Guest Posts on County 10 are provided by contributors and the opinions, thoughts, and comments within are their own and may not necessarily reflect those of County 10.
Encountering wildlife is something many Americans never get to experience, but it’s an almost daily occurrence for many of us living in the Wind River Country.
You wouldn’t think of coyotes being a problem in Los Angeles, but they’ve become just that as the wild versions of our Saturday morning cartoon hero, Wile E. Coyote has moved to the vastness of the Inland Empire. Coyotes and raccoons don’t mind urban sprawl, they’ve even spotted a few coyotes in New York’s Central Park and raccoons have become ubiquitous, even becoming a pest as an invasive species in Hawaii. They were introduced to Oahu in 1905 to be raised for their fur and soon escaped, becoming one of the worst four-legged invaders in the islands.
Here in Fremont County, they’re not exotic, but instead an omnivore that vastly outnumbers both black and grizzly bears. Like their much larger distant relatives, raccoons will eat anything.
I’ve encountered raccoons many times on our place, but not as often as we did when we had laying hens. These masked bandits can’t resist a good meal of fresh chicken, and they won’t stop with just one but will terrorize and kill dozens of hens in a single raid.
If you’re losing hens every few nights to some predator, odds are it’s the most adaptable of bandits, Procyon lotor. But, as they say in “Casablanca, round up the usual culprits.” Those culprits in our neck of the woods could be fox, skunks, feral cats, hawks, coyotes, or yes, the raccoon.
Each of these predators has a style of eating after they kill a chicken. With a hawk it’s easy, the smaller chicks just disappear as they’re caught and carried off while the larger birds explode in a cloud of feathers as the hawk strikes at full speed. Skunks eat the rear end out of the chickens first, and coyotes and fox usually carry the birds off after killing them, but raccoons, they relish the carnage.
Coyotes, fox, and raccoons are now common city dwellers coast to coast, but when it comes to elk, these large members of the deer family are western icons.
One afternoon my brother-in-law Matt and I arrived a little late at Bull Lake one summer day. We headed for the inlet where you can sometimes catch huge rainbow trout as they feed in the inflowing water.
As we hit top speed on our heavy fiberglass-hulled, 16-foot boat, with the 35 horsepower Mercury outboard spinning away, we reached her upper limit of about 18 mph. We cruised up the lake for maybe a half hour when we spotted something strange moving in the water.
At first look it appeared to be a mass of driftwood, but driftwood doesn’t move at right angles to the current. As we moved within a couple of hundred yards, the driftwood changed to antlers, big antlers.
A 5×5 bull elk was swimming across a half-mile-wide section of the upper lake.
We cut the engine to a fast troll and moved closer. We didn’t want to spook the big bull, so we stayed several dozen yards away.
His swimming speed was impressive, we guessed about six miles per hour. That’s a fast swim for an animal that size. Aside from an otter, or beaver, are there any other freshwater North American mammals that can swim that fast?
We moved a little further away as he approached the south shore. When his feet caught the rocks, he made a series of lunges forward and bounded out of the lake with water dripping off his sides. The bull never looked back as he broke into a trot. He went up a 45-degree bank to the top of the ridge and disappeared.
I’ve seen elk standing in water many times. If you go to Yellowstone in the summer you can see them literally cooling their heels in ponds, and streams throughout the park, but this was the only time I’d ever seen one swim.
Sometimes encountering wildlife takes place on territory more familiar to them. As I sat in the early morning darkness on opening day of antelope season in the Gas Hill I was startled by the howl of a nearby coyote. He was very close, so close I could hear him move after howling. I huddled tighter and waited for the sun to rise. Sure enough, the first rays of light coming from the east highlighted the noisy coyote on a hill above and behind me. He watched me for a few minutes, then disappeared. I’d like to think he knew I wouldn’t shoot at him because it would spook any nearby pronghorn, but that’s just fantasy. (maybe)
What wasn’t fantasy came on a summer afternoon on Warm Springs above Dubois near the top of Union Pass.
I was fishing with my friends Frank and Andy that day. We’d agreed to meet at an old wooden bridge across the stream. Frank was waiting when I arrived, and we stretched out to wait for Andy. I fell asleep but the sound of splashing in the water under the bridge woke me up. I turned to Frank and said, “What’ s making that noise?”
He was half asleep too but rolled over to look under the bridge.
“Nothing to worry about, it’s just a German shepherd,” Franks said.
“Just a dog,” I thought, “Nothing to worry about…” I rolled over to the other side and spotted a yearling black bear in the water.
The cub spooked as I jumped to my feet and sprinted up the hill at Mach 4. Bears can really move going uphill.
Animal taxonomy wasn’t Frank’s bag evidently.
My favorite encounter story came just a couple of years ago in the pre-dawn hours of a 20 below-zero January morning.
I was outside at 5:30 am feeding hay to our cows. We have a light that shines into the feedlot, but I was working in shadow pulling down small bales, tossing them on top of the corral poles, cutting the strings, and shoving the hay over the top.
There was something out there with me.
I looked around and couldn’t see anything, but I sensed a presence.
A few seconds later a fluffed-out fox came out of the shadows and walked a few steps toward me before crouching to a stop.
I thought he might be ready to attack, so I turned with my pitchfork and squared off. A few seconds passed and he turned his head quizzically to look at me.
“This isn’t going to end well for you,” I said out loud to the little predator.
We stood there a few more seconds, then he trotted to a nearby stack eight bales high and ran vertically up the side, stopping at the top to look down at me in the pale light coming out of the corral.
With a flick of his tail, he flipped 180 degrees and disappeared.
It was almost like I had a conversation with him. It made my day.
Not all human/predator encounters end well, with humans far ahead on the scorecard, but these all did.