Wildlife Management 101: Home Work

On getting along with grizzlies and other wildlife

Grizzly_Bear_sow_and_cub_in_Shoshone_National_Forest_editedYesterday, the Federal government acted to remove Yellowstone’s grizzly bears from the endangered species list. Although we do love to watch for grizzlies on Togwotee Pass from the safety of our cars, the thought of grizzly population control is not anathema to some of us who live in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, love to hike in the woods, and don’t want to carry a weapon that probably wouldn’t stop a grizzly anyway.

There are some places I just won’t hike at all, ceding them to hypothetical bears. I go for places with long sight-lines. I always take bear spray. I sing, I talk, I try not to hike alone. I don’t crash off into the woods. I look for bear sign. One reason I love to snowshoe is that I don’t even have to think about bears.

Wildlife viewing is one of the main reasons people come out this way; we know that. What I didn’t understand before is that living side by side with wildlife entails a certain degree of compromise and, now and again, sadness.

ElkInScope

Although I once worried about grizzlies trying to crash through our back door, I’ve never actually seen one nearby  (although I know others have). Where we live, we are more likely to spot moose through binoculars or elk through the telescope.

A few months ago, we heard and then saw a lone wolf near the aspen grove. Yesterday we were startled to see a scruffy coyote loping behind the garage. We watched him trot along the trail beside the buck and rail fence, until he spotted a ground squirrel and raced off to grab some lunch.

The dog and I have been compromising about where to hike for months–and not just for fear of bears. We still can’t walk into our go-to small patch of woods. The latest moose is gone; she seems to have lost her calf when it ventured into the rushing floodwaters. But now a doe is over there with twin fawns, making it eminently clear that she does not want us around just now.

RobinShe leaped about and ran back and forth past us. Don’t mess with a mother doe: She’ll kick you with hard, pointy hooves. We went home by another route.

Most of the wildlife we watch close-up are birds. “Our” robin demands no compromise. Nested, as always, right above where I store my garden tools, she watches me warily whenever I pull out the trowel. But she doesn’t even budge.

The beautiful hummingbirds hover outside the dining room window in early June and stare directly in at us, as if to demand their own dinner.
HummingbirdFeeder
So we boil up the syrupy water, get out the ladder, and hang their feeder. Our reward is to watch these tiny creatures ever-so-briefly at rest, as they sip from the little wells in the base.

A few years ago we had the delight of watching some bluebirds slowly build a nest in the crook of our gable, just outside the bedroom window, and then swoop back and forth for weeks to feed the hatchlings. We could hear the young birds chirping as we woke up in the morning, bringing to mind all the thoughts you’d expect from an empty-nester.

One weekend late in summer, we left to camp at Turpin Meadows, and returned on Sunday to the scene of a terrorist attack. Just outside the back door were the bloodied corpses of five fledgling bluebirds, already cold. This struck us like a personal tragedy, after all the effort and care we had witnessed to raise these young ones to independence. A neighbor suggested that a magpie must have attacked as they left the nest.

It nearly broke my heart to watch the beautiful mother swoop down to her dead fledglings with something in her mouth. We plugged that hole in the gable so birds could never use it again.

BirdFeederMeanwhile, this bird house sat unused on a post in our back yard for the past decade. We’ve never been in Dubois year-round before, and never took time to make it nest-worthy.

Inspired by the birth of the Dubois bluebird project, we decided to follow instructions for cleaning out a birdhouse. We opened it up, cleared out the old filthy nest mess, cleaned it with bleach, rinsed it well, left it for several days to air out, and closed it up again. Before leaving for a month in Arizona, we watched the bluebirds house-hunting all over the property.

When we returned, I was delighted to see birds hovering about the nest and going into the hole. Then someone informed us that they couldn’t be bluebirds; more likely sparrows. Bluebirds don’t like houses with a perch.

Bluebird_drivewayBut bluebirds were still flitting around, so they must have nested somewhere. We couldn’t ignore the pair that were obviously keeping surveillance on our driveway. Every time we came out the front door we’d see them, perching on the zip line or, often, just sitting in the bare gravel looking warily in the general direction of the front porch. (You can just barely make out the gray female inside the black circle in this blurry shot from my cellphone.)

Two days ago, after parking the SUV when returning from a hike, I stepped out of the car to a flurry of wings. Looking back from the porch, I saw the female dive under the car. I slid beneath the car to take a look, and she swept out past me. I’ve seen her go under there several times since then.

We took the pickup to Arizona, and left the SUV in the driveway. We think they’ve chosen to nest in a space above the spare tire, which hangs horizontally beside the two rear tires. How many rides have those eggs taken since we returned, and did they survive?

We’re told it takes about a month for bluebird eggs to hatch, mature, and fledge. Then the birds abandon the nest.

Oh, well. We have other vehicles to drive.

© 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.

Nature Brings the Mountains Down

Melting snow hurries past, any way it can.

WindRiverFlooding“Hydrogeology in action,” said my neighbor Anna, with her usual wry wit, as she pointed out the high-water mark where the river was lapping up onto her lawn.

Well put.

Last winter’s record snowfall has been coming down the mountain this week, bringing plenty of the mountain down with it. The Wind River and its tributaries, which are normally crystal clear, are muddy and brown. The banks have disappeared. The water is level with the land.

For neighbors with riverside property, this is no mere curiosity. My friend Mary left home 3 days ago, and has been  sleeping on someone else’s cot.

Her worry wasn’t just that her lawn is now a lake. Like many of us, she had heard about uprooted trees coming downstream, possibly with catastrophic consequences. She didn’t want to wind up like old Doc Welty. He drowned in the worst of nightmares during great flood of 1919, when his cabin was dislodged overnight as Horse Creek swelled and rose.

Living well above the river, I (and my dog) find the flood only a minor inconvenience. Favorite hiking spots are denied to us.

RiverwalkinFlood

In the Town Park, the dog’s beloved Riverwalk is awash in both directions on the south side of the footbridge. So we’re limited to the more public north end of the Park, where he’s not free to run and roam. And I won’t even let him dash down and paddle in the river as usual, lest he be swept away.

The back half of the beautiful Wind River Access site west of Stony Point, where we like to wander around in the pine duff under a forest of conifers next to the river, is now inaccessible (unless I want to get my feet wet). A charming stream has wandered across the peninsula, turning that area into an island.

But the flood has granted unexpected pleasures. I turn off the dirt road at Sheridan Creek and the dog and I follow a game trail off into the woods. Father along under the trees, in a low spot we have always crossed on foot, a whole new lake has materialized — crystalline blue, complete with several floating ducks.

Waterfall

Here’s a little waterfall I’ve never seen before because it hasn’t existed, at least not for the past decade or so. Now it’s trickling merrily down a slope toward the highway, in a spot I pass every day on my morning bike ride.

You know how you can learn about something in school, and read about it later on, and be able to explain it to someone else, but somehow never really get it? For some reason, at the sight of that little waterfall, with the memory of a record snowfall, the light finally dawned.

Ah, yes! The melting snow has to get down the mountains any way it can. Here it happens to be digging this little ditch a little deeper. I think of the Grand Canyon, which I saw only last month. Same concept. (Duh.)

Some afternoons, as usual, a crazy wind blows up and gusts a lot of dust around. Downwind comes a fraction of the badlands, being carved by that invisible sculptor. It also roils the already swollen river, and more of the banks fall away.

OxbowsWhere the land is flat, the onrush of water carves new islands in the oxbows and creates little swamps. The river is changing course.

Every day, we’ve been watching the distance between the surface and the under-side of a particularly low bridge. Yesterday there were barely two inches of clearance. This afternoon there was about a four-inch gap.

News sources predicted the flood would be at its worst last night, and I haven’t heard any reports of fresh disaster. Presumably life will return to normal again, until the next time Nature decides to bring up something else to keep us busy.

© 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.

Dubois’ Closely Guarded Unofficial Register of Historic Places

Why so much of our history goes unrecognized

PrescottSignsWe’ve just returned from a visit to Prescott, Arizona, a former mining town south of the Grand Canyon. The town wears its history like a badge.

Besides all the historic markers around the town square, perhaps a third of the houses in the residential area nearby bear handsome bronze plaques, announcing that the U.S. Department of the Interior has placed the property on the National Register of Historic Places.

A land surveyor out marking property lines told me that all those historic markers resulted from a campaign by the town government several decades ago. This set me wondering.

Those well-kept Victorian houses are charming, sure, but they’re no more “historic” than many buildings in Dubois. Why aren’t our old structures on the Register?

Weltys_LWIt’s easy to check. I looked up the National Register of Historic Places  online. Several properties in Dubois are listed, in fact. They include two original guest ranches (the CM Ranch and Brooks Lake Lodge), Welty’s store, and the Twin Pines motel.

But why not the historic Dennison Lodge, which once famously hosted Clark Gable and Carole Lombard? Why not St. Thomas church, built a century ago by some of the same fellows who cut the railroad ties? Why not the little cabin that Tony Dolenc brought down from the tie hack village up Union Pass, after the operations up there closed down and he became manager of the Mercantile?

One answer is obvious, if you read the rulebook. Properties aren’t accepted for the National Register if they have been moved (Dennison, Dolenc cabin) or if they are religious buildings (St. Thomas).

Another answer came to me only yesterday: We actually like to keep quiet about the identity of our favorite historic structures.

SheepTrap1_090515I lived here for several years before I learned who the hill west of our house was named after, and what went on in her establishment over the hill, whose only remnant is a stone fireplace. Curiously Jerome, Arizona, does mount historic plaques about establishments like that, but we continue to be fairly discreet about Mabel.

You probably have to go on one of the great hikes sponsored by the Museum, and get breathless climbing some pretty steep slopes, to see what remains of the traps that ancient Shoshones built hundreds of years ago to capture wild sheep.

You also need to take a Museum trek, or find someone who knows about them, to visit our remarkable collection of petroglyphs. The teepee rings on Table Mountain are very difficult to find. I had to ask a friend to take me on the jolting road across the plateau to locate the spot where the Shoshone had fabulous views from their tent flaps. I’d gone up there myself, but I couldn’t find them.

These relics are precious and vulnerable, so we don’t just bandy the locations about.

One of our newest claims to historic fame actually is on the National Register, put there recently by an enthusiastic graduate student in archaeology. High in the wilderness east of town, its discovery inspired a curator at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City to designate Dubois as “the epicenter of Rocky Mountain archaeology.”

AmArchCoverNobody’s hosting any guided walking tours to High Rise Village, the first of many ancient Native American occupation sites to be identified at a very high altitude in the Greater Yellowstone region. Until then, nobody suspected that the earliest humans in this area occupied villages at such breathtaking heights.

Because of their location and their age, these sites seem to overturn a favored theory about how humans migrated across North America. This has been of great interest to archaeologists.

It takes several hours on horseback to reach it, and the better part of a day to walk back down. You’d be hard-put to find the site if you didn’t know exactly what you were looking for. Except to trained archaeologists, this very historic place looks like nothing more than a bunch of rocks lying around.

Registered or not, it’s our kind of historic place: Very old, fairly well hidden, quite a treasure.

© Lois Wingerson, 2017
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Hike. Reach. Step. Relax. Repeat.

yoga4“Someone asked me what kind of yoga I practice,” Becki said recently, during a morning class. “Hatha yoga? Vinyasa yoga? I told them I practice Dubois yoga.”

She didn’t elaborate, but we know what this means. The farthest thing from competitive yoga. Healing yoga. Restorative yoga. Respect your body yoga.

“Any injuries today?” she asks.

I tell her that yesterday I hiked too far, too fast. “Someday you’ll stop telling me things like that,” she replies. If Becki can respect my body, why can’t I?

Becki has said that everyone in Dubois has very tight hamstrings, because we spend so much time hiking uphill. Her gentle “work-ins” are there to help us help our bodies recover from the hard physical work of enjoying our wilderness, whether we’ve spent time pitching tents or pitching hay to horses.

Before she gave birth to her first child and needed yoga to recover, Becki was the head of our local wilderness-adventure program for adolescents, after working as a counselor who took them on treks into wild places. Last year, she took a solo mountain-bike trip from Canada to Wyoming down the Continental Divide.

Yoga2Our tai chi instructor, Matt, is the local plumber. He gladly tells us how he wracked up his body as a younger man working in construction, to the point where he could barely walk, and how tai chi slowly helped him to recover.

He’s giving classes, he says, to make sure he keeps doing it himself.

This isn’t the kind of dance-like tai chi you see in a city park. It’s Tai Chi-Chi Kung, deeply rooted in the martial arts. He translates many of the complex moves into self-defense maneuvers, but the motions he leads us through are not combative. They’re gentle, quiet, self-aware.

Becki helps us to recover from clambering over this rocky ground. Matt helps us to prepare.

“Hiking,” he interrupts himself to say. “You think: This foot first, now that foot. I’m over this foot now. Pretty hard to lose your balance.. I used to turn my ankle all the time. Do this enough, and you won’t.”

MassageCabin

When the muscles get too tight to tolerate, I treat myself to a session with Reenie. Here’s the charming small cabin she uses for therapeutic massage, a setting that is therapy in itself.

That’s a joy of living in Dubois year-round. In high tourist season, you’re lucky to be able to get any of her time at all — and Reenie likes to give it abundantly, and with care.

When I ask her what she’s finding, Reenie always prefaces her answer by saying something like: “Well, I’m not sure I have enough knowledge to advise you about this.” Meanwhile she has found places I didn’t know I had, let alone that they were hurting, and made them better.

I’ve learned more about myself from these three people than from any of the fine doctors I saw back in New York  — and feel much better for it. But then, they probably don’t know much about hiking up rocky mountain trails.

© 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.

Signs of Life and Death, as the Snow Melts

Has the winter’s heavy snowfall hastened growth in the scorched soil?

SheridanSlushFor many weeks, it’s been like this up at Sheridan Creek, one of my favorite hiking spots:  A slow and steady slog through the slush. Not much fun. Good exercise.

I would soldier on, hoping to see whether the creek was still snowed under. The dog enjoyed digging in the snow for buried bones, but would lose enthusiasm long before we reached the creek. Any time he ventured off this surface tamped down by snowmobiles, he’d be buried up to his chin. No fun for him either.

In the valley, most of the trees are still green. But as you head uphill — a point I never reached in the heavy snow, on the other side of the creek — you come to the region of the uncontrolled burn from last summer’s big fire.

Looking ahead to that landscape of black vertical trunks, I wondered what I would find as spring came in. Would the extraordinarily heavy snowfall of the winter just past hasten the growth of life in that scorched terrain?

SheridanCreekDeadTrees042217Don’t count on it, someone said recently. Fire that hot sterilizes the soil for a long time.

But what is the start of spring, if not the dawn of hope?

BearPrintsToday, the dirt road was nearly dry, with a stream of snowmelt running along the side.

My companion, who is fascinated with tracks and always vigilant, quickly noticed that someone large had gone lumbering out that road as we went in.

(A note for readers who live elsewhere: These are not the prints of a barefoot man. They’re the prints of a man-sized bear.)

Immediately we both reached around to locate our bear spray bottles, even though this walker had been headed in the opposite direction. It looked to us like he or she had wandered off toward the willows beside the river, not long ago.

BearPrintWithBoot

Measured against the size of my hiking boot, this is the track of a brown bear, not a grizzly. It’s a true sign of spring. Time for caution; they’re out and about. (Here we were relatively safe, because the vista is open and sight-lines are clear.)

We headed toward the creek, and the place beyond where the road begins to rise uphill. At last, it was nearly clear of snow, and we could walk without much effort.

We crossed the black and red debris of wood-cutting, as well as trees that were felled, not fallen. Obviously the foresters have been out bringing down the dead wood so that hikers like us can pass without fear of being felled ourselves.

The ground beneath the blackened trunks was mostly bare of snow in many places. At last, I could look for signs of new life.

GreenShootsClose to the road, these were easily visible. We saw blades of new grass and sprouts of fern beginning to peek up from the soil.

But as I crossed to where there had been woods last spring, the dirt underfoot was darkly black beneath the bare, standing trunks. The scene was bleak. No signs of green emerged from below.

BurnedTreeWithLichenInstead, I noticed fronds of white extending toward the soil from many of the fallen trunks. I saw these bands of powdery white around the base of many of the dead trees that were still standing.

I’m no microbiologist, but my guess is that this is some sort of fungus. No evidence of new life here. These are signs of decay.

I walked back to the road and on uphill. Turning around to look back, I clearly saw a gray figure about 8 inches long and sleek slithering quickly between the dead trunks and disappearing. A weasel? A stoat? Who knows, but certainly something lively.

GooseTracksAnd who had walked downhill before our dogs came trotting uphill to add their tracks? I guessed it was a goose. (That’s a bear spray bottle to the left, for perspective.)

Two live ones had just swooped past, noisily, not far overhead.

Farther on, my friend saw a gopher and tried to point it out. But I couldn’t spot it. We returned home without seeing any other creatures, except our own lively dogs.

I spent the rest of the beautiful afternoon pulling weeds in the garden beside the house. It took a long time, because there were plenty of them. I was very pleased to rediscover a hollyhock that I thought had been lost in the hard winter. The columbines are back.

© 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.

Kickstarting Tumbleweed, and Other Joys of Spring

I’d rather leave spring to Nature, and be surprised.

WindRiverSnowAvoiding the dreaded “mud and slush” season, we would always head back East about now. Just in time to see the crocuses popping above ground and the trees turning spring green.

Brooklyn positively erupts with spring, all at once it seems, the small patches in front of old brownstones suddenly cluttered with daffodils and irises planted the previous fall. The flowering trees make a bright palisade of the streets. Allergies burst forth too.

I’m not missing it. Not at all.

Staying here, I can watch as the Wind River slowly emerges from its blanket of snow. The massive drift in our driveway dwindled, day by day, to a few tiny white mounds under the gravel.

Most of my go-to hiking spots are closed to me, because the back roads haven’t yet been plowed. My old stand-by was passable this week, a combination of dry dirt road and snow-cone slush — heavy to walk on, but packed solid enough by armies of snowmobiles that are now long gone. I wonder how long it will take to disappear.

BennyRibAs we gain access to formerly snowbound spots, we make great discoveries. The dog found a whole ribcage, probably elk, that was nearly large enough for him to walk through.

Over the coming days it was pulled apart, and he later found individual ribs buried deep in the snow. I let him enjoy one of them until he had chewed it all down. It looked like it had just come out of the freezer (as I guess it had), the bone pure white and the marrow still red and clean.

My own best “find” (so far) is a shelter made of branches pulled over a fallen tree, complete with fire pit, in a tiny patch of public land near our house. We hadn’t been in there since the Great Snowfalls, because that bit of back road had not been plowed. I found the shelter when the snow shrank back enough to walk in.

ShelterandFirepitThere was no sign of charcoal on the stones, so there may have not been a fire. But I could see that those pine branches would have made a dandy hut, when they were still green with needles. And the structure is very solid. It will be interesting to see how long it stands. I’m sure nobody will be motivated to take it down.

Who built this hut in a tiny spot of forest, behind an abandoned house, in the dead of winter? Did someone actually sleep here? And why? I doubt I’ll ever know.

More discoveries await as the bare ground heaves up objects long buried by erosion and blown dirt, then covered by snow. These may be only interesting rocks, but ancient arrowheads or grinding stones might also pop out. This was once the Times Square of the West, after all, criscrossed by countless natives long before they showed the trails to the Europeans.

SpringSnow033117This morning we awoke to a typical spring surprise: A few inches of wet snow. By mid-day it was gone, and the sky was mostly blue. That’s spring for you: Nothing if not fickle.

What a difference from yesterday morning, when I walked the property lines with the dog, enjoying a heady mild March breeze and the satisfaction of walking over bare ground.

And the sudden riot of birds! The bluebirds, as bright as chips of the sky itself, out house-hunting once again. The raucous cries of the geese muscling their way past overhead, busy going somewhere.

As I completed my circuit, I noticed with a sudden sense of disgust the line of tumbleweed plants on both sides of the driveway. In summer they are a pleasing diaphanous green and purple, but by autumn they’re ugly, and prickly too. In the spring, they seemed an insult.

I kicked at the base of one, and off it tumbled, freed from its roots. I spent the next hour liberating all those tumbleweeds, giving each one a kick-start over to Nebraska. I carried them all, one by one, to a flat spot where they would blow right across the valley, rather than piling up at the base of the little ridge.

How satisfying! Good exercise, leaving behind a lovely clean border on the driveway and an open space for grass and sage to occupy. So much more rewarding than kneeling in the dirt to plant bulbs in the autumn, when all I would want to do was drink cider and eat popcorn.

I’d rather leave spring to Nature, and be surprised by the results.

© 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.

Telecommuter Appreciation Town: Dubois WY

Tools down, but back up leaving time for a hike.

ModemWho knew that I had chosen to down tools and leave town during Telecommuter Appreciation Week, which is set for the first week in March? Instead, I’m celebrating TelecommutING Appreciation Week.

I returned to find that my best tool, the Internet, was also surprisingly down. I recycled the modem several times, but that little light never flashed. My husband settled down to watch ordinary cable.

“Customer service won’t answer in the evening,” he said, but he was wrong. A nice fellow speaking from somewhere else walked me through the usual user-error tests, declared me correct, and gave me a work-order number.

“They should call you by early afternoon,” he said.

“Early afternoon? Forget that!” I replied. “I’ll just call DTE myself at 8 AM.”

But I never did. A nice rep from the local DTE office reached me instead, at 8:10. “I hear your Internet isn’t working?”

I laughed, and told her the last thing I’d said to the man from customer service.

SheridanSlush“Yeah, we upgraded your broadband, and your old modem won’t work any more,” she said. “Can you drop by to pick up the new one? Just give me a name and a password and we’ll set it up for you.”

I know I’m not the only lucky person who benefits from this kind of service. There are dozens or scores of others clacking away in these hills. DTE knows who they are, but won’t tell, of course. And we “digitanomads” aren’t much for socializing with each other.

Back to the routine: Early workout, then hit the desk. Work through until about 3:30 and then get out for a hike while it’s still light out.

There was a melt while we were away. The back road is packed by snowmobile tracks, but still really slushy. A much better workout than the elliptical, as usual.

As I trudged along, I heard the exuberant roar of snowmobiles up in the hills.

The dog zoomed around too, joyous in his untethered freedom. After a while, I caught up and found him enjoying a very large treat.

(Benny appreciates telecommuting too.)

BennywithCarcass
© 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.