“OH MY GOD, Oh my God! This is the best day of my life! *Giggle Giggle Giggle*”
“This forest would be perfect, if it weren’t for all these f***ing trees!”
“Don’t mind me, I’m just blowin’ on my poop tweezers”
“We have enough sh**! Now we only go for the PRIMO sh**!”
So far we have been throughout Salmon National Forest and we have just started in Boise National Forest outside of Stanley, ID. We will hike through about 6 sites per day and accumulate approximately 10+ miles each day. This has us sore, blistered, and hobbling by the end of the week, but we are still always in good spirits. Sure we can get cranky when we are on mile 8 and tripping over every other fallen tree, but that just means it is time to sit down on that log, chow down on a cliff bar, and take a look around our “office”. Through all of the hills, marshes, and tree hopping I, along with everyone else, have received a fair share of scratches, scars, and bruises but to be able to be outside and spend hours and days in these incredible locations.
Oh, the things that you hear in the field. But that’s right, today was a shit filled day. Yesterday evening one pair in the crew received a chorus howl from one of the wolf packs and were able to triangulate their location to smaller section of their site. 5am this morning the whole crew piled into the trucks and made our way to the site. Immediately we received a chorus of pups responding to our howl and after spreading out to increase our search area, we quickly began to find sign… lots of sign. While only one of the crew was able to see a wolf pup, as they had retreated into hiding, we knew that we had arrived at an active site. The next 4-5 hours collecting adult and puppy scat of varying freshness. We also stumbled upon various “chew toys” from the pups and a fresh deer kill.
The animals came out for my birthday! Our first morning site brought me about 50 meters from a lovely little Black Bear. I must have been in a hiking zone and had a brief reprieve from my crashing and bumbling through the forest, but I ended up seeing the bear before he saw me. While I wouldn’t exactly consider 50 meters a close encounter and he ran far away the moment I used my bear safety training (just yell or clap loudly), in that brief moment my heart did start beating a bit quicker. Plus, he ran in the exact direction I was heading, I never saw him again, but my nerves were on edge. In the afternoon we got a return howl from a single adult wolf. We never got a visual of him, but just hearing a wolf so close while you are alone in the woods sure sends chills down your spine.
That’s right, I have left the heat of the desert for the rains of the Northwest to study wolves and shit… or more precisely wolf shit (pardon my language, Nana). In the world of biology we sure do love to study poop, and it is at this point that we begin to refer to it as scat. We can learn a great deal by looking at scat, and for this project we will determine the sex, age class, and even the pack genetic diversity of the individuals through the collection of small scat samples. Our goal is to collect a small scraping from the outer edge of the scat, this gives us a very thin layer of epithelial cells from the wolf’s colon and thus we have DNA!
So here’s the low down on our daily routine. We head out to our projected rendezvous sites in the early early AM and evening, park and hike in. From here we will perform howl calls and wait for replies (yes, we howl at the hills). Then we’ll head out to search for sign within each site, checking out all trails and suitable habitat. We will collect any scat, old or fresh, along the way. If we come across an active den site, we will quickly exit and return with the whole crew later. This allows us to process the site much quicker and with less impact to the wolves (studies have shown that they are less impacted by the number of people at the site than the amount of time we spend there). So far we have not had the opportunity to do an active site, just a recently vacated one.
For our first stint we are up in the hills of Salmon, Idaho which is just as picturesque as I’ve always heard. Every morning we are out before sunrise and in the evening we won’t return until after sunset, which makes for some very long and usually hard days. But the landscapes and views of the sunsets and sunrises from the top of the mountains truly make up for the lack of sleep.
At the beginning of this project I decided to invest in a new pair of boots, and when I say invest I mean these are by far the most expensive pair of shoes I own… probably the most expensive anything I own (ok, maybe I’m exaggerating, but definitely the most expensive shoes). The terrain here in the Mojave is not exactly a walk in the park (first of all, no grass), the rocks are like shards of glass, the cacti are scary and mean, and the mountains… oh the mountain can be intense… I have scaled some area that I would think would be difficult for mountain goats, not to mention impossible for tortoises. But since we are required to get to a certain elevation if possible and I am not one to give up easily, I scaled those mountains anyway. Sometimes I paid the price with bruises, scrapes, torn clothing, and even cactus spines. But I do believe my lovely shoes have taken the worst beating. So with worn out tread, holes in the sole and leather, and even a few lost cactus spines inside I took them into REI and exchanged them for a brand new pair, no questions asked just a few Wows and Are you sure you want the same type…
Now to break these puppies in this week and hope for a little friendlier terrain at my next project!
So working with tortoises has become a little bit of an adventure. Some days you walk for miles upon miles, through some rather tough terrain and see absolutely nothing, other days you wonder if you can walk the rest of the way with your eyes closed so you don’t have to stop for anything (fyi, walking with your eyes closed out here, not recommended). When we do find a tortoise, everything stops. Is it in a burrow? Do you have to catch it before it dashes into a burrow? Does it have a tag or notches? What is the temperature, is it too hot out to handle them? Is it healthy, what is its body condition rating? All of these questions and more have to be answered while processing. And most you have to do at a little bit of a distance. If you startle a tortoise or they consider you a predator, they will close into their shell and then your day just got a lot longer. If you can’t see the head, you can’t get body condition data. If they dash into a burrow, you can’t get anything, it’s like you never saw them. If they are frightened during they processing they can void their bladder as a defense (often occurs when we file notches on the shell), but this can lead to dehydration and possibly death during the dry summer months.
More often than not, I tend to find the tortoises that are not afraid but rather want nothing to do with me or my data collection process. I get the feisty ones, the ones that will not sit still and allow me to quickly and easily file down notches and place a nice and neat tag. I am fairly certain my partners enjoy watching me trying to convince my tortoises to stay still and when that doesn’t work, chase them around the desert until I can collect everything. I am sure it is amusing, but in the moment when it is approaching 95F and we are a half mile from the end of a 10 mile day it is hard to see it. But I would much rather the healthy and feisty ones to the sickly ones (luckily only one has been found so far).