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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About Ky & Lisa

Husband and wife team with primary interest in predator/prey interactions through our involvement in gray wolf and ungulate studies in Yellowstone National Park, the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and Isle Royale National Park.
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