A Surprise Visit to the Cemetery

We welcomed the arrival, with concern

bighorn sheep Dubois WY

One day last week, some bighorn sheep wandered into town. This was astonishing.

Many deer live in town year-round, but the sheep live up-mountain, off in the wilderness. The Bighorn Sheep Center offers guided tours up Whiskey Basin to look for them, but they’re not supposed to be easy to find.

People are used to spotting them on the cliffs across the river from the Painted Hills subdivision, or sometimes down on the highway by the red rocks at the edge of the Reservation. They may be the mascot for the school’s sports teams, but we don’t expect them to show up down here in town.

I was inside the hardware store when they came past. “Aren’t those sheep?” someone gasped, and we went outside. There they were, ambling unconcerned across the slope beyond the yard

Many people told me they had never seen the sheep in town before. Someone in the supermarket had a great shot of the herd behind the big brown “Dubois Wyoming” sign beside the highway east of town. Later they were spotted in the cemetery.

bighorn sheep statue

Why did they come down to visit? Sara Domek, the Executive Director of the Sheep Center, chuckled at the question, in the same bemused way a parent might talk about a toddler: Who knows what they’ll get into their heads?

It’s anybody’s guess, she said. Maybe they liked the grass in the cemetery. Maybe it was because of the cold snap. Or predators could have driven them down.

Predators were the favored theory in town, but in truth nobody really knows what’s going on with the sheep. Their numbers are declining, though, and nobody is more concerned about that than Domek and local wildlife experts.

The Bighorn Center has launched a series of forums in town, in collaboration with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department and other agencies, to help seek explanations for the troubling decline in the survival of bighorn lambs.

bighorn sheep

Game and Fish has donated $300,000 to a study of bighorn sheep lamb mortality. “We are at a critical point,” said biologist Greg Anderson at the last session on February 11, as quoted in the Dubois Frontier. The sheep “are not in a good condition,” he added.

The department is focusing on three major suspects in the early death of lambs: habitat and nutrition, disease, and predators.

The excursion to town might be one of the “behavioral changes” in the lower winter range than Anderson said predators are causing. But whether that is linked to actual mortality is unknown, at least for now.

So if the visit from the bighorns was a charming surprise, it was also rather sobering.

© Lois Wingerson, 2019

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


Saturday Stalkers in the Snow

A happy morning exploring and pondering puzzles.

I chuckle inside whenever someone says: “Wyoming! How can you put up with those brutal winters?”

Sure, once in a while there are days when we really prefer to stay indoors. But often, like today, it’s clear, bright, windless, and we yearn to be outside. Wear the right layers, and you’re perfectly comfortable when you go out exploring. Soon you’ll shed the hat and gloves.

One of our favorite pastimes is pondering the puzzles that hint at stories in the snow. The image above is my trophy. Some friends gasp a little when I show it.

“You got a bird print!” You can clearly see the marks of the wings. Is that a head and a beak at the center? And if so, why did it come down sideways?

This isn’t as prized, however, as an imprint of a bird nose-diving into the snow to catch its prey.

What happened here? The tracks at the right went nonchalantly past, either before or after the bird alit. But a few yards away, on the other side of those willows at the upper left, I found clear signs of a scuffle. Alas, the dog tramped all over them before I got there, so I was never able to decipher what kind of creature this bird might have stalked and then caught.

That was a while ago.

On a day like today, how could I resist when a friend texted with an invitation to join her and two other women on a snowshoe trek? We arrived to find the surface clean and newly groomed by the volunteers with DART.

I was glad for sunglasses. The sunshine was almost painfully brilliant. Not a cloud in the sky.

Squirrels chattered overhead, and we could see their tiny tracks everywhere, crossing and recrossing the trail. I recognize the rabbit tracks in my driveway, but in the woods, in general, I don’t know what I’m looking at.

Unlike my friends, I’ve not yet joined an excursion with naturalist Bruce S. Thompson, who can read the animal tracks like a book. He’s the founder of an invitation-only Facebook page, Togwotee Trackers Exchange, where members pursue what he calls “foot-writing analysis” based on images of what they have seen on the ground.

We’re just discussing the shapes of tracks when K turns and points her pole at these strange hourglass-shaped traces of a passerby. “Snowshoe hare,” says K_, who has been practicing this for a while.

“Right,” says A_. “Not a weasel. They’re shaped more like a dumbbell.”

“I wonder why they call them snowshoe hares,” I say, looking down at my own boots clamped into cumbersome contraptions.

“Perhaps because they can walk across the top of the snow,” says A_, who is an amateur naturalist in her own right. “Or maybe because their feet stay white all summer.”

The conversation drifts to tales of other creatures we have seen while trekking in the winter. Meanwhile we peruse the field of white for other signs of life gone by. Someone mentions a sage grouse. “In the winter?” I ask.

“Come back this way!” K_ calls out, and we trudge back up a slope. “What’s this?”

There you see it, at the far left next to the shadow of a branch. Something has landed in a splotch, and then headed off to the right. The tracks are three-toed, and slender.

“Good for you!” says A_. “I think that must be a grouse.”

She turns around, and we can follow the traces on the other side of our own trail, up the slope and off toward the cliff and the fabulous long vista over the valley, which is carpeted in pines and blanketed with snow.

K_ leans over and grabs a shot with her IPhone. No doubt she will post it on Bruce’s invitation-only Facebook group, where we share puzzling and amusing tracks and debate what they might be portraying–or just document what we ran across.

“Why did the chicken cross the road?” drawls A_. “To take a look at the view.”

Many yards later, after navigating over several downed trees, we stop for a long chat with our Forest Service rep L_ (who’s out on Nordic skis on Saturday checking the trails, government shutdown or not). A_ recalls the time that she was out with another group on a day just like this, also standing around, yakking.

Suddenly, in the middle of their circle, a weasel pops up out of the snow. It looks around amazed, left, then right, and pops right back down again.

As we near the highway and the parking lot, K_ calls out again, “Come back!” She points with her pole to something beside the trail.

“Oh my gosh,” says A_. “I think that’s a weasel. What else could it be?”

K_ whips a small measuring tape from her pocket, spins it out beside the track, drops her glove next to it for perspective, and takes another shot with the IPhone.

Another post for Bruce, no doubt.

But then A_ calls us to turn around. “There’s the hole back to his burrow,” she says. “And this is on a cattle guard. Perfect.”

It’s the dark image in the center of the picture below. The slots in the cattle guard, now buried in snow, offer easy access downward for a small, slender critter.

Beneath our feet, A_ says, lies a world we cannot see. It’s called the subnivean zone, an open layer between the surface of the ground and the underside of the snowpack. In that vast chamber, beneath that roof, small animals like voles and mice live out the winter protected from the cold, from predators, and from noisy interlopers like us who crunch deafeningly overhead on snowshoes. (Who knew?)

We trudge back to the car. Two and a half hours. Maybe a mile and a half. Who bothered to click that app on their Apple watch? Who cares? (We stopped a lot.) We’re pleasantly tired and happily edified. Lots of vitamin D through our faces. Clean, fresh air in and out our lungs.

Back in the day, back in the city, I might be sitting in a bistro on a beautiful Saturday like this, lazily downing eggs florentine and a mimosa, talking nonsense.

That never gave me this kind of buzz.

© Lois Wingerson, 2019

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’ Delectable New Drive-Thru

The reasons the Outpost is succeeding say a lot about our town.

MooseOutpostWhat this town needs, my husband has been saying for years, is a really good burger.

God forbid we should get a McDonald’s or a Burger King — let alone a Walmart or a big Marriott. That’s not Dubois at all.

But the drive-thru burger joint on our main street, opened a month ago by a pair of locals, fits in handsomely.

Handsomest of all is that wonderful moose out front (of which more, later).

BurgerThe Moose Outpost replaces an ice cream and coffee stand that failed last summer. The reasons why the Outpost ought to succeed say a lot about our town. It’s a commercial venture, sure, but it’s more.

Waiting for Travis to finish my car repairs today, I took the chance to nip across the street and order a cheeseburger. I was not disappointed.

Karrie and Bob Davis advertise that they’re serving fresh ingredients and hand-made orders at the Outpost. I couldn’t resist chomping down before snapping the photo.

As the patty slid around on the ciabatta bun and the tender onions tried to divorce themselves from that bright-red slice of August tomato, I had to run back inside for more napkins.

Just look at that lettuce leaf.

“So how long is your lease?” I asked Karrie, fully expecting her to say “through the end of the summer.”

“Five years,” she replied.

“And how’s business?” I asked.

Moose sculptureUnbelievable, she said. She added that even the Sysco people are surprised at how much meat and produce she is ordering. But it’s also, predictably, crazy.

Her job ads haven’t brought in enough helpers. “If it wasn’t for my church family,” she added, “we’d never be able to make it.”

Burger stand as a church mission: That fits too. The venture is crucial for the town (which needs good eateries not only in the busy tourist season but year-round) and typical of the helpful spirit in this place that seems to run on volunteers.

As I sat on the porch enjoying my burger, I admired the magnificent moose from behind. He seemed to be guarding the folks at the picnic tables. The creation of Karrie’s Dad, artist and sculptor Vic Lemmon, he used to stand outside another restaurant that her family owned elsewhere in town. For a long time, he’s lived near the highway east of Dubois, in a spot where he wasn’t noticeable.

MooseOutpost4Inbetween, Kerrie told me, he’s has been shot at, stolen (and returned),  inappropriately painted, and driven to Utah to oversee Christmas tree sales. Now he’s challenging the jackalope down the street as our town mascot.

Just yesterday, I read a post on TripAdvisor asking where to see a moose in Yellowstone. The odds aren’t great. But as they pass this way en route home, at least people can see what one looks like.

© 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.

Red, White, and Blooms in the Dubois Desert

Explosions of color in what looks like dead landscape.

A few weeks ago, I hosted some visitors from England. We hiked up a long draw in the badlands. They were especially interested in seeing the red rocks up close.

IndianPaintbrush

Turning a corner toward a steep ridge, we encountered masses of bright red Indian paintbrush. “You’re very lucky,” I told them. “Usually we only see these much higher in the mountains.”

They took out their phones and snapped away, as did I.

They had been worried about encountering snow in late June, and it was not a foolish concern. The ground underfoot was slippery with mud — an unusual feeling in this desert climate.

Flowers060516Back on June 5, at Sheridan Creek, I had encountered my first harbinger of spring: This tiny white blossom. I don’t know its name.

I found it hiding in the straw-like dead grass. There were no signs of green yet.

It had burst forth only a few feet from some remaining patches of snow.

Recently, I took my cousin and a friend on the same hike I had enjoyed with the visitors from England. The ground was already dry and cracked.

Badlands_062418I couldn’t resist a calling out in pleasure: “The lupines are out!” These lush blue flowers — my favorite of the wild flowers we see every year — had arrived in force, to join the Indian paintbrush.

Could I write about mere flowers on Independence Day? Of course, I realized earlier today: The first flowers I saw during my wanderings this year were red, white, and blue.

I have so many pictures of flowers that I never get around to posting here: Small orange blossoms hidden beneath the sagebrush, purple daisy-like blooms that pop up on the sides of dirt roads, yellow cactus flowers that bloom and are gone in a few days. I can’t resist taking their pictures, because to look from a distance (say, in a passing car) this landscape often appears dead, or at least boring.

We know that many visitors want come to this area hoping to see wildlife, and we do see plenty of it crossing the fields on four legs or swooping across the sky. But this, I remind myself, is another wonderful form of wild life — and one which many passersby will miss.

JadeLakeWildflowers0817_5Soon, if not already, at higher elevations the wildflowers will burst out in explosions of colors, as bright and extravagant as any fireworks we see on this day every year.

A friend told me that it sometimes makes her feel wistful to see these vistas, thinking of others who are no longer fit enough to get up into the mountains to see them. I also feel sad for those who don’t know, or don’t bother.

Seize the day, and always cherish your independence …

BrooksLakeWildflowers_0817_2

© 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.

What We Share With The Wildlife

The return of animals in the spring brings a revelation.

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.