Watching for Wildlife on the Road

Encounters of surprise and delight (we hope)

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SheepAs a volunteer, I’ve been helping the Chamber of Commerce to survey visitors to Dubois about their vacation plans. What, asks the questionnaire, have you come here to experience?

The same three words recur: Mountains. Scenery. Wildlife.

Mountains and scenery are guaranteed, but not the latter, unless visitors are willing to go out of their way and out of their comfort zone. It’s fairly rare to see creatures other than cattle near the highway (although we must watch out for deer). We don’t have an elk preserve, after all, and the bison are all on the other side of the pass.

Stay around long enough, however, and they do come your way. These encounters are often moments of surprise and delight — like the time I came upon these bighorn sheep at the base of the red rocks.

But we hope not to have any encounters of surprise and terror. A neighbor caught a mountain lion in her night camera. I once saw a lone wolf at the edge of the aspen grove from the safety of my dining room window. I have yet to see a bear up close and personal, and I do all I can to avoid it.

Here’s what turned up on the back road beside a neighbor’s house last week. My hiking companion took this picture, and showed it that evening to a friend who is a wildlife specialist.

BearScatAs we had suspected from the color and the contents: Bear scat. Probably a small bear, said our expert. All week, everyone who drives that back road has been detouring around this specimen, as if the evidence itself is dangerous.

Can we ever hike in the back woods again? “Don’t be chickenshit!” said another neighbor. “Of course you can! We’re all going to die sometime! Just make lots of noise.”

(Bear scat. Chicken shit. That night all my dreams were of animal waste. It was not a pleasant sleep.)

That day, we decided to turn away from the woods and on up the back road, where we had a reward of sorts. “Look!” gasped my companion, who is an amateur birder. “There’s a grouse!”

Sage_Grouse_in_Grand_Teton_NP-NPSEvery once in a while, I scare up a female in the sage–usually in the spring, when she flits about protecting a nest I haven’t seen. This one was a resplendent male.

Amazingly, the dogs didn’t even see him. He stood stock still watching us warily, and eventually decided to strut right across the road, only a few yards ahead.

That was a safe road crossing, back between the second-home cottages. Where I live, it’s a perilous passage.

Early this evening, I took my cup of tea out to the front porch to keep the dog company as he sniffed around the yard in the fading light of the day. While he was hunting up an old bone somewhere, I saw movement on the other side of the garage. I was startled to watch as a small herd of white-tailed deer emerged: two females and three fawns grown large after a wet summer.

Four of them moved slowly toward the highway, grazing. But the female at the back sensed me there, and turned. I sat frozen.

The last thing I would do would be to run back into the house for my camera! All I have to show here is the empty scene.

DrivewayI watched with some concern as the small herd headed up the drive toward that highway. Traffic is light this time of year and that time of day, but it is also fast — especially the semi trucks racing downhill toward town. And the light was fading.

What should I do if, as so often happens, one of them was struck while crossing the road? I’ve never witnessed that particular surprise and terror as it is happening.

As they neared the highway, I stood up for a better view. They stopped to graze again on the other side of the gate. Now and again the large doe looked back warily. But they had no concern as they began to amble across the highway, as if they had all the time in the world. I heard the hum of tires uphill.

A small white SUV approached from the west. It slowed, and then stopped on the other side of the highway, pulling to the shoulder. It waited there several minutes. Some lucky visitors got their wish. (Thanks to their vigilance, I also got mine.)

© Lois Wingerson, 2017
You can see new entries of Living Dubois every week if you sign up at the top of the right column at www.livingdubois.com.

Author: LivingDubois

I am a retired science journalist, devoted to enjoying and recording the many pleasures of life in the Wyoming's Upper Wind River Valley.

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