As the snow continued to pile up this winter, I started to ask around about sled dogs.
I soon bumped into a friend who had a friend in Preston who trained and occasionally raced his team of 14 Alaskan Huskies.
This musher graciously offered to give me a ride on one of his training runs. I showed up all smiles as he was harnessing his team. The dogs were excited to go and actually howling with happiness. The musher asked if I wanted to get in – or ride up the trail a bit on a snowmobile with his teenage son to a more level spot. In a rare moment of sanity, I opted for the snowmobile.
The machine had just pulled out of the yard when I heard his son say, “Oh, No!”
I looked back in time to see the sled tip over, sending the musher sliding across the driveway and under my car parked at the end of it. I jumped off the snowmobile as the dogs shot past us with the empty sled. The dogs were gaining on a truck up ahead, then shot past it with the snowmobile in hot pursuit.
I was left standing in a snowbank wondering if I’d wandered into a James Bond movie.
My first encounter with sled dogs had gone a lot smoother. I was visiting Denali National Park in Alaska and the rangers were introducing us to one of the dog teams that they still use to patrol the park.
But the most famous sled dogs are the freight teams that carried anti-toxin from Anchorage to Nome during an outbreak of Diphtheria in 1925. The dog teams ran a thousand miles and are credited with saving hundreds of lives.
For the last 50 years, modern mushers have retraced this journey in the ultimate sled dog race, the Ididarod. The best account I’ve read about the world of training sled dogs and running the Ididarod is Gary Paulsen’s book Winterdance. Just before going on a training ride, he discovered, “the gangline was trembling, quivering like a string on a guitar. It fairly hummed and I felt there was great power there. The trees in the yard went by in a mad blur and we left the yard at warp speed.”
Paulsen also lets us in on the deep relationship mushers form with their dogs: “As they understand you will give them meat when they run, and love when they run, and your soul when they run – as they learn to feel that, understand that, know that – they are no longer sled dogs – they become distance dogs, dogs that cannot, will not be stopped.” Paulson ran the Iditarod in 1983. It was a wild ride that took 17 days. But he finished.
Meanwhile, back in Preston, our teenage hero had caught up with the runaway team, made a flying leap from the snowmobile onto the empty sled, and somehow managed to stop the team. Pretty soon the musher and I caught up.
“Do you still want to get in?” he asked.
“Sure,” I said.
And we were off. The dogs settled into a steady trot. From then on it was all Sun and Snow and the sheer Joy of sliding quietly through the magnificent winter scenery.
Underpass and Jump Ramp Near Santaquin WMA Courtesy & Copyright Lyle Bingham, Photographer
Rural Road Leading to Santaquin Wildlife Management Area Courtesy & Copyright Lyle Bingham, PhotographerDeer and other wildlife have been migrating across our state much longer than humans. When people drove horse-drawn wagons and slower vehicles, wildlife could easily pass without a problem. However, with the introduction of fenced highways and their increased speed and traffic, problems quickly arose. In this case, the problem is mostly with mule deer, because they comprise 90% of the animals migrating in Utah. Robert Frost wrote that “Good fences make good neighbors.” But neighbors need to cooperate to maintain a fence, and even with fences in place, what if the neighbors are animals? The problem is how to keep migrating deer from jumping fences and causing accidents.
Animal/vehicle encounters cause over 5,000 animal deaths in Utah each year. Beyond the loss of life, it is also an economic problem, not only for wildlife management but also for vehicle owners. Some estimate the deer are worth more than $2,500 each. Joshua Coursey wrote in the Deseret News, that the “estimated cost of collisions with mule deer in Utah reached close to $50 million in 2021.” That’s why the Utah Department of Transportation (UDOT) and the Division of Wildlife Resources (DWR) have worked for decades to reduce wildlife/vehicle encounters. As noted, fencing alone does not work; consequently, highway managers have had to find ways to get trapped deer across and away from fenced roads.
When USU researchers studied escape mechanisms in Sardine canyon, they found earthen escape mounds were superior to one-way, metal gates. Climbing a hill is more natural to deer than pushing through a metal gate. These mounds enable a one-way jump to safety. However, escape alone does not solve the driving force of migration.
A more effective way to handle migrating animals is to guide them above or below the road. UDOT explains: “Studies have shown there is a 90% reduction in wildlife/vehicle collisions when there is a crossing structure and fence in the area.” Since 1975, when UDOT built its first wildlife overpass near Beaver, Utah, deer, moose and elk, along with bear and mountain lions have begun to use wildlife underpasses and overpasses. More recently, a larger overpass was built in Parley’s Canyon on I-80. Videos show a variety of animals who successfully traverse that overpass.
But escape ramps and overpasses aren’t the only tools available. Passage is also possible using creek beds or culverts crossing under roads. Tall fences are effective in guiding animals toward structures and preventing roadway access. Then, to encourage faster adoption, contractors have found they can walk a herd of cattle through the structure, overpowering human scents
When on I-15, I-80, I-70, or in our canyons, watch for overpasses, underpasses, one-way gates and exit ramps. They demonstrate a few ways the DWR and UDOT are working together to preserve human and animal lives.
This is Lyle Bingham, and I’m Wild About Utah and our 15 years on Utah Public Radio.
Buford, Daniel, Cramer, Patricia, and Simpson, Nova, Integrating Wildlife Connectivity and Safety Concerns into Transportation Planning Processes, Federal Highway Administration, US Department of Transportation, Winter 2023, https://highways.dot.gov/public-roads/winter-2023/04
“A dynamic part of a National Cooperative Highway Research Program sponsored research project titled; ‘Evaluation of the Use and Effectiveness of Wildlife Crossings.'”, http://www.wildlifeandroads.org/
DWR: “It’s the video seen around the world! This compilation of footage shows various animals using the wildlife crossing constructed in 2018 over Interstate 80 near Parleys Summit. What’s especially notable with this crossing is how many animals are already using it; usually it takes several years for wildlife crossings to become widely used.
DWR: “Utah’s highways are vital to the health of the state. They can present a significant barrier for wildlife migration. In order to prevent automobile/wildlife collisions and to increase habitat availability for animals, Wildlife biologists and the Utah Department of Transportation have designed and installed several overpasses and underpasses to allow wild animals to safely cross the highway.”
Bull Elk in Profile Courtesy US FWS, Ryan Hagerty, Photographer
Jackson Elk Herd Courtesy US FWS, Lori Iverson, Photographer
Bull Elk and Herd at National Elk Refuge Courtesy US FWS, Kari Cieszkiewicz, PhotographerThe Rocky Mountain elk is Utah’s state mammal for good reason. No one can deny its majesty and uncanny intelligence while being hunted, and the spine tingling bugle released in fall mountain splendor.
My introductory encounter with Rocky Mountain elk came during my first deer hunt in Utah on the east side of Mt. Nebo. I was nearly trampled by a large bull and herd of cows that leaped over me as I cowered behind large boulders. What magnificent beings they were, dwarfing the whitetail deer I had grown up with in Michigan.
Since that time, I’ve led countless groups of students and others to view elk during the rut in Grand Teton National Park. On one occasion, we were sleeping under the stars on a warm fall evening, awakened by a minor earth quake as a herd ran through us, a wakeup call I’ll never forget!
A matriarchal society, the cow elk rules the herd other than during the fall rut. Bulls will often separate to avoid this embarrassing situation. If you’ve had the pleasure of holding a large set of elk antlers, you will appreciate the physiology that allows this amount of annual growth to produce such weapons and status symbols. Cows generally outlive the bulls by several years. Prime bulls exhaust themselves, during the rut, and face the harsh winter months in a depleted condition. Some won’t make it providing a feast for waiting predators and scavengers come spring.
Elk are a sacred animal for many Native Americans. “Elk Medicine is a powerful totem animal of stamina, strength, sensual passion, nobility, pride, respect, and survival. Elk are also known as Spirit Messengers. Their antlers connect to the medicine of lightening, and channel that energy to earth. With this medicine comes instant knowing and messages from Spirit with great clarity.” Animal Spirit Medicine Elk by Beverly Two Feathers
My spiritual encounter came on a full moon vernal evening on a ridge in Birch Canyon near Smithfield. It was unusually warm so decided to take a moonlit stroll. Once on the ridge, large, gray forms emerged. I soon found myself surrounded by an elk herd. I moved slowly for safety, and not to startle the animals. A euphoric moment. Another came last fall when I had a large group of USU international students with me. It was after dark at the base of Teewinot. I hushed their chatter. Soon after came the hauntingly beautiful sound sliding down the slope above, bugling of bull elk. They were transfixed as was I.
A favorite book is Wapiti Wilderness, coauthored by Olaus and wife Margaret Murie, capturing their lives in the Yellowstone and Teton wilderness tracking elk herds over many years, often with their young children. A revealing and enduring read I highly recommend.
This weekend I will be taking 24 international students to Hardware Ranch for a sleigh ride among the wintering pasturing elk. Here they are fed hay to replace their lower winter range, which has been replaced by human activity. Yet another spiritual experience!
This is Jack Greene for Bridgerland Audubon and I’m Wild About Utah and its elk.
Primates of the northlands. I consider tree squirrels to be on par with many primates for intelligence and agility. Those who have bird feeders may agree with me as they vainly attempt to thwart squirrel’s from invading their feeders. We have red squirrels visiting our bird feeder regularly. I’ve outsmarted them for the moment, but they continue to work on the problem I’ve presented them and feel a failure coming my way!
I’ve watched red squirrels manipulate fir cones with their front paws with amazing dexterity. Like myself eating a cob of corn, it spun the cone rapidly while shredding the cone scales to access the seed. Their tiny toes grip the cone identically to my fingers gripping the cob of corn. I’m amazed how they can unerringly navigate their way from tree to tree through our forest. There are many examples of squirrel intelligence witnessed by animal behaviorists.
Arboreal squirrels often build dreys that look like bird nests. Dreys are made up of twigs , moss, feathers and grass. All the items surrounding the dreys provide support and insulation. Chimpanzees exhibit very similar behavior.
Squirrels make use of several vocalizations to communicate with each other, they also create scents to attract opposite sex or communicate. They can create signals with their tails as well, by twitching it to alert other squirrels on the presence of a potential danger.
Tree squirrels display fantastically acrobatic movements, phenomenal adaptability to urban environments, and possess very cute little faces to boot. The 7th International Colloquium on Arboreal Squirrels was held 2018 in Helsinki, Finland. Studies routinely come discover new, amazing behaviors, especially involving the squirrel’s signature behavior, that it buries caches of its food to access later. One experiment found that they’ll try multiple tactics to open a locked box. Another found that squirrels remember the location of their caches without using their keen noses to locate them. Another found that they’re able to quickly learn from their peers.
A 2010 study found that squirrels actually engage in deceptive, or paranoid, behavior. When squirrels are being watched, they’ll construct fake caches, pretending to bury a nut by digging a hole, patting it down with their front teeth, and scraping dirt or grass over the top of it while concealing the nut in a pocket near their armpit, and will make the real cache somewhere else. Even while watching, it can be difficult to tell when a squirrel is making a fake or a real cache. How smart is that?
A study was conducted at UC Berkley in which students were placed in a competitive game to act like squirrels. They hid caches of plastic eggs, and then 15 minutes later returned to find them. This is a very squirrel-like test: memory, deception, location, observation, paranoia. Most students couldn’t remember their own hiding places. Squirrels bury about 10,000 nuts per year, making many different caches, and may not uncover them for months. They may dig up a cache and bury it somewhere else, and do that up to five times. Squirrels, unlike UC Berkeley students, are engaged in this intellectually draining activity while also avoiding predators and braving the elements.
This is Jack Greene for Bridgerland Audubon. I’m Wild About Utah and its amazing squirrels!
Picture: Courtesy Pixabay, Alexas Fotos, Photographer, https://pixabay.com/photos/squirrel-rodent-animal-cute-nature-5158715/
Audio: Courtesy UPR
Text: Jack Greene, Bridgerland Audubon, https://bridgerlandaudubon.org/
Additional Reading: Lyle W Bingham, Webmaster, and Jack Greene, Author, Bridgerland Audubon, https://bridgerlandaudubon.org/