July 30, 2016

On Being Ranger Rick, Or Not

Western rattlesnake (Idaho State University).
I was deep into an editing job, wondering as always why some people can earn a PhD without knowing how to write a References list, when the telephone rang.

The rental cabin was taken for a long weekend by a couple from somewhere in the Denverplex — Aurora, I think. It was the wife, and she sounded kind of shaky.

"I went out to my truck, and there's a SNAKE!"

"OK, "I said," I'll be right over."

I had a seen a bullsnake over there before. People are always mistaking them for rattlers and going all herpe-cidal. I got a five-gallon plastic bucket and a shovel and walked the couple hundred yards to the cabin.

Curled by the retaining wall that holds up the parking space  was a Western rattlesnake.* Well, hello, little guy, are you the reason that I have not been catching mice in my cabin traps?

The woman was inside the back door, practically chewing her knuckles. Her husband was on the steps with a big stick, but keeping his distance.

I scooped the snake and dropped it in the bucket. Look at me, I'm Ranger Rick!

I surely was not going to reach down and pick up the bucket's bail, so I tried to work the shovel blade undernearth it. And I knocked over the bucket, and the snake slithered out onto the lawn, heading for some thicker vegetation.

"X*%$," I thought, "Now I will have to kill it to keep them from panicking."

But the snake was so angry that when I prodded it again, it coiled up, and again I scooped it, dropped it in the bucket, and walked away with the bucket held by the shovel blade.

"Kill it!!!" she called through the window.

No, I said, I would relocate it. Perversely enough, my experience ten years ago makes me more tolerant of rattlesnakes. Maybe the venom changed my brain.

This rich Texan has bought up a lot of land around us, including a small ranch whose previous owner had decorated one area with signs proclaiming "RATTLESNAKE TEST AREA. KEEP OUT." (Works better than "No Trespassing," don't you think?)

Those signs are gone now, but we all remember them.

Once home, I dropped the bucket into an empty garbage can, snapped on the lid, and secured it with a bungie cord. Mr. or Ms. Snake had been buzzing the whole time and kept on buzzing while M. and I took it for a drive. That was one angry snake.

Where the county road parallels a creek in the former "test area," I tipped over the garbage can, spilled out the bucket, and then removed bucket and garbage can with the shovel. We left the snake there by the side of the road, still coiled and buzzing.

Now if I could just find a bull snake, I could relocate it down in the gully where I have been dumping all the mice that I live-trap in the garage and basement here at the house. There was even one in my study wastebasket earlier this week — it has been a huge mouse year.

       *It seemed two feet long, so it was probably 18 inches.

Water Hemlock Can Kill a Dog

Last summer a border collie chewed on some water hemlock near Fort Collins and died on its way to the Colorado State University Veterinary Teaching Hospital.

As every plant guide will tell you, water hemlock in bloom looks a lot like Queen Anne's lace, which is completely harmless — its roots are edible. So you can have a fruitful wildcrafting experience, or you can die twitching and drooling.

How do you tell the difference? I was taught the purple blotches, but there are other distinctions as well, which this well-illustrated web page explains.

You might not think of water hemlock as attractive to dogs, but some will chew on plants randomly. (I'm looking at you, Fisher.)

July 29, 2016

Escape from Stalag-Dachs 17!

Over at the rehabilitation center, Gus the badger has been working on his tunneling technique. He started with the boulder visible on the left. The swift fox that was released last April had a small den underneath it — Gus spent a couple of months enlarging that sett (den), adding more entrances, and even dragging in a small log — a roof prop?

But then his ambition grew: it was time to tunnel for freedom!

His enclosure is made from chain-link fence, and the mesh comes in horizontally for about thirty inches on each side to deter digging. Hah! Gus located the edge (you can see it behind his head), and dug under it until he reached the outer wall. Then he kept digging.

The rehabbers are philosophical about his escapes. The exit is in a meadow, and they figure that digging a tunnel is part of the rehab process.

Gus still comes back for meals — frozen rats, etc. But he is developing an adult personality, a more aggressive one. Grown-up badgers are the opposite of cuddly.

The only question seems to be whether he will be somehow caught and relocated to a good release site, or whether he will release himself.

UPDATE: Around the 10th of August, Gus started leaving some of his frozen mice uneaten. Evidently he was feeding himself. By the 16th, he had been missing from his enclosure for several days and was presumed to be living on his own.

"So long, and thanks for all the mice." (Classical reference.)

July 21, 2016

Relocating Trout after the Hayden Pass Fire

Firefighters are demobilizng from the Hayden Pass Fire, which started Friday, July 8th, and really blew up the following weekend, covering more than 16,000 acres at the northen end of the Sangre de Cristo Range in Fremont and Custer counties.

Inside the fire permeter was a creek containing a genetically unique strain of endangered Colorado greenback cutthroat trout. Wildlife biologists feared they could be harmed by the fire itself or by erosion from burned slopes afterwards.

As soon as it was possible, a Colorado Parks and Wildlife crew retrieved as many of the trout as possible by electroshocking netting, in order to move them to a temporary home elsewhere.

From a forestry standpoint, this area was overdue for a big fire. I remember the last time that M. and I hiked up Big Cottonwood Creek, one of the drainages affected, I was struck by the amount of dead trees stacked up.

But as she points out, a lot of little lives are always lost in such a fire. We make our choices as to which ones can be saved.

July 12, 2016

Some Actual Journalism about Wildfire

Hayden Pass Fire, Fremont County, Colo.,
as of July 11, 2016.
Three years ago, after the Royal Gorge Fire, I was complaining that no one ever seemed to assign a cause to some of the big fires in southern Colorado, such as Waldo Canyon (2012) or Black Forest (2013).

Reporters go to the twice-daily fire briefings, they all file the same stories, be they print or electronic or web, and then there is no follow-up.

But here is one exception to that pattern: some actual reportage from the Colorado Springs Independent. The headline, however, is not too promising: "Waldo, Black Forest Fire investigations lurch to a standstill years later."
Four years later, though permits have been issued to rebuild 309 homes from Waldo and 311 from Black Forest, the causes of both fires remain a mystery, and barring a new revelation, they might go unsolved forever.

"I would love to say an arrest is imminent, but I can't say that," said El Paso County Sheriff's Commander Richard Hatch, who oversees the still-active Black Forest Fire investigation.

Colorado Springs Police Sgt. John Koch, a former investigator on the Waldo fire, says investigators are at a stalemate without a tip or new development that would unlock the puzzle.

"We still encourage members of the public with knowledge of suspicious activity to come forward," Koch says.
At least someone was arrested for starting the Cold Springs Fire, still burning west of Boulder. But really, don't we have enough homegrown idiots without having to import them from Alabama?

Further south, our skies are smoky from the still-rolling Hayden Pass Fire, which has passed 12,000 acres in size. (4,900 ha.) Blame lightning for that one. You can't arrest Thor.

I blame the reporters for passivity, but there is more than that. I worked as a newspaper and magazine journalist, but I have also held an institutional public relations job.

Since I got into the emergency-services scene, however, I have been shocked at how these people seem to hate the news media.

When you consider the passivity of most reporters these days, that's sort of like hating springer spaniels.

Hence my moment of glee at seeing an actual follow-up story. Even though it offers no revelations, at least it is a progress report.

July 03, 2016

I Miss Goth Coyote, But Her Urban Cousins Are Fine

Coyote in Douglas fir and oak brush.
This coyote turned up on a scout camera last week, which vindicated what I was thinking — that although I had not heard one for a couple years, I thought that I had seem some scat along the Forest Service road.

Their howls used to provide the soundtrack of pre-bedtime dog walk. At one time, a few years ago, there was an individual whom I named Goth Coyote, because his/her howls had extra wavers and quavers that spoke of torn lace, high-heeled boots, and heavy eye makeup.

Then it all stopped. Did someone trap them? Someone was doing some trapping, because there was the time I found four skinned carcassses in the gully on the national forest that functions as "Boneyard Gulch."

I wondered if the resent absence of coyote howling connected, alternatively, to the arrival of a couple of families in the neighborhood who embraced the whole neo-chicken-raising lifestyle, which includes the precept that Predators Must Die — also, neighbor dogs who encroach upon the Precious Fowl, even when said precious fowl are walking around on the margins of the county road.

But that is just my little area. Across North America, coyotes are expanding their territory. As Dan Flores writes in his new book Coyote America: A Natural and Supernatural History,
they have successfully urbanized: "In the Chicago metropolitan area, a whopping 61 percent of coyote pups survive to adulthood." But contrary to popular perception, they don't survive by eating Fluffy and Fido. (Of course, if opportunity presents itself, they will.) Golf course and city park geese and eggs are a favorite choice, along with urban deer and human trash.

His chapter "Bright Lights, Big City" collects a lot of research on urban populations, and some parts will surprise you. The best course, he suggests, is "to learn everything possible about living with the animals, then kick back, be cool, and enjoy them."

Meanwhile, some friends a couple of miles away have joined the chicken cult. M. and I stopped by a couple of days ago, and the husband was pouring concrete around the shed that he has converted to a chicken coop. He has built a stout wire enclosure with a concrete footing, and the top will be covered for both shade and protection from hawks. And I don't think that he is particular trigger-happy.

Our friends the wildlife rehabilitators, whose fawn enclosure would be a snack bar for coyotes and other predators, surround it with an eight-foot chain-link fence. But mountain lions and some coyotes and climb (bears prefer to smash their way in), so on top of that are three strands of barbed wire and one of electric wire. So far, so good over there.

That's what you have to do before you can "kick back, be cool, and enjoy them."