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Science Times tackles the complex Yellowstone wolf scene

Categories: On the Web, Science, Wildlife
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Brad Bulin wolf pelt 2006 In this Tuesday’s “Science Times” section of the New York Times, freelance science writer Jim Robbins explains the push-pull between the lives of Yellowstone’s wolf packs (and the scientists who study them) and the needs and requirements of hunters and ranchers in the three surrounding states.

Since 2011 Montana and Idaho have been conducting managed wolf hunts, but in Wyoming a U.S. Court of Appeals has only this March approved a wolf-hunting plan that is deemed not to endanger the survival of the species in that state.

All the controversy about wolves stems from the 1995 and ’96 introduction of gray wolves (Canis lupus irremotus) into the park (and also into Idaho) from Alberta and British Columbia, Canada. Their population soared within a few years to around 150 wolves in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, and scientists like Dr. Douglas Smith found, as quoted by Robbins, that “Yellowstone is the best place in the world to view wolves”—and to study them. This is especially true because the Yellowstone wolves do not fear the thousands of eager visitors who flock there—and incidentally add money to the regional economy. The wolves are thus quite readily visible.

In the years after the introduction of wolves, neighboring ranchers were understandably distressed. Some of their cattle, sheep, and even dogs were killed; before wolf hunting was authorized some ranchers were reimbursed by nonprofit organizations for their losses. It is hoped that protection within the park, combined with limited hunting outside its borders, will provide the needed balance and keep the population of Yellowstone’s wolves to approximately one hundred, as has happened in the last few years.

Robbins tells us much more about the results of research done by Smith and his colleagues. Longevity and social hierarchy within the packs are now better understood, and observation has revealed that wise older wolves serve an important role. Dr. Smith believes that packs are matrilineal. “Males come and go . . . but Gramma, Mom, and the daughter are the ones that stick around.” Here is a link to the whole article, “The New Threat to Wolves in and around Yellowstone.”

For some earlier blog posts about wolves here at YellowstoneTreasures.com, just enter “wolves” in the search bar.

Photo is of Yellowstone Forever Institute instructor Brad Bulin showing a wolf pelt, winter 2006. Photo by Janet Chapple.

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Super-creative battery use at Lamar Buffalo Ranch

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Over the past couple of decades I’ve spent some delightful weeks at the Lamar Buffalo Ranch participating in over twenty Yellowstone Institute classes. Now I’ve learned—from The Guardian’s Sustainable Business section—that solar power collected at the field campus is being stored in used hybrid batteries recovered from Toyota dealers.

Kevin Butt, chief environmental officer for Toyota Motor Engineering & Manufacturing North America, had a vision for how old Prius batteries could be repurposed rather than recycled. In a pilot program at the Buffalo Ranch, the previously installed solar panels are now connected to a raft of batteries to supply all the power needed at the ranch.

I’m excited about this program and just wanted to share it with my blog readers!

This is the picture Toyota supplied of the project.
Toyota'sBuffaloRanch_project_ScreenShot

Go here to read the entire article.

Editor’s Note: To find out even more about the project and the Yellowstone Park Foundation’s projects to install an emission-free micro-hydro turbine and replace aging solar panels, see: “Off the Grid in the Lamar Valley.”

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Wolves are “just like us”!

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YT174 copy

Yellowstone’s wolves are always in the news. Back in late 2012 the Obama administration lifted federal protection for wolves in Wyoming. In the year following, trophy hunters killed 62 wolves. An unknown number were shot or trapped. Then, on September 13 of this year, federal judge Amy Berman Jackson returned Wyoming wolves to Endangered Species Act protection. Wyoming’s congressional delegation has now pledged to go to Congress in an effort to get wolves again delisted in the state.

As the legislative ping-pong game continues, Doug Smith, Yellowstone wildlife biologist and leader of the Yellowstone Gray Wolf Restoration Project, has fascinating things to say in a 23-minute Iowa Public Radio interview about the history of wolf re-introduction in the park and the present state of wolves.

Tempting you to listen to this excellent interview, I’ll mention a couple of highlights of Doug’s remarks.

Although the next official count will take place in mid winter, current Yellowstone wolf numbers are at approximately 130 wolves in 11 packs.

In discussing the ongoing argument about Canadian wolves being introduced, thus bringing in a different subspecies from those that historically lived in and around Wyoming, Doug explains that over the decades when no wolves lived there, no exchange of genes could take place due to geographic isolation. He states that there are now 5 subspecies in North America, not the many more claimed by some people.

Doug points out that Yellowstone is now returning to “ecological functionality”—big words for the balance achieved in the environment by returning wolves to the park.

He completely empathizes with the ranchers in the ring of land that circles the Greater Yellowstone public land, where wolves now live. Unavoidably, preying on their livestock is a big problem, but ideas to cope with this are multiplying.

Replying to a listener’s question about attacks on humans, he stresses that wolves are afraid of humans and/or “can’t figure us out because we walk on two legs.” He suggests that the big, bad wolf stories may be based on some historical attacks but could well have been referring to rabid wolves.

Doug will be giving a talk at Iowa State University’s Memorial Union, 8:00 pm on Monday, November 3. In his interview he lists an impressive list of human traits found in wolves: they are monogamous, good parents, territorial, and communicate by body postures and many quiet vocalizations—as well as howling. And he concludes, “They’re just like us!”

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Montana’s wolves on National Public Radio

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Since wolves were delisted from the Endangered Species list in Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming, all three states have developed plans to drastically cut back their wolf populations. Idaho wants to eliminate 60% of theirs, and the other states have large quotas, too.

Last Saturday I heard a short segment on Weekend Edition, where the voices and the scenes described took me back to my Montana childhood—even though I always lived in town. It began with the news that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service claims the scientific research is insufficient to make a national decision about wolf delisting. Take a listen and note a great idea near the end. Can you really teach cattle to herd or group up like bison?

I have one small complaint: the Native American Indian name still used for the beautiful mountain range to the east of Yellowstone should be pronounced ab-SAR-o-kas, not ab-sa-ROKE-as.

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Decrease in elk numbers

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Heading to Yellowstone myself in a few days [June 2013], I was very interested to learn that blaming the wolves for the huge decrease in elk numbers in Yellowstone is a big over-simplification. The numbers are unquestionably way down since I began taking notice in the mid 1990s.

When I was researching for Yellowstone Treasures’ first edition (2002), I found that about 35,000 elk were summering in the park. The new fourth edition (August, 2013) will say that on the order of 4,000 elk can be found on the northern Yellowstone range, and there are a few more in the rest of the park. This is a reduction of more than 80 percent.

A majority of the park’s wolf packs since reintroduction in 1995 have primarily preyed on elk. Thus, it has been easy to assume that wolves are to blame for this huge reduction in numbers. But a recent article in the latest issue of the journal Ecology reveals that the situation is much more complicated.

Migratory elk are struggling, while their resident counterparts thrive in the foothills, recent studies have found. The 4,500-member Clarks Fork elk herd, which migrates between the Absaroka Mountains and the upper Lamar River area, finds less forage because of extended drought.

In contrast, another researcher found that those elk living northwest of Cody, WY who do not migrate produce more calves, and more of them survive. They stay in the area because they find irrigated croplands. In addition, in settled areas many preying wolves and bears are removed by hunters and ranchers.

Grizzly bears and poor summer forage conditions caused by several years of drought have a bigger effect on elk health than do wolves, the researchers concluded.

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National Parks moving to the forefront in energy saving

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If only I did not have a cello to carry around occasionally to chamber music sessions, I would certainly have a small hybrid or electric vehicle instead of a standard car. But I’m a firm believer in using as little energy as possible and am happy to know that the National Park Service is doing their part.

I’ve noticed the solar panels at Yellowstone’s Lamar Buffalo Ranch, where I’ve spent some delightful times staying while taking classes at the Yellowstone Institute. The panels have been sitting there in a nearby field for several years, but I just learned how they are used: NPS staffers based at the ranch use a low-speed battery electric utility vehicle and get power from that EV charging station, running entirely on the sun’s energy.

The Huffington Post article where I read about this [in 2012] also mentions that Great Smoky Mountains N. P. (North Carolina and Tennessee), which gets some three times as many visitors annually as does Yellowstone, has at least 24 recharge stations. Even better located for catching the sun’s energy are the solar panels at Zion N. P. in southern Utah. Way to go, NPS!

Source: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/11/12/charging-stations-national-parks_n_2117545.html

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Reading the news that eight national park lodges have recently [2012] joined the Historic Hotels of America program caused me to reminisce about my experiences with the ones I’ve stayed in—that is, all but three of them. And this made me think of a little notebook I still have, where at the age of eleven I began an alphabetical list of U.S. states and the places in them I’d like to visit.

I don’t know what inspired me to start that list or where I got my information, but over half a century later it’s fun to see what’s on the list and how many of the places I’ve seen. Not surprisingly, most of the ones I’ve visited are in the west, where I’ve traveled the most.

Old Faithful Inn in the snow

Old Faithful Inn (Winter 2006)

The historic national park lodges I have not stayed in are Bright Angel at Grand Canyon, Crater Lake, and Zion, although I’ve been to those parks. My memories of the others are strong and always positive, beginning with Yellowstone’s Old Faithful Inn (opened in 1904), which I think of as my second home.

Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon are the only parks that sport two and three historic lodges respectively. The other one at Yellowstone is Lake Hotel (1891), where I’ve enjoyed several stays. Sometime in the 1990s then-concessionaire TW Services seems to have decided that changing the name to Lake Yellowstone Hotel would draw more visitors or have more cachet, but I refuse to drop its historic name.

I’ve most recently added El Tovar (1905) at Grand Canyon to those I’ve visited. Last May I enjoyed two pleasant nights and spent the days viewing the canyon from its many color-rich overlooks. In the Grand Canyon I’ve also stayed at Phantom Ranch (1922)—unquestionably the most difficult to access; the steep descent to the bottom of the canyon on a hot summer’s day was a feat I won’t tackle again.

Furnace Creek Inn

Furnace Creek Inn

Next to Old Faithful Inn, the other favorite I would happily stay in for months at a time (but who could afford it?) is Furnace Creek Inn (1927) in Death Valley National Park. Their beautiful terraced garden descending along a trickling creek shaded by huge palm trees is almost unbelievable in such a desert. The rooms are not exceptional, but the garden and my favorite swimming pool anywhere are the greatest.

In recent years I’ve visited Crater Lake and Zion National Parks but missed out on their inns (opened in 1915 and the 1920s, respectively). I tried to book rooms in both but called too late to get a reservation.

For the National Parks Traveler’s interesting article on these inns, see http://www.nationalparkstraveler.com/2012/11/eight-national-park-lodges-join-historic-hotels-america10765.

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High pass road to Yellowstone much improved

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I’ve only been over the Togwotee Pass between Dubois, Wyoming and Moran Junction a couple of times on my way to Yellowstone, but I know it’s a beautiful way to approach either Yellowstone or Grand Teton National Park. Now they’ve just [in 2012] opened a completely reconstructed stretch of U.S. Highway 26/287, and I’m eager to see it again. Construction work involved 38 miles of the road for seven years, but of course winters are long near a 9,544-foot pass, so they could not work all year.

Dubois is a western town, less than a thousand souls but an inexpensive place to stay, and they used to have a superb restaurant called The Yellowstone Garage (named for its predecessor in that piece of real estate).

The road over the pass, first built in 1921, helped open up the southern entrance to Yellowstone to visitors from Wyoming. Now there are several guest ranches nearby and places to camp and picnic. Road improvements have added wildlife and snowmobile underpasses and scenic overlooks with interpretive signs.
Besides mountains on both sides—the towering Absarokas on your north and Gros Ventres to the south—I point out in Yellowstone Treasures: “Spectacular striped hills, composed of alternating red clay stone and white tephra layers [rock erupted from volcanoes], line the road west of town.” Maybe I’ll get to go back there next summer.

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Arizona trip report, May 2012

Categories: Bio, Janet Chapple's Other Writing, Trip Reports
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Just to let my readers know I’m still around, I’ll summarize the high points of the trip my husband Bruno and I took in the first half of May to Arizona. The impetus for the trip was the graduation of my grandson Zeno Dellby—in computer science from Arizona State, Tempe.

The day after the graduation, pilot Beth took me for a flight-seeing ride north of Scottsdale. It’s always a treat to fly in a Cessna 172 with her.


Leaving the Phoenix area we spent a couple of hours at their Desert Botanical Garden, a beautiful place on a not-too-hot day in May.

Three nights on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon took me back there for the first time in 29 years. The last time I was there, I hiked to the bottom, stayed at Phantom Ranch, and back up the next day. Never again! Bruno took some nice shots, but I was disappointed by the amount of haze we had in all our views of the canyon, dulling the colors of the billion-year-old and more geological formations. It’s largely caused, as the rangers and others explain, by industrial pollution from as far away as China. The night we heard a ranger lecture about the geology was when the full moon was at its perigee, or closest point to the earth. No picture, but what a gorgeous sight!

Onward to meet friends at the Museum of Northern Arizona, in the outskirts of Flagstaff—an excellent small museum about the geology, archeology, and art of the area. Then on to get a glimpse of Oak Creek Canyon and Sedona, where we took a Pink Jeep Tour to the Honanki ruins (12th-13th century cliff dwellings) and enjoyed staying in an outstanding B&B (the Creekside Inn), not to mention doing some great eating there and elsewhere on the trip!

All-in-all a fine respite from working on books about Yellowstone. More about those later.

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Winter Wonderland Trip

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The eight-day countdown has started for my winter trip to Yellowstone [2012], and my excitement is building! For a devoted fan like me, each trip is as fulfilling as the last, but it’s been six years since I got to go in winter.

I was getting a little worried that the snowpack would not be sufficient for snowcoaches, but now it is. The Tauck tour—actually two separate groups—I’ll be participating in will require something like twenty snowcoaches, which will make a significant impact on the roads and facilities this time of year.

This is the first time I’ve had the luxury of going along on a tour instead of planning everything myself for a Yellowstone trip. I wouldn’t have thought of doing it, except that it’s a unique opportunity to listen to and meet such Yellowstone authorities as Paul Schullery, Jim Halfpenny , and (the star attractions) Ken Burns and Dayton Duncan. Right now I’m even going back over the first two DVDs of their 2009 National Parks TV series to be ready. My company, Granite Peak Publications, is also supplying free copies of Yellowstone Treasures to all the tour guests, which I see as a super promotional opportunity.

We’re going to the best facilities, from Chico Hot Springs north of the park to Spring Creek Ranch near Jackson, and Mammoth and Old Faithful hotels will provide the bulk of our seven-night stay. The pre-trip descriptions make me smile in remembrance of favorite places: Chico has a “turn-of-the-20th-century Victorian main lodge . . . offering travelers access to the area’s natural mineral hot springs since 1900.” (When it was quite new my paternal grandfather died there while seeking medical treatment.) Most summers I get a dip in the pools and a superb dinner there. At the Old Faithful Visitor Education Center “the keynote address is by Ken Burns, who will share stories and insights on Yellowstone and other national parks gathered throughout his years of work on The National Parks: America’s Best Idea.” One day we’ll go to the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, where “the Lower Falls freeze and an ice bridge forms across the canyon.”
. . . .
Have a look at the trip report I wrote when I got back.

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