Jack’s Cougar Encounter

jacks cougar encounter
Photographer: Larry Moats
Courtesy US FWS Digital Library
There are those moments in one’s life when time stops and moments become hours. So it was while trail running in the Wellsville mountains of northern Utah

Deep in the forest shadows materialized a form- a coyote! Well, that was the initial thinking. I stopped for closer inspection and began talking in a soft, welcoming tone so as not to frighten away my favorite song dog.
The animal form persisted- no frenzied running up the steep slope just beyond. Interesting.
I walked toward the figure to find the fright distance and for closer encounter. Eight steps in crunchy leaves and the animal began to move. Wow! A long tail emerges. The canine face transforms to feline. MOUNTAIN LION!!!

After 50+ years of trapesing through wild, rugged country in the western U.S., dream becomes reality- that of seeing this shadow being in real form.

Mesmerized, I continue a cautious approach. The cat holds its ground. Our distance closes to 50 yards when it begins a leisurely retreat. I continue singing praises to its magnificence. At one point I find myself emitting “Here Kitty, Kitty, Kitty” to which fortunately it doesn’t respond.

Mountain Lion
Courtesy USDA Forest Service
A large tom with striking colors- its lithe, fluid, soundless movement- poetry in motion, a marvel of artistic expression. It stops frequently, looking back to lock eyes with wonderment- perhaps its first close encounter with this strange being.

Eventually it gains the steep slope and picks its way upward. Occasional sunburst accents the rich tawny gold and well-muscled body. Eyes strain to follow its progress, fading into the dream it once was.

Cougars are solitary animals, making them a rare sight for humans. They usually hunt alone and at night, ambushing their prey from behind. Typically, cougars kill their prey with a bite to the lower neck. After making a kill, a cougar often will take the carcass to the base of a tree and cover it with dirt, leaves or snow, saving it to eat later.

Their main prey is deer, so cougars are often found close by. They can live up to 12 years in the wild but have lived up to 25 years in captivity.

Only 20 people in North America have been killed by cougars during the past 125 years, including six in California and 8 in Canada. No deaths have ever been reported in Utah. It is far less likely than dying from snake bites, avalanches, lightning strikes, hypothermia, or bee stings, or just about any other means. Children are particularly vulnerable when alone.

If approached by one, intimidation by intense eye contact, loud shouting, and any other actions to appear larger and more menacing is warranted.

This is Jack Greene writing and reading for WAU

Credits:

Images: Courtesy US FWS Digital Library
Text:     Jack Greene

Sources & Additional Reading:

Mountain Lion, Wildlife Notebook, Utah Division of Wildlife Resources,

http://wildlife.utah.gov/publications/pdf/newlion.pdf

Starving Cougar Attacks Vernal Man, Hans Moran, Deseret News Nov. 12, 1997, http://www.deseretnews.com/article/594408/Starving-cougar-attacks-Vernal-man.html

Mountain Lion, National Geographic, http://animals.nationalgeographic.com/animals/mammals/mountain-lion.html

Talking Dirt

Talking Dirt: There are over four billion micro-organisms in a teaspoon of healthy soil. Courtesy King County, WA
There are over four billion micro-organisms in a teaspoon of healthy soil.
Courtesy King County, WA
It’s time to talk dirt- and I’m not talking politics, but real, factual dirt! Of all our amazing planets ecosystems, there is one that rises above all others. It’s the one your home is standing on, the one you don’t want your kids to track in the house. By now you’ve probably guessed it!

The diversity and abundance of life that exists within soil is greater than in any other ecosystem. A ‘biological universe’ exists in a gram of soil. Soil biota within this tiny universe transform energy, create and modify their habitat, influence soil health, and aid in the regulation of greenhouse gases. There are more microbes in a teaspoon of soil than there are people on the earth. We’re talking such characters as bacteria, fungi, protozoa, nematodes, earthworms, and arthropods. No wonder kids are so drawn to this miraculous stew of life! My one year old granddaughter can’t resist a mouthful given the opportunity! So let’s dive into a handful of soil.

Biogeochemical Cycling Courtesy USGS, Public Domain https://www.usgs.gov/media/images/biogeochemical-cycling-diagram-showing-climatic-processes-hydrologic
Biogeochemical Cycling
Courtesy USGS, Public Domain
https://www.usgs.gov/media/images/biogeochemical-cycling-diagram-showing-climatic-processes-hydrologic
The majority of life on Earth is dependent upon six critical elements: hydrogen, carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, oxygen, and sulfur that pass through, and are transformed by, soil organisms. This process, called biogeochemical cycling, is defined as the transformation and cycling of elements between non-living and living matter. These processes are dependent upon life in the soil.

Although we understand the vital services that these organisms provide by breaking down organic debris and recy¬cling nutrients, scientists have only begun to study the rich and unique diversity that is a part of the soil ecosystem. Of particular interest for myself is understanding the functions of certain fungi and their roles in storing atmospheric carbon dioxide.

As you may have heard in past WAU readings, climate change is a major threat to Utah’s wildlife including birds, cold water fish, pollinators, and pica.

Conservation Tillage: Minimizing tillage and maintaining a crop residue on the soil surface can greatly reduce erosion impacts Agricultural Management Practices for Water Quality Protection--Watershed Academy Web, Courtesy US EPA
Conservation Tillage:
Minimizing tillage and maintaining a crop residue on the soil surface can greatly reduce erosion impacts
Agricultural Management Practices for Water Quality Protection–Watershed Academy Web, Courtesy US EPA
And here’s where our farms and ranches have the opportunity to play a crucial role beyond feeding us.
Deploying what’s called regenerative agricultural practices like tillage reduction, cover crops, companion planting, planned grazing, and keyline plowing—will not only improve soil quality making it more resilient to climate conditions like flooding and drought, but also increase soil’s organic matter which require less fertilizer. This in turn, means less runoff into waterways and greater profitability for farmers.

Perhaps most important of all, managing farms this way actually draws carbon out of the atmosphere. If all cropland in the U.S. was farmed using these regenerative practices, the greenhouse gas reduction would be equivalent to eliminating nearly 90 percent of our country’s cars. And now some states are considering economic incentives like tax breaks for carbon sequestration farming, and enlisting Farm Bureaus to provide additional support. Will Utah be next?

This is Jack Greene writing and reading for WAU.

Fortuna, A. (2012) The Soil Biota. Nature Education Knowledge 3(10):1, https://www.nature.com/scitable/knowledge/library/the-soil-biota-84078125

Biogeochemical Cycles, U.S. Global Change Research Program, http://nca2014.globalchange.gov/report/sectors/biogeochemical-cycles#intro-section-2

How do microbial mats work? Microbial Mat Biogeochemical Cycling, NASA Ames Research Center, https://spacescience.arc.nasa.gov/microbes/about/microbial.html

Biogeochemical Cycling, Center for Forested Wetlands Research, Southern Research Station, USDA Forest Service, https://www.srs.fs.usda.gov/charleston/research/biogeochemical/

Subsurface Biogeochemical Research Program, Climate and Environmental Sciences Division, Office of Biological and Environmental Research, U.S. Department of Energy, http://doesbr.org/

The Carbon Cycle, NASA Earth Observatory, EOS Project Science Office, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/Features/CarbonCycle/

Smithfield Urban Deer

Smithfield Urban Deer: Click for a larger view of Mule Deer, Odocoileus hemionus, Courtesy US FWS, Ryan Moehring, Photographer

Mule DeerOdocoileus hemionus
Courtesy US FWS
Ryan Moehring, Photographer 
As I look out my front window, 7 mule deer are cavorting, feeding, with some lying down for a mid-day siesta. With the final week of the regular season deer hunt winding down, some have taken sanctuary from the nimrods to join the urban herd.

For our 30 years in Smithfield canyon, deer have been regulars, disappearing for the most part from mid-May to mid-June to give birth, as do the bucks, perhaps somewhat embarrassed with strange bumps forming on their crowns.
Spotted fawns begin adorning our lawn in mid-July. With enough speed to outrun all but the fastest predator’s, mom drops her guard a bit. Bucks begin parading their new, fully formed head gear.

As fall and winter approach, the neighborhood herd grows, with a few dozen hanging out when winter finally sets in. Their snow trails through the yard become conspicuous, further defined with sprinkles of fecal material. Out back the steep hillside across Summit Creek becomes a winter playground as small groups run repeatedly up and down and around. Apparently, their abundant stores of energy allow them to break winter’s lethargy. This is generally not the case for deer in the wilds where every calorie is conserved for winter hardships as snow deepens and temperatures plunge.

We’ve witnessed a few humorous behaviors during our 3 decades of observation. Deer are very curious which occasionally works against their best interests. We had an especially aggressive rooster who became our “feathered” watchdog. A small deer herd passing through the front yard noticed the stocky cock guarding the front door and decided on closer inspection. The lead deer approached stretching his neck and tender nose to get a closer whiff. Old roaster rooster gave her a welcoming sharp jab to the nose which sent the herd bounding off.
On another occasion, our tomcat found itself taking refuge under the trampoline as 4 deer approached from a patch of forest. The cat’s movement piqued the deer’s curiosity. They surrounded the trampoline, bent down on front knees with noses poked underneath for a close-up. Poor tom was terrified- to be munched by a deer- what a horrible end!

Of course, we realize that not everyone is enamored with deer in their space. Deer can be a nuisance causing damage to landscapes and gardens. With proper fencing and plant selection, this can be managed. A greater concern is safety, vehicle-deer collisions. Here again, with proper signage, this can be minimized. I’ve experienced close encounters on my bike, so always go slow when deer appear near or on the roadway.
An excellent resource for landscaping is found at wildlife.utah.gov/habitat/deer-browse.php Blending a variety of native and ornamental plants into a home landscape can create a highly attractive environment for family, friends, mule deer and other wildlife species. Enhancing the home environment and replacing some of the lost wildlife habitat can be enjoyable and beneficial.

This is Jack Greene for Wild About Utah.

Credits:
Image: Courtesy US FWS Ryan Moehring, Photographer
Text:     Jack Greene, Bridgerland Audubon Society


Additional Reading:

Copeland, H. E., H. Sawyer, K. L. Monteith, D. E. Naugle, A. Pocewicz, N. Graf, and M. J. Kauffman. 2014.
Conserving migratory mule deer through the umbrella of sage-grouse. Ecosphere 5(9):117. http://dx.doi.org/10.1890/ES14-00186.1
https://www.fws.gov/greatersagegrouse/documents/research/muledeer_mig_grouse_14-00186.pdf

Mule Deer, Species-Utah Conservation Data Center, Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, http://dwrcdc.nr.utah.gov/rsgis2/Search/Display.asp?FlNm=odochemi

Mule Deer, Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, https://wildlife.utah.gov/learn-more/mule-deer.html

Greater Sage Grouse Recovery

Greater Sage Grouse Recovery: Sage grouse standing in profile on rocky lake shore Courtesy US FWS Dave Menke, Photographer
Sage grouse standing in profile on rocky lake shore
Courtesy US FWS
Dave Menke, Photographer
So what happens when you get a bunch of ranchers together with a bunch of scientists and agencies? I found the answer as I attended a meeting in a remote part of western Boxelder County a few evenings ago. I was pleasantly surprised to discover much good for both wildlife and people.

This was a formal meeting under the auspice of the West Boxelder Conservation Resource Management (CRM) Group targeting greater sage grouse recovery. It was a very informative meeting covering everything from juniper forest removal, prescribed burns, and reseeding to enhance range for cattle, birds, and wildlife.

I learned that due to wildfire suppression which is essential to maintaining healthy range conditions, juniper forests have replaced thousands of acres of grasses, forbs, and sage steppe communities. I was also informed that pinyon pine will be preserved honoring Native American traditions which is central to their culture and diet. In addition to this work, the group addresses general rangeland condition and invasive species.

The CRM is planning wetland and riparian improvements that will provide resting, feeding, and nesting sites for migrating birds. Fencing has been put around key springs and off-site water sources have been developed. The reintroduction of beaver to the stream will help the extremely limited water supply by slowing the spring water runoff, stabilizing the stream banks, and raising the water table.

There was a lively exchange regarding a paper published in a respected science journal by USU authors addressing grazing impacts on grouse populations. The Greater Sage Grouse has become a species of special concern due to plummeting populations, and is considered an umbrella species being its recovery should be paralleled by other sensitive faunal species.

A statement in the papers abstract “Our meta-analysis revealed an overall negative effect of livestock grazing on grouse populations.” raised some red flags with the ranching community. Reading further, this study was conducted on a different grouse species in the U.K. There appeared to be a peaceful resolution to this concern and agreement that future abstract wording would get more scrutiny before published.

I also learned the verdict is still out on grazing impacts on the greater sage grouse. Intense research is underway in the CRM attempting to find answers. My prediction is with all of the range restoration activity combined with well managed grazing will eventually result in higher grouse populations.

This good work has not gone unrecognized. In 2016, the West Boxelder CRM was presented with the Sage Grouse Habitat Stewardship-Collaborative Award from the BLM as an ideal example of a community-based land stewardship organization that is committed, engaged, and active across land ownership boundaries. A tip of the hat to all interests on this remarkable effort!

This is Jack Greene writing and reading for Wild About Utah

Credits:

Pictures: Courtesy US Fish & Wildlife Service, Dave Menke, Photographer
Text: Jack Greene, Bridgerland Audubon Society

Additional Reading:

Community Based Conservation Plan, https://utahcbcp.org/localworkinggroups/WestBoxElder-WBECRM/westboxelder