Volunteers Help Free Sheep Caught by Muggers

Guest columnist Karen Sullivan recounts a unique adventure, her reward for being in the Dubois area during the “shoulder season.”

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BighornSheepStudyRecently, I had the unforgettable opportunity to help study some of the bighorn sheep and mule deer in the Dubois area, up close. It was an incredible experience!

Along with several other volunteers, I assisted in a joint project of the National Bighorn Sheep Center, the University of Wyoming, and the state Game & Fish Department to monitor the body condition and migration patterns of these wonderful animals. Our job as volunteers was to help collect the sheep delivered by helicopter, and to protect both the biologists and the animals by holding them still while they were being examined.

Last year, several ewes were collared in order to track their movements and recapture them annually for physical examinations. A helicopter crew from New Zealand was hired to capture the sheep and bring them to the exam area near Dubois.

BighornSheepStudy1The crew used a helicopter and net gun to catch the sheep. Once the sheep were caught in the net, two muggers (yes, that is what they are called!) jumped from the helicopter to blindfold and hobble the sheep. They also wrapped them in a sturdy tarp for transport to the exam area.

The helicopter pilot’s skills were impressive, to say the least! He very gently laid the sheep on the ground, where volunteers picked them up and carried them to the biologists who would examine them. Each animal had an extensive examination, which included measuring their body fat, checking for pregnancy using an ultrasound, and collecting blood, ear, nose, and throat swab samples to test them for disease.

BighornSheepStudy2Most of the sheep were surprisingly calm throughout the process, especially considering that no tranquilizer was used.

The collars were then adjusted or replaced as needed. After this, the sheep were moved to an open area, where their blindfolds and hobbles were removed and they were set free. Volunteers were also able to help with freeing the ewes.

Once released, the ewes did not waste any time running to rejoin their herd. They are amazingly fast runners.

BighornSheepStudy3The collars on the ewes allow the biologists to track them and their lambs throughout the year and to monitor their health as well as their migration patterns.

As a new part of this ongoing statewide project, several mule deer in the Upper Wind River Valley have also been caught, examined, and collared with the same objective.

I would not have imagined that I would ever be able to get so close to bighorn sheep or be able to actually help with a project like this. I hope that the long-term results from this research will help ensure the health of these magnificent animals, and increase their population.

© 2016 Karen Sullivan. Image credits: Karen Sullivan (top), Nick Dobric (remainder)

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Dubois Spring Break: Snowy Down Time

Why it may not always be fun here, but it sure isn’t bad …

100_0140As I said nine days ago, Mother Nature messed with our heads on March 20, giving us a balmy First Day of Spring.

Today, she got serious again. It was our third or fourth day of snow in a week. This time it was snow in earnest, inches of it, deep and soft, blowing sideways from the east.

The dog was in ecstasy outside, leaping and rolling in the drifts.

A gray cloud hung like a fluffy down blanket over our heads, all day .

100_0137 (1) It’s spring break week, and down time in Dubois. The snowmobilers are gone. Many of the restaurants have closed for a few weeks. Even some hard-core full-timers have gone south, including fearless wilderness-loving Becki with her two children, off in search of the sun.

However, in theory we’re not sorry to see more snow this spring, because it means runoff later that will help to grow hay, minimize the risk of fire, and make the valley beautifully green this summer.

I stayed mostly inside, cleaning my desk and baking cookies, glad I didn’t have to go out to feed any horses or cattle.

Yesterday, I realized it’s actually spring break. Over at Town Hall, several parents were in the Council chambers with their teenagers in the morning, having shown up for the monthly visit from WYDOT to help them sign up for drivers’ permits during school break.

I had gone there to commence my divorce from New York and my marriage to Wyoming. It’s long past time to ditch that old photograph, taken way back when my own children were still children. But that’s hardly the most important reason to take this step!

DLs

“You going away this week?” asked a man waiting in front of me in the Council chambers.

“No,” said a woman who had come with her daughter. “We got an allotment up on Union Pass for this summer. Think we’ll try to get the branding done by Friday — if we can, with all the snow that’s coming. Probably they’ll all be too cold and wet still.”

WYDOT“This is such a pain,” I heard someone say behind me. “Those people [from WYDOT] are always so grouchy. They really don’t like coming all the way here from Riverton.”

I didn’t find them grouchy at all. Bureaucratic, sure, but generally pleasant–and understandably concerned about driving back home in the coming snowfall.

Of course, the people waiting to be served had lived in a small town far too long to consider this actually a fairly enjoyable experience, as I did.

“Yeah, it’s not too much fun,” said my friend Tom, resuming his laconic conversation with the people sitting around him, as he sauntered back from the counter to wait for the next step in getting his license renewed. “But at least we’re among friends.”

I thought back to the day when I had that picture taken for my New York license. I had to turn up at the Brooklyn DMV by around 7 AM in order not to have to spend all day getting the job done. I stood in a long line in a featureless corridor and waited at least an hour on my feet before we were let into a huge room with fluorescent lights and long rows of plastic seats.

The clerks behind the counter were truly surly. Nobody said anything unofficial, because we were all strangers.

© Lois Wingerson, 2016

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Dubois K-12: A Hidden Gem

Two substitute teachers tell what they’ve found. It’s remarkable.

© Lois Wingerson, 2016

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SchoolHouse
Schoolhouse cabin at the Dubois Museum

Think of a schoolhouse in Wyoming, in the middle of nowhere. Drafty logs and a sod roof, maybe? One room, full of kids who have dirty faces and scraped knees, most of them destined for a life of pitching hay? Maybe one headed for college?

I didn’t ask my teacher friends, Karen and Lori, what they expected to find when they volunteered to substitute at the Dubois school. I asked what they found. It was nothing at all like Little House on the Prairie.

They started with the basics: the stuff. Not only is the K-12 school building brand new, everything else is state of the art, said Lori, who previously taught elementary school in a “fairly affluent town” south of Boston.

100_0105
The actual K-12 school in Dubois

In Dubois, every student has a portable computer of some kind. Elementary-school students were taking Chromebooks to art class, she told me. Back in Massachusetts, “each kid there didn’t have his own computer.”

My friend Karen has taught junior-high school biology in Dubois, and she’s waiting to teach more classes. She also still has her appointment as an assistant professor of microbiology at Louisiana State University, and she teaches online courses for a Louisiana college, working from her home just outside Dubois. (See “Best Internet Anywhere” and “Consultant’s Dream Come True.”)

“The science labs [in Dubois] were incredible,” she told me. “The fume hoods were better than we had at LSU. I’ve never seen microscopes that advanced in high school.”

Not only do they have the high-tech microscopes; the students know how to use them. She found they also knew a surprising amount about the bacteria they could see through the lens.  They had learned to extract DNA from strawberries.

The equipment, of course, is only the sizzle. The meat of the issue is the class size, which in a town of 1,000 is very small.

100_0085
Lori teaching. (Why the funny hats? It was Dr. Seuss Day.)

The kids at primary level are “sweet and eager to learn,” Lori told me, but as anywhere, there are always a few “who need extra attention. With only 7 or 9 kids in a class, it’s easier to do that.”

The junior high classes are about the same size. Karen spoke about the pleasure of being able to interact with each student in the lab, to get each of them excited and motivated. “Also, I was surprised at the level of respect in the classroom,” she said. “They’re all so polite. It was amazing.”

Clearly this is an environment that takes teaching seriously, and gives it latitude.

In Massachusetts where Lori taught full-time, she told me that basically all a substitute teacher had to do was show up in the morning. To substitute here in Dubois, not only did she have to fill out an application, she had to document her certification to teach, to be fingerprinted, and to take a course on the Wyoming and US Constitutions.

100_0102
Sign in the corridor outside a classroom.

When she arrives early in the morning, a lesson plan is waiting for her. “I’m not just going in to babysit,” Lori said. “I’m teaching them.”

The full-time teachers seem happy, she told me, not overloaded or stressed. “You get to think up the curriculum design and plan your own courses,” she added. “It’s amazing. Wonderful.”

Another advantage occurred to me recently: For a high school student with good grades in this remote little town in the least densely populated state in the lower 48, getting into college outside Wyoming must be a slam-dunk, because all colleges want to optimize their “mix.” A good applicant from Dubois must be unusually interesting and attractive compared to one from Boston or New York City. (What’s more, I’ve heard that there are more college scholarships available around here than applicants to receive them.)

I mentioned the college-admissions benefit to a good friend whose high school-aged son went to Oxford, England, for a summer program last year. “I know,” he said with a smile.

© Lois Wingerson, 2016

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Caught on Camera: Spring Break in Dubois

Was it a hint or just a red herring?

Downtown032016 I have heard people say there is no proper spring in Dubois.

If that’s true, Mother Nature was messing with our heads on this First Official Day of Spring.

The thermometer stood at -8°F when we got up at 7 AM yesterday. By 2:00 in the afternoon, it read 51°F. I took a hike wearing only a windbreaker over my sweater.

A 60-degree swing is noteworthy, even for high-mountain desert: In summer it tends to start somewhere in the 40s and peak only in the mid-70s.

When we got up this morning, the sky was brilliant blue–about the same color as the mountain bluebirds that have begun to flit about behind our house.

011211The females are soft gray. The males always look to me like tiny pieces of the sky, broken off and soaring about at ground level.

As we left for church, the thermometer read only 22°F. But I was perfectly comfortable as I walked to the car carrying my parka over my arm.

It’s Palm Sunday, the day when parishioners often process around outdoors carrying palms. The minister, who had come over the pass from Jackson to fill in for the day, commented about the mild weather. The high in Jackson yesterday was 28°F (while we were enjoying the fifties). Today it was predicted to surge all the way up to 32.

PalmSunday3(I’ve commented before about the false equivalence many people make between Dubois and Jackson. There’s enough snow over there to serve the ski resorts for the rest of the season, I hear. We can see plenty of it on the mountain peaks here as well, but around town it’s totally dry, as you can see.)

We paraded into the sanctuary at a leisurely pace, many of us minus our overcoats. I’m amazed nobody thought to give thanks for the springlike weather during the prayers.

BennyCar032016In the afternoon, lacking a plan but determined not to stay indoors, we took a drive up Horse Creek Road just to see what it looks like over there right now. We took the chance to leave the car and explore some cave-like formations. Just the perfect day for spring jackets.

Benny obviously enjoyed spring break too. He seldom rides with his head out the window like that. Can you see his smile?

The forecast calls for snow on Tuesday and Friday, with sunshine on the days between and highs in the low 40s.

Paradise lost? No, just postponed.

© Lois Wingerson, 2016

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Who Owns This Valley? Hey, Ya

In which I discover the serene beauty of the Rez, the foreign territory next door.

Eastbound5I needed to run some errands “down county” in Riverton, about an hour away. It was almost balmy spring, and a different experience altogether from the wintry drive over the mountain pass to Jackson a few weeks ago.

I was driving alone. With no conversation to distract me, I had time to discover that this route has a serene beauty of its own.

Almost all of the drive is on the Wind River Indian Reservation, home of the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapahoe people. This is not a desolate, barren desert of windblown sand, like the Hopi reservation we saw in Arizona last year. It’s as fertile as the rest of the valley. As you drive, you see cattle, horses, and lots of hay.

Eastbound3I’ve met a few of these distant neighbors, but I don’t have any friends among them. “The Rez” feels like foreign territory, which I suppose it actually is.

In Dubois, we maintain a cautiously respectful and distant regard for the people on the reservation. They do not hasten to engage us, for understandable reasons.

The Shoshone knew this temperate valley from ancient times. For many generations, they migrated through it and occupied seasonal villages around here, long before their descendants were forced to settle here permanently. Their revered leader Chief Washakie and his advisors astutely negotiated the Wind River Valley as a reservation for their people 1868.

Eastbound6The most prominent landmark on the drive is Crowheart Butte. You can see it in this picture, rising from the valley floor. I have no idea how the butte came to be on that flat plain, but nearly everyone here knows how it got its name.

The Shoshone and their enemies the Crow were in constant battle. Chief Washakie proposed ending the conflict with a man-to-man fight with the Crow leader on top of the butte. Legend says that Washakie won the fight, killed the foe, and ate his heart–hence “Crowheart.” I read somewhere that when someone asked old Chief Washakie if this was true, he chuckled and replied, “It sounds like something I might have done when I was young.”

There’s no cellphone signal on the drive across The Rez, and radio coverage is spotty. I kept pushing the scan button and finally came across a strong signal. The melody was repetitive, supported by a drum. The lyrics were at once strange and familiar: Hey-ya-ya-ya. Hey-ya-ya-ya. The music carried me along for a few miles.

Eastbound2

I found myself imagining a woman standing in her kitchen, listening to the same music and looking at this austerely beautiful vista as she cooks. She is not a symbol or a character from geopolitical history. She is part of a real community that occupies this land as surely as I occupy our few acres, cooking her dinner as surely as I cook mine. Of course her tie to the valley that I have come to love would be vastly stronger than mine, who first saw it only a few decades ago.

Maybe she appreciates this gold and blue landscape on a far deeper level than the way I enjoy the view out my own window, I thought.

The DJ announced a new song, with a similar lilting melody and drum rhythm, but this one had words whose meaning I could understand.

Like I told you before
I don’t love you any more.
Stay away from me.
I don’t need you any more.
Hi-yo-yo. Hi-yo-yo.

Her family isn’t locked up in the history I keep in my mind along with the images of petroglyphs and the sheep traps, I thought. Their culture evolves as ours does, but I will probably never know who they are. We slide past one another in Riverton or on the highway, aliens to each other for reasons still too deep to resolve.

Eastbound1My mother, who grew up in Scottsbluff, Nebraska, often lamented the travesty our ancestors had done to the Native Americans. But I was a child growing up in the Midwest when she raised me. I never saw a Native American (to my knowledge), or a reservation. Her words meant almost nothing to me then. I understood them, but I did not.

Gradually the road returning to Dubois begins to dip and rise, winding toward the striped and wrinkled backdrop of the badlands. It slides you gently around a huge curve, and then the other huge landmark suddenly rises in front of you: the red rocks.

RedRocks

On a midsummer day, backed by a jewel-bright blue sky, they are even more arresting than this.

They are the western end of this part of The Rez. Chief Washakie wisely insisted on holding onto these fabulous formations. On any of our long journeys back from somewhere farther to the east than Riverton, I see them as the finale.

Beyond the red rocks, I am at home.

© Lois Wingerson, 2016

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Dubois WY: Consultant’s Dream Come True

Is the ability to work from Dubois a stroke of genius, or just a stroke of incredible good luck?

As the owner of Recreational Resources LLC of Dubois, Rick Collignon putters away all day on his computer, fax, and cell phone. What the folks on the other end of the line may not realize is that during a conference call he may be on horseback at an altitude of around 10,000 feet, nowhere near the rest of the office.

CollignonThis avid outdoorsman has the best of both worlds. He spends his free time fishing, hiking, and hunting in Wyoming, in the Wind River Valley, but spends some of his working hours as a consultant to the Fish and Game Department for a different state–South Dakota.

Rick is a great example of how the high-quality Internet service in Dubois allows residents here to succeed as consultants and business owners from what looks on the map like the middle of nowhere.  Like so much else about living in Dubois, this arrangement suits only a specific kind of personality.

“Telecommuting requires a certain type of person to be successful,” says Rick. “A tremendous amount of self-discipline and drive, good organizational skills, and the ability to work alone a vast majority of the time.”

As with any job, he adds, you must make your work time accommodate your clients’ hours. So you can find yourself talking to DC in the early AM and the West Coast late into the evening. It’s also about your creativity, he adds: The ability to not only think outside the box but also to create a marketable product—yourself. What can you offer that beats the next guy?

Another important key factor is to maintain your network of business relationships, to assure that you’re in the right place at the right time to win the deal, even if that place is one of the most remote in the lower 48 states.

And place is important to the mix. Another key to successful telecommuting is to locate yourself in an area–be it city or country, mountains or beach—that will put you in the most productive frame of mind, whatever that means for you. If you can’t maintain the focus of your thoughts in the city, then perhaps solitude is the key.

It certainly has been for Rick. After months of hard work (predominantly over the phone or email), he successfully negotiated the Missouri River Land Transfer for the State of South Dakota. His success enabled Rick and his wife to purchase the KOA campground in Dubois and revamp the facility–something they are both enjoying.

cid_836“Dubois is one of those places,” as he put it, “where a consultant has all the quality access and communication links to the world through the Web needed to successfully compete in today’s markets, while providing an outstanding life space which stimulates those invaluable creative talents needed to excel in this line of work.”

I also telecommuted from Dubois for 8 years before I retired last June, and obviously I continue to take advantage of the great Internet here. Everything Rick says rings true, and he and I are hardly the only people around here who are taking advantage of the opportunity.

The cost of living is low, the quality of life high. Just a few weeks ago, the financial website bankrate.com designated Wyoming the best state to retire for the second year in a row. The factors it cited (low taxes and prices, low crime rates, beautiful environment) are just as important to self-employed individuals who work on the Internet as they are for retirees. And the Internet here, as I keep saying, is second to none.

For people whose hearts sing at the thought of mountain peaks, open skies, and true solitude and serenity right out the back door, is the ability to work from Dubois a stroke of genius or just a stroke of incredible good luck?

I don’t know how Rick would answer. As for me, I put it down to the grace of God, and give thanks every morning when I look out the window.

© Lois Wingerson, 2016

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Not Just Humans Migrate to This “Banana Belt”

Four-footed creatures also seek the milder climate of Dubois to avoid severe winters. They’re about to be tracked.

DuboisEastbound030116On our return trip through Antelope Flats this side of Jackson a few days ago, we encountered ice and cold winds. But over the pass and back in Dubois, we found the weather milder and dry.

That’s no particular surprise. When we left home early in the morning to catch a plane in Jackson last week, we had noticed that the temperature was 27° F. The car registered  15° at the top of Togwotee Pass, and then a frigid 7° farther west in Jackson, 90 minutes later.

People here sometimes refer to the Upper Wind River Valley as the “banana belt.” The four-footed wild critters, who are are at least as smart about the climate as we humans, have been migrating through and to Dubois for at least as long as we have (if you include in “we” the Native Americans).

Later this month, wildlife biologists will begin documenting these animal migrations around Dubois, using the latest tracking technology. Next week, they will be fitting 15 mule deer in the Dubois area (among a total of approximately 90 in the general area over a period of several years) with GPS collars. They will then watch remotely in real-time as the critters relocate each year from Yellowstone, across the Wind River Valley toward the Bighorn Basin, and back.

This is part of an evolving series of studies. Last year, when biologists reported that the mule deer’s annual trek along the south side of the Wind River range is one of the longest land-based migrations in the lower 48, the story made the New York Times.

deerMaybe they travel even farther on this side of the mountains. Who knows? We’ll find out soon, thanks to the collaboration between the Nature Conservancy, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, the Wyoming Migration Initiative, and numerous other partners.

Last week at the Bighorn Sheep Center in Dubois, a member of the migration studies listened with interest as local hunters and biologists in the audience told what they know about game animals here on the north side of the range.

Retired biologist Mark Hinschberger revealed that he had been surprised to see mule deer heading uphill toward the Continental Divide in the autumn while the elk were heading downhill toward Jackson. This was in the late 1970s, when he was part of a US Forest Service study monitoring the effects of logging on elk migration patterns.

Mark told me he began to understand the “backward” uphill migration of the deer after he moved to Dubois. “There are areas on the leeward side of the Continental Divide at the south end of Lava Mountain that are part of the Wind River range,” he said. “They travel over that lower elevation and head into this country and parts east. Some of the deer also hang around here.”

(This is no surprise at all, because we have to watch carefully for them all winter, even on routine daytime trips into town. You often see herds of deer and antelope grazing a respectful distance apart from the cattle in the pastures on both sides of the road. Some of them even seem to know how to watch for traffic. The problem is, you never know which ones those are.)

JacksonView022516“After spending the winter of ’78 and ’79 in Jackson Hole, seeing the snow and the weather, I’m not surprised to see the deer and the antelope coming this way,” Mark said. “The elk used to leave too, but we started intercepting that with fences [which they can’t jump]. So we have diverted those elk to the feed ground [in Jackson] at extremely high numbers.”

Pity the poor elk, standing in the snowfields over there all winter, grazing from bales of hay. I thought of them last week as I looked out the airplane window, ascending eastward over the Gros Ventres and away from Jackson.

Just look at the snow in those mountains beneath the plane and on the flats behind them, with the Grand Tetons to the West in the background. Over the pass in the “banana belt” of Dubois, I knew, whatever snow might land over the coming weekend would quickly blow away. And I was right.