Just Another Day Around Town

A beautiful evening and morning photographing right along the outskirts of the town of Jackson. Last night we hiked up the local ski hill for a twilight after-work run. The next morning, we saw the Pinnacle Peak wolf pack on the slopes of Miller Butte, bighorn rams putting on a show, and two unusual species of grosbeaks enjoying the berries of an ornamental tree in someone's front yard.
Next week begins my big winter season with Natural Habitat Adventures, so get ready for weekly updates from Yellowstone!

Here is a short video of the wolf activity on the National Elk Refuge over the past few days

The Yellowstone Phenology Project: 5-9 Grizzly Fishing

Phenology: the study of cyclic and seasonal natural phenomena, 
especially in relation to climate and plant and animal life.

I'm going to try something here. I want to post a photo or video every day through the spring, summer, and fall. Frank C. Craighead Jr's book "A Naturalist Guide to Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks" is an amazing resource that walks us chronologically through the seasons, pointing out what animals are present in the valley, what they are eating, what plants are flowering, and how all of the cogs in the ecosystem clock are turning each week. I thought it would be fun to capture, photographically, this annual march through time. Change is the only constant around here. Like Ferris Bueller famously said, "life moves pretty fast. If you don't look up once in a while, you might miss it." Six months from now, I hope to be able to use this little project like a flipbook to watch the seasons unfold and meld chronologically. Here we go,we'll start with a bang.

This young male grizzly has recently emerged from his first solo hibernation without mom (the famous Grizzly 610). He walks the shore, looking for dead cutthroat trout and mountain whitefish that have been frozen, preserved, in ice all winter long.

    and a bonus video to kick things off!

Bison Controversy in Yellowstone's Northern Range

[This is part two of a series of posts featuring photos from our March programs in Yellowstone with Natural Habitat Adventures and Wildlife Expeditions of Teton Science Schools.]

A big bull interrupting our preparations for a snowshoe hike

This week in Yellowstone featured the bison. Granted, it’s almost impossible to visit this park without getting stuck in the middle of a bison herd at some point. But the contexts in which we saw these big ice-age behemoths this week really showcased the lives they lead and the hardships they endure.

Bison walk on packed paths to avoid breaking trail in deep snow. This guy picked our path to walk on.

The thick, dark fur on their face protects their skin from the abrasive icy crust they must break to access grass beneath.

Bison are built for life in winter. Their massive head and shoulders effortlessly dig through snow to the forage below. Their gut is adapted to pull every last bit of meager nutrition from the dead grass they depend on. Their fur is so well insulated, snow and frost builds up on their backs by the inch. They seem to have a radar for finding the highest-quality food available under any snow depth. They consistently find the easiest travel routes and the safest valleys.

Even with these physical and behavioral adaptations, though, life is still tough. Winter is a time of perpetual starvation, insanely cold temperatures, and serious vulnerability. As winter draws on, ribs and hips become more and more defined. Grass becomes scarce. Wolves become stronger and braver.
Under this pressure, many bison find the roadway and follow it west. They follow it past the Lamar Valley, where their kin were restored to today’s healthy numbers after teetering at the brink of extinction. They follow it past Crystal Creek, the reintroduction site of the one wolf pack that specializes on hunting bison. They follow it past Blacktail Lakes, where a few bulls fall through thin ice and drown every year.

This calf has nearly survived his first Yellowstone winter.

Bill bison walking through the Lamar Valley, the historic Buffalo Ranch in the background.

By the end of the winter, some bison look like skin draped over bones. Green-up can't come soon enough.

Even in winter, there is fresh forage available along the shore of some spring-fed creeks.

They arrive at the Gardiner Canyon, and follow the river downhill to the edge of the park. At this low elevation, the ground is snow-free and the temperatures are spring-like. Having found what seems like an oasis at the end of the bitter winter, the bison walk through the Roosevelt Archway, crossing an invisible but significant border between Yellowstone National Park and Gardiner, Montana. Here, bison are no longer property of the American People. They are not ogled and admired by tourists and naturalists. Instead, they are legally considered escaped livestock. The farther the bison venture beyond the arch, the tighter the rubber band of state tolerance stretches. Eventually, that ecological oasis is replaced by a political minefield.

Behind the gate, bison are managed "For the Benefit and Enjoyment of the People." Beyond it, they are considered escaped livestock.

Some bison, you see, carry a disease called brucellosis. This disease causes failed pregnancies and therefore kills the reproductive potential of the herd. The problem is, this disease affects cattle too. Montana is considered a brucellosis-free state with respect to livestock, so stock growers can transport cattle across their state line without penalty, fee, or testing. Should Yellowstone bison intermingle with cattle and transmit brucellosis into domestic herds, the whole state’s brucellosis-free seal would be revoked, with devastating effects to the livestock industry.

So when a few hundred bison venture out of the park into the Gardiner Basin at the wrong time each year, their fate is gloomy. This year, about 600 bison were removed after leaving YellowstoneIn years past, these migrants were killed by the thousands. That still happens, but not with such reckless abandon as in previous years. Instead of an outright firing-line at the border, the herd is now rounded up and brought to slaughter, the meat given to Native American tribes. About 200 bison met this fate this year.

One of the park's biggest bulls looking for fresh grass along the Yellowstone River.

Upset by the annual annihilation of America’s most treasured bison herd, advocates and managers are now trying to design solutions that please all stakeholders. For instance, researchers have just concluded that with proper quarantine, testing, and culling, you can definitively declare a group of bison “brucellosis-free.” With this stamp of approval, the bison can be brought to Native American reservations to be used as agricultural and cultural resources. Or be brought to Ted Turner’s huge conservation ranches. In the future, the cleared bison may be the source for restoration herds on the American Prairie Reserve or the Tribal National Park.

A small herd of females and calves passing by.

Only 60 bison were quarantined this year. About 200 were consigned to slaughter. What happens to the remainder? Native American tribes are given special permits to exercise century-old treaty rights to hunt bison off-reservation under their own rules and regulations. These hunts accounted for roughly 263 bison this year. It’s nice to see the federal government following through on some much-needed reparations, especially after we slaughtered 99.999% of America’s bison to starve out the Indians. However, these tribal hunts have meant that gut-piles and bloody snow litter the Gardiner Basin, making for some interesting discussion on wildlife watching excursions like ours. Native Americans are also in disagreement over the ethics of hunting these animals in such circumstances.

Things are looking promising for these big guys. Which is good, because they have enough to worry about as it is. The Montana Supreme Court just ruled that bison may now be legally tolerated in roughly 400,000 acres outside the north and west entrances. Also, the World Wildlife Fund and the Intertribal Buffalo Council are working together to establish tribal quarantine facilities so that more wandering bison can be held and transferred to reservations and restoration projects instead of being killed.

A train of bison walking through the Gardiner Canyon, heading towards the park's boundary.

Hopefully, with continued conservation efforts, fewer of these Yellowstone migrants will be economic nuisances to the cattle industry, and more will become the pioneers of new herds across the Great Plains.

An hour-old bison calf standing for the very first time. May 2013.

Polar Bear Wonderland

My friends and I were watching “Shaun of the Dead,” a parody on the zombie apocalypse, and began asking ourselves where we would go if we actually had to escape zombies. It occurred to us that Churchill, Manitoba may be one of the best strongholds around. Why? Because the whole town is defended against polar bears. What’s a zombie or two compared to a few hundred of the largest terrestrial carnivores on earth?

Some of my video footage of bears beating the stuffing out of each other.

Churchill sits at a point geographically where the sea ice freezes first on the Hudson Bay. If a polar bear knows one thing, it’s where to find sea ice, because sea ice means seal hunting. So bears are drawn to Cape Churchill by the hundreds in advance of the freeze up, sitting with their heads on their paws staring longingly at the cold but open water beyond the shore. On the air of a swift northwest wind wafts the mysterious scents of a nearby civilization.  Bacon at the Seaport Hotel, transmission fluid leaking in the shop, fresh laundry tumbling around the dryers in the residential district, donuts frying at Gypsy’s bakery. With nothing better to do, the bears get up and follow their noses.

Napping patiently on a partially frozen pond

Two cowboy conservation officers with the Polar Bear Alert Program see an inbound bear. They extinguish their cigarettes, hop into a big pickup with a winch rig and a spotlight on top and fishtail out of the turnout towards the bear with a shotgun loaded and pointing out the open window. Cracks and Pops explode over the bear’s head with clouds of sulfury smoke, and the bear gallops for cover. The bear recognizes the truck and the firecracker shells that are booming over him. He dodges into a spruce thicket and hunkers down. The cowboys circle him on the side roads, but can’t see him anymore. Every few minutes the bear dashes to the next ridge or the next willow thicket, trying to escape his pursuers, who have loaded their rifles with tranquilizers. The bear leaps out from a copse of rocks and is shot with a shoulder full of Telazol. Dazed and disoriented, the bear collapses onto the snowy road, and the cowboys winch him into the truck bed. They flip him onto a flatbed trailer and back him into D-20, an old military hangar known as “Polar Bear Jail.” Here he stays in his concrete reinforced cell until the sea ice freezes and the officers airlift him to the bay in a cargo net.

polar bear airlift out of the jail. There is a "small" 400 lb bear wrapped in the cargo net

Polar Bear Alert has saved the lives of countless bears and people since they began in the 80s, but once in a while a bear makes it past their defensive line. Generally once a week my guests come to breakfast complaining about the locals shooting fireworks at all hours of  the night, when in fact it is the cowboy officers chasing polar bears down main street past the hotels. Unfortunately bears do slip through the cracks. A couple weeks ago we returned to a very different town than the one I had just left. Right from the tarmac, Churchill was very quiet and nobody would explain why. Just a few hours before we landed a bear had sent two locals on a life-flight to the Winnipeg hospital. It took shovels, guns, and a truck to get a bear to let go of a poor girl’s head.
Later that week I was sitting in the Seaport Lounge during Open-mic night. The singer, Eli, silenced everyone in the bar and asked for a moment of attention. He opened up his iPad to reveal one of the bear attack victims, head wrapped in bandages, on the other end of a Skype video call. The entire bar began singing “Can You Feel the Love Tonight,” over Eli’s guitar, and the iPad passed from person to person to wave hello and wish a speedy recovery. The girl is in good shape now and is back in Churchill.

Curious, clever, and an incredibly acute sense of smell. There is a pot of soup inside that last window.

Churchill is a big community that is fully intact for only 6 weeks each year. Lisa, one of my favorite rover drivers, spends the rest of her year on movie sets in Winnipeg. No surprise she is drawn to this town. Like a film set, Churchill is a place where hundreds of people gather to work on a common project for a short amount of time. Favors are granted, and reciprocity is not expected but it is always given. The hotel staff gives Karen a set of batteries for a dead flashlight in a pinch. She brings up a few copies of the Sunday paper from Winnipeg. Ramón puts his Parks Canada work on hold to come translate for our French guests all evening. We invite Brittany out on our rovers after her 6 weeks of nonstop catering to our travelers at the Churchill Hotel. Many street-facing doors are left unlocked in case a bear is sharing your sidewalk.
When the ice freezes, the bears disappear and this strange community evaporates until the next year. Some hardy souls stay in Churchill all year round, providing next year’s stories. “Did you hear, a polar bear stole Bill’s moose? Yeah, ripped the shed door right off the hinges and dragged away a hindquarter!”

That bus has no idea there is a polar bear laying in the willows 20 ft away.

On my final flight out of Churchill, another guide and I realized that we may be among the last of the polar bear guides. Our guests may be some of the last people to see polar bears in the wild. There are no roads into Churchill, and the train into town derails all the time, yet Churchill is still the most accessible place in the world to see these bears. Populations at the fringe of their species range are often the most vulnerable because they endure more hardship to survive. The Western Hudson Bay polar bears are no exception. Bears need sea ice to hunt seals. They cannot survive on anything but seals. They hunt in the winter and spring when the bay is frozen, and they fast in the summer and fall when it is not. In the last 3 decades, the window that the bay is frozen for shrank by 3 weeks, and this trend will continue.

Bruiser bear. The scars indicate he's an older bear that's fought for his place in the breeding pool. The ear tags indicate he's probably paid a visit to the Polar Bear Jail.

Something strange happened this season with my travelers. Nobody questioned me on climate change. Nobody tried to change the subject. Nobody was playing devil’s advocate. Wheat farmers to Shell Oil employees to vegetarian teachers to journalists. People in their eighties or thirties. From Ontario, Iowa, Montana, Texas, California, Atlanta, North Carolina, or Kansas. Already polar bear mothers are not producing as many cubs as they once did. The adult population is already down and declining. By 2050 there won’t be enough ice to make a living on, and the bears will be gone. Soon there won’t be enough bears to support this community and the travel companies that come here. Anyone who comes to Churchill leaves humbled by this reality. Seeing a polar bear in the wild is now equally euphoric and melancholic. My travelers leave carrying the responsibility to explain what is happening in the Hudson Bay to those who ignorantly dismiss climate projections and CO2 graphs in their own insulated worlds. And while we watched polar bears, the largest typhoon in recorded history was whirling across the planet.

Polar Bear mothers used to have 3 cubs. Now they can only support 1 or 2.

Someone asked me what a polar bear is worth. An Inuit community can sell one of their harvest tags to a sport hunter for around $40,000. But what is a Churchill polar bear worth alive? Considering the 4,000 or so travelers arriving each year, the exorbitant prices they pay, and figuring that about 300 bears wander through Cape Churchill each year, my rough estimate is that each bear generates about $46,000 per year. Considering that a bear can easily live to 20 years old, that’s around $1 million that each bear is worth over the course of its life. Food for thought.

Whether you are interested in seeing polar bears or scouting locations to survive the zombie apocalypse, I hope you all one day find your way up to this offbeat and peculiar town. For me, some rest and recovery in Vermont, then back to Jackson for the long Yellowstone winter.

photographing the northern lights at the edge of town