I spent much of last week cruising the Boreal forests and lakes in far northern Minnesota, in places that just beg for a canoe and a paddle. I took a kayak and a paddle instead.
Mostly I went there to fish and ruminate – election years do that to me – but I can’t go anywhere without a camera, just in case.
While I didn’t catch a lot of fish, there were enough. And there were critters I don’t get to see very often in my home country of scrub oak barrens and white pine.
I camped next to beautiful little lake with no one else around and one morning I woke up to see a moose swimming out to a little island in the lake. When she got out of the water I could see she was wearing a radio telemetry collar, and she appeared very pregnant.
I suppose she swam to that island to give birth. Islands are just a little bit safer for newborns in this land of hungry black bears and gray wolves. Anyway, that why I think she was there. Minnesota moose are having a tough time right now, so I hope she is successful in raising a calf or two this year.
I also saw three Pine martens in a 24 hour period, but none paused long enough to have their photo taken. I stumbled along through the spruce bogs trying to keep up with them, but that’s an impossibly tall order for this old man.
I did photograph a couple of Spruce grouse, one male and one female, but the lighting wasn’t very good for the male, I’m afraid.
There were lots of Snowshoe hares, all wearing their summer coats of brown.
Just their feet kept the white fur of winter. I found part of one unlucky hare that had been a recent meal for a… I don’t know… the romantic in me wants it to be a Lynx. It could be, they live there with the hares.
There were too many ruffed grouse to count, the males all busy proving why they’re called “ruffed grouse.”
I also came across a Sharp-shinned hawk that was busy consuming a very long-tailed rodent of some kind. He gulped it down in a hurry when I arrived, and flew off to parts unknown. I know how he felt. I’ve gulped down too many meals in a hurry – very few of them were rodent though… so far as I know.
This has been bugging for some time, and since this is Endangered Species Day, I think I’ll get something off my chest. And believe me, I’m not directing this at any particular group, or even species. It just needs addressing.
Lately, many, many people and organizations are throwing it around as a pejorative, or sometimes even a profanity.
Animals are not added to the list to provide sacrosanct and perpetual protection of a particular species. They are added to the ESA list to protect them until they recover to a carefully considered level of self-sustainability, and then they’re removed from the list – AKA “de-listed.”
Every time someone throws the word “delisting”into conversation, certain people turn beet red and steam billows out of their ears. You see them at rallies carrying signs demanding a stop to “delisting.”
Apparently, those who hate the word haven’t paused to consider that delisting is, in fact, the ultimate goal of every Endangered Species Act (ESA) animal story.
That’s right. Every single species of endangered critter placed on that list is put there with the implied hope that it one day can recover to the point that it can be removed from the list.
“The goal of an Endangered Species Act listing is to recover a species to self-sustaining, viable populations that no longer need protection.”(Source: NPS.Gov)
(f)(1) RECOVERY PLANS.—The Secretary shall develop and implement plans (hereinafter in this subsection referred to as “recovery plans”) for the conservation and survival of endangered species and threatened species listed pursuant to this section, unless he finds that such a plan will not promote the conservation of the species. The Secretary, in developing and implementing recovery plans, shall, to the maximum extent practicable…
(B) incorporate in each plan—
(ii) objective, measurable criteria which, when met, would result in a determination, in accordance with the provisions of this section, that the species be removed from the list;
Indeed, there are only a few ways I know of for a species to be removed from the ESA list:
One is extinction – certainly not an outcome any reasonable person wants.
And a species can be removed if it was originally added in error (i.e . new information is discovered or there was a Taxonomic revision.)
The best way to leave the list is for population goals to be met, or hopefully, exceeded. That is formally known as “recovery.” And that’s not just a good thing, it’s the thing everyone is working for – or should be.
Since, in the past, I have steadfastly and openly refused to bait owls for photographic purposes, (see Of Mice and Owls), I’m feeling a little guilty about this.
Actually, that’s a lie. I don’t feel guilty at all, since:
I didn’t know the owl was there.
I wasn’t carrying a camera at the time.
The “bait” was a stainless steel hex nut.
So here’s the story, winnowed down to the barest details, since it’s really not that interesting.
I was trying to fix a fishing reel that hasn’t worked quite right in about two years.
After I generally made things worse by attempting a repair which involved many tiny parts and lots of profanity, I figured I should test the reel.
I put new fishing line on the reel, strung the line through the guides on the rod, and tied a stainless steel hex nut to the line so I could test my surgical skills. The nut was handy and weighed about 1/4 ounce, near as I could figure – just the right weight to simulate a small fishing lure.
I heaved the nut down the driveway and it bounced in the sand. I began retrieving the surrogate lure and all was well. Damn reel worked like a champ.
Then a barred owl pounced on the nut and wouldn’t let go. I swear this is true.
I had no idea their was an owl nearby, although to be fair I should have; they’re here every year.
Anyway, she hung on, but thankfully didn’t try to fly away with the nut. That would have gotten sporty real quick. Instead she just sat there holding on until I scolded her like you would a naughty puppy. “No, no, no…”
The owl eventually let go and flew up to a perch about 20 feet away, and she stayed there long enough for me to grab my camera.
That’s her in the photo, still trying to figure out what the hell that was all about.
Posting my personal favorites from the past twelve months is a new tradition I look forward to at the end of each year.
For one thing, it reminds me of all the fascinating places I’ve been and wonderful wild things I’ve seen in the past twelve months. For another, it gives me a chance to share some backstories, and to explain why certain images are special to me.
I’ve cut back the selection this year to thirteen images. But if you do want to see further highlights from the year, including additional foxes, wolves, grizzlies, owls, albino deer, (and even a couple of landscapes!) please check out the full “Best of 2015” gallery by clickinghere.I’m proud of all 48 images in that gallery, so please take a look.
And, of course, I would truly appreciate it if you would share this post with your friends and families.
Among those of us who spend our lives looking for wildlife to photograph, there is something called a “Three Dog Day” – that means finding, and with any luck photographing, red foxes, coyotes, and wolves all in the same day.
In a place like Yellowstone National Park, where the animals are more accustomed to people, three dog days are noteworthy, but not that unusual.
What is unusual is having that same experience in Wisconsin.
Much of the northwest part of the state is heavily forested; most of the rest is rolling scrub oak and pine barrens. In both terrain types you’re lucky if you can see 50 yards. And predators are much more skittish.
But one day last week the wildlife gods looked down on me and smiled.
It began with a lovely male Red fox prowling around the house early in the morning. He was undoubtedly searching for one of the many deer mice perpetually trying to find a way in.
Personally, I have nothing against the mice, but I hope the fox succeeded anyway.
After a few minutes of watching, I left the fox to his business while I poked around to see what else I might see on that cool August morning.
The local badgers have been busy lately and I thought I might find a family group to photograph.
That’s when the unusual happened.
Gray wolves are ever-present here in this part of the state, but they are rarely seen for more than a moment.
Rarely seen does not equate to rare, though. There are lots of wolves around here.
In fact, I’ve caught glimpses of five wolves in the past month; long enough to ID them, but far too brief to photograph them.
But for some reason, on this day a pair from a local pack decided to do a territorial perimeter check in broad daylight.
I watched them for about a mile. Each time they would come out to the road, urinate on everything in sight, and then melt back into the roadside cover. With one eye on me, and the other on the road, they performed this scent marking six times while I watched.
In August, Wisconsin wolves are not at their prettiest; with thin coats, thin bodies, and gangly legs like only the wolf has.
But still, wild wolves are fascinating, and they’re really hard to photograph in the middle of a Wisconsin summer. It’s much easier to find them in the winter.
Based on their urination techniques, one was male and the other female, and the male was a head taller. As tall as he was, and in his summer coat, he almost looked like he was on stilts.
Eventually they left the road altogether and I went on my way.
That wonderful, unexpected photo op sent me on a mission to complete a wild dog trifecta.
A gray fox den about thirty miles away has been relatively inactive since the vixen started letting her three kits tag along on her hunts, but I had to check it anyway.
But another adult Gray fox has been seen recently in the same area, so I staked out the most likely place to see it.
15 minutes later the gray came up out of a ditch and stood looking at me.
Unbelievable! A three dog day in Wisconsin – in August.
Of course I immediately started making plans to accomplish the impossible; a four dog day.
All I needed was a coyote, the most common of all the wild canids in the state. But try as I might, I never found one.
Not a bad day, though, considering I started out looking for badgers.
Keith R. Crowley is a writer and photographer who splits his time between the Upper Midwest, the Central Plains, and the Rocky Mountain West.
Last week’s post about the death of Yellowstone hiker Lance Crosby and the subsequent death of the grizzly bear responsible sparked a lot of commentary here on this page and elsewhere on social media sites. Some comments were supportive, some highly critical.
The majority wrote that last week’s story helped them understand the complexities of the issues surrounding the incident. Since that was my intent, I was pleased to get the support.
Personally speaking, the most rewarding comments came from Mr. Crosby’s friends and co-workers.
I didn’t know Lance Crosby, but I now have a much greater understanding of the man through his colleagues. I will share one private email, with permission, because it reminds all of us that we are dealing with real people here as well as bears:
Sir, I wanted to thank you for your exceptional article. Lance was a good friend of mine having worked at Lake Clinic with him for two seasons. The social media comments on his death have both angered and disgusted me. I too knew Blaze having passed her and her cubs many mornings when out for a run. (usually in the horse pasture just below the government housing) I also have hiked much of the back country alone and even now can close my eyes and follow the Elephant Back trail up to the lookout point. What I wanted you to know that I have struggled this past week to make any sense of Lance’s death. I am surrounded by suicide bombings almost daily here in Afghanistan and the thought of losing Lance in such a peaceful and beautiful setting was hard to wrap my head around. Your article has helped me come to terms with his death.. Thank you Tim Langley Kabul, Afghanistan.
That message, and many others like it, made the initial post worthwhile.
But there were sincere objections too, and they deserve a response.
The most common criticism referenced my statement that Yellowstone was created “For the benefit and enjoyment of the people.” I obviously didn’t explain what that means to me very well.
While I didn’t invent that line, (the 42nd U.S. Congress did,) I think it’s a damn good thing they wrote it.
I’m very certain that without those words the Yellowstone landscape would currently be covered in condos, ski resorts, fast-food joints, and ATV trails. And there wouldn’t be grizzly bears there at all. That measured and thoughtful congressional language withstood many assaults from profiteers and developers in the park’s early days.
We can revise our opinions and beliefs, and we can amend laws, but we cannot edit historical documents because we don’t like the words in them. The actcreating Yellowstone National Park indisputably says what it says.*
On a similar note, some critiques revolved around my statement that humans created Yellowstone. They said adamantly that humanity had nothing to do with creating Yellowstone, nature did. They are both right and wrong.
Obviously, we had nothing to do with creating the Yellowstone landscape. But the definition of the park is all our doing. As stated above, without that legal description, you don’t have anything to visit, to marvel at, to fight for, and to cherish.
Yellowstone “The National Park” is 100% man-made. And I, for one, am very thankful for the foresight of the people who created Yellowstone and for the language they used in setting it aside.
The one thing that protects Yellowstone is that it’s a public place. If you prefer, the inscription could just as well read “For the benefit and enjoyment of the public.”
To the many commentators here who suggested, or even insisted, that we “stay the hell out” of Yellowstone because it belongs to the animals, not the public, you are insisting on something very dangerous; much more dangerous than traveling alone in the wilderness.
Some even said “tear down the damn sign.”
To those people I say: Are you really asking for people to stay out of our National Parks? Stay out of those places some have called “Americas best idea” – that’s truly what you want?
Imagine being prohibited from visiting the Grand Canyon because condors live there; or Brooks Falls because of the bears there. . . the Everglades, Mount Rainier, the Smoky Mountains, Yosemite Valley, the Cascades, Crater Lake, the Badlands, the Tetons, Glacier Bay, – the list is 59 parks and hundreds of rare species long.
That’s what you “stay the hell out” and “tear down the signs” folks are advocating, whether you admit it or not.
In each of those parks, wild animals thrive specifically because the parks are wild places. But they are wild publicplaces.
If we exclude humanity to preserve the animals, if we turn all those national parks into more national wildlife refuges, (which we are fortunate to already have hundreds of), where human activity is strictly controlled and in many cases even prohibited, then those places will become the domain of animals and researchers alone. “Good!” you might say. But be careful what you wish for.
Excluding people to protect the animals from human contact means you won’t ever have the chance to see a wild grizzly bear. You won’t even get to see pretty pictures of them on Facebook and Instagram because my colleagues and I won’t be allowed in either. In fact, you won’t know if the animals still exist there at all unless you read about it in a government report or see them on television.
I know there are people who really do want this total public exclusion, but happily the vast majority still want to see these things for themselves. They want to experience first hand the perpetual sense of awe that those parks promise. I’m one of those people.
As soon as the public cannot visit the parks, those places and the creatures there will cease to have significance to the masses. And it will become much more difficult to advocate for any of them.
The National Parks are the greatest public relations device ever created for Mother Nature.
Related to the “stay out” proponents are the many comments stating that Lance Crosby shouldn’t have been where he was at all because the animals were there first. The kinder versions of those comments usually went something like “We’re in their home. If we get killed it’s our own fault.”
While I agree completely that we take our chances when we enter the bear’s realm, I couldn’t disagree more that we don’t belong there in the first place.
I addressed the mistakes I personally believe Mr. Crosby made in the original post.** But I disagree wholeheartedly with those commentators who suggest that people should not be allowed to experience the parks alone and away from the crowds.
Despite what some of the modern pundits are writing about this particular situation, I believe that early naturalists like Thoreau, Muir, Burroughs, and Sigurd Olson, understood things that the “stay out” crowd are ignoring now. Those philosophers each spent large chunks of their lives alone in nature, and we have all profited spiritually and tangibly because of it.
Permanently separating humans from nature doesn’t work, especially if you want to inspire people to care. Wilderness can’t be an abstract idea, it needs to be experienced.
A huge part of the problem right now in all our national parks is balancing public access with resource protection. Logistics and infrastructure management are not my areas of experience – I’m just a dopey wildlife photographer who spends a lot of time in Yellowstone – but from where I stand it looks like a holy nightmare.
What I do know is that the solution is not to “tear down the signs” and “stay the hell out.”
I suspect that the best course now is to focus on education of park visitors and employees to the point that they can prove they understand where they are, what the benefits of wilderness are, what they’re likely to see, and what things might hurt them.
Anyone who doesn’t demonstrably understand that bears, wolves, coyotes, cougars, bison, elk, moose, sheep, even pikas, can hurt you, cannot be allowed into the park.
A signed waiver stating they understand those potential dangers and the many other things besides animals that can kill you, would also help prevent the unnecessary lawsuits the Park Service regularly faces in these kind of situations.
Arming everyone who enters Yellowstone with bear spray, but without instruction about where, when, and how to use it is a recipe for disaster. Arming them with the knowledge to prevent situations where they need that spray at all is a much better alternative.
You can make bear spray mandatory for travel away from the roads, on and off established trails, but we have to ensure people will use it responsibly and not start spraying critters they come across just because they feel uncomfortable. That does also happen in Yellowstone.
As some of you know, Yellowstone has different types of Park Rangers: Law enforcement, back country, interpretive, there are probably others…
The addition of many more rangers, especially interpretive (educational) rangers, would help. If those rangers were heavily concentrated into areas with known hazards, some potential tragedies would certainly be avoided.
Again, I realize that will be a logistical and financial nightmare for the National Park Service, but something must been done – something short of further limiting visitor access to the parks. There are already massive areas of Yellowstone which have seasonal and long-term closures for resource management.
I would prefer to see the park flooded with additional rangers rather than covered in new “Danger: Keep Out” signs.
And you should know, the grizzly bear population in the Yellowstone region is increasing. Since human visitation isn’t likely to decline, the potential for another bear attack like the one that killed Lance Crosby is there, and always will be.
More 1/4 billion people visited America’s national parks last year; 3.5 million in Yellowstone alone.
If they stop coming because they can’t go anywhere alone when they get there; if they have stay on air-conditioned tour buses; if they can only see the parks from paved roads and in the pages of magazines; the inspiration, the solitude, the solace, and the healing the parks provide to regular people on a daily basis will be gone forever.
Actually, I think those days are coming, and I don’t want to hurry them along.
I could write, much, much more on this, but I’m tired of my own words, and I know many of you are too.
I’ll end by saying that the comments I received here about grizzlies, and people, and national parks were very enlightening to me. The vast majority were obviously heartfelt, and I thank everyone who commented respectfully and thoughtfully – even those who were critical of my positions. Civility is becoming a lost art.
* Someone took me to task that I didn’t publish the whole 1872 act. It’s all there at the link for you to interpret as you will. You just have to click “next image” when you’re finished with the first page.
** The primary mistake being that he doesn’t appear to have been carrying bear spray. But frankly, we don’t know that. He could have had spray that he subsequently lost in the struggle for his life. Several of his friends and colleagues wrote to say the he was very bear-aware and always had the spray with him on his hikes.
Keith R. Crowley is a writer and photographer who spends much of his time in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.