Living In the Big Bend Region

For many people, living in the Big Bend Region is a dream. They love the area, but the job market doesn’t allow them to live there full time. People take rides out to the desert on the motorcycles or take RVs to live in for a few days of isolation before heading back to the grind of the city. For others, they couldn’t imagine wanting to live in a desert, where so many things either stink, sting, or stick (e.g. skunks, rattlenakes/bees/wasps/other bitey things, and sticker burrs/goat heads/cactus, etc.)  Other people don’t even know that Texas has mountains, and have never even heard of The Big Bend. But, for 6 short years, Hubby and I were able to live in The Big Bend Region while going to college at Sul Ross State University. While we were there we experienced a lot of different things: small town life (i.e. gossip and knowing everyone in town), getting annoyed with tourists for not knowing how to drive their giant rented RVs through town, having javelinas (pronounced ha-va-lee-na) eat rotten bird seed off the ground in my front yard and having the dog go berserk at 3 am because of it, having an epic battle in the backyard with the dog and a skunk at 5 am, ending up with a very disgusting (but proud of himself) dog and a zombie skunk that wouldn’t die. It was a pretty eventful 6 years.

However, our best experiences were outdoors.

During my undergrad career, I had plans to go to vet school so I majored in Animal Science, but developed the realization that veterinary work was NOT what I wanted to do. I was still interested in it, but no longer felt that medicine was my calling. Hubby majored in Biology and through him I was able to meet the Biology Professors and students, and we both decided to get our Master’s Degrees in Biology.

During this time, Hubby worked on his thesis research and I later worked on mine. It was good timing because we could both help each other out while we weren’t working on our own projects. We both researched different aspects of Black bear in Big Bend National Park (yes, there are bears in Texas *eye roll*).  That means that we had a lot of amazing experiences with Black bear and other wildlife while we were looking for the bears. Here is a map of Big Bend that you can use as reference.

My gallery this week consists of photos taken while working on my research, Hubby’s research, and various other trips we took in the Big Bend Region. Each photo has a description of what we were doing at that time. Enjoy. I know I did.

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Wolves in Yellowstone: An Ecology Lesson

I have always been a biologist at heart. When I was a little girl I would constantly be looking at bugs and plants, and learning as much as I could about the world around me. I understood at a very young age how the natural world works together – everything having a niche in which it belonged. You throw one thing out of whack, and the balance is thrown off around it. I’m not sure why other people don’t understand this, because it seems like perfect, common sense that even a child could figure out, so why do people continue to do things like hunt the whales to extinction or organize rattlesnake roundups?

One example is the wolves in the United States. Once upon a time, not very long ago, people began to populate the wild areas of the northwestern United States.  Ranching was the reason for the move – Wide Open Spaces and untouched grazing. It was a paradise for ranchers. Except for the wolves. Every once in a while a wolf would find a nice fat calf as an easy meal. Result? The ranchers started killing wolves to protect their livestock. Then the government got involved. The government hired trappers in an attempt to annihilate the wolves. Literally. That was their goal – kill off all the wolves. What good did wolves do, anyway? We didn’t NEED wolves here. All they did was kill innocent livestock and wildlife that WE wanted to kill and eat. So the government answer was to kill off the competition.  Bears were also deemed a nuisance as well, and were also on the trapper hit list, but mainly because they eat the fish and crops that people were eating too. Wolves were extirpated from most of the United States is a matter of a few decades.

The plan to eradicate the wolves backfired however, and the best place to see the results of that backfire was in Yellowstone National Park. The land is still (pretty much) untouched and natural, and is a great place for grad students to do research 🙂

See, over the years that there were no wolves in the park, a lot of things changed. The elk population skyrocketed. So much so that in the winter the elk were having to be fed hay by the park rangers so that there weren’t massive die-offs from starvation. The massive elk population was killing the aspen trees by grazing them down to nothing, preventing new forest from replacing the old trees and fire-killed trees. Elk were also killing other species of trees by rubbing their antlers on them so much that it was ripping the bark from the trees and allowing insects the chance to infest the trees. Elk were grazing everything down to nothing because of their massive numbers.

In 1995 when 14 wolves were trapped in Alberta, Canada and brought to Yellowstone National Park, it was deemed an “experimental population” and they were radio-collared and watched closely to see what would happen.

Here is a quick video that can describe it much better than I can, and the sound of the wolves howling always gives me chills, so I love this video.

While Hubby and I were on vacation in Yellowstone, we saw, personally, the changes that the wolves had made.

Yellowstone May 2014 1246

These pines have clear damage by elk from scraping the velvet off of their antlers every spring. Notice the dead tree in the foreground which also has the same scars from the elk. This tree was likely killed by insects boring into the soft phloem underneath.

Since the return of the wolf, the elk have started avoiding certain areas where they were easy prey, allowing the aspen trees a second chance to grow and repopulate. We actually saw some areas of aspen trees that were fenced off, and the area appeared to be a research site to study different dynamics of the aspens. (Unfortunately when we saw it, we were on our way to the doctor’s office because of my back, so we didn’t really stop to get a closer look.)

One of the areas that the elk seemed to avoid was Lamar Valley. We saw hundreds of bison, bears, and pronghorn, but no elk.

The most beautiful place in the park - Lamar Valley. Herds of bison and antelope throughout the valley.
The most beautiful place in the park – Lamar Valley. Herds of bison and antelope throughout the valley.

Other species have also benefited from the return of the wolf, like the grizzly and black bears.  For example, they feed on the left-overs of wolf kills (bears aren’t nearly as fast as wolves, so it is much harder for them to chase down prey), and this has led to an increase in the bear populations as well, after the government trappers attempted to wipe them out too.

"Scar Face" feeding on a wolf kill
“Scar Face” feeding on a wolf kill

Today, the wolf population is still studied by the park service; however due to budget cuts, most (if not all) research is conducted on a voluntary basis.  Because of this, things like helicopters are no longer used to dart the wolves because it’s not in the budget. Instead, the wolves are trapped or netted first. This is increasing the amount of human interaction the wolves have, and making them nervous around people where they once had little fear.  That means that often, when you see a wolf in the park, it will run away instead of letting you marvel in all their splendor.

Ranger Rick performs his wolf surveys voluntarily, because the wolf monitoring program budget has been cut.
Ranger Rick performs his wolf surveys voluntarily, because the wolf monitoring program budget has been cut.

Additionally, maintenance of the radio equipment has declined.

Clear view of his radio collar
Clear view of his radio collar

The silver male wolf that we watched on our last morning in the park had a radio collar, but the battery was dead and it was no longer emitting a signal. Because of this, he could not be identified or tracked, and all the potential data that he was producing were going unrecorded. This means that we don’t know if he is part of a pack or if he is a “lone wolf” (sorry, I had to). We don’t know if he has sired any pups, contributing to the growth of the population. We don’t know where his territory or range are, what his diet is, if he is healthy, or any other multitude of ecological questions, that at least for now, must go unanswered.

This is a wonderful story, but it has only been half written. As the wolf populations continue to rise in Yellowstone and other areas outside of the park, clashes with the human population is inevitable.  The state of Idaho was attempting to start legalizing wolf hunts again, right after they were brought back from the brink of extinction in the United States. Bowing to public pressure, they have decided that they won’t start wolf hunts this year. The wolves are safe. For now.

As a biologist, I believe that we need to learn as much as possible about the wolves in order to save them again. Learning their habits, territories, ranges, diets, and even personalities can teach us so much and help us understand how to prevent human or livestock interactions. Would something as simple as adding guard dogs or guard donkeys/mules (yes, that’s a thing) to the herds be enough to keep wolves away? How many TRUE wolf kills of livestock actually happen per year? What is the economic “loss” caused by wolves?

Personally, I don’t think that the ranchers have a reason to despise the wolves, because the ranchers, like any other business owner, should have insurance.  And insurance pays out for damages/losses, So they don’t have a REAL reason to want the wolves gone.

As Apex Predators, wolves affect everything around them. They are vital for the health of the ecosystems in which they evolved. This means that the other wildlife are healthier as a result. Bigger, stronger, and healthier elk, deer, bison, and antelope survive while the wolves cull the herds of the sick and weak individuals.  Humans need to stop trying to “manage” the wildlife and just leave it be. It will balance out on its own, and be healthier than if we decide which individuals are killed and which populations are “too high”.

If you want to see wildlife with extremely limited human interference, watch this video on the wolves of Chernobyl. I watched this and it made me want to live there. So there is radiation, big deal. I can wear a respirator for the rest of my life if that means I can live in a place that is a wildlife paradise and no humans will bother me.  In the video, they determined that the wolf population is healthy, and no higher or lower than in other wolf habitat areas, meaning they don’t need to be managed – their numbers didn’t “get out of control” without human intervention. They didn’t “eat all of the deer” in the area. The ecosystem is healthy without human interference. Just like it was before we evolved – the world doesn’t need humans to take care of it. The world just needs humans not to destroy it.

Sunset in Lamar Valley
Sunset in Lamar Valley

Yellowstone Part 4 – Saving the Best (and Worst) for Last

Wow, it took a lot longer to get this post pulled together than I thought it would! I finally learned how to put Watermarks on my photos, so I was trying to get that done before I posted these photos.  So, without further ado – here is the final installment of our epic Yellowstone trip! You can catch up and read Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 here.

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Seeing as how this was a trip to Yellowstone, it was high time we spent some time in the park. By this time we moved to our cabin on the Idaho/Montana border, just outside of the western park entrance. Based on my limited knowledge, the western portion of the park was where you were most likely to see the wolves, so I made sure to book several nights at these cabins to give us a good chance at seeing them. It was also cheaper than staying in the town of West Yellowstone, which is mainly just a tourist attraction since you have to go through the town in order to use the West Entrance. This is also where the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center is located, and I wanted to be sure to check that out as well.

On our first full day in West Yellowstone, we headed straight to the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center. It was smaller than I thought it would be, but I still learned A LOT. They had dioramas of different seasons and species, and had a lot of information about why the grizzly and wolf numbers dropped so quickly. (Mainly, the government at the time thought of bears and wolves as pests, and hired government trappers to kill them off. But more on that later). We were able to watch the grizzlies in their enclosure wrestle and play, search for food under rocks, and munch on tasty elk legs! (Road killed animals go to the Center). The wolves that were there are all extremely old, for wolf standards. They all looked like they were about 15 or so years old and were happy to lay in the sun and get tasty free meals that they didn’t have to hunt down on their arthritic legs.

After the center we went next door to an Authentic Mexican Restaurant. I know, I know. Why on Earth would you go get Mexican food in Montana? It was there, I was starving, and I didn’t think about it. Okay?!

Needless to say, it was terrible food. No flavor. I mean really. I couldn’t make food that flavorless on purpose. Live and learn, right? Now I’m passing on my knowledge to you so you have a better meal somewhere else.

After lunch we headed into the park to look for wild wolves! Yay!

One of the best things about Yellowstone is also one of the worst things about Yellowstone: the number of tourists. We were there before the summer crowd, but toward the end of the week more and more people started coming into the park because it was a holiday weekend coming up. So by Wednesday the park was packed! However, like I said, this is also a great thing because when one person sees awesome wildlife, everyone pulls their car over and you are sure to see whatever it is that they are looking at.

We saw a bunch of cars pulled over so of course we pulled over too. We got to see a huge coyote hunting rodents in their tunnels by pouncing on the ground and breaking their tunnels open, much like they do through the snow (see Part 3).

We continued on into the park, headed toward Lamar Valley, where everyone said is where you see the wolves. We stopped at another pull off where we saw a ton of cars and people with spotting scopes, and sure enough, our first sighting of wild wolves! While talking to a gentleman who had a spotting scope the size of our rental car, we were informed that they had killed an elk earlier in the day, and they were still lounging around letting their fat, happy bellies settle. There was a black wolf, and white wolf, and a dark grey wolf. They were really far off so I didn’t get great pictures, but they were wolves!

After the wolves wandered off, we continued up to Lamar Valley. On the way we got to see a black bear or two, but our only focus was wolves. We got to Lamar Valley and it was the most beautiful place I think I have ever seen. It is now on my favorite places list. Mountains, rolling foothills, herds of bison and antelope, grizzlies grazing on grasses and flowers. It was spectacular. We knew we were in the right place because of the number of people pulled over on the roadside with their scopes and cameras ready. Normally you would wonder what they are looking at, but then you notice that everyone is mingling, and simply waiting. They knew something was coming, and I wasn’t going to miss it.

So while we waited with the pros, we got to see some great stuff. Antelope coming close, bison calves running and playing, a grizzly family running away from some mysterious unseen object up on the hill. Then we noticed the Giant Grizzly on the river below us. Now, I’m no good at judging distance, but I would guess she was about 500-600 yards away. She was feeding on a wolf kill from several days before (according to the pros that were waiting for the wolves to show up) and her name is Scar Face. I’m sure for good reason, but she was far enough away that I had to only take their word for it. According to the pros though, Scar Face has been photographed more times than the Kardashians; I’m guessing because she frequents the area that the wolves are often found in, so people do like I did, and take pictures of her while we are waiting for the main attraction 😉

However, while we waited, Hubby noticed that people were leaving. There were still the same number of people there waiting, but the crowd itself had changed; the pros had given up to try a different spot!

I suddenly panicked – What do I do? Do I stay here and hope that they show up? Or do I try my luck somewhere else? And what if I leave and then find out that the wolves showed up right after I left? Luckily Hubby was there to help me decide. Lamar Valley is pretty big after all, so maybe they will be in a different area. We headed back down the road a ways, and when we were sure we were no longer in the valley we turned back around and headed back to a different pull off we saw. I was getting a little discouraged because by hearing all of the stories, wolves would be everywhere! I wanted to get some good pictures of wolves! Not just zoom in on a picture and have to point out “See? That black speck? That’s a wolf!” I had to see them closer!

By this time my back was aching pretty bad, so I wasn’t going to get out of the car unless there was something photo-worthy, so Hubby got out and made friends with some Canadians who are living in an RV and watching the wolves for the summer. (Fun Fact: the wolves of Yellowstone came from Alberta, Canada. It’s funny that the Albertans come all the way down to Wyoming to see the wolves they gave us!) Suddenly, out of nowhere, a black wolf runs by, down on the river about 1,000 yards away. I’m not sure where she came from, but we saw her swim the river and dash up the mountain before she was gone. I got a couple pictures of her, but nothing spectacular since she was running pretty much the whole time.  Apparently she was Number 89, and she is a rogue female that frequents the valley.

We learned a lot about the wolves by talking to all of the “wolf chasers” (or “sighters” I guess would be a better term).  Because the National Park Service is broke (because it’s always the good programs that get their funding cut first) they could no longer afford to tranquilize the wolves from a helicopter. This leads to shotting them with net guns and tranquilizing them once the researchers have gotten up to them, so the wolves have gotten a bit skittish of people. We also learned that the research program is now on a voluntary basis. The rangers that were paid to follow the wolves now must volunteer their time because the park service can’t afford to pay them. Such a sad situation. What is good though, is that there is such thing as “Citizen Science” much like with bird surveys. Enough people are interested in this subject, that they seek out the animals, watch their behavior, and report back to the rangers. Many of the observers know the rangers and vice versa, so the data that are provided are understood to be factual and non-biased (mostly).

After Number 89 ran up the hill, we started heading back, since it was getting late and we had several hours to drive back to our cabin. We stopped again at our first location because I saw something feeding on the same carcass that Scar Face had been eating earlier.

IT WAS A SILVER WOLF.

We stopped the car and I ran up the hill with my camera and tripod (I had the speed clip this time). While we were watching this grey, I decided to get some video of him feeding (unfortunately, WordPress won’t let me upload my awesome video…I’ll have to figure out how to get it onto YouTube or something). In the video you can hear Hubby and I quietly discussing if the wolf was wearing a collar or not, and if Hubby was going to hide behind me so he wouldn’t get eaten. I stopped filming right before the wolf came right passed us so I could get some still shots of him as well. I probably should have just kept filming because the pictures didn’t turn out great (it was getting dark and he was running) but live and learn, right? (that seems to be a theme for today). After the grey ran across the street into on-coming traffic and almost got plowed by a car, he disappeared up the hill and was gone. At his closest, he was probably 20 yards from us.

Ah. Maze. Ing. I was so happy, and he had gotten so close! I was in heaven. But of course you know what that means, right?

I HAD TO SEE THEM AGAIN. This wasn’t nearly enough. Andrew and I were already planning the next day. Get up SUPER early and get to Lamar Valley before sunrise because that is reportedly the best time of day to see the wolves.

Of course then it took us a few hours to get back to our cabins. And it doesn’t get dark until about 9:30…So we didn’t get back to the cabins until midnight. Last thing we needed to do was get up at 3:30 am after going to sleep at midnight, so we decided that the next day we would relax, get up whenever we felt like it, see the rest of the park, and go to bed early that night so we could get up super early the NEXT morning.

So we did the whole “geyser” thing again the next day and relaxed, doing our last bit of souvenir shopping as well. We had dinner at a restaurant/bar in West Yellowstone called The Slippery Otter, and this place was great! The owner was super nice, they had great food, and really good beer. Finally, we had found good food in Montana!

The next morning we got up at 3:30 am and I drove into the park. At about 5 am we were flagged down by a truck coming up the road, telling us to pull over because 4 HUGE BOATS (on trailers, duh) were about to be coming down the road, and they needed as much road space as they could get! Well of course he flagged us down at a terrible spot – not only was there no shoulder to pull onto, but there was actually tons of tree debris on the side of the road from doing road work in the park the day before! HOW MUCH SPACE DID THEY NEED?! I hoped we had scooted over enough; all we could do is wait. And all I could do while I waited was think about how I’m going to miss the wolves because I’m pinned between a boat trailer and the hillside! Finally they drove by without incident and we headed down the road again, but slowly this time. One thing I didn’t count on was the mount of fog that we had to drive through. Cool morning+geothermal activity=lots and lots of scary fog. I love looking at fog; I hate driving in it. I was super nervous that a herd of bison would be in the road in the fog and I was going to miss my opportunity to see the wolves because there was a dead bison on the hood of my car. So I drove carefully and as quickly as I dared. As the sky began to lighten, it was easier to see that we were engulfed in fog, and it was much brighter than I had thought it would be. I was going really to miss the wolves!!!

Finally we made it to Lamar Valley. I was in such a hurry to get to my spot and wait, that when we saw a truck stopped in the road I almost went around him. Then Hubby saw why he was stopped – the same Silver wolf  from before was standing on the hillside!

The next events were a blur – I took tons of photos, and he wandered off into the sage brush. The truck drove away, and we waited to see if he would come back. He did, and he was actually carrying a child’s stuffed animal in his mouth. No, I wasn’t confused and he really had a live dead squirrel in his mouth – it was a toy. You could see the tag on the plush, and the little stubby legs.  We have no idea why, but he was carrying around a toy.  He dropped it after a few minutes of carrying it around, and then he sort of zig-zagged in front of our car  while he tried to decide where to go, until he walked across the road back toward the river where we had first seen him a few nights before.  Then Ranger Rick pulled up. Seriously. That’s his name. He’s a Ranger named Rick. He asked what we were looking at, and when we told him a wolf, he pulled over and got out his radio telemetry equipment – SCIENCE AT WORK! Sort of. Rick couldn’t identify the wolf because the batteries on his collar were apparently dead; but that didn’t matter, because I got some amazing photos of him while he was with us. Suddenly more and more people started showing up, and we met a huge group of wolf chasers. Rick told us that the black female would be coming by soon (her radio collar was working so they knew where she was), so we waited until, far off in the distance, we saw her making her way through the river valley.

By this point my back was killing me. I could no longer appreciate the magnificent scenery I was surrounded by, because I was in blinding pain.  I told Hubby we had to go to the doctor now.  We headed to the northern portion of the park where the doctor’s office was, but they didn’t open until 8:30, so we had to wait. I was about in tears by this point and when they finally opened, I was at my breaking point. Talking to anyone would cause my voice to break, and I finally broke down and cried in front of the nurse while he asked me all the questions that he had to ask, and cried some more while talking to the doctor. He wrote me prescriptions for muscle relaxers and Vicodin and we had to drive up further north to get them filled at the pharmacy. By the time I received my prescriptions and ate some breakfast, I was done. It was probably 10 am on my second to last day of my vacation, and I couldn’t move without being in blinding pain. I was heartbroken that this is how our vacation ended. Hubby had to drive for the next 2 days because my drugs kept me knocked out. But while I was awake I was still in pain.

Our last night was spent in Centennial, Wyoming, through the Snowy Range. The Snowy Range is one of my favorite places in the US, but I slept through it because of my medicine. We got to the hotel and ate dinner in one of the 4 restaurants in town, and then I went to the room to sleep. Hubby, since he was still on vacation, wanted to go check out the town, so he bar-hopped at the 4 bars in town and met wonderful people wherever he went. I was glad he had a good time, because I felt guilty for being the reason we had to cut the trip early.

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Now my back is feeling better, although not 100%, but Hubby and I are already talking about going back to see the wolves again.