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  • Writer's pictureDeborah Kade

Why did the momma bear cross the road?

The other day, Michael booked a private tour of EcoTour Adventures' "Sunset Grand Teton Wildlife Adventure".

Jeff Olson, a wildlife biologist, was our guide. The tour was scheduled from 4 to 8 PM, but he picked us up at the Teton Club 20 minutes early. We got back at 9:30. It was an amazing tour!!!!

I told Jeff I really wanted to see and/or photograph a bear. He has seen a couple the last week or two so he thought it might be possible but he wasn't promising anything.

We were headed back when we finally spotted momma bear and her two cubs way off in the distance. To our surprise she kept getting closer and closer!

A moose was the first animal we came across when we started our tour. He is eating willow branches.

Next stop took us to the National Elk Refuge.

The National Elk Reffuge was created in 1912 to protect habitat and provide sanctuary for one of the largest elk (also known as wapiti) herds anywhere. With a total of 24,700 acres, the refuge borders the town of Jackson, Wyoming on the southwest, Bridger-Teton National Forest on the east and Grand Teton National Park on the north. It is home to an average of 7,500 elk each winter. The refuge is managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, an agency of the U.S. Department of the Interior.

The refuge's elk migrate from as far away as southern Yellowstone National Park. Historically, they migrated to the present location of the refuge and further south into southwestern Wyoming during the fall, wintering on grassy plains that were both sheltered from weather and that maintained less snowfall or snow depth than surrounding lands. During the spring, the herd would follow the retreating snows and growing grasses back into the Yellowstone National Park region. The original size of the elk herd has been estimated to have been in excess of 25,000. By the end of the 19th century, the town of Jackson had developed an important winter range, blocking off some of the migration routes used by the elk. The elk herd was severely reduced in size due to the hostile climate and lack of food supply, in addition to hunting pressures by both homesteaders and surrounding Native American tribes.

A movement to protect the remaining herd and establish greater numbers was commenced in the early 1900's. When the Miller homestead was sold for $45,000 to the federal government, the refuge was established.

The elk herd survives the hard winters of Jackson Hole through a supplementary feeding program and a lottery-based, permitted hunting program. The elk have antlers which are shed each year- the Boy Scouts of America have been collecting the antlers under permit since 1968 and selling them at auction, under agreement that 75% of the proceeds are returned to the refuge, where they are used for irrigation of the grasses to maintain maximum natural food supply. Ten to eleven thousand pounds (4,500 to 5,000 kg) of antlers are auctioned each year. The increase in value has resulted in a commensurate rise in antler theft, and the 2017 auction set a new record price of $18.79/lb.

The furthest consistent migration of elk to the refuge is currently from the southern portion of Yellowstone National Park, making it the second-longest ungulate migration in the lower 48 states. (The migration of pronghorn between the Green River Basin and Jackson Hole is longer).

The refuge is nearly 25,000 acres (101 km2) of meadows and marshes along the valley floor, sagebrush and rock outcroppings along the mountain foothills. The largest single herd of bison under federal management, comprising 1,000 plus individuals, also winter on the refuge. Bighorn sheep, along with pronghorn, mule deer can be found. Rare sightings of wolf packs and grizzly bears have occurred, while coyotes and red foxes are more common. The most abundant birds include red-winged blackbirds, magpies, crows, and ravens, along with trumpeter swans, which can be found along Flat Creek, which flows out of the refuge south into the town of Jackson. A total of 47 mammal species and 147 bird species have been documented on the refuge.

Bighorn sheep is named for its large horns. A pair of horns might weigh up to 30 lbs or14 kg; the sheep typically weigh up to 315 lb. or 143 kg .

Bighorn sheep routinely experience violent impacts to the head and horns without apparent negative consequences to the brain or horns. A portion of the horn is filled with a thin cortical bone shell containing foam-like trabecular bone. Both horn and bone materials and the structures made from these materials (i.e., tapered spiral horns and foam-like trabecular bone struts) are important for absorbing impact energy and reducing brain cavity accelerations.

The refuge has a lower elevation and much milder climate than the rest of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, which is why so many animals are drawn to winter on it. Most of it is snow-covered from November until March. Snowfalls are followed by sunny days, when some of the snow melts temporarily. South-facing slopes are free of snow for most of the winter.

The refuge is also home to beavers.

Beavers build dams and lodges using tree branches, vegetation, rocks and mud; they chew down trees for building material. Dams impound water and lodges serve as shelters. Their infrastructure creates wetlands used by many other species, and because of their effect on other organisms in the ecosystem, they are considered a keystone species. Adult males and females live in monogamous pairs with their offspring. When they are old enough, the young will help their parents repair dams and lodges and may also help raise newly born offspring. Beavers hold territories and mark them using scent mounts made of mud, debris and castoreum, a urine-based substance excreted through the beaver's castor sacs. Beavers can also recognize their kin by their anal gland secretions and are more likely to tolerate them as neighbors.

When we left the refuge we can upon two herds of bison. They were on the move but were too far off to take a good picture.

Do you see the brown tubes? Voles and moles make these tunnels.

The raised tunnels can collapse by pushing hard on them, but don't otherwise harm plants. Voles make little runway-like paths and eat underground plant parts. Foxes, for example, listen to hear the moles or voles and then jump on the tunnel to collapse it to try to catch the mole or vole.

Spotted another beaver dam farther upstream. This was a much larger one. Beaver dams or beaver impoundments are dams built by beavers to provide ponds as protection against predators such as coyotes, wolves, and bears, and to provide easy access to food during winter.

Some elk have started their migration north.

Up the road a few miles, we spotted a beaver chewing on a aspen branch.

Can you spot the egret in the tree?

Can you see the two cranes way off in the distance?

Jackson Lake is a natural lake which was enlarged by the construction of the Jackson Lake Dam, which was originally built in 1911, enlarged in 1916 and rebuilt by 1989. As part of the Minidoka Project the top 33 ft (10 m) of the lake is used by farmers in Idaho for irrigation purposes under water rights legislation that was enacted prior to the establishment of Grand Teton National Park. The lake is the remnant of large glacial gouging from the neighboring Teton Range to the west and the Yellowstone Plateau to the north. The lake is primarily fed by the Snake River, which flows in from the north, and empties at Jackson Lake Dam. Jackson Lake is one of the largest high altitude lakes in the United States, at an elevation of 6,772 ft (2,064 m) above sea level. The lake is up to 15 mi (24 km) long, 7 mi (11 km) wide and 438 ft (134 m) deep. The water of the lake averages below 60 °F (16 °C), even during the summer.

The lake is still covered with ice.

Along the banks of the river, two beavers were joined by a muskrat.

Easy to spot these elk.

We did not see the bears when we stopped here the first time. We were very lucky to spot them when we drove by this place again.

I didn't notice them until they moved.

Mom came out first from under the tree.

The two, two year old, cubs then joined her.

At this time, Jeff said momma looked like she was headed toward us so we probably should get back in the van as she may be protective of her cubs and run toward us.

Closer and closer they approached.

Before the bears crossed the road, they walked about 3 feet (1m) along the side of the van. Now that is up close and personal!!!

Why did the momma bear cross the road..........because she can!

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