Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Legend, Interrupted

The female grizzly bear known by her wildlife management number as "399" has raised family after family of cubs near the roadside at the northern end of Grand Teton National Park since her first set of triplets in 2006. The rate of survival of her cubs has been extremely low; some disappear between their first and second years due to natural, but otherwise unknown circumstances (as is very common in grizzly bears); some have reached liberated adult status (shortly after emerging from the den following the second winter with their mother and sibs) but then gone on to be shot by hunters, hit by cars, or “humanely removed” (euthanized) after one too many encounters with human spaces. One of them, "610," is still in the area and bearing litters of her own.  She was one of the three cubs born in 2006.
399 herself is 20 years old, which is up there for a wild grizzly; her first litter (preceding 2006) consisted of one cub, then each subsequent litter was three cubs. This year when there was concern that she might not appear at all, or that she might no longer be fertile, she brought joy to everyone by emerging from the den with one light-colored baby (cub of the year, or COY) that was dubbed "Snowy" because of its pale coloration. 
Each year 399 has had triplets, starting in 2006 I've been fortunate enough to see and photograph them. Sometimes conditions for photography were very poor, but I still documented the sighting.
This year I saw 399 and Snowy only once, briefly, at many yards distant and got off one shot each of them standing in the sage. 
 Exactly five days after these two photos were captured, Snowy was mowed down by a vehicle and killed. The circumstances are not known because the driver did not report the incident as is required. He or she may not have known what it was they hit, especially if the cub ran under the wheels rather than in front of the vehicle.
 Regardless of how it transported, this loss caused great sorrow to me and to 399's thousands of fans world-wide. And was yet another blow to maintaining the fragile population of grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Pay Your Share and Be Glad of What You Get

Listen, and HEAR, everything she says. Then, if you doubt the value you get in return for paying your taxes, count what would/will disappear if the government doesn't get the revenue it needs, in addition to the examples Ms. Warren cites: new and maintained interstate and other federal highways and bridges; national parks, national monuments, forests, and historic sites; navigable waterways; promotion of clean air and water; assurance safe and effective therapeutic drugs and devices; monitoring and controlling of infectious disease outbreaks; natural disaster relief; enriched preschool education and provision of school lunches; arbitration of domestic disputes at the highest level, just to name a few things we all enjoy and/or recognize the significance of, and what that will mean to you if tax revenues diminish.
In my direct experience working with the feds, fraud and abuse are rare and taken extremely seriously when documented. While it's true that big government isn't overall as efficient as private enterprise, what private enterprise could conceivably take over all government functions at scale? Even if large chunks of government service are outsourced (some of which have turned out to be disastrous, just refresh your knowledge of the Veterans Choice program!) those contracts will require a large infrastructure to manage.
All things considered, just pay your damn taxes and continue to enjoy the best quality of life to be had anywhere on earth.
Thanks, Ms. Warren!

Friday, May 27, 2016

Close to Home

When last Sunday dawned clear, very tired of rainy day after rainy day confined in front of my work computer, I threw my cameras in the car, nudged the snoring KLK and Teddy the Cat to tell them I'd be back in a few hours (I'm an early riser, KLK is not, and Teddy gets back into bed to snooze away the rest of the morning with KLK after breakfast), and headed up Springhill Road, very close to home on the other side of the interstate and more and more rurally beautiful as it stretches for miles northward along the base of the Bridger Mountains. There's almost no traffic and certainly no competition for roadside photography space. Not far from the bridge over the interstate I spotted a pond full of white pelicans, managed to find a way around to the backside, parked/walked in mud, and got unceasingly screamed at by a red tail. The nest was so far up in an enormous cottonwood, and pretty far back from the road, I never found it, but the red tail's cry is unmistakable (and, alas, routinely dubbed in ad and movie soundtracks depicting eagles), and at one point the bird did take briefly to the air (in case I needed any further convincing not to magically rise up and steal its kids) and wheeled to give me a look at its beautiful tail. I also witnessed the back ends, flags up, of a herd of white-tail deer, surprised a little muskrat in the stream, got a fleeting glimpse at a male ring-necked pheasant (introduced from China, but still spectacular and photogenic, if I can ever find one not running for cover), red winged blackbirds galore, and those annoyingly squeaky killdeer distracting me from (accidentally, of course) trampling their nestlings.  And, no question, my life-time best pelican photo op!
The muskrat in his stream, wide from snow melt in the distant mountains
Farther out is a group of fantastic falling-down ranch buildings, silent, just waiting for me to photograph them. From this angle you can just make out in the distance how vast the hay fields are:
And other signs of Montana ranch life as it once was: 
Just beyond the dead ranch is the old but living (as it were) Morgan Cemetery, what a beautiful spot to rest in eternity; the light had faded at this point, so what you can't see is the snow-covered line of mountains beyond the horizon:
The next unexpected sighting in the sage was these two female pronghorns (aka antelope, though there is no genetic relationship to the old world antelope family). The one on the left, with a peculiar growth on her side, could be seen from other angles to be heavily gravid:
This is public land, which in Montana means there's hunting in season, so the two wary ladies promptly moved over the rise and out of sight of the threatening camera "eye" making it an extra treat to have seen them even for a few moments.
This female red-winged black bird (which you'd never guess even if very familiar with their mates!) posed for me. I love the way her wiry little toes mimic the barbs yet that she is oblivious to the dangerously sharp wire points.
My last hour on Springhill was spent watching mom and pop workin' this roadside mountain bluebird nest box. By then it had turned windy and chilly, so I was thrilled to be in the "blind" of my car, entirely ignored by the very hardworking and not-so-colorful mom, with a beakful of yummy grubs, and colorful pop, removing a "fecal sac," (in effect, changing diapers):
Nature is unendingly wonderful and restorative.

Friday, April 29, 2016

Take Note, Take Action

All the details of the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s proposed rulemaking to delist Yellowstone region grizzly bears are here:!documentDetail;D=FWS-R6-ES-2016-0042-0001

Look for the blue COMMENT NOW button in the upper right corner, and USE IT before May 10, which I take to mean NO LATER THAN MAY 9. Last count, pro and con comments were about equal in number. If you oppose grizzly delisting in the Yellowstone region, don't miss this chance to make your rationale known. I strongly recommend this means, instead of, or at least in addition to, signing on-line petitions and sending form letters, which carry far less impact.
Delisting grizzly bears is extremely contentious issue, as there is a strong, vocal contingent, mostly those who live in the area who are directly impacted by the outcome of the proposal, that favors delisting. While many are eager to shoot down grizzly bears, for any number of motives, the lives and livelihoods of others are disturbed by the bears that, for example, raid their sheds for the food stored in them, or, occasionally, or worse, habitually, take down a calf or a lamb for an easy meal. Those opposed to delisting include thousands in Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, and other impacted geographies but also around the world. It is also highly politically charged. And while there were Public Comment forums hosted in Bozeman (north of Yellowstone) and Cody (west of Yellowstone) there was no hearing in Jackson, Wyoming, where Grand Teton National Park, with its spectacular grizzly families (including 399 about whom I’ve often written here) are so prominent.  Additionally, since the fate of grizzly bears either way has enormous impact on these national parks and the vast acres of national forest surrounding them, together comprising the greater Yellowstone ecosystem, it’s stunning to contemplate that Fish and Wildlife has consulted or coordinated the delisting plan with either agency. Nor were the numerous Indian tribes for whom the grizzly is of great spiritual importance involved in the plan.
Those who read this blog regularly already know where I stand.
Below is the essay-comment I submitted (using the blue button) to the US Fish and Wildlife Service on April 26. Out of a lot of possible arguments I chose a tack that's a little different from most others (but that's the way I am, you knew that). In retrospect I wish I'd put the punch line – that the high cost of undoing the deleterious effects of delisting, which I contend will be necessary, needs to be taken into account –at the top as well as at the bottom, since it's the only part that is germane to public policy. 
I strongly oppose removal of grizzly bears in the Yellowstone region from the protections of the Endangered Species Act.  From Europeans’ earliest accounts, grizzlies have been touted as preternaturally robust, nearly indestructible creatures; even retiring US Fish and Wildlife Service bear coordinator Chris Servheen describes them as “…a tough, resilient animal” but, importantly, adds, “that can thrive if given a fair chance.” (  As a long-time observer of bears and their circumstances in the Yellowstone region (where I live), I can vouch that the operative phrase is “if given a fair chance,” and that delisting will certainly deny them this key survival factor.  While numbers may have arrived at the point where statistical analysis predicts self-sustaining population levels, in reality, without protection, they will not have that chance.  As their habitat is squeezed and fragmented by human activity and increasingly degraded by climate change at the same time their reproductive success is further compromised by hunting, they will reveal how utterly fragile, vulnerable, and short-lived they in fact are. Climate change is not in our short-term control; protecting  grizzly bears by maintaining their endangered status (and other means such as public education in bear safety and the use of bear dogs to guard livestock) is.
A good grizzly population in the Yellowstone region improves the human condition. Watching bears as they go about their lives is precious opportunity for people of every ilk to be taught lessons of exceptional value. Unlike on TV, personally witnessing a  bear (or wolf, or peregrine falcon, or bob cat) hunting and consuming prey ingrains an understanding and acceptance of the circle of life, which in turn informs the *meaning  of life* for thoughtful people; in fact I would venture that such experiences are among those that make  people thoughtful. From the drama of a grizzly sow taking a newborn elk to feed her cubs comes deeper intellectual and emotional appreciation of the principle that life requires death, but death begets life. Is this a no-brainer?  A friend who taught middle school in inner city Baltimore tells me that her students were genuinely surprised to learn that their favorite hamburger lunch necessitated the death of a cow.  Would that all of these kids could spend a week or two in Yellowstone!
One might respond that hunting, which will be allowed if the bear is delisted, teaches the same things. And I would agree, except when hunting is not motivated by, and does not culminate in, the acquisition of food. Grizzly bears are not hunted for their meat; that of elk and deer is more palatable to most people and considerably less difficult to acquire. Instead the big bears are taken as trophies to be taxidermied into a reminder of the “lesson“ that if a living thing is extraordinary,  beautiful, rare, dangerous and powerful, the way to enjoy it is to take its life away, incidentally also preventing everyone else from appreciating that thing in constructive ways. This ethic is not nearly as good for regional  economies as is the presence of (in this area) millions of tourists, photographers, scientists, teachers and students, merchants, and the many others who relish being in the presence of these extraordinary, living beings and the other awe-inspiring and instructive features of Yellowstone and the Tetons of which bears are an integral part.
Given the environmental and human-related factors working against them, delisting grizzly bears will likely result in rapid  declines of this highly humanistically and economically valuable resource. Additionally, as has been amply documented, ecosystems change when populations of predators such as grizzlies are reduced or removed, generating cascades of unintended, unwanted, consequences. When the polity ultimately recognizes this, how many public and private dollars will be required to undo the damage, if it is still even possible to do so, in the future?
Grizzly bear 399, Grand Teton National Park

Sunday, March 13, 2016


Robert Redford is an admirable man and in many cases we share a love for the same really good stories, among the most notable, Norman Maclean's A River Runs Through It. After being approached by several film makers Norman finally signed rights to cinematize ARRTI to Redford. The result, for me, was a mixed, certainly not a total, success. Norman did not live to see it on screen, so we will never know what he would have thought.

In the movie ARRTI Redford was the author's voice, unseen. Even though I knew Norman, and his voice (in the literal as well as literary senses) very well, it wasn't the voiceover that bothered me but rather the over-simplification of character (all of them) throughout the movie. Since it was directed and produced by Redford I have to assume that was because of the decisions he made, based on his understanding of the people Norman wrote about. Redford and I did not share that understanding.

Bill Bryson is another favorite author, albeit of a very different ilk, and his 1998 A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail is among his outstanding books I can best relate to. Last night we watched the movie, with Redford playing Bryson. Note that while Redford didn't direct the movie (Ken Kwapis did), he was the producer. Which resulted in woefully miscasting himself, most glaringly because Bryson was in his  mid-40s when he walked the Appalachian Trail; at least Redford doesn't pretend (except for the hair dye) to be anything other than the nearly 80 year old that he is. This out-of-time re-imagining of  people in Bryson's story substantially alters it, and the movie should have at least acknowledged what it would have meant to do a harrowing, 2,000 mile hike as an out-of-shape octogenarian, as Bryson did so entertainingly as an out-of-shape middle-ager.  And once again actor Redford goes so far overboard to avoid any hint of emotion (fear, longing, joy, fulfillment, love, frustration, to name a few apt possibilities), when the film adventure was over I was left wondering what, if anything, the Bryson character got out of the experience. Nary a blister, apparently.
Not so with Bill Bryson's original telling of it.

Mr. Redford, it's true what they say, discretion is the better part of valor. To get the best result from your investments, next time step aside and let a better actor play the part, and relinquish control to a better director.
One final note: Hollywood has again availed itself of the opportunity to mis-characterize wildlife, the only representatives of which in the entire film (except for one unremarked hawk flying past a hotel lobby window behind the hikers) were two black bears that stood and "growled," like only trained bears with dubbed soundtracks do, when Bryson and his hiking companion emerge from their tents to witness the animals making off with a bag of food. This is an almost dangerous understatement of the true hazards of cavalier human behavior in the wild.