Spring In Mountain Caribou Country

Spring In Mountain Caribou Country

Text and photos by David Moskowitz

With the onset of warmer weather and longer days the snowpack is receding quickly at lower elevations while deep snows persist in the high country where mountain caribou spent the winter. In April, caribou from the North Columbia herd descend down to the valley bottom along the dammed Columbia River to feed on fresh growth. A trip that was once made through continuous stands of old growth rainforest is now a tour of clear-cuts, regenerating forests, and patches of old forest, ending with a swim across the hydropower reservoir.

In the spring, mountain caribou drop out of the high mountains to forage. Once snow melts at higher elevations they return to the high country for the summer.
In the spring, mountain caribou drop out of the high mountains to forage. Once snow melts at higher elevations they return to the high country for the summer.

For the third year in a row, the non-profit Revelstoke Caribou Rearing in the Wild (RCRW) is looking after about a dozen pregnant female caribou from the North Columbia herd, in a large enclosure they built close to a remote section of the reservoir. Similar to the Klinse-za project further north, the goal of the RCRW is to increase the survival rate of calves during the critical period when as newborns they are most vulnerable to predators. While only a small part of what is needed to restore caribou in the region, this project has brought together the region's diverse groups for a cause they can all agree on. This collaboration will hopefully yield better working relationships during more contentious conservation efforts.

 The fence for the pen built to protect pregnant females and their newborn calves from predators peeks through the rainforest covered hillside above the pen.

The fence for the pen built to protect pregnant females and their newborn calves from predators peeks through the rainforest covered hillside above the pen.

 Several of the cow caribou inside the pen.

Several of the cow caribou inside the pen.

 RCRW has pulled all the stops to make sure their guests are safe and well fed. Len Edwards, one of the “shepherds” charged with monitoring the captive caribou, walks the perimeter fence each morning to make sure the fence is intact. Besides a tall visual barrier, multiple strands of electrified wire ensure that predators stay out of the large enclosure where the caribou roam.

RCRW has pulled all the stops to make sure their guests are safe and well fed. Len Edwards, one of the “shepherds” charged with monitoring the captive caribou, walks the perimeter fence each morning to make sure the fence is intact. Besides a tall visual barrier, multiple strands of electrified wire ensure that predators stay out of the large enclosure where the caribou roam.

As always, a continuous stream of logs continues to flow out of this region, feeding BC’s powerful timber industry. The bears are out of their dens and looking for food in melting avalanche chutes and wetlands along riparian zones.

 This cut block within the North Columbia herds home range was cut last summer. I found tracks of a mountain caribou wandering out of what had been excellent caribou habitat until just recently.

This cut block within the North Columbia herds home range was cut last summer. I found tracks of a mountain caribou wandering out of what had been excellent caribou habitat until just recently.

 A story in footprints: Tracks found on the access road coming out of the above cut-block. The footprint of a mountain caribou is joined by the trail of a large black bear and the faint prints of a grey wolf. Wolves are effective predators of adult caribou, while black bears and grizzlies can take a massive toll on calves–the reason for the penning project going on in the nearby mountains.

A story in footprints: Tracks found on the access road coming out of the above cut-block. The footprint of a mountain caribou is joined by the trail of a large black bear and the faint prints of a grey wolf. Wolves are effective predators of adult caribou, while black bears and grizzlies can take a massive toll on calves–the reason for the penning project going on in the nearby mountains.

 A moose captured on a camera trap I set up to monitor the rainforest’s wildlife. Dense forest and thick brush make spotting wildlife difficult. The bright patch on this large, creek-side cedar tree is from the biting and rubbing of bears. Moose use the dense riparian forest as refuge, and venture out into clearcuts and logging roads to forage on the abundant brush growing in these openings.

A moose captured on a camera trap I set up to monitor the rainforest’s wildlife. Dense forest and thick brush make spotting wildlife difficult. The bright patch on this large, creek-side cedar tree is from the biting and rubbing of bears. Moose use the dense riparian forest as refuge, and venture out into clearcuts and logging roads to forage on the abundant brush growing in these openings.

 Another story in footprints. The tracks of a moose, a wolf, and a mountain lion. Moose populations, driven by logging, drive predator populations which in turn affect endangered caribou, leaving a tangled web of ecological relationships tricker to pick apart than these maze of footprints the animals themselves leave behind.

Another story in footprints. The tracks of a moose, a wolf, and a mountain lion. Moose populations, driven by logging, drive predator populations which in turn affect endangered caribou, leaving a tangled web of ecological relationships tricker to pick apart than these maze of footprints the animals themselves leave behind.

MCP Field Notes: North Columbia Herd.

 Looking out across the section of the Columbia Mountains I explored within the home range of the North Columbia Caribou herd.

Looking out across the section of the Columbia Mountains I explored within the home range of the North Columbia Caribou herd.

The town of Revelstoke, British Columbia sits on the banks of the Columbia River. North of town, on both banks of the reservoir created by the impounded Columbia lives the North Columbia caribou herd. This herd has been fairing better in the past several years than many of the herds further south. The reasons for this appear to include a collection of issues including habitat protections, limits on recreational impacts from snowmobiling and helicopter ski opporations and a drastic reduction in moose populations (through human hunting) which has lead to a natural decline in wolf populations and in turn less pressure on caribou. This herd has also been the focus of a program to pen some of the herd's pregnant females during the spring and early summer. The females and their calves which were born in the protection of the pen are released in the midsummer where they rejoin the rest of the caribou in the wild. This project is in its second year (Learn more about it at Revelstoke Caribou Rearing in the Wild). I spent three days in the heart of their range for this herd in the mountains northwest of Revelstoke.

 Numerous sets of fresh caribou tracks in the area told me I was in the right spot. Pictured is the hind foot of a bull caribou. Caribou are the only native North American hoofed mammal to regularly show dewclaws (the marks behind the main cleaves, feral pigs found in many places, though none in caribou habitat, also often register their dewclaws), though they show up more regularly in the fronts than hinds.

Numerous sets of fresh caribou tracks in the area told me I was in the right spot. Pictured is the hind foot of a bull caribou. Caribou are the only native North American hoofed mammal to regularly show dewclaws (the marks behind the main cleaves, feral pigs found in many places, though none in caribou habitat, also often register their dewclaws), though they show up more regularly in the fronts than hinds.

 Early one morning, close to first light, I caught my first glimpse of a mountain caribou, a bull with antlers in velvet. Female caribou also have antlers, though smaller than the males, another unique feature of this species.

Early one morning, close to first light, I caught my first glimpse of a mountain caribou, a bull with antlers in velvet. Female caribou also have antlers, though smaller than the males, another unique feature of this species.

 The subalpine landscape that caribou appear to prefer is one made of dense forests and wet meadows. This is a species that is definitely NOT afraid to get its feet wet.

The subalpine landscape that caribou appear to prefer is one made of dense forests and wet meadows. This is a species that is definitely NOT afraid to get its feet wet.

 The older tracks of a grizzly bear warned me that these creatures might be in the area. I spotted a mom and cub in the morning twilight on the day after I spotted the caribou. They didn’t spot me as they crossed an opening in the forest but also didn’t linger long enough for me to capture a photo of them. Though intrigued, I choose not to follow them to see if I might get another chance to see them. A little ways on I discovered the fresh tracks of a bull moose and calf heading into the same section of forest. An interesting story might have unfolded between these mothers and children of two of North America’s most ornery large mammals. I left this one as another one of the many mysteries that these dark forests hold.

The older tracks of a grizzly bear warned me that these creatures might be in the area. I spotted a mom and cub in the morning twilight on the day after I spotted the caribou. They didn’t spot me as they crossed an opening in the forest but also didn’t linger long enough for me to capture a photo of them. Though intrigued, I choose not to follow them to see if I might get another chance to see them. A little ways on I discovered the fresh tracks of a bull moose and calf heading into the same section of forest. An interesting story might have unfolded between these mothers and children of two of North America’s most ornery large mammals. I left this one as another one of the many mysteries that these dark forests hold.

The mosquitos and black flies were atrocious.

Wildlife Tracking in the Tatra Mountains of Slovakia

In late September, the Slovak Wildlife Society hosted a weekend Wildlife Tracking Workshop in Liptovský Mikuláš, a village in the Tatra Mountains of Slovakia. The Slovak Wildlife Society is involved with a range of conservation projects focusing primarily on the region's large carnivores including working to prevent negative interactions between wolves and bears with humans. Here are a few of the highlights from my trip to the region and the class with a collection of very fine European naturalists and wildlife trackers.

 My initial impressions of northern Slovakia during my train ride through the country was that it reminded me much of the state of Montana, with the notable addition of castles.

My initial impressions of northern Slovakia during my train ride through the country was that it reminded me much of the state of Montana, with the notable addition of castles.

 Tracks of a European Red deer (Cervus elaphus).

Tracks of a European Red deer (Cervus elaphus).

 The right hind track of a European Brown Bear (Ursus arctos).

The right hind track of a European Brown Bear (Ursus arctos).

 European river otter (Lutra lutra) tracks.

European river otter (Lutra lutra) tracks.

 European lynx (Lynx lynx) track. Tatra Mountans, Slovakia.

European lynx (Lynx lynx) track. Tatra Mountans, Slovakia.

 A spring in the forest used extentively by Wild Boar as a wallow. Tatra Mountains, Slovakia

A spring in the forest used extentively by Wild Boar as a wallow. Tatra Mountains, Slovakia

 A tree close to a spring wild boar’s use as a wallow. Robin Rigg, Slovak Wildlife Society Founder and Director, inspects the scar and mud on the base of the tree is from repetitive rubbing from boars on the tree. Tatra Mountains, Slovakia.

A tree close to a spring wild boar’s use as a wallow. Robin Rigg, Slovak Wildlife Society Founder and Director, inspects the scar and mud on the base of the tree is from repetitive rubbing from boars on the tree. Tatra Mountains, Slovakia.

 A red fox moves through the brush in morning light. Tatra Mountains, Slovakia.

A red fox moves through the brush in morning light. Tatra Mountains, Slovakia.

 Participants in the wildlife tracking workshop Slovak Wildlife Society hosted.

Participants in the wildlife tracking workshop Slovak Wildlife Society hosted.

 Evening light in the Tatra Mountains, Slovakia.   

Evening light in the Tatra Mountains, Slovakia.

 

Cybertracker Conservation Track and Sign Certification Event in the Swan Valley, Montana

 Senior Tracker and Evaluator Mark Elbroch points out some of the finer details of a track during a discussion of one of the questions on the Evaluation.

Senior Tracker and Evaluator Mark Elbroch points out some of the finer details of a track during a discussion of one of the questions on the Evaluation.

Congratulations to all 11 folks who participated in the Track and Sign Certification Event in wild Swan Valley of northwestern Montana this past weekend, all of whom earned a certificate through Cybertracker Conservation!The event was hosted by Northwest Connections in the very quiet town of Condon. It was great getting to know more about this creative and inspiring organizaiton whose mission to "Integrate Science, Education and Community in the Conservation of Rural Working Landscapes". I highly recommend any and all of the various educational opportunities they have to offer and hope to be back there soon! A special thanks also to Nick Sharp, Wildlife Conservation Society Biologist, and Doctoral student at the University of Montana, who organized the event (and put in a stellar performance on the Evaluation!)Over the course of the two days of the Evaluation, participants were given 70 different questions about tracks and signs discovered in the field. Species varied from voles to grizzly bears and the handiwork of everything from a bushytailed woodrat to a backhoe. Along with covering as diverse a set of tracks and signs as is possible over two days, the evaluation includes questions ranging from very simple (such as a clear deer track) to very challenging (such as interpreting the behavior of an elk which had scraped bark off of the trunk of an aspen with its incisors). For more information on Cybertracker Conservation Wildlife Tracking Evaluation methods click here.

 Senior Tracker Brian McConnell, who assisted in delivering the evaluation, points out one of the questions, marks on an aspen tree to Adam Lieberg, Conservation Program Program Coordinator at Northwest Connections. Adam correctly interpreted them to be made by a black bear which had climbed the tree.

Senior Tracker Brian McConnell, who assisted in delivering the evaluation, points out one of the questions, marks on an aspen tree to Adam Lieberg, Conservation Program Program Coordinator at Northwest Connections. Adam correctly interpreted them to be made by a black bear which had climbed the tree.

Here are photos of some of the things that were on the Evaluation and the questions about them. All questions are based on actual tracks and signs discovered in the field by evaluators during the Evaluation. After all of the participants have the opportunity to answer each question, the track or sign is discussed as a group and the evaluators carefully explain the correct answer and discuss why it could or could not be various other species, often using illustrations and other resources to help illustrate key features.

 What species and which foot? Front and hind tracks of a red fox.

What species and which foot? Front and hind tracks of a red fox.

 What species, which foot, and what was the sex of this animal? The left hind foot of a female mountain lion

What species, which foot, and what was the sex of this animal? The left hind foot of a female mountain lion

 What species (in regards to the lower tracks)? The front and hind foot of a wolf (above are the track of a whitetailed deer).

What species (in regards to the lower tracks)? The front and hind foot of a wolf (above are the track of a whitetailed deer).

 What happened to these shrubs? Tim Nelson inspects the work of a buck deer which left these marks on a serviceberry shrub with its antlers the previous fall, a marking behavior associated with courtship and breeding activities.

What happened to these shrubs? Tim Nelson inspects the work of a buck deer which left these marks on a serviceberry shrub with its antlers the previous fall, a marking behavior associated with courtship and breeding activities.

 Who removed the bark from this burl on a lodgepole pine? From left to right, Track and Sign Specialist Matt Nelson, Mark Elbroch, Preston Taylor and Adam Lieberg discuss a contentious question, a burl on a lodgepole pine which had been debarked by a red squirrel

Who removed the bark from this burl on a lodgepole pine? From left to right, Track and Sign Specialist Matt Nelson, Mark Elbroch, Preston Taylor and Adam Lieberg discuss a contentious question, a burl on a lodgepole pine which had been debarked by a red squirrel

 Who left this track? The weathered footprint of a grizzly bear.

Who left this track? The weathered footprint of a grizzly bear.

 Mark and Jenn Wolfe discuss one of the harder questions on the evaluation, the identity of a jawbone found in the field–in this case a wolf! Mandibles were not in short supply, and the striped skunk and black bear jawbone were also questions on the Evaluation.

Mark and Jenn Wolfe discuss one of the harder questions on the evaluation, the identity of a jawbone found in the field–in this case a wolf! Mandibles were not in short supply, and the striped skunk and black bear jawbone were also questions on the Evaluation.

 Who made this hole? A foraging badger.

Who made this hole? A foraging badger.

 Congratulations to everyone who participated and earned a certificate at the event!

Congratulations to everyone who participated and earned a certificate at the event!

Interested in participating in a Certification Event or hosting one? Find a list of future events I am running at davidmoskowitz.net. Our North American website for all Tracking Certification events is currently underconstruction. Send me an email if you want to discuss details on hosting an event or links to Certification Events in other parts of the country!