What We Share With The Wildlife

The return of animals in the spring brings a revelation.

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Moose_0518“How likely are we to see wildlife on the way?” asked someone passing through on the way to Yellowstone.

“You’ll certainly see deer,” I said. “You could also see some pronghorn antelope. Some locals see grizzlies on the Pass, but I’ve never seen one there.”

“What about moose?” he asked.

“Well, if you’re really, really lucky, and keep your eyes on the trees by the river, you might see one,” I replied. “I see them once in a while. But moose are pretty rare around here these days.”

SheepA recent survey of visitors to Dubois showed that wildlife viewing is their second reason for coming here, after mountains and scenery. I know from talking to visitors and reading their posts on TripAdvisor that many people come to this area hoping to glimpse wild creatures at home in the wilderness.

It has taken years for me to appreciate one privilege of living here year-round — simple time on the ground, the opportunity to encounter the animals who share this neighborhood, as an ordinary part of my daily life.

City girl that I was, I still find pleasure in seeing cattle and horses every day. Driving down the highway toward town, I enjoy watching a hawk floating on the updraft, looking for prey. We have had to relocate the dog’s walk, because the neighbor across the road has seen the moose and her calf again. She lost last year’s baby in the spring flood waters, and he says she glared at him defiantly from his back lawn the other day, as if to say, “I’m not going to lose this one!”

Deer_grazingLast week, I invited a friend for lunch. It being a beautiful day, we chose to sit on the back porch.

As we talked, we noticed a few white-tailed deer just across the fence. We enjoyed watching them graze on the willows as we munched on our salads a few yards away.

Walking the dog in the park behind the assisted living center, I encountered an old friend coming down the river walk. “Have you seen the goslings?” he asked.

GoslingsWe rounded a corner, and there they were, being herded by Mother Goose as we approached.

This afternoon, driving toward a hike up Long Creek Road, my companion said, “There’s an antelope!”

He sat immobile, not far from the dirt road. “It’s odd to see one all alone,” she remarked.

“I hope he’s not injured,” I said.

Farther along the road, she spotted more antelope in the valley, and beyond that, a few elk. I slowed the car to look, and there they were, dark against the green of the grass.

“I wonder what they’re doing here at this time of year,” she said. You’d think they would have migrated on, and moved up-mountain.

AntelopeOnHillDriving back after our hike, we looked for the lone antelope, and argued about exactly where we had seen him before. “I guess he isn’t here any more,” I said. “That’s good.”

“There they are,” she said. A few antelope grazed on a distant hill, as a larger one stood nearby, looking out across the valley.

“I guess he’s the sentinel,” I said, glad to have come up with a reason for why we had seen him alone on the way uphill.

I may talk smart now, but to be honest, when we moved here from the city I couldn’t tell an elk from a moose. It was the landscape that compelled me, not the wildlife that live here. Later, I came to value the strong sense of community in our town.

With time, I’ve come to see these silent neighbors as an important part of that community. They may be elusive, and we rarely get to know them. Some of them (like the tourists) are only passing through. But we share a love of this place, and are glad when they return.

© Lois Wingerson, 2018
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.

My Yellowstone Bison Adventure

I know it’s sentimental, but I felt he was guarding me.

BisonandGeezer0518“Is that one of the geezers?” said the man at the pullout.

I smiled. “I love the way you English people say that word,” I said. “Here we pronounce it ‘guy-zer.’ In American vernacular, a geezer is — ”

“I know,” he said. “An old guy. But is that one of them? Is it Old Faithful?”

He didn’t mention the bison I was watching as it grazed nearby. Nor did he tell me he was Irish, not English, which I learned later on.

“No,” I said. “You’ll see the signs for Old Faithful about five miles further south.”

Recently I read that, while the TripAdvisor experts recommend taking three or four days to tour Yellowstone, about half of visitors come all this way just to see Old Faithful. That’s a fairly short drive up from the South Entrance, which wouldn’t open for another week EastEntrance0518yet.

We ourselves had come in last Saturday from the north. We wanted to visit the Park before the hordes began to arrive through the South Entrance. We’ll see them approaching shortly, via Dubois.

That morning we had sailed through the East Gate entirely unimpeded, only one day after it opened, after driving all the way around through Cody.

AvalancheSign0518Only a few days into May,  the northern regions of the Park were still blanketed with deep and drifting snow. A road sign just a few miles inside the entrance warned us of avalanche risk.

Pulling into an overlook, we saw that Yellowstone Lake was still almost entirely snowbound.

Farther on, people had stopped to walk on the shoreline, where the ice had melted back a foot or two.

BisononRoad0518On the second day of opening, it was about as crowded as you would want for a visit to a public park. We had a little company–just enough to feel pleasantly surrounded, not too isolated in the wilderness.

On the north side of the Lake, we encountered the first of several small “bison jams.” We had to slow down briefly when two or three cars stopped shortly ahead of us. As so often happens, a bison was ambling right down the middle of the road.

TripAdvisor experts warn visitors to anticipate lengthy delays for bison jams. That day, after a moment, the car ahead moved on and then we drove slowly past.

FromVespa0518Besides a chance to visit that overly popular Park minus the crowds, this was a dry run for our small RV and our Vespa motorbike. We don’t use the Vespa much near home, because it wouldn’t feel safe in the traffic that zooms past at 70 mph, much of it either hurrying toward the Park or home afterwards.

Inside the Park, the speed limit is a comfortable 45.  On that early-season day, we figured, even inside Yellowstone the traffic wouldn’t be too heavy.

It was very pleasant to zip around those winding roads that were nearly empty. We’d pull over every so often to let cars pass, and then continue on our leisurely way.

Vespa_at_Lodge0518We drove into the parking lot at Old Faithful and stopped the bike. It looked like rain, so we went inside the Lodge to get a drink and maybe wait out the weather.

It was surprising how many people were already wandering around inside. The building is fanciful on an oversized scale, like a Norseman’s lodge gone mad (as my husband put it).

LodgeInterior0518As I sipped my beer near the huge fireplace in the lobby, a decent-sized group listened to a tour guide.

“You want to see Old Faithful?” my husband asked as finished our drinks.

“Nah,” I said. “I’ve seen it before. Probably no different today. I’m sure it will keep going off without us.”

The conversation about the geezer happened shortly afterwards, as we headed back northward toward the campground on the Vespa. We had spoken about how it wouldn’t be safe to stop close to a bison while driving the motorbike. But I asked to stop at a pullout when I spotted one close enough to the road to catch a picture on my IPhone but far enough away to be safe.

My husband turned off the ignition so I could climb off the Vespa and catch the shot. Then it wouldn’t start again.

When the Irish couple drew up to look at the geyser a few minutes later, I was standing beside the bike watching the bison. My husband stood a few yards to the north with his thumb out, waiting for a quick lift back to the campground so he could drive back with the RV and install the dead Vespa on the rack at its rear.

I was amazed how many cars drove past without stopping.

“Poor fellow,” the Irish man said with a chuckle, looking back at him. “Nobody’s going to stop for him.”

“That’s my husband,” I said, and explained the situation. Quickly, and kindly, they offered the ride we were waiting for.

BisonCloseupMeanwhile I turned to watch the bison grazing as I continued to wait. He lifted his head to watch me in return, as I stood silently beside the odd red object. Slowly, he turned in my direction. I caught my breath.

Then, ungainly, he sat down and resumed staring placidly at me.

After a while someone else pulled up to look at him. “You waiting for someone?” the woman asked, and I explained.

“What a place to be stranded!” she said.

It was an odd and fairly lonely vigil, as the other tourists sailed past unconcerned. It must have been 25 minutes before I saw our little RV approaching from the north. Most of that time, the bison and I had been gazing at each other from a certain distance.

My husband and I busied ourselves reinstalling the Vespa on the back of the RV, and then climbed into the cab. “Oh, look,” he said. “The bison has turned away.”

YellowstoneRain0518I know it’s sentimental, but I fancied that, rather than being a threat, he had been guarding me.

Just after we pulled onto the road, the heavens opened. Other campers told us later that we had missed a rainstorm at the campground. Amazingly, during the whole excursion, neither of us felt a drop of rain.

CamperWithVespaAs night was falling, I enjoyed myself for a long time beside the campfire, looking over in the direction of the Vespa on the back of the camper–both of us sitting at rest and doing absolutely nothing at all.

What a delight to have such a peaceful day in Yellowstone Park! The woman was right: It was a great place to be stranded–and a privilege to spend a little time up (almost) close and personal with one of the few wild creatures in our general neighborhood that would never be seen passing within view of my dining room window.

I’m so grateful to my husband for suggesting that brief getaway, the perfect start to another busy summer season.

© Lois Wingerson, 2018
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.

Tiny Signs of Spring in the Big Valley

The signs are subtle, but unmistakeable.

“Welcome to Dubois!” read the scrolling digital sign in town last week. “Spring is almost here.”

Nonsense. Spring is already here.

We’ve waited so long for the days to lengthen and the breeze to feel more gentle. There’s no question now that the vigil is ending.

Back in Brooklyn, spring burst in with a gaudy show of flowering trees. Here, the signs are more subtle–but unmistakeable nonetheless.

Sheridan Creek WY
Last week I took a hike at Sheridan Creek. The hills were still half-covered with snow.
TinyFlower_0518
Near the creek, I spotted my first tiny, indisputable sign of spring.
Wildflowers Dubois WY
Later I saw more tiny clumps of them, harbingers of the riot of wildflowers to come.
Wheelbarrow_Stalks
Time to get the garden ready for planting. These are the stalks from last year’s hollyhocks.
CattleandCalves
I sat down to relax, and watched a calf over in the valley, searching for its mother. Finding her, he bounded over and began to suckle.
Bluebird Dubois WY
The bluebirds have returned. This one sat for hours guarding a nest (I hope).
Moose Dubois Wyoming
Best of all, driving back from town I spotted this lanky lady. (Footnote to real Neyawkers: It’s a moose.) She saw me too, and ran off. I wondered where junior was hiding.
SnowflakePines
Snow still comes, but not in earnest. The spots on the picture are snowflakes. But see the blue sky?
HalfandHalfSky
Later, back at the highway, I watched the weather coming in again. But it won’t last.

© Lois Wingerson, 2018
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.

The Beauties of the Road Less Traveled

The rewards of the long escape from the hurry.

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
Robert Frost

OpenRoad1“I’ve always wanted to visit Wyoming,” said a few people I met during my road trip this month. Spoken with a sigh, as if this was some impossible dream.

Some people vow never to return to Wyoming, having traveled only the breakneck road race called Interstate 80 that hugs the flat, featureless southern margin of the state. Or, never having visited at all, they envision a place where dirt roads head off into nothingness.

Homeward bound, after the long, long climb up out of Utah, we take one of the first exits heading north from I-80, into this nothingness. We enter a gently rolling ocean of grass and sagebrush. Almost instantly, stress flows away and vanishes.

The road heads forward, so straight and empty that it’s quite safe to take photos from the driver’s seat. As I drive, I begin to pity those travelers who arrive by air from the East Coast (as I did, on my first visit)  and set off straightaway in their rental cars toward the maelstrom of Jackson and the national parks.
OpenRoad2
Here, you can still see the ruts from the mule-drawn wagons that once brought people ever so slowly along the Oregon Trail. That makes you think, too. Out here there’s no signal, and nothing but the sound of your tires to distract you.

Geology presents itself off to the east: A knife-sharp ridgeline. I can almost feel the motion of the sub-surface tectonic plate pushing the land mass upward.

This is open rangeland. The only billboards are clever warnings from the Game & Fish Department. “Caution: Slow moving traffic ahead,” reads one, with an image of a cow. Obligingly, a herd of cattle appears on the left.

“Antelope entering highway at 55 mph,” reads another. Later, we do see a small herd of pronghorn antelope some distance away. Two of them are engaged in a high-speed chase.  We’re at 70, and if they weren’t intent on running vast circles on the empty plain, they could almost keep up.AntelopeSign

Somewhat farther on, I see some border collies on the shoulder, and slow down. One is just sitting on the pavement; another is barking at the passing cars.

As we come even with them, we see men on horseback nearby. They are busily herding a huge mass of sheep, which are nearly invisible against the sandy landscape, toward the wagon where they will be sheared.

Now and again, ranch roads peel off enticingly at right angles. The onboard navigator is totally lost. In the distance across the moonscape, we see a small Mount Rushmore, with faces carved by the wind.WindsfromFarson

Eventually we can see what looks like a long, low bank of clouds ahead and to the left. That’s the snow on top of the Wind River Range. Our beautiful valley is on the other side of those mountains.

Coming from the Interstate to reach Dubois–the place Expedia has called the best escape in Wyoming–still entails an hours-long drive across the wilderness. Like any goal worth attaining, it does require some effort.

It’s difficult to convey to people on the TripAdvisor forums how very long this journey takes–and how rewarding it can be, if you are willing to let go of the reasons you’re always in a hurry.

© Lois Wingerson, 2018
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.

Wildlife, Up Close and Personal

Pronghorns and coyotes and bears? Oh, my.

We took my infant grandson to the zoo in Arizona. I wanted pictures of the little fellow in the same frame as the big creatures we read about in his board books, to give him evidence that they’re real.

Cows and cats, dogs and horses, no problem. But lions, tigers, and bears? Oh, my.

“We can skip the pronghorns and the deer,” I said to the woman who showed me the zoo map. “We’re from Wyoming.”

TigerThe first cage we came to held the tiger. It roared as soon as it saw the baby. (Feeding time.) We jumped, but the baby didn’t react.

The creatures in this lovely zoo are rescues, brought in by Game and Fish when they’re injured or orphaned, transferred from other zoos that have gone out of business, or confiscated (like the mountain lion) from people who tried to keep them as pets. It’s a wonderful little zoo that does as well as possible, but I felt sad for the residents.

I saw a bald eagle in a small cage, perched motionless on a branch that was almost close enough to reach. One of its relatives likes to perch on a gate in the field beyond our buck and rail. We watch it through our binoculars. I had no idea they are so huge.

Farther on, a coyote sat forlornly on a rock inside its enclosure. It looked like my dog when he’s bored on a hot day: No reason to run, no pack to run with. We almost never see coyotes at home, but we hear them often, rejoicing over a capture. I felt bad for this little fellow who lost his mother too young.

Antelope_100617The pronghorns were wandering around a space smaller than someone’s back yard. I had never before seen one up close and personal, how its horns seem to spring directly out of its eyes. I usually see them in the near distance somewhere nearby, grazing on a plain. They sometimes hang out in the pastures around town when food is short elsewhere.

I have read that they can run as fast as a car. I’ve never seen this myself, but out there, they actually could if they felt the urge.

We didn’t bother to take a picture of the baby near the mule deer. We can show him plenty of those near home.

BearOn seeing us, this huge black bear lumbered out of its man-made cave, approached the fence, and sat down — more sociable toward the baby than my own dog is.

“Bear!” we said to the baby. “Here’s a bear!” This time he paid attention.

Just what we wanted; close, but safe on the far side of a big fence. Then it waddled slowly over to its wading pool and demonstrated how to lounge in the bath. The baby could relate to that.

This brought back a memory: hiking with the dog near the Wind River, I saw what I thought at first was a father and son, both in dark raingear, fishing together. After a few steps, I turned quietly around and walked the other way. That’s as close as I’ve come to a bear – until yesterday.

071317_5We know from surveys that “wildlife viewing” is one of the main reasons people come all the way to the Dubois area for a visit. Going to the zoo for the first time in years helped me understand this better.

We don’t just live in a postcard, as someone once said to me. We live in an actual habitat.

© Lois Wingerson, 2018

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.

The Dubois Jackalope: A Unique Genetic Variant?

Adding to controversy about a remarkable hybrid

As a former science writer with a special interest in genetics, I hardly expected to find something of professional interest in my tiny, remote home town of Dubois, Wyoming. My hearfelt thanks to the Riverton friend who sent me a document someone left on the photocopy machine in her workplace. This gives me a rare and unexpected opportunity to revive my old skills.

I have traced the document to Steven J. McAllister, a biology professor at Central Wyoming College. It contains a description of the genetic characteristics of “the rarely seen and little studied Dubois Jackalope.” I was aware that the elusive jackalope is sighted throughout the state of Wyoming, but not that there is a specific Dubois variant—let alone that it has been the subject of scientific study.

JackalopeThe Dubois Jackalope is beloved of tourists, who like to take selfies on a statue of the creature, which has stood for years outside a small private museum dedicated to the animal. In fact, my own husband recalls passing through on vacation as a child and begging his parents to stop and let him ride the jackalope.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” he says they told him. “That’s just a tourist trap.”

Not so! Described as a hybrid between an antelope and a jackrabbit, the creature had an illustrious history long before biologists began to document its genetic characteristics. Accounts by cowboys describe a fearless and ferocious “warrior rabbit” that fought with its horns and could imitate the songs they sang around the campfire.

Kathy Weiser writes in Legends of America  that the “antlered species of rabbit” are  “brownish in color, weight between three and five pounds, and move with lighting speeds of up to 90 miles per hour.”

HornedHareAccording to Weiser, our esteemed local explorer John Colter, who passed through here en route to what is now Yellowstone Park, was the first to report sightings of the antlered rabbit in North America. But it has a much longer history in Europe. The Flemish painter Joris Hoefnagel included the image at right in his book Animalia Qvadrvpedia et Reptilia (Terra) [Terrestrial Quadrupeds and Reptiles], published around 1575.

I have discovered information about jackalope genetics in three college tests, which we can assume refer to reports that the students have read in preparation for the tests. Unfortunately,  none of these quizzes offer journal citations to the relevant publications.

However, they do provide a fascinating glimpse of this esoteric field.

As always in science, there is considerable controversy about the genetic qualities of the jackalope – especially with regard to coat color, as I will describe later.

Inheritance of other jackalope characteristics seems to follow the simplest rules of Mendelian genetics: Each parent possesses two genetic factors (known as “alleles”) for a property, of which one is passed on to offspring. Inheriting one from each parent, the young have two copies of each allele. “Dominant” alleles always win out over “recessive” alleles; the only way to inherit a “recessive” characteristic is by getting a recessive allele from both parents.

A document from the Missouri University of Science and Technology describes this phenomenon in mating experiments between long-horned and short-horned variants of the jackalope. The inheritance patterns suggest that the gene for long horns is dominant. Therefore long horns will be far more common among jackalopes than short horns. (This makes sense, as long horns would help them to be fierce fighters.)

Jackalope_croppedThe Wyoming report also describes a quality that follows this pattern: ear length. The Dubois jackalope has long-eared and short-eared variants, it says, with short ears being recessive (and therefore much less common). For whatever it’s worth, both jackalopes represented in the museum in Dubois appear to have long ears.

Controversy has arisen about the inheritance of coat color. A test question from the American School of Warsaw says that the fur color of jackalopes is inherited through “incomplete dominance,” in which an animal that inherits one dominant and one recessive allele winds up with a color that is a mix of the two. In this case, it says, the alleles are for red or white, but the heterozygote (which inherits both) turns out pink.

Another document about jackalope genetics, this one from North Central College in Napierville IL, concurs that coat color is inherited through incomplete dominance, but describes the colors differently. Jackalopes can inherit alleles for either brown or white, it says, and animals with one brown and one white allele have gray fur.

Descriptions of color are always subjective; one wonders whether these two reports describe different subtypes or just use different words for the same thing. Of course “red” and “brown” can sometimes be conflated (note that Weiser described the color as “brownish”.)

However, it is difficult to see how gray and pink can be confused as the same color. Most likely, heterozygous jackalopes in Poland are indeed pink and those in Illinois are actually gray. These kinds of geographic variations are common in nature, as Charles Darwin himself recognized.

Jackalop_sketchThe Dubois test, not available online, describes a different system for inheritance of coat color: Orange as recessive and gray as dominant. Is “orange” equivalent to the “pink” of Warsaw jackalopes? Or is the evidence behind the Dubois report in error?

Do the “orange” jackalopes in Dubois actually represent incomplete dominance, not recessive inheritance? Or is it just that, like so much else in Dubois, the Dubois jackalope is unique? One hopes the scientists involved can reconcile these issues.

In the interests of completeness, I must report that alternative theories for the origins of the jackalope have been reported elsewhere. These arguments hold that horns arising on the head of ordinary jackrabbits are the result of a disease (appropriately called “jackalopism”) caused by a papilloma virus, which induces tissue to harden on the top of a rabbit’s head.

In his book A Planet of Viruses (University of Chicago Press, 2011), my fellow science journalist Carl Zimmer described experiments in the 1930s that validated this theory. A scientist ground up the horns of a creature with this condition, dissolved them and filtered the solution so viruses could get through. He applied the liquid to the heads of other rabbits which, sure enough, grew horns.

Are there genetic factors that determine susceptibility to this virus? How do they relate to ear length and, more importantly, coat color? I will end with the conclusion common to so many scientific reports: Further research is necessary.

© Lois Wingerson, 2018
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.

Capturing Night Stalkers in Dubois

Who has been casing the joint while we’re asleep?

Bunnytracks

In Dubois, we sleep soundly and don’t fear intruders in the middle of the night. But we do know that often someone is out there casing the joint while we’re snoozing.

It’s easier for us to track them, of course, in the dead of winter. This morning we woke to discover that a rabbit had been exploring the back porch.

fox night Dubois WY

Our neighbors across the highway set up a night camera, to capture images of these visitors that come by while we are quietly tucked in bed.

The folks to the north sometimes lose one of their chickens during the summer when the birds are free to range in the yard. This critter must be a bit hungry this time of year, when they’re safely cooped up.

mountain lion Dubois WY

Now here’s a startling image!

We know that mountain lions are indigenous to the area, and some people have actually seen one.

But who knew that they wander so close to our homes?

I wonder how this fellow lost his team, and came out so far ahead of schedule. I do hope they have located him by now, and have him well fed and ready to travel again.

Rudolph reindeer Dubois WY

© 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.