Friday, January 28, 2011

Digging, Hunting & Scavenging for Food

As January gives way to February we are now entering what I like to think of as Phase 2 of Winter. It's the time of year where one is truly put to the test of winter survival. The nights are cold and long and the sunny days are sparse.Everywhere you look there is snow for miles.There are mornings where it takes 20 minutes to put on all my winter gear- my flip flops are a distant memory.  Having grown up in Montreal I can still remember the faces of those who had succumbed to the winter blues during Phase 2. With dark circles under their eyes and sallow skin they would trudge through the snow while their coats hung from their body with the weight  of the world. If they could be transformed into the wildlife of Yellowstone surely they would be one of the old and drab Rocky Mountain Elk who live on the Northern Range currently experiencing one of a few harsh winters in their lifetime .

 It has been 10 weeks since the snow began to fall on the Yellowstone Plateau. In Grant Village we currently have received over 140 inches of snow and the snowpack is at a depth of 45 inches. Throughout other parts of the park the story is quite the same- lots of snow! For a long time I thought snow was just snow! I never really put much consideration into the difference types of snowflakes that poured from the sky of my childhood, nor did I make any connections to how that snow affected the ecology of Yellowstone. But this weekend my perspectives on snow have changed dramatically. While attending a winter ecology course in Yellowstone's Lamar Valley I was able to witness first hand how integral snow is in the Yellowstone BIG picture.

Dr. Jim Halfpenny is one of the country's leading winter ecologist. Standing in front of the class dressed in his camo fleece pants and an elk design button down shirt Jim seemed like any other typical Montana man- that was until he brought us outside and began to instruct us on the scientific, methodical art of digging snow pits. After digging a 6'X4' pit to the ground we learned that the snowpack was 38 inches deep in the Lamar Valley. As we studied the layers of snow within our pit Jim began to relate the snow to the wildlife which was all around us. Elk, Bison, Wolves, Coyotes, Fox, Big Horned Sheep,  and more! Lamar is the Serengeti of the America and a favorite spot in the hearts of all who visit. 

 "Lamar is shut down", Jim stated, "There is no way Bison or Elk can dig that deep to find food".

I began to think of the Elk. With powerful long legs they dig with their hoofs down through the snow until they reach the remains of dead shrubs and grasses. They feed on what is often compared to as cardboard- not very nutritious but at least it's something! The Bison uses its mighty muscular hump and head to plow through the snow, also feeding on cardboard. 

Both animals are powerful and impressive, yet the forces of winter will wither them down to nothing. It's late January and Lamar is shut's not looking good for the herbivores this year.   

Later that evening while driving (in a car!!) to Mammoth Hot Springs I witnessed the mass exodus of the Bison. Herds of Bison walking the only paved roads in the park which lead from Lamar to Mammoth. As I slowly approached each herd they all reacted with instant fear. Their eyes bulged with the sense of panic in the brightness of my headlights and it was obvious that my car was yet another horrible stressor in this Phase 2 of winter. They jumped and sprinted and seemed to have no direction. All they wanted to do was escape. I was instantly brought back to the scene in The Sound of Music where Franz Maria and the children are trying to escape the Nazis in Austria. And even though I am an Ecologist by trade and I understand that this is simply nature at work, my heart sank.

The next day I watched a small herd of Elk who had found a shallow patch of snow on a wind drifted hillside. Regardless of the awkward angle that the steep hillside presented the Elk desperately pawed through the snow to the dead vegetation.

All around the park the wildlife are deadly in tune with mother nature. When the valleys become too deep for the Elk and Bison they migrate to lower elevation in hopes of finding a good feeding ground. The wolves closely watch their prey in hopes of finding a weakened older animal to feed upon. On day three of my stay in beautiful Lamar Valley I finally got to see the Lamar Canyon pack of wolves. They  had recently taken down a Big Horned Sheep and were now resting on a hillside above the Lamar Valley. Finding food in winter has it's challenges for the predators too. Running at fast speeds in chest deep snow is no easy task for a wolf let alone the amount of limited energy that is exerted in a chase. But if the wolves can make a kill many will dine. Once the wolves have had their fill the remainder will be scavenged by coyotes, foxes, eagles, raven and more! If the wolves don't make a kill many more will suffer in this phase 2 of winter.

The secret bonus to attending the winter ecology course was that I was given the chance to make a pit stop at the Food Farm in Gardiner, MT. The Food Farm is a small, simple grocery store where everyone knows everyone! The aisles are barely big enough to allow one shopping cart to pass another. I've never been excited about going to Food Farm, however when one hasn't seen a grocery store in eight weeks it is HEAVEN! I walked up and down the aisle stalking the shelves like a vulture. Suddenly, my predatory eyes caught a glimpse of freshmade donuts. Grabbing the box, I pulled one gooey donut out and with three swift bites it was gone! The remainining donuts sat in my cart- no chance of escaping, I would save them for later. After satisfying my initial craving I began to stalk my Food Farm prey with a little more thought. I slowly meandered up and down the aisles taking particular interest in the cold and fresh sections. I stopped and admired the neatly stacked yogurt and after examining their expiration date I decided that they were too old for my taste. I used my keen sense of smell to locate the fresh basil but it too was not worth price. Finally I settled on a few choice items: fresh pineapple, lettuce and milk. I roamed around some more looking at the food, wanting to add it all to my cart but finally reminding myself that I had no where to store it.

 Once my animalistic food desires were fulfilled it was time for the long journey back into the interior of Yellowstone. After strategically loading my food on my sled and strapping everything down safely I started on the two hour snowmobile ride back home. With 10 new inches of fresh snow I returned to the interior where it appeared that every animal I saw was scouting for food. The trip included bison, four coyotes, three foxes, a pine marten and a grouse, all of which took absolutely no interest in me as they travelled through the park on some sort of predetermined mission. Arriving at home I unpacked the food and shared it with Shane. Looking at the fresh green lettuce it was easy to decide that salad was absolutely on the menu for dinner. Dining on homemade lasagna and fresh salad I was silently thankful that my dinner did not involve digging, hunting or scavenging... well at least not in the literal sense!            

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