Living on our leavings

Coyotes are survivors with jackal-like smarts and extreme adaptability. And they’ve learned to work with human behavior.

We often think of humans as the eternal enemy of all wildlife. It’s natural to go there. Right now, we are causing the biggest mass extinction since the meteorite that tipped the dominoes, ultimately killing the dinosaurs and letting mammals prevail.

But some wildlife adapts to us and our behavior. A contractor on one of my projects says that gunfire is a dinner bell for grizzlies in Wyoming. The bears learn to associate shots with gut piles left behind by hunters field dressing game. This has caused bear-human conflict when the grizzly doesn’t wait for the hunter to finish processing game.

BrothersDrinking
These grizzlies outside Grand Teton are taking a sip after snacking on the remains of a hunter-killed moose.

I see wildlife adaptability every time I rent a tractor and mow my fields. I’m renting because it’s cheaper than owning for the amount I mow, and I don’t want to get stuck hauling out a tractor if it floods. I rent just often enough to be cost-effective and to keep the grass from becoming too long to tackle.  In between mowings, it grows thigh-high and shelters a population of rodents and insects.

RedTailPair
I’m taking off- I see the voles leaping through the grass!

Many raptors follow my tractor, for good reason. The rumbling and vibration of the machinery sends mice and voles fleeing through the grass, where they become easy prey.  Those that don’t survive become dinner for scavengers.

RedTailPair2
A pair of hawks sits on an installed perch watching me mow.

RedTailHawk07072018

Coyotes also figured out how to work around and with humans and our machinery. Canis latrans follows humans where ever we go, living off our leavings. They pursue our scraps and the animals atracted to our waste and the table we set for birds and pets. Coyotes have walked in our wagon tracks and footsteps, across trails and highways, to occupy North and Central America.  As we exterminated their enemies, especially wolves, their populations grew and their territory expanded. They grew bolder.

Coyotes evolved away from the jackal lineage about 800,000 years ago. Today, they live across the continent, and not just in rural landscapes. They defy our attempts to exterminate them. They prowl cities and business parks. They have been sighted in New York’s Central Park. They aren’t picky eaters:  insects, fruit, garbage, rodents, anything they can find. They may offer free rat control in large cities.

If you are on Nextdoor in my area, or walking our roads, you will see lots of “lost cat” notices.  Outdoor cats in our area can fall victim to eagles, dogs, and coyotes; unlike the first two predators, coyotes rarely leave a trace behind.

CatSkull
I found this cat skull partially buried in the dirt when I was weeding a hedgerow.  A feral cat organization was releasing animals around us a few years ago. They would survive a few days, maybe a week before the coyotes or eagles got them.

Despite the fact that the U.S. government and property owners annihilate a half million of them a year, they are not at risk of extinction.  They have figured us out.

IMG_1291
Private property owners in the West seem to take delight in displaying dead coyotes.  They may in fact be trying to scare other coyotes away. This photo is from Montana.

After grey wolves were re-introduced in Yellowstone National Park, coyote populations dropped by half. They abandoned the apex predator behavior they developed when wolves were absent. Sure, they might sneak a bite of a wolf or grizzly dinner, but they know to hightail it when the owner takes notice.

YellowstoneCoyote
This coyote in Yellowstone National Park stole as much elk meat as possible while the wolves that killed it were napping.

My corner of the Snohomish River Valley had a stable coyote pack for a long time. They would yip and howl in winter far back in the fields.  I would see them occasionally. Once in awhile, they would nab something from my yard at night and launch a raucous coyote party.

CoyoteWeb
As my grass gets longer in the summer, coyotes find cool bedding spots. I spotted this one going out to the compost pile.

Then my hobby-farmer neighbor turned sheep out on his land without adequate protection from predators.  His lambs got nabbed by coyotes, but instead of enclosing them, he went on a rampage after the coyotes with a gun the law says he couldn’t own.

He eventually gave up on the sheep like he gave up on everything. He killed the goats. A local butcher field dressed most of the pigs one day as I was driving home from work. the chickens vanished, most likely killed by eagles. Weeds have taken over and the few remaining animals roam unmanaged. They would be everywhere if he had not installed mesh fencing. Animal Services forced him to downsize and confine wayward cows that triggered too many complaints of property damage.

CowsIBlockedWithFenceRepaire March 15
Can’t blame the cows; going hungry at the end of a long winter, they will do whatever they can to get at food. The fencing basically starved them while changing travel patterns for coyotes.

A year after the revenge killings for lamb nabbing, the rabbit population exploded. Rabbits frolicked in my driveway and destroyed my garden and landscaping. The coyote pack was gone, and the few animals around couldn’t navigate the mesh maze my neighbor installed.

Rabbit
These rabbits are not native to the West, and left unchecked, they devour anything green.

Hope returned in June 2016, in the form of scat with cherries and occasional hair on the road and in my horses’ paddocks.  I finally caught sight of a young coyote as I was  mowing thigh high grass.

CoyoteNotSure
This young pup is on her own early.  In the morning, she would flee when she saw me.

At first wary, this young coyote figured out after several hours that the tractor meant food, and by evening was following at a safe distance.  I can’t imagine how the scrawny little thing stuffed so many rodents down her gullet.  She was still at it after the tractor got turned off at sunset, stalking the grass for confused voles.

SkinnyCoyote
Not a great picture, but you get the idea how young and scrawny this coyote is.  Most pups don’t survive their first year.
CoyoteThinkingOnIt
She seems to have figured out that the tractor means food.
CoyoteVole
Success- chewing on a vole
CoyoteGotOne
She got braver as the evening wore on, even though her belly started to look round with the feast.

Most coyotes aren’t brave enough to follow the tractor like that, but they quickly learn that the sound means easy food, like the sound of gunfire to grizzlies. Every time I mow, they show up sooner or later. This year as usual, a young coyote showed up after a day of mowing to work the fields for voles exposed by the short grass.

Coyote1
This coyote looks like it is winking. I could see both eyes open in other photos.

The coyote was young, and very wary; the tractor was fine just as long as it didn’t stop. I wasn’t going to interfere with its job.  Coyotes are here out West because they adapted to us and our ways. They thrive because we removed their enemies and we waste so much. These coyotes, like their ancestors, have learned to maneuver around us in the shadows, to use our paths and roads, to live on our leavings.

Coyote2

 

For more information on coyotes, read Dan Flores’ Coyote America: A Natural and Supernatural History, Basic Books.  This National Geographic article features history, statistics, and an interview with Dan.

02coyote-america.adapt.590.1

Coming up for air

Following buffalo down a long and winding trail

SlipperyAnnCamp
This campsite at Slippery Ann Wildlife Viewing Area looks tidy.  But there is a quad cab filled with gear out of view.

It’s taking me forever to unpack from my last trip to Montana. I’m recovering from the fourth trip in a year following bison, North America’s largest mammal. I run one more load of wash, bundle up tent cord, sort bins and stuff sacks, and clean camera gear. I struggle through re-entry again, obsessively returning to my computer morning and night to work on this story map project, tracing the trail of bison from past to present.

And a voice in the back of my distracted head asks why this is happening again.

Part of the problem lies with me. I finally confessed in a recent presentation to a fundamental characteristic and character flaw. Something out of pattern catches my eye, and if it piques my curiosity, I follow it, getting caught up sometimes for years. This behavior can lead either to enlightenment or to despair, if you think about it.

My neighbor from the Conservation District got me signed up for the annual bareroot plant sale 14 years ago (maybe 15).  I was hooked when my red flowering currant became a beacon for hummingbirds. A sort of mad scientist/greedy gardener took over and I spent years buying and propagating thousands of plants to get more wildlife. I became a Native Plant Steward, and volunteered to give workshops and classes to thousands of people. I blogged about my backyard wildlife, gave away plants, took thousands of photos, started making videos.

Blame this chapter on the stoic and infinite bison, and the human history they drag behind them like clattering cans tied to a wedding limousine. Only this wedding, it turns out, is an arranged marriage where the bison might need a divorce from an abusive spouse.

YNPRestingBull.jpg

I planned my first trip to Yellowstone National Park to explore America’s oldest national park and to see grizzly bears. I did my homework to stay out of trouble around wildlife. When a large herd with agitated bulls spread across Mary Mountain Trail, we high-sided the slope, skirting through the woods where grizzlies might lurk. The grizzlies seemed lower risk compared to the snorting, pawing bulls. Whenever we arrived at a new campsite, we waited out the customary giant bull resting in the shade.

SloughCreekValley
Sunset tinged with wildfire smoke in Slough Creek Valley.

The last backpack trip journeyed into Slough Creek Valley. I was comfortable enough around bison to bail out two New York fly fishermen who got pinned on top of their bear box when a big herd took over their camp. One evening, I sat eating dinner on a hill overlooking the valley watching a big herd flow slowly through the valley. The low rumble rolling across the herd and through the valley reminded me of some National Geographic image showing herd migrations in Africa or the Arctic.

YNPBisonMeadow.jpg

Of course, Yellowstone treats visitors to a perspective on co-managing large wildlife and people. I came away realizing how disconnected most of us are from nature:  we view the outdoors as a zoo, a playground, and a fitness trail. I realized how poorly wildlife mixes with roads and cars and our impatience with anything that creates traffic disruption.

YNPBisonJam

During a wolf workshop at Lamar Buffalo Ranch the next spring, it became apparent that bison tolerate us but don’t need us. A lone bison bull hung around the ranch, resting on the shoveled paths and scratching his rear on the cabin railing. He seemed to be taking advantage of what we build, but it didn’t mean he and his brethren need us. On a field trip, I watched through a spotting scope as a bull hobbling on a broken leg stood up to a hungry pack of wolves. Surprisingly, they backed down from the injured bison and ambushed an elk instead. That’s tough.

YNPLamarBison.jpgIMG_0146Then I wandered onto American Prairie Reserve, where the future vision is as expansive as the prairie horizon. APR envisions a 3-million acre fabric of private/public lands for bison, other wildlife, and people to roam free. The bison were boss in the unit I visited. There were no bison jams. I could wander across grasslands on all-encompassing treasure hunts to see rocks, fossils, and flowers. The skies were big, uncrowded. I found peace.

I happily spend most of my free time alone, but I like to communicate. So I wanted to tell about this place, put bison in a natural conext and beckon people to the ocean of grasslands they are missing. A simple story, right?

And then I stumbled on the winding and overgrown trail into bison history. See, I bought into the Yellowstone narrative of a few years ago. The U.S. government saved the remaining 25 bison after twenty years of intense and deliberate extermination. The army helped save them from poachers and founded the National Park Service. Today, they’re doing just fine- almost half a million on the ground.

Then I found out most bison are in commercial herds, and they have leftover cattle genes. Over a century after the slaughter ended, there are only an estimated 8,000 pure bison in the wild.

And there isn’t just one heroic bison savior story rooted in the right intentions.  Profiteering played a role. Then I found out how three men with native blood and the Canadian government triggered the establishment of public herds in the United States. I followed the Pablo-Allard herd to Elk Island National Park in Alberta, but found no Hallmark Holiday Special ending for these animals. Those animals, along with elk and moose, were destined for long-gone Buffalo National Park. When they overran the park, animals were shipped to Wood Bison National Park. Cross-breeding with their cousins and disease almost doomed wood bison to extinction.  Buffalo Park failed after 31 years.  The Department of Defence took over the property and today keeps a small herd in memory of the past.

The Canadian government learned lessons from the past, but has the U.S.?  Elk Island National Park has taken public comment on alternatives to keep bison, moose and elk at healthy numbers.  Meanwhile, America’s National Bison Range is described in a Missoulian article as “popular, poor, and rudderless”.

And those stories just keep surfacing.

Along the way I came across buffalo jumps, the most spectacular form of communal hunting practiced by Plains Indians. I stood at jumps and imagined tension followed by the breathtaking explosion of a stampede. I touched shards of ancient, splintered bone eroding from the old blood kettles at First Peoples Buffalo Jump. I followed the trail to Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump.  I read Jack Brink’s vibrant book about Plains Indians, communal hunting and this special site.

Buffalo_jump
Buffalo Jump, 1900, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

I discovered the tsunami effect of western expansion across North American, and how hubris and profiteering triggered the near extinction of bison. The perspective is chilling given the federal government’s current drive to go back in time.

American_progress
American Progress, by John Gast, 1872.  We still seem to think it works this way today. Public domain, via Library of Congress.

My bedside table is stacked with books and papers. Some chronicle history and others propose strategies to preserve truly wild bison into the future.

IMG_2459
This is before I ordered the next dozen books. Really.

 

Bison don’t need us; they can take care of themselves.  They just need land to grow and roam, and water. Aside from a few large herds, there are 80 bison here, 100 there.  Wild bison survival depends on big herds in big places, shaping the land and being shaped by nature.

BisonOnRange.jpgBison may not need people, but we still need wild bison and wild places.  We need them to remind us there are healthier, more viable alternatives to an urban life dominated by the technology explosion. We’re careening blindly toward a future of self-driving cars, artificial intelligence, and chat bots managing us via social media.  We need to remember we’re not that far from our roots, that we are still governed by nature.  We need bison to teach us some history lessons so we don’t repeat the worst of the past.  We need them to school us in patience and give us peace.

And while I need to come up for air and take care of everyday things, I really need to get this story out. It’s haunting me now.

APRBisonLeaving2

Following the buffalo trail

Discovering the trail is magical; unpacking it all is the hard part.

APRBisonTrail1

My fourth trip following bison tracks from past to present is over.  The unpacking part starts now:  not just camping and photography gear, field sketches and notes, but also new perspectives and stories from people who know bison history and bison from intense exposure.

I followed this trail to inform an artist-in-residence project.  I have met historians, archeologists, geologists, bison managers, rangers, restorationists, communicators, and interpreters.  I have put thousands of miles on my car and truck.  And I have only started.  Bison trails are more straight and true than their historic path from the Ice Age to today.

BisonLoopRd2
Bison or buffalo?  Technically, they are bison, but go ahead and call them either name.  “Buffalo” is so engrained in our vocabulary and history that it works, too. 

It wasn’t until I picked up a book at First People’s Buffalo Jump in Montana that I learned about the Pablo-Allard herd and Canada’s contribution to saving wild bison. It wasn’t until I talked to a historian at Elk Island National Park in Alberta that I learned there was once a Buffalo National Park that failed miserably. At Elk Island, the superb interpreters revealed how challenging it is to manage bison on defined land base within fences. Despite a robust relocation program that most recently airlifted bison to Banff National Park, Elk Island completed public outreach on alternatives to control the population, including hunting in the park.

APRBisonBullBuddies
Bachelor bulls, American Prairie Reserve

One constant is the type of people involved with bison.  They are passionate, committed, and generous with their knowledge. They want people to be drawn to bison, to make them an integral  and eternalpart of our natural heritage. “Bison nerds” are a small but tight international group committed to making sure that these animals don’t disappear forever. They are ecologically extinct — there are no free-roaming herds — but conservation herds shaped by nature still dot the landscape.

Since these large, migratory animals spread across North America, driving grassland ecology, the bison trail leads to a variety of landscapes and places, .  2000px-Bison_original_range_map.svg

MapLegendBisonRange

YNPBison1Plains Indian tribes followed these animals across North America, leaving their own trail, including camps, kill sites, and ritual locations. My first visit to a buffalo jump led to places where I could understand communal hunting, from Madison Buffalo Jump to the superb Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump. This World Heritage site is the best preserved in the world with a phenomenal interpretive center.

HSIBJSign3

Buffalo led a huge parade of life in their wake as they shaped the landscape. I caught sight of many creatures that followed bison, but wondered about all the animals that disappeared with wild bison.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Along the way, I have met so many wonderful, caring, and friendly people; walked so many beautiful landscapes; imagined the sounds and sights of prairies once teeming with life. It is hard to unpack it all and assemble the important bits into a story that will inspire others to experience the buffalo trail for themselves. But I will try.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

 

Box Elder Crossing- taking off the training wheels

BoxElderCrossingRemember when you first felt freedom?  Whether freedom is frightening or thrilling, people usually have a “first freedom” story.  We realized we get to make choices about our lives, vote, leave on a plane by ourselves for the first time, walk through the door on our own apartment or house.

I felt my first taste of footloose freedom in the wildlife areas of Eastern Washington. Hiking through LT Murray, I followed game trails and jeep roads past hunting camps empty since the previous fall.  I camped where ever I wanted, not in a numbered, reserved site. This is nothing like Western Washington, where piles of branches cut off social paths, signs point the way, and you are reminded to stay on the trail-always!

To be fair, the impact of too many feet on wet ground is the reason for these restrictions.  The dry side of the state has firmer ground and fewer lug sole boots treading the trail.

But confinement to a path creates a strange geometric mindset.  You hike to a point and back, and hopefully the point has a view, a meadow, or a lake. If you’re lucky, you are on a loop so that you can go in a circle. Signs may point the way. Mountaineering gives some freedom, but you’re probably following a documented route, whether it’s drawn on a map or downloaded on a phone. There is little loneliness to be found:  lines form on some hiking trails and volcano hikes.

You don’t just wander here.

So I felt like a refugee from a land of rules on my first trip to American Prairie Reserve.  I waited to go there until there was an online reservation system to ensure a campsite.  I made sure I had my America the Beautiful public lands pass for Charles Russell Wildlife Refuge.

BoxElderBull

And then I found out about public access in Montana.   Campground full?  There is dispersed camping on public lands, with a few guidelines to keep things clean for others.  A ranger stopped to ask if I was okay when I was walking the road with a pack, not to check my pass. He thought maybe I left behind a car with a flat.  He gave me his map and told me I didn’t have to walk the road and jeep tracks. If I wandered back in the hills, I could see lots of grouse, he said.

Montana felt like freedom writ large.

My first hike on Box Elder crossing was an exercise in removing training wheels.  I stayed on the dirt two track for a way, then saw the smooth black face of a hill with golden grass catching the sun.  Bison trails went that way.  I followed their tracks across the creek and up the hill, and found another hill and another.  A potpourri of rocks poked up from the dirt, inviting examination, sometimes on hands and kness.  I sat on that hill and looked across the prairie landscape and realized I could keep wandering for days.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

In May, I made three trips across Box Elder Creek, one to trek across to Reynolds Road, one to just wander, and another to field sketch.  I followed bison trails and wandered off the jeep track.  A couple snakes scolded me from the grass. I tiptoed around the bison bulls but couldn’t avoid scaring the cows.  I found rocks and eggs and bugs. BoxElderMonument

Later in my trip, I met a friendly birding couple in the coin laundromat at Malta.  They told me their freedom story.  They lived in Texas, and had just purchased a home that would be their last.  Then they visited friends in Montana.  When they realized how much freedom there is in Montana compared to Texas, they sold the house without ever having slept a night in it, moved to Missoula, and never turned back.

Sure, wandering around the prairie means you’re watching for snakes.  Bad weather can sweep in when you’re out in the open.  You need enough water because it doesn’t stream off the mountains like home. But you are free to roam, relax, and explore.  When you live in a place like my home- or Texas, apparently, you remember that.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Buffalo Camp

Waking up in a postage stamp picture

CampsiteSomehow I missed that stage in adulthood where people decide camping is too hard, and either stay in motels or travel in trailers with a compact semblance of home.  I hit motels on long driving days, or when I need a shower and a real meal.

The memory of lying at night on a guest bed in my grandma’s screened porch stuck with me. Away from noisy, scorching inner-city Chicago, I watched fireflies in the cool night air, fell asleep with the sound of crickets, and woke to the sound of birds. To this day, I leave my windows open in summer, with birds as my alarm clock.

Buffalo Camp at American Prairie Reserve is my yard multiplied, with bison to boot. When I traveled to the Reserve in May, I woke up each morning to big skies and birdsong. As I was making coffee, a bachelor band of bison would wander by, taking a leisurely breakfast.  Deer often tiptoed behind them looking like spies trying to fade into a crowd. A medley of colorful birds made the rounds, hopping from ground to shrub to sign or platform.  Rabbits hopped, nibbled, and hopped again, ever watchful.

BuffaloCampToMyself
More people need to camp here to protect my car from maurauding rabbits.

Any postcard picture has a few stories hidden behind the carefully crafted image.  During last September’s trip, I woke one night to a terrible thumping under the hood of my car, and found a rabbit trying to turn it into a burrow.  I am told they can eat wiring and hoses in the process, so I was lucky to catch it early.  The trick is to move the car every day, which feels wrong when the stay is meant to be about hiking.

The first night of this trip, I woke in the night and decided conditions were right to view a universe of stars without the light pollution of home.  I strolled to the bathroom without a headlamp, and stood outside afterward to gaze upward. Something caught my ear: the croaking of a bullfrog?  Not quite awake, I thought it seemed odd.  Then another croak, then another.  Suddenly I realized that there simply wasn’t enough water for bullfrogs. Those sounds were grunts coming from bison lying around the bathroom.  I carefully retreated down the path.

APRBisonPeekaboo
A bachelor band of bison bulls camped around me most nights.  Flattened spots around camp came from a few nights before I arrived, when the whole herd sacked out in Buffalo Camp.

A couple nights later, I woke to a grunt and sniff right behind my head.  The only thing between me and the bison was flimsy yellow-green nylon.  I wasn’t worried about getting stepped on since the tent was elevated on a platform. The tent was tied down right on the edge of the platform instead of the middle, so he could stand there and investigate it.  I wasn’t sure what – if anything- to worry about.

I could hear the animal lower himself to the ground, first one end, then the other. He lay right behind me, close enough that I could smell him.  His head moved back and forth like he was grooming, and he leaned back on the tent. He may have been scratching off loose hair with his horns.  Little gurgling sounds bubbled up from the digestive labyrinth that processes and re-processes food.  He seemed to burp.

This was awkward.

APRBisonKestrel6
Downright itchy.  Sorry I can’t help, big guy.

I’m one of those people who can fall asleep anywhere, like crowded train stations in foreign countries where unguarded, you can be robbed or killed.  I’m usually awake and curious, but if I need sleep, I can get it.  In this case, I fell asleep after awhile because I was tired from hiking and had no choice.  I woke to a sigh, the sound of cloven hooves scraping gravel, and one slow step after another as he walked away.

The next morning, as on most mornings I was there, the sun rose on what looked like a scene printed on a historic postage stamp.  Bison and deer, birds in the sage and shrubs and trees, pale yellow willow catkins lighting up in the sun. APRBisonBuffaloCamp

There are no longer herds of bison, deer, and antelope stretching for miles.  And I’m camping, but I have food and water with me, portable electronics and a high speed way to reach a doctor or grocery store if I need to.  I’m housed in hi-tech fabric and poles. I’m sleeping swathed in synthetic fabric, not skins.

But here in Buffalo Camp, I could imagine myself as one of the early foreign travelers  as I stepped out of my shelter to a dazzling variety of life moving across the landscape.

For more views of Buffalo Camp, watch the rough little video below.  To check it out yourself, visit here.

 

 

The richness of barrens

They are only empty of people and our stuff.

RoadTrip13Disasters aren’t disasters without images of people’s damaged belongings. After a flood, our screens scroll images of drowned livestock, crushed barns, mangled cars, crumpled roads and bridges. Earthquakes shear highways and splinter houses into junk piles with people trapped underneath. The awful feeling wouldn’t be there without us; it would just be an event.

Through our people-focused lens, the prairie is a vast nothingness. Farmsteads are few and far between down dirt roads that take the gloss off a car and wear on tires. Towns are small and spare, with trucks and trains roaring by. The wind seems endless sometimes, scouring uncertain settlers from homesteads. Ranch kids leave for something else and the population is declining. The people that remain are durable. They shoulder the weather and poor livestock prices without newsworthy anguish.

RoadTrip12The speeding automobile smears the landscape into a monotonous panorama stretching for hours. We grow stiff from sitting and it seems endless. But speed did not create this impression of the prairie. Even settlers who rumbled along in wagons or on foot didn’t see the complexity of the landscape. There seem to be more books about hard life than prairie songs on the shelves.

KippSnakeSignInnocence is the culprit, aided by fear. Powered by animal or fuel, we travel the prairie as if in a foreign land. It looks different from our homes. The sky looms larger, with a hundred-mile view of circling weather and no hint what it means to us. Cacti lurk on the ground and rattlesnakes in the sage. The prairie has a different rhythm that enchants the curious or unnerves the timid.

PrairieFalconEach journey to dry country fills my eyes with the richness of seemingly barren land. This trip is my first as an artist to American Prairie Reserve. As a hiker, I experienced the wealth of life and that occupies that flat, apparently empty space. This time I examined the land as an artist seeking themes. I found a vast history underground as well as underfoot. I imagined the northeastern Montana prairie in three rich dimensions.

But first…..

A long drive comes before imagination takes over. I like these drives to separate from my daily life. This time, that regular life followed me down the road a way before falling back.

I traveled from First People’s Buffalo Jump toward American Prairie Reserve.  I knew I wouldn’t make the whole drive in one day, having spent over half the day at the state park. I camped at James Kipp Recreation Area as a squatter in the empty float camp by the river, hoping that no rafting parties would show up.

KippFloatCamp

The campsite was surrounded by trees and full of birds, including a flock of goldfinches that hopped among the grass and picked dandelion seeds.

KippGoldfinch2KippGoldfinch

The campground paths were a good place to walk off hip stiffness caused by mannequin-like activity required for work.  Whether I sit or stand, I am tethered to a keyboard and don’t move enough.  I have a lot of meetings and a long commute. The stiffness wore off  through the trip, but required attention and anti-inflammatory topical gel at first.

KippBenchMy car also displayed the damage of regular life.

A few weeks before my departure, an inebriated young woman injured my car- though not me. With the addition of crash wrap and gorilla tape, my Subaru was fit to travel. We fit in just fine in a state with vehicles commonly held together with tape or baling twine.

KippFloatCampsite
Doesn’t look bad from the back, and black gorilla tape blends in a little on the front.

Back at home, insurance investigations and legal actions were in motion. The activity caught up with me the next day on the final leg of my journey to the prairie.

As I traveled Dry Fork Road to American Prairie Reserve, my phone rang. I glanced at the number, wondering where those cell phone towers lurked. Since the area code was my own,  I pulled over and answered the call. It wasn’t my neighbor with a sick horse call, though. I found myself talking to my county’s prosecuting attorney. He called to explain the restitution letter I had questions about. He let me know a subpoena to witness was in the mail, and a trial date was set. In a soft accent from somewhere else, he politely explained the process.

Parked on a road in open range country, my car attracted the attention of a fine-looking herd of cattle. They drifted closer and closer as we talked. Finally a drooling bull shoved his head into the window and bawled.

Calves.jpg

“Uh, I should probably explain where I’m at,” I said.

While the PA was apologetic for interrupting my vacation, I told him it was a good time to have that talk. I knew a trial could happen, just like it did when my mother died in pretty much the same circumstances. And I was going to a magical place where I could let the terrible irony roll off me.

APRDirectionalSignIn the end, he wished me a good vacation and I continued my journey to Buffalo Camp. I set up my tent and sat down for dinner, watching the sun set over rich barrens ripe for exploration.

Campsite.jpg

APRSky1

The hillside weeps bones

First Peoples Buffalo Jump State Park

I took photos of every piece of bone I saw.  I knew from the ranger that burrowing animals would push them to the surface, but they lay everywhere.  Water dug bone from the hillside and pooled shards in drying streams of dirt.  What looked like rocks sticking out of the soil turned out to be bone. Below the cliff where the buffalo fell, the hillside weeps bone fragments.

FirstPeoplesSign

The ranger at First Peoples Buffalo Jump State Park confirmed my observation.

“That’s where blood kettles would have been,” she said.  “The Indians would line a pit with hide, add blood from the animals, and break bones to get marrow for blood pudding.”

I looked at the hillside, struggling to put myself in that scene. What was it like to process hundreds of bison for every ounce of nutrition and material possible?

Many Americans who eat meat know little about hunting or raising livestock. As travelers, we are sometimes disgusted by people’s diets- even in first world countries.

At First Peoples Buffalo Jump, gaze at the hillside weeping bone shards and reflect. What if we were Great Plains Indians reliant upon our skills and efforts to harvest our own meals?

FirstPeoplesCliff

Our two sentence education on buffalo jumps

My school education about buffalo jumps included the usual two-sentence sense of their nature and purpose.

“Indians chased buffalo off cliffs for food, clothing and shelter. They processed what they could use and left behind the rest.” That gets filtered into “they were lazy and wasteful” in modern conversation.

My first visit to a jump at American Prairie Reserve stirred my curiosity. I added a side trip to Madison Buffalo Jump State Park, where great interpretive signage told me more. I purchased books and perused Web pages. My itinerary this spring included First Peoples Buffalo Jump in Ulm, Montana.

My inner scientist started questioning those two sentences after that first trip.  I know that bison are dangerous, so any mechanical means of harvest reduces risk to people.

I knew the rifle reduced wildlife populations faster than bows or buffalo jumps. Despite communal hunting, 30-60 million bison still roamed the plains we began decimating the herds.

And I figured any leftovers from a kill would not go to waste. A broad range of wildlife and insects would appreciate the remains in spare sage country. The rest would nourish the soils for plants and other animals.

What I see now is how complex hunting rituals were, how great the need for these periodic harvests, and how diverse the range of uses for bison parts.

A perspective on waste

Living on the Great Plains before guns and combines, you would never take food for granted.  Communal hunting and fishing would keep people fed and reduce danger. An infographic in this blog article says that one hunt at a buffalo jump could feed 400 people for over 3 months.

Plains Indians developed many uses for buffalo parts and pieces. They used everything from brain to sinew for shelter, tools, containers and clothing. You can experience this and even touch items at the superb First Peoples Interpretive Center.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

And don’t call out food waste before reviewing your behavior. Nowadays, we are the pot calling any kettle black on food waste. We won’t buy “ugly food”. We toss 30% of the food we buy.

Food waste is a longstanding problem. A ranger at First Peoples said that white Americans considered buffalo tongue a delicacy. They would fell a one-ton animal for the tongue only- just like sharks today die for fin soup. We blew away bison from train windows for sport, then harvested dried bones when we needed fertilizer.

Eating off the land requires skill and community

We are losing the ability to feed ourselves. Like many, I am adapted to read at close range and to see by electric light. My eyes are becoming hard with age like everyone who lives longer than nature intended. Based on eyesight alone, I would be reliant on community for food.

I know I don’t have the right muscles or coordination for hunt or harvest. I spent hours as a child picking berries and processing smelt. I have grown vegetables and helped process deer and chickens. I eat meat, but my modern sense of smell means the odor of burnt feathers and raw blood turns my stomach for days.

I know that without the modern food industry, I would not be here. But even the most fit and keen-eyed among us would have a hard time gathering and processing all our food. In a post-apocalyptic world where rats, pigeons, and cockroaches still roam, it won’t be easy.

FirstPeoplesTeepees
Could I build a teepee to withstand prairie storms?

It was about culture, too

The Plains Indians recognized the blessing of animals and plants. Like the Inuit, they developed rituals that included a conversation with a food animal.  The book title, “I Will Be Meat for My Salish” describes that conversation.

According to the Smithsonian Institute, “Because the bison provided many gifts—from tipis and clothing made from hides to soap from fat and tools made from bones—they were honored as relatives and paid tribute to through songs, dance and prayers.”

Now, my neighbors say a blessing for each meal, whether it is home cooked or take out.  They are rare.  Most folks in the U.S. take our food for granted.  We assume it will always be there.  Eating is either perfunctory, or a fitness-enhancing project.

To be fair, it’s hard to connect processed, shrink-wrapped food to the earth.  Eating over work at a computer, as I and others often do, means you’re absent-mindedly putting calories in your mouth. A foil-wrapped energy bar or vitamin drink seems more appropriate for the lab than the land.

We don’t have rituals to recognize the blessedness of food in our lives. We don’t create a structure where our food can agree to be part of us;  we presuppose it.

Learning from nature

The Smithsonian Web describes a more complex benefit Plains Indians gained from bison.

“In addition to the use of their physical body, American Indians modeled social behavior from observing bison, such as how to live in a healthy and productive manner. Some of the important lessons were breastfeeding offspring, valuing both young and old, being physically active, respecting both the female and the male, healthy eating and using resources wisely.”

In this country, we grow increasingly weighty. We revere celebrity on dubious merits. We fear marginalization and even abandonment as we age.  Enough said. Maybe we need a few chats with those bison.

Moving past those two sentences

Our old school books were likely colored by hypocrisy, historical guilt, a tinge of racism, and almost complete separation from nature.

It is well worth a visit to a buffalo jump to challenge that education. Stand there and imagine what it is like to rely on yourself, your community, and the land for sustenance.

If you spend time at a buffalo jump, you begin to see the landscape differently. You find yourself gazing over the plains at hillsides. You think “Hey, couldn’t you chase a bunch of buffalo over that cliff, too?” You begin to recognize grazing and driving areas, and good features for a jump- flat space below, and water.

You see beyond those two sentences you learned in elementary school. Now you understand why some hillsides weep bones.

FirstPeoplesFergusKids
Fergus Golden Eagles getting a better education than I did about buffalo jumps

FirstPeoplesFergus