Monday, January 31, 2011

Pronghorn update

Just couldn't do another Pronghorn in the snow photo so I am using this one to think of better days. I found out this morning that at least another 70 animals were struck by a train in one event this weekend, plus another 30 or so in a different incident. This pushes the known direct mortality from train strikes to nearly 400 Pronghorn in the last few weeks. Certainly there are additional indirect mortalities associated with these events along with mortalities associated with starvation, predation, and vehicle strikes that push the loss of animals even higher.
This is a killer winter where the impacts of landscape changes are most evident and detrimental for most of the big game animals in this area. Continuing changes to the landscape inhibit the movement of animals and leaves them stuck in areas where they are unable to survive. These changes are not as evident during most winters, but when the chips are down and the animals need to be able to move easily to survive, the impacts are amplified. The effects of these incidents and landscape changes on these populations is going to be felt for a long time.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Return to Tanzania

Since it looks like we broke the record for the most snow for the season last night (still snowing now) and the temperature is heading well below the zero mark for the next few days, I think that it is about time to return to Tanzania. But it looks the only way I am going to be able to do that is post about it here.

To recap, I was in Tanzania to train Village Game Scouts (VGS) how to conduct more rigorous natural resource monitoring as part of their regular duties conducting anti-poaching patrols at the Enduimet Wildlife Management Area (WMA).

Enduimet WMA is located west of Mount Kilimanjaro along the border with Kenya.

I was part of a team working for the Department of Interior's Technical Assistance Program. There were ten of us on the team, divided into five teams of two, each team assisting with a different WMA. My partner at Enduimet was Janet, a botanist from the US Fish and Wildlife Service in Alaska.

This is Eric, our driver.

We worked very closely with the Longido District Game Officer (DGO) Stephen (on the right), his local commander Charles (on the left), and Julius (middle), a representative for the African Wildlife Foundation, a non-governmental agency partner in the management of the WMA.

When we arrived at Enduimet, we toured the VGS outposts in the WMA. These guys are amazing. They accomplish a lot with little resources. The shed in the back is where they cook and store their equipment. They sleep in small individual tents scattered around the outpost. The conduct anti-poaching patrols on foot from their outposts and spend four weeks at a stretch on duty.

Our training was conducted at the WMA headquarters in the village of Ol Malog. Each morning the scouts would go through their drills prior to the training.

We spent most of our time outside doing more practical instruction. Here Janet is teaching the scouts how to set up and run a habitat transect to measure vegetation.

We did spend some time inside the WMA headquartes in the village of Ol Malog. Here the scouts are going through the field guides we provided them, The Birds of East Africa and the Kingdon Pocket Guide to African Mammals. I would recommend both guides for any trip to East Africa.

We also taught the scouts how to measure grass biomass using the pasture disk method.

Since there wasn't much wildlife near the village, we improvised and used the numerous cattle, sheep or goats as surrogates when we taught the scouts how to conduct wildlife transect surveys.

At the end of the training we had the scouts run their own transect as a practical test. The transect was run from one of the outposts and this time we had real African wildlife to use on the transect.

At the end of our training we had a ceremony with a number of dignitaries where the scouts received their certificates of completion. Here Obedi is reciting a speech where he expressed the scouts appreciation for being selected to receive the training as well as appreciation for the content of the training.

The primary management challenge at Enduimet is the heart of this type of conservation effort - how to integrate local people and villages into conservation efforts so that the people realize some gain from having wildlife on the landscape. It is a difficult challenge but necessary as more and more people inhabit areas that have traditionally not been heavily impacted by human land use and still have wildlife habitat and populations. More people exert pressure on local wildlife through direct conflict (where the wildlife usually loses) to more subtle, indirect impacts through habitat changes or loss. One example of indirect impacts to wildlife at Enduimet is the increase use of water for agriculture at the upper ends of the watercourses near the mountains. This limits the amount of water that makes it to the area where wildlife have traditionally been able to access the water and puts additional pressure on the remaining sources of water needed by both wildlife and domestic livestock. Competition for scarce water tends to increase the incidents of direct conflict with wildlife.

Grazing by domestic livestock is the primary land use in the WMA.

The transition from unlimited land use to a conservation focus that will realize income from wildlife and wild lands in addition to livestock grazing is an experiment that is progressing, but the hoped for results are still years away if the experiment succeeds. Traditions change slowly.

Another management challenge is unsustainable cutting of firewood in the WMA.

On the other end of the management challenge is improving the infrastructure so that income from tourism related to wildlife can be realized for the villages. Right now the roads in the WMA are not in the best shape. That, combined with the distance from the traditional wildlife tour circuit, currently limits the amount of tourism this area receives.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Pronghorn and Trains

As I pointed out in a recent post, there is a major railway line that runs along the Milk River Valley and is a potential barrier to pronghorn movement. Turns out it is much worse than a barrier this year.
Apparently a BNSF train plowed into a large herd of Pronghorn moving down the tracks earlier in the week. The roads and railroads are some of the only areas left where the snow isn't very deep and the animals are using these to move around. Initial reports suggest at least 270 Pronghorn were killed by one train. Carcasses were scattered along the railroad bed with some thrown into nearby trees. Many of the remains were just bits and pieces of Pronghorn scattered along the tracks. At least one individual was carrying a GPS collar from the project I have been involved with. The ear tag was recovered along with part of the head but the collar has not be relocated.
Two-hundred and seventy Pronghorn is a very large percentage of the population these animals were thought to be part of and despite the ability of Pronghorn to reproduce fairly rapidly, it may take quite a few years for this population to recover from this winter, and in particular, this one mass slaughter.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Header Photo (again).

Sorry for the mess of a header. Blogger is apparently "fixing" some things again. Worked fine before. Hopefully it will be resolved soon.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Pronghorn and Fences

Pronghorn have problems crossing fences. Unlike Mule Deer or Whitetail Deer, which have no problem jumping fences, Pronghorn do not like crossing them at all. Not all fences are equal though and although some are nearly impenetrable, others can be designed to facilitate Pronghorn movement. Most often Pronghorn go under fences and fences can be constructed so that the bottom wire is not barbed and sits a bit higher from the ground to allow easier passage underneath the fence. However, when the snow becomes too deep, even well designed fences can be barriers to movement.

This fence does not have a smooth bottom wire and with the depth of the snow decreasing the amount of free space, the barbs are pulling lots of hair from the Pronghorn as they pass underneath.

Last week I watched a number of Pronghorn trying to move back and forth across an old roadway that has a barbed wire fence on either side.

Many of the animals would not cross the fence. Others made up their minds and jumped the fence. There was no option to go under with the amount of snow leaving only the top two wires exposed. All the animals that jumped the fence were moving downhill, following a path through the deep snow that others had made earlier.

Other groups tried to follow the same path uphill. None of them made the leap going that direction.

I watched a number of individuals get this far, ponder the leap, then turn around and head back downhill. The fence apparently was too much to get over heading uphill.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Pronghorn Winter

As I posted earlier, this winter is going to be tough on the animals that try to survive the winter in the northern Great Plains. We are now only 10 inches shy of breaking the record for the greatest amount of snow during a winter and well above average (the word "normal" doesn't apply to any measures of Great Plains weather).
Earlier this week I was able to get out and watch a rather large herd of Pronghorn that has probably made their way from summer ranges in the border region between Montana and Saskatchewan.

Much of the herd was gathered in small groups resting on the slopes of the south facing hills that span the northern edge of the Milk River valley.

Others had moved out into the valley itself and were foraging in the deep snow.

They were working hard to find any forage in the snow, pawing and digging to get down to the grass.

They appeared to have hit all the easy patches and were working their way to the sage and grass remaining in the areas with deeper snow.

Animals were moving back and forth in small groups looking for additional patches of forage.

This is about as far south as this herd can get without crossing some rather large barriers. In the photo above behind the animals you can see a barb wire fence (which can be rather tough barriers for pronghorn movement), and probably more detrimental, the triple barrier of a major highway (US 2), a major railway, and the Milk River itself. Throughout much of the HiLine portion of Montana (along Highway 2) these features are very close to each other and do a pretty good job of limiting the ability of these animals to move further south. Only in one section do these features spread out enough that each of the barriers becomes surmountable and animals move south much more freely.

Monday, January 10, 2011


Today I found this in the news. Notice of the death of Richard "Dick" Winters. Prior to this notice, I couldn't have told you who Dick Winters was. But I certainly knew of him even though I didn't recognize his name. He was the commander of Easy Company. The Easy Company whose duty during World War II was chronicled by Stephen Ambrose in his book "Band of Brothers" and an HBO series of the same name. Yeah, I knew of Dick Winters. You should too.

The deep respect his men had for him was apparent in the quotes from his memorial and one part of the story caught my eye. It was a quote from an interview he did with American History Magazine regarding leadership:

"If you can, find that peace within yourself, that peace and quiet and confidence that you can pass on to others, so that they know that you are honest and you are fair and will help them, no matter what, when the chips are down."

The quote intrigued me and I did a quick search to see if I could find the whole interview. I found it here and it was a wonderful primer on leadership from a man whose leadership skills were forged under unforgiving circumstances.

"If you listen and pay attention, you will find that your own self-consciousness will tell you if you are getting off track. Nobody will have to tell you that what you are doing is incorrect or ineffective. If you take advantage of opportunities for self-reflection, and honestly look at yourself, you will be able to be a better leader.

Sunday, January 9, 2011


These Prairie Coneflower heads from last summer were poking up from the increasingly deep snow. This winter is going to be hard on the animals that remain in the northern Great Plains for the winter. On top of the deep snow, we had a few days at, or just above, freezing last week, which put a fairly thick crust on the snow. Then it snowed about 8 more inches on top of that. The wind has been trying to clear the ridge tops off, but crusty snow just doesn't blow around very well. The snow started early in the fall and on top of that, it has been colder than average too. Trying to stay warm, move through the deep, crusted snow, and find food takes a lot of energy and despite going into the winter in fairly good condition because of the good forage growth we had this summer, many of these animals are just going to loose more than they gain and die before conditions get better.
The Pronghorns have bunched up and are moving all over the place. Soon hope to have an update on the doe I photographed getting captured and collared last winter. If she is still alive, her collar should be coming off in about six weeks and when it is retrieved we can see where she spent her summer in Canada and the path she navigated to return to her wintering area.

The Bison don't seem to mind the snow at all.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Wildlife Research is Hard Enough

Thank goodness the Greater Sage-Grouse and Pronghorn we have GPS transmitters on only go to Canada. Check this out.

Changing Watersheds

I have spent most of my life influenced by the Missouri River. Although I was born near the Yellowstone River, I only spent less than a year in that river drainage before moving to the banks of the Missouri River. I grew up within walking distance of the Missouri and often played in the water as a child. As I grew older I spent a lot of time on the river in my canoe, hunting ducks, looking for birds, and occasionally fishing. After a few years for school west of the divide in an entirely different ocean drainage, I returned to the upper reaches of the Missouri River in Helena, MT. Then, after another short stint in Laramie WY under the influence of the Platte River drainage, I returned to the Missouri River, this time near the headwaters only a short drive over the hill to the upper reaches of the Yellowstone River. By this time it was no long just me and the moves not as easy to accomplish, physically or emotionally. Back to Helena after that, then home again to Fort Peck, where this blog started.

Now we are going back to the river of my birth. The Yellowstone. I have accepted a job that will take me back to Billings. New challenges, new responsibilities, new landscapes, and, for the most part, an entirely new watershed.
It was not an easy decision and the repercussions are still bouncing around in my head and being revealed in ways I hadn't anticipated, but it was a decision we feel will be an overall positive for all of us. I am certainly going to miss a lot about being here, after all it is the landscape of my youth and will always be home, but I am looking forward to the differences too. I am a prairie person and we will remain on the plains, but we will be much closer to the mountains, particularly the Beartooth Plateau and the Pryor Mountains. We will certainly miss our good friends here, and in particular two of our best friends, my parents Chuck and Jean.
Anyway, more to come as this transition develops.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Yesterday I headed south of Glasgow looking for Greater Sage-Grouse. I had heard of a location with a number of birds and Saturday was sunny even if it was -26 F when I woke up. Sunday has turned out to be even worse than forecast, although 50 degrees warmer, the wind has really picked up and it is overcast and snowing again. The blowing snow has drifted in the highway so there is no going much of anywhere today.

I did find a number of sage-grouse on my drive. All of them happened to be on the south side of the road, directly in line with the low lying sun. It was also a bit difficult taking photos out the window of the truck with the temperature differential apparently making the auto focus a bit touchy.

This Cottontail did not look too happy with the temperature.