“We saw a bear running up the butte on our way home tonight!” some other volunteers told us recently. The butte rises next to our camp area on the National Elk Refuge, but we rarely see animals on it during summer.
Two days after the bear sighting, we climbed the mile up to the top of the butte for our weekly task of monitoring swan activity on the flats below. As we descended, we encountered an elk leg lying on the ground. Several feet beyond, we nearly stepped in a very large pile of animal droppings. When I dipped the toe of my boot at the edge of the pile, it sank easily into the mass and the fragrance of fresh feces rose to assault our senses.
Peering closer at the pile, we discovered seeds and hair and other delicacies enjoyed by the one who deposited it. “Bear droppings!” we agreed as we pulled our bear spray and scanned our nearby surroundings. With no movement in sight, we continued our trek down the butte and back to our refuge vehicle, all the while holding our bear spray just in case. Because bears are fond of scavenging carrion, the elk leg most likely came from a carcass the bear discovered.
Signs of Animals
Generally, we are satisfied with signs of animals as we work our way around the Refuge for our biology day. Even though we don’t see many (or often any) animals while we drive and hike the Refuge, we still excite in observing their tracks, scat, burrows, and other traces of their existence.
Several years ago we spotted moose tracks on the two-track road we drive. Emerging from the vehicle to inspect the large imprints in the soft dirt, we also noticed large dog-like tracks that appeared to follow, and sometimes cover, those of the moose. “Wolf,” we both said at once and visualized a predator/prey situation.
No matter which National Wildlife Refuge we are on, we scout for signs of animals that we’re not likely to see since they are so wary. On Imperial National Wildlife Refuge we once followed a trickle of blood along a desert trail, possibly left by a coyote who had captured a rabbit and toted it to its den. Another time we stumbled across a bighorn sheep carcass that had been reduced to a skeleton by a lucky predator. In soft sand and dirt we have followed curvy trails left by snakes and lizard tails. And there’s no shortage of different sized animal burrows and nests.
Sounds of Animals
Sounds of animals also catch our attention. Recently, as we topped the butte on our weekly biology day at the National Elk Refuge, I heard a snort nearby. I turned to Chuck who was a short distance behind. “Did you say something?” I asked him. He shook his head just as we then heard two more short snorts. Unsure of where the sounds originated, we again pulled our bear spray and surveyed our surroundings.
Another snort helped us locate the direction, but we still could not spot an animal. Two more snorts, and the hair on the backs of our necks prickled. Then a white spot appeared in the distance as a pronghorn buck bounded away. Until the animal had faced away from us and presented its obvious rump, it was too well camouflaged to see.
While it’s exciting to view wildlife, it can also be thrilling and challenging to discover their signs and hear their sounds. We will never tire of this!