Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The Trouble with Carcasses

Due to a lack of anything to report about France, I am still mining my days in Resource Management for your amusement. Here’s the next installment.

In Yellowstone National Park a carcass of an animal presents a thorny problem. The goal is to let nature do it’s thing with no intervention, or as little intervention as possible. But that is sometimes at cross purposes with the goal of protecting the visitors and protecting the park and it’s natural features. A carcass in the backcounty is a good thing as it provides food for various species, from grizzlies on down the food chain to bugs and insects. But what if a carcass is in the wrong place?

If a death was natural, chances are Resource Management would have nothing to do with it and probably wouldn’t even know about it. Animals die all the time of natural causes. Nancy and I once came upon a herd of elk chased onto the ice of the Lamar River by a pack of wolves. The ice broke under their weight and they crashed into the water. They could not claw out of the ice and some climbed on the back of their mates trying unsuccessfully to get out of the river, and drowned them in the process. The remaining elk stood in the river, slowly freezing to death. It was too sad to watch so we turned away and drove on down the road. Park management would have done nothing even if there was something they could do. Let the natural order take place. I saw other natural deaths. I watched grizzlies take elk calves, wolves take antelope fawns and watched bison die of old age.

But when it came to deaths that were not natural, or human caused, we generally had to deal with it. Why is that? When an elk is hit by a car it often dies near the road. If we didn’t move the carcass, a bear would be on it in a matter of hours. What’s wrong with that, you say? A bear on a carcass near the road is a nuisance and a safety hazard. People will gather and there are problems associated with people getting too close to the bear (which is bad for the bear and humans), traffic disrupted during the day and there is the risk of the bear being hit on the road at night. But often, the bear found the carcass before we did and in that case we left it where it lay, and dealt with the aftermath until the carcass was consumed. However, any carcass we found near the road or in a developed area we moved it if we could. I moved deer by myself, elk with a winch and a few others and called in backhoes and dump trucks for moose and bison. Yellowstone had a number of "boneyards" where we would haul the carcasses for the bears to finish off. It was the most nerve-wracking place in the park because you knew there was always a grizz nearby.

Occasionally a animal would die naturally in some remote spot, but it would just happen to be in a very inconvenient place, say near a trail or near a campsite. Our options would be to move the carcass or, more likely, close the trail or campsite until the carcass is devoured by bears and/or wolves. A few years ago there was a deer carcass reported near two campsites on the Southeast Arm of Yellowstone Lake. Rather than close the two campsites for a week or more and disrupt people’s camping plans, we moved it. It was fairly easy. We took the RM boat to the campsites, found the dead deer and dragged it to the shore. Then we fastened a rope to the deer and dragged it out into the middle of the Southeast arm and cut it loose. Problem solved. The carcass no longer presented a conflict between bears and visitors. But sometimes its not always that easy.

My first summer in Yellowstone a group of rangers hiked into the Heart Lake cabin to do end of the season maintenance and clean the cabin for the winter. The Heart Lake area is very popular place to day hike and for overnight camping. The Lake is beautiful and it’s only eight miles from the trailhead. The patrol cabin was supplied once each summer by a pack train of mules hauling in propane gas, emergency rations, chainsaw gas and other essentials. On my first trip in over Paycheck pass, the ranger leading us said, "This is where we blew up the mule." Of course, we all looked at John and said, "What?" A couple of years earlier a mule train had been hauling in supplies when a large lodgepole blew down and hit an unlucky mule right across the back. The mule’s spine was broken and the packer had to slit the critter’s throat to put it out of it’s misery. He called the sub-district ranger on the radio, redistributed the load and continued on to Heart Lake cabin.

The trail was set to open in a few days and a rotting mule carcass was sitting in the middle of one of the most popular trails in Yellowstone attracting bears. It was "natural" but it could not be tolerated. Yet, how do you move 1200 pounds mule meat from the trail in a wilderness area? Well, it’s easy. You blow it up.

A charge of plastic explosive was brought in that same day, stuffed into the mules innards and set off. John said he saw a hind leg, spinning hoof over haunch, fly off into the trees. What remained of the mule could be cleaned up by ravens, magpies and coyotes.


Anonymous said...

As a few others have mentioned these are great stories. You ought to take the few you've written here and compile them into a book of short stories about your (and Nancy's) experiences.

I believe it would be very well received.


Peggy said...

I am really enjoying your stories. I guess I didn't spend enough time with you around the campfire. Hey, that is what you could call your collection of stories...Around the Campfire!

Anonymous said...

Well. clearly you have hooked a bunch of readers. I think Bill and Peggy are right, you have a talent, maybe a book is in your future. I think your readers would all enjoy some of the stories of the perils of the thermal pools at Y-stone. If you tell any of them please tell about Stinky. No disrespect meant but it is an enthralling story as are so many of the crazy things you two have witnessed when people didn't comprehend that the water really is hot in the thermal pools and geysers.