Parents of daughters worry about navigating them through the dangers of human male wildlife, but my wife and I were to discover an also-dangerous form of wildlife that two of our 5 daughters were to embrace. They, Trish and Linda, our two youngest, were often flown, trucked, or hiked in, to remote, isolated areas in Canada, Sweden, and the United States to be left alone among the likes of eagles, elk, moose, reindeer, grizzly and brown bears, bighorn sheep, and mountain lions to conduct studies using their own ingenuity, surmounting storms, deep snow, and hostile terrains. During her time in Sweden, Trish learned the language and worked with Swedish, Norwegian, Polish and Soviet biologists. During their 10-year study of mountain lions in New Mexico Linda earned her MA, MS and her husband, Ken, his Phd. They published a 464-page definitive study "Desert Puma".
This blog continues my family’s love of animals, starting with Blog 194, published 21 January 2019, on Magna Terra Smoky, the high-spirited Arabian colt whom daughter Barbara rescued, trained, loved, and published a multi-award-winning book on his life, including 120 races, of which he won 50.
Trish tells me: "My career in wildlife ecology may seem of short duration to you since it didn’t start until you were 60. Yet, if time is measured in change, it began long ago, when black-footed ferrets were thought to be extinct, and it continued as gray wolves came back to Yellowstone, and of course to Sweden as well. In Sweden, the reappearance of the wolf was not intentional, it was an invasion from the Soviet North. I remember photos in the Stockholm newspaper ‘Aftonbladet’ with front page photos of wolves being chased across the agricultural fields of southern Sweden by the Svensk Polis (Police). Many surprising events occurred during my time behind binoculars. Black footed ferrets now roam in prairie dog colonies mere miles from my home, and individual gray wolves have cautiously ventured south into Colorado seeking the opportunity to establish packs. There are now almost 500 wolves in Sweden and Norway, a big increase from zero when I arrived there in the 1980’s. There are also new threats like Climate Change and the associated wind turbines with blades slicing through the air, killing birds and bats and insects in a place that we never really categorized as habitat before, The sky. The sage-grouse that I banded on legs in the early morning darkness during college are now in danger of being listed as threatened with extinction across their vast range. The whitebark pine, growing in the high mountains in large expanses through Canada and the United States, has survived for millennium and individuals can live 1,000 years, but the species could become extinct in our lifetimes. This is the situation for too many species. I think a lot about loss these days, especially since the office of the Fish and Wildlife Service where I work, focuses on species threatened with extinction. There is a lot of work in the business of extinction these days. I have dabbled in many faucets of this strange profession. Perhaps I have mainly been an observer without much power to change the course of events. At first I spent many hours at night surveying for black-footed ferrets that weren’t there, and I spent many days surveying plant and bird species in areas destined to be transformed by oil exploration or coal mining. Later I spent hours recording the social dynamics of mustangs in the Pyror Mountains; even though my profession does not consider them wild, and more recently I have spent many days picking up eagles from the ground, often torn in pieces, as they are jettisoned off the blade of a wind turbine. Management of Wildlife is controversial. I didn’t know about that so much at the beginning of my career. I knew wildlife could be exploited by over hunting and consumption, but perhaps more importantly, I learned they compete with us for space and resources, and by their very presence limit ways we can make money. I spent some of my career working on projects involving ungulates that were hunted species. That work is popular and better supported. I worked with the National Park Service identifying locations to translocate bighorn sheep to the Rocky Mountains for 3 years, after I returned to Colorado mid-career. That lasted until I busted-up my leg in a ski accident and could no longer hike in rugged country. Before that, and before my son Lee was born, I worked in Sweden to study the burgeoning moose population. I watched and then I wrote articles published in International Science Journals. Including the Canadian Journal of Zoology, about what I saw. (Like nobody had watched moose before. But it is surprising how much more there always seems to be left to see and understand.
I saw their migration routes with telemetry, I saw how they competed for food in winter, I saw them during the rut in the tundra and in the mountains of Sarek. I also saw the brown bear and d mountains of Sarek. I also saw the brown bear and reindeer the wolverine. I spent a lot of time seeing but it is the feelings that have stayed with me the most. The entrancing clickity-clack of the reindeer hooves as the moved like a wave across the tundra, the ominous crunching sounds of the brown bear moving in the brush as it foraged on berries as it traverses the slope above my observation tent, the adrenalin released by the crashing of vegetation from the cow moose and her twin calves as they attempted to incapacitate me from ever getting so close again, and the sense of loss in the splash of my camera gear landing in the mud as I threw it at them. I still hear the laughing of the Sámi helicopter pilot as he would clatter up a tree every time we landed to tag a bear or moose so that he would not be the one to face their revenge. I have experienced other fear too. Fear of the wolf tracker that was sent to keep me safe in my cabin in the roadless wilderness of Sarek; fear of the late night demonic rattling of my cabin that only in the morning did I find out was caused by reindeer licking and gnawing at the foundation to pull salt from the pee of the Sámi herders who use the cabins during the summer; and always the fear of the weather with storms that tear down a tent at midnight leaving me with a 10 mile hike,walk on a muddy trail leading up valley through whipping snow, and my desperate hopes of getting to a cabin. Sometimes I don’t know what my career has meant. Perhaps I have been paid to simply be an observer. I see myself in a continuum of people who attempt to resist or balance or compensate for the insatiable desires of humans to consume the Earth whole, while realizing that I am one of the insatiable. I participate in an unending duty to guard wild things, as an effort both driven and limited by the current values of our society. It was only a few years ago I worked to support the prosecution of an industry for indiscriminately killing eagles, and now that same industry has come back, under the rules of a new administration, to find out whether the guard still stands strong where we now stand. The guards in formation vacillate. My career will soon end but with this recurrence of a recent challenge, perhaps I will learn if I have done more than bear witness. "
LINDA: My story follows my sister’s, just as I followed her path to a career in wildlife sciences. Dad had thought I might go into Art – another field sure to secure my future- but I had no gift for it and my heart was where the wild things are. My initial goal was simple, or so it seemed at first. To try to give back, if even just a little, to the world that inspired and gave such joy. I fumbled a lot, trying to learn and find my way. A seasonal job with Wyoming Game and Fish, counting big game, getting my truck stuck in a slick snot of clay, the snowmobile broken and buried in snow far from the nearest road, realizing how much I’d rather trust in my own two feet or my cross-country skis than in the “past due date” mechanical beasts that temporary employees were usually provided. Had my first real experience with controversy and competition… when I was asked to use a snowmobile to haze pronghorn from a rancher’s field during one of the worst winters on record. There was a stint in California, during a spell when I couldn’t find wildlife work, fighting wildland fires – cutting line, hauling hose, breathing smoke, and once even helping carry out a severely burned civilian. I lived in the barracks with a couple of the men on our engine crew. They looked out for me. I remember Bill filling a sock with marbles the night that the Hot Shots came to party at the barracks… in case anyone got the wrong idea (guess those are the human wildlife Dad was talking about).
Then my lucky break. A friend mentioning a possible job helping with a bighorn study in the Absorokas near Yellowstone – I should apply. It was physically demanding work, but I was in my element. Backpacking trips, often solo, into the wilderness to find, count and watch bighorn sheep. I have a selfie I took (yes, back in 1983!) while sitting atop a boulder on Jim Mountain, wearing my puffy blue down coat (July mornings were still very cold). That was before wolves had returned, and the void was palpable – making the land feel a little more lonely and empty. But there were bears! Grizzlies weren’t doing all that great then – the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee had just formed to assist with the bear’s recovery – but there were enough around to make solo pack trips a little extra special, though admittedly spine-tingling. The Absorokas rewarded me with a second gift – it’s where I met Ken. My path changed course. Although accepted at the University of Wyoming to potentially study pine marten for my MS…
I decided to back out and join Ken in New Mexico, instead. He was to start a mountain lion study on a long, skinny mountain range surrounded by deserts, one with a name that made you take notice: Jornada del Muerto – Journey of Death. It was one of my best decisions, choosing to go to those desert mountains to learn about lions.
The study area was large, encompassing about 800 square miles, and it required a small team of us, working long days out of different camps, to capture and track the cats that lived there. When we started our research, only a handful of studies had been done on the lion (the first being landmark work in Idaho by the man who hired us – Maurice Hornocker). Maurice’s work likely helped with a pendulum shift in attitudes towards this big predator; most Western states began giving the cat some protection in the form of hunting seasons and bag limits. Before that, they were typically considered “varmints” and could be shot, poisoned and trapped ad libitum. There were still concerns about how to best “manage” lions (for example, how many do we kill, how many do we protect?) to ensure there are enough prey (such as deer and elk) for both the cat and the human predator, that lions aren’t threatening vulnerable prey populations such as desert bighorn sheep, and that the lion is still a vital component of the ecosystem. There is something about predators, cats especially, that I find appealing. Some of it is the desire to stand up for an animal whose reputation is often unjustly maligned. Then there’s the desire to know more about such a secret, solitary beast, one that is capable of pulling down an animal 6 times its own size using only stealth, claws and teeth. Rocky was my first lion. I mean, he’s the first wild lion I got to see up close and personal. We caught him in a padded leg-hold trap and he wasn’t happy about it. At 125 pounds, he wasn’t exceptionally large for a male, (our largest cat during the study weighed 158 pounds), but he made an impression on me.
We went on to capture cats hundreds of times after that first time, and on some occasions I handled the cat on my own. In most cases, the only fear I experienced was for the cat. We were responsible for the animal’s safety and captures with leg-hold traps or snares involve risks – possible cuts or broken bones from the cable holding its foot, adverse effects from the immobilizing drugs we administered, heat stress from the mix of being captured and drugged (it gets hot in those desert mountains!). Just because I wasn’t often afraid doesn’t mean I threw common sense out the window. Knowing you were alone in lion country…. And rattlesnake country for that matter – the mountains supported 3 species and on some days I encountered all of them – helped to keep your mind sharp. And you do little things to make yourself feel safer, such as placing your trap basket behind you for “protection” while you set snares around a fresh mule deer kill. We also learned as we went. No one before had found a lion’s nursery and then gone in to mark the kittens. We did this close to 80 times. At first, we hazed the mom from the nursery so as to get to the cubs. After a few instances of encountering very protective mothers, we rethought our technique (see, learning!). Subsequently, we’d locate a nursery, try to get a head count, and then quietly leave. We’d come back every day after that (sometimes this meant hiking MILES in and out) in hopes mom would be away hunting so that we could sneak into the nursery and round up the kittens. We broke this rule with one particular female, aptly named “Spitfire”. She was on to us. Every time Ken and I would find her nursery, she would move the cubs. They were approaching the age of being too fast to catch, so when we found her and the kittens again, we made the decision to try to haze her from them. Short story, it worked and we marked the cubs. Longer story was she came (at a run) to within 12 feet of Ken before finally veering off and vanishing over the hill. In all instances of aggression, we instigated it…. Oh, and the only inflicted injury I can recall is when a 3-month-old cub, cornered by our hound, Spotty, bit Maurice… and that was because Maurice was trying to extract a prickly pear pad from her mouth. I think that says a lot for an animal that could easily kill us.
We faced much greater dangers from the weather and the other wildlife inhabitants. I remember many times during the monsoon season, reaching the ridgeline with my telemetry gear and metal antenna (captured cats were fitted with radio-collars for tracking) just as a storm hit. Lightning would be crackling all around as I dashed downhill, trying to become the lowest thing on the landscape . Then there was the time we caught a collared peccary in a snare by accident. What did it weigh – 50 pounds maybe? It had me more flustered than any lion, especially when it “popped” its teeth at me. SCARY!
And there were incidents of being butted off a ledge by a snared buck deer before we could wrangle and release it, driving off the edge of the road with the back tires spinning in space….
Was it all worth it? I like to think so. We know so much more about mountain lions now than we did when we started that study – 34 years ago! Our biggest challenge now may be applying this information to improve the mountain lion’s management and conservation. There are signs that the pendulum is swinging back, with predators (lions, bears, wolves) once again becoming less tolerated or accepted, and sometimes branded as the bad guy for doing something they evolved to do.
Patricia Sweanor Linda Sweanor