Friday, January 29, 2010

Snow Tracking

While Bette was doing camp chores I was supporting a Snow Tracking class. Of course it snowed each day covering up all the tracks. I guess you do snow tracking after it snows.

I did learn a lot about animal tracks, gaits, and investigating such things from the instructorJim Halfpenny. Jim's well versed in tracking, winter ecology, and mammal carnivores large and small.

We did find a few tracks in the afternoon field sessions. The class made plaster casts of coyote tracks in a plowed pullout (picture below).

t's quite a process. You try to clean the track as well as you can. Then spray it with this wax, covering all the snow to seal the track. Quickly mix up some plaster to milkshake consistency, and gently pour it into the track before the plaster sets. Cover with a plastic bag anchored by a perimeter of snow blocks. Cover the whole thing with snow to insulate, so the plaster sets. Wait a half hour or so...

We had hoped to find wolf tracks, but settled for a wolf. The black wolf, probably a Druid Pack wolf because of the mange, was by an elk carcass above the Yellowstone River. The wolf was waiting for us to leave, and is standing below the large conifer in the middle of the picture. You can double click to get a larger view. I took it with the zoom on our little point and shoot.

Jim also shared with us the website of his friend Lily up in Ely, Minnesota. Lily is a black bear, and has a webcam in her den where you can see her and her new born cubs.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Back at the Ranch

I've had "camp duty" for the last two days. Yes, that means scrubbing toilets!
It occurred to us that we haven't yet posted any pictures of where we are living. These photos are of the Bunkhouse. It was originally the bunkhouse for the ranch hands when the bison were being raised here in order to try to save them from extinction (at the turn of the century only 25 were left in the park). When the Yellowstone Association first started offering classes here in 1979 everyone stayed in the bunkhouse. Now we have cabins and a bathhouse but the classes, cooking, and hanging out still all take place here. We'll post some pictures of our cabin and the bathhouse soon.

The kitchen. There are two sinks but it can get pretty busy when a class of twelve plus the instructor and the four volunteers are all making dinner. Notice how well caffeinated we are!

Dave blogging! (or maybe reading about either Illini or UVA basketball)
This is the classroom. We have the usual digital projectors, whiteboards, and a nice flat screen TV for either watching DVDs, Videos (yes we have too many of those to not have a VCR) or power points. My favorite part is that there are many bookcases full of natural history and Yellowstone history books to be read.
In the summer this is a second classroom but in the winter it is the boot room. Everyone stores their indoor shoes by the front door and leaves their wet boots on the racks. Inevitably as soon as you put your boots on to go outside you realize that you've left something critical (like lunch) back in the kitchen. Unless you can convince someone to play fetch, off go the boots, on go the indoor shoes, the lunch is retreived, off go the indoor shoes and on go the boots!

Days off!

We had Thursday and Friday off this week. Thursday was a grocery shopping and relaxing day. Assisting the class was great fun and I was sorry to see everyone go but it was also pretty intense. I was up at 5:00 each morning to make coffee, eat breakfast and get the bus defrosted for a 6:45 departure to look for the wolves at sunrise when they are most active. The days finally wound down at around 9:00 each night. Even Friday was pretty relaxing, we went for a ski and found some nice flat rocks to eat lunch on.

Yellowstone Wolves

Last week I assisted a class called Yellowstone Wolves. Someone must have told the wolves we were coming because they put on quite a show for us. The Druid pack has five eligible females, we were able to see them from the road with spotting scopes. Sadly, they have mange and look a bit bedraggled but that did not stop a very nice looking grey male from hanging around nearby. It is getting close to mating season and the assumption was that he was hoping for a chance to woo one of the females. Up on a hill on the other side of the road were two other males. At first we could not see them but could hear them howl. Later in the day a big horn sheep came running down the hill where it found a nice cliff to hang out on. A short while later a black wolf came down the hill and crossed the road moving towards the five sisters. One sister was in a bit of a ravine so that we could not see her but it seemed like he might have gone over to flirt with her. He wasn't there very long, however, before he recrossed the road and went back up the hill. Unfortunately all of this took place far enough away that I couldn't get any good photos.

One other day of class we walked up to the pens (see photo above) where the wolves lived when they were first brought to the park (1995). The idea of using the pen was to acclimate the wolves to this area so they wouldn't run back to Canada. Oddly, when they first opened the gate to the pen the wolves not only did not flee north, they didn't even leave the pen at all. Finally, the biologists decided to put a carcass outside the pen to lure them out. As they hauled the carcass up the hill to the pens they saw one of the males out on the ridge ahead of them. They hurried down to a creek bed below and made their way back to their truck!

Another field trip was to an abandoned den. The hole that the mother wolf excavated was quite impressive. Sadly, it was only used one season, presumably because the pups born there did not survive. They were last seen near a swollen riverbank and may have drowned. Apparently mothers will not return to a den if the first time they use it the pups do not live. If the pups had survived that first time the mother might have continued to use the den again even if she had some years in which the pups didn't make it. There is something about that first time that is very important

Yellowstone Association in the news

USA today ran an article on Yellowstone in Winter. The classes they describe are part of the lodging and learning programs. The participants stay at the Mammoth Hotel rather than here at the buffalo ranch. When they are out in the field they stop here for lunch and one of our jobs is to make sure the coffee and hot water for tea or cocoa are ready when they arrive. In exchange we often get the leftovers from their sack lunches. They always leave us the raisins but occasionally we get lucky and wind up with chocolate chip cookies or potato chips. We also invite them into our bookstore and try to talk to them into becoming members of the Yellowstone association. I haven't watched the video attached to the article yet but one of our fellow volunteers is interviewed on it.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Three Mooses

I was skiing alone (Bette was on a wolf class) late afternoon on the Bannock Trail in the northeast corner of the Park when I come upon a cow moose and what I thought was its calf in the middle of the ski trail. It was difficult to see the second moose, which I thought was the calf because the one moose was between me and it. I could see eight legs.

This made me nervous. I had just read "The Better to Eat You With", a book on predator-prey relationships. The author had described a cow moose they nicknamed the Assassin because of its aggressive protection of its calf. I thought I should at least get a picture before turning around, and fell over as I went to get my backpack. Maybe this reassured the moose that I wasn't all that dangerous.

Then I see a big head with large antlers move into the trail. What was a bull doing there? I do not think they usually hang out together. Maybe he just wanted to use the trail too. Anyway in the picture the bull is on the left, but the spruce branch blocks a view of his antlers. Moose drop their antlers, but he still had his.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

More Bison

Bison like to use the roads. Bette saw this fellow on her way to skiing.

First Class

We have been posting lately as we've been busy with our first classes. Bette finishes her Wolf Class today.

My class was also a wolf class. Turned out to be a small group of students. Four were originally enrolled (I think that's the minimum before cancellation), then two left after getting here. Unfortunately they had some health issues, and had to leave. So more like a private tour than a class. The two instructors Nathan Varley and Linda Thurston, the assistant (Me) and two students. That's some teacher - student ratio. Nathan and Linda are on the right and students Karen and Lisa on the left.

The class included wolf watching, information on the latest happenings with wolves in the Yellowstone vicinity and a meeting with a local rancher to get a rancher's perspective on wolves. We did see wolves from two wolf packs, and bighorn sheep. This was all through scopes, though you could see the sheep with your naked eye up along the ridge line. There were three or four rams interested in a young ewe. Seemed a little late for that sort of activity. Comical as one ram followed the ewe around, and then had to ward off several other potential suitors. No head butting. Just chase one away, then run back to the ewe to deal with the next ram who moved in while he was chasing the other one.

Below are pictures of the ranch we visited in Paradise Valley. You can see there is not much snow in a lot of Montana except for the mountains - El Nino.

Class went well. I didn't crash the bus which was my main worry. This was the one year anniversary of this very class going for an unscheduled ride off the road down into the Lamar Canyon. Amazing that no one got seriously injured. Nathan and Linda were great fun, knowledgeable, and were easy to work with for my first class. They have a few other classes here this winter, including two through their own wildlife touring business ( Those classes are catered so we are also looking forward to the good food.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Playing in the snow

We had both Wednesday and Thursday off this week. On our way to go snowshoeing Thursday we saw our first big horn sheep of the winter. They were hanging out on this ledge above the roadway. I had left the "good" camera in the cabin because it was snowing but it would have been nice to have the better lens to zoom in on them.
Not too far from the trailhead we spooked some ravens who were enjoying the remains of this elk. It looked like coyotes had eaten most of it as none of the tracks around were big enough to be wolves.
We stopped for lunch near this bridge and hoped to see some otters but had to be content with watching a dipper preen himself.
On Wednesday we set out to do a little skiing and got caught up in it and wound up going 10 miles. It was an almost perfect day. My only complaint was that it was a bit too warm so the snow was slow and we didn't get as much of a ride on the downhills as we had hoped for. At the end of the day we came around the final bend only to discover that someone else wanted to use the trail. We took off our skis and started to climb up a side hill as the bison sauntered on by.

Dave is standing at an overlook of the Yellowstone river canyon.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010


We saw our first wolves the other day, after hearing howling at night for several days. While we were finishing dishes from a lunch group the wolf watchers pulled into our parking area and pointed their scopes out across the valley. Went out on the back porch with a scope and saw five wolves pulling away on some kind of carcass. Ravens waiting their turn. Could see flesh hanging from their jaws. Later that evening the coyotes were on the carcass after the wolves had left. You really needed the scope. Binoculars just showed there was some critters out there.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Getting busier

We spent today practicing our bus driving skills. The roads are pretty good. They are plowed and sanded and are generally not slippery. The buses also feel quite stable. We caravanned to Gardiner today. Had pizza at the K-bar for lunch and saw a bit of the Ravens/Patriots game. There was a classic guy at the bar telling the bartender how he came out west to "ski and shit" and to look for "young girls". Yuck!
We had Thursday off and went for a short ski (the temperature never even got to zero) The steam coming out of the stream behind Dave is not a thermal feature. It was just so cold that any open water was steaming. The buildings in the top photo are the Buffalo Ranch, home sweet home. The treeless hill behind it is often full of either bison, elk, or both.

Friday and Saturday were spent in a wilderness first aid class. There were 24 students so things were pretty busy here. It was a great class. Lots of hands on "scenarios". One of the instructors should give up teaching and leading outdoor adventures and become an improvisor. Her angst-filled teenage character Daisy (with a mysterious abdominal ailment) had the whole class laughing even though she appeared in the 16th hour of class. Dave and I were patients for the hypothermia segment. We got "beamed" (carried by 8 rescuers) into very cozy cocoons made of multiple sleeping bags and fleeces and then encased in a tarp. I was a bit disappointed when the scenario ended and we had to leave the cocoon and go back to class.

Thursday, January 7, 2010


When we walked back up to the cabin after breakfast this morning some bison were hanging out nearby (note the fire hydrant). They are very beautiful when frost covered.

Correction - Minus 43

Well it can't get too much colder, can it?

Minus 30


Ski Legs

Did our first ski. Took a short trip outback towards one of the original wolf pens. Followed the bison tracks when we could. Had to break trail otherwise. Made the mistake of going down one downward sloping meadow between rows of trees. Looked like a gentle ski run. Unfortunately all the snow blew in there so breaking trail was a bit challenging. The edges were better.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010


A nice amount of snow fell over the last few days. At least a foot. Shoveling the light powder is pretty easy. Temperature had been warm, but this morning it's sunny, windy and cold. Beautiful with the morning light and new snow.

Heard a wolf yesterday. Low plaintive howl while night was falling.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Bison Jam

We made it to the Lamar Buffalo ranch yesterday afternoon and were greeted (appropriately enough) by a Bison jam. Luckily the bison eventually decided to move off of the road and we were able to complete the last mile of our journey.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Across the wide Missouri...

We made it to Billings, Montana. Today we head out to the Buffalo Ranch in Yellowstone.

Getting out of Charlottesville was the hardest part weather wise. Here is the car already to be loaded with all our stuff. We just needed to dig it out first. The record snow in Charlottesville helped us get into a winter mood, on not. Fortunately, this was the most snow we saw between our front door and Billings.

Visited the families on the way with stops in Saratoga Springs, NY, Chicago, IL, and LaCrosse, WI. It was good to see everyone.

A lot of wildlife along I-90. First there were the cats east of the Mississippi. Then deer, pheasant, antelope, eagles, coyote, and we think a bobcat. Eagles were enjoying the numerous road kill deer. We were struck by how the landscape really becomes "western" after crossing the Missouri even though we usually think of the Mississippi as being the east-west boundary line. It's also amazing how much sparsely populated land there is between LaCrosse and Billings.

We spent yesterday in Billings buying way more food than we ever buy at one time. There's a very nice food coop in downtown and we even became Albertson's preferred customers. Dave is now the proud owner of a pair German wool pants from the Army surplus store. We finished the day off with a trip to Carter's Brewing-one of two good brewpubs within walking distance of our motel.