This week in the neighborhood

It’s been a great week for wildlife encounters. I was driving down the highway and watched a group of swallows wheeling and flying quickly, with a Swainson’s hawk in their midst. The group flew near the New Fork River bridge and I actually saw the hawk grab a swallow! The hawk flew with the small bird to the top of a tall pole nearby, where the hawk attempted to feast on his meal, only to be so severely harassed by the rest of the flock he had to leave. The hawk, with the small bird still in its clutches, flew off to the safety of confines of the old cottonwoods along the riverbottom and I lost sight of him.

I couldn’t believe what I had seen – how could this raptor
take one of those quick, small darters of the sky? Amazing!
A few days later, a friend came to the house and told me he
had just seen a hawk grab one swallow out of a large whirling mass of swallows,
at the same place. Perhaps we’ve got a swallow-snatching expert in the
neighborhood.
We’ve had a nest of Swainson’s hawks that are hanging out
along the same patch of river and meadow, and it has been wonderful to watch
this brood as they hunt. The number of Swainson’s hawks present here is
dwindling now, as they begin migrations. Here’s a few more juveniles from our neighborhood:
 

The sheep are doing well in their new pasture near the
Midland Ranch, with no wolf or bear problems. The herd is close enough to the
ranch headquarters that there can be up to eight guardian dogs with my herd at
any one time, in addition to the burros, so I have one of the most well-guarded
herds in the country. The Midland is my business partner Pete’s ranch, and he
has dozens of guardian dogs working to protect the various herds, so old dogs,
young dogs, retirees, and nursing females sometimes come out to spend time with
my herd since it is nearby. Fine by me – I’ll feed any guardian dog that tends
to my flock.
Jim enjoys accompanying me to check the flock. Part
of the pasture is a natural slough where he’s been harvesting meadow
mushrooms (Agaricus campestris). Several times in the last few weeks we’ve split a steak for dinner, with a
side of sliced mushrooms cooked in butter. Yum. Jim’s also been trying to teach
Hud the herding dog to find mushrooms, but Roo the burro is far more
interested.
Today as we returned from checking the sheep, we saw a large
bull moose grazing along the New Fork River. We stopped in to watch and visit
the beast as he grazed the riparian area on the other side of the river. He’s
one of the bulls that wintered in the sheep pasture last year, so it feels like
he’s somewhat of an old friend. Jim and I spent an hour sitting on the ground
across the river from this Shiras moose, and he rewarded us by moving into the river
toward us to stand in the cool water on a warm afternoon. 
I had never seen nor heard a moose slowly lapping water before. It was pretty darned entertaining, and I laughed when I saw this image of his curled tongue:
 We left him to his
grazing, thanking him for accommodating our quiet visit. Jim snapped a new “glamour” shot for me before we left. Oh yeah, the boys on my block are badasses!

Sagebrush

Cat had me out on the mesas looking at natural and local history. I saw any number of golden eagles and literally hundreds of antelope– I thought I lived in antelope country– but the p & s made the raptors into dots and only this antelope, one of several bucks who stood his ground, was even worth reproducing,



Typical country: basin of the Sweetwater (or is it the Big Sandy?? I need a map!)– but definitely looking east to the Wind Rivers…



Old but well built and still used watering trough for sheep. Note how it is too narrow for for cow muzzles.



Antelope skull- we brought it back on the plane. Mark insisted on calling it our (nudge nudge) “carryon”.

Testing elk for brucellosis


Today I accompanied the Wyoming Game and Fish Department to photograph the process of testing elk for brucellosis. The testing program, in its fifth and final year, takes place at three elk feedgrounds on the western flank of the Wind River Mountains. I’ve covered the testing program every year for various media.

The photo above shows the elk trap – a huge wooden corral setup, at the Muddy Creek elk feedground.

Brucellosis is an incurable highly contagious disease associated with the reproductive tract, so only adult female elk are tested. All bulls and calves are released (although eartags are placed in the calves’ ears for future identification if needed).

The photo above shows the chutes elk are processed in. After being moved from a large round corral, they are pushed into alleyways, and groups of about six are separated into paneled boxes, and eventually sorted into individual chutes, where they can be “squeezed” and handled.

Blood samples are drawn from a vein in the neck. If the individual elk is excessively nervous, a blindfold is used to help calm her. I liked how this elk remained rather calm, but never took her eye off the biologist working on her.

A calf is released from the chute after an eartag was inserted into its ear.

These adult females have all been processed and will be held overnight in the trap, awaiting their fate. Each blood sample has a number that corresponds to the rubber tags around the cow’s necks. Animals that test positive for brucellosis will be sent to slaughter, and the remainder will be released back onto the feedground.

The test-and-removal program is a five-year effort aimed at reducing the presence of the disease brucellosis in elk herds along the western front of the Wind River Range. Brucellosis is a contagious disease that causes abortions in hoofed animals and is present in elk and bison in the Yellowstone region. Brucellosis transmitted by Muddy Creek feedground elk to a neighboring cattle herd in 2003 resulted in the slaughter of the entire cattle herd. Several other cattle herds were later destroyed for the same reason, and transmission from elk was indicated in all cases.

Brucellosis can also be transmitted to humans – right off the top of my head I can name five people I personally know who have had it (three vets and two ranchers). It’s a horrible disease, and as many of you know, is subject to control efforts throughout the world. Some hospitals in Central Asia have entire wards dedicated to treating patients with this disease.

Brucellosis seroprevalence rates in elk using the Muddy Creek feedground have progressively decreased from 37 percent to seven percent in the first four years of the program.