The Accidental Baiter

I accidentally baited an owl today.

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.

Barred owl
A Hungry and confused Barred owl.

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.

That’s all.

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Tragedy in Yellowstone: A Response

Grizzly bear in Yellowstone

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 act creating 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 public places.

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.

Grizzly bears feed on a bison carcass in the Yellowstone River – Yellowstone National Park – Wyoming, U.S.

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.

Feel free to contact me through my web site: http://www.lodgetrail.com


Notes:

*  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.

©2015 Keith R. Crowley – All rights reserved.

A Case for Collars

As a wildlife photographer I have a real love/hate relationship with radio telemetry collars.

All photographers live in a world of aesthetics, and most wildlife photographers try capture natural animal behavior in natural settings with as little apparent human influence as possible. Even something as ephemeral as a jet’s vapor trail in the sky can destroy a wild image. The permanence of collars (and ear tags, too) placed by human hands on wild animals is impossible to ignore.

Given that we have altered virtually every square foot of the earth, it may be that true wilderness is an illusion, but it is an illusion some of us strive for. Try as we might, however, nothing takes the “wild” out of the wilderness quicker than a man-made object physically attached to an animal – especially an animal as quintessentially “wild” as a gray wolf.

Telemetry collars are becoming truly common in places like our national parks. Right now, nearly half the wolves in the northern range of Yellowstone National Park are wearing either radio or GPS collars. Wolves aren’t the only Yellowstone animals collared either; bears, bison, elk, sheep, deer, antelope, and virtually every other critter big enough to wear a collar has been fitted with telemetry at one time or another.

Dr. Doug Smith, lead biologist of Yellowstone’s wolf project says that the long-term goal is to have at least 25%, or no fewer than two members of each recognized Yellowstone wolf pack wearing the collars. But packs come together and disband with amazing regularity. Individual wolves leave the greater Yellowstone area completely, and of course, wolves die. The fact is, because of this constant state of flux,  it’s almost impossible to maintain that 25% collaring ratio, so Smith and his fellow biologists collar as many wolves as they can afford to (with much of the funding coming from private donations.) And this annoys a lot of people.

For my part, I think are few truly valid reasons not to collar wolves in Yellowstone. But there is also one really good one, and in the interest of open discussion, some points are worth exploring:

From a digital photographer’s perspective, things like radio collars and ear tags can, of course, be removed in photographic post-processing. But the photojournalist in me cringes at the thought of cloning out things I don’t want to see. Simply put, in editorial photography cloning is unethical and strictly forbidden, and it’s time consuming and imperfect for fine art prints — so I prefer to avoid the clone brush.

But lord those collars are ugly. They make a magnificent wild wolf look like the neighbor’s Shepherd/Husky mix.

February 4, 2012–Yellowstone Wolf Project leader, Dr. Doug Smith, prepares to sedate a wolf for radio collaring using a tranquilizer gun, in Yellowstone National Park. Photo credit: National Park Service/Yellowstone

There is also the question of just how traumatized animals are as they are being collared and/or tagged. Certainly, it can’t be a pleasant experience for the animal. And I have personally seen evidence of animals (bears, primarily) trying to remove the collars on their own.

But since a typical wild predator’s life consists of innumerable traumatic events, many of which are incredibly brutal and daunting, the collaring procedure is probably little more than one bad morning in the short term, and hopefully only a slight distraction in the long run.

And we know that plenty of domestic animals, especially canines, wear tracking and electronic collars with no apparent discomfort, so why should it be overwhelmingly annoying for the much tougher wild wolf?

It’s worth noting, too, that biologists are continually trying to improve the process to minimize the affect collaring has on the animals. New sedation drugs, new capture methods, and new collar designs are continually tried and tested.

And I will add that every wildlife biologist I know cares deeply about the animals they choose to study. The thought of harming a study animal is just as distressing to them as it is to those who oppose collaring.

Those against telemetry collars will also suggest that hunters use those same telemetry signals to track wolves to kill. This theory has been floating around for a couple years now, but I have yet to hear of even one definitive case where hunters used telemetry to locate a specific animal to kill. There are lots of rumors tossed around, of course, but no hard evidence. Until something concrete comes to light, further comment is not only pointless, it’s counterproductive.

So, what is the one valid reason to stop collaring Yellowstone’s wolves? Well, this is the only good one I can think of:

Strictly speaking, the collaring of Yellowstone’s wildlife goes against the guiding study which makes Yellowstone the wildlife watching Mecca it is today. That study, known as the Leopold Report occurred in 1963.

Recognizing that park usage would continue to change throughout the ensuing decades, a committee led by Starker Leopold (son of the famous naturalist, Aldo Leopold) concluded that one of the goals of the park service should be to minimize any visible sign of human activity in the park. According to the report, “observable artificiality in any form must be minimized and obscured in every possible way.”

For the most part, Yellowstone has been managed by the Leopold principles since the report was published, but telemetry collars certainly fly in the face of the “observable artificiality” recommendation.

___________________________________________________________________________________________________

So, those are some of the “cons.” Here are the “pros.”

It’s important to understand just how valuable these collars, and the data they provide, are to the biologists who are tasked with studying and preserving these species.

A Gray wolf (870F) wearing a telemetry collar climbs a snowy hill in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, U.S., January 19, 2015

What we know about 870F (above) we know in large part because of that ugly collar around her neck.

Formerly of the Junction Butte pack, she now lives mostly on her own having recently lost her status in the pack. She was born in the spring of 2008 and was the Alpha female of the Junctions for several years until a series of injuries and clashes with other wolf packs saw her lose that dominant position. We know where she has denned and we know how many pups she has raised. We know some of the diseases that have plagued her and her pack mates. We know the territory she favors and how she interacts with the members of her former pack since losing her Alpha status.  And when the time comes, we will learn where, and likely how, she dies — all because of the collar.

Telemetry collars allow biologists to determine mortality causes for wolves, and they help determine which prey animals wolves target. They allow scientists to determine pack territories and to determine the dispersal patterns of lone wolves. Without telemetry the now-famous wolf OR-7 and its extensive travels through Oregon and California, would still be a mystery.

Even the wolf spotted near the Grand Canyon last November was wearing a telemetry collar. Not much was known about the animal initially because the collar was non-functional, but when the wolf was later mistakenly shot in Utah, and the collar recovered, it was learned that this was an animal originally added to the database in January 2014, near Cody, Wyoming, proving once again that lone wolves are amazing travelers.

For anyone who has spent time following the wolf story inside Yellowstone, it quickly becomes apparent that the ever-changing pack dynamics would be virtually impossible to understand, or record for future analysis, without telemetry.

As mentioned earlier, it’s not just about wolves. Telemetry collars provide opportunity for scientists around the world. Polar bear biologists, elephant biologists, big cat biologists, wolverine biologists, and so on, all use telemetry to better understand the animals they are trying to help. In many of those cases, telemetry is the only practical way to gather data.

Take the case of Black-footed ferrets… Once considered extinct, these native ferrets live out the majority of their lives underground, and when they do appear on the surface it is almost always at night. One of the few studies which have been done on the mortality of these highly endangered animals was only possible because of telemetry. There is simply no other way to find them without the collars.

In the end, radio telemetry is a staple of the science of wildlife and if you can think of a better way to track animals in real-time, I know lots of people who would love to hear about it.

Yellowstone Wolf Project technician, Rick McIntyre uses a radio telemetry antenna to locate a wolf in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, U.S.

The Wolf Project technicians you see in Yellowstone watching the northern packs through spotting scopes and taking meticulous notes, often only know where to begin looking for wolves because of those collars.

If you can’t locate the animals, it’s much more difficult to study them. If you can’t study the animals, you also can’t educate the park visitors who have come to learn about them. If you can’t teach the public about the animals, you can’t build any good will toward them.

Yellowstone is a unique place for educating the public about a great many things, wolves being one of them. People who would never have the opportunity to see a wild wolf anywhere else, can see them there with some consistency. But only because of those collars.

Most recently, I’ve heard many people — people from both sides of the wolf issue — state that there is no good reason to collar wolves anymore because we know what we need to know about them. They view the collars as a boondoggle, allowing scientists to justify their own existence. That is the most galling argument to me personally.

The first point that needs to be made is that the Greater Yellowstone wolves have only been studied since their return to the ecosystem 20 years ago. 20 years is nothing more than a blip in time when it comes to wildlife studies. The Isle Royale Wolf/Moose study is in its 57th year and has just begun to scratch the surface of wolf biology in this Great Lakes ecosystem. Scientists make new discoveries every year about wolves on the island, and the predator/prey population dynamics are just now being understood there.

Who knows what remains to be learned from Isle Royal’s wolves, and who knows what remains to be learned from Yellowstone’s wolves?

And that’s the point. I don’t believe we can ever know enough about wolves — or about the rest of the universe. Quite simply, we don’t know what we don’t know. Science is a perpetual journey.

So, as much as I hate how the collars, (and ear tags, and dye marks, and a variety of other wildlife management tools) look, and what they occasionally do to the individual animals, I also understand the necessity of continuing research, whether it’s wolves or any other species.

Alpha female 471F of the Agate Creek Pack wearing a telemetry collar, January 24, 2012

Like anything else, they can be over-used and I’m not sure how many wolves in each pack need to be collared. But wolf researchers are caught between a rock and a hard place; too many collars and visitors to the park miss the “wilderness experience” they came looking for, and the photographers, like me, are up in arms. Too few collars and it’s easy to lose track of a pack as individual animals disperse or die. Continuity is a key factor in research.

I should also point out that scientists like Dr. Smith are well aware that these collars are unpopular with photographers and park visitors. Smith says he has regularly passed on collaring certain individual wolves entirely because they are “crowd favorites.”

In the end I may complain about the collars, but I’ll complain quietly.  I will be glad that there are people out there who have devoted their professional lives to the science of wildlife — so I have wild things to photograph.

Of Mice and Owls

A Northern hawk owl being baited with a domestic mouse at Sax-Zim Bog. The camera and mouse pictured are NOT the author’s.

It’s getting bad out there.

The irruption of Snowy owls in the eastern United States this winter has photographers and birders at each other’s throats over the issue of baiting owls.

For the uninitiated, baiting means luring the owls with store bought mice in order to get dramatic, close-up views of the birds. I know photographers who do it, I know birders who do it, and I know farmers in rural Wisconsin who do it.

This year isn’t unique.  Owls of all sorts are baited every winter when their natural food supply, usually rodents, becomes scarcer.

Like everyone involved with this issue, I have an opinion on the subject; an opinion I hope is fairly moderate. High emotions tend to bubble to the surface with topics like this, so please read it all the way through before you call me an idiot and close the tab.

I will tell you that baiting owls is so common that last year, the winter of 2012-13, a mouse shortage developed in North America.  I can’t say that the shortage was solely the result of baiting, but laboratories, animal rehab centers and pet owners that use the mice for their own purposes ran low last winter, yet the owl baiters I observed were out in force with a seemingly unending supply of mice.

In short, for some people, feeding pet store mice to wild owls is a common and acceptable practice.

For others, people pursuing essentially the same goal of close-up views and dramatic photos, baiting is unethical and potentially injurious to the birds. They will point out a host of reasons that it’s a bad idea to feed wild owls.

Most of those reasons are completely accurate in my opinion. Baiting is not my way.

So now you know my slant. I am not an owl baiter. I have been accused of it, as have other wildlife photographers I know who do not bait, but I don’t do it. Usually just I shrug off the accusations. 

But this year I was able to witness both sides of the issue in late January in person at an internationally known birding area in northeast Minnesota called Sax-Zim Bog

A half-dozen species of owls and a multitude of other species regularly appear in the bog, and people literally come from around the world to search for birds on their “life list.” This coming weekend they are having their International Birding Festival.

Sax-Zim is a beautiful, wild place. And for the most part it’s very peaceful.

I went there several days in January, and one day while I was photographing a Northern hawk owl in the bog, a situation unfolded which finally inspired this story. And it has me re-examining my own definition of baiting.

My previous contact with owl baiters had always been a long-distance affair. In other words, when I saw them coming I left. But this year I decided that I’m simply not going to leave a great photo op because I don’t agree with other people’s methods, especially when I’ve driven hundreds of miles to get there and I have limited time to shoot.  I will not stop where baiting is already in progress because I don’t wish to get my photos that way, but neither will I leave if I was there first.

Owls and other raptors will fly toward the camera without the use of bait. Like every other type of wildlife photography it takes a lot of preparation and patience, but it does happen. (See the Snowy owl photo below, taken the same day as the hawk owl photos.) That’s the kind of photo I was attempting to get in Sax-Zim that day with the hawk owl.

As I was photographing the hawk owl, three vehicles pulled up and parked on the opposite side of the road from my vehicle. And something peculiar happened. The owl which had been about 40 yards away from me on the west side of the road, flew directly over my head, over the three new vehicles, and perched on a brushy limb about 20 yards away from the newcomers on the east side.  I soon found out that the owl and the newcomers were not strangers. As the photographers set up cameras and lenses and tripods, the owl watched them intently, even hovering directly over them.  Clearly this was a habituated owl.

Then they broke out the mice.

From my perspective this was a great opportunity to talk to these guys and to photograph them setting up their well-oiled routine. I walked over and introduced myself.  I took a few photos of the owl perched in a willow near their vehicle, and then, when they starting using the mice, I switched from a long lens to a shorter lens and took the baiting photos used here.

This story has been in the back of my mind for some time, and here was my chance to get an inside look. We talked off and on as I photographed them running through the baiting process three times. I found out who they were, where they were from, and how often they did this. They were cordial, and they were insistent that they “feed,” they don’t “bait.” Semantics aside, they were pleasant enough guys who were just doing something I didn’t want to do. . . something I won’t do.

Vehicles came and went. Some people got out and watched the proceedings. Some stayed in their cars. Some took their own photos.

A mouse being readied for the hawk owl at Sax-Zim bog. The mouse is about to be placed under the McDonald’s cup. The fishing line visible is then used to remove the cup when the photographers are ready.

Then, as I was taking the photo to the right, a person positioned behind the group loudly announced that we were all “pathetic!”  

Suddenly I was one of “them.”

But since I didn’t get any of those amazing in-your-face shots as the owl grabbed mouse after mouse, I didn’t feel even a little pathetic. In fact, I was feeling pretty good about the opportunity to get the information and the photos I wanted without pissing off anyone.

And the photos I wanted were not the same ones the baiters wanted. The baiters even offered to let me place a remote camera next to the mouse to get the great shots they were getting; an offer I politely declined.

Had the Anonymous Insulter bothered to ask, I might have told him what I was doing. He did not. He assumed the worst of everyone, told us all what he thought and then hurried away. But the Insulter actually did me a favor – more on that in a bit. 

The situation devolved further when another vehicle pulled up.

A  birding expert from the area arrived and began taking photographs of vehicles, license plates, and people there, including the “innocent bystanders.” He then got into a shouting match with one of the four baiters. The egos of both men were on prominent display as they recited their résumés to each other. But I have to say, the expert did himself no favors with his behavior, and with some false accusations he directed at the baiting crew.

Had the expert actually talked politely to the people there, baiters and non-baiters alike, he would have learned some interesting things that he might have used later to further his cause; something that might have helped him argue against baiting. Instead he learned nothing. It’s a shame.

However, despite disagreeing with his manner, I agree with the expert on the baiting issue.

I don’t believe it helps wildlife to receive supplemental food from people, no matter how well-meaning that feeding may be. I have felt this way for a long time.

I don’t think that feeding white-tailed deer to help them through a tough northern winter is biologically sound. Likewise, I don’t think trucking tons of hay to the elk in Grand Teton National Park every year is smart. I don’t think giving a black bear a sandwich from a picnic basket is cute. And I don’t think giving mice to owls is the right thing to do. So I don’t do it.

But – and this is important- it’s not illegal to give mice to owls. (Edit: at the time of this writing, it is not illegal to feed owls in Minnesota where this scene took place.)

To me, that means I have no reason to impose my beliefs on other people who are doing something that is their legal right. To escalate a situation through insults and by photographing license plates as if you are conducting a criminal investigation, to paint everyone present with the same broad brush, and to avoid constructive conversation in favor of loud accusations is counterproductive.

I can only choose not to participate in those legal activities I disagree with. And if I feel strongly enough about a topic, I can try to have the law amended. That is the only way to end the practice – make it illegal. That will drive some practitioners underground, of course, but most people will just stop baiting.

For now, however, the practice is legal in most places. So, I won’t bait owls, but I won’t try to stop you from doing it either. I won’t curse you, insult you, and I certainly won’t steal your box of mice and speed away (something I witnessed last year over the same issue, but in a different locale.)

But, too, I won’t leave if I was already there when someone shows up with a bucket of mice. I just won’t shoot an owl taking the bait.

In the end, unless it is being used for editorial purposes (like the one at the top of this story,) the only photo of mine you will ever see featuring a raptor coming at the camera, will be from a natural hunt with no bait present. If you ever see me with a mouse in my hand, it will be a dead one I’m removing from my house – and there won’t be any owls present.

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The Snowy owl above was photographed at Sax-Zim the same day as the Hawk owl above was baited. No bait was used to attract this Snowy by anyone present, and this particular owl made several attempts at voles (mostly unsuccessful) during the time the author was present. This attempt was a miss. The meadow voles were never visible to the author – they were always just under the snow.

While we’re on the topic, I don’t photograph captive animals and pass them off as wild either. I don’t digitally move animals from one scene into another and call it real, and I don’t do “nature photography” like this coming out of Indonesia.

There are many wildlife photographers who do these things, but it’s not against the law, so I grit my teeth and bear it. I grit them harder every time one wins a photo contest, but I don’t run the contests either.

Now back to the Anonymous Insulter. I didn’t know it at the time, but I have since become aware that he is a well-known bird photographer, and that many of his shots are taken at his feeders near his home. That gave me the direction I needed for this writing.

The Insulter baits birds to get them super-close for his photos, yet somehow manages to be outraged when others bait birds for their own purposes.

I won’t condemn him for taking his photos because I also take photos of songbirds at my feeders. But here’s the real difference:

The hypocrisy of my feeding songbirds at home while being generally against feeding owls prevents me from shouting insults at strangers.

Tolerance and moderation are in short supply these days, and obviously bird enthusiasts and photographers aren’t immune to blanket indictments and indignation.

“Do it my way, or you’re just plain wrong!” is a sadly prevalent perspective, and it’s not helpful wherever you find it – even in a bog in northern Minnesota.

I’ve recently read several attempted explanations as to why backyard bird feeders are not the same as baiting. Usually the argument is that the birds come and go at will from the feeders. That way they are somehow “wilder” than habituated owls. But that doesn’t hold up to any kind of real scrutiny.

Of course feeding backyard birds is baiting birds. Whether they are finches or owls, you and I are using food as a positive reinforcement to alter the bird’s behavior; to get them to do what we want them to do, where and when we want them to do it. It’s a time-tested way to train animals, straight from B.F. Skinner. The Anonymous Insulter knows that too and he takes songbird photos with that knowledge.

If you want to prove to yourself that your birds are conditioned too, put your feeders out at the same time everyday, then take them in at night, and see how long it takes for the little wild birds to figure out your schedule. Hell, I know several people, including a professional naturalist, who hand feed chickadees. There’s your conditioned response.

At my own house the bluebirds gather in the branches over my head every time I bring out the bag of mealworms – it’s absolutely classic behavioral conditioning.

Actually, it’s kind of neat that they are waiting for me, but the image of the hawk owl hovering over the cars at Sax-Zim is now what comes to mind when it happens. It’s unsettling. I am a bluebird baiter.

We put up feeders to satisfy our own wishes. We want to see the birds. We want to photograph the birds. If we really only did it to help the birds, we would scatter our bird feeders all over the countryside, in out-of-the-way spots where the birds could feed unmolested. And we would make sure those feeders stayed stocked at all times. And then we would go there occasionally to get our bird photos. (There are a couple places like that at Sax-Zim, by the way.) 

But having them just outside the kitchen window is so much more fun.

One of the best arguments against feeding any wild creatures is that it causes them to become dependent on that food source. And that’s absolutely true. Once you start feeding, in winter particularly, you have to keep it up as long as the weather is cold and the birds stay. That’s an unspoken pact we enter into with the birds. And it’s as true in the black-oil sunflower seeds/chickadees equation as it is for mice and owls. But the fact is, occasionally feeders run dry.

Even if you do make the commitment to continual feeding, you and I are potentially causing harm to the birds in other ways by bringing them to our feeders.

Raise your hand if you feed birds at home and have NOT had one smash into a window and land motionless below. That happens frequently, but most songbird enthusiasts don’t like to talk about it. I hate to think how many birds have died in my yard from window strikes over the years, despite actively trying to prevent the collisions using every trick I can. It also happens at the brand-spanking-new Sax-Zim Bog Welcome Center, which has windows large and small throughout the little building, all looking out upon well-stocked bird feeders. I stopped one morning and was in the building for less than five minutes when an American goldfinch crashed headlong into one of the large bird-viewing windows there.

Don’t get me wrong, the Friends of the Sax-Zim Bog group does wonderful educational work, and most of them have been exceedingly nice to me, but even their feeders have a cost.

The same Northern hawk owl pictured above with a wild vole it caught prior to the baiter’s arrival.

The corollary to that when it comes to the baiting of owls is that feeding the owls makes them less wary of humans, and it puts them in close proximity to roads. You already know that birds and automobiles don’t mix any better than birds and glass windows do.

It seems when we get involved with feeding, birds die.

And then there’s the issue of disease. The fervent anti-baiters will also tell you that domestic mice can introduce disease into the wild owls. That’s possible, but not very likely. Mice sold in pet stores are raised in controlled facilities and bred to feed to other domestic animals. Disease is the last thing anyone wants there – it’s not profitable.

The disease issue is much more prevalent at wild bird feeding stations and there are reams of information available at the click of a mouse. The long and short of it is… Anytime you congregate many animals into a small area by feeding, the chance of disease spreading disastrously through the population, and across populations, is magnified immensely.

Salmonella is the most frequent feeding station disease among birds. There are Salmonella outbreaks every year and every year thousands of songbirds die because of it. Mold kills backyard birds too. We try to keep immaculate feeders, disinfecting them regularly, but we don’t always succeed, and then we put the birds at risk.

Ever toss bread to the ducks and geese at the local park? Then you are definitely endangering the bird’s welfare by inducing them to gather in dense flocks. Botulism is a major waterfowl killer and can wipe out ducks by the hundreds in one location.

And there is tuberculosis, and conjunctivitis, and avian pox, etc., etc.

In the end, there are lot’s of reasons not to feed wild animals anywhere – unless you are willing to accept some collateral damage.

Rationalizing those reasons away is disingenuous and I won’t do it – my hypocrisy has limits.

I bait birds – I just do it with sunflower seeds, suet and mealworms, not mice.

So who am I to condemn the owl baiters?

An American robin near the author’s feeding stations and birdbath.

 

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Baiting Northern hawk owls with domestic mice at Sax-Zim Bog in northern Minnesota.

A Controversial End to the Birkebeiner: Dubay Disqualified

Even in a normal year, you don’t have to look too far to find interesting stories at the American Birkebeiner.  Inspirational tales of overcoming hurdles and incredible self-sacrifices are the norm when you are talking about your average Birkie. With a record 9400 participants in the 2012 races, there was a lot of inspiring material to work with.

Take, for example, the story of  Tom Hernon.

Tom Hernon of Grand Rapids, and Thor compete in the Barkie Birkie skijoring race held in Hayward, Wisconsin on February 24, 2012.

Hernon took part in the Birkebeiner’s skijoring race–the Barkie Birkie.

Tom may be confined to a wheel chair, but with skis on the chair, and on his ski poles, and with a willing four-legged friend named Thor, Hernon competed with 54 other skijorers in the 5K race.

If someone like Tom, exhibiting that level of commitment and bravery, doesn’t get you off the couch, nothing will.

Tom Hernon of Grand Rapids, and Thor compete in the Barkie Birkie skijoring race held in Hayward, Wisconsin on February 24, 2012.

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But just occasionally, the seedier side of competitive Nordic skiing rears it’s ugly head, and some controversy creeps into the mix. It did this year.

To the casual observer, the Birkie’s mens classic 54 kilometer race ended with a young Minnesota athlete, 20 year old Joe Dubay, skiing the race of his life and beating not only World Cup racer, David Chamberlain, of Caribou, Maine, but also  3-time Olympic Gold Medalist Vegard Ulvang of Oslo, Norway.

Joe Dubay, wearing his St. Scholastica uniform and a bib belonging to Chris Paar, crosses the finish line in Hayward, Wisconsin during the 2012 American Birkebeiner.

Granted, at the age of 48, it may seem Ulvang’s glory days of competitive skiing are behind him, but  he is hardly an old-timer once you put him on skis. The other elite racers in the field, including Dubay and Paar, were all thrilled just to be skiing on the same course with Ulvang–he’s that good.

The Birkebeiner finish line is never a dull place, and this year’s finale in downtown Hayward was no exception. When the top three competitors crossed the line, urged on by thousands of cheering, cowbell-ringing fans, the order was Dubay, Chamberlain, and Ulvang.

Later declared the winner, David Chamberlain (left) crosses the line in second place, and just ahead of Norwegian skiing legend Vegard Ulvang (bib 300) in the men's classic race at the 2012 American Birkebeiner.

But wait a tick–there was no Joe Dubay registered in the race. Bib number 1221 belonged to a racer named Paar.  Chris Paar, the skier registered to compete in the 39th annual American Birkebeiner, as it turns out, wasn’t in the race which ended on Mainstreet in Hayward, Wisconsin last Saturday. It also turns out that Paar and Dubay are teammates on the Nordic Ski Team at the College of  St. Scholastica  in nearby Duluth, Minnesota.

Seems Paar decided not to race in the Birkie to save himself for the upcoming USSA Junior Championships. So, Dubay donned the bib and won the race of his life–almost. The ruse lasted only briefly, because the Nordic ski coach at St. Scholastica, Chad Salmela, was there at the finish line. The instant Dubay saw Salmela, he knew the jig was up.

Eventually disqualified, Joe Dubay is interviewed following his "win" at the 2012 American Birkebeiner in Hayward, Wisconsin.

Even as reporters were trying to interview him, as race organizers and adoring fans were lauding him, Dubay knew he’d made a slight ethical error. By the time he left the finish area, the whole thing was already unraveling.

Race organizers caught wind of the deception just before the press conference and promptly disqualified Dubay/Paar. They just as promptly awarded the victory to Chamberlain, with a winning time of 2:51:15.2. Ulvang  moved up to second with a time of 2:51:17.1, less than two seconds off the pace.

Ultimately finishing second with a time of 2:51:17.1, Norwegian Olympic and World Cup champion, Vegard Ulvang, crosses the finish line at the 2012 American Birkebeiner in Hayward, Wisconsin.

The amazing thing is, if Dubay hadn’t crossed the line first, it’s likely no one would have ever picked up on the deception.  Hopefully the two young St. Scholastica studs learned a lessen in ethics on Saturday, and won’t repeat such indiscretions anytime soon.

At the very least, we can hope that Dubay will often be reminded of the year he won the Birkebeiner, but lost his credibility.

Though marred by a disqualification of the winner, the 2012 American Birkebeiner mens classic race got off to an uncontroversial start near Cable, Wisconsin.

More images from the mens classic race at the 2012 American Birkebeiner can be found at Lodgetrail.com

Gray Wolves

Two Gray Wolves scan a northwest Wisconsin marsh in November

There is no topic more likely to raise the hackles of the outdoors crowd than the Gray Wolf. Most people interested in the outdoors either love them or hate them. There’s very little middle-ground. While I understand the arguments presented by both sides, I find it hard to agree with either. To me the Gray Wolf is a species that belongs here as much as any other species, so I abhor the idea of extirpation. Indeed, we tried that in Wisconsin and the wolves came back on their own. The three S’s of the Endangered Species Act makes me cringe, as do my kill-em-all hunting cronies. But…and this is where I’ll lose the the other side too…I also believe wolves need to be managed to minimize conflicts with humans, just like any other large predator. And, they need to be managed at the State level, where professional wildlife biologists have the ability to deal with local populations (wolf and human) in order the avoid conflicts. The Feds have made a mockery of this conflict-resolution process, especially in the Rocky Mountains, but to a certain extent here in the Midwest, too. The time is nigh to give individual states the right to manage their own.

For the record, I hunt. So do the wolves around me, and it doesn’t bother me even a little bit that we are both chasing some of the same game. They are not my deer, after all; they are not my elk. In fact, I don’t lay claim to any of the critters I hunt. They are not mine until they are wrapped in butcher paper in my freezer. Prior to that, they belong to everyone, including the wolves.

I encounter wolves with some regularity here in Wisconsin, including in the last couple years when I’ve been out deer hunting.  The photo above was taken from my deer stand in 2009. Frankly, I haven’t noticed a decline in deer numbers. I’m sure the wolves are taking some of the deer–I know they are, in fact– but I still get my chances, and fill a deer tag when I want to.

 

A hunter examines a wolf-killed buck and abundant wolf scat in NW Wisconsin

I’ve seen wolves in Minnesota, Montana, Wyoming, and Alaska, too. I consider it a red-letter day when I get to watch one for more than a few seconds. On rare occasions I’m able to get a quick photo, but usually the wolves are just too damn spooky to capture on “film.” Last spring I was lucky enough to come across a pack in NW Wisconsin, and the one pictured below stayed on the road long enough to get a few shots. Someday I’ll get me a “Brandenburg shot.” For now these, and a few others in my gallery will have to do.

Wisconsin Gray Wolf

 

Wisconsin Gray Wolf