pointed tail just below. The otter must have become aware of us too because it stopped looking downriver and started focusing on us. It turned, made its way to a rock, and effortlessly climbed up the slick side. It perched and raised its head up, staring at us. 

Mary and I stood entranced. We had seen otters before but never this close. And never in such an intimate way. 

Without opening its small mouth, the otter produced a loud snort, an alarm call. It turned, slid back into the river, and dove, its tail pointing up and disappearing last. 

We stood there thankful for that sighting, that moment. We smiled at each other, touched hands, and waited, hoping the otter would reappear. Minutes passed. We searched upstream. Downstream. Nothing. 

We walked along the bank through willows, inspecting some that had been bitten off close to the ground. Then we found some trees gnawed and fallen by beavers. Since otters often live in in the same areas as beavers, the one we had alarmed might now be sheltering in place in its nearby home. 

Leaving the mystery and the moment, we began our return. This time side by side, sometimes shoulders touching. We looked around, shared observations: the sound of a flicker drumming on a utility pole telegraphing its location to a possible mate, a pair of ravens passing overhead and calling toward a flock circling in the distance, a mating pair of geese pecking in dried yellow grass. Yellowstone in spring. Alive. Magical. 

And we were finally paying attention thanks to that moment with that otter.

Indie author Rick Lamplugh writes and photographs to protect wildlife and 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.

Photo by Rick Lamplugh

Monday, March 23, 2020

I'd Like to Read You a Story

You may find yourself with extra time and extra stress these days. You’re not alone; I feel that way too. As I wondered what I could do to not only help myself but also help others through this crisis, I realized that I could tell stories. 

One of the most frequent comments I receive from readers is that while reading my books they felt as if they were with me hiking, skiing, snowshoeing, or wolf watching in Yellowstone. Transporting with words someone who feels confined to their house or their neighborhood seems like a good idea. 

So today I begin a series of weekly posts in which I will read a story to you. 

Please let me know your reaction to this. If it’s helpful, I’ll continue. If not, I’ll try to figure out something else to help. We’re all in this together.

This week's reading describes the sights, sounds, and emotions of a moonlit walk in Yellowstone's wild Lamar Valley in the snow and below zero temperature. My reading is accompanied by an original piano composition by Suzannah Doyle.

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Indie author Rick Lamplugh writes and photographs to protect wildlife and 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.

Photo by Rick Lamplugh

Monday, March 16, 2020

Fact Check: If Wolves Are Already in Colorado, Is Reintroduction Necessary?

Opponents claim there is no need to reintroduce wolves into Colorado; wolves are already there and more will follow. My fact checking finds that claim only partially correct. 

In 1995 and 1996 wolves were reintroduced into Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho. One goal of that reintroduction was to bring wolves back to the Rocky Mountains, their ancestral home. In the 25 years since that reintroduction, wolves have dispersed to Montana, Washington, Oregon, and even California. But 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 killed 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. (His collar was still being monitored in February of 2020.)

That was it: a confirmed lone wolf after a quarter-century of wolves successfully making homes elsewhere in the Rockies. 

A Pack Appears

Photo by Rick Lamplugh

Then, in mid-January of 2020, Colorado Parks and Wildlife officers investigated an elk carcass surrounded by wolf tracks in Moffat County in the northwest corner of the state. While investigating, they heard wolf howls and using binoculars saw six wolves. 

In mid-February Colorado Parks and Wildlife officials confirmed the first documentation of a wolf pack in Colorado in more than 70 years. CPW used DNA testing on scat samples taken near an elk carcass that was about two miles from where six wolves were seen just a month earlier. The DNA tests revealed the presence of three female wolves and one male. The wolves were likely siblings. CPW could not say where they were born or how old they are. Six wolves were again spotted by CPW on March 4.

Opponents of wolf reintroduction immediately claimed that the presence of those six wolves eliminated the need to reintroduce more wolves.

Does One Pack Make a Healthy Population?

Photo by Rick Lamplugh

Since the goal of reintroducing wolves is to establish a permanent Colorado wolf population, advocates of reintroduction must ask: Will those six wolves lead to the establishment of a permanent wolf population? To answer this question, let’s look at how Yellowstone reestablished its permanent wolf population. 

Most of the 31 wolves reintroduced into Yellowstone were not related and interbreeding was possible. By the spring of 1997, 67 pups were born in the park’s nine packs; 49 of the pups survived to the end of the year. By the end of 1998, the Yellowstone Wolf Project counted 112 wolves in eleven packs. The population rose and fell over the years until stabilizing at about 100 wolves for the last few years.

The key difference between Yellowstone’s reintroduction and Colorado’s current situation is that at least four of the Colorado wolves are siblings. Since wolves rarely mate with family members, those six wolves will not likely interbreed and start producing a permanent population without other unrelated wolves reaching the state.

Will Wolves Return on Their Own?

Photo by Oregon Dept. of Fish & Wildlife

In January of 2016 when the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission issued a resolution opposing “the intentional release of any wolves into Colorado,” they did not oppose wolves returning on their own. But is that a way Colorado can increase its wolf population?

As an example of wolves returning on their own, let’s look at Oregon, where the last wolf was killed in 1947—around the same time the last wolf was seen in Colorado.

Wolves began to return to Oregon on their own in 1999. Just four years after reintroduction of wolves into neighboring Idaho, a lone Idaho wolf was captured in Oregon—and promptly returned to Idaho. By 2006 a number of wolves had been sighted in northeastern Oregon. In 2008 wolf pups were confirmed in the state. By December 2019, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife estimated the state has 137 wolves in 16 packs.

Meanwhile in 2020—25 years after wolves were reintroduced into Wyoming—Colorado still does not have a permanent wolf population. What kept neighboring Wyoming wolves from reaching Colorado while Idaho wolves reached neighboring Oregon?

Why Don't Wolves Reach Colorado?

Wyoming has essentially created a prison for its wolves. This prison is in the northwest corner of the state on public lands that surround Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks. Wyoming calls this prison its Wolf Trophy Game Management Area.

When a wolf leaves that Wolf Trophy Game Management Area, it enter the 85% of the state where it can be shot on sight, anytime, anywhere, by anyone. No license needed. Wyoming calls this area surrounding the prison its Predator Zone, and within this zone wolves are deemed vermin.

Consider a wolf who slips out of the prison and heads south in search of elk, a favorite meal. Plenty of elk roam between the Wind River Range and the Colorado border, according to three web sites oriented to Wyoming elk hunters. In less than 200 miles, the escapee—if not shot on sight anytime, anywhere, by anyone—could reach northwestern Colorado, where the six wolves have been recently confirmed.

But with the way Wyoming has set up the prison, an escapee’s chances of reaching Colorado are very slim. In 2018, for example, 37 wolves were reported killed in the Predator Zone, according to Wyoming Wildlife Advocates. That’s just the number reported. I wouldn’t be surprised if others were shot and not reported. They are, after all, considered vermin.

That collared male from Yellowstone’s Snake River pack that was confirmed to have entered Colorado in July of 2019 somehow escaped the prison and survived the Predator Zone. His feat may be even more miraculous than Oregon’s famous OR-7 traveling from northeastern Oregon to northern California. While on his much longer journey, OR-7 was almost always protected by the Endangered Species Act. But the escapee from Wyoming’s wolf prison had no protection in the Predator Zone.

Now Is the Time to Reintroduce Wolves

Photo by Rick Lamplugh

So opponents to wolf reintroduction are partially right: six wolves are living now in the northwest corner of Colorado. 

But opponents are wrong when they say that the presence of these wolves eliminates the need to reintroduce wolves. Those six wolves will not lead to a larger and healthy wolf population without unrelated wolves reaching Colorado, finding the six, and breeding. The likelihood of more wolves naturally returning has proven small due to Wyoming’s wolf prison. 

The best way for Colorado to bring wolves back is still reintroduction. And with six wolves already in the state, now would be a good time to add more wolves so that breeding can occur and produce a healthy and permanent wolf population.

Indie author Rick Lamplugh writes and photographs to protect wildlife and 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.

Photo of wolf pack at top of post by NPS

Thursday, March 12, 2020

A Day in the Yellowstone Bison Migration: A Photo Essay

Each winter bison migrate 40 or so miles from the Lamar Valley to Gardiner Basin. The bison in this photo have passed Gardiner and the famous Roosevelt Arch. They are in the park and walking on Old Yellowstone Trail, a dirt road that meanders the final four miles to the park's northern boundary.  

Bison migrate from their higher elevation ranges such as Lamar Valley, where this photo was taken, when the snow becomes very deep or an ice layer forms. The bison can no longer get to the dried grass they need to survive their annual race between starvation and spring. 

Once in the lower, warmer, and drier Gardiner Basin, bison can again graze. The obvious food in this photo is last year's pale dried grass. But when Mary and I knelt down to explore the ground, we uncovered new green sprouts, all less than one inch tall.

These bison are midway into the basin, two miles past the Roosevelt Arch, two miles from the park border. They are grazing near the National Park Service's Stephens Creek facility, the trap where bison are captured and shipped to slaughter. 

After grazing, bison do what is called "loafing," resting on the ground while an incredibly efficient digestive system squeezes every bit of nutrition from the dried grass and new shoots they migrated in search of. 

Loafing in the Gardiner Basin must be more comfortable then loafing in the cold and snowy Lamar Valley--as the bison in this photo was doing earlier in the winter.

The basin's spring-like temperatures and snow-free range must be pleasant. We watched and laughed as this youngster romped among his matriarchal group, seemingly just for the joy of doing so.

But bison grazing, loafing, or romping near the trap are at risk. This photo shows two of four mounted NPS staff. All are closing in on a group of bison grazing near the trap.

Mary and I watched with anger and sadness while the riders worked as a team to haze the bison toward the trap. After the bison disappeared into a gully, we could hear the whooping and hollering as the riders drove the bison into the trap.

The hazed herd will join all these other bison inside the trap. After blood testing and a short stay the captives will be hauled to a slaughter house. The hides and meat will be distributed to Native American tribes.

These bison, having made it past the trap, graze among glacial erratics, boulders deposited here perhaps 15,000 years ago as glaciers from the last Ice Age melted. Bison are incredible survivors. They have endured numerous Ice Ages and avoided the die offs in which other large species such as mastadons, wooly mammoths, and camels vanished.  

The animal we call bison originated in southern Asia and began migrating northward 2-3 million years ago. Eventually they crossed the Bering Land Bridge and slowly followed their noses to the Great Plains. Some experts believe bison fled to Yellowstone to escape the slaughter on the plains. Today the park contains our nation's last remaining continuously wild bison, and Montana laws confine them to Yellowstone. Of course, bison know nothing of laws and this male migrator, having avoided the trap, is now reaching the tree-lined park border.  

I watched with concern as this migrator walked northward with resolve. The black and yellow sign just left of the bison's tail designates he is on US Forest Service property and no longer protected. The Beattie Gulch Trailhead sign behind him explains some rules of the bison hunt. He doesn't yet know that just one-quarter of a mile away shooters await.

These two bison are part of a group of 25 grazing and walking in a protected area along Old Yellowstone Trail. In the background are shooters waiting for the bison to go where they can be shot. There were 25 vehicles crowding the roadside and at least 35 people watching and waiting. 

Bison that migrate to the basin are shot or shipped to slaughter because they can carry brucellosis. Brucellosis transmitted to cattle can cause a cow to abort a calf and cut into ranchers' profits. But there has never been a transfer of brucellosis from wild bison to cattle. In fact, cattle transferred brucellosis to bison in the early years of the park. Still, ranchers' powerful lobby and the Montana Department of Livestock have branded bison a culprit that threatens their industry and way of life and must be treated as livestock. 

 Meanwhile, elk, like these along Old Yellowstone Trail, are treated as wildlife and can leave the park and go wherever they please. While doing so, elk have transferred brucellosis to cattle more than 20 times. Yet the Montana livestock industry has survived. I believe the industry would continue to survive even if bison were considered livestock and allowed to migrate freely and some transmitted brucellosis to cattle.   

controls the shooting, capture, and slaughter of 
Yellowstone bison our national mammal.

This court-ordered coalition is composed of eight members:

National Park Service
USDA-Forest Service

USDA-Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service

Montana Department of Livestock

Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks

The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes

The Nez Perce Tribe
The Inter Tribal Buffalo Council

The three annual IBMP meetings are open to the public.
If you want to speak for bison,
public comment is allowed at each meeting.
Next meeting: April 8, 2020 in Bozeman, MT.

Rick Lamplugh writes and photographs to protect wildlife and 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.