For many of us, working on our personal holiday (aka birthday) is not a thing to be celebrated. However, yesterday I explored two park wildlife jobs that made for an eye-opening and memorable day. It began with the alarm going off at 5am …
I had been invited to ride along with Dave’s Wildlife Brigade colleague Julie! Rolling out of camp at 5:45 we see a bull moose and cow browsing in the sage brush just outside the camp office. The sky is a soft gray-pink as the morning sun’s rays struggle to pierce the dense smoke from western fires. The barest suggestion of a mountain range teases, then vanishes quickly, bringing the horizon surprisingly close. When we reach Windy Point, Dave calls in to dispatch to report “### Titley In Service, Good Morning.”
There is a section of the inner park road that is very straight, and this morning the rising blood red sun aligns on its axis perfectly. A pickup in front of us pulls over, but not safely off the road, so we pause to alert him. The driver isn’t admiring the hot glow of the sun after all, it is a trio of magnificently crowned bull elk strutting out of the forest shadows and onto the rolling stage of sagebrush and wildflowers. Gorgeous!
We meet Julie at the rendezvous point and discuss strategy. The relocated grizzly that Dave and the rest of the brigade have been monitoring at the north end of the park has been sighted near the road this morning, although the report is too vague for a precise location. Despite several passes along the highway over Huckleberry Hill and through nearby campgrounds, we are unable to locate the bear, famous for popping in and out of the roadside willow brush over the course of a day. With no jam to direct, Julie and I return to the central area of the park to patrol.
Ahead we see brake lights with campers and vehicles scattered across the two lanes of highway. A herd of elk is coming off the hill of the old Moran Cemetery and down into Willow Flats. Soon after Julie puts on the flashing yellow lights, the last elk crosses, traffic begins moving, and the visitors pulling over to take pictures appear to be safely off the road. This is what the brigade refers to as a self regulating animal jam. We do not need to linger and attract more vehicles stopping by virtue of the brigade logo on the side of the car.
The drought is negatively impacting the quality and quantity of berries here in Grand Teton, a crucial staple of a bear’s diet. Meager and shriveled berries they may be, but they are still attracting people and animals to harvest them. (People are allowed to pick berries within guidelines in the park.) Signal Mountain has seen black bears picking huckleberries along the road over the last few days, bringing us to drive to the summit and see if any are around, requiring us to monitor traffic and hikers. This trip up, we just see a ruffed grouse, although Dave will work with a black bear here later in the day.
The next task this morning is to patrol for food security violations in campgrounds, picnic areas, and marinas. We start with the Signal Mountain Lodge marina, and immediately find abandoned picnics on the stony shoreline. A visitor approaches us and lets us know she has seen a deer fawn in the boat trailer parking lot calling for its mother, and a doe across the road afraid of cars. We go to investigate.
A very sad sight meets us in the parking lot. Circling amongst the trucks and boat trailers is a week old elk calf, still with her spots, calling for her mother. Julie stays with the fawn while I walk in the direction of the road to see if I can find the mother. The story doesn’t add up, so we are working to clarify what situation we are dealing with exactly. I can’t find a deer or female elk in the trees or along the road.
Julie and I observe the poor calf for awhile. It walks in circles to its right. Clearly, it has not suckled in several days and is very dehydrated and malnourished. Such a sad sight to see, and its unanswered calls are heartbreaking. Julie radios the wildlife brigade’s supervisor for advice on what to do. We take a few photos with our cameras — the little calf approaches us, despite backing up, she continues to follow and get quite close. We also capture short videos to better explain what we are witnessing. As I look at the elk, I think her jaw looks slightly out of alignment, but there are no obvious wounds.
As we study her behavior, and wait for feedback, we also observe the poor thing is bumping into boats and trailers. On her right side. And so I ask Julie, a retired veterinarian, if she thinks the calf could be blind in her right eye. Hmm.
Unsteady on her feet from exhaustion, fear, and lack of food, the calf eventually stumbles her way to the shade of the forest edge. Julie slowly approaches the calf and tests her sight by waving her hand close to the elk’s face. No reaction from the right side, but an avoidance reaction from the left. We conclude her circling to the right is so she can look around her with her left eye. It is possible that this calf was abandoned by her mother because she could not keep up. It is all speculation on our part.
It is clear that this calf will not last much longer. During our assessment, Julie remembers hearing of a circling calf a few miles away, that the park decided to leave alone and to let nature take its course. This must be the same calf. However, she is now within a few hundred yards of a busy marina and the dormitories for concessionaire staff. If she expires here, we could end up with the very dangerous situation of a predator such as wolf or grizzly defending a carcass close to people. Julie and I, having spent well over an hour in company with this poor creature, witnessing its sad struggle, hope that it can be humanely released from its suffering.
Our supervisor arrives and can see for himself what we have been observing. Because Justin is the bear specialist, he does not have direct say in the life of this calf. However, he begins making calls and reports to the rangers that are in charge of the ungulates in the park to appraise them of the situation and request guidance. For now, we are released from calf watching duty.
I may have mentioned earlier the two different audiences I find in the park regarding bear information. Discussing bears and food security at the waterfront is a top down kind of communication — not always the most open reception by visitors. But if I am out at the map board and mention bear, we volunteers and rangers can get quite a crowd — a bit more bottom-up communication. A straw comes to mind, lol. I was lamenting this lack of opportunities for directly engaging with visitors about bears and food safety in a more relaxed setting to Dave on the drive home one Sunday, observing it was a shame the brigade’s bear information trailer was not open more often. The next thing I know, Dave’s boss Justin is interested in having me work at their trailer on Fridays!
For now, we leave the sad little elk, and open up the bear information trailer parked at the Willow Flats Overlook. Today I get to find out what exactly I have signed myself up for! We have barely put the key in the lock when visitors begin to circle the trailer. I am as curious as they are!
We lower the ramp at the back of the trailer to roll out two dioramas. On two wheeled platforms stand a mounted 3-year old black bear and a 5 year old grizzly bear. They draw lots of oohs and ahhs from the crowd. Even before we have finished setting up, a line forms for people to have their picture taken with the bear figures. Julie and I complete the booth set up with pelts of a grizzly and a black bear, and of course related brochure materials.
All of the bears in this exhibit were victims of human food rewards in Grand Teton, and despite capture, collaring, and relocation, they soon returned and got into trouble again by aggressively trying to obtain more food rewards.
I have wonderful time showing kids and adults alike the claws of the animals, explaining why they are such different shapes, letting them touch the pelt fur, and answering their many imaginative questions. Of course we talk of dangers to bears, specifically human food rewards and their consequences, which can be expensive and dangerous to people and fatal to bears. I meet a young woman leaving soon for college to study wildlife conservation and interested in how we sample and record the population numbers for several species in the park. I can share what I know of how they count wolves and bears; luckily Justin arrived to go over my soon-to-be regular duties, and I can introduce him to our college visitor! A gentleman asked me why there were expiration dates on bear spray — he hikes with a six year old can and thinks it is just fine. I said I pay attention to my expiration dates and replace old cans, but he should stop at a visitor center to ask an actual ranger for a more reliable answer. He thanked me for being candid. Later, I was able to ask Justin. He said the pepper of the pepper spray does not lose its efficacy, but rather the propellant loses its ability to fully project, so the effective range of the bear spray decreases. Good to know!!
And yes, I got asked, “Where is 399?”
All too quickly it was time to pack up the trailer. Apparently the park needs to adjust my official position description to include working at the brigade trailer before I can start work. And because I am instigating this ‘new’ job (only brigade members have worked the trailer before) it requires a little more than just cut-and-paste. But I expect to start this Friday — I can’t wait!
The rest of our day revolves around our unfortunate calf. Senior leadership has determined that the calf will be euthanized. Julie and I now need to go find her again — she has moved off into the trees below the dorms. Once we do, we stay with her. It is impossible not to talk to her in soothing tones as we would one of our hurting pets, assuring her that help is coming and soon it will not hurt anymore.
In the dappled light and heat of the afternoon she is still circling, slower now. Her head hangs lower. She has all but given up calling out as branches catch at her legs because she doesn’t have the energy to step over or push past.
The rangers that will take the next and final steps arrive, and we brigade members become observers, ready to assist if needed. Following behind her body as it was carried out of the silent forest I felt I was part of a solemn funeral cortege, all of us mourning the loss of a precious one.
You may be wondering why I am writing about such a sad thing as part of a wonderful day that happened to be my birthday. The reason is this:
I was shown the hearts of the rangers and volunteers that devote their time and energies to these parks, and particularly the shepherds of animals’ welfare within these arbitrary borders.
The decision to euthanize an animal in the park is never taken lightly. Each step in the decision process, from the person in the field first reporting an issue to the final senior leadership decision on the future of the animal is carefully considered on a case-by-case basis. Each person I observed this afternoon was serious, focused, and very aware a life was to be taken. A ranger bowed his head. The calf was handled carefully, gently, even tenderly as its end came. You would have thought a mother was gentling her baby for sleep.
It is not that I thought I was going to see rough or cavalier treatment of the poor calf, but the original choice had been to let nature take its course, which could have meant a predator found it weak but alive. That conjures up less than pleasant images in our imaginations — especially if you grew up watching Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. But now the situation had changed and there was significant opportunity for the calf’s presence to bring danger to humans. Once it was determined that we would step in, the attitude of everyone was to remove the calf’s suffering as gently and respectfully as possible.
It is a side of the park most visitors never see — even Dave and I, in all the years we have visited, never stopped to consider that the rangers we talked to would have days like this or that some day they would let us see the depth of their caring and even love for a baby elk.
And so I am grateful this day, to have been given the this amazing and surprising birthday gift. Thank you.