Tuesday, July 30, 2013

That's a Good Question!

Regarding the post below about Celebrity Grizzly 399 and her family, reader merinz posted the following questions:  Does the mother have identifying marks? How can you be sure it is her? Well, personally, I usually have to rely on the park rangers, who always show up seemingly immediately when a bear appears near people (which brings up another question, for another blog -- once I figure out the answer: how do they get there so fast?). But of course, there are park wildlife managers in charge of identifying and tracking specific animals, particularly those like bears and wolves that are most likely to attract the attention of people. The parks are also hosts to researchers who collaborate with park staff and whose resources (grants) help offset the costs of  the technology and labor to do so.

The first year I saw her, 399 was sporting a big heavy tracking collar, and in some photos taken at this same sighting, it is apparent that her right front leg had been shaved, most likely to enable blood to be drawn. I would guess that the blood was analyzed for DNA, among other things such as indicators of health. To accomplish collaring and blood sampling (as well as physical measurements including weight, examination of teeth to estimate age, sex determination, and so on) the animal has to be darted and sedated, a dangerous proposition for animal and researchers alike. However, once a particular animal's DNA is on record, subsequently hair rubbed off on the side of a tree (or telephone pole, see Discouraged, But Not Hopeless) or scat can be used to verify whether it is the same individual or another animal.
Behavior is another, less invasive clue; bears are strongly territorial and a sow like 399 is highly likely to return to an area in which she has felt secure raising her young and can find plenty of food and shelter. Probably the only happenstance in which a new sow with cubs would show up in the same vicinity is if 399 were to die and one of her daughters were to take up housekeeping in the area in which she had been raised.

I don't know if 399's collar eventually fell off of its own accord (some are designed to deteriorate), or was intentionally removed, but she definitely didn't have it when I again saw her in 2011. It is possible that by then she had an ear-tag, which, if subtly colored in low light would have been difficult to see. Although as far as I know the tags do not contain a chip that can be read remotely, I wouldn't be surprised if the color were coded for the bear's identity, and the tag itself imprinted with identifying information that could be read close-up should the bear be captured, sedated, or, found deceased.
Tags are common everywhere people and animals interact, such as on this Churchill, Manitoba polar bear, with one in each ear matched to its fur color. 
This black bear in Yellowstone National Park is sporting one big red earring. While by no means every Yellowstone bear is tagged, it's not a rare sight. Drives photographers nuts!
 Tagged and collared Yellowstone coyote.
Bull moose with radio collar, Grand Tetons.
The elk cow in the right rear has a big collar, Grand Tetons.
Bighorn ewe with extremely large numbered collar, Whiskey Mountain above Dubois, Wyoming.

As is evident in the photos, especially the older tracking collars have big battery-electronics packs. Most are tracked from the ground by graduate students with a device on a belt pack wired to an antenna at the end of an arm slowly turning in the air to pick up the telemetry signals unique to each tracked animal.

Wildlife -- usually in groups like bison herds -- is also visually tracked from the air. If the individuals within the group are known, as wolves are to researchers and other observers, aerial tracking is an effective way of following the movements of individuals of interest.
Tracking plane, Grand Teton National Park. No, it didn't crash into the mountain side,  but the view must have been thrilling.

Other methods of tracking wildlife (in addition to a student slowly twirling an antenna overhead) include satellite and GPS tracking, and individual markers like bird bands that require visual contact and a good spotting scope to be read. The Migratory Connectivity Project has good, succinct descriptions of these and other methodologies for tracking mammals, birds, and fish as they cover great distances across the globe. The US Geological Survey (USGS) has a page listing the projects of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study that gives examples of the various aims of tracking bears. Here's an outline of the Greater Glacier (National Park, north of Yellowstone) Bear DNA Project, in which  methods of identifying individual grizzly bears and black bears is described.  And for a more comprehensive discussion of radio-tagging (mammals, birds, fish) see the excellent and thoughtful Mech, David L. and Shannon M. Barber, A Critique of Wildlife Radio-Tracking and its Use inNational Parks: A Report to the U.S. National Park Service. February 6, 2002.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Discouraged but Not Hopeless

Since 2006 I have been following the fortunes of a grizzly bear sow (female bears are referred to as sows, following, unaccountably, nomenclature applied to pigs) known by her wildlife management number 399, who makes Grand Teton National Park her home. At that time she was 10 years old, and appeared close to the lodging and services area at Colter Bay with three new little cubs-of-the-year (COYs), her first litter after losing one cub some years prior. Miraculously, I got a couple of good photos of the charming family and blogged about them the following year.
Mating takes place in June or July, but the fertilized eggs do not implant until about the time the mother settles into a den to sleep for the winter; if she's accumulated sufficient body fat, the embryos will develop and tiny cubs will be born in mid-winter. The sow, with her COYs who have for several months been sustained only by her milk, emerge from the den in the spring as food supplies return. Since bears are omnivores, in the Yellowstone-Teton region they often acquire their first protein replenishment from the carcasses of animals that have died overwinter ("winter kill") but they also take major nutrition from plant and insect resources. When the ungulates start their birthing periods in early summer, the bears again take advantage of the protein available from the nearly helpless infant deer and elk. And so it goes through a first summer, followed by hibernation as a family, and a second summer, sometimes even stretching to a third winter before a sow chases off her nearly grown cubs, not infrequently in response to the presence of boar (male bear) that then allows her to become fertile again. In 2008 we happened upon two of 399's recently liberated cubs lingering in their natal territory for a while, in spite of the risk in particular from the male seen courting their mother.

Grizzly reproductive rates can be low. It wasn't until the summer of 2011 that 399 appeared at Colter Bay again, this time with three more COYs. Photography conditions were poor -- we saw them only once, very late in the evening -- but I did manage to document the sighting in this shot of her with two of the three cubs in the frame:
In fact it's fitting that she's shown here with just two, as later that season reliable witnesses reported that one of the three was adopted by another grizzly sow, known by her number 610, none other than  the female from 399's 2006 brood. 610 had carved out her own territory farther south in the park, appearing that spring with two cubs of her own. Although in 2012 we were fortunate to view two of the cubs raised by 610, we weren't able to photograph them because of the distance and their location in deep brush.

We recently returned from our annual journey to the area, and voilĂ , who should appear at Colter Bay but 399 with a brand new set of triplets! Although they were probably more than 100 yards distant, we spent several hours watching and photographing them. 
I failed to get all three cubs in the same frame with their mother with everyone's faces showing, but rest assured, Mother Bear was not more than 50 feet away.
The kids made a major toy of the telephone pole.
It was hard to take our eyes and cameras off these magnificent animals, who were apparently unperturbed by their albeit well-behaved audience. It was bear-watching with a view, to be certain. The large peak to the right is Grand Teton National Park's iconic Mount Moran:
At this point you may be thinking that the grizzly bear population of Grand Teton National Park must be growing healthily -- starting with a sow and a boar in 2006 there should by now be at least nine more bears in the area. I'm am very saddened and disappointed to report that is not the case at all. In fact, of 399's six cubs born prior to 2013, only two, good mother 610, and one cub from the 2011 litter, are still alive. Let us hope this year's threesome fare better in the years to come.

Young cubs, in spite of their mother's legendary protectiveness, are very vulnerable to hazards such as being washed away in a rushing river, predation by male bears, and of course the simpler things like birth defects and bacterial or viral infections. When they leave their mother's care early, as one of the 2011 cubs is thought to have done, they are not typically sufficiently skilled at acquiring food to survive long on their own.

But if they dwell close to human habitation as these bears do, their risks are multiplied many-fold. Another 2011 cub was hit by a car; one was killed illegally by a hunter, and 587, of the 2006 litter, was legally euthanized this month for persistently predating on domestic livestock.

It's not often that one gets to see an individually identifiable wild animal and to appreciate her family life in the way I have watched 399 over the last 8 years, and it's easy to take emotional ownership. It has been very been difficult learning about the loss of each the cubs, especially those whose deaths resulted from interactions with people that would never have occurred were the bears living in true wilderness. One hypothesis as to why 399 brings her young cubs into the presence of man is that aggressive boars may be less inclined to bother them. How ironic that her survival strategy is the very reason so many of her offspring have died before they themselves were able to contribute to the fragile grizzly population of the Greater Yellowstone Area.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Say Good-by to Bloomington Part V: People

I left my home town of Bloomington, Indiana in 1968, and because a few years later my relationship with my father, who remained there until his death in 2001, was severed, and my mother moved back to Puerto Rico around the same time, I have rarely returned. Busy with other things over the last four-and-a-half decades, I stewarded few friendships with those who contributed to my formative years. As I've grown older, and closer to and more aware of my own mortality, like many of my cohort I've become increasingly motivated to re-examine the foundations of my life. Indeed, in spite of the many other pleasures and treats along the way, the main purpose of the "Say Good-bye" trip was to have one more moment with the most elderly among those of such importance to me and my family.

I timed the trip to coincide with the visit of my dear friend LCB, who now lives in Texas, to see her mother KBB. LCB's lively intelligence and humor come directly from her still-beautiful mother. KBB, now 86 and suffering from inevitable physical decline, is able to live in her own home, with daily visits from care-givers and friends, and LCB's dedicated attentions from afar. As a teenager I was often in the B household, and was impressed by LCB's parents' strictness, although the admonitions were always calmly and firmly delivered, if not always so palatably to the teenaged LCB. In any case, LCB is a beautiful successful grown woman, and all the limitations imposed on her have long since been understood and forgiven.  Although now-a-days KBB does tend to lose track of time and sometimes gets the details of her stories rearranged a little, she always recognizes family and friends, and though it's been seven years since she last saw me, she fully knows how I fit into her daughter's life. KBB has long been an important local social historian and still has much to contribute to the history of Bloomington.We spent several delightful hours last April reviewing photos I took at the Eiteljorg Museum (which, as it happens, I first visited some years ago with LCB and KBB) and talking about old and new Bloomington.
In 7th grade, at about the time LCB and I originally crossed paths, I also met the first man who was to become important in my life outside my family, MWG. As I remember it, we met in dog obedience school, where I took my German shepherd and MWG's family attended with their two enormous Saint Bernards. However, as he remembers it, we met at school, most notably in the principal's office following an escapade in the cafeteria that involved squirting ketchup on another kid's collection of nickles. In spite of that early brush with delinquency, MWG carved out for himself a durable and interesting career in the Astronomy Department at I.U.. In any case, as children we quickly became good buddies, spending many hours together playing with the dogs, riding his neighbor's horses, roller-skating at the rink, and eventually, when we could find a little privacy, investigating the thrilling new experience of pubescent sexuality.  MWG's parents had been friends of my parents, and I grew very fond of them as I got to know them too. His father, PHG, is a renowned professor emeritus in one of Indiana University's best-known departments, and was always warm and kind to me. His mother, AWG, a free spirit known for knitting beautiful unwearably scratchy mohair sweaters, got around in a tiny Austin-Healey Sprite and, more loftily, in a tiny single-engine plane she piloted herself. She has been gone some years now, but MWG lives a few doors down from his father, who is in his mid-90s and also in possession of his memories, even of his son's friends from so long ago. While it has been only about 30 years since I last saw MWG, I  had not seen his father in nearly 50 years. Half a century has wreaked tremendous physical changes, but I would have recognized both him and his son anywhere. After an hour of chatting at home, we headed off for a leisurely dinner in Nashville, where in spite of PHG's unreliable hearing, we chatted on for several more hours. Some friendships are meant to last even more than a half a lifetime.
Eager to set me on the path of financial independence even when I was barely in my teens, I met my parents' professorial colleague JRK when my father offered my baby-sitting services to him and his wife. I wasn't cut out to care for children, and my path to a career quickly veered off in other directions, but JRK remained a loyal friend to my mother after my parents divorced in the early 1970s. In fact he and my mother exchanged letters which he submitted in to the Indiana University Archives along with his more scholarly papers when he down-sized to a retirement home only a couple of years ago. I.U. kindly provided me photocopies, in which are recorded many gossipy details that have helped me reconstruct my mother's activities and reactions to events both personal and more global at various points between the early 1960s and 2005 when she died. JRK visited my mother at her home in Florida as the now grown-up object of my sitting efforts lived in the same area as she; in the last photo I have of her she is sitting across a restaurant table from her long-time friend. He mourned her death and I have kept in touch with him out of appreciation of his devotion to my Mother, and because he still misses her and I can fill that gap, at least on a fleeting basis, when I visit.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Say Good-bye to Bloomington Part IV: Never underestimate a Hoosier's love of visual beauty

I broke my 4-hour Friday drive from Chicago to Nashville/Bloomington with a stop in Indianapolis for a quiet, nearly private mid-afternoon visit to one of my favorite museums, the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art. The Eiteljorg, on its expansive urban campus, dates only to 1987 when Indianapolis coal entrepreneur Harrison Eiteljorg donated his meticulously assembled collection to found the museum. It continues to flourish even since his death in 1997.
This was only my second visit, after being introduced to it on my last trip to Bloomington, back in 2005. The nice thing about a small museum with a large collection is that the objects are rotated in and out of the galleries so each visit, especially if widely spaced, is a new feast for the eyes. The pleasures start even as one comes in the door,
and continue within. Here are snapshots of some of the extraordinary work of historic as well as contemporary Anglo and American Indian artists and craftsmen that I enjoyed that day:
The Old Buckskin, Oscar E. Berninghaus, 1922
The Turkey Hunter (Hunting Wild Turkeys), Eanger Couse, c. 1925
Ute beaded headdress, late 19th century. You can't tell me the warriors didn't have a sense of humor.
Ceramic figure (Zia Pueblo), Angelina Medina 1997, a sweet tableau of traditional and modern Indian life.

Beneath the Blue Moon Bench, P.A. Nisbet 2012. Blue Moon Bench is at the confluence of the Little Colorado and Colorado Rivers in the Grand Canyon. It's said to be a great place to fish.
It's amply obvious that the couple of hours I was there that chilly, overcast spring afternoon were not enough, but the photos I brought home allow me to examine and re-examine the works at my computer, seeing something new every time I open a file. I encourage you to click on the images so you too can see what I see in them.
Difficult as it is for me to curtail posting treasures of the Eiteljorg, I want to share another, also important, trove of regional art history, this one housed along the road between Bloomington and Nashville Indiana. It is known today as the Indiana State Museum T.C. Steele Historic Site, high on the hilltop site of original Theodore Clement Steele home and studio. As mentioned in the third Say Good-bye post, the magnificent natural beauty of Brown County, Indiana was the inspiration for a number of renowned late 19th and early 20th century artists known as The Hoosier Group of American Impressionists. Mr. Steele was among the earliest to locate in the area, and soon became world famous for his evocative pleine air vision of the world around him. The grounds and buildings, including his home, the House of the Singing Winds, are meticulously maintained and most pleasurable to visit with the guidance of a skilled docent.
Selma in the Garden, T.C. Steele 1921, depicts Steele's wife Selma at the House of the Singing Winds
The House of the Singing Winds in 2013
Steele's "large" studio on the lovely grounds of the Historic Site
Inside the studio is a rotating gallery of Steele's paintings; the State of Indiana was heir to approximately 300 of his works. 
Hoosiers love modern art as well, and in Columbus, Indiana enjoy this phenomenal installation of glass artist Dale Chihuly's "Yellow Neon Chandelier & Persians" in the Convention and Visitors Bureau; the photos don't do the chandelier justice as it's of course better when lighted at night:
From the side it looks like a luscious cob of corn, with tendrils that could be bits of husk, or the strings, either way perfectly suited for southern Indiana!
Straight up!
I think the surrounding flowery dish-shaped pieces may be the "Persians" which show so nicely with the bright sunlight behind them.

This was all the art I could fit into my weekend in Bloomington, and all of it, including access to the older-than-Veronica T.C. Steele estate, is new since I moved away in 1968. It's hard to declare this the likely last visit to the land of my childhood, as there's so much more untapped. For example, in here, the Art Museum and Fine Arts School on the campus of Indiana University, which I have only viewed from the outside:
Indiana University Art Museum (left) next to the Henry Radford Hope School of Fine Arts building (right)
And finally, two last sightings from the T.C. Steele estate: just as enduring, Nature's art!

Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western art - See more at: http://www.eiteljorg.org/about/the-museum#sthash.JwZ5E3MZ.dpuf
Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western art - See more at: http://www.eiteljorg.org/about/the-museum#sthash.zKWk6zlS.dpuf
Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western art - See more at: http://www.eiteljorg.org/about/the-museum#sthash.zKWk6zlS.dpuf