Tuesday, May 3, 2016

R.I.P. Scarface

I first heard of him three years ago in Yellowstone Park. A ranger was supposed to be giving us a general orientation to the park, but spent most of the time talking about a particular grizzly bear which had captured his attention -- a 600 lb male grizzly named "Scarface". Scarface had a penchant for getting into trouble -- nearly every type of trouble that a bear can get into. He was known as one of the most active and aggressive bears in the park, making him also one of the most photographed bears in the park. Put on a documentary about Grizzlies in Yellowstone; most likely it will include footage of Scarface. He got into numerous fights with other bears over females, over rights to a kill, maybe over bear politics. One of these battles caused a serious injury in which he lost half an ear and a deep gash across his face – giving him his name. As a result he was instantly identifiable.
Recently he had crossed the line, which park officials define as "too close contact with humans". He was found rummaging through some trash dumpsters. This earned him a tranquilizer dart and a radio collar. After that they knew where he was at all times. So he was also one of the most studied bears in the park.
The ranger told about a bear kill (not Scarface's) he was observing. He noticed a tiny brown dot in the far distance. The little brown dot got bigger and bigger but he couldn't make it out until he pulled out his binoculars. It was Scarface! Somehow, from over a mile away Scarface had detected the kill and was making a beeline for it. The ranger found this remarkable as Scarface was *upwind* of the kill. Of course when Scarface arrived he took over the kill and chased the other bear away.
It was clear from the way he told these stories that he had developed a sort of admiration, even affection for Scarface. Later that same day I encountered Scarface myself, in person! He was just standing on top of another kill, protecting it. I snapped this picture of him:
The legendary "Scarface" (This picture was later used by a tour company to promote tours of Yellowstone)
There was something unique about him, and he captured my imagination too. He had personality, he had character. I never forgot him. This year I had returned to Yellowstone in the winter, on a wolf tracking expedition. The topic of Scarface came up and I inquired about his status. Scarface was 25 at the time, a fairly old age for a grizzly. His health was declining, but should have had a few more years to live.
Today, I learned that Scarface had been shot by an unknown person. Grizzlies are protected under federal law, so most likely this was an illegal act (the only exception is self-defense which is unlikely because it was not reported).
Goodbye, Scarface. You touched many lives including mine and my heart is heavy, especially at the manner of your passing :(

Monday, March 14, 2016


I have the cool, confident, almost smug air of a top predator. I do not fear anything, or anyone (except maybe a larger one of my own kind). I can take down a large buffalo single-handedly, and an unarmed human is no trouble at all. Ask the family of the poor Baron Rudolf von Reding Biberegg if you don't believe me. Don't let my casual lumbering gait fool you; I can move with lightning speed that has to be seen to be believed. If you foolishly allow me to approach within 2 meters, you are already dead. You might as well lie down and accept the inevitable. Spend that time doing something constructive, like praying for a better afterlife. From that distance I cannot fail. I will kick into overdrive, spinning all four legs like motorized windmills, and be upon you in a flash. Then I'll grab hold of your nearest extremity (usually a leg) and make as many quick bites as I can, sinking my sharp fangs deep into your flesh. But all it takes is one. Contrary to popular myth I do not harbor teeming masses of bacteria in my mouth. I know all your documentaries and textbooks say that, and they are WRONG. In truth, I have no more or less bacteria in my mouth than other animals. Instead, I inject *venom*, which does nasty things to you. First, you will notice what seemed like a survivable wound just won't stop bleeding. You will feel like you took an overdose of hypertension drugs as your blood pressure drops to dangerously low levels, causing you to go into shock. If you're lucky you will lapse into unconsciousness so that you won't see me rip huge chunks of flesh off your body.


Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Wolf Expedition Day 5 - The Sky Demons Have Returned But Twin Escapes Again!

 Today is my last day here.

A parade of bison
During yesterday's helicopter radio collaring operation, Bonnie mused about how it must seem to the wolves themselves, what they must think about it. After all, a massive thunderous flying machine seemingly comes out of nowhere, moving faster than any Earthly creature and impossible to outrun, and grabs one of them, puts some strange device on them that's impossible to remove or chew off. Then, just as quickly it flies up and vanishes. It must appear to them that some horrible demons from the sky are doing this to them. If the wolves had a religion, surely they would surely incorporate the myths and realities of these evil Sky Demons.

Twin, the Lamar Alpha male
Dark Black
Other Lamar wolves
Dramatic moment in the operation with the net being shot toward the wolf
Well they attempted to re-collar Twin yesterday and failed. Twin escaped the net. Today they tried a second time. This time the whole operation was in view and I got video footage of it all. It started out the same way as yesterday. The yellow plane came out first to locate the wolves. Then the helicopter swooped in for the capture. I was able to see a guy hanging out of the helicopter and shoot a net at the wolf. It was successful! But then others shouted on the radio that they got the wrong wolf. They captured Dark Black instead of Twin! Meanwhile Twin took off running in the other direction, determined not to be caught a second time. The helicopter took off again and went after Twin. The net shot out again... and MISSED!  They retrieved the net to try a third time... but now Twin was up in the dense forest area, no longer out in the open, and the helicopter could not follow. So Twin escaped yet again!
Twin howling at the Sky Demons

Later that day I saw the helicopter at the base and they were discussing what to do next after the second failure.

On my way home I saw a dragon, and stopped to take a picture.


Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Wolf Expedition Day 4 - Collaring a Wolf

There are very few people overall in the Park during winter.  The temperatures here have gotten down to 0 F. The snow is deep and the roads icy. However there is a hardcore group of about 20 people who seem to show up here specifically for wolves. I am seeing the same people over and over each day and getting to know some of them. They have radios and communicate with each other about the wolves' locations.

First there is Rick, who works for the Park Service. Rick is a super serious type with almost a military precision about him, and demands the same precision from others. I have heard him on the radio chastising another person for not being precise enough in reports about the wolves' locations. He is out there every day -- 365 days a year -- following the wolves. I was told he hasn't missed a single day in 15 years.  That's what I call obsessed.

I was shocked to hear a white guy speaking fluent Japanese. This is Steve, an intelligent and likable gentleman. He also works for the Park half the year, and teaches in Japan the other half. He brought a friend from Japan with him and I saw both of them every day. His license plate reads HIGUMA, which means "grizzly bear" in Japanese.

Mike is a dedicated wildlife photographer and at least semi-professional (I believe he said he had sold some photos to National Geographic). He showed me some of his previous wildlife photos and they were good. He also shared some photography tips with me. Mike mentioned he's eagerly awaiting the release of the Canon 5D Mark IV. I enjoyed camera geeking[1] with Mike.

These are a few of the wolf enthusiasts in the Park.

Today we saw both packs again: the Mollies and the Lamars. For the first half of the day we observed a Lamar adult come back to pick up one of the yearling pups that had been left behind before. It was snowing heavily. The poor pup was clearly suffering from the mange; having lost most of its fur, it was painful to contact the snow with its skin and was unable to to even lie down.

The second half of the day we returned to where the Mollies were hanging out. There was a helicopter capture operation going on! They wanted to put radio collars on some of the Molly wolves. First the yellow plane does aerial surveillance to find out where the wolves are. They then relay this information to the helicopter which comes in and capture the target wolf. To minimize the impact on the wolves, they have decided not to use any sort of tranquilizer darts or other drugs.  Instead, the helicopter simply drops a net over the target wolf to restrain it. Then a guy jumps out of the helicopter and attempts to attach the collar to the wolf. Keep in mind the wolf is fully awake, not asleep or sedated in any way. Then he has to wait there with the wolf until the helicopter comes back to pick him up. This job requires a lot of guts!

They also tried to re-collar Twin of the Lamar pack. He already had a collar but it failed immediately afterwards. So they tried to replace the collar, but this operation was unsuccessful, and they called it a day.

Red fox on the hunt
After all the excitement of the collaring operation, I spotted a nice looking Red Fox and got some good photos. He was hunting for small prey -- mice or other small rodents. I could see him listening for the faint sounds of movement under the snow, with his super sensitive ears. I was hoping he would do the characteristic nosedive into the snow, and said so out loud. Within 2 minutes, he did it! And I captured it in my camera. On my way out of the Park I saw a second fox cuddled up into a little ball of fur and napping.

Red fox caught in mid-leap

Sleeping fox

[1] camera geeking is discussing technical specs and details of photographic equipment that would bore normal people

Monday, January 25, 2016

Wolf Expedition Day 3 - A Triple Dog Day

My guide called it a "Triple Dog Day" meaning we saw all three canine species in the Park -- wolf, coyote, and fox. Today we saw the whole Molly Pack.  These pictures are all taken from over a mile away
The Mollies are a powerful 16-wolf pack, perhaps the most powerful pack in the Park. They are robust and healthy wolves, unlike the poor Lamar Pack, whose members are afflicted with mange.
When we arrived the Mollies had feasted on a large elk kill and were just lazily lounging around the top of a mountain with visibly full bellies.

A coyote and a fox also tried to sneak in for a bit of the kill. The wolves chased them away as much as they could.

Also saw a moose in the distance.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Wolf Expedition Day 2 - Lamar adults

We started off looking for the Lamar wolves again, and found three of them. One was named "Twin", the Alpha Male of the Lamar pack. Twin set the route and walked ahead of the rest. If the coast was clear, he would stop and call for the rest of his pack to come.

"Twin" -- the Alpha Male of the Lamar pack

Also saw two coyotes

and one eagle

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Saturday, January 23, 2016

Quaint little town

I am staying in a small town just outside the park gate. I thought my room would be your basic motel room, but it turned out to be essentially a one-bedroom apartment with full kitchen and separate bedroom!

Herds of elk wander through the town daily. I saw one elk climb the step to the porch of a house and rub his nose on the front door. Once an elk came right up to me, clearly expecting food. Another time as I came out of a pub. an elk was just standing there in front of me. He froze and I froze. We both stood there staring at each other. I think it was the same elk from before. He started to approach me again. I told him "no food for you!" and walked away.

The town has two gas stations and just a few stores. No Starbucks or other chain fast food places.

Limited bison hunting is allowed outside the park. One afternoon I saw bison hunters unloading a wagon load of bison meat.

Wolf Expedition Day 1 - Lamar pups

My wolf guide Bonnie picked me up at 6:30 am.  This will be our schedule for the next four days. The wolves in Yellowstone are divided into packs. There are about a half dozen packs in the park and they compete with each other for prey and territory.
We headed straight for Lamar Valley where wolves had been sighted recently.  Even so, wolf sightings are never guaranteed and I was prepared for a long wait. However almost immediately we saw two yearling pups from the Lamar pack!

"Big T", a yearling female from Lamar Pack
The backstory we got from other wolf watchers was that the Lamar pack had made a kill but the stronger Molly pack drove them away forcing them to leave the kill. During the retreat two of the Lamar pups got left behind; they were too weak to keep up with the rest of the pack. One was named "Big T" (because of the T-shaped pattern on her chest). Unfortunately she has a bad case of mange (a skin parasite that affects dogs and wolves); you can see she's lost a lot of fur.

They were both resting under trees in the distance, about a mile away. They were barely visible as tiny specks to the naked eye. You needed powerful binoculars to see them clearly, and I had to break out my huge telephoto lens right off the bat!

Big Horn Sheep
We didn't see any more wolves the rest of the day, so I took pictures of some other animals included Big Horn sheep, Mountain Goats, and a coyote.

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Mountain Goat

Lone Coyote

Friday, January 22, 2016


From the highway to the lodge where I'll be staying during my Wolf Expedition, I saw a sign for Grizzly Bears! so of course I stopped to check it out :)

From experience, I know these kinds of places can turn out to be rather cheesy. However I was pleased to discover it was legit, not cheesy. It turned out to be a grizzly bear rescue facility, where bears in captivity that are mistreated or otherwise in unfortunate situations that cannot be released into the wild, are taken in and allowed to live out their lives in relative comfort.

There is a reasonably large play area for the bears which is also the viewing area. The bears are anywhere from 20' to 100' away from you, with no bars of fence between you and the bears (instead there is a deep ditch they cannot climb or jump across), so an ideal photo-taking opportunity. I had been to a similar facility in Oregon for wild cats such as tigers and leopards, but they were all behind chain link fences, which ruined any photos.

During my visit "Jake" and Maggi" were out in the play area. Seeing them was a wonderful experience, I definitely got the feeling they were happy and being well cared for.

"Jake" - a handsome-looking 10 year-old male grizzly.  Had I encountered a grizzly this close in the wild, I likely would not have survived it!

One question many people asked is why are the bears not hibernating? Well these bears were neutered to prevent them from reproducing (they want to reduce the number of bears in captivity, not increase it). And this apparently prevents them from hibernating.

Jake posing
Besides Jake and Maggi they have 3 more grizzlies including the most famous one, a 1000 lb behemoth named Brutus.
Jake and Maggi
Can we humans learn anything from grizzly bears?  Here's how Casey (owner of this facility) answered that:
Insight from Brutus: If it is physically possible, then it is done. If not, it isn’t. After weighing a boulder in at one ton, we used a tractor to lift it to place a piece of salmon under it. Soon after, Brutus caught the scent of the salmon and walked to the boulder. In one swift move, he pushed the boulder to the side and happily devoured the salmon. Then it dawned on me as I stood next to my friend. He doesn’t worry much; he is not handicapped by his mind. If his body isn’t capable of doing it, then that is his only limitation. He does not sit there and contemplate, or make excuses; he just does all he can. Then goes and takes a nap in the sunshine. How great would it be if we could all live that way?  --Casey Anderson

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Dinosaur Country

I arrived in Montana a day early before my Wolf Expedition started in earnest. I took advantage of the extra time by visiting the small but excellent Museum of the Rockies.  I was glad to see the dinosaur exhibit is still curated by Jack Horner, the first paleontologist I met and probably the most famous paleontologist in the world (Sam Neill's character in Jurassic Park was based on Jack). I first met him at UC Berkeley for a dedication ceremony for the new T. rex specimen display on campus that Jack had discovered. I did some work helping one of Jack's graduate students to excavate Maiasaur nesting sites in Northern Montana, and had met several others of Jack's students, who have gone on to become reknowned paleontologists in their own right.

Museum of the Rockies
Jack was the first to prove that dinosaurs built nests (like birds) and cared for their young (like mammals), feeding and protecting them for years after birth, and did not abandon them like many lizards and snakes do today. I feel honored and fortunate to have had the opportunity to meet Jack and chat with him several times.  On exhibit were some beautiful sculptures by Matt Hall:

Deinonychus in attack mode. 
This reconstruction is based on the latest research showing it had feathers like birds, not scales like a lizard or snake