Monday, January 5, 2009

A Scatological Tale

Every summer that I worked for Resource Management in Yellowstone, we counted fish. A study had started several years earlier to track the abundance of the native Cutthroat Trout. Due to the illegal introduction of the exotic and predatory Lake Trout, wildlife managers were worried about possible crash of the Cutthroat population. One method was a fisherman’s survey. A more accurate method was our Spawning Survey.

What we did was walk several streams that flowed into Yellowstone Lake. These streams were among the many that the Cutthroat spawned in. They seemed to like the small creeks with sandy bottoms and they returned to the same watercourse they were born in. Once ice had melted off Yellowstone Lake and the snow had mostly melted, the streams subsided to a relative trickle, the spawn would begin and we would start our survey. We’d do it once a week until we counted no more fish for two weeks.

We would generally start at the lake and walk up the stream, one person would hold a counter and click it each time a cutthroat passed. Sometimes, on some creeks, we’d click the clicker hundreds of times. As spawning ended, we’d not click it at all. As I’ve explained elsewhere, we would gather a whole bunch of other information that was available to wildlife managers. Bear activity was important and we’d look for grizzly and black bear tracks and scat. If we found scat, we were supposed to examine it to see if it contained fish parts. And often it did, and this was confirmation that a bear was using the stream for a food source.

The way one would determine if there were fish parts in bear scat was to first make sure it was bear scat, then take a stick, break open the scat and look for fish scales, fish tails, bones and other indigestible matter. We’d do this as a matter of interest wherever and whenever we found bear scat. You could tell if they were eating meat as often there would be indigestible hair and the scat would be more like an oil slick than a turd. If the bears were grazing on clover and roots, the scat would smell like green tea. (I no longer drink green tea.) This was an acquired trait and I’m sure we looked like fools to our new SCA’s, but they would generally be doing it themselves by the end of the summer.

Each year our team in Resource Management consisted of several paid rangers like myself, and some SCA (Student Conservation Association) volunteers. These were kids in college or just out of high school and were in general really goods kids. Most often they were female and very sharp, and on occasion,, that is.

And here I’m going to change names to protect the innocent (me). Becky was a really good volunteer, worked very hard but sometimes seemed to lack common sense. One day Bill and I and two SCA’s were out at Heart Lake with the purpose of killing a patch of Dalmation Toadflax. Becky spied some scat and called us over. When I arrived, she was already poking the scat with a stick and tentatively raising the stick to her nose. "What kind of bear, do you think?"

"Not a bear at all," said Bill.

"Wolf?" asked Becky.

"Fisherman," Bill said. "Bears and wolves don’t eat canned corn."

Becky had found the sign of a fisherman caught unprepared and without toilet paper.

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