Do predator control programs help gamebirds like Pheasants? (Hint…No)

Ring-necked Pheasant - Phasianus colchicus

South Dakota’s favorite bird…an introduced game bird that does have an economic impact in the state. but are predator control programs like Kristi Noem’s actually beneficial to pheasant populations? Or, in fact, is it likely to WORSEN the situation? For the scads of hunters and others who evidently have found my blog…read this post. Don’t take my word for it regarding this misguided predator control program. Take the word of Sportsmen’s groups…of outdoor magazines…of conservation groups…of the SCIENCE behind bird populations, predators, and habitat. If you truly want to save your resource and stop playing political games because you’re “liberal” or “conservative”…follow the FACTS. Then petition Noem to stop this nonsense and instead focus on habitat conservation efforts.

Wow.  Traffic on my blog literally shot up ten-fold since I posted about the idiocy of Kristi Noem’s predator control program in South Dakota. And with that traffic of course comes the haters, with direct emails to me, and attempted blog replies that offered nothing more than name calling. Not surprisingly, most were from hunters.  If you can get past the four-letter words and try to make some sense of some of the emails I’ve had, the general thought is that killing skunks, opossums, red fox, and raccoons is very helpful for Ring-necked Pheasant populations. And thus, these hunters are all for Noem’s little misguided foray into “conservation”.

Let’s look at the facts. Do you like to hunt Ring-necked Pheasants? Chances are you support groups like Pheasants Forever? Here’s what Pheasants Forever has to say about predator control programs:

Stating an investment in increased habitat is FAR more effective than predator control in improving pheasant populations, they state:

Less-expensive methods to improve game bird populations and nesting success exist. Experts have focused on the amount of habitat (composition of the landscape) and the arrangement (configuration) that increase nesting success by reducing the effectiveness of predators. Well-designed habitat projects can reduce predation by up to 80 percent.

Regarding predator control, they state it’s ineffective at helping broad-scale pheasant populations…and in fact, it may INCREASE interactions among predators and pheasants:

It is important to understand that sustained trapping efforts tend to stimulate reproduction by predators (compensating for artificially low densities) and create populations with proportionately more juveniles that wander more across the landscape thereby increasing the chances of encountering pheasants.

Overall, here’s their summary statement on predator control, and where money SHOULD be spent…on habitat restoration:

While predator removal and exclusion methods can increase nesting success on small areas, these methods are too expensive for use on a landscape basis and do not significantly increase the number of nesting birds over the long term. Through the addition and management of habitat, we not only decrease the impact predators have on existing nests, but also increase the number of nests and population size in an area. Predators will continue to eat pheasants and their nests, but weather and habitat conditions will drive population fluctuations.

What’s laughable about Noem’s program is that she ignored the advice of her own people, and ignored past research in South Dakota that has focused on Ring-necked Pheasant populations. Former Governor Daugaard held a “Pheasant Habitat Summit” in 2013 and followed up by commissioning a “Governor’s Pheasant Habitat Work Group”.  You know…actually investing in RESEARCH and DISCUSSION before unilaterally making a bad decision to start a predator control program. Land owners, hunters, and government personnel participated. Regarding predator control, the working group found that “When suitable habitat is available and weather conditions warrant, pheasant populations flourish without direct predator control“. Even when a misguided bounty program like Noem’s is established, they found “Bounty systems in other states have been ineffective because the origin of the predators cannot be verified”.

More information from sportsmen’s groups.  Midwest Outdoors published a piece on the “5 widespread myths about pheasant and quail populations“. One of those 5 myths is shown below:

Myth: Predators are the main reason there are fewer pheasants and quail.

Busted: Yes, coyotes and fox will eat pheasants and quail, and raccoons and skunks are likely culprits when it comes to raided nests. But predators don’t eat habitat, which is far and away the biggest reason why pheasant populations decline. High annual losses to predators should not be misunderstood to mean that predation is responsible for long-term upland population declines. Landscapes with good habitat often have high numbers of pheasant numbers, as well as high numbers of many potential predators.

 

The impact of predators is magnified and often pinpointed as the primary problem after habitat conditions deteriorate. Confine pheasants and quail to smaller and smaller parcels of habitat, and a predator’s job gets a whole lot easier. Thankfully, well-designed habitat projects can reduce predation by up to 80 percent. Through the addition and management of habitat, not only does there tend to be a decrease in the impact predators make on existing nests, but more habitat is likely to increase the number of nests and the overall gamebird population. And habitat for pheasants and quail comes at a fraction of the cost of other intensive predator reduction methods that are cost-prohibitive across a large area.

Just like Pheasants Forever, they note it’s HABITAT that’s the key, and if you have adequate, well designed habitat, that alone decreases nest predation by predators. And just like Pheasants Forever, they note it’s a FAR bigger “bang for the buck” in using conservation dollars to promote pheasant populations.

Another sportsmen/hunting group, Quail Forever, states the following (hint…it ‘s similar to statements from all the other groups:

Bottom line: Through the addition and management of habitat, we not only decrease the impact predators have on existing nests, but also increase the number of nests and population size in the area. This management comes at a fraction of the cost of other predator reduction methods.

MORE HABITAT, LESS PREDATION, BEST OUTCOME
Less-expensive methods to improve game bird populations and nesting success exist. Experts have focused on the amount of habitat (composition of the landscape) and the arrangement (configuration) that increase nesting success by reducing the effectiveness of predators. Well-designed habitat projects can reduce predation by up to 80 percent.

 

Programs such as Noem’s may actually do more HARM than good for Pheasant populations. For example, red fox are noted as the most effective predators on Ring-necked Pheasants, by our own Game Fish and Parks. But red fox populations are quite low in South Dakota, as they simply cannot compete with Coyotes. There’s a direct, inverse relationship between high coyote densities and red fox densities. As this story notes, hunters wrongly blame coyotes for predation on Ring-necked Pheasants, but our own Game Fish & Parks notes Coyotes have a minimal impact on Ring-necked Pheasant populations. Human intervention in removing predators results in unpredictable impacts on other wildlife, and ironically, hunters calling for removal of Coyote should note that would likely HARM Ring-necked Pheasant populations, as Coyotes not only help keep Red Fox populations low, but also help control other small mammalian predators on Ring-necked Pheasant nests.  This isn’t just one isolated case of an unintended consequence of predator control programs. Some other studies note that predator control programs focused on creatures like red fox simply create more of an ecological niche that other predators come in and fill, such as feral cats.

The one common thread from our own GFP…from Pheasants Forever…from Quail Forever…from all groups associated with conservation and wildlife management…NOTHING has anything close to the impact on Ring-necked Pheasant populations as 1) habitat, and 2) climate. So what factors could contribute to any perceived decline of gamebirds in South Dakota. HABITAT LOSS.  Starting in the mid-2000s, the eastern Dakotas have seen an expansion in cropland that literally rivals rates of deforestation in the tropical rain forests.  Here are multiple studies that have quantified recent grassland loss in the Dakotas:

  1. Wright and Wimberly (2013) found a net loss of 1.3 million acres of grassland that resulted from conversion to corn or soybeans in five states comprising the western Corn Belt over the five years from 2006 to 2011.
  2. Johnston (2014) also used the CDL to analyze land cover trends across the eastern Dakotas and found that corn and soy agriculture expanded by 27% (3.8 million ha) during the two years from 2010 to 2012.
  3. Reitsma et al. (2015) reported a net grassland loss of 4.6 million acres resulting from cropland expansion in the state of South Dakota over the six years from 2006 to 2012.

 

I’m a scientist. I look at evidence. I look at FACTS. The FACTS couldn’t be clearer.

  1. Predators aren’t driving any broad-scale decline in gamebirds such as pheasants. 
  2. Habitat loss is far and away the biggest concern for gamebirds (and other wildlife) in the Dakotas
  3. Predator control problems are expensive and ineffective, with a miniscule impact compared to dollar-for-dollar habitat conservation efforts.

I’ll end with one more driving factor for the long term…climate change. As noted above, conservation and management groups all noted TWO factors that had the biggest impact on gamebird populations..habitat, and weather/climate. The climate is changing…whether you “believe” in it or not.  What are the potential impacts on gamebird populations in South Dakota? Let’s look at Sharp-tailed Grouse populations in the state.  They are found from the southern to northern border in South Dakota, in much of the western half to two-thirds of the state. They are found as far south as the Platte River in Nebraska. What about the future?

Using projected changes in both land use (habitat loss) and projected changes in climate, this (wonderful!!!) study found that your grandchildren aren’t going to be hunting Sharp-tailed Grouse. Not in South Dakota anyway.  The top map below shows the “current” distribution of Sharp-tailed Grouse. The areas in red in the bottom three maps? Those all show areas where Sharp-tailed Grouse will be severely impacted by climate and land use change…with a bulls-eye right on South Dakota and northern Nebraska. Three climate scenarios are shown, with “A2” being the most severe scenario, and “B1” being the least severe. REGARDLESS of scenario, this research shows that SHARP-TAILED GROUSE WILL BE EXTIRPATED FROM THE SOUTHERN TWO-THIRDS OF SOUTH DAKOTA BY 2075.

Sharp-tailed Grouse - Tympanuchus phasianellusSo please, sportsmen…if you want to preserve your resource, do ALL of us some good. Predator control? NOBODY (other than our rather clueless governor) believe it’s an effective long-term solution. You want a big bang-for-the-buck? Petition Noem’s office for habitat conservation and preservation programs. Contribute to groups that foster habitat protection. That’s a “win” for all concerned, as it not only benefits Ring-necked Pheasants and reduces predation, but it helps non-game species as well.

And if you’re like me and have a son…and if you worry about his future…play the long game as well, and start paying attention to the long-term devastation climate change is going to have in the state.

Ring-necked Pheasant - Phasianus colchicus

A young Ring-necked Pheasant hanging out on a fence post. Do you want to preserve these birds, and also end up helping ALL wildlife in the state? Stop supporting this ridiculous predator control effort, and focus the state’s attention on habitat conservation.

I DARE you to name a state more ass-backwards than South Dakota

South Dakota Redneck Bounty Program

A small feel for what it’s like when you pull up to the Outdoor Campus in Sioux Falls. They’ve brought in a trailer and dumped it next to a trail, and there are bright, obnoxious yellow signs EVERYWHERE touting the new South Dakota Redneck Bounty Program (my title). The Outdoor Campus was a great place for kids to learn about and appreciate the outdoors. Now when they come in, THIS is what first greets them. This is what breaks my heart, that with this program being mandated from on high, that kids coming into the Outdoor Campus will now associate the outdoors with a program that’s all about the exploitation and killing animals.

EDIT: NOTE — Read this related post! If you are upset about the bounty program like I am, direct your anger to the right outlet! That’s not the Outdoor Campus themselves! 

ALSO: READ HERE for what the evidence and experts say about predator control programs, and where your money is better spent.

With a long last couple of weeks that included a conference that went 5 days (including a Saturday and a Sunday), I had today off. With the latest storm-of-the-century winding down, I thought I’d head out and do a bit of birding, given that with fresh snow and ice, the birds were likely bunched up. I’ve seen some sparrow migrants at my feeders in the last day or two, including several Fox Sparrows and White-throated Sparrows.  Knowing sparrow migration can be spectacular here both in terms of number and species, I thought I’d try birding the Outdoor Campus in Sioux Falls, given the feeder complexes and habitat that might attract migrants. They bill themselves as “South Dakota’s premiere outdoor skills education center”. They have a little pond, teach kids to fish and canoe, have displays about critters in the state, and have some nice trails to hike, all in the heart of Sioux Falls.

Over the years, I’ve helped out the Outdoor campus on occasion. They have an area with big windows looking out on the feeder complexes, and I’ve donated photos to hang in that room. I’ve given talks at there about birds, birding, and photography.  I’ve donated photos for other purposes. However, after today’s visit, the emotional side of me almost wants that cooperation to end. As I walked past photos of mine in the “bird room”, as I walked in the front DOOR and saw photos of mine advertising upcoming meetings, I frankly was tempted to rip them all down and bring them out with me.  Why?

Our “beloved” dim-witted new governor, Kristi Noem, unilaterally declared war on wildlife in the state. Despite the objections of HER OWN EXPERTS (sound familiar, Donald Trump?), she unilaterally directed Fish & Wildlife funds to go towards a new trapping and bounty program. Her brilliant theory? Sometimes critters will eat Ring-necked Pheasant eggs.  We can’t have that!  The fewer Ring-necked Pheasants we have, the fewer there will be for people to blast away at and kill!! So this “brilliant” woman established this program to trap and kill as many predators in the state as possible. Thinking it’s 1819, not 2019, she actually instituted a bounty on any creature she herself thought might occasionally snack on pheasant eggs.  The bounty includes pretty much any small and medium-sized predator in the state, including raccoon, opossum, skunk, coyote, red fox…etc…etc…etc.

Do you know how many Red Fox I’ve been fortunate enough to see in my 25+ years in South Dakota.  THREE. THREE RED FOX, in 25 freaking years. But evidently they’re a huge threat to pheasants and must be trapped, killed, and their tails must be brought in for reward.

So what do you see now when you go to this premiere educational center? They have a trailer parked outside, and a bunch of signs up touting the availability of traps, and noting where to go to bring your tails for your bounty.  That’s right…it’s 2019, and in the heart of Sioux Falls, we now have a bunch of signs up asking people to go out and kill animals, cut off the tails, and bring them in for a reward.  As this laughable piece touting the program notes, one of the state administrators of the program states this is a way to “get people outside, get them excited for the outdoors“.  Because nothing says “fun” like trapping creatures, then killing them and cutting off their tails.

Sportsmen themselves are appalled at this program. Kristi Noem was supposed to visit a monthly meting of The Black Hills Sportsmen’s Club, but Noem skipped the meeting when she found out the group was circulating material protesting the bounty program. As the Sportsmen’s Club points out, research shows trapping and killing small predators does nothing to actually increase pheasant populations. The Club also rightfully points out that the number one way to improve pheasant populations is to increase suitable habitat. Yet South Dakota currently is a hotbed for conversion of grasslands to cropland, and shelterbelts and other protective cover are being ripped out at an unprecedented pace to increase cultivated acreage. Instead of directing funds to improve habitat, as science states is the logical way to go, she instead chose an action that defies logic and the expertise of her own wildlife people.

I wish I could say this kind of thing is an isolated incident in South Dakota, but we’re known for our ass-backwardsness. Short-term thinking, small minds, and an outright HOSTILITY towards “experts”, science, logic, and truth…that’s pretty much the state logo.  I’ll leave it with a quite from the Dakota Free Press story linked above, regarding Noem’s cowardly refusal to meet with the Sportsmen’s Club.  And I will count the days until I retire and I can leave this state.

But start talking about science, and Governor Noem’s eyes glaze over. Disagree with her, and she turns her back. She’s more interested in crowning herself with more titles than actually solving problems.

Outdoor Campus Redneck Bounty Program

Another view with more signs about the bounty program. This is what breaks my heart. Because of this program mandated from Noem on down, this is now what people will see when they first arrive at the Outdoor Campus. This is what a kid visiting for the first time might associate with “the Outdoors”…that the whole reason it’s there is for exploitation…for killing. That’s what’s most upsetting about seeing this activity at the Outdoor Campus.

 

Sugar-coated Coatimundi – Madera Canyon, AZ

One place we always try to stop when in Arizona is Madera Canyon. It’s a beautiful wooded canyon cutting into one of southern Arizona’s “sky islands”, and is a world reknown birding location. Species rarely seen in the United States can often be seen there, with the Santa Rita Lodge and their large feeder complex a major attraction for visiting birders. Winter normally isn’t quite as exciting, but there are still great finds. For me this past week, it was waiting for a recurring Blue-throated Hummingbird to show up. It had been seen there for much of the past month, and it didn’t disappoint, as I got a couple of good looks (but alas no photos) as it buzzed into the nectar feeders a couple of times. Unfortunately it never stayed and fed while I was there, which I at least partially attribute to the group of about 10 people there watching from close range.  It doesn’t help when one family with 2 young girls didn’t seem to mind when their children started throwing rocks at the birds!  That one put my wife over the top, as she took it upon herself to tell the children to stop (good for her!).

One resident of the Canyon wasn’t going to let a couple of rock-throwing girls stop it though. The highlight of the visit ended up not being the “lifer” Blue-throated Hummingbird, but another lifer. My wife and son aren’t birders, but they are wonderful at indulging me. While i stayed camped out at the feeders waiting for the hummingbird, they went for a hike on the main trail through the Canyon. As I stood and watched near the feeders, there was movement in the brush, and soon it was evident what was causing the commotion…a Coatimundi!  The first I’ve ever seen!  It was wonderful watching him climb up a tree, stretch out in the sun, and do some grooming, scratching, and light napping.

But the amazing part came when he slide down the tree and started sauntering across the feeder complex…headed STRAIGHT to the location I was standing. He paused and gave me and the few other bystanders a glance, but we weren’t going to stop his mission! He climbed the small rock wall at the edge of the feeder area, climbed to the top of a fence post a mere 6 FEET in front of me, sat there for a moment, and then began his work…his work of downing the entire contents of a large, full hummingbird feeder!  He had to stand on his back paws and reach with full extension, but he was able to grab it with his front claws, tip it down, lock his mouth around it, and start guzzling as the sugar-water came running out!  He was doing his best to drink it all up, but as he stood there, sugar water was running down his face and entire body!

It only took a few minutes for him to drain the entire thing. When it was gone, he came back down on four legs, and proceeded to sit on the fence post and groom himself for a bit, licking all the sugar water off of his fur. He then returned to the back tree, again sunbathing and intermittently cleaning himself of the sticky mess.

Madera Canyon never disappoints, but this was a real treat for all of us! I was worried my wife and son had missed the spectacle, because by the time they returned from their hike, he was done feeding and was hidden in the brush. However, the Santa Rita Lodge worker came out, refilled the feeder, and…it wasn’t long before he returned!  My son in particularly was thrilled to get a look at this new creature (for us), at such an incredibly close range.  One of the cutest, most memorable wildlife experiences we have ever had!

White-nosed Coatimundi - Nasua naricaWhite-nosed Coatimundi - Nasua narica

White-nosed Coatimundi - Nasua naricaWhite-nosed Coatimundi - Nasua narica

White-nosed Coatimundi - Nasua naricaWhite-nosed Coatimundi - Nasua narica

South Dakota’s Jewel – Custer State Park

My family and I just got back from a long weekend in the Black Hills, spending most of our time in Custer State Park. The Black Hills are a 5 or 6 hour drive from our hometown on the far eastern edge of South Dakota. We travel a lot, but have somehow managed to avoid visiting the area for the last 4 or 5 years, other than occasional fishing trips with my son. After a wonderful, long, Labor Day weekend, I’m not sure why we don’t spend more time in the Black Hills and Custer State Park.  We love National Parks and Monuments, visiting 11 different ones during our summer vacation to Colorado and Utah, but I’d put Custer State Park up with any of them.

Part of the attraction is the diversity the park offers. Custer State Park is big, covering over 110 square miles. Habitats are diverse, ranging from wide open prairie to craggy peaks.  Access is quite easy, with several roads traversing the park, including a number of gravel roads that get far less traffic than roads like the iconic Wildlife Loop.  However, even the wildlife loop is never as busy as the popular National Parks. And as with most parks in the United States, once you step away from the main roads and start hiking, you can find yourself with as much solitude as you desire.

On this trip, we stayed at the “Creekside Lodge”, a wonderful little place from which to base your trip to the Hills. It’s part of the State Game Lodge complex, right off Highway 16a, one of the bigger paved roads through the park, and is in an area that provides quick access to many of the Black Hills attractions. We loved our room at the Creekside lodge, a 2nd floor room with a balcony that overlooked Grace Coolidge Creek. Every night, we’d have deer foraging in the grass right below our hotel room, and the room was large and very comfortable.

For me, it’s the hiking and the wildlife that makes Custer State Park special.  There are no bears in the Black Hills, but you’ll certainly find as many bison, deer, elk, Pronghorn, mountain goats, bighorn sheep, and prairie dogs as you could want.  That’s right, just one State Park, with habitats that support creatures as diverse as Bison and Pronghorns on the prairies, and Mountain Goats at high elevation. Every morning on our trip I’d wake before dawn, and drive and hike around the less-traveled gravel roads the connect with the Wildlife Loop road. Every morning, I’d find bountiful photo opportunities.

Yes, it’s “just” a state park, but don’t overlook Custer State Park!! It’s one of the most enjoyable places to visit in the region.  Here are just a few of the many photos I took over the weekend. Note I reserve the right to revisit these same photos in upcoming Photo/Haiku of the day posts!  🙂

American Bison - Custer State Park, South Dakota

The iconic American Bison. Custer State Park has a very large herd that has free reign throughout most of the park. While they could be seen almost anywhere, the wide open grasslands around the wildlife loop are a place where you’ll almost certainly run across large numbers of them.

Coyote - Canis latrans - Custer State Park, South Dakota

A lone coyote, giving me one last look before disappearing into the grassland. There are certainly plenty of coyote around, but they’re pretty shy. Drive the Wildlife Loop right around dawn though, and there’s a good chance you may find one.

Black-tailed Prairie Dog - Cynomys ludovicianus

A Black-tailed Prairie Dog at the entrance to its burrow. There are a number of large prairie dog towns scattered throughout Custer State Park, and they’re always a great place to look for wildlife.

Pronghorn - Antilocapra americana - South Dakota

The Wildlife Loop are offers some wonderful prairie habitat, and is a great spot to find Pronghorn. Pronghorn in South Dakota are generally very shy. It’s no wonder, given the hunting pressure on the species. Custer State Park is probably your best opportunity anywhere to get close to a wild Pronghorn. They’re used to the visitors and will often calmly forage just a few meters away from your car.  How close can you get to a wild Pronghorn at Custer State Park? How about….

Pronghorn - Antilocapra americana - South Dakota

This close! When you shoot wildlife, the problem is that you generally can’t get close enough for a frame-filling photo, even with a “long” camera lens. In this case, my long lens made it impossible to frame the entire animal in the shot, and thus I instead had the opportunity to shoot some wonderful portraits from point-blank range.

Mountain Bluebird - Sialia currucoides

One of my favorite species, the Mountain Bluebird. Near the “airport” (not much of an airport) on Wildlife Loop road, there’s a fence line with a number of bluebird boxes. It’s a terrific spot to find these beautiful sky-blue birds.

Mountain Goat - Oreamnos americanus

ALWAYS. BRING. YOUR. CAMERA!!! After this many years doing photography, I should know this by now! But when we decided to do the “Cathedral Spires” hike in the park, I left the camera in the car. I didn’t think we’d see any wildlife up there! Boy was I wrong. We ran into Mountain Goats twice on the beautiful hike up to the spires! Alas, all I had was my iPhone, but this even with just a standard iPhone 7, we were able to get close enough to these beautiful animals to get photos such as this one. This also gives you an indication of the diversity of landscapes in the park…from Pronghorns on the prairies, to Mountain Goats up high!!

Custer State Park - Dawn

A quick grab-shot with my iPhone of the rising sun, from Wildlife Loop Road in Custer State Park, showing the wide open prairies and rolling hills on this side of the park.

The Monarch Butterfly vs. South Dakota Politics

Monarch Caterpillar - Danaus plexippus

A Monarch Caterpillar having lunch. This was taken in a roadside ditch in Minnehaha County, South Dakota, but it’s not nearly as common a sight as it could (should) be. Ditches here are mowed, sprayed, and otherwise managed, resulting in ditches (even on rarely used gravel roads) often looking like golf courses or urban lawns.

Yesterday I birded several locations to the northwest of Sioux Falls. I traveled through not only Minnehaha County (where Sioux Falls is), but also nearby McCook, Lake, Kingsbury, and Brookings counties. When I go birding around here, I typically travel on gravel roads, to minimize interaction with other cars and reach places where I can actually stop and watch for a while. While traveling gravel roads through these counties yesterday, I was struck by the incredibly variable management of roadside ditches.

What’s that? You don’t pay much attention to the ditches when you’re driving? I can’t say I normally do either, but I was recently at the North American Congress for Conservation Biology Conference (NACCB), where there were a number of presentations on the plight of the Monarch Butterfly. They’re a species dependent upon milkweed. One of the problems is that SO much of the United States landscape is now being used for agriculture, urban development, energy development, and other uses, and milkweed is crowded out.  Even in areas adjacent or near to agricultural land, herbicides are often used for weed control, further reducing milkweed abundance.

This spring, I was contacted by researchers who were studying landscape change, and how it potentially impacted Monarch Butterflies. Specifically, they were interested in using our landscape modeling to look at future landscapes, and the resultant impacts on both milkweed and Monarch butterflies. In the model they used, they were assuming that roadside ditches in most areas were places where milkweed was likely to be found.

As I quickly learned on my drive yesterday, that characterization is clearly NOT true in many areas, and seems to be strongly driven by local politics, in terms of local land management.  When driving in Minnehaha County, I often come across sprayer trucks, actively spraying herbicide in all the ditches to keep herbaceous weeds in check.  I also often come across tractors with mowers attached, mowing the ditches close to the ground.  Yes…even for the GRAVEL roads that rarely get traffic, the ditches are treated in this manner.  The result? The ditches around here often look like a well-manicured lawn (see photos below).  Hell, they often look BETTER than my yard does!! They often consists of nearly 100% brome grass (an exotic, BTW), while milkweed stems are few and far between, and are typically relegated to small spaces where a sprayer didn’t reach.

When driving through parts of Kingsbury and Brookings counties, I was struck by the incredible difference in the ditches. Many ditches clearly hadn’t been mowed in some time, if they were ever mowed. Grasses were mixed with wildflowers, other herbaceous plants, and yes…MILKWEED (see more photos below).  Milkweed was often present in very high abundance.  The issue clearly isn’t adjacency with actively growing agricultural crops. As the photos below show, the Brookings and Kingsbury County ditches often had an abundance of herbaceous plantlife in areas directly next to corn and soybean fields.

It is possible that I just happened to drive on some gravel roads yesterday in Kingsbury and Brookings counties where no action was taken, but spraying was occurring elsewhere.  On the Brookings County website, for example, I was disappointed to find this page, that notes the county DOES spray right-of-ways with “products such as 2,4-D, Tordon 22K, and possibly mixtures of them“.  They do note on their web page that they spray in May, so clearly they don’t spray all ditches, as the photo below (with the milkweed) is on a gravel road on the very western edge of Brookings County.

During the NACCB conference, one talk I heard focused on recovery efforts for the Monarch, and plans in place to improve Milkweed abundance and improvement. Even a dead-red, conservative state like Oklahoma is taking action, with the Oklahoma highway department specifically managing ditches for Monarch and pollinator habitat. They are specifically planting wildflowers and milkweed along highways in an effort to help not only Mmnarchs, but other species that depend on these plants. The discussion at the conference was a similar “Monarch Highway” stretching from Texas up northward through southern Canada, an area with highway ditches specifically devoted to herbaceous plants, including Milkweed.

Could such a thing happen up here in South Dakota? I’ll see it when I believe it. We have such an focus on agricultural production, that I find it hard to believe they’d accept any land management action that could possibly harm that production in any way.  Not that I BELIEVE an aggressive, pro-Milkweed, pro-Monarch Butterfly agenda would harm agricultural production, but in this VERY red state, environmentalists are usually portrayed as the enemy.  For a large portion of the populous here, I have no doubt they’d view a program like Oklahoma’s as an attempt by environmentalists to meddle in local affairs.

It’s hard to imagine now, but when we moved to South Dakota 25 years ago, our Congressional delegation was completely Democratic. Hell, we had Tom Daschle as a Democratic Senate Majority Leader.  How times have changed. Serendipity may have led to the 3 Democratic Congressional delegates 25 years ago, but in today’s anti-environmentalist concerns for issues like the Monarch Butterfly as far removed from most South Dakotan’s minds.

Minnehaha County Roadside Ditch

I wish my yard looked this green, lush, and free of weeds. Driving home yesterday through northern Minnehaha County, THIS is what roadsides looked like. Even for lightly traveled gravel roads such as this one. Frequent spraying and mowing ensure a monoculture of brome grass, with nary a milkweed stem in sight.

Brookings County Roadside Ditch

In contrast to the Minnehaha County ditch, this is what I saw in many parts of Kingsbury and Brookings Counties. This ditch clearly hadn’t been mowed or sprayed this summer, and was full of herbaceous plants other than brome grass, including many milkweed stems.

 

 

 

Evolution in the blink of an eye…

Prairie Deer Mouse - Peromyscus maniculatus bairdii

The cool thing about science and nature is that interesting stories are all around us. The tiny Deer Mouse, shown here, has overcome long odds, with the vast majority of its historical habitat gone. However, through some remarkable, fast-track evolutionary adaptation, they’re now able to cope with their new world. Photo by Gregory Smith.

It’s been a busy last week, without any time for birding or photography.  Or blogging, for that matter. I was down in Nebraska for a few days, mixing work and pleasure. The “pleasure” part was my fantasy baseball draft in Omaha Saturday.  Our fantasy league is likely one of the longest running leagues in the country, going back to 1985 during our freshman year in college, when fantasy baseball was still very new.  What’s great about it is that many of the original league members are still participating! It’s great fun, not only the draft itself, but catching up with old college friends.

The “work” part of my Nebraska trip was participation in the 2017 Great Plains Symposium, on the campus of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Much like the baseball draft, the symposium too was like stepping back in time, as I reconnected with some of my old college professors who were participating in the symposium. The focus of the symposium was “Flat Places, Deep Identities: Mapping Nebraska and the Great Plains”.  I gave a talk one some of the work I’ve been doing, mapping past, present, and potential future landscapes in the Great Plains.  It was a great symposium, a little different kind of crowd than I’m used to.  Given the work I do, most of the conferences and symposiums I attend deal with the physical sciences. This conference melded mapping, history, socioeconomics, and other social sciences that I’m not exposed to as much.  It was quite fascinating, particularly hearing about the history of Nebraska, using maps to help tell the “story” of change over time.

As part of the symposium “goodies”, participants were given a copy of The New Territory, a quarterly magazine that focuses on Missouri, Arkansas, Kansas, Nebraska, and Oklahoma.  I admit I’d never heard of the publication before. The content fits quite well with the focus of the symposium itself, with many human interest stories about the geography and people of the region. As a physical scientist, one piece caught my eye though. entitled “Evolution in the Cornbelt“, by Conor Gearin. The story focuses on the Prairie Deer Mouse (Peromyscus maniculatus bairdii), a common little fellow from the Great Plains that feeds on the tiny seeds of grasses and weeds in the prairies.

Researchers at Iowa State and Purdue University were curious how a species so adapted to life in the Great Plains has been able to thrive, given that >99% of the original tallgrass prairie in the region has been plowed under, converted to agriculture, urban land, or other man-made land uses. The grass and weed seeds the Prairie Deer Mouse had historically fed on were much more sparsely distributed than they were 200 years ago, yet the species is still quite common.  They started field work to assess the distribution of the nice, including setting up artificial nest boxes that the mice could use for habitation and food storage.  The results astounded the scientists.

Prior to beginning the work, it was assumed that deer mice populations would be the highest in “edge” habitat, areas such as grassy ditches, fencelines, or other “boundary” conditions where remnants of their traditional food sources may still be found.  However, they quickly found that the highest populations of deer mice were often right in the middle of very large corn and soybean fields, far from any traditional food source.  Clearly, Prairie Deer Mice had adapted to an agricultural setting, and were feeding on man-raised grains and pulses. The question was, how could a tiny mouse that was so well adapted to eating tiny grass and weed seeds shift gears and start feeding on corn and soybeans?

The researchers found historical deer mice in historical museums, creatures that had been preserved with taxidermy. Anatomical comparisons with Prairie Deer Mice from today found some stark differences.  The older specimens were well adapted to feeding on tiny seeds, with small mandibles and jaws that didn’t open very far.  The modern specimens had 1) significantly longer lower mandibles, 2) structural changes that allowed their mouths to open wider, and 3) larger upper mandibles. Accompanying the larger mandibles were more robust “hardware” for linking bone to muscle, with beefed up jaw muscles that enabled the tiny mice to feed on much larger food items than they had historically.

In the blink of an eye, geologically speaking, Prairie Deer Mice had shown measurable, obvious evolutionary adaptation in response to their new environment and food sources.  The researchers found high densities of deer mice in the middle of corn and soybean fields.  Some inevitably will succumb to the mechanical tools humans use to turn and manipulate the soil, but with such a rich, dense, bountiful food source, the mice had quickly evolved to fill the new ecological niche and feed on corn and soybean waste.

For a scientist like myself, I’m completely dumbfounded by the sheer ignorance of those who doubt science…who doubt climate change is real…who doubt in evolution.  The actual empirical evidence is overwhelming, conclusive, and “in-your-face”, for those who bother to open their eyes to the world around them. It’s a fascinating story, and the writer (Conor Gearin) did a great job not only summarizing the research, but telling it in a true story-teller’s fashion.  To me, this is exactly the kind of story, and writing style, that could perhaps help to turn the tide against the anti-science wave that seems to be cresting in the U.S. right now. Great story, and The New Territory really looks like a publication that’s worth subscribing to or picking up if you get a chance.

Grand River National Grasslands, Harding County, South Dakota

Expansive grasslands of the Grand River National Grasslands, in Harding County, in far northwestern South Dakota. Grassland habitat like this is greatly reduced in the Great Plains. However, that doesn’t seem to be a problem for one species, the Prairie Deer Mouse, who evidently can do quite well without an actual “prairie”.

Facts trump Fear: A FACT-based assessment of Mountain Lions in South Dakota

Mountain Lion - Puma concolor

A full-grown Mountain Lion on the prowl. No…no…not my photo! This is a wild animal roaming in Yellowstone National Park. You see, like 99.999% of South Dakotans, I will never see, much less photograph, a Mountain Lion in this state. That, despite Mountain Lions seemingly posing as much of a threat to human health and safety as disease, war, famine, and pestilence combined. At least in the minds of many misguided South Dakotans.

I should just avoid the internet.  My blood pressure might be greatly improved if I were able to do that. It’s bad enough that we have Orange Hitler as our president, with a bunch of mini-Hitlers running all of the Cabinet departments. It’s bad enough that the normal news outlets that I check every day, such as the Washington Post or the New York Times, are now dominated by depressing and often downright sickening news stories about how everything that makes America, America, is now being being systematically dismantled.  What’s worse is that the same “alternative facts” political world we live in has permeated EVERY facet of American life, where fact, reason, and logic mean absolutely nothing any more.

Yesterday I was on Facebook when I came across a South Dakota “gentleman”, posing with a huge shit-eating grin on his face as he held up a dead Mountain Lion that he’d just shot and killed. OK, “gentleman” isn’t the word I want to use here, but I’m going to try to stay civil in this post.  Just the facts…so let’s call him “Gentleman Joe”.  It was a BIG mountain lion…160+ pounds…and evidently shooting a BIG Mountain Lion makes Gentleman Joe some kind of hero in the minds of many who were commenting on Facebook.  Normally I’d see something like that, roll my eyes, get a little sick to my stomach at the whole thought of it, and then move on to the next post. OK, who am I kidding…If you know me, you’d KNOW I was going to respond after seeing that.  As I I scrolled down, I noticed a manifesto from “Jim Bob” (I’m sure some relationship to Gentleman Joe, if not by blood, then by ideology).  Jim Bob was praising Gentleman Joe for the great kill, going on with his thoughts about just how much safer South Dakotans were thanks to his kill.

According to Jim Bob, the Mountain Lion horde of the South Dakota Black Hills are taking over the state. According to Jim Bob, it’s seemingly impossible to go outside in the Black Hills nowadays without the imminent threat of a Mountain Lion attack. In Jim Bob’s eyes, the proliferation of Mountain Lions in the Black Hills is akin to nuclear weapon proliferation during the Cold War, and evidently, poses just as much of a threat to humanity.  In Jim Bob world, it’s not safe to wander outside in the Black Hills. Gentleman Joe was indeed a god-damned American HERO for saving a scared South Dakota populous from the Mountain Lion scourge.

White-tailed Deer Fawn - Odocoileus virginianus

Yes, this IS my photo. I know what you’re thinking…TERRY! YOU HAVE A FAMILY TO THINK ABOUT!?!?! How could you risk so much getting this close to a dangerous killer? OK…ridiculous, you say? How much threat does a lil’ White-tailed Deer pose? SCIENCE MY FRIENDS! And the numbers don’t lie. THIS creature is MUCH more likely to kill or injure you than is a Mountain Lion. If you live in South Dakota, it’s not the creature at the top of the page that is a threat to your life.

I responded with facts, providing the TRUE story of Mountain Lions in the Black Hills, and their supposed threat to health and well-being of South Dakota’s citizens. Jim Bob, clearly not accustomed to facing the world of reality, threw a few half-hearted digital haymakers in Facebook response before slinking back to his hole.  He had nothing to respond with, no evidence to back his claims.  But as he departed the digital conversation, it was quite clearly that the barrage of facts I provided did nothing to change his mind. Those facts?

There’s been a grand total of ONE…count them…ONE confirmed Mountain Lion attack IN THE ENTIRE RECORDED HISTORY OF SOUTH DAKOTA.

Even that one event, in 2008, was an unfortunate encounter that resulted from a lion defending a kill, rather than the lion actively seeking out a human being.  Ryan Hughes was ice fishing on Sheridan Lake in March of 2008 when he headed to the shoreline and came across a Mountain Lion crouched down in the cattails, feeding on a fresh kill (thought to be a fox).  When Hughes first spotted the Mountain Lion, he was a mere 5 feet from the lion and its kill. The surprised lion reacted, dropping it’s food and scratching and biting Hughes. Hughes received minor injuries, and was treated and released from a local hospital for minor scratches and bite marks.

Well over 150 years since settlement of South Dakota, and this one, chance encounter is the ONLY MOUNTAIN LION ATTACK EVER RECORDED ON A HUMAN BEING in the state. However, according to Jim Bob, it’s absolutely essential that “heroes” like Gentleman Joe actively thin out the Black Hills Mountain Lion population.  According to fearful, small-minded men like Jim Bob, it’s a matter of public SAFETY.

I have no doubt that for tiny-penis men like Jim Bob, Mountain Lions ARE something to fear (am I still being civil? OK it’s getting borderline). It’s a scary world when you’re an insecure, weak little man-child (yeah, definitely crossing the border now).  Toting a gun into the wild and blasting away at wildlife?  It’s great for boosting those testosterone levels and boosting the confidence of weak she-men like Jim Bob (I am WAY south of the border…bye-bye civility).  But stating Mountain Lion hunting must be done as a matter of public SAFETY?

Deer Collision Risk - State Farm

From State Farm Insurance, a table of the top 5 riskiest states for car/deer collisions. If only there were some natural predator capable of saving us from the Deer threat…

One attack in over 150 years, in a state that covers over 75,000 square miles. Depending on the estimate and year, recent estimates of the number of Mountain Lions in the Black Hills have varied from 200 to 400. Generally they’ve thought to have stabilized around 250 in recent years. It’s a very healthy, strong lion population, yet despite their substantial presence in an area that’s so heavily used for recreation, there just haven’t been any attacks on human beings, much less any serious injury or fatality caused by a Mountain Lion.  That fear from tiny penis she-men isn’t limited to people in the Black Hills region.  Even here at the opposite end of the state near my town of Brandon, there have been stories of fear from the likes of Jim Bob.

While permanent breeding populations of Mountain Lions in South Dakota are almost exclusively found in the Black Hills, wandering individuals are occasionally found elsewhere in the state and region, even here in southeastern South Dakota. In 2014, there were a few sightings of a Mountain Lion just north of Brandon, where I live. A lot of the reports are rather “bigfoot” like, such as a reported brief glimpse of what might have been a Mountain Lion in the headlights of a speeding car on a highway.  But according to this piece from 2014, some in the Brandon area believed that Mountain Lions were setting up shop in the region. A quote from one of the landowners just north of where I live in Brandon?

Those spottings are just a sampling of the evidence of what Heggen said is a long-running pattern of the lions, which are solitary animals, being a nuisance in his area.

Yes, Mr. Heggen. It’s a “long-running pattern” of Mountain Lions roaming the Brandon Area.  They are a long time “nuisance” here in extreme eastern South Dakota, an area that’s 90% corn and soybeans and unlikely to EVER host a Mountain Lion for any length of time. They have indeed been spotted from time to time. I even know of a guy at my work who has seen one in the area.  But as the story above notes, in 2013 there were only 6 recorded Mountain Lion sightings in the entire state outside of the Black Hills.  Only three of those were in the eastern half of South Dakota. It’s not exactly a “long-running pattern”, and it’s a far cry from Mountain Lions being a “nuisance” in the area. More quotes from the Brandon-area story:

“But we don’t have any raccoons, skunks, possums or even pheasants running around anymore. And for a while, we didn’t even see any rabbits, although we’ve seen a few smaller ones lately,” he said.

 

“I’m guessing they (the lions) are eating them,” Heggen said. “They aren’t scavengers like coyotes.” He said that what he fears most is having his 5-year-old son being harmed by one of the lions in their farmyard.

Mountain Lions Killed - American West

From the Mountain Lion Foundation, a graph of the number of Mountain Lions killed by hunters in the American West from 1900 to the present day. In the last 20 years, hunters have generally killed 3,000 to 4,000 lions a year. In South Dakota in 2017, Game Fish & Parks are allowing up to 60 Lions to be killed.

Once again, let’s return to the facts…ONE CONFIRMED ATTACK IN THE ENTIRE HISTORY OF THE STATE, yet people like this are evidently fearful for the lives of their families.  There are other ridiculously speculative comments in the story, such as one time some cows were spooked by something (clearly HAD to be a Mountain Lion, right?), or that one fall he didn’t see any deer while harvesting his corn (Eegads!  More Mountain Lions!!). Please spare me the anecdotal bullshit about all the poor little animals in the area disappearing, and attributing it to roving Mountain Lions. Trust me, we have PLENTY of deer, raccoons, skunks, opossums, pheasants, and rabbits running around this part of the state.  It’s hard to drive any road in the area and not notice all the road kill on the sides of the road.

I’m perhaps being a little (ok, more than a little) harsh on people like this, but as a scientist, my biggest pet peeve in this world are fearful, ignorant human beings who ignore fact, logic, science, and reason, and instead let their innermost fears and emotions rule their lives. The vast majority of people in the Black Hills, an area that may indeed have one of the highest Mountain Lion concentrations in all of North America, will never even SEE a Mountain Lion in their lifetimes, much less have an encounter or an attack.

I also realize it’s not just the fear of men (with tiny penises) that drives this hatred of Mountain Lions, and the “lionization” (ha-ha) and hero-worship of those who kill them. No, beyond the fear, it’s INSECURITY, and their need to KILL, to express their manliness, that also drives attitudes like those of Jim Bob. That rationalization that it’s up to THEM to SAVE us from the Mountain Lion scourge…that attitude certainly plays to their insecurities, and it’s a great excuse for those who just love to go out and kill things.

On the latter point, hunters in general often have a problem with predators like Mountain Lions, for the simple fact that Lions are competition for the same kinds of prey that hunters like to target. As this story from 2010 points out, Mountain Lions likely kill just as many deer in the Black Hills as do hunters. The entire anti-Mountain Lion vibe in that part of the state simply boils down to this basic statement from this story:

Some hunters don’t like the increased competition from lions, said Mike Kintigh, GF&P regional supervisor in Rapid City.

A Mountain Lion kills a deer, that’s one less deer for hunters to kill.  In the minds of “Sportsmen” who think like this, targeting Mountain Lions is a win-win proposition.  It gives hunters the chance to kill a large, challenging animal, while at the same time reducing a major predator of game such as deer and elk.How do you combat some of the “fact-challenged” rhetoric from the anti-Lion crowd in South Dakota?  Facts don’t seem to have any impact on people like this, but as a scientist, it’s quite easy to shoot down the “logic” of these folks with some basic empirical evidence and numbers.

  • ONE — Again…in the entire history of the state, only ONE recorded attack of a Mountain Lion on a human being, and that was an obvious case of just being in the wrong place at the wrong time, surprising a mountain lion on its kill.
  • THREE — In all of Eastern South Dakota in 2013, there were only three confirmed Mountain Lion sightings. No, East River paranoids, Mountain Lions are not in any way a “nuisance” or any kind of threat in the 30,000+ square miles east of the Missouri River. Let’s at least keep the argument just to the Black Hills region.
  • 250 — That’s the roughly the number of Mountain Lions currently thought to be in the Black Hills. In an area of about 5,000 square miles, that puts the number at about one Mountain Lion for every 20 square miles.  That’s a high density for anywhere in North America, much less for such a heavily used area like the Black Hills.  Yet again, despite the number of lions and the potential for interaction with the thousands of visitors and residents in the Black Hills, dangerous encounters have been non-existent.
  • 5,500 — That’s how many deer may be killed every year in the Black Hills by Mountain Lions.
  • 90,000 — Roughly the number of deer killed by hunters every year in South Dakota in the 2000s…during the exact time period when researchers believed Mountain Lion populations were at all-time highs in the Black Hills, with potentially 400 individuals present.
  • 69% — Recent success rate of hunters targeting deer in the Black Hills.  Evidently the Mountain Lions have left one or two deer for human hunters.  No, hunters, Mountain Lions are not wiping out the Black Hills deer population.
  • #5South Dakota was recently ranked as the 5th most likely state for a driver of a vehicle to strike a deer.  One in 70 South Dakota drivers on average have a claim related to a deer collision.  Perhaps a little NATURAL population control would benefit South Dakotans, particularly since the risk of any negative consequence (aka, an attack) is far less than the odds of being struck by lightning.  If only there were some SCIENCE to back this up…hmmmm……
  • 155 — That’s how many lives in the eastern United States would be SAVED over a 30-year period in the eastern United States, IF Mountain Lions were reintroduced into the area.  The number comes from a detailed socioeconomic analysis of the impacts of reintroducing Mountain Lions in the East. The savings come from the reduction in deer populations that would result from the introduction of their most effective natural predator, and the resultant reduction in deer-car collisions.  The same study found that over $2 BILLION in insurance costs would be saved over the 30-year period.

Not to let something as mundane as “science” get in the way of the thinking of people like Jim Bob, but if that many lives and insurance dollars would be SAVED in the eastern U.S. by reintroducing the Mountain Lion, how many avoided collisions in the Black Hills are a result of the presence of Mountain Lions?  How many lives have thus been SAVED by the presence of Mountain Lions in the Black Hills?  If you’re doing a cost-benefit analysis, that would be XX number of lives saved, compared to…ZERO lives that that EVER been lost in the state as a result of a Mountain Lion’s activities. What? That’s all speculative you say?  Not so fast my friends, SCIENCE TO THE RESCUE AGAIN!! From the same socioeconomic analysis:

South Dakota offers a test case example of how effective this solution might be. Cougars have been slowly migrating East: They only recolonized the Black Hills in western South Dakota in 2005. When Gilbert and her team looked at mountain lion recolonization in the western part of South Dakota, they found that from 2005–2012, deer-vehicle collisions fell by 9 percent, resulting in $1.1 million in annual societal benefits for the citizens of western South Dakota. (A 9 percent reduction in seven years is roughly on par with the 22 percent reduction, which researchers think will take 30 years from recolonization.) By avoiding an estimated 158 deer vehicle collisions annually, auto insurers are already saving roughly $630,000 a year in payouts in the Black Hills.

DATA!  REAL DATA showing the decline in deer-auto accidents in South Dakota that occurred RIGHT when Mountain Lion populations were spiking in the region.

If you support Mountain Lion hunting in South Dakota, please spare us all the bullshit.  It’s NOT a safety issue.  Not to let facts spoil your storyline, anti-Mountain Lion, crowd, but from a safety standpoint, there’s absolutely no doubt that South Dakotans are safer WITH Mountain Lions than without.

SCIENCE!! NUMBERS!! FACT!!!

If you’re going to spout off about the need to “control” Mountain Lions, skip the crap about safety.  It’s clearly about either 1) your COMPLETELY irrational fear of a beautiful creature that’s MUCH less likely to harm you than is your hair dryer, shaver, or random bolt of lightning, or 2) your desire to KILL a creature for no other reason than the enjoyment of the “sport”.

For more information, here are some of the journal and news articles mentioned in this blog post:

Winter Bison in Yellowstone

A week without blogging.  God knows there was plenty to blog about if I wanted to torture myself with the political circus that’s happening right now, but I’ve been on travel for work. Work, with a bit of play thrown in. I had a couple of days of meetings in Bozeman, Montana, which is just a hop, skip, and a jump away from Yellowstone National Park (if you define a “hop, skip, and a jump” as a 1 1/2 hour drive).  My family and I have been in Yellowstone several times, but never in winter.  I didn’t have a lot of time, but decided to spend a day and a half in Yellowstone after my work meetings were done.

Most of Yellowstone is closed in the winter.  There’s only one road open, the road in the north part of the park between Mammoth Hot Springs and Cooke City on the northeast entrance.  Travel in the rest of the park is by snowmobile or snow coach only.  I wanted to see the interior of the park, so arranged for a snow coach ride from Mammoth down to the Old Faithful Area, where I spent one night in the Snow Lodge.  Whirlwind tour that ended with another snow coach ride back to Mammoth, but it was certainly an incredible experience.  I’ll share more photos and stories from my trip this week, but for now, here’s a look at some of the bison that overwinter in the park.  It’s thought that about 5,000 bison are found in the park right now, a high number historically, and they certainly were found throughout the park on my short visit.  They’re such massive, majestic creatures to begin with, but there’s something about the isolation and cold of a Yellowstone winter that really made them fun to watch and photograph.

Black-billed Magpie (Pica hudsonia) and bull Bison

It was 18 below in the north part of Yellowstone when I came across three massive bull Bison resting in the snow near the side of the road. As I watched, a lone Black-billed Magpie came flying in and landed on the head of the closest bull. The big bull tolerated it for a few minutes while the magpie perched on his head, but finally he’d had enough. With a shake of his massive head, the intruder was sent flying off and the bull resumed his nap. The Magpie in a great pose, the massive bison showing great detail in the fur and horns, and the warm steamy breath all contribute to what instantly became one of my favorite photos I’ve ever taken.

Bison portrait in the snow

A little younger bison, not looking too impressed with the idiot in the car taking its photo.

Bull Bison foraging in snow

Another massive bull, using that massive head to push the snow aside and reach the grass below. With what’s been a very snowy winter in Yellowstone, even the big bulls like this were seemingly struggling to move through the snow at times.

Young bison

A younger bison, taking a break from feeding to strike a pose for the camera.

Goat Heaven

Mountain Goat - Oreamnos americanus

One of the larger Mountain Goats, moving through the heavily flowered alpine meadows above Logan Pass in Glacier National Park. Click on this or any other photo for a closer view.

I’m still catching up on processing photos from the summer, including some from our vacation time in Glacier National Park in August. Glacier was busy, so busy that frankly it lessened my enjoyment of the Park.  The Going-to-the-Sun Road is certainly a huge attraction in Glacier, and deservedly so, given the spectacular views along its winding path.  However, there’s so much traffic on a busy summer day that it’s very difficult to find a place to pull over and park.  Most of the roadside stops were full, limiting opportunities to get out and hike. When we reached Logan Pass, a high point in the middle of the route with a visitor’s center and hikes, the entire lot was full, and cars were parked along the side of the road for at least half a mile in either direction from the parking lot.  We were admittedly a bit dejected trying to find a place to park, when we decided we were going to ‘reboot’ the day, drive down to the east end of the Going-to-the-Sun Road, and take one of the shuttle buses back to the Logan Pass area.

It was a very good decision.  The shuttles can be a bit unreliable (as we found when trying to go back down to our car, having to wait for almost an  hour for a shuttle), but they freed us from any worries about having to park.  At Logan Pass there are a few hiking options, and one we decided to do went up through a beautiful alpine meadow. There’s a boardwalk that goes up for much of the length of the trail, and given the madhouse at the visitor’s center itself, we were expecting a trail that was elbow-to-elbow in tourists.  However, one thing we’ve learned in all our visits to National Parks…people are lazy!  A short stroll off the beaten path can often give you some solitude.  This wasn’t solitude, but it was manageable in terms of jostling with other tourists.

Logan Pass, Glacier National Park

A view of one of the alpine meadows at Logan Pass. The flowers were truly incredible, although in some spots the dark burgundy flowers were being thinned out by the grazing goats!

The walk itself was incredibly beautiful. The high alpine meadows were packed with blooming flowers of several different kinds.  Combined with the lush greenery and spectacular mountain views, and it was truly one of our favorite hikes on the vacation.  The trail was somewhat open-ended, with no “must see” destination that marked the end of the trail, so we just kept walking until we started to get tired.

After quite some time heading up the trail, we looked up the path and in the distance, saw some hikers seemingly moving off the path to make way for…something.  At first it was hard to tell because of the distance, but soon the small, distant white blobs on the path became recognizable…Mountain Goats!  There was a small group of about 8 Mountain Goats that were headed down the mountain towards the flowered fields, and they were bound and determined to take the path of least resistance…literally!  The goats seemingly put their heads down and kept coming down the path, hikers-be-damned.  They were still quite a ways up the path from us when the moved into the flowery fields and began to feed.

Mountain Goat - Oreamnos americanus

The youngest of the small herd of Mountain Goats, pausing to sniff the flowers. Well, actually, right after this he ate all the flowers off this plant.

We continued up the path until we were in very close proximity.  They weren’t shy, obviously being quite used to hikers on the path.  They were feeding heavily in the gorgeous alpine meadows, and seemed to especially have an affinity for a plant with deep red flowers (that’s about as far as my flower identification skills take me!).  The small group included a couple of young goats that were obviously just born that year, as well as a pair of larger adults that appeared to be dominant. The goats peacefully fed while the handful of hikers that were at that height stood or sat on the path, thrilled to see them at such close range.

As with the previous post about the Grizzly Bears of Banff, it was the Mountain Goats of Glacier that were another true highlight of the trip!

Mountain Goat - Oreamnos americanusMountain Goat - Oreamnos americanusMountain Goat - Oreamnos americanus

Banff Grizzly Bears

Grizzly Bear - Ursus arctos horribilis

A big Grizzly near the Bow Valley Parkway in Banff National Park. This was actually a rarity, where one of the bears we saw would look towards us on the road. For the most part, they were too busy feeding on berries to worry about observers. Click on this photo or any other photo on this post to see a larger photo version.

In continuing the theme of “summer vacation pics”…the end point of our driving vacation this summer was Banff and the surrounding area in Alberta.  My wife and I had been there once before, but we’d never been there as a family. We spent several days stationed in Banff itself, with day trips to several spots in Banff National Park, and a trip up towards Jasper on the Icefields Parkway.  The highlight of the the trip, however?

Grizzly Bears!  We’ve been in Yellowstone several times.  We’ve been to Glacier National Park two times now (after this trip).  As a family we have vacationed in Alaska, and I myself have been in Alaska several other times.  In all these trips, we’ve on occasion seen bears. One on this trip, maybe one or even two on another trip, etc.  Coming across a bear, be it a Black Bear or Grizzly Bear, is a treat even in these areas that are known for bears. They’re just not very common to begin with, and seeing one during the day in visible range is a special treat.  That’s what made our trip to Banff so special.  We saw SO many bears that on one day in particular, we almost were expecting to see bears around every bend!

On our last trip to Banff many years ago, we saw wildlife (Bighorn Sheep, Mountain Goats, Elk, etc.), but no bears.  However, we knew this year might be different, as before leaving on vacation, we had read many stories about the banner year around Banff for buffalo berries.  Buffalo berries are a favorite for bears, and tend to grow at forest edges and clearings…including along roadways in Banff National Park. We had read that the bears in the area were all down in the lowlands, gorging on berries, and that we might have a good chance of seeing one.

Grizzly Bear - Ursus arctos horribilis

Berry time! A good view of another Grizzly, and the berries that had them so far down in the lowlands of the park.

We saw one!  Then two…then three…then four…until we had seen seven bears in one day!!  Seven bears on August 2nd, all along the Bow Valley Parkway near Banff. The Bow Valley Parkway itself is a really pretty drive, going through dense forest and also occasionally giving you a good view of the mountains. The day before, we had been in the Lake Louise area, and had a wonderful time on a long, 6- mile hike up from the lake to a rustic teahouse.  A beautiful day on August 1st, but WOW, the people!  In the heart of summer, it’s very difficult to even find a parking spot near Lake Louise, and the area around the lake and hotel itself are incredibly busy.  Thus, when starting out on the Bow Valley Parkway on August 2nd, we expected quite a few people.  We were wrong.  The parkway was relatively quiet, so we drove very slow, scanning the forest edges for wildlife.  The edge of the forest next to the road had many fruiting buffalo berry bushes, and it certainly SEEMED like the perfect place to find browsing bears.

It was.  It didn’t take long before we saw a mini “bear jam” up ahead.  Given the quiet traffic that day, the “bear jams” typically only consisted of a car or two, and much of the time we also were by ourselves as we watched a bear.  As we slowly approached the first two cars we had seen pulled over on the edge of the road, we wondered…is it a Grizzly?  A Black Bear? Or something else?

The first bear we saw was a beautiful, large grizzly.  At first, he was perhaps 10 yards back in the forest, making it difficult to see him well, even with binoculars that we had.  It didn’t take long before the binoculars were relegated to the back seat for most of the rest of the day though, as soon the first Grizzly strolled out of the forest and started gorging on buffalo berries, just 15 yards away or so.  With all our previous vacations in “bear country”, this was by far our closest, best look at a Grizzly, so we pulled over and enjoyed watching him feed for a while.  Finally we reluctantly pulled back onto the road to continue our journey up Bow Valley Parkway.

Grizzly Bear - Ursus arctos horribilis

Slurp! Often we’d just see a bear plopped down on his back haunches while he/she gorged on berries.

It wasn’t a long journey!  After a mere 200 yards or so, we saw movement in the brush on the side of the road.  Another Grizzly!  For the most part the Grizzlies we saw were totally oblivious to activity on the road. They would walk up to a loaded buffalo berry bush, strip the berries with their snouts in big bunches, and pretty much strip the entire bush before moving to the next one.  On occasion they would glance over towards the road, but they had one thing on their minds…berries!  Their close proximity and casual attitude towards observers led to some great photo opportunities.

In one stretch of less than a mile, we ended up seeing 4 different Grizzly Bears.  As we continued up Bow Valley Parkway, we found two more Grizzlies, and one Black Bear who had a couple of cubs.  We also found a couple of Grizzly Bears the next day, with at least one of the two being a “repeat” from the day before.  Some of the Grizzlies had ear tags, and Bear 134 is one that we came across multiple times during our stay in Banff. It was enjoyable not only seeing and photographing the bears from close range, but also looking them up on the internet!  A search of terms like “Bear 134 Banff” would often lead to stories of an individual bear’s exploits, either during the 2016 season, or in previous seasons.

It was a special trip.  We were definitely spoiled in terms of seeing bears, and I truly doubt that we’ll ever experience so many wild bears in one day again.


Grizzly Bear - Ursus arctos horribilisGrizzly Bear - Ursus arctos horribilisGrizzly Bear - Ursus arctos horribilisGrizzly Bear - Ursus arctos horribilisGrizzly Bear - Ursus arctos horribilis

 

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