Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Yellowstone Biology II

Here is part two of Isaac's Yellowstone biology story. Enjoy!

Our Yellowstone Trip

Part 2
Day 2 in Gardiner started out sunny. At least, it looked like it would be, from what little we could see at 6:30 in the morning. This time, we knew that the ‘food’ that the breakfast restaurant sold was really just plastic, so we decided to eat yogurt and granola in our room instead. Then, we began panicking and trying to get ourselves out of the room and into the parking lot by 7:30. Mom, by some miracle, managed to pack the entire room in four minutes. At least, she managed to pack everything that we owned in four minutes. We left all the furniture in the room. It was too big, and there wasn’t enough time to figure out how to get it out of the hotel without someone noticing. Anyway, we all tumbled out of the hotel, hurriedly packed the car up (we were going to leave back towards home after we got back from today’s excursion), and waited for the last of our party to gather. Then, we piled into the bus, and were on our way.
Today’s goal was to see wolves. I could probably rage on about the idiocy of people for wanting to exterminate them, but I’ll just assume that everyone who’s reading this are good people and agree with me that wolves should be allowed to live and roam where they wish. Anyway, we entered Yellowstone through the famous North gate again, and drove along the same road as last time. Of course, we got to see a lot of bison and elk, like last time. I even got a really nice photo of some bison, a sign, and some nice sunlight poking through the clouds. Beautiful. We kept on driving. Then, something special happened. We were approaching a pullout. A lot of people were parked at the pullout, looking through spotting scopes at something that was off down the road. I glanced out the window at the road. There was a wolf trotting across. My dad and I saw it at the same time, and both of us shouted, “Wolf!” at the same time. Everyone piled over to our side of the bus. The bus tilted alarmingly. The guide issued out a warning against noise. We quietly got out of the bus as we parked, with binoculars and cameras in hand. I hadn’t gotten another glimpse since the road, but I avidly watched the scrubby sage bushes, hoping they would come back into my view. As I watched, I saw two ravens. These tend to be a sign that wolves are nearby. Amazingly, ravens cultivate bonds with wolf pups. They play with wolf pups who are small enough to be easily killed by the raven, and the wolves continue to play with the ravens even when they’re big enough to do some serious damage. When the wolf has grown, and is hunting, ravens will call a wolf and his pack to a carcass that the raven cannot open. The wolves will have this bond with the ravens, still, and they will usually come. They will open the carcass, eat a lot of it, and then leave the rest to the ravens. This is an amazing bond of friendship between species that only humans have acquired, beside the wolves. But if you think about it, the wolves had it before the humans. As I thought about ravens, I sighted one of the wolves again. There were two; a black male who had gone through so much he was nearly white (we’ll call him Hopper [obvious WoT influence]), and a black female who had been with him for a while. Hopper had an interesting story; he had lost his mate and his mother to hunters while outside the park in Wyoming. Torn up and desolated inside, he left his pack to seek a different life where he could perhaps avoid the sorrows of his old life. He acquired another mate and seemed happy, but then they crossed into the territory of a pack who didn’t want them there. Hopper escaped, but his mate was killed by the rival pack. Poor guy. Now, he has another mate, and seems, once again, as happy as he can be in his circumstances. Anyway, the one I saw was the female. I snapped off a photo as fast as I could, but she may have disappeared behind a tree before I got it. Then, I watched that portion of the land, waiting. She appeared again, trotting up the slope. I snapped ten photos in her general direction, and hoped I got some with her in it. Two of the people with scopes had set them up facing towards the wolves; they were wildlife biologists who were tracking wolves. They set up a hurried chain of people, telling them to look long enough to see the wolf, and then they were to move off. I got a pretty good view this way; it was amazing. The she-wolf disappeared over the hill top. One of the biologists began packing up his scope, while the other stayed where she was, watching the hill side. The one who was packing was headed to Bob’s Knob, where he hoped to see the wolves again. We all got back into the bus, and drove to the next pull out. Here, there was about a hundred yards of packed snow heading up Bob’s Knob. We got back out again, and headed up the knob to meet up with the biologist who had headed off this direction. We had two scopes with us; I think one belonged to the guide, and the other belonged to one of the families. Anyway, we set those up, looking out over a flat riverbed with a small river flowing through. There were groups of bison interspersed around the river, some groups large, some small. And there were also some wolves. Trotting up a slope, circling around a rocky knob. One sat down next to a tree; this one was the she-wolf we had seen back at the last pullout. The other one, the male, went trotting off, but soon returned. Together, they trotted up the slope towards some rocky cliffs, and showing some interest in a lone bison, but continuing on. Soon, they disappeared behind the cliffs. There was a spot where we focused our scopes that we might be able to see the wolves through. Alas, they did not appear again. So, with nothing else to do, the biologist turned and began talking to us about the wolves, the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone, and other wolf related stuff. He would keep stopping to listen to his radio, and he would sometimes speak instructions back. He is one of the older and more experienced biologists in the park. He talked about tracking the wolves, how they would pick up radio signals from the wolves collars, and how some of the wolves had been outfitted with new GPS collars. He pointed out the hill where the first wolves were released back into Yellowstone. After he was done, we thanked him, and headed back to the bus. I managed to bang my shin on a gate so badly on the way back that I had to limp for the next ten minutes. Warning: Never try to jump over a gate when the snow is really unstable and tends to collapse. Anyway, I hobbled into the parking lot, and began throwing snowballs back and forth with a friend. It was pretty easy until we added in the second snowball. I never have been very good at juggling. After everyone who had needed to use the restroom had used it, we all got back onto the bus, and continued the drive towards our hike. We arrived at our destination; unfortunately, I cannot remember what happened during the drive after we left Bob’s Knob. We put on snow shoes again, and while waiting for everyone else to be ready, I climbed a steep mountain of snow with some friends. It was challenging, but the crampons on the bottom of our snow shoes got us up. By then, everyone else was beginning to leave, so we slid down the slope and followed them. We were trekking across a field, a river with cottonwoods off to our left. Ahead of us, there was scrubby sage brush sticking out of the snow, causing weak points that you could fall through. To our right, there was a small stream bed that had been covered with snow for most of the winter. Ahead, there was a hill rising up and curving off to the left, forcing the river to turn that same direction. The river wound down through that hill and another on the other side. As we walked, we noticed some small prints. I don’t know if we identified them. Then, as we crossed a small foot bridge that crossed the small streambed, we saw some coyote tracks. They were going the same direction that we were. So we followed them. There was two tracks, about ten feet apart, and we were walking in between them. We rounded the curve in the river, and there, laying on the ground, was an elk skull with a large rack. It was surprisingly light, only ten or fifteen pounds. Apparently, this elk had died four years ago, because he was a mean elk. If he had been nice, his harem wouldn’t have tried to run all the time, but he wasn’t, so he was constantly having to chase his females down. This left him with less winter fat than he should have had, and easy prey for wolves. The wolves got him. All that’s left was this skull by the river. We continued on. Now, we were hiking through a flat area about five hundred feet wide, next to the river, in between two hills. The coyote tracks continued on beside us. We paused beneath some trees before we would have to ascend the hill. Here, the trees that had been lining the river wrapped around and met up with the hill to our right. There was a thin path that was almost indistinguishable from the rest that wound up the hills. Only rangers used this path. After we had finished eating lunch and what-not, and while everyone else was getting ready, I climbed up the hill. Then, I slid down the hill on my snow shoes. That was fun, so I did it again. I fell, and tumbled to the bottom. When I got up, I realized that I had forgotten to zip up my jacket. And there was so much snow in the zipper that I couldn’t zip it up, now that I was all cold. Ah, well. Everyone else had started up the hill, so I trekked up after them. Now, we were hiking over rolling hills, with mountains to our right, and a large hill to our left, across the river. Up ahead, more mountains, and stands of trees. Some of us walked over the hills, and lost sight of the slower ones. We stopped. As we waited, we saw a mouse running across the top of the hill as fast as he could. We watched him until he disappeared from sight. We waited a little longer. One person in the other party crested the hill, and waved at us to come look at something. Most of us came to look; two of us stayed behind. We walked over the hill, and found the rest of the party clustered around something. We walked over to look. There were tracks on the ground. The tracks of a mouse. They ended abruptly. There were some strange marks that looked like skid marks, and another mark that looked like something had been dragged through the snow. Here’s what happened. The mouse we had seen previously had been making a dash across the field. A shrike saw it, and dove to catch it. The skid marks were where his wing had hit the snow. The drag marks were the mark of the mouse being dragged across the ground before being lifted into the air. That mouse had the sad fate of being flown through the air, and then being impaled on a spike for later consumption. Poor mouse. Our guide was pretty excited about that. As she explained later, she had never seen that before, while she had seen plenty of wolves. She thought that bird and mouse was cooler than the wolves. Of course, she would see a lot if wolves, because, in addition to helping track mountain lions, she also helps track wolves. We headed back to the other two, and told them what we had seen. They still didn’t want to go see. So, we kept going. We paused again at the trees, and the guide told us some stories about the wolves. Then, we began the final stage of our hike. The hike to the Rose Creek containment pen.
This was a short hike compared to the rest. Of course, we had only come about a mile, so it’s not like we were suffering or anything. Anyway, we walked along the crest of a hill that curved around a stand of trees and then descended into the trees themselves. Then, back up a hill, using a pathway that curled around and up the hill. Then, we were over the hill and descending again, towards the Rose Creek containment pen. This place, for some people, is sacred. This is where the first wolves in Yellowstone were held. This was where the entire reintroduction began. At first, it wasn’t clear to me why they needed containment pens. The guide explained it to us: Basically, wolves have a homing instinct. These wolves were brought from Canada, and if they were released into the wild immediately, they would just make their way back to Canada. So, they had to be held in Yellowstone until they were used to it being their home. This was the first of the pens used, and it was home to the famous Druids pack. They weren’t the first pack brought to this pen, but they grew to be one of the biggest wolf packs in the world, with a grand total of 37 at their peak. Unfortunately, they died off from a combination of wolves leaving and an epidemic of mange decimating the remaining wolves. There is only one wolf left from the Druids pack. Anyway, when we arrived at the pen, we were all rather quiet. I think this was more important to most of us than any of the world’s religious temples. It was for me, anyway. It was a single square acre of ground, surrounded by a chain link fence. It seemed like such a small area for creatures like the wolf to live in. I set off to explore around. The prospect of going behind a fallen tree excited me; I couldn’t make out any details on the other side. I trekked over there; here, there was a lot of tree cover, and as a result, there was less snow. To the left of me, there was the fallen tree. To the right, there was a fence. Further along, a section of fence had collapsed under fallen trees and branches, creating a tangled mess. It reminded me of one of those ruined and beautiful temples you find in Zelda, except real, and so much more meaningful. And no monsters trying to eat you or cut you into little pieces, of course.

I got the same feeling looking at this temple from Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword as I did in that wolf pen. Isn’t this beautiful?

Ahead of me, there was a tangled mess of fallen trees and branches. A friend joined me, and together, we silently surveyed the pen. Then, I started walking again, breaking that silence. I tried to get through the tangled mess, and almost succeeded. First, I managed to get myself entangled with my hiking pole while straddling a branch. Then, I managed to get off, making a little more progress, and then fell over backwards. I got up, but a branch hooked onto my backpack, and yanked me back to the ground. I got up again. This time, I was unhindered, and I quickly stepped through the rest. Then, I turned to see what would happen to my friend, and was disappointed to find that she got through with no trouble. We continued on to a small group of friends, and began discussing why hunting wolves was still allowed, and how idiotic it was to hunt them after we spent all that time and money trying to save them. Some friends speculated about sending letters to the president; I had already done this once, about global warming and polar bears, and received a letter telling me to work harder on my school, and that he took inspiration from young people like me. Seriously? There was absolutely no mention of polar bears or global warming in the letter. I warned the speculators of that. Soon, we had to leave. We headed over to the exit, and began our mile and a half hike back to the bus. We left, and crested the top of the first hill. The path we had taken to the pen curled around the hill to the right; ahead of us, there was a steep slope covered in snow. Well, I knew which way I wanted to go. I jumped off the path and slid down the slope and crashed part way down. I got up, and glanced down. I had forgotten to zip up my jacket! Again! I began to hike up the hill again, but the guide pointed out that I could just traverse across and meet up with the path. Of course. Why didn’t I think of that? I traversed across. That was definitely easier, though it put a lot of strain on my ankles. Traversing across a steep slope in snowshoes in not comfortable. It forces your ankles to bend sideways more than is probably good for them. I hiked up the second hill we needed to go up. The snow was warming up, and was beginning to shift alarmingly. Entire slabs would suddenly crack as I stepped on them. We were falling in more often as the snow shifted. We had to tread carefully to make sure we didn’t go through too often. As we walked, we noticed that there were coyote tracks on the hill on the other side of the river. They were new; they hadn’t been there when we had hiked up. The downhill section was fun, with lots of sliding. I took a detour up a big hill, so that I could slide down it. I kept falling through, my hand sometimes going so deep that the snow came to my shoulder. I made it to the top, and slid down. That was pretty fun. Then, I hurried to catch up with everyone else. Bears begin to wake up this time of year, and they’re usually hungry when they wake up. The walk back was embarrassing, due to the number of falls I took. I managed to do a nice graceful fall where I soared over a bush and landed on my knees. I took another one that I am exceptionally proud of, where I fell forward, bounced off my own knees, and fell backwards and landed on my backpack. Then, upon getting up, I only had enough time to glimpse the backpack print in the snow before the snow under my left foot collapsed and pitched me backwards yet again. There is a certain style to falling. The more complex the fall, the better, especially if you remain composed. A person executing a double backflip down a hundred foot cliff and screaming the entire while gains less respect than someone carrying out a calm and reasonable conversation while tumbling down a double black diamond ski run. You could almost gain the impression that the man falling down the cliff screaming had gotten into that predicament by accident. I pride myself on only saying “Whoa”, with the wild expression one gets while your horse gallops towards the guy who’s shooting at you. I got back up, and those who had stopped to watch my fall continued on with me. The group was getting rather strung out as various people collapsed. It was under these conditions that we finally got back to the bus. We got back into the bus, and began the drive back, talking about the whole excursion all the while. We wouldn’t be staying another night; we would begin our drive back home after we got to the hotel. Thus, our trip ended.
This trip changed my view of wolves. Before, I thought they were cool. Now, I know just how smart they are, how similar to humans they are. Their stories are so similar to those you might read of early stone or bronze-age humans. Now, I have a much deeper appreciation of the wolves.
(Note to friends who were on this trip: I left out any names because I don’t know who’s reading this. This is not intended to be an insult, but a security measure.)

Click here for photos.

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