Isle Royale 2017

 

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Five of us flew to Isle Royale on this Bell 412 Helicopter on January 18.

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Beaver Island in Washington Harbor. Our housing at Windigo is on the shore just over the island. We had very little ice this year and 4 days of warm and rain just after we arrived took care of much of the snow.

Isle Royale (IR), Michigan is an island National Park located in the northwest corner of Lake Superior and 15 miles from the closest mainland near Thunder Bay, Ontario. The Park is open from April 16th to October 31st and is only accessible by boat during those months. It is the most remote National Park in the lower 48 and was established in 1940 and designated as wilderness under the Wilderness Act of 1964. Many people who spend time on IR, backpacking or paddling its 50+ inland lakes, seek a unique wilderness experience while enjoying the solitude of this remote island. The presence of wolves and moose on the island are a draw for many as they enhance the feeling of wildness. Wolves have inhabited this island since the 1940s and moose since the turn of the 19th century. As many as 2,500 moose and 52 wolves have lived on the island at one time.

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Taken the day we arrived on the island, this picture shows the last two remaining wolves on the island.  These wolves are extremely inbred and have not had pups. The 8 year old male is both the father and half sibling of the 6 year old female.  Wow, figure that one out!

Only two wolves and approximately 1,300 moose currently live on IR, and fearing that wolves will soon vanish from the island, National Park Service personnel have committed to augment the current wolf population in order to restore their predation on moose which maintains a balanced moose population. Without predation it is feared that moose will over-browse the island and permanently compromise the health of the ecosystem. For example, in the winter of 1995-1996, moose numbers were at a historic high and wolf numbers had remained low for almost a decade following the outbreak of disease. Moose, particularly on the west end of the island, had denuded the regenerating balsam fir, their primary winter forage. Following a particularly long winter, over 1,000 starving moose died. Use this link to read more about the proposed wolf reintroduction in the National Park Service ‘Draft Environmental Impact Statement’.

DEIS to Address the Presence of Wolves in Isle Royale National Park

We were excited for our 4th winter field season working with the IR Wolf and Moose Project, started in 1958 to study the relationship between wolf and moose predator/prey dynamics and their effect on the island ecosystem. It is the longest running wildlife study in the world.  Researchers, Rolf Peterson and John Vucetich from Michigan Tech University, study this system intensively each year during January and February.  With pilots Don Murray and Don Glaser, they focus on counting moose in 91 study plots for

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Lisa and Don Murray prepare to fly from Daisy Farm to Windigo.

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This plane belonged to Don’s grandfather when he started flying for the project in 1958. His grandfather eventually sold it and years later Don found it abandoned in a field, bought it, restored it, and painted it the same colors as when it flew in ’58. It is a Aeronca Champion commonly known as the “Champ”.

estimating moose population size, and locating wolves in order to estimate their numbers, record their activities and movement patterns, and find their kills for estimating kill rates.

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Pellets collected for diet analysis.

As the ground crew, Lisa and I are responsible for collecting moose fecal pellets and urine by following fresh moose tracks in the snow and collecting balsam fir samples.

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Collecting data in a balsam fir browsing patch.samples from moose foraging areas.  We keep track of fresh wolf sign (tracks, scat, kills) and report these back to the air crew.

This year, moose pellets were analyzed in a process called microhistological analysis to determine diet composition of the moose.  In this process, pellets are ground up, washed in solution, and then viewed through a microscope to identify the species of plant material in the diet.  Results show that moose on IR feed predominantly on Balsam fir, Eastern white cedar, and numerous hardwood browse species.  Chemical analysis of urine reveals how healthy a moose is by determining its urea nitrogen to creatinine ratio.  A high ratio suggests a moose is food stressed and is metabolizing its own muscle for energy.  The ratio of glucuronic acid to creatinine in urine tells us how much energy a moose is putting into detoxifying the plant material that it consumes. In their defense to moose herbivory, we are finding that previously browsed firs concentrate Plant Secondary Metabolites (defense toxins) into their new annual growth.  The concentration of defensive toxins in fir samples help us understand why moose choose certain trees to browse on. It’s hard to imagine that a plant can defend itself from a moose!

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Our small cabin at Daisy Farm.  Yes, that is Lisa washing her hair over the sink!

We were on the 45 mile long island for 28 days, half of our time spent on the west end in an area called Windigo, and the other half on the east end near the Daisy Farm campground.  Windigo is one of the visitor centers in the park and here we stay with the other researchers and pilots in one of the employee bunkhouses where we draw water from a hole in the ice on Washington Harbor, heat with wood, and use a generator for electricity.  At Daisy Farm, Lisa and I live in a 12’ x 24’ ranger cabin situated only 20’ from the lake where we heat, cook, and light our cabin with propane fuel and draw water from Rock Harbor.

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Our daily commute at Daisy Farm.  We are standing on the west end of Moskey Basin and our cabin is on the left side of the ice, 3 1/2 miles down the bay.

For more information on the wolf moose study click on this link www.isleroyalewolf.org and and click ‘Winter Study”.

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Looking up onto the Green Stone Ridge in the center of the island.

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Checking ice thickness after hacking a hole with an axe to make sure it is thick enough for the plane to land on.

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Out on the ice on a cold and blustery day!

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Sun setting over Washington Harbor and Beaver Island on the west end of the island.

Posted in Yellowstone National Park | 10 Comments

Time flies in Yellowstone!

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Looking up the valley of a cirque-like feature called “The Pocket” on the northwest side of  Quadrant Peak.

Almost two months have passed since we made our last post.  Following the end of our early winter moose surveys we have been working on completing our second-year moose study annual report, helping the Yellowstone Cougar Study with their efforts to capture and radio-collar six cougars, preparing for the intensive one-month March Winter Study (wolf study), and as of March 1 have been scouring the Northern Range of Yellowstone searching for wolf-killed prey and performing necropsies on them.

We were successful in completing our moose report that summarizes our winter 2014-2015 field season and some of our genetic results so far. We are attaching the report to this blog so feel free to share it!  2014 YNP Moose Study Annual Report

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Adult female cougar treed by hounds during capture operation.

The Yellowstone Cougar Study, a multi-year study of the cougar population on the Northern Range of Yellowstone, was fortunate to have captured and radio collared three cats this winter.  One was a sub-adult male collared in December and two others were part of a family group; a mother and a yearling male, who is one of her three kittens from last year. Unfortunately, the sub-adult male was killed by another male cougar in the steep and rocky canyon country along the Yellowstone River, but the mother and yearling, still together with the other two siblings, continue to provide important biological data from their radio collars. Lisa was fortunate to have been involved with the successful capture of the adult female!

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Sula and Junior, specialized lion hounds, keep the cougar treed until the crew can dart her and lower her safely to the ground.

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Wolf Project and Cougar Project biologist Dan Stahler (middle) prepares to collect biological data from the cougar. Cougar Study technician Ellen Beller assists. Houndsman Tony  Knuchel fits the cougar with a satellite radio collar.

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Checking teeth for age.  This cat was approximately 5-6 years old.

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The cougar capture crew from left to right Colby, Ellen, Lisa, Tony and Wes.

The Yellowstone Wolf Project’s March Winter Study started with two days of training for eleven volunteers, all with college degrees (mostly in wildlife biology) and all looking for biological field work experience as they pursue their next career or educational move. Some will take jobs as wildlife biologists, some will pursue further education in graduate school, and some will continue to work as biological field technicians on other wildlife projects.

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The Wolf Project March Winter Study crew, including seven new volunteers, eating ice cream after a morning of boiling and cleaning elk metatarsi and mandibles.

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The work station across from the flanks of Mount Everts in Mammoth.

The three Winter Study research wolf packs this March are the Lamar Canyon, Junction Butte, and Prospect Peak packs. These packs have adjacent territories in Yellowstone’s Northern Range, an area where the elk population (their primary prey) is relatively dense compared to the rest of the Park and where there are currently almost 5,000 bison. The Prospect Peak pack occupies a territory on the west end of the Northern Range and spends most of its time on Blacktail Plateau, Mount Everts and along the Yellowstone River corridor all the way to Hellroaring Slope. The Junction Butte Pack can be found near Hellroaring but spends most of its time further east near Tower Junction (an intersection of two of the Park Roads and the location of Roosevelt Lodge and the Tower Ranger Station), in the Yellowstone River corridor northeast of Mount Washburn, on a vast treeless plateau called Specimen Ridge, and along the meandering Slough Creek in an area called Little America.  The Lamar Canyon wolves can be found in Little America sometimes as well but generally localize just to the east throughout the Lamar Valley.

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Searching Lamar Canyon pack clusters high above the Lamar Valley in Rose Creek.

Lisa and I, along with our cluster crew Quinn, Nels and Grace, are collecting predation data by searching GPS locations for the Prospect Peak and Lamar Canyon packs. There are two wolves in Prospect Peak and one wolf in Lamar Canyon that have satellite GPS collars and we are able to track their locations every hour across the landscape. If the wolves spend more than 2 hours in one location, that spot is designated as a cluster and we go search it!

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Ky, Lisa (taking picture), Grace and Nels (our two returning Mainers) grab lunch after processing a bull elk carcass from the Lamar Canyon Pack.

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Lisa and Grace with snow person friend Pat. We left to search more Prospect Peak pack clusters and came back an hour later to find that Pat had been trampled by a herd of young male bison.

We have also continued to opportunistically collect moose pellet samples between our early- and late-winter survey periods. These pellets may help us identify a moose that we haven’t sampled yet, allow us to track pregnancy status through hormone analysis of females throughout the winter, enable us to track winter movement patterns of moose, and give us an idea of moose winter home range size.

Along the way I have turned some of these days in the field into opportunities for a little adventuring. One day I was able to summit Quadrant Mountain, which forms the western border of a beautiful area known as Gardner’s Hole. To descend the mountain I skied northwest and down through expansive white bark pine forests in a steep drainage called “The Pocket”. On another day, I was able to approach the summit of Electric Peak, the tallest mountain in the northwest corner of the Park at almost 11,000 feet, before I was turned back by high wind, poor visibility, and soft snow conditions. I had summited Electric one time before in the winter but had never been on top of Quadrant.  Reaching the top of Antler Peak, which lies just to the south of these others, is the next on my list of adventures. If time, weather, and snow conditions allow, perhaps I will be able to share pictures of the views from its wind-blown summit on our next posting.

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One of the summits of almost 10,000 ft. Quadrant Mountain

 

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A close-up of the almost vertical face of “The Pocket” reveals a massive avalanche!

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Antler Peak from the summit of Quadrant Peak to the south.  Note the Tetons just over the left shoulder of Antler Peak almost 70 miles away.

Tomorrow, our crew heads out to the upper reaches of Slough Creek to search some clusters from the Lamar Canyon Pack and will stay a night in one of the ranger cabins.

Stay tuned for our next blog and thanks for following along!

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In the Land of Moose!

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Ronan and I start an early moonlit ski up through Snow Pass to survey for moose in Gardner’s Hole

It has been a whirlwind since we last posted on the 22nd of December.  It seems that with the shorter days we have had to use every minute of daylight to get our moose surveys completed. We normally aim to start our early winter sampling on December 15th and end on January 15th, but this year we started early on December 13th and ended on January 19th.  Since this is the third and final field season of our three-year study we wanted to make sure we thoroughly covered our study area.  We will replicate this effort when we conduct our late winter survey during the month of April.

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Snow fell just in time. A drop into the Gardner River

The snow started falling just in time allowing us ski access to all our survey areas. Without snow we would have had to conduct our work on foot and we would have needed another few weeks to complete our work. In total Lisa and I, with a few days help from friends Ronan Donovan and Emil McCain, sampled approximately 200 miles of study transects and collectively covered over 300 miles on our skis to do so.

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That same day with Ronan skiing out with our headlights.

We collected a total of 134 moose pellet samples of 30 pellets each that we divided into 3 bags of 10 pellets each. One bag from each pellet sample will be shipped to our collaborator at the University of Minnesota-Duluth for genetic analysis and one bag to the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Lab in Virginia for pregnancy hormone analysis. The last bag will be dried in a large oven here in the Park by Lisa and I and 8 pellets from each sample will be measured to determine an average volume index of the pellets in order to assign one of three age classes to the moose that deposited the pellets (calf, yearling, or adult).

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Collecting samples from a moose bed.

I am analyzing our individual moose ID’s (or genotypes) with a computer software program called Genecap. Each moose genotype consists of a sequence of 12 numbers which represents 6 different segments of DNA, each with a piece contributed by both the mother and father moose, called alleles. So 6 pairs of alleles for a total of 12 pieces of genetic information for each moose.  Each individual in the population has a different combination of these 12 alleles. The software compares every individual genotype with all the others in the data set and combines groups that match and so are from the same moose (over the course of our surveys we will have collected samples from some moose multiple times). I have to make sure these matches make sense by comparing them to our other data; pregnancy hormone concentrations, volume of their pellets, and location sampled. After careful scrutiny I can generate a list of individuals in our study area.  I’m not quite done with our first year analysis but at this point it is looking like we have between 80 and 100 different moose in our study area.  After combining our 3 years of data I will eventually plug these into a Spatial Capture Recapture computer model to generate other population parameters.  More on that in the future.

Highlights of our Early Winter 2015 survey included a New Year’s Day moose survey flight for me where I spent 3.5 hours flying over northern Yellowstone’s best moose habitat in search of moose and moose sign, a week in the beautiful Soda Butte Valley surveying the best winter habitat in our study area with the greatest concentration of wintering moose, and our 5-day back country trip up the Slough Creek drainage to its headwaters to look for moose in an area called Frenchy’s Meadow.

The ultimate goal of the moose survey flight is to locate moose and moose sign so that we can focus our surveys on those areas with moose.  It also serves to eliminate those areas from surveying where no moose or sign is found.  This is almost as important as finding moose because we can eliminate areas to sample that might otherwise require multi-day back country trips.  I flew again in a Piper Super-Cub with pilot Steve Ard from Tracker Aviation out of Bozeman, MT. We found most of the moose sign where we were expecting to find it, in the upper reaches of Slough Creek, in and near Frenchy’s Meadow (FM). Each year we survey this area we find more moose than the year before and this year was no exception. In the willow flats two miles downstream from FM in an area called the 3rd Slough Meadow we located a group of 3 middle-aged bulls, on the south end of FM we located a bedded cow with a calf and young bull, and in the north east corner of FM we found a group of 6 moose bedded together, 4 bulls and two cows.  One of the bulls had quite a large set of antlers and was a beautiful animal to see!

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Three middle-aged bulls in the 3rd Slough Meadow.

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We would later find the right antler of this nice Frenchy’s Meadow Bull

Our plans to start our FM trip the next day had to be changed and we would not be able to start until the 15th of January.  However, I did not want to miss the opportunity to sample at least the 3 bulls we saw in the 3rd Meadow so the next day I skied 10 miles up the Slough drainage to where we saw them, collected their pellets that afternoon, stayed overnight in the Yellowstone Elk Tongue Patrol Cabin and then skied out the next day. We would have to wait to collect the other samples from FM for another 13 days. I was hopeful the snow wouldn’t fully cover their beds and tracks – I had taken pictures from the plane so that we could find them on the ground. By the time we did get to FM, six inches of snow had fallen but we were able to find the beds of each of the 8 moose I had pictures of and were able to collect samples from them all!

We look forward to our time in the Soda Butte Valley because we stay with our friends Laurie and Dan Lyman and get to visit also with friend and Wolf Project co-worker Rick McIntyre, a Yellowstone icon. The Valley is quite narrow with towering 9,000 to 10,000+ foot mountains on either side – The Thunderer; Baronnette, Abiathar, Meridian and Druid Peaks; Mount Hornady and Norris; and Mineral and Republic Mountains. Abiathar is the

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Barronette Peak – Home of many Mountain Goats!

highest at just under 11,000 feet. Here we often find moose wintering 1,000 feet above the valley floor at over 8,000 feet where they hunker down for the winter beneath old growth conifer feeding on regenerating subalpine fir twigs and Old Man’s Beard lichen. The moose were plentiful but our surveys were challenging because the snow was still not deep enough to cover much of the downed trees and stumps and had the consistency of sugar, which made it difficult to move around in. Avalanche danger was high so we had to be very careful where we were skiing.

We look forward to the peace and solitude of Frenchy’s Meadow every year. Located 15 miles up the Slough Creek drainage from the trailhead, which is another 5 miles away from the nearest residents at the Tower Creek Ranger Station, the Meadow is the most

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Skirting the 2nd Slough Meadow on the way to Frenchy’s Meadow

remote destination of our study. Over the last three years we have been the only ones to visit the Meadow in the winter and stay in the 1920’s vintage Slough Creek Forest Service cabin.  FM lies within the Custer-Gallatin National Forest, a 3.1 million acre expanse that lies both north and west of the Park and is considered one of the most ecologically diverse landscapes in the region. Yellowstone of course is another but is only 2/3 the size at 2.2 million acres.

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After a long day and 15 miles of skiing, Lisa approaches the Slough Creek Forest Service Cabin. Our home for the next 3 days.  We hoped the key worked!

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It Did!!!!

Slough Creek bisects FM and is joined by a number of other high mountain streams including Bull, Abundance, Frenchy, and Wolverine Creeks. Much of the lower half of the Meadow is formed by a huge alluvial fan at the outflow of Lost Creek. Choked with willow and pockets of mature conifer forest (most of the forest is regenerating lodgepole pine, still recovering from the massive forest fires of 1988) the area provides some of the best wintering habitat for moose in the region.

We sampled for a full two days here and were treated to some wonderful moose sightings and beautiful scenery. One day we were moving through the willow, continuously scanning for moose with our binoculars, when only a couple hundred yards in front of us

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Using our track from the day before to push our survey to the top of Frenchy’s Meadow.  This is near the spot where we saw the 4 bulls.

four middle-aged bulls popped up out of their beds.  They regarded us curiously before moving off up the near slope where they watched us collecting their pellets. The next day we watched a cow with her bull calf, his little antler buttons just barely poking out of his head, feed along the east side of the meadow.  Mom had for some reason decided it was okay to bed separately from the calf at almost 1/8 of a mile away so when we first saw her we thought she was alone.  Soon we would see the calf meandering up the stream to meet

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Lisa packing out our path to the outhouse.

her.  On our ski out, in the 3rd Slough Meadow where I had seen the 3 bulls from the plane, we watched two bulls (one, the larger of the two had already dropped its antlers) feeding on the willows in the creek below us. We watched where they deposited pellets and then with Lisa keeping an eye on their activity I snuck across the creek and picked up my samples.  They watched me curiously but were deeply engrossed in their mission of eating as many willow twigs as they could. Depending on the size of the animal and type of browse available, a moose can eat up to 60 pounds of forage a day!

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Getting ready to depart the cabin, it always seems to snow while we are here.

We did find 2 moose antlers on our trip which are shed annually by moose. Change in hormone levels triggers the shedding of antlers. Those first to drop are from moose with the largest fluctuation in hormones. These would be the mature bulls that have the highest levels of testosterone during the late September fall breeding season. Young bulls can carry antlers into the late winter and in Vermont one year I even saw a yearling bull still with antlers in April. Only a couple of hundred meters from where I spotted the group of 6 moose from the plane on Jan. 1, Lisa found the right antler of the largest bull in that group.  It was very distinguishable because it had a triple brow palm that was very obvious from my flight photo.  Only 30

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The first antler hung up in the willow.

meters from there and barely visible, I found another right antler from another mature bull. It was palm down in the willows with no tines sticking out of the snow. Had I been skiing 2’ to the left or right, I would have never spotted it. I may be biased, but I think antlers are one of nature’s most beautiful creations! Their individual shape, color, size and smell make each one so different from the other.

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The antler in my left hand is from the large bull pictured bedded in the meadow.

Until next time from Yellowstone National Park, we wish you all well!

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Back to Yellowstone! – Winter 2015/2016

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Ky skiing across Geode Lake while surveying for moose pellets. DNA is extracted from pellets and used to identify individual moose and their sex.

We are back in Yellowstone National Park for another winter studying wolves, elk, and moose.  I arrived on December 10th and Lisa arrived on November 10th.  She drove out early to participate in the Yellowstone Wolf Project’s early Winter Study from November 15th to December 14th. Just like last year she was responsible for downloading GPS data from radio-collars that have been fitted on a few of Northern Yellowstone’s wolves as part of the wolf/elk predation study that has been going on for twenty years.  As a reminder, she creates maps from the GPS data and then identifies the locations on the map where the GPS collared wolf has spent at least 2 hours, called ‘clusters’. These clusters are searched for evidence of a prey carcass by Lisa and her field crew of 4 biological technicians.

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Technicians Kira Powell, Wes Binder and Emil McCain searching clusters in the Crystal Creek Drainage.

Her crew started with two functional GPS collars to follow but by the time the 30 days ended, only one collar had enough battery left to transmit data.

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Lisa joins the crew to search clusters on Specimen Ridge.

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The crew headed home after a long day.

In addition to the cluster searches, Lisa helped coordinate some of the details for the three teams assigned as ground crews on the three study packs. This year, the packs included in this intensive winter study period were Lamar Canyon, Junction Butte, and Prospect Peak.

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Some Lamar Canyon Pack wolves including alpha male ‘Twin’ leading the way.

Lamar Canyon is probably the most famous and most photographed wolf pack in the world at the moment as they are often visible from the road. There are 10 wolves in this pack and they are led by alpha female 926F and alpha male 992M (Twin). There are two yearling females, 3 adult males, and 3 pups.

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Junction Butte Pack wolves at play.

Junction Butte, with 13 wolves, spends most of their time traveling between Slough Creek, Little America, and Specimen Ridge and are often visible for visitors as well. This pack is led by gray alpha male 911M (one of the GPS collared wolves), currently injured from a possible encounter with a bison, and alpha female 970F, a large black wolf. There are four other adult wolves in this pack and 7 pups.

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Alpha female 821F of the Prospect Peak pack.

Prospect Peak is often the hardest pack to see as their territory comprises the top of Mount Everts, parts of the Yellowstone River drainage, and the Blacktail Plateau. This pack numbers between 12 and 13 wolves and are led by alpha female 821F and alpha male 763M. 964M, a gray yearling, also has a GPS collar and was one of the wolves that Lisa kept close track of!

I arrived just in time to see the last of the December raindrops (I hope!) and the start of what we hope will be a snowy winter.  There was a fair bit of snow on the ground for Thanksgiving but some warm days melted most of it away. I got here just in time for the most exciting time of the year for the Wolf Project. Starting December 12 and for the next two days, a helicopter crew from Washington arrived to capture wolves so they could be examined by Wolf Project biologists and fitted with radio-collars.

The helicopter was able to fly only one of the three scheduled days due to poor weather, but it was a successful day.  Two wolves were collared from the Lamar Canyon pack including its alpha male, 3 wolves from the Junction Butte pack, and 1 pup from the Prospect Peak pack.  Sometime after the New Year, another effort will be made to finish collaring the Northern Range packs as well as some packs located in the Park interior.

Lisa had an experience of a life-time as she was asked to help Doug Smith (Wolf Project Leader) and Kira Cassidy (Wolf Project Research Associate) process the three Junction Butte wolves.  She put on her flight gear, boarded the helo with the others, and off they buzzed into the Yellowstone wilderness.

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Lisa excited about her first helicopter ride!

Away she goes!

Lisa ready for take-off with Doug Smith riding shotgun.

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Away she goes!

They were flown to a flat plateau where the three wolves had been captured and sedated. Lisa, Doug and Kira put radio-collars on all three wolves, drew blood for DNA analysis, took body and tooth measurements, monitored temperature, and weighed the animals. The processing took about half an hour and by that time the wolves were more alert and the sedatives had begun to wear off.

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Doug Smith, Wolf Project Leader and Kira Cassidy processing wolves.

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Lisa and former Junction Butte Pack alpha male 890M

 

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One of the Junction Butte Pack wolves waking up from the sedative.

The crew moved about 100m away and watched while the wolves began to move around. Once they were satisfied that the wolves were okay, the helicopter flew in and took them back to Tower Junction where helicopter operations were based.

Soon after my arrival, moose started to pop up everywhere as they began their transition from summer habitats to their winter range. We received many text messages about “a big bull-moose at Elk Creek”, “cow with calf at Geode willows”, and “cow in the Blacktail willows”.  We were starting just at the right time as our early winter moose study runs from December 15 to January 15.

Once again, the focus of our moose study is to conduct a non-invasive population study of the northern Yellowstone moose where we collect fecal pellets from moose as a source of DNA and pregnancy hormones. DNA is extracted from epithelial cells from the surface of the pellets and is analyzed to determine a moose’s individual ID, sex, and pregnancy status if it is a female.  Measure pellet volume then helps us differentiate between calf, yearling, and adult age classes.  When we put all these data together in capture-recapture computer models, we can generate a pretty accurate count of population size and other information such as population growth and survival rates.

I started for a day without Lisa while she wrapped things up with the Wolf Project and surveyed a transect, which runs down Blacktail Creek, upstream along the south side of the Yellowstone River, and then up Oxbow Creek.  I saw and sampled 3 different moose and followed cougar tracks for much of the way.

Oxbow Bull

Oxbow Creek Bull

Today we did a big loop in the upper Blacktail Creek which lies in the middle of the wide open Black-tailed Deer Plateau.  What a beautiful place! Over the next three days together we surveyed other drainages on the Plateau and once again got into moose!

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Looking across Blacktailed-Deer Plateau towards Electric Peak

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This bull elk was feeding in the willows along Blacktail Creek. He had scabies, an ectoparasite, which causes the infected animal to scratch and rub their hair off exposing them to the severe winter temperatures.  A mile away we found a bull elk killed by the Prospect Peak pack which was missing much of the hair on it’s back.

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Observing a bedded bull in Geode Creek

 

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Drawing the bulls antlers to aid with future identification

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Geode Creek bull moose. Six wolves from the Prospect Peak pack that we had seen 30 minutes earlier walked right past this bull as we could discern from their tracks. 85% of the Yellowstone wolves diet is elk and very rarely do they kill a moose, especially a mature bull.

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Wrapping up our work in YNP

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The Teton Range beyond Jackson Lake as I was driving to Granby, CO for the moose conference.

Our April sampling ended soon after our Soda Butte trip. We took advantage of what little snow was left and were able to sample a few more moose. We then shifted gears a little at the end of April entering data, shipping pellets out for DNA analysis, measuring pellets, and getting ready for the 49th International Moose Conference in

We saw this pine marten, the only one we saw this winter, near Canyon Village in the Park interior.

We observed  this pine marten, the only one we saw this winter, near Canyon Village in the Park interior.

Granby, Colorado. We even took a two day birding trip which took us into the Park Interior and out the West Yellowstone entrance where we did a 60 mile driving loop and stopped along the way at some notable birding spots.  Henry and Hebgen Lakes were the highlights were we saw thousands of waterfowl.

We saw 755M, former alpha male of the Lamar Canyon Pack, travelling close to the road in the Hayden Valley. He was probably looking for food to take back to his mate that was in a den with newly born pups.

We saw 755M, former alpha male of the Lamar Canyon Pack, travelling close to the road in the Hayden Valley. He was probably looking for food to take back to his mate who was in a den with newly born pups.

The conference was well attended by many moose biologists and managers across North America. All the Rocky Mountain States were represented, a few of the Canadian provinces, Minnesota sent a group of moose researchers, and we had moose biologists from Vermont-Cedric Alexander, NH-Kris Rines, and Maine-Lee Kantar. It was great to see the New England people there. Myself and one of our collaborators from the University of Minnesota-Duluth, Tessa Tjepkes, were the only ones presenting moose research involving the use of non-invasive methods for estimating moose population parameters so many people were excited to hear about our work. I don’t doubt the methods we have been demonstrating in Yellowstone will be used in other regions of the western U.S. in the near future.

We also just completed our first round of genotype testing from the 270 pellet samples we collected in the winter of 2013-2014 and were able to identify 87 individual moose living on Yellowstone’s Northern Range. As we dissect the data a little more we may find a few more but this is pretty close to what we were expecting. Now that we know what samples came from which individual, we can apply pregnancy hormone data to each cow to determine if she was pregnant. Doing this with all the moose will give us the population pregnancy rate of northern Yellowstone moose. Knowing how many cows and bulls we have will let us estimate population sex ratio. One bull for every cow, or a 1:1 ratio, is typical of a non-hunted population. We are excited to see what we get with this! We can also now look at winter movements and estimate winter home range size because we keep track of all the locations where we picked up the samples. For example, we sampled one bull 8 times over the winter and could see him travel through three different stream drainages. We are excited because the information we are getting from moose non-invasively is just as good or better than what could be gathered through traditional means, i.e. capture the animal using a helicopter, take blood for pregnancy testing, pull a tooth for aging, radio collar it, and then follow it around periodically (often from a plane) to record its location. In comparison to the non-invasive methods we are using, traditional methods are costly and very stressful and sometimes fatal to the study animal.

Lisa investigating a fresh moose track in the Soda Butte Creek drainage.  You can see the snow is lacking beyond the track as was the case on all south facing aspects.

Lisa investigating a fresh moose track in the Soda Butte Creek drainage. You can see the snow is lacking beyond the track as was the case on all south facing aspects. Luckily this moose stayed in the snow so we could follow it!

I just got back home to Vermont on May 5th and am happy to be here! The snow is gone and the leaves are popping. The poplars are already beginning to leaf out. Lisa is spending three more weeks in the Park to train the person who will be running the summer predation study, which is the summer version of what Lisa was doing in the winter. Lisa will only be able to download one GPS collar, at least for the beginning of the summer, because the other two wolves that have been fitted with GPS collars have gone off on their own somewhere and haven’t been seen with their packs in several weeks. Hopefully, they will return soon. Lisa has a good summer crew, including two bear researchers from Norway, but she is really looking forward to getting back home – it has been a long winter!

As far as the moose study goes, we will be processing and analyzing our data this summer and will have our second annual report out by September 1st. We’ll post it on our blog when we do. Thanks for joining us on our adventures this winter and we look forward to sharing more next winter. Have a good summer!

A bull moose feeding on willow along Obsidian Creek. We were able to collect pellets from him only because we could determine his exact location and surveyed the sight soon after he left.

A bull moose feeding on willow along Obsidian Creek. You can see his new antlers just starting to grow. We were able to collect pellets from him only because we could determine his exact location and also surveyed the sight soon after he moved on.

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Back on the Tracks of Moose

We put off the Frenchy’s Meadow trip for a week so we could sample the upper Gardner River basin, called “Gardner’s Hole”, while there was still snow to ski on. Nestled between Quadrant (9,944’) and Little Quadrant (9,892) Mountains and Electric Peak (10,992’),

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Approaching Electric Peak along the Gardner River. To the left, the Flanks of Quadrant Peak are forested and is good winter habitat for moose. Typically 2-3 feet of snow still blanket these rolling hills in April.

Electric Peak as seen from Gardiner's Hole.

Electric Peak as seen from Gardner’s Hole.

Gardner’s Hole is a hard to get to place located about 2 miles west of Swan Lake Flats. It’s one of our favorite destinations in the Park. Here, Fawn Creek meets the upper Gardner River before it winds for miles through sage brush flats and drops into Sheepeater Canyon and eventually runs into the Yellowstone River near Gardiner, MT.  Bordering the Hole to the west and at the foot of the three big peaks is a dense old-growth Engelmann spruce/Douglas fir/Subalpine fir forest. Here, moose spend the winter taking advantage of the thermal cover and lesser snow depths provided by the forest canopy and the sub-alpine fir regeneration in the understory that provides the animal’s winter diet.

This year was different than last year in that we did not see or sample a single moose.  Last year, even with much greater snow depths, moose abandoned this high elevation refuge by early April and moved down into the streams that provided abundant willow forage.  We are guessing that with the much warmer than normal temperatures moose have stayed in the forest to stay cool. Research has shown that moose can get heat stressed when temperatures exceed 57 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer and 23 F in the winter. Because they still retain their winter coats in April, warm days this time of year can be particularly difficult for moose. They are also likely having an easier time moving around in the forests due to early snow melt. Even without collecting any samples, the beauty of Gardner’s Hole and the surrounding mountains made our trips well worth the effort.

In trying to take advantage of the remaining snow in the Park we sampled Pebble Creek and skied a big loop around Round Prairie and Trout Lake, then spent a couple of days getting organized and started our trip to sample in the upper Slough Creek drainage and Frenchy’s Meadow.  Lisa was still finishing up her work with the wolf project work so Nel’s joined me for the adventure.  Since the first few miles of the trail accessing Slough Creek did not have any snow at all, we hired a backcountry guide to tow us

View of our guide Allen while in-tow!

View of our guide Allen while in-tow!

in to a tributary of Slough Creek called Abundance Creek.  We wrapped the bicycle tubes that were tied onto the tow ropes around our waists and off we went.  Within

Dropped off at the Wilderness bored near Lake Abundance we are ready to start our ski down to Frenchy's Meadow.

Dropped off at the Wilderness bored near Lake Abundance we are ready to start our ski down to Frenchy’s Meadow.

a half hour we had travelled the 6 miles to the top of 9,700’ Daisy Pass.  Here our guide dropped over the other side to check for avalanche danger before signaling us to descend. With big smiles on our faces and heavy packs on our backs we dropped onto the slope, made a dozen telemark turns in knee-deep powder, and then resumed our tow to Abundance Creek on the Wilderness boundary.  At this boundary, motorized vehicles are not permitted so we were on our own.

Looking up the drainage of Abundance Creek. The fires of 1988 ravaged this area too.

Looking up the drainage of Abundance Creek. The fires of 1988 ravaged this area too.

Slough Creek Forest Service Cabin.

Slough Creek Forest Service Cabin with considerably less snow than the last time Lisa and I visited.

The north face of Cut-Off Peak from the Bull Creek Drainage.

The north face of Cut-Off Peak from the Bull Creek Drainage.

Fourteen miles later and 1,700 feet lower we arrived at the Slough Creek Forest Service cabin. The ski down the drainage was beautiful and we did sample moose – a very healthy cow moose and her female calf. Over the next two days, we sampled another half dozen moose, saw another cow/female calf pair, and I had the experience of 4 wolves (1 black and 3 gray) passing me by at 125 yards.  We saw their tracks earlier and Nel’s likely spooked them from a bedding spot. None of them wore radio-collars nor fit the color description of known YNP packs so I knew I had the unique opportunity to gaze upon unknown wolves from the wilderness to the north. We did find snow where it had been shaded by the sun up tight to the forest on the southeast side of the creek and could ski all but the last mile before the Slough Creek campground where Lisa, Grace and her friend Maddy picked us up to take us back to our vehicle at Cooke City.

Nels getting creative on the ski out.

Nels getting creative on the ski out.

We skied a total of 48 miles in that spectacular country, constantly in awe of the well-adapted wolves, moose and other wildlife that live the winter in that seemingly barren landscape.

Lisa happy to be back in the field (I was too)! Here she is eagerly backtracking our first fresh moose track in the Soda Butte drainage!

Lisa happy to be back in the field (I was too)! Here she is eagerly backtracking our first fresh moose track on new snow in the Soda Butte drainage!

Hooray!  Lisa has finished her Wolf Project obligations for late Winter Study and we are finally reunited as the moose study field crew! (Thanks Nels for filling in – your help and company were greatly appreciated!)  Since late February she has anchored the GPS cluster efforts, tirelessly keeping up with scheduled downloads, data conversions, cluster map making, and coordinating the ground crews to search them.  Even though she has been able to be in the field for a couple days of searching and numerous download attempts, much of her time over the last month has been in a little cubicle in the upstairs of the Yellowstone Center for Resources in front of a computer. She is happy to be stretching her legs on skis, hearing the calls of the spring birds, and smelling the fresh spring air.

We are currently spending the week sampling in the Soda Butte Creek drainage between Round Prairie and Cooke City where a good portion of Yellowstone’s wintering moose reside.  We have collected pellets so far from 3 different cow/calf pairs as well as a few loaners.  The 4 bulls we have been seeing over the winter have taken to the forests.  Usually, this time of year the moose are moving downhill out of the mature conifer and appearing in stream bottoms where they will spend days and even weeks browsing on the willows. As I mentioned about the Gardner’s Hole moose, this year is different. We believe some of these moose are in higher elevations than we can even safely navigate on skis.  However, in order to find their winter hideouts, we plan to back-track every moose we find travelling down the forested slopes.

The spectacular mountain and dense confer vistas of the Soda Butte drainage never cease to amaze us.

The spectacular mountain and dense confer vistas of the Soda Butte drainage never cease to amaze us. Abiathar Peak as seen from across the valley on the flanks of Barronette Peak.

Looking east up the Soda Butte Drainage from across a snow slide path

Looking east up the Soda Butte Drainage towards Mineral Peak from across a snow slide path.

Wading the Soda Butte Creek at Round Prairie.

Wading the Soda Butte Creek at Round Prairie.

Once we finish up our Soda Butte work we may be done our moose field work for the year because the snow will be gone and we will not be able to locate fresh moose pellets on bare ground.  Because DNA on the surface of moose pellets degrades so rapidly if subjected to warm, moist conditions and/or direct sunlight, we must insure the pellets are 3 or fewer days old. An early ending will give me time to work on a presentation I am making in late-April at the 49th Annual Moose Conference and Workshop which is being held in Granby, Colorado, and it will give Lisa a chance to get ready for one more month of GPS wolf work also starting the end of the month.  I will be heading back to Vermont on May 5th and Lisa on May 22nd.

We wish our Mainer friends Grace and Nels good luck in their travels and summer pursuits. Nels will be working in Homer, Alaska cutting and raising timber-framed structures and Grace will be caretaker of the Piazza Rock campsite along the Appalachian trail not too far from Rangeley, ME, one of her favorite places.  We enjoyed their company this March and appreciated their contributions to the cluster searching crew.  Hopefully we will be able to visit with them this summer in Maine! We will fondly remember their positive attitudes, eager enthusiasm, happy faces, folk songs with a banjo, and of course eating eggs with them three times a day.

Grace and Nels, Mainers, good freinds, and good folks enjoying a banner March day along Slough Creek.

Grace and Nels, Mainers, good freinds, and good folks enjoying a banner March day along Slough Creek.

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March Wolves, April Moose, and a Cougar Kill

Cougar-Cached Elk. The Prospect Peak pack crew members Kim and Elizabeth were checking radio collar signals from this location when they accidentally jumped the cat of it's kill.

Cow elk cached by a cougar. The Prospect Peak pack crew members Kim and Elizabeth were checking radio collar signals from this location when they accidentally jumped the cat off its kill.

Cached cow elk with puncture wounds on it's neck. Some folks came back later that day and observed the cat feeding from a distance  Based on the size, shape of the head, cougar project members thought it was a female.

Cached cow elk with puncture wounds on its neck. Some crew members came back later that day and observed the cat feeding from a distance Based on the size and shape of the cat’s head, cougar project members thought it was a female.

March Winter Study ended on the 30th. We had a wrap-up meeting on the 31st as well as a celebratory banquet at the Rusty Rail Restaurant in Gardner, Montana. Lots of big cuts of beef, tasty chicken and good company were enjoyed by all.

The weather at the end of March finished much the same way it began – warm and no snow.  By the end of the month we were hiking to most of our clusters below 8,000’ but piecing together some high elevation mountain ski routes to access a couple of areas.  We continued our search of GPS clusters with the help of the cougar study crew who had wrapped up their cougar work on March 15. They are the same crew that had been searching clusters for Lisa between Nov. 15 and Dec. 15 so they are seasoned veterans and we were happy for their help. We did get one more day of bone-boiling in; this one, however, was different because we had a banjo serenade.

Site that 870F was found upstream from the Elk Tongue Cabin.

Site that 870F was found upstream from the Elk Tongue Cabin.

Following up on our last post, 870F (former alpha female of the Junction Butte pack) finally succumbed to starvation.  The wolf project plane detected a mortality signal being emitted from her collar.  When the collar remains stationary for a period of time the frequency of the signal increases and we know the animal is dead.  We immediately made

870F's final resting place, laying in the sun, a large spruce blocking the westerly winds, and Slough Creek to her back.

870F’s final resting place, lying in the sun, a large spruce blocking the westerly winds, and Slough Creek to her back.

plans to ski the 9 mile up Slough Creek to retrieve her carcass.  Because she had survived two rounds of serious injury, one to her spine and the other from a nasty wolf attack, we knew a necropsy of her body would prove informative and educational.  Grace, Nels and I left early the following morning trying to take advantage of skiing on the frozen snow before the warming of the day started to melt it. It didn’t end up mattering that we started early because the first two miles of our trail in had already melted out, but at least the mud was frozen!  We walked in carrying the sled we would pull the wolf out on and all our ski gear. Once into the First Slough Meadow the snow was plentiful and we made good time to the Elk Tongue Park Service Patrol cabin, the one Lisa and I use when travelling to and from Frenchy’s Meadow to sample moose.  We found 870F 500m upstream from the cabin and stretched out beneath a massive Engelmann Spruce tree in the sun and only 50m from a winter-killed bison carcass. She spent much of her last weeks here chewing on bones and dried up hide, too weak to search for a more nourishing meal.  She hadn’t been scavenged at all and likely had only been dead for a couple of days. We packed her up in the sled, spent the night at the cabin, and pulled her out the next day.

Grace pulling 870F's sled up and over the hill from the 1st Slough Meadow.

Grace pulling 870F’s sled up and over the hill from the 1st Slough Meadow.

We were met by Lisa and other wolf project personnel who helped us carry her out when we ran out of snow. Many wolf watchers gathered around to pay their respects.  To many, this wolf was a symbol of strength and survival, the underdog who could always overcome adversity.  On the day that we pulled her out, two of her pups from the previous year’s litter that had gone missing for almost a month, returned to the Junction Butte pack, their natal pack. Two had replaced one.

The other study packs were sorting themselves out too.  The threat of the Mollie’s Pack to the Lamar Canyon Pack ended without incident. We were thinking that the Mollies would try to insert one of their males to fill the vacant Alpha male position but it never happened.  Eventually, the Mollie’s headed back towards their main territory in the Pelican Valley.  A group of four males from the Prospect Peak pack, however, were successful in courting the Lamar alpha female 926F and after a couple of tense days of posturing, chasing, howling, and running, the female took a sincere interest in them.  Two males in particular, a radio collared gray male, 965M, and an older non-collared black wolf called Twin because he looks so much like the alpha male of the Prospect Peak pack, 763M, were the two obvious suitors.  The female eventually chose Twin and 965M went back to his pack.  The 6 pups of the year, however, were not accepting of the males who had killed their father and fled for over a week up into the Cache Creek drainage, a tributary of the Lamar River located approximately three miles upstream from its confluence with Soda Butte Creek..

In the meantime the Junction Butte pack and the Prospect Peak pack have started localizing around some traditional den sites in the Yellowstone River drainage and on the Blacktail Deer Plateau.

The Junction Butte pack wolves had bedded on this narrow ridge in the Deep Creek drainage.

Wolves from the Junction Butte pack had bedded on this narrow ridge in the Deep Creek drainage.

Nels skiing the cornice just west of Amethyst Peak on our way back from a Deep Creek cluster search.

Nels skiing the cornice just west of Amethyst Peak on our way back from a Deep Creek cluster search.

Cluster searching with wolf Project leader Doug Smith in center, Wolf Project volunteer Aaron, and Doug's buddy Blaine from Alaska.

Cluster searching with wolf Project leader Doug Smith in center, Wolf Project volunteer Aaron Morris, and Doug’s buddy Blayne Smith from Alaska. We each carried a pair of Altai Hoks mounted with universal bindings because we knew we’d be hiking as much as we were skiing!

Our cluster work took us into some unexplored corners of the Northern Range.  Nels and I had some challenging searches with a couple long days of 19 and 22 mile trips with over 7,000′ both climbing and ascending.

Yesterday, Lisa successfully completed the final GPS downloads from all three study packs and today the cluster crews are in the field searching the final March clusters.  As for me, I have transitioned from wolves to moose in a single day and am preparing for a five-day back country trip to sample moose in Frenchy’s Meadow again, that very special place in the headwaters of Slough Creek. Lisa cannot start moose work until she is done with the wolf GPS cluster work, so Nels is joining me for the this trip.  Since we lack snow that would enable us to ski upstream from the Slough Creek Campground we are starting from Cooke City and will be towed behind a snowmobile and dropped off at Lake Abundance. From here we will ski down Abundance Creek to Slough Creek and the Meadow.  I was able to take my late winter moose flight just three days ago and did see 8 moose in the meadow; 7 of the 8 were females and 3 were  calves.  Hopefully we will be able to collect samples from them all. We also saw two different grizzly bears feeding on winter-killed bison.

Cow moose with female calf in Frenchy's Meadow. We didn't see the two big bulls that we had seen here earlier in the winter.

Cow moose with female calf in Frenchy’s Meadow. We didn’t see the two big bulls that we had seen here earlier in the winter.

Boar grizzly bear on winter-killed bison in 2nd Slough Meadow

Boar grizzly bear on winter-killed bison in Second Slough Meadow

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Catching up on Winter Study and some interesting wolf interactions!

Looking down the Yellowstone River Drainage sough of Gardiner, MT. Our vantage point is from inside the Park on the north side of Sepulcher Mountain.

The Yellowstone River Drainage downstream (north) from Gardiner, MT. Our vantage point is from inside the Park on the north flanks of Sepulcher Mountain following an attempt to capture a cougar. 

We were hopeful to post a blog every few days or so this month but with the longer March days and the wolves keeping us on our toes we have been spending what little free time we have had just eating and sleeping.

Since our last entry, Lisa has been spending most of her time trying to track down wolves in order to get GPS downloads and creating cluster maps.  I spent one day preparing metatarsi and mandibles for boiling, one day boiling these bones to remove tissue, and one exciting day helping to track down and possibly capture a cougar to radio-collar for an on-going cougar study.

Wes and I tracked a male cougar for the day hoping to find where he had made a kill so we could bring the hounds in the next day to tree him.  Once treed, the cat is darted from the ground with a sedative, safely lowered from the tree with a rope, and radio-collared on the ground.

Wes checking out tracks of a male cougar. He and I tracked this cat for a day hoping to find where he had made a kill so we could bring the hounds in the next day to tree him. Once treed, the cat is darted from the ground with a sedative, safely lowered from the tree with a rope, and radio-collared on the ground.

The cougar study crew thought this track was from a male.

This cougar took us on a chase up and down the north flanks of Sepulcher Mountain.

Wes plucking cougar hairs from one of it's beds for DNA analysis.  If we didn't catch the cat, we could identify it from it's DNA.  We eventually jumped the cat from this bed, the crew tried to follow it again the next day, but it eluded the capture crew by travelling to lower elevations where the snow had melted out.

Wes plucking cougar hairs from one of its beds for DNA analysis. If we didn’t catch the cat, we could identify it from its DNA. We eventually jumped the cat from this bed, the crew tried to follow it again the next day, but it eluded the capture crew by travelling to lower elevations where the snow had melted out.

The rest of my days have been spent in the field searching GPS clusters with our crew. From each wolf-killed elk we collect a metatarsus (lower rear leg bone above the hoof) and the lower jaw (or mandibles). We use the metatarsus to determine how well-nourished the elk was in-utero and as a calf.  A shorter than average metatarsus length suggests that the elk was born to a poorly nourished mother or was subject to poor forage quality as a calf.  Just like humans, if we eat poorly as children, our stature may be stunted as an adult.  From the mandible, we can look at the the teeth and tell us how old the animal is.

Lisa removing an incisor (lower front tooth) from a bull elk killed by the 8 Mile pack. The rangers had to move the carcass because it was too close to the road and a popular trailhead.

Lisa removing an incisor (lower front tooth) from a bull elk killed by the 8 Mile pack. The rangers had to move the carcass because it was too close to the road and a popular trailhead.

We can get a relative age of the animal by tooth wear and replacement but we also get a definitive age by extracting an incisor which is sent to a lab and aged by counting cementum annuli.  Each year in preparation for switching from soft summer diet to a coarse winter diet, a layer of cement is added to the root of the tooth to anchor it into the jaw.  The tooth is ground down and these layers can be counted like growth rings on a tree.

Emil in our bone freezer with metatarsi on top shelf and mandibles on lower shelf.  All lableled and ready to boil the next day.

Emil in our bone freezer with metatarsi on top shelf and mandibles on lower shelf. All lableled and ready to boil the next day.

We clean these bones up by boiling for cataloging and future measuring. We first make sure they are well labelled in preparation for three hour boil because if we lose tags in the boil, we lose data.  It’s important that all samples collected in the field can be used for our research analysis.  On our first boiling day seven of us boiled and cleaned 77 metatarsi.  On Thursday we will boil mandibles. This will be the last bone boiling of the year because grizzly bears are out from hibernation and we don’t want to attract them to Mammoth Hot Springs.

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The location of the study wolf packs and their actions have been unusual to say the least.  Usually a pack chooses a territory that provides plenty of food and familiar topography that they defend from other packs. Adjacent packs do the same and more often than not through howling and scent marking each pack advertises its location to others that then stay in their own territory.  However, this winter we have had one pack, the Prospect Peak Pack that has been pushing the borders of its territory. They are larger than the other two study packs with 12-14 individuals depending on the day, and have an abundance of adult males. Perhaps in an effort to find a mate for one of their big males, they have been pushing into Junction Butte pack territory and have killed one of its young and severely injured their alpha female (870F) who is now just clinging to life in the upper Slough Creek drainage scavenging for food on winter killed bison. She likely won’t live much longer.  They have also killed two adult females from another pack of unknown origin.  In the meantime, 870F has been replaced by another female as alpha of the Junction Pack and the pack has vanished from their usual territory to the remote reaches of the upper Yellowstone River drainage.  They have denned here in the past and have plenty of food so may stay there for a while to avoid the Prospects.

Lisa and our friend, Erin Stahler of the Wolf Project, with the new alpha female of the Junction Pack, 970F, when she was radio-collared in December.

Lisa and our friend, Erin Stahler of the Wolf Project, with the new alpha female of the Junction Pack, 970F, when she was radio-collared in December. She is 870F’s sister and she took over leadership when her sibling was injured by the Prospects and then pushed out of her pack by the remaining wolves. It is a tough life in the wolf world!

On the other end of the study area the Lamar Canyon Pack of eight wolves, consisting of a mated pair and six pups, have stayed out of trouble until just two weeks ago when they appeared for the first time ever west of the Lamar Canyon for which they were named.  They were doing a pretty good job finding elk to prey upon in a landscape devoid of abundant prey, however, it seems like they were having a tougher and tougher time finding food so ventured west into Junction Butte Pack territory in their quest for food.  Here, they ran into the Prospect Peak pack over a week ago and the Lamar alpha male was attacked and severely injured. Two days later his radio collar started emitting a mortality signal and he was found dead from his injuries.  Despite the loss of their alpha male, the pack took one more foray west into hostile territory before finally returning to the Lamar Valley.  The female seems anxious to find another male to help her lead her small pack and has been leaving her youngsters behind for a day or two at a time while she wanders in search of other wolves.

The Mollies Pack on top of Mt. Norris. Most of the wolves in this pack are black.

A slightly blurry picture of the Mollies Pack on top of Mt. Norris taken from a great distance through a spotting scope. Most of the wolves in this pack are black.

All seemed to be getting back to normal until the Mollies Pack showed up in the Lamar Valley after leaving their winter home in the Pelican Valley. As they approached the Lamar Valley the Mollies had killed an elk on the flanks of Mount Norris and then proceeded to travel closer to the Lamar’s denning site on the north side of the Valley.  The alpha female, 926F, seemed to have interest in the pack, maybe as a source of a new mate, and left her 6 pups and crossed the valley towards the Mollies. What she didn’t know was that the pups had also crossed and had made their way towards the intruding pack. One climbed a snow slope directly at the base of the cliffs, curious about the other wolves. The Mollies could have killed the pups but didn’t. Perhaps they sensed the absence of an alpha male and saw the opportunity for one of their members to fill the role. 926’s warning howls finally got the pups to return and the Mollies eventually retreated over the ridge.  The next day the Lamars followed their scent trail and eventually the pups came running back without their mother.  Her radio collar signals were still audible but no one knew what she was up to.  Yesterday her signals were back with the pups in the den area but the wolves were not in view. We are all waiting for the pack study crew to view the wolves to see if 926F brought back a new male as her alpha mate.

Lamar Alpha female 926F howling for her pups as they traveled a little too close for comfort towards the Mollies' Pack, a pack that normally makes its home in the Pelican Valley in the Interior of Yellowstone Park.

Lamar Alpha female 926F howling for her pups as they traveled a little too close for comfort towards the Mollies’ Pack, a pack that normally makes its home in the Pelican Valley in the Interior of Yellowstone Park. 

Eating good old pb&j in the field.

Eating good old pb&j in the field on a day that Lisa and I searched GPS clusters in Lost Creek. Note the lack of snow in the distance and warm weather apparel. This was the second day in a row that night-time temps exceeded the freezing mark. On this day we skied through mature Lodgepole pine forests and as well as tangled regen through knee-high mush.

 

Winter-killed bison found in the Yellowstone River drainage at Junction Butte pack GPS cluster. The wolves had been here for two days feeding on the carcass.

Winter-killed bison found in the Yellowstone River drainage at Junction Butte pack GPS cluster. The wolves had been here for two days feeding on the carcass.

 

The Yellowstone River Drainage just downstream from the Agate Creek confluence.  This landscape is still recovering from the fires of 1988 with the regenerating lodgepole pine still only about 10' high.

The Yellowstone River Drainage just downstream from the Agate Creek confluence. This landscape is still recovering from the fires of 1988 with the regenerating lodgepole pine still only about 10′ high.

 

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March 2015 Winter Study Begins

First Day of Winter Study. Ky, Grace, Nels, Lisa and Emil (The Cluster Crew) on top of South Butte, Blacktail Deer Plateau, observing Prospect Peak pack.

First Day of Winter Study. Ky, Grace, Nels, Lisa and Emil (The Cluster Crew) on top of South Butte, Blacktail Deer Plateau, observing the Prospect Peak pack.

Starting March 1, three ground crews of three biologists will locate and follow the Prospect Peak, Junction Butte, and Lamar Canyon wolf packs, all residents of Yellowstone’s Northern Range. For 30 consecutive days from sun-up to sun-down, these packs will be observed in order to locate kills, 85% of which are elk, to estimate kill rates and predation rates. In addition, data on pack size and age structure, daily activity and movement, and behavior and leadership will be recorded. At the same time Lisa and I will be leading another group whose responsibility is to locate prey carcasses missed by the ground crews or by the air crew that locates the same packs whenever weather conditions permit a flight. We will be searching GPS clusters generated form location data downloaded from GPS units attached to wolf radio collars. Each of the three study packs has at least one GPS radio-collared wolf.

Our charge on Day 1 was to locate a dead elk, one of 90 radio-collared animals from an on-going elk mortality study. We never found the elk, but we did find the radio-collar that likely had been chewed off from the carcass. The cliffs rising up behind us from the Black Canyon of the Yellowstone River are occupied by a nesting pair of Peregrine falcons in the summer. Crevice Creek is beyond that.

Lisa is the kingpin of this operation and is responsible for downloading data from wolves remotely. With the wolves in view and antennae pointed at the wolf, Lisa sends a signal from a 2″ x 4″x 8″ receiver to “wake up” the wolf’s collar. The receiver verifies that the collar is activated, Lisa depressed the appropriate button, and a stream of data is uploaded to the unit. The data appears to be mostly gibberish but after hours of manipulation on the computer, transforming from one data type to the other, Lisa produces “cluster” maps. The maps are color topographic maps showing the locations of the radio-collared wolf. Every spot that the wolf was for at least 2 hours without being observed by any of the other study crews needs to be searched for a kill.

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Nels and Grace on the west end of Junction Lake checking out a bison carcass frozen into the lake (Prospect Peak and Elk Creek drainage beyond). The northern range contains many small kettle ponds that were formed when huge ice blocks calved from receding glaciers forming depressions in the ground, and eventually filling with water when the ice melted. Their edges, deep and spongy with vegetation, become death traps for passing elk and bison as the ice begins to melt in late winter. As we approached we spied our first Grizzly Bear of the year running up a slope at the far side of the pond. It was obvious that the bear had been working to retrieve the carcass from the pond.

This is where I come in. I am part of a four-person cluster crew, the searchers of these GPS clusters. We work in pairs and visit each “cluster” on Lisa’s maps to search for a kill. And of course this means lots of skiing in the backcountry of Yellowstone National Park following the path of Yellowstone’s most iconic predator. As you can imagine, these wolves take us on some pretty awesome adventures. When Lisa’s job is completed at the computer she eagerly joins us in the field as often as she can – hopefully at least 10 days this Month.

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Grace and Nels piloting the trolley across the Lamar River. Especially in late March when the river is open, this trolley saves us miles when searching terrain north of the Yellowstone River. We are on our way back from the snowy slope in the distance where we performed a necropsy on a calf elk killed by the Lamar Canyon pack the day before.

Our crew consists of Lisa, myself, Grace Glynn and Nels Christensen (both residents of Maine and graduates from Connecticut College) and Emil McCain. Brian Senecker from Bozeman, MT, who worked on the cluster crew last March, will join us for a week. Emil and I worked together last in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan in 2001 tracking wolves for a whitetailed deer/wolf predation study so we have enjoyed working together again.
We have a great crew and look forward to an exciting month. More to come about March Winter Study 2015……….

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Frenchy’s Meadow

As you may recall from a previous post (See Blog entry from 1/08/14 for more details), Frenchy’s Meadow, prior to the forest fires of 1988, supported probably the highest densities of moose than anywhere else in northern YNP due to its vast willow meadows that provided food and dense mature conifer forest surrounding it that provided winter habitat. However, the fires of 1988 burned much of the mature conifer and consequently since then the area supports fewer moose. Frenchy’s Meadow is located ~ 5 miles north of the Park in the Gallatin National Forest, but its moose habitat is contiguous along the Slough Creek drainage in the park and so moose move freely between these areas throughout the year.

Lisa imitating a bull in Frenchy's meadow trying to lose his antlers.

Lisa imitating a bull in Frenchy’s meadow trying to lose his antlers.

We started our trip at 7:30 am on January 2nd from the Slough Creek bathroom lot and were back at the trailhead on the afternoon of January 7th.  We spent two nights at the Park Service Elk Tongue Ranger Cabin, one night on the way in and one on the way out, and three nights at the Forest Service Patrol Cabin at the south end of Frenchy’s Meadow. We had company the first night since our good friends Kira Cassidy from the Yellowstone Wolf Project and Ronan Donovan from National Geographic joined us for the first leg of our journey. They made us dinner, carrying in fresh tomatoes, avocadoes, and venison! We had a great time playing Kira’s newly acquired board game “Ticket to Ride” that night on the floor in front of the blazing wood stove, the board illuminated by head lamps and a Coleman lantern. The next morning Kira and Ronan headed back to civilization and Lisa and I continued on up to the Meadow.

We reached the Forest Service cabin at dusk, fired up the wood cook stove for heat, had dinner and went to bed wondering what we would find for moose activity the next day.  We were excited to find out that the two big bulls that were in the Meadow the year before were still there and this year they were even bigger!  We had good looks at them and were able to take a couple photos with a point and shoot camera through a pair of binoculars.

Frenchy's Meadow Bulls

Frenchy’s Meadow Bulls taken with point and shoot through binoculars.

This was now easy feat. We thought these would be the only moose we would see as snow depths were considerable and we thought any other moose would have already taken refuge in the nearest conifer forests.  We were pleasantly surprised to see group of 3 (yearling bull and cow with a calf) and a lone cow.  We also collected pellet samples from fresh tracks of another group of moose that we didn’t see.  After getting back to the cabin following a successful day in the meadow, we decided to go back up the meadow the following day try to see the moose we sampled but didn’t get a look at. It had been snowing all day and the snow had started to accumulate but we didn’t think much of it and went to bed well fed and cozy in our sleeping bags.

Snowed In!

Snowed in at Frenchy’s Meadow Forest Service cabin!

The next morning we awoke to find not only that it was still snowing but that ~ 16” of snow had already fallen, and it was now snowing harder than the day before and blowing sideways. Revisiting the north end of the Meadow was now out of the question, and since our exit route would take us directly into the driving and drifting snow, we decided that we better not attempt the ski back to Elk Tongue cabin either. Breaking trail through deep snow, not being able to see, and possibly not making it to our destination didn’t sound very appealing. So, we hunkered down for the day, lit the cook stove, made some soup, and played a lot of gin.

This is where one bison had to turn around.

This is where one bison had to turn around.

The next day we awoke to over 24” of light snow. The sky was clear so we packed up and began the big push back to ET cabin. The tracks we had broken on the way in were long gone so we had to re-brake trail through knee deep snow and along parts of our routes we were pushing through 3’ to 4’ drifts. We saw the two big bulls we had seen two days earlier not long after we started. They were along the creek eating willow and effortlessly navigating the deep snow with their 4’ long legs.  Twice along the way we ran into bison who were also trying to leave the meadow for lower elevations and who were in front of us on the trail.  We happily started following their tracks at they made our travel easier, but eventually we would catch up to them and find them mired neck deep in huge drifts with nowhere to go.  We’d have to circle around to convince them to go back on their trails so that we could move past them and continue along our way. As we continued the temperature rose above freezing and the snow started to get very heavy.  As we circled on

Too tired to move!

Unable to move in the heavy wet snow and too tired to care!

particular pair of bull bison we realized that they were stuck, locked in by the cement-like snow. We have heard stories of bison that have died standing up when stuck in snow and we hoped it wouldn’t happen to these two.

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Shoveling Elk Tongue cabin roof.

We did finally make it back to Elk Tongue cabin just before dark only to realize that the amount of snow on the roof was causing the porch rafters to bow beneath the weight. We didn’t feel safe entering the cabin so we found an old wooden ladder buried behind the cabin, climbed up on the roof, and shoveled all the snow off. After the ski and the shoveling, we were exhausted! Time for a nice wood fire, dinner, and bed.

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Departing in the fog.

The next morning was very foggy as we departed for the trailhead.  It was hard to see the trail or any distinguishing landscape characteristics…trees would emerge out of the mist, the snow blended into the horizon, and we kept an eye on each other just to find our way. Eventually the fog lifted and the sun appeared lighting up the snow covered mountains to the east. We enjoyed the last of our solitude before getting back to our truck at the trailhead and realized how fortunate we are to be able to pursue our wildlife interests in such a beautiful part of the world.

The fog was lifting and Lisa leading the way!

The fog was lifting and Lisa leading the way!

Leaving behind the Slough Creek drainage.

Leaving behind the Slough Creek drainage.

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