November 2001: Almost all of the leaves are off the trees and snow is starting to frost the high peaks without sticking around on lower elevations and we are getting ready for another field season on the Rare Carnivore Surveys project in southwest Montana. The other day, Steve and I went out to a local wild game processing outfit and picked through his waste barrels looking for appropriately sized and meaty bones. We packed up several tubs with this detritus to bring home and start rotting – camera station bait in the making! I have also been to the store to purchase field notebooks and the rest of the topographic maps we will be using in the field and had them laminated. We have studied our maps to identify the areas we needed to survey this season, likely looking sites for potential camera stations, and desirable transect routes. Tom Jenni, Steve, Betsy, and I have gone through all the camera station equipment to replace batteries, set clocks and calendars, load film, repair broken straps, etc. Ready, set…………….
02 December: GO! The first field day – yahoo! We headed up into Hyalite Canyon with two teams. Steve and Tom snowshoed Blackmore Lake trail and set up two camera stations along the course of that trail. Betsy and I along with my fiancé, Patty, and a friend, Hugh, headed up the trail along the main fork of Hyalite Creek and also set up two stations. As this trail sees a lot of use, particularly by ice climbers, we were able to walk most of our route in our boots using the snowshoes for the off-trail portions. One of these sites ended up photographing several domestic dogs (what self respecting dog could resist the lure of rotting meat) during the course of the winter.
After a few days of pretty intensive camera station placement, we started running some track transects independent of camera sites to increase the coverage area of our surveys. December 11th sticks in my mind as a particularly interesting day: Patty and I were walking and snowshoeing a transect at the north end of the Mosier Creek road system and discovered black bear tracks. While it is not that surprising to find bear tracks in the Gallatins, the fact that it was almost the middle of December made this an unusual find and our only set of bear tracks for the season. We followed these tracks through alder, over and under downfall conifers as long as it was going in the basic direction of our transect. We ended up running into the same track series as our transect looped around the ridge.
On the 17th, Steve, Tom, and I headed up to the Big Belt Mountains in the Helena National Forest accessing the Gipsy Lake area via White Sulpher Springs. On the way in, we encountered a bit of a snow drift on curve in a bit of a swale; Tom recommended to Steve, who was driving, that he “put it in low (low range 4-wheel drive) and just punch it!” We spent the next 45 minutes or so digging the truck and trailer out of the drift and putting on the tire chains! After establishing our base at the Thomson Guard Station cabin, we proceeded to spend the next three and a half days setting up camera stations in several drainages in that region. On one of the particularly long and memorable days, we were skiing into the Big Birch Creek drainage from Gipsy Lake. The ski started out pretty exciting as we encountered mountain lion and bobcat tracks within the first couple kilometers. It started getting really interesting, though, a couple of hours in. We had branched off the main trail following an old, no longer maintained trail; Steve had hiked the route the previous summer so Tom and I were following blindly along trusting our fearless leader to find the way. It turns out that Steve has a special relationship with Big Birch Creek and a trip just isn’t complete without a serious foray into some nasty shit-tangle necessitating carrying skis up or down a steep slope with mega-downfall. I say this because we did it again the next time I was back there with Steve. Tom and I started paying attention for those slash marks indicating the location of the trail and tried to contribute to the route-finding effort!
Towards the end of the month, we started going back to our camera stations to make sure that they weren’t buried in snow, evaluate battery function, change film if needed, add more bait, and freshen lures: Long Distance Lure (a particularly lovely extract of skunk glands which we often refer to as “Long Distance Looove”), Lynx Lure, and catnip oil. It also provides a very important opportunity to survey for tracks to augment activity at the stations.
01 January 2002: This turned out to be my one and only field day in January. Tom and I headed up Blackmore Lake trail to check on the stations he and Steve had placed on December 2nd. We were still able to drive all the way to the trailhead but stepped immediately into our ski bindings. We proceeded to service both of the stations and document a couple sets of pine marten tracks along the way and then “headed for the barn.” About a mile from the trailhead, I failed to finish a switchback turn standing, opting instead to slide out of the turn on my knees – ended up bouncing my left knee off of a rock on the side of the trail. I made quite a racket (some of the words are not fit to be printed) as this was not my intent and it really hurt. I skied on out with little overt difficulty but considerable caution. X-rays the next morning revealed a fracture in my patella. I spent the rest of the month with a straight-brace on my knee more or less confined to the couch. Steve and Betsy had to scramble to find some more help to continue with the fieldwork.
04 February: My birthday present today is getting to go back in the field. The knee has stabilized (augmented with a walking brace) and up to flat work. The strength to do any serious or long climbs isn’t quite there but I can get out and about. Betsy and I headed up to the Big Belts to remove a set of stations on Gurnett Creek. New snow made the tracking less-than-productive but we retrieved the camera stations so that we could use the equipment to sample another set of sites for the rest of the winter ……… and the knee did fine.
The rest of the month proceeded pretty smoothly with a mix of station retrievals, new site placements, and independent tracking transects. Near the end of the month, we received some major snowfall, which made access quite sporting yet fairly necessary. Sporting because navigating our snowmobiles from the mouth of Hyalite Canyon to the jump off points for our foot transects became very tricky. Necessary because all that snow had the potential to bury the stations so we needed to access them and raise the animal detection equipment above the level of the new snow. Betsy and Jean had gone up the Langhor Road on the 27th and buried one of the machines. Their day was further complicated by extreme difficulty finding the station they were looking for. Steve and I went back up on the 28th to retrieve the snowmobile and try our luck at finding the station. There was so much snow that it was breaking across the windscreen of the snowmobile and my face – when I opened my mouth it quickly filled with snow! After we got the 2nd machine un-stuck and Steve was following me up the road, he said he basically couldn’t see me, just this moving mass of billowing snow. We gave up on the snowmobiles shortly as it was turning into a day of digging ‘biles out of the snow. We skied on in to the stations and managed to accomplish our goals but were pretty whipped by the time we got home.
March 2002: The first week of March was continuing with transect work, as weather and snow conditions would allow. The second week of March, I worked with Tom, Jean, and the Thatchers to retrieve all of the stations we had out on the Gallatin National Forest (GNF). Our agreement with the GNF is to have our bait stations cleaned up by the 15th of March to avoid any conflict with bears coming out of hibernation. The next week I headed up to the Thompson Guard Station with Patty to retrieve our stations up there. It turned out to be a step back into winter. Lots of new snow and snowing resulting in near constant ‘biling epics – we must have shoveled 30 cubic yards of snow in those 3 days getting machines unstuck. One of the interesting conundrums we face is appropriate clothing. When riding the ‘biles, we need lots of clothing to combat the wind chill and low activity level. This extra clothing makes it difficult and sweaty when digging out and lifting or shoving the (infernal) machines around. It was also cold. The middle day started at about 14 degrees below zero Fahrenheit and the warmest reading I got on my thermometer all day was minus 6 deg. F.! However, one harbinger of spring that we had seen on our way up to the Big Belts was the first red tail hawk of the year (our first) on the 19th. I saw my first kestrel on the 25th, and first bluebird on the 26th. Our last field day was the 28th; Tom and I skied up North Cottonwood Creek in the Bridgers and documented bobcat and the only set of wolverine tracks in the Bridgers this season.
April 2002: The field season is over and we’re wrapping things up. Field notes, transect routes, and camera station results have to be tabulated, analyzed, and summarized in the form of a final report. Bait and lure containers have to be cleaned up and stored. Snowmobiles require “summer-izing” so that they can be safely stored for the summer. Although I am currently looking forward to warm weather, I am sure that by about Halloween, I will be eagerly anticipating next winter’s adventure.