Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Run for the River!!!

The snows of the night had covered the blood trail.  It was hard enough following tracks that left no imprint in the fluffy snow; wolf and elk tracks all looked alike.  The wolf tracks I found the day before led me down to the river, where they ran along the bank, turned around, and headed back where they came from.  By brushing away fresh snow in another set of tracks, I was able to find frozen blood drops.  These would certainly lead me to a kill, but they appeared to dead-end at the riverbank.  I slipped on my waders and slogged across the river, where, after considerable searching, picked up the tracks again.  Only occasional hints of blood were present in the tracks, just enough to confirm that I was still on the right trail even after other tracks entered the scene.  I trudged on through dog fur stands of trees, tracing the trail as it paralleled the river.  Every hundred feet or so, the elk had rested, leaving patches of blood stained snow.  I passed a dozen of these rest spots, frozen blood in each one.  The elk must have had an uncomfortable night; her bedding spot for the night had multiple bloody beds.  The tracks leaving these beds were fresh, made today, but no more blood could be found in the tracks.  She had survived the wolf attack, a harrowing feat to be sure.

The lone wolf had apparently come very close to taking down the elk; close enough to cause considerable blood loss.  But the elk had been one step ahead of the wolf.  Once the elk dashed into the river, the wolf gave up the chase.  Proximity to deep water is key to elk survival in our study area.  Out of the three drainages contained in the study area, the Madison is the only river too deep for wolves.  Thus a primary reason all the wintering elk populations in the Gibbon have been completely decimated and in the Firehole, nearly so.  The Madison drainage is still occupied by a large herd thanks to the deeper waters, but it is aging.  The older, learned elk know how to use the watery safety zone, but the young calves are still very much vulnerable.  Every season that passes sees no recruitment from the calves, because they don’t survive.  The population will then slowly age and disappear. 

Is this good or bad?  Some are calling for more management of the elk populations to prevent this from occurring.  Many are calling for the end of wolves altogether (for more reasons than this).  But was there ever a naturally occurring winter population of elk before the wolves were eradicated?  Do we value natural systems enough to let the elk population die, or do we value their presence in the park more?  What do you value?  Let me know what you think (Leave a comment, or email me at:    jessedevoe@gmail.com).

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Fee fi fo fum...





Happy Christmas and Merry New Year!  I hope that everyone had as good of a Christmas as I!  Fortunately, I was able to whip home for two days, leaving Megan alone with the wolves (she got two days off after I returned).  Our family (Luke included) enjoyed a wonderful dinner with the entire Youderian clan on the eve of Christmas, a very slow and agreeable Christmas morning opening presents, and a delicious Christmas dinner inclusive of the annual Risk competition (which resulted in a Madeline and Jesse victory! Woohoo!) at the Magnuson’s.  It was probably the best Christmas yet…and I know at least one other in my family agrees.  And I didn’t even miss any exciting wolf activity back in Yellowstone.

My return to Yellowstone was heralded by -20 degree morning temperatures, delaying the normal departure time to check wolf signals.  Each morning, I disappear into six layers of clothing including the “green monster” suit (a refrigerator suit that swallows you whole).  Dressed in such a manner, I can hardly feel the freezing wind as I zip around on my snowmobile.  As morning passes to afternoon, the temperature reaches the teens, which feels like a heat wave.

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Madison Junction seems to be a popular wolf hangout.  Over the past month and a half, we have found three wolf kills right out our backdoor (figuratively speaking).  And another may be found soon.  Just today we found wolf tracks with drops of blood here and there.  After following them around for a while, another track was found, which did not appear to be wolf.  This track paralleled a wolf track and had a light spray of blood all along its trail.  Tomorrow we will follow the tracks more diligently, for we did not want to push the wolves off their meal by hiking in on them today.  Will this be the subject of the next blog post??  Stay tuned to find out!

Monday, December 21, 2009

Snowy Signatures

**(For those who are interested [because I know I have readers who love to know what I’m reading], I have added a new list to the right-hand side of my blog called “Books Read Thus Far (this winter).” You must go to aspiringecologist.com to view because it will not come up in posts sent via email)** 


I’m scrutinizing every step I take.  Hissing and bubbling can be heard from either side of me.  Boiling pools of water liberate white steam into the air.  I hesitate momentarily to cross the shallow stream twenty feet wide, but following Claire is reassuring.  There is a reason the area we are hiking through is known as Porcelain Basin (in Norris Geyser Basin).  A misstep could boil a foot, a leg, or the human body in its entirety.  Snow-free, warm to the touch, and composed of a myriad of colors, the landscape here is surreal and mesmerizing; more like a Martian planet than anything.  It could be a setting for the land of Mordor in the Lord of the Rings.  Or it could be a picture of hell.  Claire has taken this route countless times, and she can’t help but express how amazing (and dangerous) this place is.  This is where the intensive, monthly bison survey has taken us, as we attempt to find and count every bison in the study area.  The Norris Geyser Basin has historically been a favorite hangout for the bison, especially for the older bison that come to this mystical place to die.  Claire says she wants to come here to die when she gets old too.  Not a bad idea, I think to myself.  Even with its abnormal characteristics, the place is calm, quiet, relaxing, and almost entrancing.  Include the complimentary seat heaters and it’s a dandy place to lay your old bones down to rest.

But, to our dismay, we find no bison.  It seems there has been an abnormally low number of bison in the study area this year.  Maybe the snows haven’t pushed the big herds out of the Hayden and Pelican Valleys yet. 

At the end of the day, we are all exhausted; the kind of exhausted where if you sit down, you probably won’t stand up again until the morning.  We had trudged miles through deep snow, sometimes not getting back to the snowmobile until after dark had fallen.  All that exertion for about 80 total bison in the study area (a low number; several months from now, I will be reporting many, many more)…and totally worth it.

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We thoroughly enjoy having Claire visit and help out on the research.  Not only does she provide much needed insight, knowledge, and labor, but she also cooks us great meals (from a white-tail deer buck she shot) and provides us with canine entertainment (since she just trained her dog to ride the snowmobile into the park).  I hardly know Claire, but she has been extremely encouraging to me regarding the path and choices I have made (and should make) in becoming an ecologist.  She has significantly altered my immediate future and allayed many of my fears, which I will blog about at another date (after all, this is an aspiring ecologist blog!).

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Tonight, I set off on another semi-nightly solo ski venture.  My fear of large lurking mammals in the dark abates every time I go out, allowing me to wander much more freely through the lightless trees.  I do not like using my headlamp, as it envelopes me in a small, narrow world, my eyes only capable of seeing what’s in the beam of light; but with the moon only as a sliver and covered by clouds, I must use it to see anything at all. 
            After crossing the Gibbon bridge, I come across the first signature of the night.  The cluster of four tracks belonging to the snowshoe hare resembles the Big Dipper to me.  I lay my ski pole between two “Big Dipper” tracks; the hare’s average bound is longer.  Continuing up stream, I drop down a short hill and quickly set upon a new name in the snow.  It is the largest scrawl in the park, left by the largest mammal in the park.  A bull bison has slowly lumbered along without any intention of going in a straight line.  Every twenty feet or so he has used his huge hump muscles to throw his head back and forth, pushing aside the snow, hoping to find his buried meal.  Being the big bull that he is, he decides to decapitate a young lodgepole pine tree, leaving the top of the tree two feet away as evidence for the atrocity. 
            I cross a small stream with an awkward leap, barely catching my balance with my poles on the opposite side.  One of the surname Canis lupus has scribbled his autograph along the river bank.  He has followed proper wolf tradition and traveled in a straight line, only occasionally turning to the side to sniff at the air before continuing onward.  These tracks will lead me to the destination I desire, but I have not yet read all the snowy inscriptions.  Pointing my dim headlamp towards the river I spy a strange track I have not seen or admired before.  It appears at the rim of the bank, draws a large horseshoe in the snow, and disappears back into the water.  This track is much different than the others; instead of consistent, predictable paw placement, the track is composed mainly of a long slide…much like a belly-bound penguin pushing across the snow.  It could be none other than the river otter, taking a quick break from its aquatic world to leave its message in the snow.  It reads well for me. 
            I am now paralleling the wolf tracks, angling up the slope away from the river.  Converging into the wolf tracks, miniature wolf tracks appear, giving clear representation of the coyote.  I know I am near now.  Squinting my eyes to see beyond my light, I search for one last insignia in the snow.  Up ahead on the side of the white slope, I see a large, dark blob.  I yell into the night, making sure to enunciate so not to be misunderstood, “hey …if there’s anyone out there…this is my carcass now!  Ya’ll better clear out ya hear?!”  I listened intently for an answer, but there is none.  I knew there wouldn’t be, for the kill had been made several days earlier and had been nearly completely consumed.  All that remained of the young elk was a few legs with attached hoofs and a frozen hide.  After examination, I pocket a hoof and head back along my own linear signature leading back to the cabin.  Needless to say, my coworker Megan wasn’t too thrilled about her early Christmas present from me tonight.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Skiing, Switching, and Seeking



There is almost nothing quite so terrifying as going on a night ski alone…during a new moon… in a place with one of the highest concentrations of large mammals roaming about.  Gaining speed on my skis, headed down from Terrace Springs, I begin to think, “huh…wolves like to take down their prey from behind when they are running away.”  I take a quick glance over my shoulder, just to make sure there are no black blobs bearing down upon me.  I lose my balance slightly, causing me to throw one leg high into the air, barely staying upright…and then I think, “huh…wolves like to take down prey that show some kind of weakness…like being clumsy.”  I find being terrified out of my mind sort of soul cleansing.

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At 9 am this morning, we were notified that the 24-hour switch-over period is in effect.  This means that we have until 9 am tomorrow (which will be today by the time most of you read this) to get our vehicles out of the park and our snowmobiles in.  Within hours of the notification, the roads between Old Faithful and West Yellowstone became highways…cars and trucks barging out, snowmobiles zipping in.  West Yellowstone has suddenly come alive, turning from a quiet and nondescript town to a noisy and lively town.  The winter tourist season has thus begun.

And, concurrently, our winter freezing season has begun.  There is no more jumping into a warm car and blasting the heat to warm up stiff and frozen fingers and toes.  Fortunately, the snowmobiles are equipped with hand and feet warmers (but I doubt they will be effective at -20 degree temperatures).  I always like simplification, and I find the snowmobiles to be much simpler than vehicles. 

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On other headlines…we found the Old Faithful elk!  You may recall my distaste for the Old Faithful girl (hoping she would be eaten by really mean wolves) because we could not discern the direction of her collar’s signal.  She had befuddled everyone who tried to find her.  We had finally obtained a good triangulation on the direction of her signal and decided to hike in.  I never would have expected to find her where I did.  She was hanging out with one other cow and two calves in steep terrain with downed logs, dense trees, and deep snows…exactly where I picture wolves taking down prey.  But maybe she was being smart.  Maybe she chose such a strange location because the wolves would never guess any prey would be so far back in.  But the snows will push her back out into the valley soon…back to the land of wolves.  I enjoyed hiking in to find her so much that now I don’t want her to be eaten!

Friday, December 11, 2009

Silence of the Wolves

The trails of wolf tracks have ceased to be imprinted across the meadows and mountainsides.  I have gotten my wish…the wolves have gone to greener pastures in other areas of the park, allowing us to take a deep breath for the first time.  Having masses of wolves is very overwhelming (as I mentioned in my previous post).  But now, without the wolves…it’s kind of, well, boring…!  The grass is always greener and lusher on the other side I guess!  (Unfortunately for Luke, he arrived the day that most of the wolves left the study area…our first guest to not have visually seen wolves.  However, Luke did find a killsite, which was very exciting!  Thanks for coming bro!).


This mass influx of wolves in early winter is apparently fairly typical (this from my well-respected boss and biologist role-model, Robert Garrott).  The wolf packs, in preparation for the winter months, make large movements across their territories to secure boundaries and take stock of the amount of available elk and bison steak (while eating some along the way).  This seems to be exactly what the Gibbon pack did.  The Gibbon wolves are the head-honchos, laying claim to just about the entire study area.  The pack moved through all three of our drainages within three days.  Whilst this was occurring, the Cougar, Grayling, Canyon, and Mollie’s packs were making short forays into Gibbon’s territory, possibly hoping to expand their territories or to do a kill-and-run before Gibbon sees them.


But now, they are all gone (well almost...we occasionally detect wolves on the periphery of our study area, like the one I heard today from the Grayling pack [see above picture]...there really is a wolf over there!).  We wave our antennae in the air, flipping through frequencies and listening to the static hiss, hoping for the “beep….beep…beep” of a collared wolf.  The wolves will often leave for weeks at a time, which makes sense.  Elk, their primary prey, are actually very difficult to kill.  The best chance at making a kill is to catch the elk when they are vulnerable, and they are most vulnerable when they are in steep, rocky, densely forested terrain.  The elk, however, know this as well, and will avoid these areas when wolves are around.  So when the wolves are lurking nearby, the elk run to and group up in the meadows and rivers.  In such a place and grouped up, the elk are able to defend themselves, preventing the wolves from making a kill.  As a wolf, you could just wait around and hope that an elk presents itself as vulnerable by leaving the group, but this won’t happen if the elk know you are around.  Or you could leave for an extended period, allowing the herd to relax and move back into the steeper, rougher terrain (where all the good forage is) and then BAM! come in like a whirlwind and catch them unaware.  And that’s exactly what the wolves tend to do and why many of the killsites are found in steeper, rougher, or densely forested areas.

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Life is good here in Yellowstone, I really have nothing to complain about (like I did in my previous post…you are very right Vicky!).  It’s very cozy in our “little cabin” in the woods.  Elk, bison, wolves, coyotes, red fox, mountain lion, bobcat (which I saw yesterday!), marten, and snowshoe hare roam and lurk about through the forest. 


Billows of white and gray steam jet into the cold, blue sky.  Trees stand stoically, frosted from the geyser steam, frozen in time.  The snow thinly blankets everything.  Tracks in the snow lay waiting to be covered by a new white canvas.  Trumpeter swans trumpet to their compatriots downstream.  The rivers, flowing ice-free all winter due to hydrothermal activity, are alive with wintering geese, goldeneyes, mergansers, and mallards.  This is what I wake to every morning and take in every evening.  Such things are mystical and grand, and nothing of that nature shall be taken for granted.


Monday, December 7, 2009

No wolves for me...

Driving to Yellowstone is always full of rich nostalgia due to numerous family trips when I was younger. On Thursday December 3, I (Luke DeVoe) drove up to the locked Yellowstone park gate at the west entrance, hopped out of my car and started fiddling with the lock. Trying to act as if I had done this a hundred times, I excitedly entered the code and opened the gate. I drove through feeling like a VIP with rare privileges. Here in front of me lay a wintry Yellowstone National Park free of snow-machines.

After miraculously avoiding multiple car accidents due to rubber-necking at wild life, I arrived at Jesse’s cabin to see Christmas lights and Jesse dancing in the driveway. Cornish Game Hens for dinner and then cross-country skied out his front door. We skied a meadow adjacent to the confluence of the Firehole and Gibbon Rivers. This combination creates the famous Madison River. The skies were clear, fog emanated from the river and the full moon illuminated our landscape. It was a beautiful scene to share with my brother, although not without its troubles, -20 degree weather.

The next morning Jesse and I woke to a heavily loaded workday due to Megan (Jesse’s co-worker) taking a break for the day. We did not see wolves. We did see many tracks, triangulated a few wolves on radio telemetry and heard the famous howl. I also shared in Jesse’s frustration with “Old Faithful Girl” (The elk he mentioned in his last post) firsthand. Her signals are still very confusing.


The day did not end without excitement. About a half hour before sunset Jesse and I ran into a herd of elk and obtained a group composition. This involves attempting to find every elk in the herd and determining number of calves, male and females are present. This is literally impossible but quite fun. Jesse DeVoe is very kind to the elk, always making sure to say please and thank you when the elk make themselves known. Each collar has markings for field identification. This collar had black tape on transmitter, yellow tape on antennae and two brass plates. We were able to find and identify each elk in this herd, some were identified later that night after looking at pictures I had taken like this one.



Jesse and I topped off the day with another nighttime ski along the Gibbon river and Terrace Spring. This time in 0 degree weather causing us to sweat and strip layers because we had dressed for the conditions of the night before. In Yellowstone it seems that 0 degrees is actually quite pleasant.

On Jesse and Megan’s refrigerator there is an advertisement for daily snow-machine rentals. The rates are outrageous. Jesse and Megan vowed to look at this advertisement when this dream job turns to an arduous daily grind. As for me I have been bragging to my friends about my all expenses paid, guided tour of the winter wonderland of Yellowstone. You too can experience this once in a lifetime opportunity. But do not be tempted to call this a vacation; you will be put to work. If it isn’t helping with radio telemetry, stalking the “dog-hair” new growth for collard elk, feeding Jesse and Megan, or picking through the remains of wolf dinner, you will make good on the status “volunteer.”


This trip definitely added to the sense of nostalgia connected to Yellowstone National Park. Thank you Jesse for the opportunity.

On Saturday December 5 I could be found wearing every winter clothing layer that I own, battling -20 degree weather, frost clinging to my two week old beard, waving a radio telemetry antennae at what Jesse tells me are wolves. On Monday December 7 you can find me at Portneuf Medical Center on the Surgical Floor showered, clean shaven and wearing scrubs. It will be my first day working as an RN.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Really?!




I never thought I would be saying this…but…I wish the wolves would just go away for a while!  There’s too many of them all at once all the time.  We’re supposed to be figuring out how many wolves are in our study area, and finding their kills; both of these are priorities for the study, but neither of which we are doing effectively.  Two people alone cannot determine this due to the massive influx of wolves we have every week.  It seems that every day we are picking up signals from at least three different packs in various parts of the study area.  To determine wolf numbers and to find kills, we have to hike in on any tracks and our triangulations (which I will describe in more detail in another post) obtained via radio telemetry. 

There are 17 collared wolves that we monitor daily for presence or absence in the study area…but these collared wolves represent only a few individuals of the entire pack; thus we have approximately 45 wolves that could potentially be in our study area that we need to document.  Add to this list all the uncollared, unknown packs that wander in on occasion.  Our two person team simply does not have the time to determine how many wolves there are at any given time.  So, every morning we hope that some of the wolves skedaddle.

We also have another wish…this one a little more mean.  With all the wolves moping around, there are lots of other large mammals (namely elk and bison) that are becoming victuals for all the hungry mouths.  Because we do random elk group compositions, we randomly chose the one and only collared elk in the Old Faithful area to perform the next observation on…and although we hear her signal from everywhere in the Old Faithful area, we can’t find her, which stalls our study objectives and is just plain frustrating (especially after several attempts at hiking to find her).  In a small way, we kind of hope that she would be the next wolf victim.  Of course, I don’t really wish death upon her just to make our research go smoother…but you know.

Funny how elk and wolves are my life now…hardly any break from it…it’s all I ever do!  And they will be for the next five months.  At least I’m not dreaming about them in my sleep too.  

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Mary's First Wolf



This past weekend, I had the privilege of taking my mother and Mary Youderian (a lifelong friend) on an all-expenses paid (including lodging) guided tour of Central Yellowstone.  I, as the guide, do not guarantee the sighting of wolves on such trips, but as my ma and Mary found out, it can happen.  The morning started out regular enough.  On my way out of the park to pick up the two mothers, I checked wolf signals, as I do every day.  Nothing was heard, but just as I was about to exit the park, I saw a gray moving blob in the distance (this is usually what wolves look like...big gray moving blobs).  Out of the woods trotted an uncollared, unknown pack...three gray wolves and four black.  In the front, the grays bounded ahead, leading the pack across an opening near the Madison River.  Trailing in the back, the three blacks followed, with a smaller pup and a gray muzzled older wolf picking up the rear (both of which looked weary of traveling).  Although my ma and Mary did not see these wolves, they were a foreshadow of what was to come.

The mothers had picked the perfect two days to visit.  I have not seen such beautiful mornings, afternoons, and evenings thus far.  I took them through our usual routine of checking wolf signals and then hiked in on a collared elk to perform a random group composition (which was unsuccessful) in the Firehole drainage.  On our way back to the car, amidst geyser steam and a brilliant sunset, a black wolf appeared in the distance and trotted to within a hundred meters of us.  Veering off its course after seeing us, it disappeared into the trees.  This wolf was Mary's first.

The next morning, we drove up the Gibbon drainage to check wolf signals.  There were definitely wolves in the area as the beeping on my receiver and the tracks on the roadside made clear.  In an attempt to triangulate the collared wolves location, we happened upon a very large gray wolf galumphing up the road.  It basically ignored us as it passed by.  I noticed on its cheek some red blood, and it proceeded to wipe its face in the snow right next to us.  We followed the wolf as it went up the road and down into the valley below.  We then headed toward home, making one more stop to try another triangulation.  From down the road, a black wolf suddenly appeared.  It crossed the meadow and stopped at a  meaty-red carcass, which I had not noticed before.  It seemed to stand guard at the kill, attentively with ears perked, looking into the distance.  After watching for some time, we decided to head home.  Just as I was folding up the scope, the gray wolf appeared out of no where and lumbered toward the carcass.  We watched them both for some time, and then decided to go home.  Just as we were pulling out, a white wolf came trotting down the road past us.  It too had blood on its white fur.








And so, my friends and family, this is a taste of what you can see this winter in Yellowstone for a limited time only!  Remember: food, lodging, transportation, and fun provided!  Call ahead for reservations!

(No wolf or bear sightings guaranteed.  Elk and bison sightings are guaranteed.  Entrance requires being a volunteer for the research project.)