Friday, November 27, 2009

the First Necropsy

The horror that the elk calf must have felt, dodging in and out of thick dog-hair stands of young lodgepole pines.  Snow showering down upon her as she frantically runs through the small trees, looking for some sort of escape.  None would present itself; they were right on her heels, there was nothing she could do.

The only remains of the calf’s carcass were the hide, a front leg, and the frozen rumen contents of mulched grass.  It had been picked clean, and there was not even a curious raven in the area.  The previous day, I had spied an abnormally large amount eagles (golden and bald) and ravens in the young forest near Harlequin Lake; this was a sure sign of wolf activity indicating a recent kill.  We had known the wolves were in the area that day.  A collared wolf from the Cougar pack had testified to their presence.  By that evening, the kill had been made.  Booming signals from the collared wolf could be heard and scavenger activity was high.  The next day, after assuring that the collared wolf had left the area (and thus indicating that the entire pack had left the area), we hiked in to the kill area (bear spray in hand just in case).  After an hour of tracking, following fresh wolf and coyote tracks, we ran into the kill site.  The snow was tinted pink; hair masses and bone fragments were scattered through the trees.  The hide had been drug uphill from the kill site, leaving a depressed path through the snow.

This is just a small picture of the reality for wildlife in the Yellowstone ecosystem.  A young calf is born only be fed to the wolves, coyotes, foxes, ravens, eagles, and many other organisms who would otherwise not survive to reproduce.  It is interesting to imagine the nutrients from that single calf spread throughout many different species.  And not only that, but the nutrients will be passed down through the generations of those and many more species, including plants (that will then be eaten by future elk calves).

The interaction between elk and wolves is only a tiny subset of the dynamics in the Yellowstone ecosystem.  And this tiny subset has taken twenty years of research to elucidate relationships between these two large mammals.  And so, I am here in Yellowstone, continuing the research, tracking large canine predators through the park, seeking to understand their impact on the elk populations.  The licked-clean hide of the calf lying in the pink snow vividly reveals the realities of these interactions.


Wednesday, November 18, 2009

"If you're running from an elk, just make sure you're not running into a thermal pool."  Such was the wisdom provided by Claire Gower, a biologist for Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks who completed her PhD on this same research project 2 years prior.  With 10 years of experience working on the project, we listened intently to every word she said.

We had arrived in Yellowstone late last Friday night.  The darkness made the drive up the Madison River unfamiliar (even though I had driven that section dozens of times), but I could feel the excitement rising within me as we continued on.  The locals (i.e. the maintenance folks) at Madison Junction had turned the heat on prior to our arrival, making the unpacking and settling-in process quite comfortable.  There was much to do over the next two days; Claire had sacrificed her weekend to train this season's two person research crew (Megan and myself), which otherwise would have had no training and, concurrently, no idea how to go about collecting data or surviving the winter.

Saturday proved to be a very successful training day.  Monitoring for collared wolves using radio telemetry is one of our primary duties, and we devoted much of the day to getting comfortable using the equipment, listening for signals, and choosing appropriate signal-checking stops.  From a promontory called Porcupine Hill, I flipped through all the wolf collar frequencies...and suddenly, a faint "beep....beep....beep."  Dialing down the frequency (since collars sometimes fade off their original frequencies with age), the signal became crisper.  I turned down the gain, allowing me to obtain a specific direction from which the signal came.  The wolf must have been behind a hill across the valley due to some signal bounce (often hills, mountains, and other steep topography can reflect the signal, making it unclear exactly where the signal is coming from).  The wolf belonged to the Gibbon pack, boasting a membership of 15 to 20 wolves.  A pack this size needs to eat frequently, which means there is a good chance that there is a kill or two in the area.

To get a better location on the collared wolf, the signal needs to be checked at multiple places (called triangulation), so we left Porcupine Hill and continued down the road.  At several places, wolf tracks could be seen intersecting the road and traversing across the meadow.  This was indeed Gibbon pack by the amount of  tracks, for there are no other packs with this many individuals.  Looking back over the meadow, we spied two gray wolves marching away from Porcupine Hill, where we had just been, heading towards the collared wolf signal.  A faint howl was heard as they cleared the meadow and disappeared behind a hillside.

We finished training with river crossings...a potentially deadly thing to do in the middle of winter; however, with Claire's advice from years of experience, the shallowest and easiest river crossings were shown to us and practiced.  No worries mama!

And thus, my Yellowstone adventure commences...

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

The Silent Encroachment of Winter

Winter is coming, but it is hard to tell.  Bozeman nearly reached the 60's today, and I played frisbee golf comfortably with a T-shirt on.  But I am wary, for soon, the cold winter days and nights will be forcibly made real in my life.  In approximately 10 days, I will be entering Yellowstone National Park, not as a casual observer, but as a research technician.  I suspect that my entry into the park will have the familiar feelings of arriving "home," for I have spent much time within the park and am quite familiar with it.  But it will be quite different as well.  As clearly stated in the research manual, "doing research in the world’s first national park is by no means a right, rather it is an incredible privilege—one that could quickly be revoked.  We are dealing with extremely high-profile, controversial, and sensitive resource issues with a variety of stakeholders, and thus we are held to much higher standards of conduct than researchers might be elsewhere."  The study is the longest running ecology project in the park.  The work that I perform, the data that I collect, and the manner in which I behave is serious stuff!  This is kinda intimidating for a skinny little dude who will probably freeze to death half way through the winter!  And the manual for the study is 62 pages long!  Sheesh.

So what is the project?  The study is aimed at "elucidating the ecological relations between wolves, elk and bison in concert with examining the relationship between climatic conditions, snow, vegetation, and topographical and geological processes within the Madison-Gibon-Firehole" drainages of Yellowstone National Park (  The project started in 1991, thus providing pre- and post-wolf data--a highly unique study.  

I have promised five and a half months of my life for the project, but I suspect that I won't regret it.  The snow may fall sideways, my fingers may freeze together or fall off, and I may have a behemoth beard with a tendency to talk to myself out of the corner of my mouth, but I will endure to the end.  Dear friends...pray for me!!