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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Wrapping up our early winter moose survey

We are finished with the field component of our early winter moose survey which ended on January 15th. We were worried when we started on December 15th that poor snow conditions would restrict our access to certain areas for sampling but Mother Nature came through and helped us out by laying down a nice blanket of snow in those areas where we needed it most and of course went a little heavy in other areas but we won’t complain about that!!

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Looking east over the First Slough Meadow-Slough Creek Drainage

 

Our work has gone well and over the course of the 30 day sampling period we were in the field for 24 days, we skied 488 km in order to survey 304 km of study transect and we collected 106 pellet samples. Next we will send a sub-sample from each sample to the University of Minnesota-Duluth for genetic analysis to determine individuals and their genders and Lisa and I will dry and measure 8 pellets from each sample in order to determine age class (calf, yearling, or adult). Once genders are determined we will send sub-samples from all females to the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Virginia for analysis of pregnancy hormones.

Highlights of our early winter work include a one week stay in Silver Gate, MT at our friends Dan and Laurie’s house while we sampled moose in the Soda Butte drainage; a 6-day back country trip to sample moose in the upper Slough Creek Drainage and Frenchy’s Meadow; and two days of sampling in an area called Gardner’s Hole.

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Cooke City is like an old western town except that the cowboys here ride snow mobiles. Barronette Peak in the distance.

 

In the Soda Butte drainage snow was deep and the moose were abundant. We were fortunate to observe five bulls and one cow moose daily in Round Prairie, which is at the confluence of Pebble Creek and Soda Butte Creek, had a great ski up the Pebble Creek drainage, which we always enjoy because of its beauty and because we always seem to get into some isolated bulls there, and we had the opportunity to spend time with friends we rarely get to see because we are always so busy.

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The five Round Prairie Bulls causing a ruckus on the road in the early morning.

 

Lisa searching along Soda Butte Creek

Lisa searching along Soda Butte Creek

Our Frenchy’s Meadow trip was enormously successful, despite challenging snow conditions. Last year we only found two moose in the Meadow, but this year we actually saw six – 3 bulls, 2 cows and a calf. We ended up getting snowed in one day at the Forest Service Patrol cabin when over 2 feet of snow fell within 24 hours. More on the Frenchy’s Meadow trip in our next blog.

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Snowed in at Frenchy’s Meadow – Slough Creek Forest Service Cabin

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The snow kept coming!

Gardner’s Hole is an area above Mammoth Hot Springs where the Gardner River, Fawn Creek, and Glen Creek all flow down towards the Yellowstone. Snow conditions were excellent and we were able to make good time during our survey for moose. We didn’t see any, which is OK because of the non-invasive nature of our study……all we really need to find are their pellets! We did, however, see the 8-Mile wolf pack, which was a treat! More on Gardner’s Hole in our next blog.

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Looking west to Electric Peak from Cache Lake

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Skiing between Gardner River and Fawn Creek above Gardner’s Hole. Bunsen Peak is in the distance.

 

Over the next two months, we will continue to make trips throughout the northern range to search for moose in areas we have not looked yet. We will begin our late winter survey on April 1st. In the meantime, weather permitting, I am hoping to schedule a flight to check some of the more remote drainages for any moose or moose tracks in order to determine if we will need to conduct a ski survey to pick up pellet samples in the future.

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Back in Yellowstone to Study Moose and Wolves

Greetings again from Yellowstone National Park!

April 14, 2014 was our last winter blog entry and at that time we had finished our March work with the Yellowstone Wolf project, where we were searching wolf GPS locations for prey carcasses for an ongoing predation study, and we were midway through the second month of sampling for our first winter of moose research. We wrapped up our moose work at the end of April and headed back to Vermont. I flew home the first week of May and Lisa drove our truck and gear back so she could visit her sisters on the way home.

And now, here we are, starting our second winter of studying the northern Yellowstone moose. To remind you of what our moose research entails, here is a little review. For each of three successive winters we will survey the entire northern Yellowstone moose wintering range, an area of about 1000 square kilometers, and systematically Map 4collect moose fecal pellets as a source of DNA and pregnancy hormones for a non-invasive population study. In the study area map shown we also show our early-winter and late-winter sampling transects or tracks.  These are the routes we skied to do our work.

We have been sampling in the northeast corner of our study area for the last week which is blown up on this second map.  Just below the B in Butte from the map title you can see Silver Gate, Montana, just outside the Northeast entrance of the Park.  This is where we have been staying saving us a 120 mile round trip each day from Mammoth Hot Springs. Here we are surveying the Soda Butte and Pebble Creek drainages that contains the best winter habitat for moose in northern YNP and consequently the greatest density of wintering moose.

Map 6The moose that is present in Yellowstone is the smallest of four North American subspecies, the Shiras moose (Alces alces shirasi). Research has shown that moose, a northern species adapted to living in the cold, deep snow environments of the northern boreal forests and mountains of the U.S. and Canada, are in decline across much of their southern range from the Canadian Maritime provinces, New England, the Great Lakes region, and into the Rocky Mountains due to climatic warming induced disease, parasitism and heat stress. The goal of our study is to determine the population status of Yellowstone moose and to demonstrate the use of an alternative population monitoring tool, called non-invasive genetic sampling, to support the management of moose throughout their range

Fecal pellets collected in the field are sent to the University of MN-Duluth where lab technicians remove epithelial cells from the pellet surface (these are sloughed off from the intestinal walls), and extract DNA from the cells to determine the moose’s individual identity and gender. Hormone concentration in the pellets of females are then analyzed at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Virginia to determine pregnancy status. Moose can be classified into three age classes (calf, yearling, adult) based on pellet volume measurements as pellet size is related to moose size and age. Plugging three years of these data into capture-recapture computer models we can generate reliable estimates of population abundance and age- and gender-specific rates of survival (how many of each age class live into the next year), recruitment (how many calves live beyond their first year), and population change (rate at which the population is increasing or decreasing). In this effort, we are also working with biologists from Yellowstone National Park and Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks.

We finished the first of our three field seasons during the winter of 2013-2014 (See attached Moose Study Annual Report 2013-2014 at the bottom of this post) for a summary of our first year of research) and just started our second on December 15th 2014. We conduct our field work from December 15 to January 15 and again during the month of April.

The moose pictures included in this blog were taken of 5 different bulls and a cow that have been feeding on willow in Round Prairie along the Soda Butte Creek.  We name the bulls based on antler characteristics so we can identify them over the winter until they drop their antlers, which will enable us to get an idea of their winter range. We named the two bulls pictured below 5×5 because of the number of tines on each antler (top photo) and peace sign for obvious reasons (bottom photo).  These were the largest in this bunch. They put on quite a show for us. The others were named 4×4, little crown, and cropped antler. We will keep you updated about our moose research in our next blogs.

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This year, we will be in Yellowstone the entire winter. For the last 3 years, we have worked on the Isle Royale Wolf/Moose study from late January until late February but we decided to focus all our attention on our moose study and our work with the Yellowstone Wolf Project. We will miss working on Isle Royale, as it is a very special place, but we look forward to putting our energy into the wolves and moose of Yellowstone! This year from November 15-December 15 and again during the month of March, Lisa was working as a Yellowstone Wolf Project technician heading up the effort to locate wolf kills for a study of wolf predation by downloading location information from wolf GPS radio collars, creating location maps of these wolves, and facilitating the search of these locations for carcasses. She will write about her experience in a later post.

Moose Study Annual Report 2013-2014

 

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Back to the Rockies

Skiing back to Windigo

Skiing back to Windigo on Washington Harbor

Wrap-up – Isle Royale 2014

By the time we left Isle Royale on February 27th, the island was blanketed with over 100 cm (40”) of snow. It is the deepest snow recorded during the 56 years of the wolf/moose study.  Moose are now struggling through chest deep snow and will suffer even more when the snow surface freezes and thaws and forms an impenetrable crust. Not only will the crust make travelling and finding forage difficult for them, but it will provide a solid surface for the wolves to chase and attack their prey.

Moose and wolves on Isle Royale

Moose and wolves on Isle Royale

The final moose count for Winter Study 2014 has not been tallied as of yet but we expect slightly more than the estimated 975 from last year, even after the prolonged winter of 2012/2013. If this winter persists on its current trajectory, we would expect that a good number of moose won’t make it into the spring.  Only next year’s count will reveal the true severity of this winter’s conditions on Isle Royale moose.

With the loss of five-year old female wolf, Isabelle, who left the island in mid-January by traveling on an ice bridge and was found shot dead on the shores of Grand Portage, MN, the total number of wolves at the end of February was 9. The Chippewa Harbor group, which occupies the east end of the Island, remained at three wolves – likely a female and her two offspring, one male and one female. The West End pack of 6 is made up of a breeding alpha pair, the brother of the alpha male, 2 pups, and perhaps another adult female.  Only genetic analysis of DNA from scats will reveal the true composition of this pack.

Saying goodbye to our favorite pilot, Donnee Glaser

Saying goodbye to our favorite pilot, Don Glaser

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Welcome to Yellowstone Griffin!

Yellowstone – March Winter Study 2014

The day after leaving IR on Jan. 27th, Lisa flew home to Vermont to visit her mother for 5 days and I drove to Yellowstone with my nephew Griffin who joined me to work with the Yellowstone Wolf Project until Lisa arrived back on the 6th. The snow was piling up as we drove west and hazardous snow conditions forced Griffin and I to overnight in Billings, MT. The next morning we pushed through the snow and arrived in the park later that day. Lisa and I were excited to include Griffin in the Wolf Project for a week and expose him to the world of wildlife research which he has great interest in. One of the highlights of Griffin’s visit to the park was skiing to and performing a necropsy on a wolf kill with Wolf Project leader Doug Smith and National Geographic photographer Erika Larsen. National Geographic has just started filming and taking pictures for their April 2015 edition, one dedicated exclusively to Yellowstone National Park in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service. Griffin really enjoyed his Yellowstone experiences and the Wolf Project welcomed his active participation and appreciated his contribution.

Griffin helping Molly to get a GPS collar download while the Junction crew keep an eye on their wolves

Griffin helping Molly to get a GPS collar download while the Junction crew keep an eye on their wolves

This year, the Wolf Project is focusing its intensive month-long winter study on two northern range wolf packs instead of the typical 3 because only the Junction Butte pack and the 8-Mile pack, have been consistently staying together.  Project volunteers Kameron, Chay and Shawn are on the 8-Mile pack study crew and Hans, Christi and Julie are following the Junction Butte pack.  They will follow their packs every day for the next 30 days and record all their daily movements, interactions and behaviors.

Griffin and the Cluster Crew on a mission

The Cluster Crew on a mission – L to R: Brian, Griffin, Matt, Molly

Lisa, Molly, Brian, Griffin (for 6 days), and I are the “Cluster Crew” and are responsible for searching wolf GPS clusters for kills.  During the two months of Winter Study, Nov. 15-Dec. 15 and March, GPS collars record the location of 5 northern range wolves every hour. During the rest of the year the collars only record 4 GPS locations per day. “Clusters”

Cluster map of the Antelope Creek area

Typical cluster map showing red cluster points in Antelope Creek area. This day was a 20 mile ski.

are considered locations where a GPS-collared wolf has spent at least 2 consecutive hours without being observed by the pack study crews.  As the primary goal of the study is to record the number of kills each pack makes, we, by searching these clusters, act as the “fine tooth comb” to locate carcasses that would otherwise be missed.  Often times these prey are smaller animals, deer or elk calves that take the packs only hours to consume, but can also be adult elk that were out of view of study crews or killed at night and left before sun-up. 

Griffin and his Uncle Ky

Griffin and his Uncle Ky

 Along the way, we also conduct necropsies on carcasses of study pack kills or those that have been killed by non-study groups of wolves. Four other non-study groups roam the northern range including a male-female duo that had formerly been from the Lamar Canyon Pack , a group of 5 wolves that has at least temporarily split from the 8-mile pack, the former Blacktail Pack alpha male 778M and 3 other wolves, and a group of 4 wolves including the former alpha male (755M) from the Lamar Canyon pack, two wolves from the Junction Butte pack, and a former Blacktail pack wolf.

8 Mile wolves chasing cow elk - Photo by Alan

8 Mile wolves chasing a cow elk. They killed this adult cow elk as well as a calf. – Photo by Alan Oliver

On our first day in the field we helped the 8-Mile crew locate their wolves on the west flank of Mt. Everts, just inside the park boundary.  The pack killed and consumed an elk calf early in the morning and had made another kill late in the day.  The pack crew saw the chase but not the kill.  They only knew that the pack was successful by the increased concentration of bird activity just behind a knoll in the hours after the chase. Brian, Griffin and I in the meantime had driven to Little America, an open expanse of sage dotted with glacial erratic boulders at the confluence of Slough Creek and the Lamar River to conduct a necropsy on a yearling bison that was killed on the west slope of the South Divide Ridge.  The ridge bisected Jasper Bench in the Lamar Valley with the Crystal Creek drainage to the west.  We skied through a dense pocket of regenerating aspen, across a couple of creeks, and onto the wide open slope. We were careful to stay on slopes below 30 degrees because of the high avalanche danger. We found the carcass, conducted our necropsy, and enjoyed the ski back through the new 8” of snow that had accumulated in the past couple of days.

Above the Lamar Valley

Looking down onto the Lamar Valley from the north.

While waiting for GPS radio collar locations to amass for a few days before downloading data, we took the opportunity to “boil bones”. Metatarsus bones (the rear long-bone above the hoof) and mandibles collected from wolf killed prey are boiled to the point where the residual meat is loosened and can be scraped off. These samples are allowed to dry for two years before being measured and catalogued. The mandibles and teeth are used to determine the age of the prey and the length of the metatarsus tells us how healthy the prey was as a calf or fawn.  As this bone stops growing between age 2 and 3, a stunted metatarsus tells us that the elk was undernourished as a calf, either because there were too many elk on the landscape and not enough food to go around, and/or that the quality or quantity of the forage wasn’t adequate enough to provide for the elk. Because of the stinky qualities associated with boiling and cleaning 55-gallon drums filled with pieces of elk and bison carcasses, this chore is usually embraced by some, like the Cluster Crew, and loathed by others.

Ky above the Lamar

Ky above the Lamar

While snow had covered the landscape when we arrived at higher than average depths, a rainy period of 3-4 days, followed by sunny days of 40 degrees has taken its toll. As our work requires us to access remote areas of the park (best done on skis) for our remaining two weeks of March wolf work and another month of moose research in April, we have been a little worried! However, with a few timely snow storms and below freezing temperatures, we have been able to enjoy some of the best working and skiing conditions we have had.

Molly and Brian pointing out their powder turns

Molly and Brian pointing out their turns on some perfect snow!

First brown antler of the season!

First brown antler of the season! This is an elk antler and was found high up on a ridge in Antelope Creek where bull elk typically spend time during the winter.

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DAISY FARM

Lisa in front of Daisy Farm Cabin

Lisa in front of Daisy Farm Cabin

We just arrived back to the western end of Isle Royale after having spent 15 days in a small ranger cabin near the Daisy Farm campground on the eastern part of the island. During the summer, this is a busy place with hikers, canoeists, boaters and campers arriving and departing from the Daisy Farm dock. But in the winter, there is no one. It is silent, peaceful, wild, and isolated. Wildlife travels the snow covered hiking trails, browses the trees and shrubs surrounding the campground, and some even make a winter home under the wooden lean-tos used by so many visitors in the summer. Our small plane landed on the ice in front of the cabin on February 4th and after saying goodbye to Tim and Pat, the Forest Service pilots, we watched as they taxied down Moskey Basin and took off back to Ely, MN.  Minutes later, the Isle Royale Wolf/Moose Study Flagship, piloted by Don Glaser, landed to make sure we had everything we needed for our two week stay.

Ky at the water hole - we use the antler to cover the hole so the otters don't find it!

Ky at the water hole – we use the antler to cover the hole so the otters don’t find it!

First order of business was to make sure the propane cook stove and heater would work (they did) and to cut a hole in the ice of Moskey Bay so that we could get some water (17 inches of ice later, we had all the water we would need). We unpacked the boxes of non-perishable food that had been left for us back in October, put away our gear, and settled in for our long stay. Over the next 15 days, we covered much of the area within a 3-4 mile radius of the cabin, skiing over frozen lakes and snow covered ridges, bushwhacking through thick balsam fir forests, tangled white cedar swamps, dense spruce regeneration, open deciduous forests, and windblown slopes.

One of the many island vistas

One of the many island vistas. This one is in the drainage between Angleworm Lake and Lake Ojibway.

Our goal was to collect paired pellet/urine samples from as many different moose as possible for a study looking at winter moose nutrition.  DNA on the surface of the pellet is used to identify individual animals, and the ratio of urine metabolites, specifically the ratio of urinary nitrogen to creatinine (UN:C ratio), tells us how healthy it is. In short, the more urinary nitrogen we find in relation to creatinine tells us that the moose is not able to get enough forage, is in a caloric deficit, and is now metabolizing its own muscle to make energy.

Ky in a pit he dug around the frozen moose urine so that he could collect it without diluting it with too much snow

Ky in a pit he dug around frozen moose urine so that he could collect it without diluting it with too much snow. The urine is orange because this moose has been feeding on cedar.

In addition, if we were able to isolate an area of balsam fir where a single moose had been feeding, we took samples from both browsed (preferred) and un-browsed (not preferred) trees for a new study on plant secondary metabolites (PSMs).

Measuring where the moose have browsed the balsam fir

Measuring where the moose have browsed the balsam fir

PSMs are chemical compounds created by plants as a defense from herbivores.  It is thought that after moose browse a balsam fir, the tree produces more PSMs in its regenerating growth in the hopes that the moose does not find it very tasty the next time around.  Indeed, the moose seem to shy away from the lush green shoots of the most recent years’ growth in favor of lower branches where concentrations of PSMs are less. It is thought that these chemical defenses of plants may be more important in the shaping of food chains than we thought. Here on Isle Royale researchers are specifically studying the wolf, moose, and balsam fir food chain.

Snow-covered trees

Snow-covered balsam firs and white spruce

This year the island has had almost a record winter as far as snowfall and cold temperatures. We measure snow depth when we collect our samples and on average, the snow averaged 3.5 feet deep with some areas close to 4’ deep. The moose that we saw were struggling through the deep snow up to their bellies. It seemed especially hard on the calves who generally followed their mothers around by stepping into her exact tracks. We found many moose beds tucked into the shelter of conifers, indented deeply into the snow. With so much snow, the animals don’t move around as much as they normally would. Instead, they find an area with food, and then stay close by until they deplete their food supply. Like bison and elk in Yellowstone, the moose have been digging as much as 3’ into the snow to get to the bottoms of young fir trees-very unusual behavior for moose. There were areas of balsam fir, most especially on the western end of the island, where almost nothing remained of the sapling except for some sticks with a few needles. Some moose were chomping down on the main stem of trees to a diameter of almost ½” where a ¼” is usually the winter maximum. One might not think there is much difference between a fir and a spruce tree, but to moose there is a world of difference, and even under these food-stressed times for moose we have not seen one browsed spruce tree.  Obviously the spruces have figured out a formidable defense against moose.

Balsam fir next to spruce

Balsam Fir on the left, White Spruce on the right

One of the tree species that stands out in the winter is the mountain ash. This beautiful hardwood is quite plentiful on the island and in the winter, its bright red berries make a beautiful contrast against the white of the snow. This year the trees put forth a bumper-crop of berries and the fruit laden crowns can even be seen from the air as we fly over in the plane. Moose love mountain ash, especially the tender saplings and new growth. As we travelled on our skis over Isle Royale this winter, most of the young mountain ash that we came across had been browsed by moose. The trees that escaped from the moose and have been allowed to mature, provide food in the winter for other wildlife. Along the shoreline of Moskey Basin, fox tracks cover the ground under mountain ash trees as foxes love to eat the juicy red berries when they fall from the tree. The trees also attract some of the winter bird species found on the island. We saw several American robins, a flock of 100 Bohemian waxwings, and multiple Pine grosbeaks eating the berries.

Mountain Ash

Mountain Ash laden with fruit

Isle Royale is a very unique place in that much of the vegetation is similar to surrounding mainland areas in Minnesota, Ontario, and northern Michigan, but the wildlife diversity is much sparser. There is only one species of deer on the island, the moose. At one time there were caribou but they have long since disappeared. No whitetail deer have made it across the 15-20 miles separating the island from the mainland. The deer would have to swim, as hooves don’t make for good traction on ice, and it is believed that because of their relatively smaller body size (with more surface area to body mass than moose) that they would succumb to hypothermia in the cold Lake Superior water and die before they got here. Researchers had found one whitetail carcass years ago washed up on the shore. There are no coyotes or black bears, only wolves and red foxes. There are red squirrels but no gray or flying squirrels. There are snowshoe hares, otters, and pine martens. There are no porcupines, or raccoons, or skunks. There is only one species of mouse, the deer mouse, and no voles, shrews, or rats.

Sleeping fox

Sleeping fox

Snowshoe hare

Snowshoe hare

Because we find ourselves bushwhacking through many different kinds of habitat, we often see tracks from snowshoe hares, especially when the vegetation is thick and impenetrable. They have elaborate networks of trails from beneath downed trees to feeding sites, where they feed on spruce and cedar twigs, and the bark of hardwood trees. Over the last month we have seen several during our travels. This year, they seemed particularly plentiful. Call me a crazy bunny lady, but if you talk to them as they are hopping away, they generally stop and sit still, not moving a muscle until you continue on your way. Their fur is mostly white, their winter camouflage coat, and their large back feet seem almost comically big as they propel themselves over the deep snow. We use the density of bunny tracks in areas –especially white cedar swamps- as a litmus test for how bad the bushwacking is going to get. When the tracks get thick, pull up jacket hoods, shorten up the adjustable ski poles, and keep a positive attitude because it gets ugly!

Isle Royale Wolves - photo courtesy of John Vucetich

Isle Royale Wolves – photo courtesy of John Vucetich

Wolves

Last year, we were incredibly fortunate to see three of the island’s eight wolves. These were three un-collared animals who were traveling past Daisy Farm and stopped to investigate our water hole. This year, we were not so lucky. We never even saw a track during all of our travels around the island. Wolves are an integral part of the Isle Royale ecosystem as they help to keep the moose numbers in check, which in turn helps to keep the vegetation from becoming too over-browsed. Unfortunately, the number of wolves on the island have decreased to an all-time low and these wolves are all quite closely related (which keeps them from breeding with one another), which will eventually lead to their extinction unless new genes are introduced into the population – either naturally by wolves crossing to the island from the mainland, or artificially by transplanting wolves from the mainland. There is great controversy brewing over what to do about the wolves and there are three scenarios that are being debated. The first is to do nothing and let the wolves die out or repopulate on their own (which is not likely given the lack of an ice bridge in recent years). Scientists who have been studying the island’s ecology for many years, warn that doing nothing (unless the wolves can get to the island on their own) would be disastrous as it would lead to an unsustainable increase in moose numbers. Another option would be to wait and let the wolves die out and then introduce new wolves to the island.

Isle Royale wolves hunting. Photo courtesy of  John Vucetich

Isle Royale wolves hunting. Photo courtesy of John Vucetich

This would be a viable option but it may take a while before the last wolf is gone and by that point, vegetation would have suffered under the increasingly burgeoning moose population. The last option, is to introduce a few new wolves into the existing population in order to inject new genes into a struggling population. Over the years that wolves have been established on the island, there have been quite a few instances where an ice bridge has formed between the island and the mainland, giving the animals an opportunity to travel onto or off of the island. But recently, those ice bridges have been less frequent (there was one this year and the one before that was in 2008). Consequently, it is likely the wolves will need human help to rescue their struggling populations. Hopefully, Isle Royale park managers will make the decision to rescue this isolated population that is on the brink of extinction before it is too late.

**We just learned a few days ago, that “Isabelle”, one of the breeding females from Isle Royale, was found dead in Grand Portage, MN. If any of you read the Isle Royale Winter Study blog last winter, she had been repeatedly and brutally attacked by two females who were accompanying her brother. She managed to make it through the summer and she had last been seen by the Isle Royale Project’s crew from the plane on the 21st of January 2014, just before an ice bridge formed. She took the first chance she got and fled the island. No one knows how she died, but she was five years old and of prime breeding age, so in addition to escaping her difficult life on the island she may also have been looking for an opportunity to breed.

Isle Royale NP - Cow moose with twin calves. Courtesy of John Vucetich.

Isle Royale NP – Cow moose with twin calves. Courtesy of John Vucetich.

Moose

This year, it seemed as if there were fewer moose on the island than last year based on the amount of moose and moose sign we were seeing. However, we won’t know for sure until the final aerial moose count has been completed. It could be that they were more concentrated due to the heavy snows and we were missing pockets of them, or it could be that the combined effect of winter ticks and a prolonged winter last year caused more to die than was originally thought. One thing we did observe, was that bulls were holding their antlers longer than normal. We did come across several freshly dropped antlers in our travels, when usually, these would have all been dropped by late December and buried deep in the snow. We did have several instances where we sampled a cow moose with twins. It is always a treat to come across their beds tucked up into the conifers – the larger mom’s bed, and the two calves nearby, usually one bigger than the other. Perhaps the male twin is larger than the female twin or one was just more aggressive when nursing from their mother. In some places, you could see where the young ones had pounced around in the snow, wrestled with branches, and pulled vegetation everywhere. Their tracks often lead us through tree-wells where adult moose never travel.

Three moose beds - mom and two calves

Three moose beds – moms bed with pellets and two smaller calf beds

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Windigo – Isle Royale National Park

Beaver picking us up on Devil Track Lake

Beaver picking us up on Devil Track Lake

January 30th was our lucky day!  The skies were clear in the morning and the wind was almost non-existent.  The call from Rolf Peterson on Isle Royale came at 09:00 and he told us to be ready to fly and on the ice with all our gear in 40 minutes.  We had been through the same drill two other times within the last week and we were hoping the third would be a charm as lugging all our gear back and forth 200 feet from shore was getting old!  09:40 and we were ready to go.  No plane appeared so we went inside the lodge to wait while we looked out onto our pile of gear on the ice.  At 11:00 we were still waiting when we heard the rumble of the Forest Service de Havilland Beaver’s engine and in moments the white and red ski plane was visible as it started to circle the lake to make sure the ice was safe to land on.  Slush and temperatures below 10 degrees F. would freeze the plane to the surface of the lake. Our pilot, Scott, helped us load our gear and in 45 minutes we had crossed over Lake Superior and were circling Beaver Island in the middle of Washington Harbor on the west end of Isle Royale.

Panorama of a typical Isle Royale vista

Panorama of a typical Isle Royale vista

Isle Royale National Park is part of Michigan, which is a little strange because it is a much greater distance from Michigan’s Keweenah Peninsula than the 20 miles that separates the island from both Grand Portage, MN, and Thunder Bay, Ontario.  The long narrow island is ~50 miles long and ~9 miles at its greatest width.

George Desort - Documentary Filmmaker

George Desort – Documentary Filmmaker

A second Beaver was already on the ice and had dropped off Ted Gostomski, a Park Service employee, and cinematographer George Desort.  George has produced two beautiful documentaries about Isle Royale that are well worth watching. One is called Fortunate Wilderness and is about the ecology of the island’s wolf-moose predator-prey system http://www.fortunatewilderness.com/. The other one, Fifty Lakes One Island, is about George’s travels throughout the island in 2011 as he explored all the inland lakes http://www.fiftylakesoneisland.com/#.

We spent most of the afternoon hauling gear on sleds from the harbor up to the Windigo bunkhouse that serves as home base for the wolf-moose study.  We unpacked, had a nice dinner with the crew – Rolf, John Vucetich (project biologists), Donny Glaser (project super-cub pilot), Ted, and George – and packed up our gear for our first day in the field.

Watching the Superbowl at Windigo

Watching the Superbowl at Windigo

Just as we have done in previous years, we will continue to collect moose pellet and urine samples as well as balsam fir twig samples, for studies of moose winter nutrition and chemical defenses of fir trees which affect not only the availability of suitable browse for moose but also browse selection by moose.

So far we have sampled for 4 days in 3 different areas of the islands west end; the Washington Creek Drainage, the largest stream emptying into the harbor, the peninsula to the north of Washington Harbor from the Huginnin Cove trail and west towards Agate Beach, and the area to the south of the harbor and north of Grace Creek.

Ky skiing up Washington Harbor

Ky skiing up Washington Harbor

The moose seem to be plentiful and we would expect the population to be somewhere around 1,170 based on an estimated population of 975 last year and a rate of increase of ~20% per year. However, because snow depth this year is averaging 70 cm (28”), and is in the top 15% of recorded snow depths, moose seem to be occupying areas with high concentrations of food in order to limit their need to travel in deep snow.  Consequently, we have found a more clumpy distribution of moose.

Top of balsam fir showing moose browse

Top of balsam fir showing moose browse

Moose also seem to be eating more, both in number of bites as well as bite size, from the trees they are browsing from.  In low snow conditions where moose can more easily move around, they would take a bite here and a bite there as they meandered through the forest. This year they seem to take whatever they can from each tree that they come across. With balsam fir, their winter mainstay, this often means biting each of 5 or 6 twigs of new growth at the top of the tree, including the main terminal shoot, to a diameter of just under ¼ inch. We have also found that they are digging-up knee high fir trees that just barely stick out above the snows surface.

Area where moose have been digging in snow to get to balsam fir

Area where moose have been digging in snow to get to balsam fir

We are being flown to the northeast end of the island today where we will spend two weeks based out of Daisy Farm campground in a 16’ x 24’ ranger cabin on the north shore of Moskey Basin. We will have no cell, phone or internet connections there but will check in nightly on Park Service radios with the crew back at Windigo. We will be back in touch in two weeks!

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Waiting at Devil Track Lake

Ski tracks on Cummings Lake

Ski tracks on Cummings Lake

This time last year, we waited 14 days in Grand Marais and Ely, Minnesota, for our flight to Isle Royale National Park. We watched the Ravens defeat the 49’ers in the Super Bowl at the Adventure Inn in Ely, we skied, we explored, we ate, and we waited. It was a lesson in patience for both of us!

It will be one week and a day today that we have been waiting at the Devil Track Lodge in Grand Marais for this year’s flight to the island across 20 miles of Lake Superior. Several things have conspired against us: unsigned government documents, frigid temperatures, winds, and snow….did we mention frigid temperatures??!! It was almost 20 below zero today with wind chills of 51 below. We love winter, but that is very cold! Luckily, we have been staying in cozy accommodations owned by Tim and Emily Lavigne on Devil Track Lake. Tim is a musician and is away playing gigs at the moment, but Emily, her children, and her wonderful staff, Stephanie and Sharon, have been taking great care of us. The food has been delicious and we have been able to catch up on a great deal of paperwork from our month of moose research! When temperatures have permitted, we have also been exploring the North Shore area of Lake Superior on skis, picking up where we left off last year. We skied on the 70 km trail system at the Bearskin Lodge off the Gunflint Trail one day and then up to the top of 2,301’ Eagle Mountain, the highest (bump, hill, land mass, rise, knoll, mound or hummock – PICK ONE)  in Minnesota, in the Boundary Waters Wilderness area another day.

On top of Eagle Mtn.

On top of Eagle Mtn.

Today, the four-day Beargrease sled-dog marathon made a stop here at the lodge before continuing on to Duluth.  We have never seen a sled dog race before and it was very exciting! We were down on the lake to greet the first few mushers as they made their way off the wind-blown ice and up to their support crews for a good rest and to make sure their dogs were well taken care of. Vets checked each dog to ensure it was well enough to continue before the teams head out again. We are rooting for Keith Aili and his lead dog, a female named Alba, who are currently in second position.

Keith Aili coming in to Devil Track in second place

Keith Aili coming in to Devil Track in second place

Nathan Schroeder in the lead off Devil Track Lake

Nathan Schroeder in the lead off Devil Track Lake

No flight for us today but tomorrow looks like it will be a good day. We are hopeful we will get to Isle Royale very soon!

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Early Winter Moose Study Wrap-Up

Perfect Conditions!

Perfect Conditions!

Our first “early winter” moose study period ended with the collection of 127 moose pellet samples from northern Yellowstone National Park and the upper Slough Creek drainage in Montana’s Gallatin National Forest.  Each sample consisted of 30-36 pellets, which we divided into 3 sub-samples of 10-12 pellets each for genetic, pregnancy, and morphometric analysis (this will help us determine age class), and kept frozen.

Pellets in our freezer. Move over pizza and frozen veggies.

Pellets in our freezer. Move over pizza and frozen veggies.

We are hopeful that from these samples our colleague Professor Jared Strasburg from the University of Minnesota-Duluth, and his graduate student Tessa Tjepkes, through DNA analysis, will be able to identify between 60 and 70 different moose that we believe will represent ~65% of the moose in our northern Yellowstone study area. We are hypothesizing that there are approximately 100 moose occupying the northern Yellowstone ecosystem. They also will likely find that 50% are females and 50% are males, a typical sex-ratio for a non-hunted moose population.  Tessa had already started the analysis and we are looking forward to the results!

Jared and Tessa in the DNA lab at the University of Minnestota-Duluth

Jared and Tessa in the DNA lab at the University of Minnesota-Duluth

The DNA used for these analyses is from epithelial cells that have been sloughed from the walls of the intestines and are found on the surface of moose pellets.  In the lab, epithelial cells are separated from the fecal material, ruptured with the use of detergents, isolated from other cellular parts, and then extracted as pure DNA. Because of the low quality and quantity of DNA that can be acquired from fecal pellets, it then has to be amplified using a technique called polymerase chain reaction or PCR.  Once amplified, the DNA is analyzed to determine genotype and gender using 20-25 small sequences of DNA called “genetic markers” that are known to be specific to moose.

Once this lab work is done, we will send pellets from the moose that are identified as adult females to the Smithsonian Conservation Genetics Lab in Virginia where an enzyme immunoassay process is used to determine the concentration of pregnancy hormones in the pellets, which in turn is used to determine pregnancy status.  Once we receive the pregnancy results, we will make a comparison of these early winter tests to those from our late winter samples that we will collect in April. Whereas the early samples may show that some of the females are pregnant, we anticipate that the late winter samples will be more informative as pregnancy hormone concentrations build-up as the pregnancy cycle progresses.

Drying moose pellets in the convection oven

Drying moose pellets in the convection oven along with elk marrow samples

We have also completed the measurement of oven-dried pellet samples that will help us distinguish between calf, yearling and adult age classes based on pellet volume.  The assumption we are making is that pellet size is related to body size, which is related ultimately to age.  However, because most of a moose’s growth happens within the first 3 years or so of life, we won’t be able to differentiate between older moose age classes, i.e. 4-yr. old moose from a 5-yr. old moose, or a younger bull from an older cow.  These methods have been used for captive moose, mule deer and caribou, but our work will be the first to demonstrate its use with free-ranging moose. To do this, we will measure length, width and depth of pellets to create an average “volume index” (L x W x D) for each sample. Statistical cluster analysis will be used to determine age class. We will further compare our measurements to those of “known-age and sex” pellets provided by the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife & Parks from captured moose that have been aged using cementum annuli analysis (counting rings on the roots of teeth) to help validate our results.

Ky collecting pellets from a cow moose track

Ky collecting pellets from a moose track

By repeating our moose survey twice over the next three winters, creating capture histories of each animal (when, where, and how often we sample each animal over the course of the study), and then entering this information into population models called Capture-Recapture models, we should be able to generate accurate estimates of population abundance as well as sex- and age-specific vital rates such as survival, recruitment, and population change.

We are certain that some of our pellet samples will be duplicates from the same moose but these will also be important as they will provide valuable information during this critical time of the year when moose are moving to, from, and within their winter ranges.  In the northeast end of the park along the Soda Butte drainage, most wintering moose will be found between 6,800’ and 8,000’ under the canopy of mature conifers taking advantage of thermal cover and shallower snow depths, and eating predominantly regenerating sub-alpine fir, some lodgepole pine browse, and a bite or two of buffaloberry and gooseberry. Over 40 inches of snow has already covered much of the moose’s preferred willow browse in this area and is making travel difficult. When we left the park, many moose had already headed to the mature conifer habitat for their midwinter refuge.

Two bulls and a cow moose feeding in Baronnette Meadow. These willows are now completely covered with snow.

Two bulls and a cow moose feeding in Baronnette Meadow in late December. These willows are now completely covered with snow and the moose have moved into coniferous habitat.

In the north-central part of the park, much of the mature conifer forest burned in the 1988 fires and moose survive in this environment during the winter in a different manner.  They are travelers and because they don’t have a protective canopy over their heads that provides them with shade-tolerant sub-alpine fir browse, they instead move between pockets of willow and aspen browse.  Because this part of the park is more exposed to the wind, snow depths are shallower and food is more accessible during the winter.

Cow moose feeding near Warm Springs

Cow moose feeding near Warm Springs

We will be returning to Yellowstone in late February and will begin our moose work again on April 1. In the blog entries to come starting in April, we will share specific information about how our samples are collected in the field and what a typical day entails. Once again, the key to our research and what we are trying to demonstrate is the collection of our data non-invasively, without having to physically capture, stress, or in any way disturb the natural activity pattern or behavior of the moose!

We are scheduled to fly to Isle Royale National Park today to work with the Isle Royale Wolf/Moose project for a month where we will be collecting moose pellets, urine, and balsam fir twig samples for an on-going moose nutritional study. Concurrent to our work on the ground, biologists John Vucetich and Rolf Peterson, and pilot Donny Glaser will continue over 55 years of on-going research flying the island counting moose and wolves and analyzing pack structure and composition of the remaining IRNP wolves.

Washington Harbor on Isle Royale

Washington Harbor on Isle Royale

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Last Trip

We wrapped up our first month of moose research in Yellowstone with a 3-day back country trip up the Lamar River and into the Miller Creek Drainage.  Much of this area burned in the 1988 fires but Miller Ck. still retains some old growth conifer, and because willow is also available throughout the winter, this area has been known to hold pockets of wintering moose. Our trip took us 9 miles up the Lamar just past the confluence with Calfee Creek to the Calfee Ck. Patrol Cabin, a quaint 2-bunk log structure. The cabin was named after photographer Henry Bird Calfee who was one of the first to capture the wonders of Yellowstone on film in the early 1870’s and 1880’s. It is believed that Calfee started taking pictures as early as 1871, one year before Yellowstone became our first National Park.

Calfee Patrol Cabin

Calfee Patrol Cabin

The ski up the Lamar River Trail was arduous to say the least.  Four days of high winds and snow, in the days preceding our trip, had covered any ski tracks that may have been set by others and added a new layer of snow.  To make matters worse, the tail-end of the storm had not quite passed and we were breaking a new trail into a stiff head-wind and blowing snow. Goggles and a positive attitude were a necessity! We strayed from our course from time to time as we broke knee deep snow and tried to navigate the best route.  Once again we were pulling sleds that contained food, sleeping bags and emergency bivouac gear, and extra clothing. The sleds were burdensome as they were wider than our ski track

Morning ski up the Lamar River drainage

Morning ski up the Lamar River drainage

and would tip sideways into the track and drag along one of the inside faces of the track pushing snow depending on which way it would tip.  Next trip we will forgo the sleds and emergency bivy gear including a tent and use the sleeping bags cached in the patrol cabins. This should help cut hours off our ski time and insure we make it to the cabins in less time.  Once we crossed the first big drainage, Cache Creek, we opted to drop down and ski on the frozen surface of the Lamar River hoping the snow would be less deep.  It wasn’t, but once committed we had to stay on the river for a couple of miles until it met back up with the trail. Two miles later and in the fading light we caught sight of the patrol cabin. We had been slogging for the last 8.5 hours.

The cabin sits facing the Lamar approximately 100 yards away from the riverbank in a stand of regenerating lodgepole pine. A heavy hand-made hasp secures a rugged wooden plank door with a padlock. Claw marks, likely from a grizzly bear, tore away parts of the logs to the left of the door.  We removed the lock, put a heavy shoulder to the door as the wooden threshold had heaved with the frozen ground and was holding it tight, and burst into the dimly lit cabin.  A quick glance around gave us the layout of the cabin and in no time our sleds were unloaded, the wood cook stove was fired-up, and we started to spread out and dry our gear.  Shortly after the chill was gone, we had food in our bellies, and were snug in our sleeping bags. The wind persisted throughout the night and we looked forward to what the next day had in store for us as we dozed off.

Dinner time!

Dinner time!

 The next morning, we ate breakfast, packed up our backpacks (no sleds for the day-trip!), and rejoined the Lamar River Trail and started skiing up to Miller Creek. We used climbing skins on our skis again today, which were essential for pulling loaded sleds while breaking trail the day before, because of the varying snow conditions and terrain we would

Ky on the slope above the Lamar River and Miller Creek confluence

Ky on the slope above the Lamar River and Miller Creek confluence

encounter. It took us a few minutes to find our way as there were no trail markers and in the new snow, there was no delineated trail to follow. The snow conditions were the same but it was a lot easier to break trail without the sleds behind us. Nevertheless, it was a slow trip that brought us up and down across small drainages along the Lamar River and Miller Creek, down to the water’s edge, and up onto the slopes overlooking the stream valleys. Despite the endless vista of forest fire scars and regenerating forests, the terrain was spectacular. We crossed a few lone elk, fox, rabbit, and marten tracks, but no moose.

Ky with cluster of sub-alpine fir. Like balsam fir, it has smooth gray bark covered with resin blisters

Ky with cluster of sub-alpine fir. Like balsam fir, it has smooth gray bark covered with resin blisters

Browsed sub-alpine fir

Browsed sub-alpine fir

The areas we traveled through seemed like decent moose habitat – a fair amount of willow in the drainages nestled up against mature conifer stands that contained pockets of regenerating sub-alpine fir. We did see some light browsing of willows and fir, which indicated that moose did use the habitat, but they were not to be found. We turned around, excited to take off our climbing skins and glide back to the cabin – a reward for the brutal trail breaking we had just completed – only to find that the sun had turned our back trail into a frozen trench and made the way back much more challenging than we had anticipated. We arrived back at the cabin just after dark as a spectacular moon rose above the mountains to the east. Bone tired, we quickly made dinner and settled down for the night. Although we didn’t find moose, we were both happy to have explored the area and inventory the habitat available to moose.

Blue skies over the Miller Creek drainage

Blue skies over the Miller Creek drainage

The third day, we cleaned up the cabin, cut firewood and kindling, “set” a one-match fire in the wood stove for the next cabin visitor, filed the Coleman lantern with fuel, turned off the propane for the cook burner, loaded up the sleds, and headed back down the Lamar drainage. It was a beautiful day with blue skies and sunshine and our trail out had blown-in and consolidated so that we were able to move much more easily with our sleds. We made relatively quick work of the trip and arrived back at our trusty truck mid-afternoon to find Rick McIntyre, our good friend and fellow wolf researcher, waiting for us in the parking lot to welcome us back. A nice way to end a great day. 

In the Soda Butte Valley - photo by Rick McIntyre

In the Soda Butte Valley – photo by Rick McIntyre

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