Dragon Breath and Bison Wallows, by Walkaboutlou

I received this first email from Walkaboutlou on September 12th, right after the wildfires had raged through the lands that just a few days before were a paradise of western nature: old-growth trees, grasslands, wildlife (including coyotes, elk and buffalo) and ranches interspersed. Lou has been one with the landscape for decades: he lives and breathes it every minute of every day, so he has felt the devastation to his very core: I wanted to put Lou’s words here because they express unimaginable loss — incomprehensible to those of us who will never experience this kind of devastation directly. Wildfires are cataclysmic to all species, causing a reshuffle of what’s there. He goes on to explain buffalo and wallows vs. cattle and pastures, buffalo being the species that evolved with the landscape which includes wildfires.

Hi Janet…truly tough one today. I’m exhausted and empty. My spots and ranges are mostly gone. Just gone. Grandmother trees. Special areas. Gone. A doe ran into my house. She was burned horribly and blinded. How many miles she staggered that way…I gave her water..she drank, eased…and started dying. My neighbor eased her passing. He’s an elderly rancher. I’m a old warrior. We cried and cried. I am hurting for my lands. My trees. I’ll never see the old growth spots again.I’m sorry to share this news. But knew you would understand.

I’m mostly shut in. Brief outings. I know My cascade areas are mostly gone. Burned. My groves of ancient old growth are gone. Most trees killed. My grandmother trees.

I’ve not heard [about] the bison herds. Some cattle were shot to save them from horrible deaths or burning. Some horses have escaped and jumped fences. I’m only hearing some things or call. But by fireman conversations….my cascade ranges…are changed for rest of my life. I have birds dropping dead around home. I have elk where elk never have been. I have to remain calm. I’m exhausted. And empty. My lands and ranges and animals lives and trees….gone. Just gone.

Young, exhausted and safe . . . this young bull made it to bison ranch

Hi Janet,

As we continue to cope with the fires costs and devastation…good things have happened too. The bison ranch with young herd weathered the fires. Some areas burned. But the bison weren’t even perturbed. Ironically, the bison wallows in land broke up the speed of passing fires and dissipated the flames to just tiny send off. The open wallows disrupted flame walls and shorter grasses grazed didn’t turn furnace hot or turn to high walls. Likely there were other factors. But the bison lands burned minimally or not at all. Elk ran for the bison areas. A large bull elk was very grumpy and chased the bison off. But otherwise the elk rested from cascade exodus.

Many animals lost lives or home ranges. I suspect some wolves will have to abandon territorial claims to follow the game. By next year, greens will flourish and elk will return. But for now..many elk had to scatter.

The bison land has proved to be a refuge. I hope many animals can keep finding rest. The short grasses and wallows of bison ranch curtailed any fires that came. Quite remarkable.

Bison wallows are very different [from cattle pastures]. They roll on the ground to itch and create dust baths. Particularly bull buffalo. They are so heavy and massive it creates a “wallow”. An open depression devoid of vegetation. A wallow can hold water in wet months. (creating watering spots for frog homes) It also can be a big dusty circle-that stops fires or slows them to a crawl.

When living with enough space..bisons create wallows that we are learning helps the land. The land definitely prefer bison ranches to cattle.

Also..cattle tend to be harder on pastures and grasslands. They often pull as they graze. This is hard on grass. Buffalo graze more like a lawn mower…cutting grasses precisely. If there is enough space, bison graze and create more robust grasslands and grasses themselves. Bison also utilize less grass way further then most cattle. They instinctively rotate grazing areas if given space.
Lou

As I’m able to enter areas…I’ll send you pics. Even public lands are closed in vast areas. And ranch roads inaccessible. [All photos are by Walkaboutlou]

 

A note about coyotes. Hi Janet, This morning on patrol I had a coyote charge us that then morphed into a full pack skirmish in dark with my dogs and a few coyote. It ended very quickly and no one truly hurt. Its was only much later I realized that it wasn’t the coyotes that lived in that area. The local shy pair or their yearlings would never charge us that boldly. I realized the fires are very likely creating some domino effect in local wolves and especially coyote. They can’t stay in a burned out territory at least for now. We’ve seen elk where we’ve never seen them. It only makes sense coyote and wolf would follow refugees. Adapting and documenting mentally the changes.

Homage to Bonnie

Bonnie in her prime, as a mother and alpha of her mated pair

I’ve seen plenty of coyotes “disappear” from their territories. Usually it’s youngsters who have dispersed which is an eventuality that anyone would expect — it’s part of the ebb and flow of family life and an occurrence we all know will happen. Mom and Dad are the stable ones who remain as a pair on the same land creating a moored family unit which remains intact through many seasons.

So when a “Mom” or “Dad” of a young family disappears, it is not expected and it leaves a hole in the family. And that is what happened on one of my territories. Bonnie, an alpha mom, disappeared over two weeks ago. I had hoped her absence might be due to a recoverable injury or illness and that she might have been hanging low until she was better, but if that had been the case, she would have returned by now, and she has not. So tragedy struck, and I don’t know how, except she is no longer around.

Bonnie is on the right, her two male siblings are to the left

She had migrated/dispersed along with two brothers to this new territory when it was abandoned by its two aging alphas after 12 years of occupation. A three year old daughter of that pair remained on the land all alone for a while until the newcomers appeared, and then her behavior became irregular and nervous. After about 3 months, it appears she was either forced to leave or decided to leave because she didn’t get along with them, and soon we no longer saw her even though she initially seemed to be pairing up with the Bonnie’s older brother. From then on, for a year, we only ever saw Bonnie and her two brothers on the land.

Then this year, the two brothers dispersed together, and I’ve been able to keep track of them, but that’s another story. This year I found Bonnie alone there. By March it was obvious she was pregnant and sure enough, she became a lactating mom in April. It’s only at that time that I glimpsed her new mate, a very shy and elusive fellow. It was obvious that he didn’t like to be seen, so I did my best to keep away from him.

Bonnie was the alpha of her pair-bond. Interestingly, sometimes it’s the male of the pair, and sometimes it’s the female who is the dominant one. I’ve also seen where both alphas are fairly equal, and I’ve seen the role slowly shift from one to the other.

So now, on the territory I’m seeing Bonnie’s three youngsters alone a lot of the time. One of them particularly looks like Bonnie, and from the distance I even thought it might be her, returned, but I was mistaken. I see Dad very sporadically, usually marking. Recently I put out a trap camera hoping to get more insight into what is going on, and indeed something is going on. Another coyote pair, an outsider male and female, seems to come by once a day at midnight and mark. I wonder what will happen next. I wonder if Dad will, or will even want to, defend his territory from them. We’ll find out.

Here is Bonnie with some of her goofy expressions: I think coyotes are beautifully expressive

Bonnie seemed to attract ravens — she dealt with them on a daily basis.

These are Bonnie’s three 5-month old pups. They are appropriately wary, and I’m hoping they stay that way. I see them playing and chasing each other in the late afternoon — life goes on without mom.  :((

© All information and photos in my postings come from my own original and first-hand documentation work which I am happy to share, with permission and with properly displayed credit: ©janetkessler/coyoteyipps.com.

Coyote Portals, by Helen Tseng

Introduction: Artist Helen Tseng and I are both absorbed and intrigued by coyotes: it is because of this that we met. Not only have the coyotes themselves inspired her art, but she excitedly told me that she also has been inspired by my photos, some of which she has used as starting points for her own drawings. Hers are thoughtful creations, so please be sure to spend time reflecting on them and on her text: her simple outline art captures coyote movements and charm, and then she dives deeper into questions of her own (and our?) identity and her (our) place in the cosmos and on the globe where our success and expansion as a species has decimated so much of everything else.  

Coyote portals

I started this series in early 2020 as we entered a global pandemic and quarantine – a portal of sorts, both a closing and an opening. The act of making these coyotes became portals to me, as self-portraits and as visual commentary (portal and portrait share an ancient root, meaning through, forward, to draw forth). The narratives and imagery are influenced by astrophysics, literature, language, cultural critique, folk spiritualities, and more. The series is ongoing.

I have been and continue to be obsessed with coyotes, which I often encounter and observe on walks in the Bay Area. The oft-mythologized North American wild canid is genetically adjacent to the domestic dog, man’s best friend, but removed enough from civilization to be marked as vermin. Despite a long history of enduring systematic extermination by settler-colonizers, they continue to survive and thrive beyond expectation.

I appropriate coyotes as a mirror and proxy to mapping the contexts of my existence and the limits of my perception, while creating distance from implied specification and containment. They are an oblique path to examining identity, (im)migration, displacement, intergenerational trauma, adaptive resilience, marginalization, and erasure; a foil to my presence as an omnivorous mammal, apex predator, and unwitting species participant in the mass ecological destruction of this planet; a device for expressing all that defies reduction.

[Click on any of the images to enlarge them and scroll through them all]

Update: Into Sparks’ Seventh Month of Dispersal

I have been able to keep up with the youngster coyote I call “Sparks” who I watched grow up from birth. He began his dispersal at just under one year of age with his sister way back in March to a location two miles away from their birthplace. His first few months away from his birth home seemed to agree with him superbly: it looked like he was having a ball! Freedom from the constraints of parents and siblings obviously felt good. He and his sister rendezvoused every evening after dusk with high-pitched squeals of delight and excitement as they tumbled over each other in anticipation of the evening’s adventures. They were adjusting well to the move. It was unfortunately always too dark to capture images of this.

After a couple of months here, it was time to go, and he moved on to a place that was five miles further away, where life suddenly became harder. He was now alone — sister having returned to their birthplace — and he somehow ended up with a broken leg in this unfamiliar territory. He must have been in severe pain because he returned the five miles to the now familiar place he and his sister had first been, to the quiet of a backyard. There, on an undisturbed and protected hillside, he spent several weeks recovering with the help of humankindness by people who guarded his safety and gently cared for him. I have no doubt that this is what kept him alive.

Three weeks of convalescence in someone’s backyard [above]

He stayed there three weeks until he felt better, but, unfortunately, not until he was healed. He left that place on August 14th, and re-appeared the next day, on August 15th in the Presidio. Then, again, he was off of my radar. Of course, no one else who might have seen him would have known “who” this coyote was. I would have to see him myself or recognize him in someone else’s photos: few if anyone else in the city know who each coyote is, and no one else keeps tabs on individuals.

And then, incredibly, magically, just a couple of days ago, I was documenting another one of my coyote families in the North East of the city, when I glimpsed a coyote that didn’t seem to “belong” there — that I hadn’t seen there before. Suddenly it clicked: this was Sparks! He had moved on yet another five miles!

Of supreme interest to me is that he was accepted and warmly welcomed into this long-claimed territory without incident, and not driven off as an intruder. Why was he not driven away by Mom, especially since she has 5-month-old pups now? I’ve seen many intruders/interlopers repulsed away by the territorial claimants, but that didn’t happen here.

I was ecstatic to see the bantering and show-of-affection between these two as you can see in this series of photos taken the next morning [click on above photos to enlarge and scroll through them]

From my inquiries I learned that it has been only four or five days since he arrived, but I thought I would dive into possible outcomes based on what I have seen elsewhere:

1) Maybe it’s only a very temporary resting spot for him — with a very temporary grant to stay there. Might the alpha mom of the territory have sensed his weak physical condition and foreleg pain, and also his downtrodden mental state, and therefore taken him under her wing? At 17 months of age, he’s still a youngster, though you can see that he’s visibly much larger than the alpha female in the middle photo in the top row above. And she herself, in fact, is only two years older than him at 3.5 years of age. In the photo to the left of that, you can see his left front leg is still bent, and although he can walk on it, he retains the limp he acquired back in July: the limp wavers from barely-noticeable mild to causing intense bobbing up and down as he walks.

2) Another possible scenario is that this isn’t a temporary situation, but that he might have been adopted! I have seen another instance of a female yearling joining another family and, so far, remaining with that family for about 6 months: I think of it as a sort adoption. There were no other females in that family which consisted, before her arrival, of just a father and a son at that point. That “adopted” female is still too young to be a reproducing alpha, though by remaining there without challenge, that’s the position she would grow into. Finding more and more of these not-exactly-nuclear family arrangements have changed my idea of what constitutes a standard coyote family. The variations are beginning to appear to me more and more like our own human family variations!

“Mom’s” young male companion

3) A third possibility is that Sparks could have moved in as the new alpha male, although this seems unlikely because of his young age. But the fact is I have not seen “Mom’s” male companion around lately. In addition, I’ve always wondered if that male companion was actually “Mom’s” mate — he always appeared to be more of a younger brother or even another “adoptee”, though I could be wrong.  Whatever his position/role in the family has been, I have not seen him in the last little while — so the “position” may be open.

As an interesting aside: At the beginning of March which would have been mating season, I found “Mom” with a large gash on her forehead, in the Presidio along with this young male companion of hers. The Presidio is five miles away from her own claimed territory. I wondered what she/they were doing there. The gash was of the type she might have picked up after a territorial battle with another coyote. The Presidio has a very dominant alpha female — the gal I refer to as “Wired” — who has battled other females and driven them away ferociously. Wired’s mate happens to be “Mom’s” brother. Was she seeking out her brother?

This is actually the second instance of where I’ve seen a female head off from her own territory to a foreign territory during the receptive phase of her reproductive cycle, and it made me wonder if it was related to reproductive reasons. My DNA study will not be able to reveal this because DNA taken from scat can only follow the maternal line. So the questions remains: who sired her pups this year? And, will Sparks remain there?

So, it’s into any of these situations that Sparks now finds himself. Time will help us decide which is the real one.

© All information and photos in my postings come from my own original and first-hand documentation work which I am happy to share, with permission and with properly displayed credit: ©janetkessler/coyoteyipps.com.

Thief!

For my continuing long term DNA study of our San Francisco coyotes, I needed some scat (DNA is taken from the scats) from a very specific newcomer male coyote about whose origins I had no clue. I already had scat from his mate — I had seen her defecate many times and afterwards collected it, but I just simply was not seeing the activity from the male. Picking up scat right after seeing it expelled is how I know which coyote the sample came from. I had seen old scat in certain locations several times, but of course I didn’t know WHO it came from.  My solution was to catch WHO that scat came from with an automatic wildlife field camera I put out at night. I ended up putting out two such cameras in the same location. I got what I wanted, and more!

When I went to retrieve the two cameras the next morning, I was disappointed to see that one of them was gone: it had been taken — stolen. I looked over to where the second camera had been placed and was relieved to find it still there — the thief had not seen that one. I wondered if maybe that camera would reveal who the thief was?