Our next couple days were rich with informative lectures and presentations, but still allowed the course to get out in the field to explore.
On the fifth day, Dr. Lambert dove into the trophic cascade and explained various evolutionary and ecological principles, the food chain and trophic interactions, Yellowstone’s specific example, keystone species, and showed how humans can be described as hyper-predators and hyper keystone species. This specific lecture provided the students with the foundational aspects they need to understand ecosystems such as Yellowstone’s.
After a quick break, Melanie Hill, one of the field course’s teaching assistants, explained her thesis work with humans and black bears in Boulder, Colorado. Boulder, like many cities throughout the country, is experiencing a rapid human population growth, which leaves many wildlife species no option but to adapt to the changes. Conflicts with black bears tend to be especially high in the late summer and fall months, as the bears prepare for winter hibernation. Through her Media & Public Engagement MA program, Melanie is exploring how the use of community engagement, stakeholder collaboration, and visual storytelling can help reduce human-bear conflicts in Boulder. She’ll be publishing her thesis work on the project’s website this spring 2018 at www.bearsandpeople.com.
In the afternoon the group went out into the field with Chris Geremia who has been working at the park since 2002 in two different roles, but most recently on the Home on the Range bison project. Geremia’s role is to try and understand things like, if there are too many bison in the park; how bison use the landscape; how they interact with grasslands; and what are their behavioral responses?
Geremia took the class out near Junction Butte to see if we could track down a female bighorn sheep that had been collared the day before. Her collar was not giving off any mortality signs, but she didn’t seem to be moving around very much, which was odd. So off we went, following the ewe’s GPS signal through steep, rocky terrain and hillsides that smelled strongly of sage. We finally found her and realized the ewe might still be a bit groggy and dehydrated from the tranquilizers, so we decided to give her some space as she wandered around the area. We captured a few fecal samples that would be sent off the park’s lab, and made our descent back to the shuttles.
The next day Dr. Lambert taught the students about the fascinating world of animal behavior and discussed some common sampling methods. She explained the differences between wild, feral, tame/habituated, and domesticated animals; terms that tend to be confused quite commonly. Wild means: living in a state of nature; not domesticated. Feral refers to populations of domesticated species no longer under the influence of human artificial selection, but instead natural selection. Domesticated: genetic change in a species that shifts morphology, physiology, and behavior; for example, dogs. Habituated, or tame, refers to the diminishing of a physiological or emotional response to a frequently repeated stimulus. One important thing to remember is that habituation is not the same as domestication.
After the lecture wrapped up, a surprise visitor dropped in: Rick McIntyre. He dropped by the ranch because he was observing a pack of wolves (the Junction Butte Pack) that was bedded down across the road from the Buffalo Ranch, where our course was staying. What a treat!
For more than a decade, McIntyre has been working as the biological technician for the Yellowstone Wolf Project. In this role he’s come to know the park’s wolf packs by studying them daily. Even better, he’s able to share this knowledge with visitors from around the world: about their history at Yellowstone, what their supernatural howling means, where you might see them, and how guests can best appreciate what he calls “a peak life experience.” Read more about his work at Yellowstone in this interview >
McIntyre shared stories with us about some of Yellowstone’s most famous wolves, including the pack that was resting across the valley from our ranch. We learned about the rough life wolf 911M had growing up with mange and a generally small stature, and how he overcame this to take over as the alpha male wolf of the Junction Butte Pack. He was a powerful leader until the end, when he independently took down an injured cow elk in the Lamar Valley to feed his pack, only to be killed by the rivaling Prospect Peak Pack the next day. 911 never backed down and never fled from the rival pack as a way to protect the location of his own pack. Upon examination of 911’s carcass, it was revealed that the wolf only weighed 67 lbs – only 2/3 of his normal weight – likely due to the fact that he had a severely broken jaw, an injury that was months old. Even with this deeply painful injury, 911 continued to hunt and travel throughout the Yellowstone backcountry, until his very last day.
And with that, it was time watch the wolves. We grabbed our spotting scopes, walked out the front door, and set them up to see what the famous Junction Butte pack was up to. Most of them were bedded down, resting alongside a nearby herd of bison.
It was time to head out for our afternoon excursion, though we were all moving slowly. There were wolves next to the ranch, after all! Once we got out, we went for a gorgeous hike along Specimen Ridge and practiced some of the new tracking methods Dr. Lambert had just taught us. We immediately observed a lone bighorn sheep, and watched before she walked away, out of sight.
The trail brought us up a high ridge that ran parallel to the Yellowstone River. It was a gorgeous day, and we noted numerous geothermic structures throughout the river that gave of a very strong, sulfurous odor.
Along the way we noticed an abundance of fur and a strange organ-like lump under a tree. Upon further examination, we decided this was a mountain lion’s kill site: the hair was carefully picked off the prey, and the rumen was left behind, uneaten.
We took our time getting back, enjoying the colorful sky as the sun began to set. Once we got back, we had one last lecture by Joshua Theurer and Dr. Lambert on non-invasive sampling, before settling in for the night.