Monday, August 22, 2016

Wolves Writing Rivers

In our ongoing coverage of that bowel quaking range, shaped like a trash picker's sclerosis, that splits this country in two, here's a piece that is completely out of season but may provide some respite from the recent heat wave. All photos by the irredeemable J. Felis Felis. 

Winter in Yellowstone. Ribbons of water, liquid helices, winding through a frozen, smoking whiteness. A buried clockwork of thermal rivers roiling away beneath. Brown bears snoozing somewhere between the pines and this sulfuric underworld. A profound serenity is washing over me as we move through this magnificent landscape which contains, among its many wonders, a bison calf, it’s lower half stuck in a mud pot, its face and upper body eaten off.

Later we visit a bobcat who has been living inside a buffalo carcass, its adorable face poking out the top of its edible winter home. Snowflakes disappear as they land on its nose.

Thermal pools rimmed in emerald and cobalt. Diseased eyes searching the heavens, their vision obscured by vapors weeping upwards. Bacterial mats, ancestral life, edge the springs. Hyperthermophiles thriving. Another bison calf, this one alive but with rear legs burned, flesh bright red raw from having momentarily slipped into scalding waters, closely trails its massive mother.

Among these myriad wonders is the singing of wolves.                                      

We  are out floating atop the snow on skis, shoes and sleds following this singing, searching for the pack and learning what we can in the wake of their kills. Amongst our gear is a small butcher kit, used to take pieces of the dead back with us. Cutting out mandibles to get at the storied teeth. Hacking at rounds of bone for to see the marrow within. Samples that will help researchers divine the relative health of the prey at the time of its death. This fieldwork is a small piece of a great puzzle, a body of work that is being built that seeks to understand the profound impact that the wolf is having upon Yellowstone. The puzzle suggests that the wolves have the power to move rivers. That fish and amphibians thrive in their footfalls. That birdsong follows them wherever they roam.

In the aftermath of the wolves return to Yellowstone, after some 70 years of absence, the fauna and flora of this region is being reshuffled. Their presence has modified the behavior of elk, who spend less time grazing the willows and cottonwoods along the waterways where they are vulnerable to an ambush. These riparian trees and shrubs thrive with less browsing pressure on them, resulting in a population boom of the North American beaver.

The beaver, Castor rodent, paddle-tailed engineer, through its industrious woodworking, has re-written the valley bottoms of Yellowstone. They’ve braided the waters of this world into a network of oxbows and side channels. Through their dam building and tree felling they have inundated thirsty floodplains, flats that haven't tasted standing water for decades. Fish and amphibians thrive in these diverse waterways. Hydrophilic plant life find footholds here, while ducks and shorebirds hunt and nest in these backwater refuges. Wolf as landscape architect.

An elk kill has been located and we go to investigate. Bundled, teary-eyed detectives stumbling across this ice planet. Graceless bipeds picking their way through the boiling vents pockmarking the flats surrounding them. Ungulates gather around the heated pools, their silhouettes regal against the fuming landscape. Great curls of vapor erupting from their nostrils.

The heat from these thermal features melt the snow surrounding them, which allows the bison, deer and elk easy wintertime grazing. The geothermal waters of Yellowstone also render the vegetation surrounding these features rich in silicate.

Over time this mineral ruins the grinding molars of the grazers. Later in their life, after years of eating this glass-like forage, they are unable to feed optimally. They are thus weakened by these springs that are providing them warmth and easy meals throughout the winter. This weakening is in turn exploited by the wolves, who prey on the less fortified.

As we come upon these kills, invariably there are other animals working the carcass. A fox is startled as we approach and bounds away to the cover of nearby pines. As we hammer away at the dead animal, the fox cautiously lurks back to its corner of the animal, and we all work side by side for a time.

We  notice small teeth marks on a bone we're handling. The bone has been scraped by a small rodent, who has raked the skeleton for the minerals it contains. A mountain chickadee alights upon an exposed rib and begins feeding on the small, frozen sinew stuck to the bone. Later, as the light fades from the day and the temperatures plunge below zero, this bird will join others of its species in a tree cavity, a dozen or more of them huddled together in a feathered orb, the micromeat burning warm in its birdbelly through the night.

We take a breather after packaging the samples for transport. Tea is poured, frozen cookies are dipped. Sitting there in the low angled sunlight, watching the chickadee work merrily. Dozing lightly, an image begins to coalesce in my sinking brain.

A wolf with a large ring in its mouth, keys of various makes hanging from it.  Behind the wolf stand an elk, deer and calf bison. Trinity of Prey. In the neck of each of these animals there is a keyhole. The wolf walks over to the elk and, with its teeth, lays the key in the lock. With a quarter turn of its head, the wolf rotates the key until it clicks, as light bursts from the neck of the elk.

With grizzlies underground for the winter, wolves are the only predators awake who regularly take down big game, unlocking the energy inherent in the large herbivores. After the pack is done with the carcass, the remains of the dead animal continue to nourish the inhabitants of the valley, from fox to mouse. Eagle to
chickadee. These remains are crucial feed during this harsh and barren season. Sunlight banked in the form of flesh and bone. Wolf as key.

Samples packaged, we salute the fox and leave it to its scavenge. We are moving again, towards another kill site. Flying over the frozen earth on a snowmobile, following the pings emanating from the collared alpha female of a nearby pack. The telemetric signal gets us close but it is the ravens who lead us to the doorstep of this next banquet, their croaking from the treetops defining the perimeter of the site.

Wolfbirds, as ravens are sometimes known, have long been seen as allies to the wolf, circling high in the sky and calling to alert the pack to an opportunity for another hunt. In return, the birds are allowed the leftovers. It is an ancient partnership between bird and mammal. Elemental alliance between land and sky.

Beyond the pragmatic relationship these two species have with each other, there appears to also exist a genuine friendship between them. There are reports of these animals engaged in a version of tag, where a raven dives at a wolf, lands just out of reach, and takes to the sky as the wolf lounges for the bird. If the wolf tires of the game, the raven calls raucously until the wolf indulges it again. Wolf as friend.

Beyond the cackles of the raven, other songs have trumpeted the wolves return. The explosion of willow and cottonwood habitat has allowed for a greater density of riparian nesting neotropical birds. Tendrils of salix reaching up and snagging migrants, coming from Mexico or points further south, who would instead be passing over these rivers in search of more suitable habitat. Birdsong has grown along the rivers, in symphony with the babbling waterways and the howling of the pack. Wolf as conductor.

The roaring engine of the snowsled is cut. Our ears accustom to a world without the whine of combustion. A different cacophony fills the air. It is the chorus of the hungry.

The wolves are still here. Fox, squirrel, weasel, magpie, snow bunting and junco are lining the periphery of the kill. All waiting their turn to take part in this feast that the wolves and elk have laid out. We will wait our turn as well. More tea and daydream. I indulge in my keychain fantasy, the wolf making the rounds, in turn unlocking each ungulate. The light from the animals flooding the air, pouring onto the earth. From out of the ground sprouts a lush carpet of wildflowers, rivulets of water running amongst them. Tangled willow shoots climb the legs of the dispatched elk. The sound of birdsong and frog chorus is deafening.

The watery croaking of ravens bring me out of my reverie. The pack is moving, the wolfbirds trumpeting their departure.

Meat drunk and muzzles red with gore, the pack emerges from the timber. The young wolves are exuberant and prankish, sledding down the hill, nipping one another playfully. The elders sluggish and content, lumbering towards a midday nap. Tolerant of the shenanigans of their sons and daughters, nieces and nephews. They disappear into another stand of trees. The faint sound of keys ringing can be heard. A dinner bell, announcing to the other denizens of this valley that it is time to eat.

1 comment:

  1. Look at you getting all trophic and poetic. Nice piece. Next time you just need to add a wolverine. ;)