Delight About Data in Dubois

Awaiting a decision about a merger, T-Mobile delivers in one remote rural area

Finally, the long wait was over. We locked the door behind us and went to close on the sale of our New York City house.

Afterwards we headed off in rush-hour traffic toward the Holland Tunnel. Four long days of driving later, we returned to the place we now call home, this small remote town in the mountains of Wyoming.

Stopping at Superfoods to buy a few essentials, what to my wondering eyes should appear! There at the upper left on my phone was the word “T-Mobile,” beside 3 splendid bars of signal.

Our impoverished, second-class-citizen roaming days were over. This wasn’t news as good as the long-awaited sale of our New York house, but it sure made me happy.

“The new T-Mobile is all about bringing value and accessibility to everyone,” T-Mobile CEO John Legere tweeted recently, “particularly underserved customers and their communities.”

His company awaits a decision from the Federal Communications Commission about a merger with Sprint that, T-Mobile says, would improve service to remote rural areas. But I feel like we’ve already won. It was as if he was waiting there for us, holding out a beautiful welcome-home gift.

I took the image above a few days later, during a hike way up-mountain, near the Continental Divide. Clearly the broadband reach is truly broad.

We switched to T-Mobile ages ago, back in New York, when we consolidated plans as our children got cellphones of their own. Moving to remote little Dubois years later was white-knuckle time. Would there be any coverage at all?

There was, but it was lame. T-Mobile had contracted with the local provider for roaming service, but clearly it was a stingy contract. We got unlimited phone service, but we’d be kicked off data service after only a day or two every month. No amount of complaining either explained or solved this problem. We had to content ourselves with Wifi in cafes when in town. When we traveled to a large city, we would revel in the full coverage.

Nokia 4G LTE cellspot

There was one compensation: the magnificent team of T-Mobile customer service agents in Meridian, Idaho. They truly get it about working remotely in a remote location, and they told me several very useful things.

First, and best of all, when I complained of lousy coverage at our house, an agent asked for my delivery address and promptly sent us a Nokia 4G LTE cellspot. It’s like a small short-range T-Mobile cell tower right inside our house.

(Now T-Mobile is selling the Coolpad Surf, a similar item run off a rechargeable battery. For $72 and a data plan, you can take your 600 MHz mobile tower anywhere. T-Mobile says its aim in selling the device is to bring service to rural areas.)

Digits app logo

They also told me about Digits. I wanted a new local cellphone number, so my Wyoming friends wouldn’t deny my calls that were coming from my unrecognizable New York area code. But I didn’t want to lose my old contacts in the 917 area either.

The T-Mobile folks in Meridian told me that the Digits app would allow me to have 2 lines on the same phone, with two different ring tones. I added a 307 line for another $10 a month. As they say in New York, bada-bing, bada-boom.

For many months, I’d been hearing rumors that T-Mobile was going to build a new tower here. The agents in Meridian, Idaho, even said so. But who knew where, or when?

According to PC Magazine, T-Mobile won licenses to serve many rural areas in a 2017 auction, but has had to wait for local TV stations to move their frequencies to lower channels in order to accommodate cell service. Judging from the company’s service-area map, we still don’t get full 4G LTE service in the area surrounding the town, but I can still browse websites while hiking in the badlands now or shopping in town.

Who knows when we might actually get the new super-fast 5G service here? Looking at the recent press about 5G, I’m not sure I really care. An article in CNET says that 5G is being built on a 4G backbone, which may only enhance the capabilities of the service we now already have. I don’t watch movies on my phone, and I work at home at my desk, so why do I need it?

What a charming coincidence that, in the very week that I left the city behind, I left behind the last vestige of any need to be there. To be fair, T-Mobile service was sub-par in our Brooklyn house anyway, blocked by God knows how many walls and tree trunks. It was pretty challenging to make phone calls once we ditched the land line. In this house, with our personal cell tower, it’s great.

Here we have unsurpassed Internet service, fast and convenient online shopping (and free delivery with Amazon Prime), and wilderness hikes a few miles away. Our neighbors are horses and eagles and sometimes moose. We also have solid cellphone service at last, here as well as almost anywhere else.

The word “remote” has lost its negative overtones, and now applies only to our mode of communication and physical distance from heavy traffic.

Why on earth would I live anywhere else?

© 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.

Escape From New York: A One in a Million Story

How the city of Brooklyn tried to prevent us from leaving

IMG_3107This has been our daytime view. We sit at the table by the window, gazing out toward the busy city street a few feet away, waiting. Beyond a certain point, all we could do was wait.

New York is not a bad place to hang out, truly. Millennial New Yorkers do it all the time. Countless tourists come here to enjoy doing that.

But we’re not tourists, though in a way we are behaving that way. We’re expatriates already gone, yet even now, as we count the remaining days, we’re still waiting.

It ain’t over till the fat lady sings, says the old operatic adage. She’s still only vocalizing in the wings, after we have dedicated two whole months to learning the fine art of waiting.

We’re part of a mass exodus. Since 2010, more than a million people have left New York City, according to an article in the New York Post headlined “People Are Fleeing New York At An Alarming Rate.”

After raising our children in Brooklyn (during which we spent four vacations in Wyoming), we bought a second home in Dubois more than a decade ago and began driving back and forth twice each year. We’d live the summers and winters in Wyoming, spending the rest of our time in the garden-level apartment on the ground floor of our townhouse.

Three years ago, much to the amusement and perplexity of many neighbors in New York, we relocated to Wyoming full time. A year ago, we decided to leave entirely, and we put our 1880 townhouse on the market. We were “so over” New York, as the saying goes.

Another article in the Post named some of the reasons. It’s noisy. It’s dirty. And it’s darned expensive, especially compared to the remarkably low cost of living in Dubois.

Bleak House

This must be a long story, because the progress toward our final farewell has been painfully slow and involved. It was a process of Dickensian proportions, as I keep saying, because the legal proceedings bring to mind the evidently endless and pointless lawsuit in Dickens’ Bleak House. Alas, I have come to think of our lovely Victorian brownstone by that same name. It’s been bleak.

Living_Room0716At last, sometime last winter, our buyers materialized. We signed a contract. My husband arrived at the empty house the day before Easter, after a four-day drive eastward, and set about helping our son move out of the garden apartment, clearing out the basement and making other changes that had been agreed.

He started “glamping” in our former home with a few sticks of our orphaned furniture, an inflatable mattress, and some excess-to-needs cookware and cutlery. He had dinner with some neighbors. He spent a weekend with old friends in the suburbs. He repaired the dryer. He swept the basement clean.

The inflatable mattress sprang a leak. He had to buy another.

I began to receive images texted from New York with questions: Do you want the crèche? Do you want these old curtains? And, so often, do you want this framed picture or child’s drawing?

At first, I’d intended to go to New York to help in this process. But other commitments intervened, and we decided I’d simply fly out for the closing a few weeks later, and drive back with him. Then came the jolt: It would not be “a few weeks later”. We could not know when the sale might be closed.

Dickens and Kafka

Back in January we had learned of an obstacle deep in the records of the Brooklyn buildings department. A contractor who renovated the kitchen and bathroom in the garden apartment in 2003 had not closed the books on the work permit. He had since gone out of business and could not be contacted.

What one does in this situation, our lawyer said, was to (a) hire an “architect-expediter”—an architect who would file the same plans all over again, (b) hire a new contractor to pretend to do the demolition/construction all over again (and take responsibility before the Department of Buildings inspector for the work), and (c) hire a new plumber to pretend to do the plumbing all over again (and take responsibility before the Department of Buildings inspector for the work).  The architect also has to file with the Landmark’s Commission.  After the “work” is done there are multiple inspections by the Department of Buildings which may result, eventually in either the 2019 application being closed, or an audit of the whole mess, delaying things further.

You didn’t know you were in the clear until the buildings department posted a notice on their website. But you were not allowed to inquire when that might happen.

“This can take months,” the expediter told us. But there is a limit to how long a prospective buyer must wait between contract and closing before walking away from the deal.

Katies_RoomThe expediter, meanwhile, seemed to have no urgency about completing the paperwork or coordinating the contractor and plumber. My husband came to New York three weeks before the scheduled closing (and three and a half months after hiring the architect) primarily to push the process forward.

He began visiting the architect’s office every day, just to inquire about his progress. At one point, the architect took off on a vacation overseas.

One day in May, my husband texted that the new job application had been successfully closed (without the dreaded audit).  Both buyers and sellers thought the story was over.   I cheered – and then the other shoe fell.

“The fat lady has laryngitis,” he texted a day later. The so-called expediter had failed to tell us at the outset that he then had to apply to the buildings department for permission to rescind the original 2003 work order, and then do so. This could also take months.

As ever, he showed no inclination to hurry. Assistants in his office apologized and said they were doing all that could be done.

Neighbors in Brooklyn rolled their eyes and said they’d never heard of such a debacle. It seemed as though the city of New York was actually trying to prevent us from leaving.

Back in Dubois, of course, I began to feel lonely and to miss my husband intensely. In early June, I proposed to fly to New York to join him. We argued about the timing. Who knew how long this would take? Should I buy a one-way ticket or a round trip refundable fare? Should I leave from Riverton or Jackson or Denver, and if so, how would I get there? Could I drive myself there, and leave the car in long-term parking until who knew when? Who would take care of the dog with an indeterminate conclusion to his stay?

The last thing I wanted to do was argue. I wanted to give him a big hug. I wanted to share his vigil in that empty house full of memories.

One evening on the phone he sounded especially depressed and despairing. I went to bed very troubled, and couldn’t sleep. What should I do? This had gone on too long!

Suddenly it came to me: I have a car. I have the dog. I have a driver’s license. I have credit cards. I know the way. This had gone on too long.

The next morning, I set off on the days-long journey east on I-80, without even telling him. During our next phone call, the dog and I were taking a break in a state park in Iowa. It was too late to turn back.

Like a Free Airbnb

Thus I joined the long farewell to our former home and home town. Doubtless many other empty-nesters have had the same nostalgic moments, pausing in a doorway to recall what a child once did inside, or watching as other mothers take their turn at duty in a playground that has special meaning to me.

IMG_2991I met former coworkers for drinks. I smiled at people on the street whose faces seemed familiar, and some greeted me. “I don’t see you in three years, and now I see you three times in a week,” said a woman whose name I recalled with effort. “What’s up?”

I would try to explain about the lure of Wyoming, but the words fall flat here. Somehow Brooklyn feels even more remote than Dubois, populated with fairly friendly people who don’t care to imagine being somewhere quite different and can’t really do so. These were odd conversations

We acted like residents in an unfurnished airbnb, pretend-living like locals in a city that we knew all too well in a former life. We noted which shops had come, and which had gone. I bought flowers from a street vendor and vegetables from the produce market. We revisited favorite restaurants. We walked across the Brooklyn Bridge and took the ferry back. We heard folk music in a bar. We saw Shakespeare in the park. It was pleasant, but it’s been weird.

My husband continued to haunt the architect’s office. One day the architect barked back at him: “You know, owners can go to the buildings department too. I’ll just give the papers back, and you can take care of it!” (I won’t say how much we are paying this man to complete the process.)

IMG_3004An assistant in the office may have been so embarrassed at this outburst that she took charge of the problem. She spoke to a public-advocate consultant in the buildings department, and got the job done at last, within a few days. We saw the final clearance on the website.

Then we waited yet again while the lawyers and bankers settled on a closing date. And now we wait for that.

It’s been poignantly pleasant, bittersweet, and awkward, like an unexpected encounter with a lover you jilted long ago. “I’m so sorry,” you want to say (though really, you’re not). “It was good, but nothing good lasts forever.”

Not even, we hope, the final farewell.

© 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

Of Wildlife Trapped in NYC

How ready meals outdo the call of the vast and empty.

crowd beside office doorway in BrooklynRounding a busy corner, during a visit to my old hometown of Brooklyn, I found a small group of people crowding the doorway to an office building and taking pictures on their phones.

As I approached, the building manager passed me, carrying a metal barricade of the kind used for crowd control.

I wedged my way close. This wouldn’t be a beggar, I knew, as those people are not noteworthy and most experence the opposite of attention.

The man installed the barricade across the doorway, trapping behind it the object of interest. It was a hawk, of all things, grounded (like me) in busy Brooklyn.

hawk behind barricadeHugging a corner beside the doorway, it glared back at us.

“Has anyone called the police?” someone asked, and the man nodded. In a New York instant — remarkable response time, considering — an officer arrived.

“Who do you call?” said someone. “Animal control?”

“We’ve got this,” the officer replied brusquely. He turned and strode back across the street to his squad car and returned with a roll of yellow tape.

The onlookers had left the hawk a respectable amount of personal space. It’s easy to zoom in on your phone’s camera, after all. And as we all know, it’s best not to approach wildlife, which can be dangerous.

police car in BrooklynNonetheless the officer ran the crime–scene tape across the forward side of the barricade, further isolating the perpetrator from the crowd.

I bellied up to the building manager.

“How on earth does a hawk wind up here?” I asked.

“They’re all over the place,”  he said. “They nest up there.” He pointed across the street and upwards, toward the ornate cupola at the top of Borough Hall.

“It’s a great place for them,” added a woman who stood behind him. “They have plenty to eat. Rats. Pigeons.”

“Pigeons?” I said.

hawk behind barricade in Brooklyn“Oh, sure. It’s a great life for them,” replied the female variety of that prominent species, the New York Knowitall. “But I wonder why this young one got stuck here.”

“You think it’s young?” I said.

“Of course. Look at the size of those feet!”

It didn’t look so young to me. Just wary and puzzled. I did wonder how it came to be in this predicament. But in true New York City fashion, I felt myself too busy to stay any longer.

So I went on.

I was an Urban Bird myself for many decades, but I never saw a hawk soaring above Brooklyn as they soar across the valley near my home in Dubois. Maybe they’ve lost the urge to soar here, being that it’s as easy for them to swoop down and pick off a pigeon for dinner as would be for me to grab a ready-made meal at Union Market down the street.

Dunoir Valley Dubois WyomingI found myself musing about the odds that somehow this hawk would be transported to Dubois, just as I was not that long ago. Or as Game & Fish sometimes relocates a wayward bear up-mountain.

Or that it might just make the crazy decision to lift off and explore what lies to the west.

Not likely, I decided. It’s too difficult for Urban Birds to grasp the indescribable appeal of the vast and empty. And far too easy just to stay put here, where you can snatch ready meals.

High-rise buildings are springing up here, and the tiny playground where my daughter used to play is packed with toddlers.

The friendly city village that used to be my neighborhood is no more. Too many others have discovered its charms, and consequently those charms have diffused away into the noise, the bustle, the impersonality.

New York license plate reading "FLEE"“Whenever you’re ready,” said the cashier at a sidewalk cafe, abruptly turning away when I took time to count out the exact change. There was no one else to serve; he was just irritated that I was not hurrying.

“So have you had a change of heart?” my husband asked when I returned to the table. “Would you like to have stayed?”

I noticed the license plate on a car parked by the curb. “FLEE,” it read.

“No,” I replied. “Not at all.”

© 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

POSTSCRIPT: A neighbor from Dubois, and also my husband, have pointed out that this bird was not a hawk but a juvenile peregrine falcon. “They nest not only on cliffs in mountains,” the neighbor texted me, “but also in cities on bridges and skyscrapers.”

Google tells me that peregrine falcons can be found all over North America but mostly along the coasts. They perch high and dive rapidly to retrieve their prey, mostly smaller birds such as pigeons.

The Yellowstone website says that there are 36 known peregrine falcon breeding areas in the Greater Yellowstone region, where the falcons live from May through October before migrating south for the winter.

Hmm. Unlike us, they’re “snowbirds.” (We stay all year.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Masterworks by Dubois’ Lesser-Known Artists

Danita Sayers bustles about the rooms of the Dennison Lodge, tacking treasures to the folding screens and carefully placing the pieces of artfully painted furniture.

“We paint on whatever we can find to paint on,” she says, as I pause to admire the portrait of a horse standing in a swale. It has greatly elevated  the status of an ordinary TV tray the artist found at the Opportunity Shop.

A giant glider, a sliding bench made from horseshoes and wagon wheels, dominates the room. It’s the creation of a 6th grader.

Danita has spent the month transporting these artworks and displaying them statewide, bringing back the honors and the ribbons that prove their worth. Of 40 pieces submitted to the State Art Symposium this year, 21 won awards.

The Governor’s wife picked 2 from our little school for the First Lady’s Choice Awards. This year, Danita told me, the Dubois school got Congressional Artistic Discovery awards in both the 2D and 3D categories, and one was for a photograph, which is rare. These will go on tour for a year, and then hang in a gallery in Cheyenne.

Now she’s putting them on display, 166 artworks chosen by herself and her pupils (except for those award winners that have been held back elsewhere), during the annual school art show.

The owner of a local curio shop is helping out, while scoping the show for items she might be able to purchase resell in her shop. In other years, Danita says, art dealers and art professors have come from far away to look for acquisitions at this show.

The annual Dubois K-12 Youth Art Show has gone on for decades. This was the first time I saw it–someone who, like most parents, once thought her own young children were truly exceptional artists. What most takes my breath away here are the works by children who are just learning to read.

Dubois has more than its fair share of top-ranked artists and photographers, but its youngest don’t get much publicity and have no commercial websites. Danita, who is the art teacher in our school, bursts with pride in her students and the passion to share how special they are.

The student who created this sculpture was blind, she tells me. Would I believe that?

This peacock was the seventh-grade artist’s first oil painting. “She doesn’t even know it’s good,” Danita says with a smile, and repeats herself.

Slowly, I come to realize why so many locals like to point out the works by their favorite school-aged artists at the national art show that comes to the Headwaters in mid-summer.

These artists are growing up in one of the most remote towns in the lower 48. Some of them go home to ranch chores after school. and think the biggest event of the year is branding the calves.  The  parents are contractors and bank clerks and restaurant owners — precious few with a strong history in the liberal arts. Their home town is a place where kids waste time on a lazy summer Sunday by tooling around the main street on their bikes doing wheelies.

Unlike my children’s classmates three decades ago in New York City, some of these artists may find the thought of even visiting a city a bit frightening. Many have ridden a horse, shot a gun, been to a rodeo, and camped out overnight, but very few if any have seen a renowned painting by a great artist in an art museum.

What they do see every day is the mountain landscape and the wildlife. Instead of visiting galleries, they go on camping trips with botanists to study wildflowers.

In the primary and middle school my children attended, a short distance from the Brooklyn Bridge, the distinctions between the tough guys, the future CEOs, and the arty kids were clearly defined.

Walking past these panels, it is clear that it’s not an issue. Everyone does art, and many do it exceedingly well.

“A lot of our best artists are ranch kids, wrestling club guys,” Danita says.  She points across the room to a landscape. “The guy who made that painting was in wrestling and football. He won a blue ribbon [for the painting], but he also excels in sports.”

My guess is he knows the terrain quite well because he probably goes hunting up there in the fall.

As Danita puts it, at this school art is not placed in a “gentle” category alone. The school mascot is a ram. Clearly they can paint them as well as they can butt helmets on the field.

© 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

Shocks and Surprises as the Snow Recedes

The rewards for hanging in (and out) in a chancy season.

IMG_2846I returned from a visit to Texas on one of the last days in April. Boarding after a layover in Denver, I saw opaque ice crusting the window beside my seat. We taxied, got de-iced with orange spray, returned to the gate, de-planed, and waited for the weather in Jackson to improve.

Finally we were cleared for takeoff. An hour later, we descended at Jackson in heavy snowfall. I kept waiting for the jolt as the wheels hit tarmac, but the cloud ceiling was actually a few hundred feet above the runway and we came down smoothly.

When I departed from Jackson 10 days earlier, it had been mild, so I left my coat inside the car in long-term parking. Now, at 11 PM, it was snowing hard and I was wearing only a gauze shirt. I ran to the car, dragging my roller suitcase, found the coat and gloves, and scraped the windshield. It was 1 AM when I finally fell asleep in a motel in Jackson.

This is spring in our part of the West. The next day, the road over the Pass to Dubois was nearly clear; just slushy at the top. It snowed hard again that night, and leaving home the following morning I felt it might require a backhoe to clear my windshield. I took the picture above that same afternoon. As you see, the snow had vanished. Typical.

ElkMy husband is away on business, and I seem to spend more time than usual looking out the window. The day after my return, I was startled to see four unusual creatures almost the size of horses, grazing as they ambled slowly across the meadow to the east.

What else could they be but female elk? I actually had to look them up on Google to be sure what a female elk looked like. The usual pictures of elk show a handsome male with a rack, like the picture below.

This picture isn’t clear because she’s so far away.

We’re not accustomed to seeing elk in the valley, not females alone, and not in mere foursomes. They are supposed to migrate across the tops of ridges in large herds, heading westward this time of year, guarded by watchful males.

ElkMaleA friend suggested that these females may have been separated from their herd in the snowstorm. I hope they found their way back.

The next afternoon in the dining room I was startled by an eagle swooping past the window so close that it almost touched the glass. Magpies and swallows fly across the yard all the time, but eagles belong soaring in the updraft hundreds of feet above. I like to watch them across the valley when I’m up on the ridge after a hard climb. What on earth was this?

I raced to the other window to watch. He landed on the buck and rail fence down by the irrigation ditch, soon to be strafed by another eagle that sailed in from the east. They took their dispute on up the hill and out of sight.

hawkThe next day this lovely hawk chose to perch for a while on the balcony railing, just outside the netting that we use to keep the swallows from building mud nests under the gable. I’ve never seen a hawk so close, even in a zoo. Unfortunately the picture doesn’t show the lovely red feathered cap on the top of his head.

Today I was delighted to see a dove-gray female bluebird and her mate, which looked like a fragment of sky descending, as they inspected the birdhouse we have cleaned out for them behind the house.

At the ranch on the west edge of town, three wooly sheep have suddenly appeared in the meadow usually occupied by the cattle, which are now crowded into the next field over. There seem to be a remarkable proportion of calves. Maybe I never noticed them, scattered as they usually are on the large fields to the north of the highway. The other day, I saw a cowboy on horseback in there among them.

cattleThese are sights the tourists would covet — working cowboys, eagles, elk — but the tourists haven’t arrived yet. One joy of being here all year is that I can encounter these sights by serendipity — especially in this season, when so few visitors dare to come because the weather is chancy.

By the start of May, however, the snow is rare. Although days may be cloudy, the weather is comfortable enough in a windbreaker or light overcoat. Suddenly I can venture onto roads that were still snowbound when I flew off to Texas.

This afternoon, I reveled in one of my go-to hikes that has been off-limits until now. It felt great to stride through the sagebrush in my hiking boots, rather than trudging along across heavy snowpack. I didn’t see any wildlife, but then I was enjoying the walk and not paying much attention.

Again, I was startled. It was easy to recognize from these prints who else had followed the trail, and not long before. I paused immediately to look around. Fortunately, sight lines are broad and very clear on this hike, which is one reason I favor it.

IMG_2873A few steps later, I saw where it had come down the same slope I had just descended, but a bit farther to the west.

Another sign of the season. This is a track I have never before seen up close. How huge it is, next to my bear spray!

This was one creature I was very glad not to see. It’s as close as I’ve ever come — and I have no idea how close I actually came.

What a relief that it was heading in the opposite direction from my car.

(Yes, I hear you, honey. I’ll stop hiking alone after the snow melts.)

© 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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Baffling Mystery of Our Dying Lambs

An entire community faces a tyranny of options.

SheepRidgeThey call it Sheep Ridge, the one you can see from the main street in Dubois, but no bighorn sheep have grazed there for a long time.  The herd is still around, but its population is plummeting. Why?

Back in the 1870s, I’ve heard, hunters could find a bighorn sheep in these mountains any time they wanted. Most bighorn sheep in the West came from that original herd as transplants, moved out by the hundreds to other regions of the Rockies during the last century.

Some of those relocated herds have been threatened by the same basic problem, but have bounced back. Not so the bighorns that stayed here.

It’s not that there isn’t any explanation. There are too many. That’s the problem.

Our high school sports teams are called the Rams, and you see their image on logos all over town, but the rams themselves are fragile.  Local taxidermists say some of their skulls are too light to hold screws, and the curly horns are no longer as big as before.

Unlike the herds in Cody and Jackson, Whiskey Mountain sheep keep their weight stable in the winter, but lose weight when they move up to summer range. Is there something wrong with the local wild grasses, forbs, and brush that are central to their summer diet?

Predators like wolves or eagles might play some role in the animals’ deaths. But in those cases they may be only the final blow — not the root cause.

Sheep060816_3The greatest concern is that these bighorns are extraordinarily prey to respiratory infections common among sheep. They harbor a half-dozen strains of the relevant bacteria, while wild sheep elsewhere in the West seem to be hosts to only two or three. Enough lambs are born to this herd each year, but only a handful reach maturity. Many of the ewes live on, chronically ill, to infect again and again.

The infection traces to domestic sheep, which were raised here for four decades starting in 1890, but dwindled as the cattle ranchers prevailed. In 2015, the US Forest Service formally banned domestic sheep from the local bighorns’ range—decades after their decimation began.

It can’t go on. But what to do?

About a year ago Sara Domek, executive director or the National Bighorn Sheep Center in town, approached two experts (wildlife biologist Daryl Lutz of Game & Fish and Steve Kilpatrick, head of the Wyoming Wild Sheep Foundation) to plan a strategy. The outcome is a series of summits now under way in Dubois, where absolutely anyone who is interested is welcome. I didn’t take an actual count, but scores of my friends and neighbors, have turned up, bringing with them an astonishing wealth and depth of knowledge on the subject.

The biggest challenge is the complexity of the problem. “You came up with 170 issues, so we had a lot of fun categorizing them all,” said Jessica Western of the University of Wyoming at the last session. A soft-spoken, genial person, she is shepherding a large flock of biologists, land managers, outfitters, hunters, environmentalists, ranchers, and other interested residents, toward recommendations to help the Wyoming Game & Fish Department decide what it can and should do next.

BighornDrawing_croppedThe Wyoming Game and Fish Department has won grants from four organizations to support the summits, and commitments of time and expertise from bighorn sheep specialists all over the West. One of the grants brought a panel of eight specialists on the bighorns to Dubois last month, where they shared their knowledge, listened to ours,  and brainstormed.

They brought insights about  bighorn sheep and their habitats in Alaska, California, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Washington (the state) and, of course, Wyoming. The scientists truly seemed to enjoy themselves, having a rare opportunity to hide away in the wilderness as a select team asked to learn from each other and contribute to a poignantly good cause.

It’s not that nothing has been tried. At the latest summit, held early this month, Game & Fish habitat biologist Amy Anderson described many  efforts to improve the forage in the wilderness, including fertilizers, herbicides, selective cropping, and “range pitting” (dragging an implement across the ground to disturb the ground and encourage growth of new grasses).

Follow-up studies analyzing the forage (quantity, species composition, protein content, and relative food value) found that these tactics didn’t seem to make any great difference, compared to untreated areas, “so I don’t know what we bought with these treatments,” Anderson said. “We’re not necessarily seeing improvement” in the varieties of grass the sheep prefer.

So what’s the problem? Is it the climate? Minerals in the soil or the salt licks? Air pollution coming from Utah or even farther west?

Prescribed burns have been tried in parts of the forest, not only to encourage growth of grasses but also to deny hiding places to predators. Local hunter and taxidermist Lynn Stewart pointed out that Sheep Ridge itself, visible from the middle of town, was bald a century ago. Today it is blanketed with evergreens and sheep won’t go there.  Another prescribed burn is planned for this summer in a spot where conifers now cover a bighorn migration route between winter and summer ranges.

beckiart
Painting by Becki Neidens

Immense interest centers around University of Wyoming biologist Kevin Monteith, who has been pursuing an intensive three-year research project on this herd. His team has implanted monitors like IUDs in ewes, which  send a signal when they give birth. A member of the team will spend this summer camping in the remote, rocky Whiskey Mountain region, waiting. After a signal, she will race over the treacherous ground to find its source, hoping to reach the lamb and attach a motion sensor. This should allow her and others to locate some of the lambs that die and  learn what happened.

At the latest summit, the facilitator Jessica Western assigned us into breakout groups. Our task was to arrive at a consensus about which of those 170 issues she compiled after the previous session deserve the most attention for the future. Inevitably, we also pondered some recommendations. Some of them are controversial, and some unrealistic.

Why not cull the entire herd and start again with healthy bighorns, descendants of the transplants from the original herd? (They’d inevitably get infected too, because the microorganisms do persist in the soil for some time, and anyway, what about the forage issue? Besides, the transplanted sheep wouldn’t know the local migration routes. Studies elsewhere show that sheep lacking this knowledge tend to stay in the winter range all year round.)

BighornStatue2No solution will emerge quickly. We’ll remain in the dark about the root cause of the die-off for at least three years, while Montieth’s team completes its research.

Meanwhile, in June after the workshops are over, the Game & Fish Department will sort through all the recommendations and decide what it can try, what it can’t, and why not. Whatever it eventually does will also take time, as well as funds and personnel. And the clock is ticking for the herd.

Sara Domek of the Sheep Center closed the last summit with a plea for help from all those people with furrowed brows who were sitting on the folding chairs in the audience.

“This is the time for citizen science,” she said. “People want to help. Let’s do it.”

© 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 .

Field Notes From the Far West

Where no passport is needed and most natives speak English.

 

pile of rocks on ocean beachI will view this, I told myself as we set off, as an interesting journey to an exotic foreign land.

It is, after all, fairly alien. The political system seems to be quite different. The culture and customs are, from all I have heard, strange and remarkable compared to our simple, humble, straightforward way of life in Wyoming.

Their culinary habits are somewhat unusual from our perspective, having an almost limitless access to fresh produce at any time. Some residents don’t eat any meat at all.

The people here seem to view us as equally alien. “Wyoming?” they say, after asking where we’re from. And then: “You drove all that way?” (As if none of my kind have ventured this far before.) And then, invariably, nothing more. I feel some empathy for the Lewis and Clark team; these natives seem less interested in my culture than I am in theirs.

ocean beachWe have focused our travels this month on the predominant feature of their habitat that is entirely unfamiliar to us in Wyoming: the seaside. Having attained it, of course, I had to take a hike on the beach, early on the first morning after our arrival.

Which revealed the first and most elementary evidence that I am a stranger in this land: The natives know that in the morning, the tide is in, and there is, in fact, precious little beach to hike.

(Who knew to think about tides? Evidently I should have done more research.)

I strode happily along, enjoying the sound of the surf at my left as it crashed onto the shore. I looked down, as always when I hike, watching for interesting objects at my feet, and entirely oblivious to the waves that were creating that gentle, insistent murmur nearby.

sneakers being washed in tide

Once over my surprise, I ventured on.

The rocks at my feet were interesting, but not noticeably different than those I can find on any hike back home. After all, our own landscape was once, millennia in the past, also at the edge of a great ocean. Like many I find down walking any draw back home, most of these stones were washed smooth and round.

dead sea creatures on beachThe flora and fauna are quite different, of course. As were the carcasses of dead creatures I found on the beach. Was this an animal before it washed up here, or some sort of plant? I have no idea.

What looks like a stick may also have been some sort of creature once. It bore more resemblance to a tube than to a branch.

Many of the true branches washed ashore had been buffed as smooth as the round stones.

I picked one up to bring home for a walking stick.

swimmer offshore

In due course, I noticed what appeared to be a creature some distance offshore. Back home, I am adept at identifying rocks that look like bears. But I’m not familiar with sea creatures. As this was bobbing in the water rather than being constantly washed over, I decided it could not be a rock.

I’ve heard there are sea otters to the south, and later we would see elephant seals basking and molting on the shore. But what was this?

Only after I took the picture did I notice the strange, long-necked shorebird in the middle of the image, in the foreground. I believe it was a curlew.

surfer in ocean riding waveAs I walked farther up the beach, the mystery of the sea creature solved itself. You can see another there in this image, on the right.

This is referred to as a surfer.

The species is never encountered in Wyoming. Having just arrived from the land of deep snow, however, I can approximately imagine the sensation of riding the wave. I have done something similar on skis. You have to become one with the surface beneath your feet.

I wonder: When the surfer’s legs and feet fail him, is the landing softer or harder than a wipeout in cold white powder?

fisherman on ocean beachReturning south on the wet sand, I noticed a species I recognize well from back home.

Not being an angler of any sort, I have no frame of reference. I wonder how his experience — and his catch — differs from that of those I see along the Wind River, similarly kitted out.

His line seemed to be tangled, which did make me wonder about the wind. That, we know about.

I will say this about California: Most of the people here speak excellent English, and it requires no passport to visit. The natives are exceedingly friendly (if perhaps sometimes a bit distant to drivers of cars with Wyoming plates).

rocking chair and view of oceanThe landscape is as spectacular as our own, although much different. Notably, it is capable of producing excellent wine.

I commend the seaside destination as an alternative way to contemplate realities deeper than the mundane details of daily life. In Wyoming, I am drawn to the mountains that seem ageless and unchanging, the sight of which always brings a long glimpse into the incomprehensible past long before I arrived.

The ocean offers a contrasting vision of eternity. It renews itself endlessly as I watch, second after second, rolling always to shore, and will do so long after I am gone.

© 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