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’),
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.