Stephens Creek Worker: “OK. We’re ready for the first one”
Narrator: It’s not yet dawn when someone gives the signal. Dark figures in puffy jackets are up on a scaffold. They move into place against the pale sky. It’s quiet. Weirdly quiet for the number of people here and what’s about to happen. Everyone braces. It’s like there’s this giant, collective inhale.
(sounds of pulleys)
Narrator: At the Stephens Creek facility inside Yellowstone National Park, the staff works a system of ropes and pulleys.
(sounds of gate opening)
Narrator: A corral gate opens. And then a single bison rushes through a curved passage toward what’s called the “squeeze chute.”
(sounds of gate closing)
Narrator: The gate closes behind.
(sounds of squeeze chute)
Narrator: Inside the squeeze chute, mechanical walls close in on the animal’s flanks.
(sounds of scientists logging the animal’s I.D. number)
Narrator: His ID number is quickly logged.
(sounds of chute door opening)
Narrator: Then the chute opens. And this 3-year-old bison—a wild, American plains bison—escapes down a constricted alley in the only direction he can…
(sounds of bison running past and into the trailer)
Narrator: …and into a livestock trailer.
(sounds of loading fade)
Narrator: Many winters, hundreds of Yellowstone bison are loaded on trailers—trailers just like this one—to be slaughtered. They’re shipped to slaughter facilities to reduce the number of bison migrating outside the park and into the State of Montana. Because in the state of Montana, there is limited tolerance for wild bison on the landscape.
(sounds of truck starting)
Narrator: But these bison are not being shipped to slaughter.
(music, then sounds of truck driving away)
Narrator: These bison are going to a wide prairie on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation.
(music with sounds of truck fading out)
Narrator: Today on Telemetry, we’re talking about the rehoming of wild bison from Yellowstone National Park to the Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes of the Fort Peck Indian Reservation. That rehoming is part of a program called “Quarantine.” The program is one of the only alternatives to shipping wild bison to slaughter. And it’s history in the making.
(music fades out, field sounds fade up: Chris Geremia talking about the biting flies at Stephens Creek )
Chris Geremia: Let’s go down to the facility.
Narrator: Doctor Chris Geremia is a wildlife biologist at Yellowstone National Park. He manages Yellowstone’s bison program.
Chris Geremia: Just be careful, sometimes there are rattlesnakes.
Narrator: Chris and I are walking around the Stephens Creek facility. It’s midsummer. Weeks before any bison will go to Fort Peck. The ground is threadbare: dead grass and dirt. The flies are pretty bad today. Stephens Creek is the epicenter of bison conservation. Bison are migratory and the states surrounding Yellowstone National Park treat bison differently than other migratory wildlife. And after a court-mediated settlement, Stephens Creek was built in the late 1990s to manage bison migrating out of the park. Today, Stephens Creek is where migrating bison are captured and either shipped to slaughter or held until they can be transferred outside of the park as part of quarantine.
Narrator: Chris says the story of quarantine is a story of success. It’s the result of decades of collaboration between a legion of federal, state, and Tribal stakeholders.
Chris Geremia: There’s so many people that want us to find another solution to sending bison to slaughter. They want us to find a way to get live bison out. We’re really just trying to show people how you can do it. That we can move live bison out of Yellowstone. We can reconnect Tribes and bison, and hopefully, in the fullness of time, reconnect bison with public lands.
Narrator: But like most stories of bison conservation, Chris says it’s also shot through with complexity and compromise.
Chris Geremia: You know, I kind of see it as you're standing in Hayden Valley—which is a huge valley in the middle of the park. And you’re waist-deep in snow. And bison conservation is like postholing across that valley. You just don’t go anywhere quickly and it’s an awful lot of hard work.
Chris Geremia: Let’s go to the original sorting pen, which we call the bullpen
(sounds of walking up metal stairs)
Narrator: We climb up onto the scaffold that overlooks the facility. This is my first time up here and I’ll be honest. The view is a little...unsettling. I’m used to seeing wild bison out in the big, green valleys of the park. Rivers and trout streams running through.
Narrator: But here, I see 55 male bison. Inside an ordinary pen. (music)
Narrator: And I’m thinking: how did we get here?
(music fades under)
Rick Wallen: One hundred or more years ago many wildlife species -- most wildlife species -- were harvested to sustain the pioneering way of people exploring the west.
Narrator: That’s Rick Wallen back in 2014. Rick used to lead Yellowstone’s bison program before retiring in 2018.
Rick Wallen: And elk, deer, pronghorn, all the large animals were of very low abundance after we colonized western United States.
Narrator: But with bison, the situation was even more troubling. It’s estimated that ￼somewhere between 30 and 70 million bison roamed this land before European colonization. As settlers moved west, the extermination of the American bison began. Many saw bison as both a marketable commodity and a means to suppress the Tribes—Tribes who revered and depended on bison. And so within just a few decades, the bison were all but annihilated.
Rick Wallen: In fact, at the turn of the last century the only known wild bison were in Yellowstone National Park. There were only a couple of dozen.
Narrator: From tens of millions to a couple of dozen; A couple of dozen animals hunkered down deep in the interior of Yellowstone National Park. The only wild, free-ranging bison in the area remaining from the original great herds. It’s hard to grasp: such willful decimation. But national debate over that near-extinction of the American bison would go on to inspire one of the country’s first conservation achievements.
Rick Wallen: It was phenomenal that our forefathers had the insight to preserve Yellowstone National Park and I think they did it partly because they saw what was happening to wild bison across the country and partly to preserve the unique landscape and geological features of the landscape. So this is it. This is the location that preserved wild bison into eternity.
Narrator: In addition to the couple of dozen animals in Yellowstone, there were an estimated 300 or so bison that survived in privately-owned herds across North America. In fact, a few animals from those private herds were brought to Yellowstone to start a breeding program. And after decades of protection and restoration efforts, the number of bison in Yellowstone grew from a couple of dozen animals to a few thousand.
(music) Rick Wallen: That's a very successful program. With all of that success comes the propensity for them to wander and roam and now they want to roam well beyond the preserve we've set up here as Yellowstone National Park.
Narrator: And roaming beyond the boundaries of Yellowstone National Park has led to one of the most complex cross-boundary wildlife issues of our time.
Narrator: Three states surround Yellowstone National Park—Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana. Very few bison migrate outside the park into areas of Idaho and Wyoming. Most of the bison that migrate outside Yellowstone wander into the State of Montana where there’s limited tolerance for bison.
Rick Wallen: Bison are big. They scare people. They break things. Encountering a buffalo at 70 mph isn't very comforting sight.
Narrator: But there are also fears that bison could transmit a disease called brucellosis to cattle. Brucellosis is a bacterial disease that can cause miscarriages in animals like bison, elk, and domestic cattle. Domestic cattle introduced the disease to wildlife before the 1930s. Now wildlife in the Greater Yellowstone Area—including elk and bison—can give it back to cattle.
Rick Wallen: The concern about brucellosis is that if wildlife—let me back up—In the agriculture industry once an animal tests positive it has to be removed from the herd. So it's an economic loss for the rancher.
Rick Wallen: The concern really is that the livestock industry has worked really hard for many decades to eliminate the disease in livestock. So their concern is legitimate. They've worked hard, cleaned up their industry, and they'd like to see this additional threat eliminated.
Narrator: In an effort to try to eliminate or at least mitigate conflicts between humans and bison in the State of Montana, the State and the federal government reached a court-mediated settlement on how to manage Yellowstone bison. The idea was to limit the number of bison in Yellowstone and reduce the risk of bison migrating out of the park and transmitting brucellosis to cattle.
Rick Wallen: So in order to prevent dispersal beyond our established conservation area, there are years where the agencies need to get together and develop a management strategy to cull bison. Narrator: Until Quarantine, there were really only two main options for culling—or removing—bison: Hunting outside park boundaries or shipping animals to slaughter. Hunting only removes a limited number of animals. So shipping to slaughter has been the primary method of culling wild bison. Narrator: But here’s one of the tricky things about managing bison when it comes to brucellosis. It’s elk, not bison, that have re-infected domestic cattle. Elk have reinfected cattle almost 30 times over the last several decades. And elk are not managed the same way as bison. Elk are not shipped to slaughter. In fact, elk roam free outside the boundaries of the park, where they frequently come into contact with cattle.
Narrator: Because of this, many experts argue that the risk of brucellosis transmission between bison and cattle is not a scientifically credible reason for the differential treatment of bison compared to elk. Narrator: So until there is more support for wild bison living outside of Yellowstone National Park, hundreds of Yellowstone bison will continue to be culled in many years. Some bison are removed through hunting outside the park, some undergo quarantine, and some are sent to slaughter,￼ Rick Wallen: So that is a very controversial side of bison management. Many people don't like to see the animals sent to slaughter. The National Park Service would prefer not to send the animals to slaughter. But it is a mitigation measure to allow us to have the acceptance for bison outside the park that we do have.
(Sounds of Stephens Creek fade up)
Narrator: I’m back at the Stephens Creek facility with Chris Geremia. We’re still looking out over the facility. At the 55 male bison inside their ordinary pen. At the 55 bison who are about to complete part of the quarantine process.
Chris Geremia: So quarantine is a three step process and probably the biggest challenge to quarantine is trying to figure out where and how we do these three phases.
Narrator: Chris is talking about the protocols for males. The steps for quarantine are different for males and females. But for males, the process goes like this: Phase One is a screening phase during which all animals in the group have to test negative for brucellosis during two consecutive months, which takes about 200 days. Animals that pass Phase One move on to Phase Two. In Phase Two, they must test negative two more times over the course of one year. And Phase Three is what’s called “assurance testing;” it’s kind of a fail-safe. Phase Three includes two more tests over another year. So for males, that means 200 days, plus one year, plus one year.
Chris Geremia: So when we originally built this pen, the thought was that only that first phase would happen in Yellowstone. Because we’ve never documented an animal having brucellosis after those first 200 days—that screening phase—we thought that would be sufficient. And Fort Peck would be the place where they’d undergo that Phase Two Quarantine and Phase Three Assurance Testing. We didn’t think they’d be here that long. We thought they’d be here for 200 days.
Narrator: The Tribes thought that way too. They built their facility with managing the full quarantine process in mind.
Chris Geremia: The facilities up at Fort Peck are much more capable of handling large numbers of animals than what we have here. It has all of the infrastructure, it has all of the land, and it’s much larger than any of the structures within Yellowstone National Park. It’s a great place to do quarantine. And on top of it all of the costs associated with caring for and feeding animals would not be incurred by the Federal government.
Narrator: But disease-management protocols dictate that it’s only after an animal passes Phase Two that a state veterinarian can certify it as brucellosis-free. And according to Montana state law, only brucellosis-free animals can be transported outside the designated surveillance area for brucellosis, which surrounds Yellowstone.
Chris Geremia: So we were stuck at this impasse. So I think we got to the point where maybe it makes sense to try and reach the common ground we all have and start getting operational quarantine started.
Narrator: And for now, that means Phases One and Two happen inside the designated surveillance area for brucellosis which surroundsYellowstone National Park and only Phase Three happens at Ft. Peck.
Chris Geremia: And something we’ve had to learn now is can these bison actually live in an old weed field?
(sounds of truck)
Narrator: I spend the later part of the day on a flatbed truck with Chris and a couple of the Stephens Creek wranglers.
Narrator: They fill the truck with bales of hay. Then, Chris drives around the pen in a wide arc.
(sounds of truck driving and feeding)
Narrator: The wranglers flake bales off the back of the truck. The bison file in behind to feed. They follow the contour of hay in plodding steps. Almost two years of this.
(sounds of truck driving and feeding fade out, field sounds fade up)
Chris Geremia: It keeps you up at night at times. Never at any point in my life would I envision that I would be trying to help come up with strategies for wildlife conservation that just don’t feel like wildlife conservation because it’s very complex. But I would definitely do it again in a heartbeat.
Chris Geremia: You know seeing these animals with those trailers heading north to Ft. Peck, I think that makes all the rest worthwhile. It’s gonna be a good day.
(Sounds of trailers driving into Fort Peck, Rick Wallen saying “how’s that for some space!”) Narrator: On August 19 2019, seven trailers full of bison pull in to the quarantine facility at the Ft. Peck Indian Reservation. The Fort Peck reservation lies beyond a stretch of northern Montana called the Hi-Line. I’ve heard people describe it as “God’s Country,” and now I see why. Rolling hills of late-summer grass and wheat draw an endless line under a wash of blue. These bison traveled 500 miles to get here. They’re the first of that larger group of bison to be transferred to the Tribes: 55 in all.
(sounds of preparing for animal release)
Narrator: The trailers line up side-by-side.
(sounds of preparing for animal release)
Narrator: Workers unlock the trailers.
(sounds of doors opening)
Narrator: Then, one by one, they open the doors.
(sounds of bison running out of trailers and out into the pasture)
Narrator: Nineteen wild bison barrel out of the trailers and into the prairie beyond. The start of a new fate for Yellowstone bison captured at Stephens Creek.
(sounds of wind blowing in the grass, Fort Peck Tribes welcome song)
Chairman Azure: The bison that we just released out here is an awesome event.
Narrator: That’s Floyd Azure, chairman of the Fort Peck Tribes.
Chairman Azure: It’s a feeling I can’t express. I mean it's something that—I don’t know—I think you have to be Native American to understand what it is.
(sounds of wind blowing in grass)
Narrator: Chairman Azure is looking out past the fences. Past the fences at the group of bison that are noses to the ground, nibbling on bites of grass.
Chairman Azure: That’s beautiful. I mean, you don’t see anything more beautiful than that. And my ancestors seen that every day and they realized what they had. And now I understand. That’s why they were very protective of the bison. It was their everyday survival and that’s what I feel today—just that, I understand.
Narrator: Bison hold great value—cultural and spiritual value—for many Tribes. And Yellowstone bison are special because they’re seen as some of the only genetically-pure descendants of the ancestral herds that once roamed across North America. Many Tribes view the treatment of bison as a grave injustice and see the restoration of bison as a source of healing.
Chairman Azure: I want to get back to where we were back then. Where we took care of ourselves. Where we didn’t have to depend on any government or anybody. We took care of each other. We took care of nature to make sure that we had food for the next day.
(sounds of wind blowing in grass)
Chairman Azure: We’ve had a lot of ups and downs since then, we had to prove ourselves numerous times. And finally I think we got it across that we can do this and we will do this.
Narrator: Chairman Azure says that trust has been an issue among the inter-agency partners that manage quarantine, and that sometimes the Tribes have felt left out of the decision-making process.
Chairman Azure: It’s the stereotypical picture of the Native American that we can’t do anything. No we can. I mean, it’s just like anybody else: you get the right people in place you get the right attitude it gets done.
Narrator: And Chariman Azure says the Ft. Peck Tribes have the right attitude and the right people.
Robbie Magnan: Today was a very historical day, I feel
Narrator: Robbie Magnan is the director of the Ft. Peck Tribes Fish and Wildlife Department. He runs the buffalo program for the Tribes.
Robbie Magnan: Personally I feel that we accomplished something finally. We wanted to see these animals come out alive. Our whole goal is to get buffalo restored to other places in the United States.
Narrator: Once bison complete their last phase of quarantine at Fort Peck, they can be released on the reservation or go to other Tribes and organizations that want to establish conservation herds. In fact, the Ft. Peck Tribes have already transferred some of their earlier quarantine graduates to the Bronx Zoo and some to the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming. And the Fort Peck Tribes are actively exploring more possibilities like these with the InterTribal Buffalo Council—a coalition of 69 federally-recognized Tribes committed to restoring buffalo to Indian Country. Robbie Magnan says it’s time for Tribes to reconnect with the buffalo.
Robbie Magnan: Buffalo have always been part of Native Americans’ economy. We left the buffalo they didn’t leave us. We need to get back to the buffalo and learn from them again. To keep watching these guys keep learning from these guys is my only hope right now.
Narrator: Hope. Chairman Azure says that’s the overriding feeling here today. Hope for a future with bison. Hope for a future with more collaboration.
Chairman Azure: I hope we don’t have any more fights over this. I hope that we can work together on more projects than this.
Chairman Azure: Working together solves problems. No one is any different than anybody else. God created us all equal. The problems can be solved by working together not by separating each other.
(sound of wind in grass cross-fades with crickets)
Narrator: That night, Chris and the rest of the group from Yellowstone’s bison management office make camp outside the fenced pasture. The sky turns orange, then starry, and the crickets start to sing. Rick Wallen is there, too. He’s come to help and, not for nothing, to see the years of work before retirement bear out.
Rick Wallen: Well, you know, Yellowstone Bison for many decades have had a frightful ending when they leave the national park. The conservation of Yellowstone bison should never be about, you know, fright. They’re not a pest on the landscape.
(music) Rick Wallen: Yellowstone bison are a cultural resource and a legacy type of a species. They’re a noble, native, wildlife species on the landscape and deserve some sort of an honorable ending. And for these animals that want to migrate out of the national park they find that there’s no place for them to go. We spent a decade trying to find a place for them to go and that place right now is a trailer trip to Ft. Peck Indian Reservation. And the Tribes here at Ft. Peck honor them—more than most of the world.
Rick Wallen: So until we can find more space for wild bison in the Greater Yellowstone area, this becomes an alternative to a death trap and a shipment to slaughter and we’re happy. We’re happy to see them find tall grass and beautiful sunsets on the prairie, where their ancestors lived by the millions. May they long live a happy life.
Narrator: The next morning, we make the trip back to Yellowstone. Back to Stephens Creek. Back to get ready for two more transfers of bison. In thirty-six hours we’ve driven a thousand miles. And there are two thousand more to go.
(sounds of crickets and music fade out) (Sounds of walking at Stephens Creek fade up)
Chris Geremia: Last night when we were up at Ft. Peck, you asked me, you know, what was I thinking about seeing those first bison get released up at Ft. Peck. You know today, we’re back at Stephens Creek; here we are again (starts to laugh) at Stephens Creek. Ten years ago I never would have thought that Quarantine was a possibility. And you know, it was a compromise. Everybody had to give something to reach that goal. And each partner has to do exactly what they need to do for this to be successful. You know, we need to trust each other. We can only go as far as we can go together.
Chris Geremia: My goal with these 55 bison is to show people how to do quarantine. So we need other people to learn from what we just showed is possible. And take up doing quarantine. I think what we need to say is that we opened the door, but we also need to pass the torch on doing quarantine. And these 55 bison, they’ll be teachers to us all.
Narrator: Chris and I get in his car. He sticks the key in the ignition then takes it out. In the silence we can hear sounds of staff working at Stephens Creek. It’s only a few months until winter when culling could begin, but also the next opportunity to bring new animals into quarantine. Through the dusty windshield we can see the pen holding rest of the bison that will go to Ft. Peck. Chris looks out past the fences, past the bison, past the line of cottonwoods that marks the park boundary in the distance. It’s been a long road. But I think Chris is the kind of guy who’s OK with playing the long game.
Chris Geremia: I’ve spent a lot of time with bison in this park and I’ve seen some of the most amazing things whether it’s the natural behavior of bison or watching a young kid go out to watch bison carrying his little bison stuffed animal just so excited to see Yellowstone bison and I’ve seen some of the hardest things that I’ve had to do which is to send these animals to slaughter and I just see a place for quarantine. It can reconnect Tribes with bison it can help protect the genome of bison and it has the potential to reconnect bison with public lands.
(Sounds of truck starting and old fan belt squealing, then background dialogue: Tell me about your truck. It’s a 1997 Tacoma. How many miles? 271,000. (laughing) Maybe it’s time to replace the fanbelt…)
Narrator: As Chris and I drive back to his office, we pass under the Roosevelt Arch. It’s is a 50-foot stone arch with the inscription “For the benefit and enjoyment of the people.” That’s a phrase from the 1872 legislation that established Yellowstone National Park. “For the benefit and enjoyment of the people.” And not just some of the people. All of the people. Just that one phrase. It holds so much. How simple things might have been if Yellowstone had been established solely with the preservation of nature in mind. But it wasn’t. And that tension—that balance—between managing for our ecological values, our cultural values, and our political values is what makes our decisions so hard...and so worthwhile. Make no mistake. We have tough choices ahead. But even Theodore Roosevelt knew that nothing worth having comes easy.
(music fades out)
Narrator: Hi there, this is Jennifer Jerrett. I’m the host and a producer for Telemetry, the science and issues podcast for Yellowstone National Park. Thanks for joining us. A couple of notes on the story you’re about to hear: it describes an event when a family of four encountered a grizzly bear and it contains details that some people could find disturbing. If you have little ones, you might want to preview this episode before sharing it with them. Also, the family members who are generously sharing their story with us request that we all respect their privacy, so we will only be using first names and we won’t share any additional information about the family or the incident.
Eric: It’s not the kind of experience you expect to have in life…
Eric: ...but I can remember in that moment thinking, “This is a pivot point. And this could change our lives forever.”
Narrator: In the summer of 2018, Eric, his wife Emily, and their two sons Owen and Lincoln—both under the age of 16—visited Yellowstone National Park. It was their first time. And while planning for their trip, they learned about bear spray. Bear spray is an aerosol canister containing highly-concentrated hot pepper spray. It’s used to stop aggressive or charging bears. The idea is that if a bear is charging you—coming at you—you blast a big cloud of pepper spray toward the bear’s face. When bears go into that cloud, they typically make a beeline to get out of there.
Narrator: Eric says that his family isn’t super outdoorsy, but he describes themselves as “serious dabblers.” They love to get out and hike. The family decided to rent bear spray, but Eric says that honestly, he thought it was a little silly. None of them expected to use it. When you rent bear spray in Yellowstone, there’s a video that you watch. Eric says that—again—he was a little nonchalant about it. I mean, the idea of actually running into a bear just seems so unreal, right? But he watched anyway and went through the practice scenarios in his mind. He clipped and unclipped the safety a few times. The rest of the family waited in the car.
Narrator: Eric and his family headed out to a popular trailhead. And what happened next, well, we’ll let Eric tell you that in his own words. Here’s Eric.
Eric: It just seemed like a normal hike, right? We were just having fun…
Eric: We were talking. We definitely weren’t making any effort to be quiet and I don’t think we were very quiet. My younger son had gotten the new Pokemon game, so I’m sure it could very well have been like, “Oh, I’ve managed to get this Pokemon and he has these powers.” That kind of thing could easily have been what we were talking about. There was a good bit of that on the trip.
Eric: And so we went maybe a half-mile. And that’s really where it happened.
Eric: I think it all happened really fast. I mean, it was so fast. And that’s one of the things that nothing could have really prepared you for, because it wasn’t like “Oh, see it 100 yards away and get prepared,” this was totally different.
Eric: I heard a crash. I looked. The bear just crashed at full speed. Crashed out of some underbrush. The bear was vaulting out of the underbrush at us at a sprint…
…And it was already quite close. It was coming at us full speed at 25 yards away.
Eric: You know, you see animals in the zoo, or you see them on TV and you really don’t get at all how powerful they are.
Eric: That first second, everybody sort of reacts instinctively. My instinct was to stand my ground, right? That’s what I had been told. Don’t run from the bear, stand your ground. For Emily and Owen, the first response was to sort of jump back and I think they got behind trees. And Lincoln, our younger son, naturally enough just started running.
Eric: They tell us now with brain sciences, that you have all these separate systems that your consciousness sort of coordinates, but they’re all kind of running independently. And you could sort of see that happening because my brain was doing all kinds of different things at once without necessarily coordinating them. So I was at the same time pulling out bear spray, while trying to yell to Lincoln, “Don’t run! Don’t run!”, while analyzing the situation, while trying to move in the right direction.
Eric: Because Lincoln ran, the bear went after him. So very quickly the bear was past me and it’s tackling Lincoln.
Eric: And at that point…seeing…I mean, there’s a part of you that just instinctively responds as a parent. That says “Your child’s in danger!”
Eric: So I start running toward the bear.
Eric: Meanwhile I’m still trying to get out the bear spray and get it ready. I know I’m still yelling something. I don’t know what I’m yelling. Emily starts running toward him as well and she doesn’t have a weapon. There’s nothing really that we can do to a bear, but you have to try. And the bear’s on top of Lincoln. And the size difference and the power of the bear…You know, things could get really bad really quickly.
Eric: So we’re both running toward the bear. It’s on top of Lincoln. I’m running over and I’m getting close. The bear turned toward me…
…and, I don’t know, I didn’t hear a noise, but maybe it groweled, I don’t know, but it had its mouth open like it was going to come for me next.
Eric: And honestly, at that point, I think my mind was in a place where if it was going to keep coming and get me instead of Lincoln, that’s better.
Eric: But yeah, then it turned toward me and started coming.
Eric: …And I was very close to both of them at that point.
Eric: The bear was about two to three feet away. So I had three feet. And that’s when I managed to fire the spray off.
Eric: But there was one moment, less than a second—just a beat—where it seemed like that might not stop the bear because it was still coming. And I thought, “Oh, it’s too enraged. It’s too late. It’s too close.”
Eric: But then it
took a breath and just recoiled.
It just recoiled visibly back and ran off.
Eric: So Lincoln got up and he had been clawed in the back, and I guess it went into the muscle and it wasn’t bleeding a whole lot. Which was good because that’s what I was worried about. So Lincoln started stumbling down the trail, and I was behind trying to have the spray ready because I still had half of it left. but Lincoln really couldn’t walk. His legs were too weak from the adrenaline. It was just too much. And so he kept wanting to stop and we were like “No! We cannot stop. We need to keep going.” So I ended up carrying him and so yeah we just kind of beat a very hasty retreat down the hill as fast as we could.
Eric: We got back down to the car and we could see that he had some punctures, some bleeding. But overall, it seemed like he was in pretty good shape, but of course, obviously we needed to get medical care. And they checked him out and you know, he knew he was okay, and being taken care of properly. And so, yeah, I think it was a few hours for him to kind of get over that initial catharsis, but then he felt a lot better already by that afternoon.
Eric: He was really brave…I mean, this is one of the scariest things that can happen, right? This goes back to kind of the primal human dangers that we would have faced in the plains of Africa or whatever, right? And so he faced down that danger and came out of it okay mentally, came out of it okay physically. I think that’s really impressive.
Eric: We all know that there’s lots of ways that life can deal you bad fortune, but this was not one of the ones we had ever anticipated, right?
Eric: It’s trite I guess, but it does remind you to appreciate your family in a more tangible and real way. That we need to realize that things are fleeting. But honestly, I mean, was it traumatic? Yes. But on the other hand how fortunate do we feel? There’s so many ways that things could have gone wrong, so you have to feel really blessed, right? That we had the right equipment we needed and we were able to use it.
Eric: And that’s a nice feeling to have, really. To appreciate how lucky you are.
Eric: Take seriously when they say you really ought to have some bear spray with you, is the number one takeaway. Yes it seems like: “It’s crazy,” “It’s not necessary” “I’m just out there for a little while,” but like I said, we were less than a half-mile up the trail, so we weren’t in some distant backcountry, you know. You don’t know where it could happen. You don’t know when it could happen, so just go ahead and get the spray, take the video seriously.
Eric: You don’t have to obsess about it. It doesn’t need to become a fear, but think a little bit about what you’ll do if the unexpected happens. Practice taking the safety on and off a little bit. Put it in a place where you can get to it because, yeah, I had so little time that looking back on it, I am kind of surprised that it all came off.
Eric: The whole situation was probably eight seconds long from beginning to finish.
(the following is cut to start and finish in eight seconds)
…the bear coming out of the brush…
…then the bear on top of Lincoln
…and then the bear turning and coming at me very close
…and using the spray.
Eric: Things could have gone worse in so many different ways…We could have forgotten it in the car, I could have dropped it, fumbled it, somehow not been able to get the safety off or shot it the wrong way or something. It’s like my mind wasn’t even focused on that and yet it was happening kind of automatically, so it was surprising. And I think mentally stepping through it a little ahead of time probably really helped a lot in being able to do that.
Eric: And I should say one of the rangers said, “You know, that was much better than if you had had a gun, because if you had a gun, you’d have to shoot just right or the bear would be wounded and even more angry. Whereas the spray is pretty effective, it’s a big cloud, you can’t really miss.”
Eric: …I mean, we were rare. But my gosh, to have something you can do to save your loved one? So yeah, why not have that little bit of insurance so that if the worst happens you can do something about it. Because how helpless we would have been otherwise. We didn’t think we’d need it but we’re just so grateful that we had it.
Eric: I should mention that the rangers found that there was a cub, which kind of explains why the bear attacked. Defensive, you know, defending its child. The thing we didn’t think about was that this is a wild park and the animals are living their own lives. And that’s something that we love and appreciate about the national parks, but you do have to approach it with a certain degree of respect so that you can stay safe, but you can do that in way that this remains a really natural and wild space and not like a zoo. And that’s something that we learned from this whole incident.
Narrator: While the likelihood of experiencing a bear attack in Yellowstone is very low, the park recommends that people take precautions. Hike in groups of 3 or more. Make noise. And by noise, I don’t mean little jingle bells tied to your backpack. I mean noise, like yelling or calling out to alert any bears to your presence. The classic one a lot of us around here use is “heeeeeey beeeeaaar!” For real. I know—it feels dumb. Do it anyway. Especially while hiking through thick brush or forest regrowth. And when hiking over hills or in other blind spots along the trail. If you do encounter a bear, don’t run. Stay in a group and stand your ground. Finally, take bear spray with you every time. And know how to use it. For more information on how to stay safe in bear country, visit go.nps.gov/yellbearsafety.
Narrator: Kelly Willemssens is leaning forward. Scanning with her binoculars. She lands her sights on an animal covered with spots and undulating stripes. KW: A lot of people like photographing them because they’re pretty charismatic. Narrator: Kelly records her field notes into a digital recorder. She doesn’t take her eyes of the creature. It’s an ambush predator. It crouches, stock-still. Then explodes into a run.
Narrator: It’s one of the fastest land animals on earth…
Narrator: …but it would fit on your thumbnail with room to spare. Narrator: This is Cicindela haemorrhagica. That’s the Latin name for one of Yellowstone’s resident species of tiger beetle. The wetsalts tiger beetle. Kelly is studying these insects as part of her PhD project with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Kelly: So the first thing we do is observational work.
KW: It’s kind of repetitive as you may have heard. It’s “Run. Stop. Run. Stop. Run. Stop.”
KW: Continuous focal sampling is what it’s called. Jen (off mic): What do you guys call it? KW: Watching one beetle for 10 minutes (laughs). Narrator: Several rounds of watching one beetle for 10 minutes marks the first step toward understanding the behavior of Cicindela haemorrhagica. Not much is known about this wee, little beetle. KW: So we want to know: where do they go? What do they eat? Do they drink? What temperatures are they at? Do they use different behaviors to cope with heat? Narrator: How tiger beetles respond to heat is actually a big focus of Kelly’s project. Tiger beetles have a cosmopolitan distribution. They’re found all over the world. And the wetsalts tiger beetle, as its name implies, is almost always found near water… KW: …But we’ve never ever documented a beetle before near the thermal springs. Narrator: And this is the thing that sets these tiger beetles apart. Here in Yellowstone, the wetsalts species is associated—exclusively—with thermal springs. KW: So we’re talking about water that’s 65 degrees Celsius. Some of the water we’ve seen here is 2.2 pH, which is extremely acidic. Narrator: Basically, that’s like lemon juice. 150 degree lemon juice. KW: …it has arsenic, it has heavy metals, it’s full of toxins. So the fact that these beetles are here and are thriving is absolutely unique and kind of a mystery. Narrator: So in addition to studying the different behaviors of Yellowstone’s tiger beetles, Kelly will be analyzing their physiology, too. KW: These beetles live at extreme temperatures, extreme environments, I want to figure out how they do it. What kind of mechanisms do they use and can we use those mechanisms for other purposes? KW: For instance there’s something called a heat-shock protein. Everyone has it. Humans, we have it too. If our cells get into too hot of an environment, our DNA will denature. So it will unravel and open up. Narrator: That’s not good. We don’t want our DNA to unravel and open up. KW: These heat-shock proteins will attach to the DNA and will recoil it. So they will bind it once again. Different species… can stay in warmer environments. It’d be really cool to figure out what kinds of heat-shock proteins these beetles use…So potentially…maybe someone in the medical field can use this knowledge. Narrator: Kelly says it’s a pretty far stretch, but investigations like hers could lead to those sorts of advancements someday. KW: Our environment is getting a lot more extreme, and by studying these extremists—these extremophiles, maybe we can come up with ways to cope with a changing world like that. Narrator: It’s hard to imagine that something smaller than a thumbnail could have so much to teach us. But Kelly says these teeny-tiny predators in Yellowstone are just the beginning of the mostly unknown world of insects. KW: I’m just focusing on this one tiger beetle, but there’s so much more left out there to discover and explore. < footsteps and field sounds of Erik Oberg cross-fading up >
Narrator: On the other side of the park, National Park Service biologist Erik Oberg agrees. Erik Oberg: Pretty much all of the vertebrates and birds and mammals here in Yellowstone have been described. We know about them, we know their home ranges, we know a lot about their life histories and ecologies…insects is wide open… Erik Oberg: This is the ‘Wild, Wild West’ of biological discovery out here. All you have to do to find new species or new discoveries is come out here and look for them Narrator: Like Kelly, Erik Oberg studies beetles, too. But Erik’s study takes a wider view of insect populations in the park. EO: Altogether we're tracking nine different orders, So, beetles plus eight additional orders of insects are all being sorted and preserved for this project. Narrator: Erik likes to say that his project is powered by citizen scientists. He and his team of volunteers spend their summers trapping insects across a variety of habitats in Yellowstone. And their winters identifying what they caught. EO: And it's it's an unassuming little scientific study. It's basically an eight inch by eight inch white square piece of plastic staked into the ground …
Narrator: Erik removes the white, square cover to reveal what’s called a pitfall trap. It’s a plastic deli cup. Like the kind you’d get potato salad in. It sits down in a shallow hole and it’s filled with about an inch or two of clear liquid. Preservative fluid for the dozens of insects that have fallen in and are now floating in it.
EO: We have a nice sample here. It's actually pretty clean. So just kind of an assortment—a smorgasbord—of insects if you will. EO: And so now we are going to take a second cup, and a very sophisticated scientific tool—a pasta strainer—and a piece of organza fabric which is available in any fabric store and or at any local wedding…. EO: And the mesh of that organza is small enough that it will catch even the smallest insect. So smaller than a millimeter biodiversity is going to be captured by this project. EO: Yeah. This this is quintessentially small game hunting.
EO: Oh and look at this right here… Narrator: Erik holds up the deli cup. It looks like a tiny serving of soup covered with skin of ground pepper. EO: …You can barely see through to the bottom of the liquid because the entire surface is covered with springtails.
Jen (in field): Remind the listeners what a springtail is EO: Springtails are in a group called Collembola. They’re the most numerous six-legged insect on the planet. And they are responsible for nothing short of creating the soil we are standing on.
EO: So their whole life is all about eating dead plants, digesting it, and turning it into soil with nutrients that are able to be taken up by plants to repeat the whole cycle again. EO: Bison need springtails. Elk need springtails. People need springtails. It’s just that most people don’t know it...(laughing) We think we’re really important—way up at the tippy top of that food pyramid—but it’s a food pyramid of cards if we’re not careful.
Narrator: I looked down at the tiny specks then out across the impossibly wide landscape. Springtails…Landscape…Springtails…Landscape… Mind. Absolutely. Blown.
EO: I mean it's really easy to be fascinated by a beautiful butterfly or a dragonfly that might you know perched next to you on your on your picnic here in the park. But we're really just starting to understand how incredibly dependent on all of these organisms we are and how important they are to the fabric of the landscape and all of its interdependencies that are playing out here in Yellowstone. EO: And they're also just really cool looking. So we'll show you some under the microscope later on…
Narrator As we pack up to leave, Erik checks in with one of his recruits. EO: How many steps on your Fitbit today? Jenny: Nineteen thousand six hundred and five. EO: So by the time we get back to the car that'll be twenty thousand steps…That's about a ten mile day in quarter mile increments from one pitfall to the next…
Narrator: Erik’s pitfall sites move upslope from low elevation to high elevation. Erik will be able to record findings across a gradient spanning more than a vertical mile. What’s more, his project ties into nation-wide network of monitoring sites designed to understand how our ecosystems are changing over time. Erik will be able to compare what he sees here in Yellowstone to the results of the National Ecological Observatory Network.
Narrator: In Erik’s office, two microscopes sit on a table tucked under a shelf lined with books. This is his insect processing laboratory. It’s where everything from basin to summit gets sorted and catalogued.
EO: So we’re really establishing a baseline for what the current ecosystem looks like in Yellowstone from the Gardiner basin to the top of Mount Washburn. Narrator: Erik shows me a sampling of this season’s catch under the microscope. EO: If you adjust the black knob… Narrator: I finally figured that out EO: So this is a little time capsule of the biodiversity that happened to be crawling around under the sagebrush habitat here in Yellowstone. So for this tiny little two week window where we deployed our pitfall traps, this is what we found. These are all springtails. Jen: Oh my gosh! That’s Crazy! EO: Yeah. Narrator: To the naked eye, each springtail looks like a click or two of a mechanical pencil lead, but under the power of the microscope, they transform into extraordinary, shrimp-like beasts. EO: So, day in and day out, year in and year out, those little critters, those tiny, pale, translucent gems, those are things that make our soil. Narrator: Erik says that what’s really interesting is that they’re finding more springtails at sites that are heavily impacted by human activities and fewer springtails at sites that are considered more pristine. EO: I don’t know why that is. We would need to send these off to a taxonomist expert who might make some more informed speculations about this, but if your ecological niche is to make topsoil, it would make sense that you would be in a place where topsoil needed to be made… EO: So I don’t know what’s going on there, but those are clues that nature is telling us that something is going on that’s worth investigating.
EO: Um, do you notice that it looks like they have kind of a long tail? Jen: Yeah I do, I see that EO: OK. That’s the furcula!
Jen: (breaking up into laughter) Oh, well, of course! EO: (laughing) Of course, Jennifer! Clearly you can see the furcula.
EO: The furcula is the modified abdominal segment that is the jumping, escape organ for the springtail… EO …So it folds that little lever under its abdomen and if anything frightens it or tries to grab it or eat it, it releases that furcular—that folded lever under its body—and launches itself 20 to 40 body lengths away from where it was. EO: Wouldn’t it be fun if you had the superpower of being able to launch yourself 20 to 40 body lengths away…that’s kind of a cool skill. Jen: We should look up what the world record is for long jump EO: I bet you springtails have got it hands down.
EO: What you’re looking at is a piece of biological sculpture crafted over 350 million years. EO: So, I think we have a lot to learn from these little guys. EO: We know a tiny, tiny fraction of the life cycles of these different organisms that we’ve captured. Getting them into the lab where we can study them further is just the very first step in this process of discovery and exploration.
Narrator: It’s discovery and exploration in miniature. But with huge impacts. What scientists like Erik and Kelly want us to remember is that it’s the little things. It’s often the things we can’t see that really drive ecosystems like Yellowstone. And without those little things in Yellowstone, Yellowstone as we know it might be a very different place.
SCOTT CHRISTY: I'm standing on the side of the Loop Road in Northern Yellowstone with biologist Andrew Ray and his intern Kaci Fitzgibbon Before we hike away from the road Andrew is explaining how to deploy bear spray in case we have a close encounter with a bear. He holds the eight-inch canister of pepper spray in one hand and puts his thumb on the plastic safety.
ANDREW RAY: But if somethings coming, we're all gonna sort of stand abreast, we're gonna face it, we're gonna talk to it, but we're gonna have this at the ready and part of having this at the ready is having your safety off. 'cause otherwise you're just pushing down on the safety. KACI FITZGIBBON: Yeah. ANDREW RAY: Sound good. KACI FITZGIBBON: Yeah.
SCOTT CHRISTY: Andrew spreads out a map across the tailgate of his truck and points to a spot in the mountains above us. ANDREW RAY: So just to give you guys a quick orientation. So we're here on loop road and you know big Blacktail Ponds. Anyway we're over here, we're gonna hike up and our goal is to hit site number two, there. ANDREW RAY: So it's a nice little pond sitting on the top of the hill—fantastic views. And it's a great spot for of chorus frogs and tiger salamanders.
SCOTT CHRISTY: Andrew is a biologist with the National Park Service’s Inventory and Monitoring Division.
ANDREW RAY: Yeah, I get to spend my summer knee-deep in these habitats that most people don't take time to wade into. And I get to explore them.
SCOTT CHRISTY: It’s May and snow is still melting off the higher elevations in the park. Hiking up the hill far above the road we bump into seven or eight elk moving off into the trees. We start talking about how the haunting sounds of elk bugling in the fall are one of the signature sounds of the Rocky Mountains.
ANDREW RAY: Yeah, so just as much of that leaves an impression that rich, real, authentic sound of wildlife, that's what chorus frogs are. That's the sound of a marsh. If marshes make sound, that's the sound of a marsh.
SCOTT CHRISTY: And Andrew says we’ll know the frogs when we hear them. They sing, sometimes a few at a time and sometimes a full chorus of many frogs. Moving over the hill, we see a small pond below us. There’s a wet grassy area leading into it. We think we hear a few chorus frogs, but they quiet down as we approach.
ANDREW RAY: Yeah, but that's the really cool thing about frogs is once you sit there and you sit still, they'll resume what they were doing. They'll suspend calling for a little bit and go into that cover, duck and cover mode but once you sit there and they realize you're not a threat, they'll resume what they're doing so they'll go right back to calling.
SCOTT CHRISTY: We sit quietly for a few minutes, and then, one by one, they start singing again.
ANDREW RAY: It's pretty fun to try to break it down. It sounded like two individuals are down there for a while then a third chimed and there was at least one here. And they're actually really rapid calls so it's just a second or two and it's like you're running your thumb down the tines of a comb—that sound, right? And then they'll do maybe 20 of those, or 25 of those in a minute, so they're really blasting it out advertising where they are. You now hear one over there.
SCOTT CHRISTY: Okay yeah, so what are they doing right now?
ANDREW RAY: They're advertising their presence. They're ultimately trying to attract a mate, but they're letting other males know they're present, that they've got the spot of the pond and then they're letting a female know where they are. They're so small, the vocalizations can help bring in the female.
SCOTT CHRISTY: Sometimes, the frogs will chorus from April all the way into July. And when they really get going, the sound can be intense… like this…
CHORUS FROG RECORDING FROM ARCHIVES
SCOTT CHRISTY: But Andrew says their full sound isn’t even the most unusual part about chorus frogs. Later in the year as late fall comes to Yellowstone…
ANDREW RAY: They are looking for a place to go hibernate. ANDREW RAY: And then you start to see... well, we can't see it obviously, but people who have measured it have started to see changes in their blood chemistry. ANDREW RAY: Essentially, they're creating an antifreeze.
SCOTT CHRISTY: Yep, he said anti-freeze. It’s a pretty amazing adaptation allowing them to survive winter in Yellowstone. A winter that can last up to six months. The chorus frogs make their version of ‘anti-freeze’ by producing extra glucose in their blood.
ANDREW RAY: What happens is, upwards of two thirds of their body is frozen. Completely frozen with a heart that has stopped, altogether, limbs that don't move, and lungs that don't function.
SCOTT CHRISTY: And the glucose in their blood protects their cells from collapsing while frozen.
ANDREW RAY: They're in that state as long as it's snowy.
ANDREW RAY: But it's absolutely remarkable to me that they over winter just inches below the surface.
SCOTT CHRISTY: And as crazy as that is, freezing just below the surface turns out to have a big benefit as winter comes to a close.
ANDREW RAY: When temperatures start to warm in the spring, the exact opposite happens, right? You start to get a little bit of heart and lung function. And, eventually, their extremities start to move. And the cool part about that is, when you're really close to the surface, and you get some warm, early, warm spring days, you're the first to respond. If the other species of amphibians are a meter down below the frost line, and deep into burrows, the temperatures aren't changing as rapidly as they are at the surface. So, these frogs are the first to get into ponds, as soon as the ice and snow is off the surface. And, so they're in the ponds earliest, because they are the closest to the surface.
SCOTT CHRISTY: This gives the chorus frogs a potential advantage over other amphibians and more time to take advantage of seasonal wetlands that may dry up later in the summer.
SCOTT CHRISTY: Yellowstone is home to four other species of amphibians including western tiger salamanders, Columbia spotted frogs, western toads, and plains spadefoot toads. There is one kind of environment they all need – shallow-water habitats. Biologists are concerned about how much of this habitat will be available in the future. As temperatures in the earth’s climate rise, these shallow-water habitats could dry up.
ANDREW RAY: One of the consequences of a warmer climate is less snow and less water to fill places like this. So the sounds that we hear, that are unique to this place, and the organisms that are present in these habitats, they don't have the ability to escape that. They don't have the ability to move away from that. There will most certainly be water and snow in Yellowstone long into the future. But a river with fish or a deep lake with fish is very different than this place that's before us. And so I guess the thing I want people to think about is there are biodiversity and physical consequences to a warming temperature. And these special habitats that are so biologically rich, they're the most threatened by a changing climate.
SCOTT CHRISTY: In one warm, dry year during the monitoring study, the shallow-water habitat shrunk by 40%. This led to a 50% reduction in breeding pairs of Boreal chorus frogs. Andrew thinks it’s likely we’ll see more of that in the future. And the potential for shrinking amphibian habitat isn’t just in Yellowstone.
ANDREW RAY: I mean, these are a group of organisms that were here before dinosaurs were here. So they're going to be here probably after humans are gone. But I think we can expect a future that has fewer amphibian species than were here, historically. And when I say here, I don't necessarily mean Yellowstone, but I mean on earth. And there are places where there really is a crisis, where amphibians are blinking out.
SCOTT CHRISTY: Andrew says the Northern Leopard frog, which used to be present just south of Yellowstone in Grand Teton National Park, hasn’t been seen in decades. Understanding what is going on with the remaining amphibians in Yellowstone depends on the data Andrew and others are collecting.
ANDREW RAY: So we study 31 watersheds around Yellowstone and Grand Teton, spread all around the park or all around both parks. And they represent just, what, one percent? I think there's 3,370 watersheds and we study just 31 of them. But we revisit those watersheds every year and we survey all of the ponds in those watersheds and it’s our hope that in one decade or in two decades we’ll have a data set that really does allow us to talk about long term change.
ANDREW RAY: So, while a warm year now may be followed by a cool, wet year, our future in this place looks drier. Which I think our data suggests means fewer ponds that support breeding chorus frogs, but also fewer ponds that support breeding Columbia spotted frogs, tiger salamanders, and western toads. While those are our vital signs, there's lots of other wetland dependent species. Beavers, trumpeter swans, moose, bats. Some bats are specialists to wetlands. If you have fewer wetlands on the landscape, you have fewer opportunities for those individuals to access water. While we're studying frogs, we like to remind people that they serve as just a proxy for other species that are dependent on wetlands. SCOTT CHRISTY: We are standing near the small pond when the weather starts to shift. Darker clouds move in off the horizon and Andrew, Casey, and I decide to pack up and head back toward the trucks. As we’re getting ready to go I asked Andrew why they chose boreal chorus frogs to monitor in the first place.
ANDREW RAY: We know that amphibians don't occupy every wetland in Yellowstone. We'd be naïve to think that they do. But we know species like boreal chorus frogs, from our monitoring, they occur in a third of the wetland habitats throughout Yellowstone and Grand Teton. That's high elevation, that's low elevation, that's near a river, that's far away from a river, they can use shallow, isolated habitats. And using something that's common and widespread is valuable. If those things become imperiled, the things that we know historically were common, then that should give us pause. That should make us think about what might be driving that change.
SCOTT CHRISTY: Biologists view amphibians as a kind of litmus test for big-picture changes in the environment – and the overall health of the environment. But Andrew thinks amphibians have value beyond being a vital sign for the park.
ANDREW RAY: I think it's relatable because a lot of us have had experiences with amphibians and we can still have those today. ANDREW RAY: But amphibians, like so many organisms, are experiencing declines. It's an opportunity to discuss our impacts, societal impacts on biology, but it's also a place to talk about discovery and to talk about biodiversity and to talk about climate change and to talk about the value of parks and protected places. CHORUS FROG SOUNDS SLOWLY FADING IN MUSIC FADING UNDER
ANDREW RAY: So to me, why do we care, because Yellowstone is a place that's still intact. And in terms of the lower 48, it's a really special place because it has its full complement of species. So it's important that we look not only at grizzly bears and wolves and bison, but it's important that we also look at frogs and fish and micro-organisms. ANDREW RAY: The most basic and fundamental part is that it is a part of Yellowstone’s biodiversity.
CHORUS FROGS MUSIC
SCOTT CHRISTY: For Yellowstone National Park, I’m Scott Christy. MUSIC FADING OUT CHORUS FROGS OUTRO
(SOUND OF CROWD)
People around you look at their watches, and then back up, waiting for something to happen. And right then this starts…
(SOUND OF OLD FAITHFUL WITH CROWDS)
SCOTT CHRISTY: A stream of water shoots four or five feet out of a hole in the ground. It pulses up and down a few times and then jets over a hundred feet into the air.
(SOUND OF CLOSE OLD FAITHFUL)
SCOTT CHRISTY: And it continues to do this for a few minutes. This would be Old Faithful erupting next to you. The most famous of Yellowstone’s features. It does that all the time, with similar blasts coming from the ground at least every two hours.
MIKE POLAND – I don't know, I get caught up just like anyone else. When I am vising Old Faithful, I stop and I watch the eruptions.
SCOTT CHRISTY: That’s Mike Poland, the Scientist-in Charge at the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory.
MIKE POLAND - Doesn't matter how many times you see it. It's no less spectacular to me than the first time I saw it. And the more you know about what's driving this, I think the more spectacular it becomes. It's this heat engine that's beneath our feet that's made this possible. You're seeing the upper expression of this heat engine right at the surface. And I think it's a magical sort of thought to have as you're watching these geysers go off.
SCOTT CHRISTY: While there are geysers all over the world, Mike says that Yellowstone is famous for holding the greatest concentration of geysers anywhere.
MIKE POLAND: in order to get a geyser to really go, you need heat, you need water and heat. And of course we have plenty of water around here. The heat is supplied by a magma body that's underneath Yellowstone.
SCOTT CHRISTY: Which is basically a bunch of molten rock from the earth’s mantle rising up into the earth’s crust.
MIKE POLAND: The magma body is sometimes referred to as a supervolcano, or the Yellowstone system is called a supervolcano. It gets that name because it can be the source of some truly humongous eruptions. JAKE LOWENSTERN: Yeah, this is kind of a funny jargon sorts of stuff. SCOTT CHRISTY: That's Jake Lowenstern. He was Mike’s predecessor as the head of the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory. Jake says that what defines a volcano as a super volcano is a past super eruption. And that such eruptions are really, really big. JAKE LOWENSTERN: Super eruption is a meaningful term and that's when you have more than a thousand cubic kilometers of material that comes out in a single event. Let's kind of visualize that. A thousand cubic kilometers if you took the state of Texas and you buried it five feet deep in material.
SCOTT CHRISTY: These super-eruptions are much bigger than the largest volcanic eruptions of the 20th century, like Mt. St. Helens or Pinatubo. So much bigger that the amount of ash they put into the sky can change the climate of the entire earth. The closest we’ve come to one in modern history was in 1815, when an eruption of Mt. Tambora in Indonesia threw so much ash in the atmosphere that it was known as the ‘Year Without a Summer’. The eruption and following climate change caused crops to fail in both Europe and New England and even prompted Lord Byron to write a poem about that summer titled “Darkness.” And Tambora’s 1815 eruption? It is dwarfed in size by Yellowstone’s pre-historic super-eruptions— at least ten times smaller.
There are a number of volcanos other than Yellowstone that have produced a super-eruption in the past, but Jake says that in the earth’s history these big super-eruptions are pretty rare, with one going off every 100,000 years or so on average. And, much like Yellowstone, these other super-volcanoes are not usually the cone-shaped mountains we often associate with volcanoes—not that big triangle you might have drawn in grade school. Instead these super-volcanoes are essentially giant sink holes, surrounded by mountains. These sink holes or calderas, are what’s left after devastatingly large super eruptions take place, blowing up everything that used to be there. Just like with Yellowstone’s caldera—a caldera about the size of Rhode Island.
JAKE LOWENSTERN: It's had three very, very large volcanic eruptions. The most recent one was 640,000 years old so that seems incredibly old, and it is, but that was one of the largest eruptions in the last 20 million years in the United States and it's one of the big eruptions on earth that's well-recorded in a geologic record. And, um, Yellowstone is capable of doing that.
JAKE LOWENSTERN: So you have a lot of different things that happen here, yet because everybody has in their mind this one kind of big bad eruption, everybody assumes that if there is an eruption, it has to be the worse case scenario and that everybody is doomed. That's just wrong.
SCOTT CHRISTY: According to Jake, the kind of eruption most likely at Yellowstone would have a more regional impact. A small scale eruption that could come in a few forms. A giant belch of superheated gas and water from Yellowstone’s underground plumbing system or oozing lava flows like the ones in Hawaii.
JAKE LOWENSTERN: It'll affect the people in the park and it'll affect the park if something like that happens. There will be forest fires, when you bring lava out in the ground, it's hot. There is going to be road closures. You might dam up some rivers but it's not going to be a national event and that's the most likely kind of thing that can happen and even that, it's not very likely. One hasn't happened for 70,000 years.
SCOTT CHRISTY: You can still see evidence of pre-historic lava-flows throughout the park. Flows that birthed the main plateaus of rock across Yellowstone. But again Jake really isn’t too worried about new lava flows or other events popping up any time soon.
JAKE LOWENSTERN: if I were offered a job here and if I were at the right time of life, I would certainly live here in a second.
SCOTT CHRISTY: Learning more about the Yellowstone volcano’s past and paying attention to its present is what scientists like Mike and Jake do as members of the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory. Scientists at the observatory come from groups like the United States Geological Survey, the National Park Service, and Universities of the states surrounding the park. Again, Mike Poland,
MIKE POLAND: Some of us are geophysicists. Some of us are geochemists. Some of us specialize in gas emissions or rock compositions. Other people specialize in locating earthquakes. It's a unique group of scientists. And it's all really getting at ways of better understanding the current activity and the processes that are happening now beneath our feet.
SCOTT CHRISTY: Research trying to understand the volcano can lead scientists in unexpected directions. Mike and fellow researcher Elske de Zeeuw-van Dalfsen are standing in the middle of a lodgepole pine forest as heavy wind whips the trees back and forth.
MIKE POLAND: My goodness. I know they're designed to do this but it's a little unnerving to be, okay.
SCOTT CHRISTY: As Mike and Elska deploy a sensitive piece of equipment to measure gravity at the site. A pine maybe 30 feet tall breaks and falls to the ground while the rest of the trees continue to crack and whine.
MIKE POLAND: That would be an interesting manifestation in the gravity record if we had it running when that tree fell. Because we’d detect the vibrations from that.
MIKE POLAND: We're doing a gravity survey throughout the park right now and the idea is that gravity actually isn't a constant. It varies depending on what's beneath your feet. It will especially vary over time if there's an influx in mass beneath the ground, say or water or magma. If there's more or water or magma beneath the ground, gravity actually pulls a little stronger and we can record that with these instruments.
SCOTT CHRISTY: These measurements of gravity could provide a better understanding of changes in the magma chamber below the park, and are one example of ongoing research at the Observatory. Scientists are also studying the age of gases released by geysers and fumaroles to understand how old the molten rocks below the surface are, and where in the earth’s crust they are being melted from. Other researchers are measuring recent ground deformation, which means the changing shape of the earth’s surface caused from below. In 2014, in the park near Norris,
MIKE POLAND: the ground began to uplift by several centimeters a year, which is extraordinary by geologic standards. This is something that of course you wouldn't notice, but measuring with GPS and with radar satellites we could see this uplift.
MIKE POLAND: Then there was an earthquake.
MIKE POLAND: And right after this magnitude 4 or so earthquake, the ground started to subside by about the same rate, several centimeters a year.
SCOTT CHRISTY: Researchers think that earthquake was caused by pressure releasing. Heated water accumulating behind a seal and the seal breaking. Afterwards the ground started falling as the water drained out from behind the barrier. And while all this research helps scientists better understand whats going on under the park, Yellowstone’s past of large eruptions can add a dramatic flair to current events surrounding the volcano. In 2017 thousands of earthquakes were detected occurring in just over three months near West Yellowstone. Major news outlets often covered the story of the earthquake swarms and were quick to cite the potential for disaster.
MIKE POLAND: It seems that whenever there's an earthquake swarm at Yellowstone this idea that the volcano is about to erupt comes up. And there are swarms all the time. If it were true that Yellowstone swarms were indicating an eruption was imminent, then eruption is likely to be imminent every year. So this is just the way Yellowstone works. Yellowstone releases seismic energy in swarms. Some swarms are big. Some swarms are small.
MIKE POLAND: It's what Yellowstone does. So they're not anything to get worried about. In my opinion, they're more something to get interested by. MIKE POLAND: the rocks that are around tell a heck of a story. There are lava flows all over the interior of the caldera. Outside the caldera there are tufts, welded ash deposits, thick ash deposits from the large eruptions that have occurred over the last two million years. MIKE POLAND: Obsidians and ash flows and basalt lava flows all mingled together to tell this story. MIKE POLAND: So there's a story recorded in the rocks, which tells the geologic history of Yellowstone, and it's an interesting story. (MUSIC)
SCOTT CHRISTY: And this story, the story of the volcano, can be seen everywhere in Yellowstone. It’s one of the things that makes Yellowstone so unique. The shapes of land, the courses of the rivers, and all of the amazing thermal features. They are all dictated by the volcano. Even plant and animal habitats in the park are defined by volcanic rock types. The volcano isn’t just written across the landscape, it is the landscape. And this is something special to see, even for a scientist studying it.
MIKE POLAND: Not only is there a lot of activity to measure, a lot of things to observe, but it's a spectacular place. Period. (SOUND OF OLD FAITHFUL COMING BACK IN FADED IN UNDER)
MIKE POLAND: There's a reason that there are millions of people a year that come to visit. It's really a privilege to work in such a spectacular place, not just geologically and vulcanologically, but also in terms of its ecology, in terms of its landscapes. It's a real wonderland.
GEYSER GOING BIGGER SOUND
MIKE POLAND: So come to Yellowstone and look at the landscape and explore the geology.
SCOTT CHRISTY: For Yellowstone National Park, I’m Scott Christy
MUSIC FADE AND OLD FAITHFUL OUTRO
(sounds of spring bird calls)
Narrator: There’s nothing like this time of year in Yellowstone. (sounds of spring birds)
Narrator: And while most creatures in Yellowstone are busily singing their hearts out this time of year, there’s one animal that actually gets a little quieter in the spring and summer.
(sounds of wolf howls)
Narrator: And that’s the wolf. You see, there’s a seasonal cycle to wolf howling. Howling ramps up through the fall and peaks in late winter as wolves enter the breeding season. Then, come springtime,
(wolf howls out)
Kira: Howling abruptly drops off. This is caused by the female choosing a place to den that they really want to keep secret if at all possible.
Narrator: That’s Kira Cassidy, research associate with the Yellowstone Wolf Project.
Kira: Choosing a den site is extremely important for a wolf pack. It's going to be their hub for the entire summer. It's the house of the entire next generation ... and it has to be protected of course because the tiny helpless pups are going to be there for several months. We've had cases where a pack has attacked another wolves' den and even killed the pups in some cases. They don't really want to let other packs know where they are and what they're doing…and in order to avoid that they keep quiet.
Narrator: It’s not only the frequency of howling that changes throughout the year, but the type of howling shifts, too.
Kira: Wolves howl for a couple of different reasons. Some of that would be within the pack so to keep track of each other, say if they’ve been separated.
Narrator: Even though they’re doing a lot less of it, this is the kind of howling that tends to dominate in the spring and summer: Wolves communicating with their own packmates.
Kira: They also howl to let other packs know where they are and to establish a territory.
Narrator: Wolves will often have these howling bouts with other packs. The two packs will howl back and forth as if to say this is our turf—our territory. And it’s that howling for territoriality—--that grows in the months leading up to the winter breeding season.
Kira: Howling really tracks the hormones as the wolves are getting ready for the breeding season.
The testosterone will start to spike and howling starts to increase. It's a stressful time in some ways. They do a lot of howling during the breeding season.
Kira: I think they use howling as a way to advertise the number of wolves they have in the pack, the type of wolves they have in the pack. If they have a lot of big male fighters, that's going to come across in a howling bout with another pack.
And in some ways, wolves may be able to use it to avoid a fight with another pack too. They can create that space between each other…They can do that and let the other pack know where they are but also let them know who they are.
Narrator: Kira’s specialty is looking at territoriality in wolves and inter-pack aggression, basically when two rival packs come into contact with each other and fight. Sometimes wolves fight until one pack or one animal displaces another. Sometimes they fight to the death.
Kira: This stuff , this running into other packs is so vastly important to a wolf pack. Of all the wolves that live in Yellowstone that we’ve radiocollared. By the time they live their entire lives, some of them disperse outside of Yellowstone of course, but if they live their whole life in Yellowstone, two thirds of them end up being killed by other wolves.
Kira: I really became interested in territoriality when I saw a couple of these things play out… I saw a handful of times the Druid Peak pack ran into some of their neighbors. It was pretty fascinating the way it happened. They were intruding in other pack's territories. They were sometimes outnumbered but still winning…. I wanted to know why they’re winning or who’s winning.
Kira: So when two packs run into each other, we always like to think of it as team one versus team two and in some cases that works, but that's really kind of a human way looking at it. A pack of wolves is made up of--it's often a family--but it's made up of all of these different individuals who are driven by different things going on in their life, and some of those things we can measure.
Kira: Of all the packs we measured, one of the things that was most important was just being in a larger pack. Which wasn’t really surprising. It was kind of cool to figure out the value of one wolf. Just having one wolf more than your rival ups your chances of winning quite a bit.
Kira: Yeah so, If you live in a pack of say six wolves and you run into a pack of five, your odds of winning…are a 2.4 to 1. The value of just having one extra wolf is extremely important.
Narrator: And if you live in a pack with more males? That also ups your chances of a win during inter-pack aggression--by about 65% Kira: But the most important factor was having a single old wolf in your pack.
Kira: If you live in a pack of, say, five and one of your pack mates is old, you're better off living in that pack than just having another sixth wolf, that old wolf is more important than having the numbers. And that shocked me at first because I really thought that these prime aged animals would be best…. If there is any age that mattered at all, then it would be the big fighters that are strong. But the old wolves have years and years of experience. The older wolves have been through these aggressive interactions before. They've probably seen pack mates die. They may have participated in killing a rival or at least chasing and attacking a rival. They know what to do. They don't panic.
Kira: After learning that, it really drove home this connection back to other animals but also humans. There's an oldest animal in the pack that's bringing leadership and knowledge and experience to the group that once they die is gone.
Narrator: “old” for Kira’s research is six years old. That’s the median age of death for wolves in Yellowstone.
Kira: We've had wolves live up to 12 and a half. That was our oldest. We've had only a handful--eight or so--live to be more than 10 years old. Three of them are still alive. The Canyon alpha pair is a great example: We know that the alpha male was born in 2006. We know that the alpha female was born in 2005 and we followed them throughout their entire lives. Not only are they both pretty old for wolves, two of the oldest that we've been able to follow, but they've been a pair now together for nine years which is pretty special. I don't know if anyone has recorded a pair living so long together.
Narrator: So, Kira and I first talked back in April 2017. And a few days after we did this interview, the Canyon alpha female was mortally wounded. But not by other wolves. She had been shot.
Hikers found her near a trail on the north side of the park and, due to the severity of her injuries, park staff had to euthanize her.
Kira: So, after the canyon alpha female was poached, it got me really thinking about what was going on with the rest of her pack and certainly the loss of her was a pretty big blow to them. And also, what a lot of people don’t know is that her mate disappeared. We’re not sure if he left to go find another mate now that she was gone or if he died for some other different reason around that same time. …and so with the loss of the two of them together, they had over two decades worth of knowledge--on how to avoid other packs, how to find food in this ecosystem, how to pick an appropriate den site and raise their pups--and so that knowledge that they had accumulated over all this time was gone. Now hopefully, the rest of the pack--and we think there may be three, four, maybe five of them left--hopefully they’ve been taught well enough.
(wolf howls and music)
Narrator: But Kira says it’s important to remember that for wolves, life goes on. That these animals have a sovereignty and self-determination that can’t be stripped away. That hopefully, the Canyon wolves will take this challenge, like they take all challenges, in long, steady stride.
(wolf howls and music)
Narrator: For Yellowstone National Park, I’m Jennifer Jerrett. This podcast is supported in part by Yellowstone Forever and the "Eyes on Yellowstone" program. "Eyes on Yellowstone" is made possible by Canon, USA. This program represents the largest corporate donation for wildlife conservation in the park. This is "Telemetry." Thanks for listening.
Narrator - This is John Cataldo, the Fire Management Officer for Yellowstone National Park. Which means it’s his job to manage everything having to do with fire in the Park.
JOHN CATALDO - It seems like we're always at work in the summer and somehow at least my impression is that 80% of the fires we get are when I'm at home eating dinner. So, fires and telemarketers are who finds me a seven o'clock at night, at my home.
Narrator - And on the night of August 8th, 2016, John got that kind of call. An aircraft full of smokejumpers flying over Yellowstone National Park spotted a new fire. The jumper aircraft circled the fire, collected a GPS location, and then they texted John’s crew.
JOHN CATALDO - Yeah, sent us a photo. I mean, that's the information age, right? So we had a report we had a photo from the aircraft of the fire. It gave us a basic idea of the fuels that were in the immediate vicinity of it. It was about ¼-acre and that’s generally speaking, what I have to work with in a remote environment .
Narrator - The fire was located on the far western side of the Park, just about six miles east of the town of West Yellowstone. So John did what he often does. He notified the Deputy Superintendent and the Chief Ranger, and then he called Yellowstone’s fire ecologist to run the nearest weather station for wind data. And then very early the next morning John poured over maps of the area and all the collected data on the new fire, and he had this really big decision to make. To put the fire out or to let it burn.
JOHN CATALDO - Essentially it comes down to do we think this is a good fire or a bad fire?
Narrator - And with this fire, the Maple Fire, being so close to the town of West Yellowstone was a huge consideration.
JOHN CATALDO - A lot goes into it, but at the end of the day it's a real estate game, and it's location, location, location.
Narrator - But the fire had two things going for it being a good fire. First, 95% of the winds in recorded history at the closest weather station had blown from the west or southwest. Directions that would push the flames farther away from the community of West Yellowstone and deeper into the park backcountry. So while winds were likely to push the fire in the other direction, John knew that the proximity to West Yellowstone would have a lot of people interested in this fire.
JOHN CATALDO - Well, you want to provide insurance, so 95%'s pretty high number, right? If I gave you 95% odds on a blackjack hand, you'd probably push your house payment out there, but 5% is a pretty substantial risk if you're the one living in the community on the 5% end of that.
Narrator - But the second thing that helped managers feel like the Maple fire might be a good fire? It was that the fire had started in an area that had burned way back in the 1988 fire season.
JOHN CATALDO - If you were to play word association with anyone in West Yellowstone since 1988, and you say "'88," the first thing they're going to say is "fire." There's no other word.
Narrator - 1988 was a particularly dry summer in Yellowstone. When lightning storms hit the Park in August large fires sprouted everywhere. Fires so big, tens of thousands of fire fighters were mobilized to fight them. National news covered the events nightly.
(Roy Renkin): In recorded history, we had not been that dry…
Narrator - That's Roy Renkin, a Yellowstone Vegetation Management Specialist who has been looking at fire’s effects in the Park for almost 40 years. Roy saw the 1988 fires firsthand.
ROY RENKIN - …and as a consequence these fires were large with these big flaming fronts… and they were moving and with dramatic spread rates. You could up measure them in multiple kilometers per hour
and you fly along at the head of some of these fires and you would think that you know the fire is moving faster than the aircraft. Its pretty dramatic stuff.
Narrator - And back in 1988 there was a lot of pressure to put these fires out. For 100 years the majority of land managers had been putting out almost every every wildfire they could immediately. And it was part of greater American culture to automatically think of forest fires as a threat. And because fires hadn’t burned in Yellowstone for hundreds of years, the forests were thick with fuels to burn. A whole lot of fuel in a really dry year. The fires got big enough that their smoke blew all the way from Wyoming to Chicago. Media scrutiny was intense. So much so that President Ronald Reagan weighed in sending in the military to fight the fires.
ROY RENKIN - , it was a quarter of an inch of snow on September eleventh of 1988 that did what , you know, ten thousand firefighters, 220 different aircraft, you know so many miles of fire line you know, couldn’t do that put a halt to the eighty-eight fires. A quarter of an inch of snow.
ROY REKIN - but what people don't realize is that these fires, just like the sun comes up in the day and the moon comes up at night, western forests burn.
Narrator - By the end of the ’88 fire season nearly 800,000 acres in Yellowstone had burned. One third of the entire Park. That much area burning in a protected ecosystem created a unique place to study the effects of big fires on the landscape. Scientists noted a series of benefits to that ecosystem after the 88 fires, demonstrating a value to letting naturally-caused fires burn. Chief amongst them, the pattern of areas burned in different years created a mosaic of forest ages with a diversity of plants present. And this diversity of habitats was really good for most animals. Also, since there was less fuel where previous fires burned through, the mosaic of past fires helped provide a really great boundary to stop new forest fires from becoming large.
Narrator - Which brings us back to the Maple Fire starting in 2016 and the decision John Cataldo had to make… to let the Maple Fire burn or to put it out.
JOHN CATALDO - Well, fire is the lifeblood of the Yellowstone ecosystem, so if we exclude fire, essentially this ecosystem as we know it dies. It would grow decadent and expire. Fire here is essentially the ecological reset button, and our job is to keep as much of it on the landscape as we can safely do, but it's complicated.
JOHN CATALDO - we're just facilitating the conversation between fire and humans essentially. This park will never have a fire problem. Essentially what it has is 2000 structures and four million visitors that we need to work our tails off during fire season to keep separated from the fire that we need on the landscape, and that's the challenge. It's 2000 structures and four million visitors.
Narrator - And so here was this new fire, the Maple Fire, started by a lightning strike in the middle of a big area that had burned in 1988. And since 1988, due to that mosaic of forest ages, fires starting in the 88 burn area hadn’t really gone anywhere. And so John and his team decided to let the fire burn thinking it would just kind of sputter out.
JOHN CATALDO - The eyes were wide open as that fire persisted and became two acres, and then five, and then maybe a week or so into the fire being on the landscape it was in the hundreds and we knew that we were going to have a substantial fire until the snow flew.
Narrator - And for everyone who studies fire in Yellowstone, this fact, a fire growing large in the 88 burn scar, was something odd.
JOHN CATALDO – Generally speaking, up to that point, the ’88 fire scar in a lot of ways was almost viewed as asbestos. It was a great natural barrier to fire spread so for a lot of our fires since ’88 we were using that fire scar as a boundary.
Narrator - But not anymore.
Narrator - A tall column of smoke formed as the fire grew. A huge plume that could be seen from far away. Just six miles away in West Yellowstone, residents started to get nervous about their proximity to the growing fire.
JOHN CATALDO - Things were tense in West Yellowstone, particularly in the beginning of the life of the Maple Fire. I joke about it now, but some of those first public meetings were 200 pitchforks and tiki torches out there in the crowd.
Narrator - A dozen fire public information officers were brought in to organize daily public meetings to make sure the most current information and management plan was getting out. In total over 400 firefighters were assigned to manage the blaze.
JOHN CATALDO - To be honest, the strategy that was eventually employed by the incident management team was something we'd sketched out on a cocktail napkin on about the third day of that fire burning.
Narrator - The main plan was to control the fire’s edge near West Yellowstone and let the fire keep burning slowly, like lava, eastward. To do so, firefighters would allow the fire to chew it’s way toward the the Madison River on the west side. Then, using the river as a boundary, they’d employ a tactic called a backfire—starting a new fire on the edge of the river—and as the Maple Fire sucked in air to feed its flames, it would pull the fire-fighter ignited burn eastward. The two fires would then join leaving no more fuel on the western flank for the Maple Fire to carry into. And it worked, but managers were still surprised that the fire was burning in the ’88 burn scar at all.
JOHN CATALDO - We suspect it was the extreme dryness of the large logs that were dead and downed and underneath. For a lot of the Maple Fire area, the fire wasn't carrying through the tops of the vegetation. It was actually first burning underneath through the heavy woody debris, and it would scorch and dry out things enough above it that they would eventually become consumed after the main fire had passed.
Narrator - But other than burning in the ’88 burn scar the Maple Fire did what many people thought it would do. For the most part it kept slowly burning east while firefighters watched over it. And eventually, much like the ‘88 fire season, snow and rain in September put the Maple fire out. All of which was what fire managers had planned for.
JOHN CATALDO - Now the community of West Yellowstone has a 45,000 acre fire scar on one side of it that is going to insulate it from any fires that we may want to control and can't that originate in that part of the park.
Narrator - And both John and Roy say that warmer overall temperatures associated with climate change are likely to complicate fire on the landscape. With predictions of fire becoming more likely in the park, the overall makeup of forests will likely change too. Some tree species, such as lodgepole pine are expected to decline, while others like Douglas fir become more prevalent. And this changing environment in Yellowstone poses new challenges that have fire managers like John looking toward the future.
JOHN CATALDO - Essentially from where I'm sitting, because I'm one of the ones making the decision whether a fire should be encouraged to be on the landscape or suppressed, is I just keep defaulting to fire is what this ecosystem needs. Ultimately if climate change dictates that the ecosystem looks differently or functions differently, it's going to be with fire in it. We're not going to start going backwards and putting out fires out of fear of climate change.
Narrator - And John says that seeing the big picture is the main reason not to go backwards.
Like the expression goes, "You trust the process." What we're doing is managing processes. We're not managing species. We're not even just managing plant communities. We're managing entire processes that we don't completely, and nor will ever completely understand all of the interrelationships of what fire brings to that. So trusting the process.
Narrator - For Yellowstone National Park, I’m Scott Christy.
Narrator: This is Dan Stahler. And—I swear—Dan Stahler practically has fur in his blood. He studies wolves and elk…He’s the endangered species coordinator for Yellowstone National Park. And he’s the project lead for Yellowstone’s research on mountain lions—also called pumas or cougars—And last year, Dan and his team had a cougar mystery to solve.
Dan Stahler: All right, Good Morning. It’s January 28th. Dan Stahler, Colby Anton, Nathan Varley heading on in to the Black Canyon of the Yellowstone to go investigate on our only cougar collared right now, M198. He’s a 3-year-old male. We’re gonna go check it out and see what we see.
Narrator: First, a little background here on M198. The M stands for male and 198 is his identifying number. M198’s collar that Dan was talking about is very high tech. Dan Stahler: sort of FitBits if you will for cougars One of the things those collars can do is communicate with a satellite system to record the cat’s location on the landscape every 3 hours. Dan could log in on a computer, look at all those location points and see where M198 had been. Dan Stahler: We used those points to identify clusters on the landscape where he spent time. Then usually about a week after he was in that area we would go investigate. Narrator: Investigating the places where cougars have spent time turns out to be incredibly valuable. And it’s a little like a crime scene investigation that you see on TV. Dan and his team can comb the area for DNA, like hair and scat, to help identify individual cats … like how many are out there and who’s who. This non-invasive technique of getting at the demographics of a cougar population is a powerful tool for studying such secretive animals. Or, let’s say a cougar made a kill in that spot. And if so, was it a deer or an elk or a marmot… how old was the animal… was it healthy…how many animals did the cougar kill over a given period of time… these things tell scientists a lot about the food habits of cougars like M198 AND what their impacts might be on populations of prey species like deer or elk. Dan Stahler: We found where he’d killed an adult cow elk. It was the only animal he fed on for 20-some odd days. And that’s kinda typical of a male cougar. They can go a long time without feeding. They’ll make a kill, feed on it, then do their other cougar things and roam around. If the cat stops roaming around – if it stops moving altogether, then the collar sends Dan an alert. For M198, that alert meant that either the collar came off somehow, or it stopped moving because M198 was probably dead. And Dan and Colby and Nathan needed to figure that out. The problem was that the collar suddenly stopped transmitting GPS locations. So finding it was going to take a little work.
Dan Stahler: Colby, it’s too bad we don’t have a more recent track on him, Colby. He’s either down low or he’s tucked in a rock in the boulder field which let’s hope isn’t the case. Who knows Colby, we might get lucky. Narrator: Let’s just say that they didn’t get lucky. M198 had made his way into what Dan calls the Promontory. It’s a gnarly boulder field with rocks the size of cars. Dan Stahler: There are lots of places a kitty could tuck away up here. Narrator: This explains why Dan and his team were unable to get GPS coordinates from M198’s collar. There was no way a collar could communicate with the satellites in outer space through that huge pile of rocks. But those collars also come equipped with radio telemetry. And because the radio beacon transmits its signal directly to Dan’s handheld receiver, he could use THAT to zero in on M198. And the way that works: The closer Dan gets to the collar, the louder the blips -- the radio signal.
Dan Stahler: OK we’re getting closer guys.
Dan Stahler: It’s kind of a fun process because you try to read the signal but think about what the cat would do—how he would move through here. I don’t know they ARE cats. They do amazing things. It would be nothing for him to bounce through this boulder field, but you’d think he’d take a path that would be a little easier on him.
Dan Stahler: OK I think I see some blood up ahead. I don’t know for sure. Yeah….I see where birds or something pecked at blood in the snow.
Dan Stahler: Lot of tracks. He’s in there somewhere. Clicking in real nice on the telemetry now. It’s interesting. Something dramatic went on here. Because there’s blood all over the rocks…look at the stain on that lichen right there…there’s a bunch of cat hair stuck to the rock….
Dan Stahler: Wow. There’s caves all over the place in here….Wow. There’s blood way down. Holy smokes. Hey might be WAY down in here guys.
Dan Stahler: Uh this is a pretty…well…(grunting)…a little spelunking! I didn’t think I’d be doing THIS today.
Dan Stahler: Let’s hope he’s dead and not a wounded cat that’s not happy to see me.
Narrator: Twenty feet under the earth, tracking a bloody cat, Dan and Nathat started to piece together a story of what might have happened to M198.
Nathan Varley (talking to Dan): Did he get pinned in there by a bigger cat? Dan Stahler: Yeah bigger cat, maybe… Nathan Varley: …and they’re fighting…that’s nasty. Dan Stahler: That’s how toms die often. Nathan Varley: Lions are lions. They’re just so powerful Dan Stahler: And you know he’s a 3-year-old tom and was probably trying to establish himself in here and all it takes is one bigger tom to say nuh-uh. Dan Stahler: We’ll know. You know they crunch the skull… Nathan Varley: Oh wow. Brutal. Dan Stahler: …when they kill each other. I think we’ll see it in his head. Dan Stahler: Well, you know, he has an accelerometer collar. So we can look at the activity. We can look at the movements... We might even see signs of a chase taking place somewhere else once we get the data back from it. Nathan Varley: So like, ‘he ran over here and this is where the other cat caught up to him and pinned him in the rocks…” Dan Stahler: Mmmm Hmmmm Nathan Varley: That’d be pretty interesting, wouldn’t it? Dan Stahler: Yup Nathan Varley: That’d be really interesting…How ‘bout that? Dan Stahler: Yeah, like, what are the energetics of a cougar fight? Narrator: OK this is where the idea of the cougar FitBit really comes in. Scientists can use the information from accelerometer collars to understand a lot more about animal behavior and energetics – basically, how much energy it takes for an animal to live its life. This is pretty cutting edge stuff. Dan Stahler: So, our ability to study carnivores like cougars is changing all the time. We take advantage of new technologies that become available…And those of us who have iPhones or FitBits or any activity exercise monitoring machine, may have heard the term accelerometer because they’re all built to these devices. These collars have built in accelerometers that continuously measure the 3-D axis--the neck position--of the cat wearing the collar. So when the animal is walking or resting or pouncing on prey it will record a specific type of activity pattern This data has been calibrated with captive animals--captive cougars--wearing collars on a treadmill, jumping and pouncing on a training course … measuring how much oxygen they’re consuming and that translates to calories burned… Narrator: Calories in. Calories burned. This is the basis of energetics. Dan is collaborating with Colby Anton, a PhD candidate at UC Santa Cruz, on the energetics research. Dan says they will be able to link the data from the captive cougars to the wild cougars in Yellowstone. And biologists in the park have these same collars on wolves. Dan Stahler: …so we can compare the energetics of a stalking carnivore that lives mostly by itself – the cougar – compared to a group-living carnivore that chases after its prey – the wolf – and can see different patterns in their energetics that may have been shaped through evolution, might be shaped by current environmental conditions Narrator: Understanding how these animals respond to environmental conditions, how they survive…what they eat…where they go…how they affect each other and their prey… All of this goes beyond just understanding cougars or wolves. Dan Stahler: It’s really about understanding how the ecosystem works. I think those of us who work with these animals don’t think of ourselves as a wolf biologist or an elk biologist or a cougar biologist. We’re ecologists trying to understand the pieces that make this ecosystem function the way it does. Really, what we’re trying to do is understand Yellowstone—it’s importance to the world, its importance to science …to nature—through the lens of wolves and cougars and elk. So these collars have opened up that world in a much more accurate way. Narrator: And because they want to interfere with the lives of wild cougars as little as possible, Dan and Colby only fit a couple of cats with those collars. Which made M198’s even more important to get back.
Dan Stahler: OK, hey I’m gonna listen to the telemetry.
Dan Stahler: It’s 12:07. Don’t tell me that beacon turned off.
Dan Stahler: That should not have shut off…(sighs) I don’t hear it Colby… Narrator: Despite continuing the search through the caverns without the signal, Dan and Colby and Nathan could not. Find. The cat. Dan Stahler: That pisses me off…. I hate leaving here without this cat and knowing the end of this story. ¬ Dan Stahler: Damn it, Colby . Colby Anton: beacon. Dan Stahler: Pffft…Another typical day in wildlife biology.
Narrator: I think most scientists will tell you that dealing with frustration and overcoming setbacks is something scientists get comfortable with pretty quickly. In fact Dan tells me that a few days later, they were back in that boulder field. Dan Stahler: …and that’s what we did we went back into the area and it was another frustrating search… < “It’s so interesting, we’re at the site but we can’t quite find him” sounds of effort, rocks sliding, Dan in the field saying “that’s just me moving some rock”> …And then there was one little spot where I noticed some hair stuck to the top of the rock a little bit of blood and it was just another little slit I the rock that I wasn’t able to catch before…
Dan Stahler: …I squeezed through it…
Dan Stahler: …and I looked down with the headlamp and… Dan Stahler: Definitely not moving. (Sighs) Here he is. Aww. 198. Damn it. So, here I am down in the lions den with 198. He is dead. He’s lying on his side. Blood all over him. Hard to say what happened here but it does look like he’s been attacked. Wow. He must have been beat up pretty good to come down here like that. Bummer. Hard to loose a cat like that. He was the 1st one of the study—but certainly we’ll learn something about him from this event, too (sighs).
Narrator: M198 the very first Yellowstone cougar to contribute accelerometer data to the study. But maybe what’s even cooler, is that he is one of only two wild cougars in the world to have his entire genome sequenced. And this has implications for big cat research worldwide.
Narrator: Back in his office, Dan talked about the death of M198. The necropsy revealed the cat was indeed killed by another cougar. Narrator off mic: And he was your first… Dan Stahler: It was very discouraging. But at the same time, you know, you appreciate the wildness of Yellowstone and the lives these animals live …
…There are relatively few places where you can understand how all these carnivores coexist, compete, interact, and what those impacts may be on prey, scavengers or each other… Narrator: And you know, Yellowstone is pretty special that way. Thanks to focused efforts of native species restoration, the park is more carnivore-rich today than it’s been in over 100 years. Dan says that ecologically, this is great news because carnivores like cougars have a critical role to play. Dan Stahler: Cougars, like other top carnivores through the act of predation, which is a powerful ecological force, they have the capacity to shape and structure ecosystems. Narrator: But from a human-dimensions standpoint, things are still a little thorny when it comes to these top predators. Dan Stahler: If you look at carnivores in particular they have a long history of persecution… Narrator off mic: Where do you think that comes from? Dan Stahler: We have a long evolutionary history with carnivores. Our ancestors competed with them for space, for food…And so it’s probably very much built in to our brains…and it’s hard to shed that baggage that was probably shaped over eons of time…But even today there are still challenges living with carnivores. If you raise livestock, carnivores can be a threat to your way of life. If you’re a hunter, you might find that carnivores compete with you for areas on the landscape that you like to hunt. And for others, they embrace the fact that we live in a place today where we can hunt and recreate and still be in a place where there are carnivores. I certainly feel that way living here at the gateway to Yellowstone in Gardiner MT. It’s a privilege to be able to live in a place where we have so much… Narrator: It’s a place where natural processes--like a cougar fight to the death--still play out. And although it was hard to lose him, the ghost of M198 lives on – inside the larger context of what we know about cougars in Yellowstone. M198 had a story to tell. But there are other cats on this landscape and they have their own stories.
Dan Stahler: We just finished picking up M198 and we have tracks on at least mom and one or two probably big kittens or yearlings…and we’re looking in the snow here and you can see here where the young ones were romping and chasing each other. Colby found a good bed site over here so he’s taking his forceps and collecting the hairs and putting them in a sample envelope hoping we get some follicles on the hair for genotyping the DNA of one of these little buggers.
Dan Stahler: So we’re just leaving the site where Colby got some hairs and lo and behold a nice fresh scat…one of the yearlings, probably…they were goofing around in here….
Dan Stahler: Another quality DNA sample…we’ll collect this too.
[Lake water lapping sound]
Narrator: It’s a cold October morning on Yellowstone Lake. Heavy frost covers the dock the last few boats in the marina while fresh snow blankets the Absaroka mountains in the distance. [BOAT STARTING SOUND] Yellowstone National Park Fisheries Supervisor Todd Koel starts up a cold aluminum boat and scrapes frost off the windshield. [BOAT STARTING SOUND] We’re heading out to join fisheries crews working on the lake. Along the way Todd is thinking about the native Yellowstone Cutthroat Trout.
TODD - Really, the park and especially Yellowstone Lake, lies right at the core of the distribution, the range-wide distribution, of the Yellowstone Cutthroat Trout subspecies.
Narrator: Yellowstone Lake is huge, roughly twice the area of Washington DC. It the largest high-altitude lake in North America. And, it is thought to have held the single biggest population of Yellowstone Cutthroat trout in the world. TODD - estimates were in the range of about four million or so catchable Cutthroat Trout in Yellowstone Lake. That's a lot of Cutthroat in the system.
Narrator: This was in the early 1990s. And in those days, people used to say there were so many fish that you could walk on their backs across the Yellowstone River when they spawned. Tourists and anglers gathered by the thousands just to see the Narrator: fish moving up the spawning streams. One year over 300,000 people visited La Hardy Rapids and Fishing Bridge to see the brightly colored cutthroat trout.
BOB - Fishing Bridge got its name because there used to be so many people fishing from it when I worked there in 1969, you had to roll your windows up as you drove across there to keep from getting a lure in your ear.
Narrator: That's Bob Gresswell, Research Scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey in Bozeman, MT. Bob has studied Yellowstone Cutthroat trout in the park for over 40 years.
BOB - there would be thousands of cutthroat trout at the mouth of Yellowstone Lake that could be observed during the peak of the migration.
Narrator: Lots of fish everywhere. [Sounds of fishing reel spinning]
Narrator: But then, over one decade, everything changed dramatically. By the mid 2000s cutthroat had practically disappeared from Yellowstone Lake. Biologists estimate the Yellowstone Cutthroat population plummeted from over 3 million fish to less than 300,000. Some big new factor had to be causing the decline. Again, Todd Koel.
TODD - For probably 10 to 15 years we really saw very little recruitment of small Cutthroat Trout. Why? Because they were getting eaten by the Lake Trout, that's why.
Narrator: And here was this big problem. Lake trout had invaded Yellowstone Lake. A native of the Great Lakes and Canada, lake trout had been introduced to some large bodies of water in the Western US as a sport fish early in the last century. But not Yellowstone Lake. Yellowstone Lake was a high mountain stronghold of the cutthroat until…
TODD - The first Lake Trout was first verified in 1994. We know some were probably introduced in the mid to late 1980s and the early 1990s
Narrator: It was theorized that anglers illegally dumped the lake trout into the Lake, but the theory couldn’t be verified. No matter how they got there, Koel says the invasive lake trout were uniquely suited to have a huge impact on the native cutthroat. TODD - Lake Trout do great harm to cutthroat trout. Lake trout are predatory fish, first and foremost. Essentially just big, predatory fish-eating machines. They grow large. Live 30, 40 or more years. Grow 30, 40 or more pounds. They're highly prolific in the numbers of eggs that they can produce, so they've got a lot of built-in mechanisms that give them sort of an advantage in Yellowstone Lake, over and above the native Cutthroat Trout.
Narrator: And the problem didn’t stop with the drop in cutthroat. Over forty species in the park depended on the native Yellowstone cutthroat. And they suddenly had far fewer cutthroat to eat.
Narrator: Before lake trout showed up, enough bears fed on cutthroat in streams around the lake that the park enforced bear closures to protect bears and visitors. But by 2005, very few bears showed up in the closure areas. In the early 1990s over 100 osprey nested around the lake. By 2000 there were roughly six.
Narrator: And this highlights one of the basic problems with invasive species: in any ecosystem, an invasive species can quickly upset the natural balance and affect many other species.
Narrator: As the cutthroat declined, the lake trout population exploded. And the new lake trout? They were no replacement for the cutthroat. Behaving quite differently, they preferred deep water. They also didn’t leave the lake to reproduce in the tributary streams. All of which made them inaccessible as a food source.
It was an ecosystem at risk.
[BOAT REVVING UP AND GETTING UP ON PLANE SOUND]
Narrator: Todd Koel drives the work boat out of Bridge Bay Marina headed toward the southeast arm of the Lake, over fifteen miles away.
TODD – So we’re lucky that most of the boats are in the same general area of the lake today, so hopefully we won’t have to travel too far and wide to see gill netting boats, operating out there today, and then…[FADE IN NARRATION OVER TODD TALKING]
Narrator: The Park Service started trying to control the lake trout population soon after the fish were found in 1994. Taking a page from commercial fisherman, fisheries staff deployed gill netting boats to catch the invasive fish—an effort that still continues today. Currently, the Park has somewhere between 30 and 40 miles of nets set in the lake to catch lake trout every day during the fishing season. [SOUND OF A GILL NET PULLER STARTING UP, BINS RATTLING]
Narrator: Bouys mark the location the nets are set. Then gill netting boats haul up the nets full of lake trout. As the net comes in, crews pick the fish from the nets. They note their size, weight, and sex. And then they slit them open and dump them back in the lake.
[NETTING SOUNDS FADES OUT]
Narrator: And here is the next big challenge with invasive species. Once installed, it takes a ton of work to control them, they can also be nearly impossible to erradicate. In 2016 nearly 350,000 lake trout were caught in the gil nets—the highest catch yet in a single year. And this is the main effort to save the cutthroat—the effort to catch the invading lake trout until their population crashes. But, because of the massive amount of work that effort takes, biologists are looking at new ways to knock down the lake trout population.
Narrator: In the fall lake trout group up in large numbers, sometimes thousands of fish, to lay their eggs at specific locations—making both the lake trout and their eggs vulnerable. To find these sites, scientists have implanted radio telemetry tags in some lake trout. And by tracking the fish they’ve identified over a dozen lake trout spawning areas in Yellowstone Lake.
TODD - Then we're doing research on methods to kill the Lake Trout eggs on these spawning sites…
Narrator: …To stop the lake trout at the start. One experimental technique involved shocking the eggs with electricity. Another attempted sucking them up with a small suction mining dredge. But by far the most promising new method is surprisingly simple.
[GRINDER NOISE START] Narrator: Fisheries technician Mike Symiantowski stands on the deck of a gill netting boat with a large lake trout in his hands.
MIKE SYMIANTOWSKI - So we got all the lake trout we just caught in the last couple gangs of net. So right now we’re over one of our dumping sites. We're taking the lake trout and we’re putting them through this fish grinder here so that way we know that all the pieces of the fish are sinking all the way down to the bottom.
GRINDER SOUND FADE OUT
Narrator: Grinding is used over some sites, while on others whole dead lake trout are being dumped. Laboratory tests show that the decomposing fish carcasses kill the eggs by eating the oxygen in the water. Oxygen that the eggs need to survive.
TODD - We're moving forward pretty quickly with that method because it's so simple, because we're not taking anything foreign from the lake and bringing it in, like some kind of a chemical or something like that. We're just simply taking the dead fish that we're catching and putting them strategically on spawning areas.
Narrator: And these big efforts to keep the ecosystem healthy, They seem to be paying off. Fewer small young lake trout and fewer big, old lake trout are being caught in the nets.
TODD - That's telling us, even though our catches are still high each year, that's a strong signal that our suppression program is collapsing this population.
Narrator: And as a result the cutthroat are making a comeback.
TODD - For every Lake Trout we kill each summer, we're probably saving 40 to 50 or more Cutthroat Trout just in every given year.
Narrator: More cutthroat of different sizes are being found in annual population monitoring. Anglers are catching more cutthroat. Visitors are returning to watch the cutthroat spawn in the late spring. Nesting osprey numbers are growing around Yellowstone Lake. And finally, bears are coming back to the spawning streams. Koel has even seen this firsthand.
TODD - I was on that spawning stream trying to collect a water sample in June with some of my crew and a grizzly bear showed up. TODD - That was his stream, and those were his fish. Then watching him get after the Cutthroat Trout and bring them up on the bank, and chow them down. That's pretty amazing to see. Then on top of that, the hundreds of people that were gathered to watch that as well. That occurred for well over a month.
Narrator: All encouraging signs. For Yellowstone National Park, whose mission to preserve our natural resources unimpaired for future generations, the effort to repair the damage done by invasive lake trout is worth it. Yellowstone is one of our few remaining relatively intact ecosystems left in North America. And restoring the cutthroat? [Lake water lapping sound] It helps it stay that way. [Lake water lapping sound] From Yellowstone National Park, I’m Scott Christy. [Lake water lapping sound]
NARRATOR: Well, Vincent Spagnuolo has another idea.
VINCENT: They’re basically the wolves of the aquatic ecosystem here. NARRATOR: Vincent is a loon biologist with BRI, the Biodiversity Research Institute. He heads up BRI’s common loon project in Yellowstone National Park. VINCENT: They are top predators and they own that lake. NARRATOR: But in spite of their top-predator status, Yellowstone’s loons are in trouble. There are only about a dozen breeding pairs left in the park. And they’re really isolated: The closest other loons are over 200 miles away. This is Vincent Spagnuolo again, along with Dave Evers, the founder and executive director of BRI. VINCENT: And so, these are the only loons here and they’re basically on an island…
VINCENT: We don’t believe that there’s any immigration or emigration with this population…and that can be an issue when you have a small population with no chance of rescue from the rest of the species range. DAVE: And it could blink out…and it blinks out, we know it’s not going to be recolonized for a long, long time. and < loon wail> NARRATOR: If you want to keep a population from blinking out, if you want to preserve it, first you have to understand what’s going on with it. Scientists are investigating what might be happening with the Yellowstone loons and capture and banding is one way they’re gathering those data. But catching a loon is not easy. VINCENT: They are powerful, powerful birds…And yeah, when we get them in hand we feel that as we get beat up pretty good. NARRATOR: In fact, getting a loon in hand is so tricky that in the early days of loon research just the thought of a reliable capture technique was pretty inconceivable. Biologists basically surrendered to the idea that they’d be outmaneuvered by the birds. JEFF: 35 yrs ago…all of the working loon biologists in North America that I knew—and there weren’t many then--KNEW KNEW that you couldn’t capture a loon and band it. NARRATOR: Jeff Fair has been on the leading edge of loon science for more than 40 years and he’s worked with Dave Evers since the beginning. JEFF: And a few years later this ignorant grad student, by the name of Dave Evers, developed a way to capture and band loons. NARRATOR: And the trick was to go after breeding pairs at night. DAVE: The night capture is a method that really works with the birds. So we’re not chasing the birds. If we tried to chase the loons anyways, we’d never catch them.
NARRATOR: Dave Evers’ nighttime technique works because it lets the loons approach the researchers instead of the other way around. Researchers use a spotlight to shine a beam of light on the water that they can kind of hide behind. Then they mimic chick calls. Loon parents are super protective so they approach to find out what’s going on. And if all goes well, the scientists have caught their loon. …
NARRATOR: I went out on a night capture attempt with Vincent and his team here in Yellowstone. And as I was about to learn, it’s not just the loons that are tough.
NARRATOR: These guys were packing in a car battery--they use that to run the spotlight. If you’ve ever swapped out the battery in your car, you know how heavy those things are! NARRATOR: And they had nets and all this sampling equipment
NARRATOR: Oh, and they were carrying a canoe. Seriously. They had a canoe.
NARRATOR: And they hiked all that stuff into the backcountry for like 3 or 4 miles. And there were hills – I mean, so many hills – and bugs…
NARRATOR: …and even a couple of creek crossings.
NARRATOR: And the best part is that the BRI folks were totally upbeat about it all.
NARRATOR: We hiked to Yellowstone’s Wolf Lake. The team was trying to recapture the female from that territory; They had banded her last year. VINCENT: “One bird’s banded. One’s not. We’re going after the banded bird.” JEN: “How important is it that you get It?” VINCENT: “It’s critical. We don’t know where this population winters yet.” NARRATOR: Like a lot of birds, loons are migratory. During spring and summer, the Yellowstone loons breed and raise chicks in the park but they winter somewhere else. Scientists can keep tabs on the birds while they’re in Yellowstone -- address any of the big threats they face here like human disturbance or habitat changes. But that’s only half the picture. VINCENT: “And we put a small device called a geolocator on one of its leg bands” NARRATOR: That’s so they could track her VINCENT: “And getting that device back, we can download data that will tell us where this bird wintered…we’ll know what kind of threats they face on the wintering grounds and that’s a key piece to the conservation of this population.” NARRATOR: Not to overstate things, but let’s just say that they really wanted to get that geolocator back. Oh and just to kinda up the ante a little bit, the team was 0 in 3 in their capture attempts in the park so far this year.
NARRATOR: They missed it. NARRATOR: The male from that pair spooked and tremeloed. And that made it a lot more difficult to try to catch the female…and the geolocator.
NARRATOR: Once a bird is captured, the team does a work-up. Dave Evers walks us through the steps. DAVE: So when we catch a loon, we want to be fairly speedy and efficient with our time because we want to get that bird back in the water.
DAVE: So we go through this process of measuring the bird in many different ways. We want to get the weight of the bird. We want to measure the bill.
DAVE: Once we get the measurements we want to take some tissue samples—so, blood and feather.
DAVE: Blood’s used for a lot of different reasons. We can look at contaminant analysis like mercury and lead. We can also look at different diseases and parasites. The overall health of the bird.
DAVE: So a little vacutainer of loon blood, 5 ccs of blood, can really tell us this world of what’s happening for that loon.
DAVE: The feather that we grab, we usually cut the feather
DAVE: and that feather tells us from a mercury standpoint how much mercury has been in that bird’s body over its lifetime. DAVE: And then we put bands on their legs…
DAVE: …There’s two different banding schemes. One has a band number that fits in to the Federal Bird Banding Lab DAVE: And then we have a unique color banding combination that only that individual would have.
DAVE: So that way we can look at that individual loon from the shore with a spotting scope a year, or two, or 10 years later and that’s our way of tracking these birds over time. All of this took less than 20 minutes. And then…
VINCENT: “And that’s a loon capture” JEN: “Holy cow. That’s not easy. That’s not like any animal capture I’ve ever seen”
NARRATOR: One of the things that was so crazy about this capture was the fact that Jeff Fair was able to pilot that canoe in the dark toward a moving bird. Jeff’s paddling is legendary in the loon world. But he shines in teambuilding, too. JEFF: “There’s one other job that I have. In fact it’s the major contribution I’ve made to loon science and that is when you do a good job, you celebrate. We call it communion. Here’s to the loon.”
JEN: “Wow. Thanks for including me in on that. Did Vince–I totally cried you guys. See this is why I’m not in science and I do what I do. Oh my goodness, I can’t believe how beautiful that bird was.”
JEFF: Loons are a high-profile species. They sing and they dance. They attract people’s attention and people fall in love with them without ever being a biologist. You fall in love with any species and you suddenly realize the complexity of the whole natural web of life. NARRATOR: And that we’re all caught up together in that web. Loons are one of our more sensitive indicator species–a true canary in a co al mine. We’re beginning to understand that threats to loons can be threats to humans, too. DAVE: Yeah, it strikes me just to build on that that there’s this connectivity that I think we’re all--a lot of us--are missing with nature… that we all want clean air and clean water and a high quality of life and we need nature to provide that. VINCENT: We’re fighting the good fight and that’s for loons and that’s for all species and for advancing research and knowledge of the natural world. I think I’ll stick with loons for a long time not just because of the birds but because of the amazing people that there are. The entire loon world; just really dedicated and amazing people. NARRATOR: And speaking of dedicated and amazing, we still had to hike out. With the canoe. And the car battery. But this time, we had to do it in the dark.
Host Outtro: This podcast is supported, in part, by the Yellowstone Association, the Yellowstone Park Foundation, and by a generous grant through the Eyes on Yellowstone program. Eyes on Yellowstone is made possible by Canon U.S.A. This program represents the largest corporate donation for wildlife conservation in the park. This is Telemetry. Thanks for listening.