Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Spring Goodbyes

Adios!
The season’s end has been lurking for several weeks, and is now pouncing on us, like a coyote on a pocket gopher’s final moments of life.  It is honestly depressing to me to think that my time in Yellowstone is coming to a close.  Our final week has been quite anti-climactic (hardly any wolves, no bears, a pitiful amount of bison, and a tiny elk population), but I still don’t want to leave.  I’m worried that I might injure Megan and Greg when they pull me kicking and screaming from the park entrance, if they can even get me that far.  

I feel that I have gained more from this job than I did from studying five years of ecology in college (but I wouldn’t have this job without the college part!).  I have developed a much deeper understanding and appreciation of the complex interactions that take place not only in Yellowstone, but everywhere on earth at every moment.  The human element in the world, although with a relatively huge impact on ecosystems, is only a small part of the colossal amount of interactions and processes that are occurring constantly.  They are relentless forces, powering life, death, and everything in between.

Megan found the first newborn bison calf of the season at Norris Junction.  Several days later, the Canyon pack had killed and nearly completely consumed it.  I held its tiny hooves in my hand and pondered life, death, and everything in between.   

I would like to sincerely thank all of you for reading my blog for this season.  I am extremely surprised at the number of folks that are, at the very least, taking a peek now and then.  It warms my heart to know that there are so many of you that are taking an interest not just in my adventures, but in the natural world.  I hope that at least some of my posts were revealing, and if not that, then gaspingly, intriguingly gory.

I’m afraid I may lose some of my readers this summer as I start my much less-glamorous job of searching for and monitoring nests of prairie falcons, northern goshawks, ferruginous hawks, and flammulated owls in South Central Idaho (for the Idaho Bird Observatory).  But I hope not, because, even in the sagebrush deserts and dry mountain forests, there are fascinating ecological stories unraveling.  And I’m sure I will have a few adventures of my own.

Cheers to Yellowstone…

Jesse DeVoe


Wolf sightings per day rate: 1.06
Total wolf sightings: 176

Grizzly bear sightings: 11
Bobcat sightings: 6
Flying squirrel sightings: 1
Red Fox sightings: 8
Snowshoe Hare sightings: 5
Earthquakes felt: 4
Days in Yellowstone: 165

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Rescheduling

For any readers that were considering attending my presentation, it has been rescheduled for the 3rd of May (Monday), same place (Fish and Game, IF) same time (7pm).  See you there!

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

For the majority of the minuscule population of AE readers that are located in Idaho Falls, I will be giving a presentation of my winter in Yellowstone at the Idaho Fish and Game Department (click for map) for the Master Naturalist program on Monday, May 3 at 7:00 PM.  Entitled "Chasing the Beep: A Winter Tracking Elk and Wolves in Central Yellowstone," I will be displaying photos that I have taken (many of which you have already seen on the blog), as well as going over the ecology that has been learned from the twenty year study.

I hope you will join me in gawking at some of the wonders of the Yellowstone ecosystem.  If you have any questions, shoot me an email at jessedevoe@aspiringecologist.com.

See you there all fellow aspirists of any profession...

Very Beary

The Preacher Bear
The very large, very burly local residents of the Yellowstone stage have been making regular, and quite awesome appearances during the past two weeks.  The grizzlies that inhabit central Yellowstone tend to be darker than typical, ranging from dark brown to black in color, and we can often recognize individuals by certain coloration patterns.  For example, the "Preacher Bear" has a small vertical white stripe on his front shoulder blade, and the "Armpit Bear," as I fondly call him, has white under his front legs.  I was lucky enough, along with several students from Bob Garrott's Field Techniques course from Montana State University, to witness a very interesting interaction between these two bears.  If anyone knows anything about bears that can help me decipher exactly what was going on, it would be greatly appreciated:

We first saw the Armpit bear wandering slowly across the Fountain Flats meadow, headed directly towards a carcass that was hidden in the trees.  It (he/she?) was acting very nervous about approaching the area where the carcass was, and took a few sniffs in the air and looks around, before entering into the trees and disappearing.  Moments later, the Preacher bear came barreling out of the trees, acting very scared.  He would stop, turn around and look, then bolt again.  As he stopped and turned around again, the Armpit bear came sauntering out of the trees, walking straight toward Preacher.  Preacher allowed him to get closer, but still slowly walked in the opposite direction.  Eventually, Armpit caught up to Preacher, who was still acting very nervous and subservient, head down, seeming to try to not make eye contact.  The two bears came nose to nose, and we all waited for the tooth and claw fight that would surely follow...but it didn't.  Instead, the bears, with jaws agape, gently mouthed each other.  They then began to lay paws on each other, and the Armpit bear proceeded to climb half way up onto Preacher's back.  Why the terror turning to play?  Brothers?  Flirting?  But I keep going back to: why the running fright?   No pictures unfortunately (too dark).

The Armpit Bear -- note patch of white under front legs.
The Preacher Bear -- note white vertical stripe on front shoulder blade.
The Preacher bear is locally famous, everyone in central Yellowstone knows about this massive, bison-killing, very human-tolerant bear.  I have seen him several times, often with very interesting behavior:

We had first spotted the wolves lounging in the meadow, without a care in the world.  Then out of the trees, the Preacher came walking out, casually sniffing around before slowly heading towards the sleeping wolves, where he proceeded to force them out of their dreamy state and push them around.  The wolves didn't seem to mind too much...they would just stand up, stretch, yawn, and get out of the bears way.

"Yaaaawwn...ok, I'll guess I'll move"

Two days ago, I chanced upon the Preacher bear on the side of the road.  Just another Preacher sighting, I thought to myself.  But, as always in Yellowstone, there is absolutely no predictability in anything.  Preacher began walking straight for a herd of bison across the river.  The bison were very alert to his presence, bunching up and nervously shuffling positions, but they didn't run...until he crossed the river.

Preacher preparing his sermon...
(there is a river between him and the bison in this shot)
...and delivering it.



Unsuccessful, Preacher went for another try, but unfortunately, came away with nothing but wet fur.  No mistakes were made by the fleet-footed bison...too bad for the Preacher. 

A last, desperate self-baptism by the Preacher bear  

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Three Wolf-ateers


His performance was quite impressive.  In the face of three hungry wolves repeatedly lunging and snapping, the yearling bull bison showed much bravery and perseverance, even with a shredded and bloody hide and a bad limp.  He would go on to escape and survive the attacks, at least from these wolves. 



The Canyon pack had returned, after being absent from the study area for 37 days. Sweeping along their usual route from Norris to Madison Junction in one or two days, the wolves were on a search and destroy mission.  Luke and I had followed their tracks down the Madison River for several miles, until we came upon the three member pack.  The grey, the black, and the white.  Aaah how great! I think to myself.  I love the Canyon pack, probably my favorite.  They had double-backed on their tracks and were headed back toward Madison Junction, but Luke and I had work to do (ie trying to find more wolves), so we left Canyon pack knowing that we would probably miss something exciting.  After finishing our duty up the Gibbon, headed back to Madison Junction, I hear Gary, the Madison ranger, hail me on the radio.  “Three mike forty three (that’s me)…six oscar one two (that’s Gary)…I’ve got something interesting going on down here at the Wildlife Exhibit you might want to see.”  Knowing that Canyon pack was in the area, I replied, “I think I know what’s going on, I’ll be there soon.”  Gary replied “yeah, we’ve got an animal in distress.”  In distress!  Oh goodie!  Luke and I could barely contain ourselves.  And of course we were stuck in a construction zone for five minutes, stopped by the flag lady.  Repeating Gary’s words “in distress!” over and over again didn’t relieve our anxious itch to be there now, watching wolves and the “animal in distress”!



We finally arrived to the Wildlife Exhibit, and…nothing was happening.  Great, we missed it all! But Gary was there and said that the wolves had just disappeared into the trees, and they had been working on taking down the aforementioned yearling bull bison.  Every twenty minutes or so, Gary said, the pack would come out of the trees, work over the bison, then go back into the trees and rest.  In effect, they were trying to gradually wear the young bull down enough until his fateful fatal end.  We left the road for a bit, trying to see if we could find the wolves in the trees, when suddenly from behind us, one by one, the three wolves dropped off the road, trotting adjacent to us not twenty feet away.  They hardly even acknowledged out presence, but continued straight for the young bison, who had wondered upstream and had crossed to the other side of the river.  Swimming across the river, the black wolf caught up with the young bison and ran him back downstream toward us.  The bison eventually stopped running and faced the wolf.  With his head bowed low, butt in the air, tail wagging (similar to the “play” stance, if you know dog behavior), the wolf would get close to the bison, then shoot to the side as the bull made a quick charge, then get back in the bison’s face.  He would repeat this over and over, trying to wear down the bison and possible get the bison to make a mistake.  Eventually, the white wolf got interested and crossed the river to help. [A weird thing about the wolves that I’ve noticed is that they frequently seem nonchalant about attacking their prey.  One wolf will be making a move on the prey, while the others just sit on the sidelines staring, like they are deciding whether it is worth their time or not to help out.  And often they won’t assist in the attack.]  Hooves were flying everywhere, horns were tossed violently at the wolves, and the wolves kept coming in for more.  From the back, the white would sneak in a lunge while the black distracted the bison from the front.  I can still vividly see the bison kick that knocked straight into the white wolf’s head.  Her head flung back with the blow, but she was only momentarily stunned.  It was at that moment that I realized how dangerous it is for these wolves to attempt taking down prey, bison especially.  I actually began to feel afraid for the wolves, afraid that I would witness the death of one of my favorite wolves.



But the white wolf was fine, and she kept at it.  Into the river, then back on the meadow, the wolves continued their harassing of the bison.  The gray wolf had joined in too, as well as another bull bison, trying to help defend the young bull.  There were several other bull bison there as well, but they virtually ignored everything that was going on around them and kept grazing, which seems to be very strange behavior.  It’s as if they know that the young bull is done for and it’s not even worth raising an eyebrow at.  Eventually the wolves retired to the trees again for a long rest.  The wolves lazed about in the trees and the talus hillside, rolling around in the snow, sniffing interesting things in the dirt, taking cat-naps, surveying the area, etc.  



As the wolves lounged about, many vehicles (mostly construction and maintenance workers) and bikers passed by, and even though we were all lined up with scopes and binoculars looking at the wolves, hardly anyone stopped to see what we were staring at.  This always amazes me.  Nearly all of these people would be stoked to see wolves, and, goodness gracious, you’re in Yellowstone National Park!  There are incredible large predatory mammals everywhere in the park, and you don’t even take a second to stop and take a look or ask what we are seeing!  They just keep on moving, oblivious or insensible to the world around them.  Most of us never take a look around.  If you never look, you won’t ever know, and you won’t ever care.  




The gray wolf came out again and made a few attempts at the calf, but could do nothing alone, and the others weren’t too interested, so he retreated back to the trees.  It is always so hard to leave when you are so close to seeing the rare event of wolves taking down their prey, but we knew that these attacks can last up to two days, so we made the decision to leave, because we had work to do (like watch some elk poop so we could collect it). 


That evening, we found the injured yearling bull making his way down the river.  I think that the Canyon pack fell asleep and accidentally slept too long, losing track of their prey!  Two days later, he would be seen walking stiffly and sorely west, almost out of the park.  A noble fight for survival for both the wolves and the bison, and the young bull would survive.  It's not an easy thing to take down a bison, even a small one!  Now, will the injured bison survive future attacks from the freshly awakened  grizzly bears!

Here are some of my favorite pictures of the three wolfateers:















Saturday, April 3, 2010

Easter!

Two parentals for a very white Easter visit! (So now we get the snow, sheesh!) It snowed continuously for several days, but the animals didn't mind one bit...
One Bear
Two bears (one is on a carcass at the very left edge of the fence...hard to see, but it is a bear)


Along with these two bears hanging out near the carcass, there were four wolves waiting nearby, probably hoping for an opportunity to steal a bite or two when the bears were full.  




Mom says "oh c'mon, you've had your turn, let the others have some food!" to the one bear that refused to leave the carcass.

Bear attack survivor?
Wolf attack survivor?
Fish attacker and bison scavenger.
The wild researcher man of Yellowstone....

....has been tamed.