Featured Image: Elk, Yellowstone National Park
Breadtag Sagas ©: Author Tony, 11 July 2019
Some random reading, quotations and thoughts on wolves, bears and wildlife in Yellowstone National Park and the Western USA
Introduction to Yellowstone National Park
We embarked on a tour of Western USA National Parks. Something I had wanted to do for years. We departed from Bozeman, Montana on 9 May 2019 our first stop was Yellowstone National Park, which is mostly in Wyoming with a small northern part in Montana. The park was just opening for the season and in some areas roads were still closed by snow.
Yellowstone is often referred to as the first national park in the world in 1872 (actually there was an earlier one in Mongolia). As well as the wildlife Yellowstone is situated on a vast caldera with the magma not far below the surface and has wonderful thermal attractions that rival New Zealand’s. The volcanic National Park of Tongariro, Ngauruhoe and Ruapehu, in New Zealand established in 1894, which I wrote about earlier, is now the 6th oldest national park.
One forgets how early conservation efforts in the late 19th and early twentieth century led to the establishment of a network of wonderful national parks across the USA.
We saw most of the wildlife on our trip in Yellowstone National Park. On our second day, we headed out at dawn with a wildlife guide, who was very knowledgeable, to view as much as we could see of the wildlife.
In two and a half days we saw endless ungulates including bison, elk, white-tailed deer, mule deer and big-horned sheep. The female bison had just given birth and we saw a multitude of baby bison, colloquially called ‘red dogs’ according to our tour guide Steve.
We also saw raptors: bald eagles, ospreys and red-tailed hawks, also a great horned owl near the park headquarters and other birds. On our wildlife tour saw two adult wolves and a juvenile near their den and several groups of coyotes, including three feasting on the carcase of a dead bison. We viewed a female grizzly and her two cubs for an hour on a hillside opposite. We used spotting scopes for a good clear view of all these animals. I also took some photographs with my new Panasonic bridge camera but they were blurry.
We spent some time too watching another grizzly and saw single black bears on two occasions at other times.
Before the tour we drove from Bozeman around the northern and eastern borders of Yellowstone to Cody, Wyoming for three nights to visit the fabulous Buffalo Bill Cody Museum and Center (two days required) and to get a taste of the old West, the mountain men and the cowboys.
One is warned about bears and particularly grizzlies in US national parks. This was demonstrated chillingly by a video at the Cody museum. A grizzly bear was moving on a hillock some distance from a herd of bison. Suddenly, it charged down the hill with purpose and incredible speed. It’s fur and flesh jouncing wildly with its movement over the uneven ground. It killed the buffalo calf before the mother had a chance to react. She thought about it, but moved away, whilst the bear munched contentedly.
Wolves and ranching on the borders of Yellowstone National Park
Denise had bought two excellent second hand books at Canty’s books (both $6.50 each) in Canberra before we left Australia.
The first about nomads in the USA from the sixteenth century to the present day was by Richard Grant a British travel writer, entitled either American Nomads or Ghost Riders: Travels with Lost Conquistadors, Mountain Men, Cowboys, Indians, Hoboes, Truckers, and Bullriders 2003. It is a marvellous book highly recommended, but I haven’t the time to talk about it here. Although Edward Hoagland, covered below, would have empathised with Grant.
The second book was about a ranch on the borders of Yellowstone National Park and wolves. The book was partly about the conflict between national parks and ranching, particularly in this case with the reintroduction of wolves in Yellowstone.
Mine might have been a simple, pretty story, if not for the wolves. In late July, they emerged from the foothills . . .
The book is a simple description of a man in his late twenties working professionally as a ranch hand for the first time and what he did over his year on Sun Ranch. The writing, however, is superb and transcends a description of everyday activities into an account that is both poignant and lyrical.
In this gripping memoir of a young man, a wolf, their parallel lives and ultimate collision, Bryce Andrews describes life on the remote, windswept Sun Ranch in southwest Montana.
Born and raised in Seattle, Washington, Andrews had opportunities to visit Montana as a teenager and gained experience working summers on a ranch out of Billings, Montana. He was ready when he saw an advertisement for a six-month post as a ranch hand on Sun Ranch.
The Sun Ranch is located south of Ennis on highway 287 between the Madison and Gravelly mountain ranges and on the edge of the Lee Metcalf Wilderness. The ranch on the upper Madison River is an important wildlife corridor in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. It is not that far above the Western entrance to Yellowstone by which we left the park.
Wolves had been reintroduced to the Yellowstone area, and there were large populations of elk moving through the ranch followed by the local wolf pack. The idea was to integrate ranching into a functional natural ecosystem. The Sun Ranch at the time was owned by a charming, but business savvy, IT millionaire who was sympathetic to wildlife conservation.
In lyrical, haunting language, Andrews recounts marathon days and nights of building fences, riding, roping, and otherwise learning the hard business of caring for cattle, an initiation that changes him from an idealistic city kid into a skilled ranch hand. But when wolves suddenly begin killing the ranch’s cattle, Andrews has to shoulder a rifle, chase the pack, and do what he’d hoped he would never have to do.
In reading the book I was particularly struck by the bones the author describes in the bottoms of the canyons and other landscape features that concentrate game movement, particularly the gloomy Badluck Creek canyon running down from the National Park.
Jeremy said [Badluck] canyon belonged to the wolves. It was narrow and full of bones, the sides so steep a man couldn’t climb them without using his hands.
“Predator alley,” he said. “It’ll make your hair stand on end.”
… …and let my eyes adjust. When they did, I looked down to find my first skeleton.
The elk calf lay on the uphill side of the tree with its spine bent backward to match the curve of the trunk. Its ribs were gone, snapped off as clean as wishbones. The long bones of the leg were cracked in half and the skull was missing. Rough incisions marred the unbroken bones. Not a shred of skin remained, but the ground was scattered with a halo of fur that I recognised as the wolf’s particular calling card.
The creek was small, no wider than a long stride. Following it uphill, I stepped over a shocking multitude of bones. Spines lay like snakes in the grass, and disarticulated vertebrae dotted the ground like strange, low weeds.
At a ruined shack further up: One side was littered with gnawed bones. He continues with the theme of bones in other locations around the ranch, but is also sympathetic to the wolves.
Goodreads readers give the book a rating of 3.9 and there are at least two excellent reviews.
Wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone on 12 January 1995 beginning a new process of conservation with introductions elsewhere, but the process is hampered by continuing opposition.
My first detailed knowledge of the wolf controversy came when I travelled to Canada in 1973 to the University of Manitoba to begin a PhD on wildlife (not completed then). I read Never Cry Wolf by Farley Mowat (criticised heavily by ex-colleagues at the time, but immensely popular with the public) and saw a documentary Death of A Legend by Bill Mason. This was perhaps the turning point for the wolf in North America. The beginning of a long slow change in attitudes which is far from over.
Edward Hoagland, Red Wolves and Black Bears
We visited three memorable bookshops in our travels: the famous Powell’s in Portland, Oregon and surprisingly two excellent local stores in Chilliwack, Canada: the Book Man and Nuggets Used Books. I bought a second hand copy of Edward Hoagland Red Wolves and Black Bears 1972 from the Book Man ($4). These were essays from the early 1970s and the wolves and bears in the title hinted at a 1970s appraisal of wildlife biology (an important change point).
I had no idea that I was purchasing the work of a sophisticated and still-writing literary essay writer, a proponent of Montaigne-type essays. Hoagland is a contrary iconoclast. He has also been described as honest and fearless but also non-judgemental on environmentalism. The last is an unusual attribute, which I’ll labour upon later.
Hoagland writes equally well about what we would call in Australia ‘the city and the bush’. He lives in New York City but is never happier than when journeying for months into the American wilderness and observing its wildlife. Although he notes in 1972 that the wilderness is disappearing. He had a bad stutter as a child and through his adult life, which aided his writing he says. And he seems to have a propensity for finding wildlife biologists who also were stutterers or otherwise outsiders.
There is much more to write about Hoagland than the few quotations and observations I have to make but I’ll limit myself to the wildlife biology.
Some random quotations from Thoughts on returning to the city his opening account:
An acre of forest will absorb six tons of carbon dioxide in a year.
Wordsworth walked an estimated 186,000 miles in his lifetime.
I remember from my schooldays that 186,000 miles per second is the speed of light (we’ve since completely converted to the metric system in Australia). The first quote is completely pertinent to us today because of climate change, which Hoagland had no inkling of in the 1970s.
In Howling back at the wolves Hoagland says:
Wolves have marvelous legs. The first thing one notices about them is how high they are set on their skinny legs, and the instant blurred gait they can switch into, bicycling away, carrying them as much as forty miles in a day. With brindled coats in smoky shades, brushy tails, light-filled eyes, intense sharp faces which are more focused than an intelligent dog’s but also less various, they are electric on first sighting, bending that bushy head around to look back as they run.
He likes his wildlife biologists too, meets them, spends time with them and admires those who are great field naturalists and woodsmen, whether academically qualified or not. He also researches in detail and knows about the background to his fields of interest.
The modern study of American wildlife may be said to have begun with Adolph Murie, who, writing about the wolves of Mount McKinley in 1944, realized there was not much point in a scientist’s shooting them; so few wolves were left that this would be killing the goose laying the golden eggs. In those days even the biologists dealing with animals which weren’t considered varmints mainly just boiled the flesh off their heads to examine the knobs on their skulls, or opened their stomachs to see what they ate.
He goes on to say of Murie.
Murie and Ian McTaggart Cowan in Canada were the best of the bedroll scientists. They could travel with dogs all winter in the snow or camp alone on a gravel bar in a valley for the summer, go about quietly on foot and record everything that they saw.
He moves to his own era and talks of L David Mech a young wolf scientist, a successor to Murie:
Young scientists such as L. David Mech, who has been the salvation of wolves in Minnesota… try to combine the current reliance on radiotelemetry with some of that old bedroll faithfulness to the five senses shared by a man with the animals he is studying.
L David Mech has gone on to be a prolific writer of books and scientific papers on wolves and one of the major authorities on wolves in the world.
In the remainder of the essay Hoagland extolls the virtues of howling with the wolves on occasion and teeters on anthropomorphism (attributing human characteristics to animals or behaviour) in discussing similarities in the band behaviour of wolves and humans and of a special relationship between us, without quite falling over the edge. Anthropomorphism is an unforgivable crime in ethology (the study of animal behaviour).
In Bears, bears, bears Hoagland meets and extols the virtues of another scientist Lynn Rogers. At the time of writing a lesser light in the academic firmament than L David Mech but no less dedicated a field naturalist and a passionate advocate for his subject — black bears. Subsequently, Lynn Rogers has had a stellar career but also a controversial one.
Hoagland begins by presenting a background:
Wildlife biology as a profession interests me. …It’s a stepchild among the sciences, however — badly paid, not quite respected, still rather scattered in its thrust and mediocre in its standards, [but] still accessible to the layman.
However, wildlife biology was perhaps at its zenith in the 1970s. I flirted with the idea of becoming a wildlife biologist both in Canada in 1973 and at the conclusion of my PhD in 1979 in Australia. In both instances in my research fieldwork was only a component, about one-third of my PhD. Full field ecology research was just too hard and impossible to complete in three years. My professor warned me at the start of my PhD that funding was drying up and to only count on three years. I delayed taking up my scholarship for 3-months which made the university administration nervous but helped in defining and planning the topic before I started. By 1979 funding was being cut across science and has not improved since. I looked at wildlife biology as a career post-1979 and could see no future in it.
Hoagland details the other problem for the wildlife biologist and consummate outdoorsman:
… woodcraft itself is guttering out as a gift, and apart from the rarity now of observers who can get close to a wilderness animal… there is the painful mismatch of skills involved in first actually obtaining the data and then communicating it. …again and again one runs into experts who have terrible difficulties in setting down even a small proportion of what they know.
Hoagland really knows what he is talking about here. He also admires bushcraft immensely because of his own love of the outdoors and of wilderness. Of Rogers he says of his first time out with him it had seemed sad and chancy that he’d been offered so little official support for a project that was so obviously first-rate, but Hoagland changed this view to:
… how lucky it was that this late-blooming man, who creeps through the bush so consummately that he can eavesdrop on the grunting of bears as they breed, had discovered at last, after seven long years as a letter carrier in his hometown, what it was that he wanted to do!
He likes everything about Rogers:
Rogers live-trapped seven bears in a single day, and once in the winter handled five bears in one den—four yearlings and their mama.
In a typical day for as much as six hours he will jounce along abandoned logging trails [— jump up on the roof of the jeep and do a sweep with his antenna to see whether another bear was near], then go up with his pilot for another four hours, the plane standing on one wing most of the time in tight circles over a succession of bears. Cautious pilots cost the project money…
He has survived two plane crashes. He is intense and passionate, with a loyal wife who puts up with his complete focus and total interest in his bears to the exclusion of everything else.
Hoagland didn’t doubt that Rogers was the best at what he did on black bear science…
I liked his rushing way of driving and hiking and his enormous hunger for data. I liked his enthusiasm for the unfashionable black bear (there are many more scientists studying the wolf), and as we toured, enjoyed being in the shadow of a man larger and more vivid than myself—though with his bigness… went an affecting vulnerability.
Lynn Rogers was becoming known as a black bear researcher in Minnesota beginning to gain a reputation, but also a bit of an outsider and still struggling to obtain regular funding. At school he was a stutterer and because of asthma early in grammar school kept indoors.
As his asthma improved he became involved in the outdoors with intensity.
Rogers collaborated with L David Mech and the other wolf researchers at Ely, Minnesota. Hoagland makes comparisons with Mech’s research on wolves and black bears. Things are supposedly easier for the black bear researcher because their home ranges are much smaller than wolves and they den making them easier to locate in the winter. Black bears also have a much easier life all round than a wolf. They rarely go short of food for long periods. They retreat into dens as soon as the food supply begins to fall and the cold sets in. The cold and lack of food in winter kills off tape worms and other internal parasites, Hoagland gives excellent descriptions of the research ecology of grizzlies, black bears and wolves in these two essays.
Hoagland returns to the topic of woodcraft and provides more information on grey wolves and bears in Lament the red wolf, but this is set in the south and outside the range of this topic. Nevertheless, his description of the skills and knowledge of non-academic trappers adds considerably to his musing on the disappearing art of loping silently through the bush and being aware of everything going on around you.
Lynn Rogers is the founder of the North American Bear Center in Ely, Minnesota and has moved on from the seemingly slightly hairy practices of getting close to bears, admiringly described in Hoagland’s essay, to habituating wild black bears to closer relationships with humans. He is known as the Jane Goodall of bears. Roger’s studies raised safety concerns and in 2013 The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources decided not to renew his research permit. Rogers sued the department but was unsuccessful, with the judge ruling that Rogers’ methods contributed to a likely public safety risk. He nevertheless did manage to assuage the department and continue on with his research. (Wikipedia)
Hunting and Fishing
Cody was a truly Western town. We saw the largest utes or pickup trucks in America here, some with the ridiculously raised suspension and wide tyres that extended beyond the body that would be illegal in Australia.
On our second night in Cody we went to Buffalo Bill’s Irma Hotel for a drink before dinner. We talked to people at the bar particularly two colleagues who grew up in Wyoming and managed construction projects all over the State, but never in Montana. One of them who paid for our beers was a passionate hunter and fisherman.
He showed us photographs on his phone of elk he’d shot. Normally, we’d have had the normal middle class city person’s attitude to hunting, but not that night and through our conversation we realised his paid work was merely an excuse to maintain a lifestyle in Wyoming for hunting and fishing. From our conversation, I also gained the impression that he knew about wilderness and was probably an experienced stalker in both disciplines.
We also met a female cafe proprietor in Livingstone, Montana, on our way back from Cody to Bozeman, who was a passionate fisher person. Indeed, she’d only recently been all the way to New Zealand on a fishing holiday, which seemed rather extreme to me, as the river fishing must be almost identical to that in Montana.
In Canada in 1973 the manager of Delta Marsh (a university conservation centre) was a southerner who grew up hunting had superb wilderness and wildlife skills. In Australia I’ve met both types of hunters, those who know what they’re doing and those that don’t. I remember years ago visiting a wild pig ecologist friend, whom I’d studied with, out of Nyngan. Pete began studying wild pigs on a bicycle much in the style of Lynn Rogers above with almost no funding, then he gained enough to purchase a small motorcycle. He was shooting up to 200 pigs a month for his samples at a time when the locals were saying there weren’t any wild pigs about any more. Wild pigs in Australia are considered varmints in Hoagland parlance.
Similarly, I’ve met other expert hunters both wildlife biologists and lifestyle enthusiasts in Australia and New Zealand. In New Zealand in the 1970s the government was paying hunters to systematically clear the country of feral deer because of damage to the high country. Backwoods hunters at the time were spending months in the wild in extreme terrain tracking and shooting deer.
Yet, many environmentalists and conservationists are polarised against hunting and vice versa.
People lament the decline in funding for science, the environment and the arts. Economic determinism to no human end seems to dominate our politics in the USA, the UK, Australia and most western countries. Funding for wildlife biology and national parks is abysmal in Australia and also to some extent in the USA and Canada.
Yet, although things look bad and it is easy to get depressed particularly over extinction of species and the potential of this worsening because of population growth and particularly climate change, all is not negative. The development of technology has meant that our knowledge of wildlife has increased dramatically since the 1970s, particularly because of the improvements in range and size of tracking devices, the massive decline in cost and the ease of remote sensing. Marine mammals and migrating birds are perhaps the most obvious examples, but wolves, bears and other terrestrial wildlife are also much better known as well. The potential of citizen science and the impact of specialist associations, such as ornithologist organisations are also growing dramatically. In Australia, private wildlife conservancy groups are taking over and purchasing large rural properties to make up for the failure of governments in protecting wildlife. The future is not completely bleak.
However, the polarisation of farmers, hunters, fisherman and outdoors enthusiasts against environmental groups and conservationists and the reverse is simply playing into the hands of political manipulators of all persuasions who seem unconcerned about improving the human condition or the future of the planet.
In Australia, before our recent election a large protest group of vegans blocked traffic in Melbourne. Their message appeared to be that everyone should adopt a vegan lifestyle for animal liberation, to solve the world’s food problems and combat climate change. This type of puritanism, as well as being completely impracticable, got up peoples’ noses and did no help to their cause.
A less offensive but similarly harmful protest was a convoy to protest against the development of the Adani coal mine in north Queensland. The cause resonated and was supported in southern states, but had a disastrous response and consequences in Queensland, which may have helped to defeat the cause of progressive politics in the election.
However, on the positive side shooters and fishers were appalled by the die-off of millions of fish, some murray cod over 100 years old in the Murray Darling Basin in Australia because of governments incompetence and possible corruption in managing the system and are closer to environmentalist views than they’ve ever been. Similarly, protests against ‘fracking’ for gas deposits have brought farming and environmentalist organisations together in a positive way.
Puritanical viewpoints and polarisation between communities that need to discover common ground are no good to anyone. In the USA in many states environmentalists and conservationists, and other recreational outdoors groups, particularly hunters and fishers are at loggerheads. Utah is a good example of such polarisation, which is doing nobody any good (see below).
Federal governments and state governments in Australia and in the USA are usually part of the problem rather than the solution. To overcome this people need to get together and listen to each other’s point of view and to seek compromises rather than ultimatums.
Key Words: Wolves, bears, Yellowstone National Park, Wildlife, grizzly bear, black bear, coyotes, bison, elk, mule deer, big-horned sheep, Bozeman, Cody, Montana, Wyoming, Buffalo Bill, Western USA National Parks, wild west, Bryce Andrews, William Hoagland, Sun Ranch, Adolph Murie, L David Mech, Lynn Rogers, hunting, fishing, environmentalist, conservationist, polarisation
Wikipedia on the American Frontier
Wikipedia on Buffalo Bill
Bryce Andrews Badluck Way: A Year on the Ragged Edge of the West 2014
The generic review quotes in the test are from the goodreads general review.
Goodreads readers give the book a rating of 3.9 and there are a number of excellent reviews. I particularly liked the first two by Trish and Claudia Putnam.
Bryce Andrews has a facebook page which contains interesting information and discussions.
The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem
Wikipedia on the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem
Never Cry Wolf by Farley Mowat
Never Cry Wolf by Farley Mowat 1963
Wikipedia on Never Cry Wolf
I read Never Cry Wolf by Farley Mowat (criticised heavily by ex-colleagues at the time, but immensely popular with the public)
Death of A Legend by Bill Mason
Death of A Legend 1971 was the first of three documentaries on wolves by Bill Mason
Wikipedia on Death of A Legend by Bill Mason
Edward Hoagland Red Wolves and Black Bears
Edward Hoagland Red Wolves and Black Bears 1972.
Wikipedia on Edward Hoagland
Edward Hoagland Website Home
Edward Hoagland’s Website Bibliography
Goodreads on Edward Hoagland Red Wolves and Black Bears 1972
Goodreads readers rated the book 4.11 an excellent rating.
Other information about Edward Hoagland
Two reviews on Hoagland
Francine Prose Groping and Not Finding New York Review of Books March 2017 (part article only because they want you to sign up)
Adam Regn Arvidson Nature Writing in America Edward Hoagland in Numero Cinq online magazine 2011
Wikipedia on Montaigne
Wikipedia on Adolphe Murie
Three important books by Adolphe Murie with 2 download links
The Wolves of Mount McKinley (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1985)
The Grizzlies of Mount McKinley (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1985)
The Moose of Isle Royale (Ann Arbor, Mich., University of Michigan press, 1934)
Wolf research by L. David Mech
Wikipedia on L. David Mech
Scientific Publications by L.David Mech
General information books and videos about wolves including books by L.David Mech, or everything you ever wanted to know about wolves and more.
Wikipedia on Lynn Rogers
The Wildlife Research Institute is Lynn Rogers base for black bear studies.
About Lynn Rogers on the Institute website
Lynn Rogers Scientific Papers
Where to Next? Blog
Our gym friend Peggy had been on the Great American Adventures tour in May 12 months before us and inspired us to sign on to the national parks tour. Her trip was the reverse of ours beginning in San Francisco and ending in Bozeman. In further articles on our national park tour I’ll attach a link to Peggy’s blog where relevant. However, if you are interested her articles are excellent.
About Delta Marsh
Deer Culling in New Zealand
Deer Culling began in the 1950s and was intensive up until the 1970s. Some was done by helicopter but it was not always easy and was dangerous. Initially, however, the shooting was done by foot with vehicles, planes and boats used to transport carcasses. But, the war was not being won until the arrival of the helicopter. But some areas were too rugged or not suited for anything but ridding deer from blocks by stalking on foot. In the 1970s once the wild cull had been mainly successful, dear farming on a large scale was introduced.
The video covers some excellent backwoodsmen and their views on life.
Deer Wars Video 2007 (18 Min)
Christopher Solomon The devil is in the details from Outside Magazine in Hope Jahren The best American Science and nature writing 2017 describes the quest by a conservative Utah congressman Rob Bishop who wrote to more than 20 groups in both camps in the wilderness wars. Bishop tried to engineer a compromise deal between outdoor recreationists and conservatives wanting to open up government lands and environmentalists and one nations people, once and for all and he believed that he could do it. He did get close to an agreement but it fell apart finally on the details — a not too unfamiliar outcome.
My comments on wildlife biology progress when everything looks dismal and gloomy are based on some observations in Northern Ireland in 1980/81. I was an outsider researching community activism. The activists I met described a golden age of community organisations which was closed down by the paramilitaries on both sides in 1973. They were very gloomy about community involvement and activism in 1981. Yet, to me as an outsider, what they were doing and how they were going about it was far more sophisticated than what they were doing in 1971 because an enormous amount of learning had taken place in the interim. Things progress, knowledge grows despite the external environment and sometimes one needs adversity to stimulate the growth of new things.
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