Category: Wildlife habitat


crescentmoon

The first photographers who labored to put image to paper almost 200 years ago couldn’t have known that someday, a small camera within the budget of average Americans would be able to capture the crescent moon.  My little camera sees this New Year’s moon in more detail than the first photographers ever could. And  in another 200 years, we will probably live on the moon if we live at all.

golden_crescent_moon

Credit: Dcibillus, Wikimedia Commons, 2009

But using an electronic eye to see into the heavens doesn’t resonate like using imagination to daydream the moon and stars. Cultures around the world saw the sliver of waxing or waning moon and turned it into concept or goddesses or some symbol of the mysterious.

It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.

Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Using that electronic eye catches scenes quickly, gives a nice visual to tell a story with, lets us race by and get to the next part of our lives.  But slowing down, seeing that symbol hanging in the dark sky far above and imagining its meaning and power, stays more with us.

I spent the holidays puttering, cleaning, slowing down, simplifying not making resolutions to do more and better, but just stopping to think and to reach back to the things that make me happy.  The things that should inspire gratitude.

In a busy life, it’s easy to forget to be grateful. It’s been unusually cold here, and the cold stretches on. The ground is hard and the water tanks freeze nightly.  I carry water for half an hour every morning. It’s bone-chilling damp and frigid when I get off the train in Seattle. But electronics give me pause and perspective:  The jet stream that is chilling us with arctic flow is pressing a massive incoming pineapple express into northern California, which will experience major flooding, avalanches, and landslides.  That storm would have been barreling down on my area – if it hadn’t been so cold, that is. make_img

mtbaker

Mt. Baker, with a little steam rising to remind us it’s an active volcano.

And we’re not dry cold:  we’re having a phenomenal winter season, a good ski/snowshoe year, so there’s still time to get out to the mountains and enjoy and get back in shape for backpacking season.

 

 

larkeyMy remaining horse, and all the animals I’ve cared for here are also a reason for gratitude.  I bought this house, located in such a perilous place, for my horses.  Here I am now, down from four horses, two dogs, and two cats that came with the house.  I one horse left, and he’s ageing and looking sore on one leg, and we can’t figure out what it is.  I’m feeling the loss of my other horse, and this animal’s aching.

This stage can seem like the twilight of a flawed day that started with a brilliant, hopeful dawn.  You become worn being the angel of death ushering beloved animal companions one after the other  into eternal night. You wonder what would have been had you done something different.

Well, here’s the deal.  My dogs and horses forced me outside to get fresh air and exercise even when I didn’t want to go. They grounded me and gave me a badly needed sense of responsibility. They gave me reason to locate in a quiet sanctuary that protected me in some major life changes and difficult situations.

hawk3This sanctuary is where I learned to heal the land and make a home for wildlife.  Teaching other people what I learned over a decade of habitat restoration has made me a better communicator. Volunteering to give workshops lets me give something back to the world. My habitat project has helped my really see and understand wildlife. Animals have driven my art, my interests, my travel.  The drive to restore even more every year keeps me moving, digging the earth, creating hedgerows and gardens and wild, tangled refuges.

And my home is modest, but at least for now, I have a home.  My own home. Many, many people do not due to poverty, natural disaster, and war. Or they share dangerously cramped space with too many people.

whitehorseBy the end of holiday break, I could see my house as far more than an object and investment again. I slowed down, puttered around, rearranged my space, reconnected enough to see it as more than a snapshot.  Not  racing by, on a schedule to get things done, as a place of chores and responsibilities and somewhere to rest between work days.

I once again see home as a living place filled with stories and memories, souvenirs and mementos, many good times and some tough ones; the silent, non-judgemental keeper of my dreams and decisions.  My land is a driver for my best aspirations and successes. My horse is a welcome anchor, a creature who needs me as a familiar herd member, not a burden.

Sure, I wander around with my camera some, taking pictures of wildlife, the New Year’s Day sunrise and the crescent moon.  But I also stop, listen, imagine the moon and the hooting owls and trumpeting swans as symbols of something unearthly, daydream a novel of a mystical place where they are all gods- and well, you know.  Become human again.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

 

 

22314-monteverde-quetzal-2

The holy grail of Monteverde bird watching:  the resplendent quetzal. Photo by Kim

There- you have the reason everyone goes to the Cloud Forest:  to see the resplendent quetzal.  This member of the trogon family is understandably a key fixture in Mayan and Aztec legend.  Apparently, the quetzal lost its most beautiful song when the Mayan lost their country to the Spaniards, and will only sing again when the land is once again free. These striking birds symbolized freedom since they reportedly would kill themselves in captivity. In fact, a breeding program at Zoológico Regional Miguel Álvarez del Torohas produced only about a dozen birds since 2003.  The song they sing is, for the time being, distinctive.

When we arrive, there is a pair of resplendent quetzals in trees by the parking lot. Astonishingly, some people decide they will skip the tour because they’ve seen what they came to see without leaving the parking lot.

2232014_quetzalcrowd

Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Preserve is internationally famous and so amazingly busy.  We are advised of two things:  arrive for the first tour if you want to see any birds, and hire a guide.  If you get there late, the throngs will chase the birds away.  And if you think your untrained eyes will find birds and animals, well, good luck to you.

2272014_potoo2

The potoo on super zoom. Seriously, not finding this one by myself due to camoflauge.

I learn thoughout this trip why ecotourists should hire local guides.  It’s not just for their sharp eyes.  Guides at reserves share with each other information on where there are potoos posed still on a nest within a broken snag, bats roosting for the day, sloths sleeping, and hummingbird nests with young. You are benefiting from the sharp eyes of many guides.

And along with dollars that go to lodging and food, your guide fees and tips give the local communities reason to preserve these lands, to let the jungle come back.

At Santa Elena Reserve, our young guide tells a tale of wanting to guide only for the tourist dollars.  “I knew nothing about our birds and animals here,” he says. “But it was better money than cattle farming at home with my family.”

An older guide gave him a pair of broken binoculars.  He managed to fix them, and  found his world transformed when he saw his first bird in fine detail.  It stopped being about tourist dollars right then:  he was instantly hooked on his country’s wildlife .

When we walked with him, he demonstrated excellent tracking ability and found a quetzal breeding pair in the forest by subtle sound.

In Monteverde, the guides have equally interesting stories. Our guide walked us throught the complex life cycle of the strangler fig as if it were a suspensful drama, an unfolding story.

These strange trees are completely dependent on pollination by the fig wasp, which in turn depends on them. These are not bad trees, according to our guide, despite their name. “Tourists hear that they strangle trees, kill them, and they want them all to be removed,” he tells us.  “But they are part of the forest.  They’re natural. They help the birds and animals.”

2232014_gregfruxmonte

I think about that rule- removing things that kill other things- and how ironic it would be if we applied it to ourselves.

2232014_insidestranglerfig

Looking up inside a strangler fig that has swallowed its host.

Our companions on this tour are two artists that sit for coffee with us in the cafe afterward.  Greg Frux has completed multiple trips to beautiful Death Valley, first as an artist-in-residence because, he said, the artist who was supposed to go didn’t realize he or she would be camped out in a tent in the desert.  He shows me his wonderful field book and says he wants to do a painting of the strangler fig.  I don’t see anything from Costa Rica on his website even today, but he’s had many other grand adventures.

Aside from the wonderful coffee shop, there is a good gift shop with work from local artisans.  And there are hummingbird feeders.  The day is darkish and foggy, as it should be in the mist-shrouded mountains, and my photographs are only marginal, even though there are unbelievable numbers of hummingbirds there.  A local woman weaves nearby, and I’m interested, but I don’t know if we share a language.

montehummer3

monteweaver

It’s hard to compete with the brilliance of hummingbirds, but this weaver was just as colorful.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

montehummer1After the tour, we walk the trails, but it is getting hot now, with the sun out.  The guide has said the sun shines more than it should in the Cloud Forests.  “Climate change,” he tells us.  “Sun will destroy the forest.  It needs clouds, and mist, and cool.”

2232014_kimsuspensionbridge

The next day, we traveled to Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve, much smaller and more peaceful. This is a community-run reserve, and it has a much more intimate feel.  It has fewer rules than Monteverde, so the guide takes us in the opposite direction of the other tour groups.  This is where we track the sound of a quetzal dropping fruits in the forest, and hear the “rusty gate bird”- the black faced solitaire.  It does sound like its common namesake, but its song resonates through the forest and with the song of the lonely toucan, means Costa Rica to me from there on out.

I learn an important differentiator of my home and this place, something that should have been obvious.  The trees here don’t have rings.  I learn this when I ask the guide about a large, old cedar. Radiocarbon dating, he says.

At Santa Elena, I find beauty in forest plants.  They are dramatic, sculptural and embossed with hairs and modified leaves and flowers.  They grow where ever they can, on the ground, all over the trees, hanging in the air.

At this less crowded reserve, we lingered.  We ate lunch, drank coffee, enjoyed listening to people talk. We bought gifts in the small shop adjacent to the cafe tables. Sure, the ride up to Monteverde was rough. I was still struggling with a respiratory infection, but the moist air felt good on my lungs and I understood exactly why we had come here. It was for the resplendent quetzal and everything else wonderful about this place.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

laleonahammock2

After 3 years, I haven’t made it back to Costa Rica yet.  I wanted to go back the next year, then the next, and- well, I’m too curious. I wander too much and am easily distracted by new adventures.

But I can tell you why I really want to go back.  It’s not the adventure travel activities and resorts, because my friend and I avoided those like the plague when we traveled to the Pacific coast in 2014. It’s the quiet lodges at refuges where the owners and communities are working to save what is left of the rich wildlife in the country.

This post is about the first leg of our trip, from Liberia to our lodging near the Cloud Forests of Monteverde and Santa Elena. Our trip started in Seattle, with clear skies as we flew over sleeping Mt. Rainier. Mt. St. Helens rises above the clouds in the background, a stubby reminder of what happens when our Cascade stratavolcanoes decide they are too symmetrical and lovely.

2212014_rainierhellens

Our travel plans led us to the smart choice of flying into Liberia.  Sure, we drove out past 40 kms of road construction leaving town, with men mixing and pouring concrete from wheelbarrows in 90F heat.  But after we flew out of San Jose at the end, I would recommend Liberia instead.  At the very least, Liberia wouldn’t be hosting the Costa Rica vs. Paraguay soccer game at the national stadium as San Jose was when we were passing through.

We had a stopover in Dallas both ways.  Don’t do this.  Or at least, if you must, give yourself about 4 hours to lay over in this airport.  We almost missed our connection on the way back, making a Chariots of Fire dash in our socks out of security and reaching the gate within a minute of closing – and this after our flight landed 2.5 hours before.

I can’t remember the airline we flew, but it doesn’t matter: the leg room and service are minimal on all of them when you’re in economy class. The only weirdly wonderful, throwback service I’ve experienced is from Air North going to the Canadian Arctic. Expensive to fly, but they have real food, free wine and capuccino and hot, moist towels before and after meals. Oh, and leg room.

I flew with an awful respiratory infection.  A doctor sent me with prescription nasal spray and Sudafed to avoid rupturing my full eardrums.  It was brutal to clear my ears, and the second takeoff felt like a near disaster.  My right ear has had a slight ringing ever since.

We landed in the early evening in Liberia, taxied to our nearby hotel, and sat on the veranda eating fruit and drinking juice in soothing warm air,  listening to night creatures chirping.  A gecko appeared on the wall, making an amazingly loud sound.

The next morning didn’t start out as a dream vacation. We gathered our rental 4WD, after finding the price skyrocketed over the quote with insurance coverage.  Since an automatic was twice the price as a manual transmission, we got the manual. This meant I was doing all the driving because Kim doesn’t drive a stick and that’s all I’ve ever owned.

The Korean SUV was a true Rent-A-Wreck; the suspension was shot by a thousand tourist yahoos and the air conditioning died within 10 minutes.  We kept the windows shut to keep out dust from the 40 km of aforementioned road construction.  That pretty much cooked us.

Then we took a couple wrong turns.  The first wasn’t too bad, but the second was a wrong turn out of Cañas onto 142, instead of continuing to 145.  People complain about the road to Monteverde, but they’re talking about 145.  The connector between was a steep, bone jarring, unsigned route.  The scenery was gorgeous and it was the type of lonely I like.  Kim- well, between no signs and bouncing around on lousy suspension in a crappy 4WD with no air conditioning, she was understandably losing patience.

kimatroadbreak

Kim, taking a much needed break from the hot, suspensionless SUV on the road to Monteverde.

2222014_sharetheroadThe upside of the drive was that we weren’t lost, and we saw one cause of decline of the resplendent quetzal, a charismatic bird everyone going to Monteverde Cloud Forest wants to see:  a fragmented travel corridor between the mountains and the sea. Cattle ranches have denuded forest, leaving flying quetzals vulnerable to winged predators.

2222014_infocentermonteroad

In the middle of nowhere appeared an “Info Center”- with no facilities or people to give information.  Had to stop for the picture, anyway.

2222014_finallyasign

A sign! The speed limit is the funniest one- at that speed, our vehicle would disintegrate.

We finally made it to Cabinas Capulin.  It was a little hard to find someone to check us in: the lodging operation is operated on a restored portion of a working dairy operation. They, like others, are adding ecotourism to their portfolio to weather the uncertainties of farming and to benefit from local tourism.  They’re not as connected as some, so we had to set up our own guide reservations in the Cloud Forest Reserves, which require certified guides.

 

cabinassign

Our cabin was small and comfortable, with great deck and views.  The wood in the cabins was from fallen trees that can no longer be harvested because they’re endangered.  We learned on the trip that wood is poached along with exotic animals and birds from tropical forests.

The view from the deck was filled with lush, beautiful trees with birds fluttering everywhere.  The family built trails as the jungle began to restore itself, but clearly, some trees had been there awhile.

cabinasforest

We wandered the trails the first day, and I met my first strangler fig.  These tropical plants earned their name by their survival tactic:  they begin to grow in the canopy of a live tree, drop roots to the ground, slowly surrounding the host until they shut it down and become a tree of their own.

2222014_stranglerfigcapulin

The Capulin strangler fig was on one trail, and on another, enormous ant mound that would be dwarfed by the underground complex and satellite mounds we couldn’t see.  A parade of leaf cutter ants marched along the trail, bounty on their backs.  The leaf pieces are not for their dinner table, but to feed the fungus they farm underneath the dirt. Awesome video of these ants is at Deep Look on YouTube.

 

leafcutterantsThus my first view into the complex, interconnected world of the rainforest:  an environment where any creature that plows the soil and recycles organic important is absolutely critical.  Even a soldierly group of ants with a labyrinthine underground world.

greentoucan

Emerald Toucanet

We saw other birds here, including an emerald toucanet and pale-billed woodpecker, and came upon the other ubiquitous feature of Costa Rican tourist areas:  the zipline. Cabinas Capulin has a small one, which we did not avail ourselves, but up the road is apparently the Big Daddy of ziplines, and an aerial tram.  We passed.

cabinas_palebilledwoodpeckerCabinas Capulin was really our jumping off point to Monteverde and Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserves, which I’ll cover in the next post.  Suffice to say, it is an inexpensive place to stay, and a coworker recommended it when we couldn’t get into the Ecolodge San Luis, a branch of University of Georgia. And Cabinas was a secluded, relaxing place to be after our rather inauspicious start.

2222014_trailsigncapulin

In a nation where-yes, even now in 2016- many of us still have choices in life, you might be wondering why someone would make this choice.  Why anyone would sign up for this.

Maybe the house knows the answer. It has been standing since 1908, watching people come and go, live and die. The house has stood through flood, massive windstorms, and earthquakes.  It was perched on piles before being placed on a foundation and surrounded with fill from the abandoned Northern Pacific Railway line. It was abandoned at one point. The house survived the local dike wars and soldiers leaving for two world wars and the Vietnam War.

1995-flood

Before my time- the 1995 dike breach in front of my gate

Every November, I wonder if I’ve lost my mind, or maybe lost the courage to face one more flood season.  I obsessively watch the weather for the trifecta:  A typhoon near Asia, warm winds coming up from Hawaii, and the jet stream pressing down on us.  Add an unconsolidated snowpack in the Central Cascades, and voila! You have an atmospheric river, and a major  flood in the Snohomish River Valley, overtopping farmer engineered dikes and sweeping across the fields.

I’ve been through two major floods:  the Great Pumpkin flood of December 2006 and the January 2009 flood.  Now, the locals said neither of these should have happened. Once you get past Thanksgiving you’re okay, they said.  Ya sure, as we would have said in Minnesota.  Ya sure.greatpumpkinflood2

I watched the 2006 flood from across the valley, my horses safely ensconced in a boarding barn atop the hill.  The flood hit at the end of pumpkin season, before they were tilled into fields.  I would walk to the bottom of the hill and peer across the water, trying to see if my foundation was still dry.  The first night water filled the valley I stood and listened.  I could hear fins and tails slapping through the waters:  salmon on their way to spawn swept into the fields with no way out after it was over.  The pumpkins bobbed along illuminated by the neighbor’s farm light, with dark blobs on top.  When my eyes adjusted, I realized the blobs were rodents riding the pumpkins like rafts.  Then I saw the owls. I counted eight-great horned, screech, barn- swooping down to grab rodents from the pumpkins.

When I returned home after the storm swept away, I drove past a pack of coyotes stretched out on the dike in the sun, bellies round with rodents.  Waiting for the rising waters to run rodents toward your waiting jaws is a risk, but if you’re a coyote, maybe you’re a born gambler.  A muskrat was in the barn, with the water line not very far behind.

The 2009 flood was harder.  My hip was deteriorating and getting horses out and sandbags down was no joy.  I had a little help, but preparations were slow and I drove out as the water was slowly starting to pool on the road. It’s the first time I heard the river’s voice change.  It started out high-pitched as water splashed and spilled over tree limbs bobbing in the water.  Then octaves tumbled as deep, rolling boils swirled like watery tornadoes.

This flood threatened to be worse than 2006, and I wasn’t sure the dikes would hold.  I stayed in a hotel. My neighbors, who ride these events out at home, walked the dikes and sent reports.

The dikes held, with some calving, caving, boils, and piping. Julie got some great photos flying the river in Bunky’s float plane.  More than the post-breach picture of Mary posing at the gate,  Julie’s photos cemented my resolve to leave in large floods.

house-4

The barn and house are left, located between overtopping dikes and inundated fields.

overtopping2

Overtopping behind barn, horse paddocks at right.

Because I’m the downstream property, I get everyone’s debris: plywood, power poles from a replacement project, prescription bottles, dead pigs, and this unfortunate victim:

flood-victims_edited-1

 

Cleanup reminds me why I live here, as I watch a young heron slowly stepping through the pooled water behind the house, catching worms.  The raptors have arrived in droves, and I watch a bald eagle and hawk lock talons and roll in the sky. The County piles up road debris 8 feet high , and as I’m walking by at night, I see a dozen owls perched on the mound, waiting for more rodent meals.

heron2

I moved here for nature and privacy.  It’s obvious why this area doesn’t get developed, and I’ve got nature at its most rhythmic and normal, oblivious to whatever stuff we put in its way. The river is a voice thousands of years old reminding me that belongings are transitory, along with human life.  It’s about living in the moment, feeling the place.

Sure, I’d rather trade the growling bass tones of a rising river for the gentle honking of trumpeter swans, the barking of snow geese, the spring chorus of frogs. But they wouldn’t be here if the river wasn’t here, and the river owns this valley once in a while. Maybe it’s a good reminder as I face another winter that we are ephemeral, no matter how mighty and eternal we believe we are.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

 

ynpfrostymorning2

Lest my rant give the misimpression that my September 2016 trip to Yellowstone National Park was an exercise in tourist frustration, I enjoyed a quiet room at the new Canyon Lodge and some peaceful day hikes.  Sometimes enjoying the best of Yellowstone happens when you park your car and use your feet.

On a lovely but cold morning, I drove Hayden Valley drinking hot coffee looking for wildlife while the sun rose. Many folks have clued into this:  drive at dawn and dusk, watch for other cars stopped, and voila, wildlife.  I stopped at a pullout for this lovely view of the river.  Apologies to the gentleman taking pictures of a bald eagle.  I have a nesting pair by my home, and while I don’t take them for granted, their Wyoming cousins don’t have the unique attraction of a pretty sunrise on a foggy river.

I decided to day hike to Sentinel Meadows after perusing the Jake Bramante map over morning coffee.  It was a great choice for solitude. I veered off the common road to the Fairy Falls/Imperial Geyser trail, which everyone else was taking, and ended up with the place to myself.

The trail starts by a thermal, Ojo Caliente, which could be morphed into, “Oh no, super caliente!” if you were so foolish as to enter the steaming pool.

ynpojocaliente

ynpojostreams

The trail leads past this  thermal through wide meadows with fresh bison patties, wood debris and enough trees to provide perfect habitat for cavity nesting, insect eating mountain bluebirds.  These busy little birds find perches in meadows to hunt, then dive to the ground to grab their meal. They also hover, which is fun to watch but hard to catch without a great camera.

ynpbluebird4

The trail winds past the Queen’s Laundry, thermal features that apparently people- well, used for laundry at one time (doh!).

ynpqueenslaundry

The trail climbs a small hill, winds around a corner through another small meadow, through some trees, and then drops into another meadow.  In this case, a meadow filled with bison and thermal features.

ynpbisoneverywhere

There were lots of bison sacked out, and spread out over a wide area.  A couple trailing groups approached them in a line.  The orange trail markers indicated my trail crossed their path, so I sat on my pack to eat lunch and waited for them to cross. Or not.

ynpmovingthentheystopped

Two cows suddenly felt the need for a siesta, and plopped down right by the trail.  A giant bull stood sentinel over them, killing my plan to have a short lunch while the parade rear guard moseyed past. It was going to be a really long lunch, or a detour.

ynpnotcrossinghere

Not passing too close to this big guy, for sure…..

After awhile, I decided it was a detour. With the thermal features in the area, I was cautious about picking a route.  There was a social path blocked by a tree limb that I used (sorry, YNP) to head down valley from the bison.  I swung wide across the valley, watching for bison trails and picking a narrow part of the marshy stream to hop across.  After the stream, I followed more bison paths back toward the trail.

The whole time I detoured, I kept an eye on the bull even though I was well distant from him and his girls.  He turned his head a couple times, but never lifted his tail, so I figured I was paying appropriate respect.

The trail passed small thermal features before crossing a stream on limbs and entering a forest. Then it crossed back to a connector with Fairy Falls and the common gravel road again.  I walked the road chatting with a couple from Seattle who had made a last minute decision to visit Yellowstone to hike since he was nursing a bad ankle.  We passed one more group of bison on the way out, and then reached our cars for a cheery au revoir and off to our evening destination. All in all, a peaceful pleasant day in a super popular national park.

ynpsentinelhill

aprtemporaryhome

People would feel foolish standing on the deck of a boat looking out over the ocean and declaring that nothing could be living underneath the water simply because they couldn’t see it.  Yet the same people drive past expansive grasslands and open country saying that “nothing’s out there” because they can’t see it.

Grasslands are like the ocean, with a sea of life swimming past.  The land undulates like waves, hiding animals from view. The frothy grass heads washed windward mask a multitude of little things.  You just have to wade through the grass and find these things.

seaofgrass

The easiest to find are the birds because they will rise above the waves of grass.  Harriers swoop low over the land, trying to scare up rodents. Falcons, hawks and owls perch on fenceposts and  in trees by creeks to scan for meals.  Even doves and meadowlarks use whatever they can find as a singing platform.

Then there are the mammals that can move through the grass, but use it for shade and cover.  Deer, pronghorns, bison all eat the grass, bed down in it, move through it.  Deer have a way of appearing suddenly out of grasslands, invisible until you get a white flag flipped in your face and see slender legs bounding away from you.

aprdeeraprdeerfamilypronghornsynpbisoncow

Prairie dogs live under the sea bottom, and coyotes hunt at the bottom.  Black footed ferrets, rabbits and badgers keep the dogs company, while the real canids sniff around looking for a rodent, berry, or insect meal.

And then there are the really little things- bugs and bones, plants and fungi, rocks and flowers.  Even geologic monuments installed long, long ago. Finding all the interesting living and non-living things in a grassland sea even a mile square can take you hours, from dawn to dusk to catch them all.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

 

 

 

aprbuffalocampIt’s cold.  A thick layer of sparkly white frosting coats the tent like a muffin.  I’d say the temperature is somewhere in the 20’s.  It’s fall, so I expected this. I’m swaddled in synthetic puffy fabric and fleece, with rain jacket and pants to keep the slightest breeze from stealing heat. I brush most of the frost off the tent and then make coffee and read maps.

I’m at the Sun Prairie unit of the American Prairie Reserve, a privately funded island in an ocean of ranchland.  A place where people are working to put back on the land what we took away over a hundred years ago.

bisonskulls

Bison skulls awaiting processing for fertilizer. Unknown photograper, public domain, Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library.

The bison, a keystone species and our new national mammal was almost exterminated forever by the early 1900’s.  Mass kills were followed by mass efforts to pick the prairies clean of bones for fertilizer.

Everything changed with the death of bison and arrival of people determined to completely alter the landscape.  Wolves and bears feasted on bison carcasses, then were themselves shot, trapped, and poisoned.  We eradicated prairie dogs, hawks, snakes, anything that got in the way of our cattle, sheep, and chickens. Where there was water for cultivation, native flora gave way to the plow.

Now temperate grasslands are considered the most threatened communities of plants and animals on earth. Internationally, we’re recognizing that grasslands have been “cradling the needs of humans for millenia“.  We’re working to correct the past with more than a national designation for an animal.

ynpredcalf

If this late-born red calf survives the winter, it will represent another hope for the future of bison. Yellowstone National Park, Sept 2016

Northeastern Montana is an area where large scale grassland preservation can be meaningful. Although the land has been changed at the surface, it hasn’t been plowed extensively.  Public lands can be bridged to provide large scale habitat.  The Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge spans 1.1 million acres of land along 125 air miles of the Missouri River. Enter APR, first a foundation, now a place, buying ranches from willing sellers, building fence, and trying to restore the prairie landscape.

aprlocalwelcomeIt won’t be easy, mostly because of people,  past as well as present. I pass signs on the road protesting the Reserve. Ranchers worry about their way of life, though farm radio news indicates  the economy and ranch debt is more threatening than conservation. People have introduced diseases like sylvatic plague that kills prairie dogs and black-footed ferrets alike. And we all know what weeds are like:  psychotically clingy stalkers that reappear at every turn no matter how you try to ditch them.

But there is hope.

The BLM has introduced the Undaunted Stewardship program to help ranchers protect natural and historic resources; the video below shows how people are working to make ranching more friendly. APR is also promoting ranches that protect wildlife with the Wild Sky beef program.

Promoting responsible ranches is commendable, but cows are not bison. Using private funds, APR is piecing together land, and retiring grazing rights to Russell NWR where it can. They are restoring grasslands and streambanks. They’re growing a bison herd that can help restore the natural grassland processes. As a privately funded organization, APR can be creative because they’re not beholden to politically-influenced federal land management practices. And very creative people are at work even in the government: the USFWS has plans to use drones and candy to vaccinate ferrets against the plague.

As I sit and drink my coffee, waiting for the sun to dry my tent, I try to get into the minds of settlers.  Why did we needlessly slaughter 65 million animals that took care of themselves and provided healthier meat than we can raise even with intensive management?  Why did we start this endless effort to manage the land for animals that can’t thrive here without protection and help? Why did we make it so hard for ourselves?

I imagine the mass migrations of bison Lewis and Clark saw: the grasslands teeming with bison, deer, pronghorn antelopes, birds, punctuated with the warning yips and yelps of prairie dogs.  I’ve heard the low, rumbling sound of a bison herd moving through Slough Creek Valley below my camp, grunting and murmuring drifting up the hill. But that herd was over a hundred, not tens of thousands. I wonder which future generation will hear those sounds again; when we’ll again see the abundance we’ve lost.

aprkeepmoving

aprwelcome

After speeding away to a special assignment that includes social media, my life and my blog have been left in a dust cloud, pressed flat in the gravel like dehydrated roadkill. I worked my old job and my new job for five weeks until my work got transferred. Days never really ended. I forgot things. I needed everything to slow down.  I needed a break.

And there is the crazy, polarizing presidential campaign, the racism nightmare, terrorism. The national stress level is crushing on top of too little sleep/too much work.

Thankfully, I had long ago set up a trip to Montana to visit American Prairie Reserve and Yellowstone National Park.  After the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge occupation, I wanted to visit some refuges to – you know, take public land back.  Back from those cowboy hat Trojan horses funded by the resource extraction industries. The next few posts are about this trip.

What with my work-squashed neurons, I did a marginal job packing, and had to fill in a few things at Missoula.  Mostly, I had enough or maybe a little much.  Why I brought 3 pounds of cheese is a mystery. Simple math and consideration of cheese’s gastrointestinal effects would have fixed that.

I relax driving long distances and watching scenery slide by.  It’s meditation for a former Midwestern road tripper. By the time I reached Buffalo Camp at APR’s Sun Prairie unit, my brain had emptied, and I’d heard enough farm radio to forget about the world.  And I agreed with the greeting on the sign.  It was good.

buffalocampsign

On cue, the Welcome Wagon bison showed me the location of my tent platform.  I didn’t ask him to stay and fluff my camp pillow, but he seemed willing to linger.

aprcampsitehost

aprdontdothis

Don’t worry- the deepest part is hidden on the left.

Of course, the first thing I decided to do was to cut my wrist with a knife.  Because too much crazy going on. For the first time in my knife-wielding life, I reached one hand over the other to grab something and neatly sliced my skin with the upward pointed tip.

The wound wasn’t terrible, though it was a bloody mess and will leave a scar.  It doesn’t really look like I tried to off myself:  I would get a D- for the effort. But if that tip had been 1/4 inch lower and an inch to the right- well, that would have been pretty dicey so far away from help. I’ve been there, long ago in northern Minnesota, with knee slices, broken ankle, appendicitis, and nearest medical care 45 miles away.  This one was easy, something pressure and gauze could fix once I decided to quit dripping blood on the tent and do something about it.

bridgebuffalocamptrailFinally, after setting up my temporary abode, I could stretch my legs walking out to the prairie dog town across the creek.  I could watch the prairie sunset and moonrise and curl up well-insulated in my sleeping bag, ready to start exploring the next day.

 

aprwhosthere

 

 

 

prairiesunset

aprbeforeharvestmoon

The Harvest Moon is almost upon us…

 

 

 

 

 

CoyoteRealizaton

Canis latrans follows humans where ever we go, living off our leavings. They pursue our scraps and the animals atracted to our waste and the table we set for birds and pets.  Coyotes have walked in our wagon tracks and footsteps, across trails and highways, to occupy North and Central America.  As we exterminated their enemies, especially wolves, their populations grew and their territory expanded.  They grew bolder. After grey wolves were re-introduced in Yellowstone National Park, coyote populations dropped by half, and they abandoned the apex predator behavior they had assumed.

My valley had a stable coyote pack for a long time, until the neighbor without adequate protection for his sheep started taking them out in revenge for lamb nabbings.  A year later, the rabbit population exploded and garden destruction began.  Worse, the mesh fence my neighbor put in to keep his wayward cows out of my yard blocks the travel of coyotes. Now, I’m happy to see any coyotes at all.

I knew I had a coyote around somewhere in June:  scat with cherries and occasional hair was appearing on the road and in my horses’ paddocks.  I finally caught sight of a young coyote as I was meandering around the fields on a rental tractor, mowing thigh high grass.  Many raptors follow tractors, for good reason.  The rumbling and vibration of the machinery chases mice and voles from the grass, where they become easy prey.  Those that don’t survive the tires or blade become dinner for scavengers.

CoyoteNotSure

This young pup is on her own early.  In the morning, she would flee when she saw me.

At first wary, this young coyote figured out after several hours that the tractor meant food, and by evening was following at a safe distance.  I can’t imagine how the scrawny little thing stuffed so many rodents down her gullet.  She was still at it after the tractor got turned off at sunset, stalking the grass for confused voles. Another coyote learning the ways of her ancestors, following people for our scraps.

SkinnyCoyote

Not a great picture, but you get the idea how young and scrawny this coyote is.  Most pups don’t survive their first year.

CoyoteThinkingOnIt

She seems to have figured out that the tractor means food.

CoyoteVole

Success- chewing on a vole

CoyoteGotOne

She got braver as the evening wore on, even though her belly started to look round with the feast.

 

It’s the baby time of year- they’re starting to leave their nests and find their way in the world.  Sometimes mom and dad is there to help, but eventually, they gotta fly on their own.  None of this college graduate living at home with a mountain of student debt for them….

 

This slideshow requires JavaScript.