Carol Rist, SUMMER 1998
On July 4, 1998, the extended Byrd family gathered at the Lago Mar Resort on the beach in Fort Lauderdale for a family reunion. Tom Byrd, Jr. was the only family member who couldn’t make it. All 23 of us, from 3year-old Robin Graney (Marilyn’s youngest grandchild) to the oldest Byrd sibling, had a wonderful time. We went by trolley to the Lauderdale Yacht Club’s Fourth of July celebration, cruised up the river on the Jungle Queen, and had dinner at the Mai Kai. But the most fun was just hanging out together at the beach or around the pool and playing ping pong, carpet golf and shuffle board.
One week after returning home from the family reunion we flew to Salt Lake City where we rented a car and drove east to Rangely, Colorado. Rangely is where our friends and neighbors, Bob Merkel and Debbie Safford were spending the summer. Bob and Debbie had summer jobs at Dinosaur National Monument, which was close by. Rangely is on top of a major oil field. It reminded us a lot of Leadville, except that the working people of the town work for the oil company instead of the mine. We were delighted with Dinosaur National Monument. The canyons of the Green River are spectacular. We loved looking down into the canyon from Harper’s Corner and up at the canyon walls from a raft. Much of the rock art left on the canyon walls by prehistoric Indians is very well preserved. What were the artists saying? There are a lot of ideas, but no one knows for sure. The Dinosaur Quarry site was designated as a national monument in 1915. Fossil bones of the big dinosaurs (Stegosaurus, Apatosaurus and Allosaurus) were excavated from this site in the past, but today the remainder of the bone-bearing layer forms one wall of the Quarry building. The bones have been exposed by chipping away the sandstone around them.
We were sad to leave Bob and Debbie and the wonderful place we had discovered only because they were spending the summer there. But we were excited about beginning our new adventure in Idaho. We drove to Pocatello where we turned in our rental car and joined the Mountain Lion Expedition sponsored by Earthwatch. Brian Holmes, a graduate student from Idaho State University, transported us and six other Earthwatch volunteers to an old farm house outside the tiny town of Malta. The house is surrounded by tall trees which stand out in a valley planted with irrigated crops and few trees. The birds love those trees. A nest full of Swainson’s hawks had just fledged, and we enjoyed watching the fledglings. The eight volunteers and between two and five staff members shared the two bedroom, one bath house. Our beds consisted of sleeping bags thrown on foam mats on the floor. Luckily the staff and one volunteer put up tents in the yard, so we weren’t too crowded. As the only couple and the oldest participants, Karsten and I got a room all to ourselves. It was a luxury. Professor John Laundre of Idaho State University, the Principal Investigator of Mountain Lion, was our chief cook, but everyone helped with meal preparation and cleaning up the kitchen.
We assisted the research staff on a variety of tasks. One day Karsten and I spent from 8:00 AM to 7:00 PM driving around the research area with Idaho State University graduate student Laura Heady in a truck equipped with an antenna. We stopped at designated sites and tried to locate those mountain lions and deer which had been collared. We were amused that the collared mountain lions all had names such as “Holly,” Chloe,” and “Gladys,” while the collared deer had names such as “Food #3” and “Food #57.” (Male cats as well as female cats are collared, but since a male cat will leave the territory when he grows up, the only time a male cat will be heard from is after he has been killed. The collar has a message inside for hunters, offering a reward for the return of the collar. Male cats have been killed as far as 300 miles from the research area.)
Another task of the volunteers was to record the conditions around a kill site and a cache site. After the mountain lion kills her prey she drags it to a place which she considers optimal for storage until she has eaten it all up. We carefully recorded the type and size of vegetation and how dense it was. We even recorded the slope conditions.
Ground truthing of maps is important to the researchers so that when they locate a collared animal with their antenna they will know what kind of terrain the animal is in. We spent a lot of time walking transects. We would start from a designated location and walk in a designated compass direction for 1000 meters. Every 20 meters we would record the type of terrain we were in (open, forest or edge) and the type of vegetation. Then every 100 meters we would use the GPS (Global Positioning System) to determine our exact location. At 1000 meters we would make a right turn and proceed a determined distance before making another right turn to return to the road we had started from. Often the mountainous terrain made for an interesting hike. Sometimes we went up precipitous slopes. When you came to a barbed wire fence you climbed under or over. There were lots of cows inside those fences, but they scattered when they saw us. Once we found ourselves in a valley with a meandering stream that we had to cross numerous times as we walked our straight line. The horses in that valley took a likeing to us and as we walked our transect, five horses trotted along in a line behind us. The first horse was determined to get the apple out of my backpack. I would gladly have shared with him but was not eager to try to get into the backpack while he was trying the same thing.
One of our favorite jobs was to play mountain lion. The researchers want to know how accurate their tracking is. So they equip volunteers with a collar, a GPS and a radio and send them up on the slopes. We were to go to a spot in the forest, in the open, or in the edge, use the GPS to ascertain our exact location, record our location and wait until the researchers contacted us by radio to say they had a fix on our location. Then we would hike to another location and repeat the exercise. Karsten and I had the monikers “Papa Cat” and “Mama Cat,” as we kept in touch with the researchers and our fellow cats.
All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy, so the volunteers were treated to two afternoons of R & R. One day we went to a mountain lake which is a popular camping site. After days of seeing very few people in the valley or in the mountains, we were surprised to see so many people in one place. But since the temperature in the valley was around 100 degrees, it was understandable that people had come to a place where there were still snow drifts. Our other recreational afternoon was spent at The City of Rocks National Reserve, which is of historical as well as geological interest. Emigrants on their way to California passed through these impressive rock formations as they moved westward on the California Trail.
On the third day of the Mountain Lion Expedition we got up at 4 AM and headed out to try to find the collared cat, Holly, and her year-old kittens. We planned to use the antenna to find Holly, hoping that Ken, the houndsman, and his hunting dogs could then track the kittens and tree them. The researchers planned to tranquilize the kittens, weigh them, take a blood sample and some tissue for DNA, collar them and release them. We didn’t get a very good fix on Holly, but parked at a campground near where we thought we got her signal and headed up the mountain. We climbed and climbed and climbed through forest, across rock fields and creeks, but the dogs never got a really good scent. We were disappointed, but it had been a beautiful morning and we had enjoyed the hunting dogs, who love their work and are totally devoted to Ken. Ken told us that sometimes hunting dogs get a scent of an animal that they are hunting and follow it to a tree which the animal had been in but which it had left earlier. The dogs are convinced that the animal they are hunting is in the tree so they won’t go any farther. They just stand at the bottom of the tree and bark and bark. That’s where we get the term, “barking up the wrong tree”.
On the last day of the expedition, we again went out to look for Holly’s kittens. Up again at 4 AM, our previous failure didn’t dampen our enthusiasm. From the road we got a good reading on Holly and the party headed up the mountainside at a fast clip. John Laundre, carrying a hand-held antenna, and Ken, with the hunting dogs straining at the leash, moved up the mountainside and along the ridge line. The beeping from the antenna got stronger and stronger. They came to a dense thicket where the beeping was so strong that John thought he must have been on top of Holly. All of a sudden a loud roar came from the thicket and out jumped Holly. Her year old cubs were nowhere to be seen as she ran away, with the dogs in hot pursuit. John and Ken looked down between the two boulders from which Holly had jumped and were astonished to find three kittens so young that their eyes were still closed and their umbilical cords still attached. Last year’s kittens had either not made it through the winter or had matured enough to leave their mother. The group gathered around to help weigh and measure the kittens. The only place I could find in that cramped space was a spot on the top of one of the boulders, lying awkwardly on my back, unable to sit up because there was a large tree limb just above me. But at least I could see as Karsten helped John measure and weigh the three male kittens. (We named them Leo, Louie and Larry). Notches were snipped into their ears for further identification (There is no way to collar such a tiny cat). A little flesh was taken to get some DNA. When John was finished with the first cat he needed a place to put it where we would know it had already been taken care of. My chest seemed a convenient place, so John gently placed little Leo on top of me. What a thrill to be comforting that little spotted baby! Meanwhile, Ken had called off the dogs when he realized that there were no year old cats to ‘collar. He didn’t want to give Holly any more trouble than necessary. So while I was playing Mama Cat, Holly was surely behind the next thicket eagerly waiting for us to go away. We finished up our work as quickly as possible and headed back down the mountain. Our mood could only be described as euphoria. We almost danced down the mountain to our vehicles. John climbed into his truck, looked back up to where we had found the kittens, waved and called out softly “Good luck”. To that I can only say “Amen.”
The next day the house in Malta had only one occupant, the graduate student who stayed to track the collared animals. Karsten and I returned to Salt Lake City for the flight home. We had time enough to walk around downtown Salt Lake and to drive out to the shores of the Great Salt Lake where we watched the sun go down.
We arrived home tired. My knees were aching from all the climbing and my clothes were all dirty. I had a shirt and Karsten had pants that smelled like baby mountain lion poop (looks like the poop of a nursing human infant). We can’t remember a better vacation!