Tag Archive: bison


June 2017-reposted from larkeyskip.wordpress.com

Somehow I missed that stage in adulthood where people decide camping is too hard, and either stay in motels or travel in trailers with a compact semblance of home.  I hit motels on long driving days, or when I need a shower and a real meal.

The memory of lying at night on a guest bed in my grandma’s screened porch stuck with me. Away from noisy, scorching inner-city Chicago, I watched fireflies in the cool night air, fell asleep with the sound of crickets, and woke to the sound of birds. To this day, I leave my windows open in summer, with birds as my alarm clock.

Buffalo Camp at American Prairie Reserve is my yard multiplied, with bison to boot. When I traveled to the Reserve in May, I woke up each morning to big skies and birdsong. As I was making coffee, a bachelor band of bison would wander by, taking a leisurely breakfast.  Deer often tiptoed behind them looking like spies trying to fade into a crowd. A medley of colorful birds made the rounds, hopping from ground to shrub to sign or platform.  Rabbits hopped, nibbled, and hopped again, ever watchful.


More people need to camp here to protect my car from maurauding rabbits.

Any postcard picture has a few stories hidden behind the carefully crafted image.  During last September’s trip, I woke one night to a terrible thumping under the hood of my car, and found a rabbit trying to turn it into a burrow.  I am told they can eat wiring and hoses in the process, so I was lucky to catch it early.  The trick is to move the car every day, which feels wrong when the stay is meant to be about hiking.

The first night of this trip, I woke in the night and decided conditions were right to view a universe of stars without the light pollution of home.  I strolled to the bathroom without a headlamp, and stood outside afterward to gaze upward. Something caught my ear: the croaking of a bullfrog?  Not quite awake, I thought it seemed odd.  Then another croak, then another.  Suddenly I realized that there simply wasn’t enough water for bullfrogs. Those sounds were grunts coming from bison lying around the bathroom.  I carefully retreated down the path.


A bachelor band of bison bulls camped around me most nights.  Flattened spots around camp came from a few nights before I arrived, when the whole herd sacked out in Buffalo Camp.

A couple nights later, I woke to a grunt and sniff right behind my head.  The only thing between me and the bison was flimsy yellow-green nylon.  I wasn’t worried about getting stepped on since the tent was elevated on a platform. The tent was tied down right on the edge of the platform instead of the middle, so he could stand there and investigate it.  I wasn’t sure what – if anything- to worry about.

I could hear the animal lower himself to the ground, first one end, then the other. He lay right behind me, close enough that I could smell him.  His head moved back and forth like he was grooming, and he leaned back on the tent. He may have been scratching off loose hair with his horns.  Little gurgling sounds bubbled up from the digestive labyrinth that processes and re-processes food.  He seemed to burp.

This was awkward.


Downright itchy.  Sorry I can’t help, big guy.

I’m one of those people who can fall asleep anywhere, like crowded train stations in foreign countries where unguarded, you can be robbed or killed.  I’m usually awake and curious, but if I need sleep, I can get it.  In this case, I fell asleep after awhile because I was tired from hiking and had no choice.  I woke to a sigh, the sound of cloven hooves scraping gravel, and one slow step after another as he walked away.

The next morning, as on most mornings I was there, the sun rose on what looked like a scene printed on a historic postage stamp.  Bison and deer, birds in the sage and shrubs and trees, pale yellow willow catkins lighting up in the sun. APRBisonBuffaloCamp

There are no longer herds of bison, deer, and antelope stretching for miles.  And I’m camping, but I have food and water with me, portable electronics and a high speed way to reach a doctor or grocery store if I need to.  I’m housed in hi-tech fabric and poles. I’m sleeping swathed in synthetic fabric, not skins.

But here in Buffalo Camp, I could imagine myself as one of the early foreign travelers  as I stepped out of my shelter to a dazzling variety of life moving across the landscape.

For more views of Buffalo Camp, watch the rough little video below.  To check it out yourself, visit here.





Visiting the buffalo jump at American Prairie Reserve was a little like falling down a rabbit hole.   I’m positively the worst for spying something new (to me at least) and following it where ever it goes. I already heard about buffalo jumps  a couple years ago from a state park employee and fellow workshop trainee. After my first visit to the APR jump, the rabbit in the waistcoat appeared, and after him I went.

What’s a buffalo jump? For thousands of years, Plains Indians staged complex, collaborative efforts to lure bison toward a carefully selected cliff, then trigger a stampede that would send them running over it to their deaths.  Runners were trained from youth, like Olympians.  Their hunting life may have been equally short.

Buffalo jumps hold their secrets. Maybe the practice started with bison, as legend tells it, or perhaps early humans hunting woolly mammoths figured out it was safer to trick them into plummeting over a cliff than hunting them on foot.Use of North American buffalo hunts supposedly ended 1500-1700-ish, when horses allowed year-round hunting of bison, but there is at least one later account that involves horses and guns. Earliest hunters used less of the animals than later groups, and there is evidence of “gourmet butchering” at an early Folsom site.


Diorama of a buffalo jump

The details will be worried over by academicians and tribes, but you can skip the intellectual discussion, visit the places and fire up your imagination.  I was lucky enough to find Madison Buffalo Jump State Park completely abandoned on a September Tuesday and spent a few hours hiking and imagining the dramatic hunt.

Montana State Parks did a great job with the language on the signs:  one walks through the entire process, from pre-hunt rituals to buffalo runners luring grazing bison forward, running them into drive lines with buffalo “frighteners” on either side, then causing them to stampede over the cliff to a slope below.  The front runners would have to leap to safe places on ledges below.  The bison that survived the fall would be finished off and then a mass effort to process commenced.

It’s obvious in this Google Earth aerial what made the Madison Jump a good site, but I suggest going there and walking it to imagine the logistics and danger involved first hand. After all, the Plains Indians didn’t find the site on the internet, and neither should you.


And if you’re blessed to find yourself without other people distracting you, the lonely site is a perfect place to walk and imagine you’re wearing a buffalo runner disguise. You can hear the bison herd vocalizing in low rumblings that drift in from far away.

Your walk begins at the end of the hunt. As you hike up the old buffalo trail leading around the north side of the cliff, look at the processing area and imagine groups of women killing bellowing, immobilized bison after they’ve fallen. Imagine a staging area for processing, with the same women energetically removing hide, meat, organs, sinew for housing, clothing, tools, and food.


From a park sign


Farther up the trail, the grazing and driving areas start coming into view.  You can see the natural ramp that winds toward the jump and imagine runners luring the animals forward, careful not to start a stampede too soon and lose the whole herd.  Rock cairns along the way would guide the animals and hide “frighteners”. The animals would be restless, unsure, but move forward warily.  They would be twitchy, ready to bolt and turn the whole herd into a boiling mass of big brown bodies, horns, and hooves.

And then toward the top, on the last rist to the cliff, the frighteners would make thunder happen.  Runners disguised by wolf hides would leap out whooping, yelling, scaring the animals into a blind stampede.  Runners up front might have to leap to ledges below and out of the way as the pounding herd ran straight for the cliff edge and over.  As you stand with a bison’s last view, you understand.  You can feel your blood pounding in your ears, hear the bellows and people shouting and grass and insects and dust kicked up into a storm around you.  You hear the thuds below.


It would be quiet afterward once the last animal bled out and expired.  The hunters would be drained, completely spent from exertion and adrenaline.  Maybe some would be injured.  Maybe part of the herd balked, peeled away, and stampeded away to safety, or ended up in the forested bowl below the other side of the cliff.


I sat on the cliff and drank a bottle of water, gazing at the expansive view as the imaginary hunt faded in my mind.  A few hunter-leery deer tip-toed into view before they caught sight and scent of me and bounded away.  The loud rattling calls of sandhill cranes rose from the river snaking through the Madison River Valley past green crop circles.

These jumps were abandoned long ago by native hunters, and then excavated for bone to use as fertilizer.  I’m sure artifact pilfering has been common.

But the feeling of the place is powerful enough that it will draw me back.  I’ll read some books, look for documentaries, research Native American perspectives on the jumps.  I’ll go to First People’s Buffalo Jump in Ulm the next trip.  I’ll walk where the bison walked, be the animal next time, and not imagine myself as a specatator of a movie in my head.  It’s that crazy rabbit hole again.


Resting buffalo head rock- you see it, right?


This has to have been a ritual stage- I would make it one, anyway


Blessed to see some fresh fall flowers…


But the faded ones have their own rich beauty.


These rocks look like they calved from the cliff and tumbled in a line down a ravine, but they’re so- well, orderly.  Your mind starts to see the imprint of ghosts everywhere.





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.



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.


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


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.


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.


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.


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.



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.


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.


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.

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On my first day at American Prairie Reserve, I decided to walk the road to the Buffalo Jump by Jones and Telegraph Creeks.  I loaded up a pack with water, lunch, snacks, clothes, and binoculars, brought two cameras, and set off on foot, using the same mode of transportation as the Plains Indians to approach the site hundreds of years ago.

Why walk?  It’s a decent gravel road. Trucks haul trailers on this road. People drive and mountain bike it. Walking the road is unusual enough that a USFWS ranger stopped to ask if I needed help.

I could have gotten there in my car and then added on a whole lot more to my day, but there are many reasons to walk. First, because I can.  As a young-in-life owner of a fake hip joint, I know what it feels like to hobble in agony 1/3 mile down a flat road to the mailbox.  I know how small the world becomes when everything is about managing pain, how you lose peripheral vision and fight discouragement. Walking for me – and many people- is a restored blessing, and I don’t take it for granted.

I wanted to take it slow, look at the landscape, find the little things.  I couldn’t do that from a car or bike.  And finally, I’m so sick of sitting in a cubicle, a car, a train, a bus that I could run screaming. I wanted outside, sun and wind on my face.

After a mile or so past camp, I passed the Enrico Science Center, a remodeled ranch home. The vans you see parked there were assisting the 2016 Transect, an 11-day trek across North Central Montana hosted by APR.  I ran into the group and APR staff at the Buffalo Jump and was instantly converted by their sunny friendliness (shocking, as I live in the land of the notoriously unfriendly “Seattle Freeze”). dsc_0681_edited-1

browneyedsusanOn my trek to the jump,  I found butterflies, prairie dogs, and of course, bison.  I flushed upland birds (probably grouse), took pictures of tracks and scat, and put one foot in front of the other,  mile after mile.




Prairie dog- notice the ear bling indicating tagging and perhaps vaccination.

The road traverses into Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge, and eventually crosses a bridge over what I believe is Jones Creek.  By that time I’d met the ranger, who sympathetically gave me his NWR map, saying I would need it, and recommending a trip to the elk viewing area on the auto tour road (later post on that).

The road wound upward to the top of a hill blanketed with clumps of yellow-flowered brush perhaps marking where long-ago tipis would have stood as the First Peoples prepared to herd bison to their death below.aprflowersbelowjump

Buffalo jumps may seem gruesome to us today because we don’t see our food die. Unless we’re farmers or hunters, harvest occurs in slaughterhouses far away from our tables. For all we know, steaks are made in a factory and shrink-wrapped in plastic and styrofoam.

First Peoples used suitable natural cliff formations in an organized effort to harvest an animal that at the time, was far more dangerous to hunt on foot.  Buffalo jumps are full of secrets from long ago:  no one seems to have a good handle on the dates they were used, and conventional wisdom about their use falls all the time. The only thing that seems sure is that Plains Indians stopped using the jumps when horses became available.

Like me, the Plains Indians would have reached the jump on foot.  Unlike me, they were supremely fit, trained, acculturated, and prepared for a dangerous effort critical to their survival.Experience and ritual guided a highly coordinated effort.

Buffalo jumps are sacred to Native Americans even though all known jumps have been excavated, sometimes for bones to be used as fertilizer and other times to either steal or preserve the past. Out of respect, I ate my lunch across the road from the jump, where I met the friendly people on the APR Transect.

I didn’t really know what to look for at these sites until I later visitied the Madison Buffalo Jump. There, I was enlightened by excellent, informative signage, and could imagine the drive up a ramp behind the jump, and the massive processing occuring near a creek below the jump.  I’m glad there isn’t signage at APR- it would have stood out by a mile in the landscape- but I will go there again with wiser eyes after having done some reading.

On the return trip, I passed two little snakes in the road, enjoying the heat of day.  One was a Western rattlesnake, the other I can’t tell (looks like a prairie hognose, but doesn’t have the upturned nose- so much for pictures on the Web).

I thought about all the perils the Plains Indians faced just trying to survive.  Weather, starvation, predators, snakes, childbirth, and on and on. If I had lived then, I would have been among the women processing bison for hide, meat, brain, sinew, bladder.  One of the women working for the survival of my people. And yet, the only thing I have in common with those brave, strong women was that I came to the site on foot.



The unwitting subject on top of the jump gives a sense of scale.



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.


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.


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.



Lamar Valley Buffalo Ranch, view toward dining hall/classroom building complete with bison

For five days in March, I lived at the historic Lamar Buffalo Ranch in Yellowstone for “Lamar Wolf Week”. The Lamar Valley is dubbed a “Winter Serengeti” by the clever marketing folks at the Yellowstone Association for its abundant wildlife, very visible in the winter.

The drive from Snohomish to Gardiner, Montana travels over three high mountain passes and always has the possibility of storms, especially in the winter and spring. A friend and I drove in from Missoula to Gardiner in some pretty wicked weather- strong, gusty winds, blowing hail and snow and rain. As we traveled down 89 from Livingston to Gardiner, the sun came out and the temperature climbed from 32 to 50 degrees in about 15 minutes. We could see a storm up ahead, but where we were driving, ranch horses stretched out on the ground to enjoy the temporary warmth.

In Gardiner, we checked into the Absaroka Lodge for an overnight stay. The room- 2 queens and a kitchenette-was only $69 with tax, and was bright, spacious, and clean, with great storage and a balcony overlooking the Yellowstone River. We must have had a deal because the price is now $135 any season of the year, more consistent with the cost of most places in the area.


Pronghorn antelopes

We took a drive into the park, about ½ mile away, to see what we could see. We immediately came upon a small herd of pronghorn antelope lying low in the rising wind, conveniently posing by a pullout and interpretive sign that said “Wildlife Migration”.

We drove to Mammoth and up the hill past the thermal features, passing a small group of bison hunkered down in the wind in a snow free zone by a thermal area; lying low on the toasty ground with butt to the wind is a way to get through storms. It turns out that thermal areas are the basis of survival for bison in the even snowier interior section of the park by Hayden.

Mammoth Hot Springs

Mammoth Hot Springs

As we drove along, we saw a lot of animals near thermal features and on the road. We were seeing one of the important features of Yellowstone in winter, highly visible wildlife due to the road. Traveling the plowed road uses the lowest energy route to travel from one point to the next, avoiding a struggle through the snow.TheEasyWay


The hard way to travel, compared to the road

We saw a bighorn sheep on the way toward Tower Junction. The sheep was pawing at the slope to get at the roots of plants, with little else to eat. Later, one instructor said that at this time of the year, the animals have essentially “finished all the cereal and are eating the box”.sheep

Suddenly, the storm came upon us. Within 10 minutes, the temperature had dropped from 38 to 27 degrees and snow was piling up on the road. The visibility plummeted, sometimes to nothing but swirling snow in front of the windshield. Winter driving in this area is not for the inexperienced or faint of heart- the roads are steep and winding, with no guard rails by the towering drop-offs, and rapidly become really slick in a snowstorm. We turned around and passed the bighorn sheep, which had continued eating despite the sudden driving wind and snow, as had the now snowy bison.sheepinsnow

snowybisonThe following day, we drove down to Tower Junction and skied for the day. The storm was over but it was cold and windy, and the wind chill likely dropped the temperature far below the 24 on the thermometer. We skied out into the valley and passed a herd of bison trying to make a living in the lee of a slope by the river.BisonSkiing

After skiing for awhile, we toured the Lamar Valley up past Silver Gate to Cooke City, where the Beartooth Highway was closed for the winter. Silver Gate and Cooke City are the sheep and the cattle of the old range wars: Silver Gate has cabins and espresso for Nordic skiers, while Cooke City has motels and bars for the “sledniks”- snowmobilers.

We checked into Lamar Buffalo Ranch and found our cabin, the nice but buffalo-beaten #7. The cabin was positioned next to a field where bison grazed, and the large beasts would use the stair railing to scratch their butts. The railing was wobbly, and the side of the cabin had tufts of bison hair rubbed on it.CabinPet

The Lamar Buffalo Ranch was the incorrectly named site where bison (they’re not buffalo) were raised to save the wild bison population. In the 1800’s, it was a jolly little East Coast vacation to take the trains out West and shoot bison from the windows on the way. And they were slaughtered to weaken the American Indian tribes who depended on them. By the late 1800’s, Americans were starting to get really worried about the rampant slaughter of animals, and the conservation movement was born. But it was too late- continued poaching continued to reduce numbers. Finally, the population was reduced from 60 million to only 25 animals, and an emergency occurred that required both Army intervention (the Park Service was the military in the beginning) and the ranch.

Today, the Lamar Buffalo Ranch is run by the Yellowstone Association Institute, an educational arm of the National Park Service. There is a central facility with kitchen and classrooms, cabins, ranger housing, and a really nice central bathroom with heated floors, lots of hot water in the showers, and immaculate daily cleaning.

We had signed up for a course where food was provided, and it was both a treat and wonderful. Everyone took turns on KP duty, which was a really small favor in return for some really nicely prepared meals. I couldn’t imagine the same number of us (class was full at 20-some) trying to elbow our way into the kitchen and cook every day.

Our day would start at 6 a.m. with breakfast, followed by trips out to watch wolves and wildlife. We would return for lunch, sign up for an afternoon snowshoe or winter hike, and go out for a few more hours. After dinner, there would be a program. The first day, we saw the two remaining Lamar Valley wolves that had not been killed in the fall Montana hunt. They had killed an elk, a feat for two animals, and we were able to watch activity at the carcass. We were all so excited to see them that we didn’t even notice a coyote chased off the carcass racing behind us until John Harman, our instructor, gently pointed it out. We did manage to get pictures of its mate going by a few minutes later, chin still bloody.coyote

Coyotes have not fared well with the return of the wolf. Once reaching numbers where they assumed a role as apex predator, their populations have been reduced 50% and they are relegated to stealing from carcasses with a watchful eye to make sure the wolves don’t run them off or kill them.

We watched a red fox hunt, first walking with head cocked this way, then that, listening for sounds of voles under the snow, then leaping into the air and doing a spectacular swan dive, front paws and nose first, to grab the rodents under the snow. They can reportedly plunge 2-3 feet into the snow using this technique.Fox

We snowshoed that afternoon up to the acclimation pen used for the “soft release” of the first re-introduced wolves in 1996. Historically, wolves haven’t fared any better than bison, but for different reasons. The “devil dog” of the Catholic church, supposed killing machine that would decimate livestock and herds of elk was systematically removed from the American West. While timber wolves persisted in the Great Lakes region, grey wolves were wiped out by the 1920’s using poison, guns, traps, and just plain torture.InternPen

In Yellowstone, lack of predators swelled the ranks of elk to unsustainable levels of 25,000-35,000 animals, many very old. The National Park Service had to start culling the herd in mass slaughters. In 1944, Aldo Leopold suggested reintroduction of the wolf to control elk and bring back the wild to Yellowstone but was dismissed. Finally, in the late 80’s, the idea reemerged and got traction. Through a years-long environmental review process which garnered a near-record number of comments, the government dealt with hate on all sides. Finally, approval of the reintroduction of an “experimental population” was gained, and the first wolves were trapped in Canada and transported to the park.

The idea of the acclimation pen was to bond the animals and get them used to Yellowstone so they didn’t stray to the ranches outside the park and prey on livestock. The pens were hidden in the hills to prevent people from killing the wolves. All materials were hauled up by mule. The elk and deer fed to the animals were obtained by two staff nicknamed “carcass queens” who would get a call from the highway crews when there was a road kill and sneak out to snag it (sneaking so that opponents didn’t lace the carcasses with strychnine first). Park staff would haul the carcasses up to the pens over their shoulders.
I was the first to arrive at the long- unused pen, and told to check for trapped animals that might bolt out the front gate at the site of us. The pen is in disrepair, something John feels should be addressed by either tearing it down and leaving interpretive signage or rebuilding it.

The strategy was mostly successful, although several wolves were lost outside the park (some shot illegally, a few removed due to sheep predation). The trip to the pen was punctuated by John, stopping at points along the way to tell the story of the trapping and reintroduction through the eyes of the larger-than-life colorful people who led the effort. By the time we got to the pen, the whole story was alive and afire in our minds, and the walk through the enclosure was silent and awestruck for all of us.

John Harmer had come to Yellowstone two years ago, unable to find a job as a poultry science major, tired of working as a cruise trip salesman, and fresh from several months backpacking in Europe. His dad, anxious to get him a real job, paid for him to take a three-week course for Naturalist Guide Certification. The Yellowstone staff was impressed by John’s really hard, high quality work despite having no background in education or even wildlife. He was hired on after the course and has been there ever since. He wants to move on to field work and field research, but says he will always stay in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.


Keeping warm on the road

This is a typical story- people (mostly men) come here, they fall in love with the place, and they never leave. I heard it over and over again during the week from a former Silicon Valley executive to a successful Washington contractor, and many others. Their stories were wistful, told with sighs and slight smiles as if they had fallen into the arms of a dream and had never woken up. It is the open space, the thrill of seeing thousands of elk migrate in fall, the wildness of it all they love.

The second day, we signed up for the Specimen Ridge hike. I begged off wearing snowshoes, much to John’s relief. The snow didn’t require bulky, awkward snowshoes and they were only wearing them because attendees wanted to try snowshoeing. Perhaps because my hips have never been structurally or functionally ideal, I do not enjoy the wide stance required by snowshoes and only wear them when I must. An older gentleman (yes, older than I) from North Carolina came along and set the pace much slower than we would have liked. Snow fell the entire time, making a Christmas atmosphere.Antlers

I got a chance to talk Don MacDougall, shown in this picture standing on an overlook above the Yellowstone River. Don works during the summer months at Pack Creek brown bear sanctuary on Admiralty Island in southeast Alaska. He has more bear experience than most, since the rangers manage permit-holding visitors crossing a mile of bear-dense territory to watch bears fish for salmon in streams. He rues the requirement to carry a 308 to deal with the bears, because good bear sense, without even use of pepper spray, is what has kept him safe. He has been within 10 feet of a grizzly (they’re called “brown bears” in Alaska). We talk about Timothy Treadwell (“Grizzly Man”), the flamboyant and unpredictable would-be actor and film maker who spent too many years too close to bears and finally got himself and his girlfriend eaten. Don cites Tim’s worst offense as having dragged his fearful girlfriend into his fantasy of being at one with grizzlies, which he named silly things like “Mr. Bobo”.

Don coaches me on proper use of pepper spray: use it, then make sure you step out of the way, because the bear will keep coming even through the cloud of spray and you don’t want to be in front of it. Practice with your spray from last year when it expires. Don’t run, don’t scream, and don’t stare.

Our group includes the instructors who don’t want to stroll the flats with the rest of the group. We are more die-hard (“aggressive” as one woman put it) than many, and want to stretch our legs in the afternoon. None of these hikes are difficult, but since the demographic attending these classes is generally older and from lower elevations, they are listed as moderate.

The third day was the most exciting. The instructors are always in contact with the Wolf Project, an arm of the Park Service. The Project is struggling to get their winter radio collar operation completed after a run of poor weather for flying the plane and helicopter needed for collaring. They collared two sub-alpha status wolves in the Junction Butte pack in fall, only to have the wolves disperse from the pack. They ask us to watch for the animals and radio them if we see them.WolfCollar

We travel to the Hellroaring Creek overlook in the “Little America” area of the Lamar Valley and Brenda, a Park volunteer and skilled spotter, saw the pack about a mile away across the open expanse.


The kill, with wolves and ravens

We called the Wolf Project ranger who is an eternal presence everywhere, Rick McIntyre, and reported the wolves were clearly hunting, harassing bison (one with a broken leg). The Wolf Project began mobilizing for a potential collaring operation when the pack ran an elk out of the small trees and rocky outcrops and killed it, ensuring the pack would be in the area for awhile. We excitedly chased the wolves with spotting scopes, taking fuzzy pictures through the scope due to heat waves.IMG_0160_edited-1

The wolves gorged themselves- as animals that eat only every few days, they have adapted with a stomach that can expand to hold up to 20 pounds of meat (for an animal ranging from 80-120 pounds). In contrast, an 800-pound grizzly that eats a variety of food all day long can only consume about 12 pounds of meat. Once gorged, they lay “meat drunk” to digest, only getting up to defend the carcass from coyotes and feed once again.

During this time, the Wolf Project got the Piper Super Cub plane and helicopter going. Rick, Matt Metz, and other Wolf Project staff gathered at the overlook. Rick told us what would happen: Doug Smith, head of the project, would be strapped in the opening of the helicopter where the passenger side door was removed, his feet braced on the sled, and they would maneuver around the wolf until they could get a dart with an immobilizing agent called telazol into the wolf. They wanted three wolves, but would be happy with two. Alpha male and female were best options, but they would go for others.

During a really exciting chase where we struggled to keep up with the helicopter using spotting scopes, they chased the alphas, which eluded them by dodging into and through the trees where the helicopter couldn’t maneuver. In the end, they darted two lower status wolves. Once the wolves were down, they picked up one and put it with the second, stuffing them in the snow to help cool them off after the chase. The helicopter went to get more staff to help weigh, get blood samples, do physical exams, and collar.

We had found ourselves standing out there for five hours, transfixed, breathless. It was a long day, but really, really cool.

SkiSloughCreekLater, we skied to Slough Creek, the backpacking destination I had found for last September’s trip to Yellowstone, my first. The snow was gentle, the bison rumbling low as we passed, a coyote loping quietly by as we moved along. This looks like a wonderful snow camping destination, probably best in March despite the storms because it’s before the first grizzlies emerge from their dens.BighornSloughCreek

On my last day in Yellowstone, after the class was over, I went skiing- first to Tower Junction, then up the road from Canyon to Norris, stopping at a view of Bunsen Peak. The snow turned sticky in the sun, but it was still a nice day with beautiful views.

Co-opting a snowcoach used to haul people over Tower Junction Road

Co-opting a snowcoach used to haul people over Tower Junction Road

So what’s next? Well, for me I am slowly being wound into that same love affair with the Yellowstone area, fueled by a long fondness for open space and wildlife. I will return in September to backpack the Heart Lake loop. In October, I will take Certified Interpretive Guide training. And then-?


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