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Research, Outdoor Adventures, and Yellowstone

Hannah Jaicks

       Taking a break from my daily schedule of interviewing, hiking, and exploring, today seemed like a good day to check in.  Having been out here in the GYE for a little while now, I'm amazed that I still find myself surprised and elated with what I encounter on my various travels.  I've been bouncing from town to town doing interviews with people from different backgrounds, trying to make sure I hear from as many different perspectives as possible.  It's certainly a challenge for me to constantly put myself out there.  As a bit of an introvert who draws energy from time alone every now and then, I've had to step outside myself and really make sure that I devote 100 percent of my attention to every person or critter I encounter.  It matters to me that I do this because I care quite a bit about these challenges and conflicts over human-nonhuman predator coexistence.  I think the most striking thing that I've had come out of my interviews so far is the importance of building relationships with the people I speak to.  So often politics, science, and power dynamics prevent or mar relationships, so the very least I can do is attempt to genuinely connect with my participants.  These people know far more than I do about these issues, so it's in my best interest to listen closely.  More times than not I end up leaving an interview buzzing with an energy about everything I've just heard.  Add to the fact that every day I'm here is better than the last, and you'll be unsurprised to hear that I'm head over heels for this place.  I can't think of anything better than spending my time with remarkable people, carrying out my research, and exploring an area that is home to magnetic wildlife.  Someone is going to have to push me back on the plane at the end of the summer, because I'm unlikely to leave willingly.

           It's not been all work and no play, though I don't feel like what I've been doing can be considered 'work' since I enjoy it too much.  My first weekend in Bozeman, my housemate (or friend putting up with me for the summer while I couch surf) took me and a bunch of others up to Lava Lake for a hike on a sunny and clear day.  We made our way over there early in the morning and hiked our way up the mountain while playing movie pong.  My cultural references of Twilight and She's All That allowed me to secure my place as a total loon, and we made it to the lake by lunch time.  Being a total wuss, I crawled (actually, fell) into the lake while the rest of the crew jumped off the cliffs above me.  It was cold, so my swim lasted a total of 30 seconds.  We dried off and ate our lunches, looking out at the lake nestled in the evergreen forest around us.  It was a beautiful day, made better by our quick hike back down and leisurely night on the roof of the Crystal Bar in Bozeman, watching the sunset. 

           I spent the rest of the week doing interviews and observations, having dinner with friends, and adventuring around Bozeman.  I managed to catch an old John Wayne movie at the Ellen in town on its weekly 'Wild West Wednesdays,' go to a bonfire, and catch up with some old friends from my fieldwork last summer when I was in Jackson Hole, in between interviews and research of course.  On a whim, I ended up getting to go to Yellowstone on Sunday to go for a hike at Mount Washburn.  It was a long day, but one of the best.  I woke up early and we made it to the Roosevelt Arch at the northern entrance of Yellowstone by around 9:30 am.  We stopped briefly in Gardiner to take a look at the old western town, and we played tourist by taking a bunch of photos by the Arch. We then made our way past Mammoth Hot Springs and dove further into the Park.  We had planned to go to see the Petrified Tree near the Lost Lake Trail Head, but we noticed a bunch of people stopped along the side of the road.  So, we pulled over and got out to stretch our legs and see what was up.  To our surprise, there was a black bear breaking apart a sizable tree trunk in search of some food.  Tucked in the valley near the trail head, we watched as the bear leisurely cracked open the trunk (something that a human would need an axe to even make a dent in) and ate.  It was a quite the juxtaposition- a black bear breaking open a dead tree, while reclining in a field of purple wildflowers.  Having such an exciting start to the day, we were even more pleased to come across a coyote on our way up Mount Washburn.  We were probably less than half a mile from the observation deck (10,000+ feet up), and suddenly a coyote walks out onto the trail about 40 yards in front of us.  Then it was 30.  Then 20. Then a few feet.  I was so struck by the animal's attention to whatever it was stalking, that I didn't think to move out of its way until it was right next to me.  Thankfully, the coyote just kept on going, unconcerned with the tall creature with the blue hat and long braid snapping a picture and jumping out of the way at the last second.  We reached the top, taking a break to look out and see the entirety of Yellowstone and then some (from the Thunderer to Grand Teton National Park to a far off forest fire 50 miles away from Mount Washburn).  Tired, dusty, and hungry, we made our way back down and wove through the park as the sun was starting to set.  We didn't make it to Boiling Springs this time for a swim in the river, but all the more reason for me to go back (and get more field observations in too!).  Passing back through the Arch, I thought about my own research and what was to come next.  Yellowstone has an electric quality about it.  You can't go there and be unaffected.  In one day, I had seen more than I had anticipated, and it left me wanting more. 

Flying D, Black Bear Dens, Howling Wolves...And Me.

Hannah Jaicks

          The past couple days at the Flying D ranch were at once surreal and terrifically exciting.  We left U of M and drove down to the Flying D ranch, one of Ted Turner's 15 Western U.S. Ranches (makes my small Queens apartment seem absurd).  This ranch and his others are special in that they're designated as what (Montana State Senator) Mike Phillips calls a 'wild working landscape.'  In other words, the bison ranching done on his ranch as well as its other activities like research on Trout in the Cherry Creek drainage are to be conducted in accordance with their mission, which aims: “to manage Turner lands in an economically sustainable and ecologically sensitive manner while promoting the conservation of native species.” This philosophy allows natural processes to take precedence, but still recognizes the “hand of man.”  That aside, everyone involved with the ranch recognizes that Ted Turner is first and foremost a businessman, and a wealthy one at that.  It will be interesting to read the most recent book about him by Todd Wilkinson, of which we all got free copies.

             The ranch itself is near Yellowstone National Park, and you can actually see the snow-capped mountains of YNP from some of the higher areas where we were wandering through.  Our group stayed at Cow Camp, and we dropped all of our stuff off quickly so we could get back out in the fields and look at the bison roaming around in the late afternoon sun.  There are about 5,000 bison on this particular ranch, and the calves will be sent off for slaughter (sorry vegans) next year to be consumed at one of Ted's Montana Grill restaurants around the country.  If you're confused about Turner, conservation, hunting, and bison ranching all being intertwined and connected, don't worry, you're not alone.  The notion that a private ranch can also be seen as an ideal setting for conservation easements, strategic development sensitive to the migratory and predatory activities of local carnivores, and a refuge for endangered flora and fauna is an obvious paradox.  Yet at the same time, I am also inclined to acknowledge Ted Turner and his team for their vision.  They are a ranch that is situated amongst a hostile environment of neighbors that would very much like to see Flying D's Bear Trap wolf pack (and all the other wolf packs) eliminated from the area.  For the ranch to be willing (to an extent) to allow wolves to predate naturally on this private landscape is commendable.  Still, I recognize that some readers may disagree fundamentally with this vision, so I leave you to make up your own mind.

There are 5,000+ bison on this ranch, and I'm pretty sure I managed to take more than that many pictures of each of them.

           On a less politically charged note, my friend and I have an ongoing back and forth tradition where we attempt to document and swap pictures of 'casually beautiful things.'  I'm convinced that my photos this week have put me in the lead (as you'll see below).  At Cow Camp, we spent a few minutes adding layers to gear up for the rapid temperature change that occurs when the sun goes down in the West Yellowstone area, and we trudged through the field of bison to go look for the Bear Trap wolf pack.  Our fearless leader Mike, who had been kind enough to tell us way more than we could have imagined about the ranch, the area's history, and the creatures roaming the 100,000+ acres, decided he would take us to a bear den.  The den, of course, did not have any bears in it.  However, it had been used as recently as this past winter by a black bear.  Even bears have to escape the dreaded polar vortex somehow.  Naturally, I did as any sane person would do; I followed Mike down the rocky and steep cliff and then proceeded to crawl on my belly into the narrow cave space.  I must say, I was impressed by the bear's choice.  Lot's of tunnel space, a nice rattlesnake skin lining the walls (for art I presume), and some sage brush dragged in for decor (I'm still sneezing from inhaling it all).  I had to shimmy my way out butt first and be careful not to keep on shimmying right over the edge of the cliff.  It gave me new respect for those big critters' ability to navigate treacherous spaces.

I'm squinting because the Sage Brush made my allergies seize up, crawling in that bear cave and seeing the view after was well worth it.  That's Cow Camp behind me, and further back is YNP.

            After the bear cave, we toted our sack dinners and parked ourselves on a cliff overlooking the area where the bison were wandering off to find a place to sleep.  That area also happened to be where the radio telemetry indicated the Bear Trap pack was hanging out.  We had Mike do his best wolf howl to see if we could get their attention.  Honestly, I was really too excited to eat.  By this point, I had already caused my eyes to swell shut from crawling around in every known allergen in the state of Montana and had gotten to meet some amazingly interesting people (and animals).  The very idea of seeing wolves, one of my favorite animals (don't tell anyone!), made me practically shake with excitement.  We sat for a long time as the sun set, listening and looking through our binoculars for them.  We didn't hear anything, so we started to pack up.  Then, right as we were leaving, we started to hear this low rolling cry from the hill across from ours.  I'm convinced that the black shadow I saw dart through the trees was one of the wolves returning our call.  Mike reassured me that I wasn't imagining things because the Alpha male of the pack is black.  Regardless, their long rolling howls were unmistakeable.  We sat for about ten minutes, and we just simply listened until the pack tired themselves out and stopped.  After, we all walked back, slightly more mesmerized than before, and chatted with one another about the days events over the spitting campfire and toasted marshmallows.  Michael Soule delivered an excellent talk, and I drifted off to my cabin, stumbling the whole way because I kept looking up at the stars in the sky that I so rarely get to see back in NYC. 

Waiting for the Bear Trap pack to respond to us.

Happy camper

Casually beautiful setting (D.R.E. this one's for you!)

Crackling fire and a clear night in Big Sky Country.

Arrivals, NACCB 2014

Hannah Jaicks

            Despite an early morning wake up of 3am and a series of turbulent flights, I managed to make it to Bozeman on Friday the 11th for the start of my summer field season.  Bumpy starts aside, there’s a very interesting experience that happens to me whenever I fly to this area of the West.  I’ll be looking out the window at the puffs of clouds, occasionally seeing the long plots of land that look like checkerboards from 30,000 feet in the air.  Then, out of nowhere, I'll start to see mountains peaking out from the clouds. With snow flowing down the tops of them, it’s unlike anything else.  For me, it always feels like a welcoming to the area. Once we started our descent into the Bozeman airport, I could see more in view, including the M in the mountain nearby Belgrade. 

Snow-capped mountains are my favorite way to be greeted.

              Compared to when I flew into Bozeman in late April, there is a lot more green in view.  We started our descent and landed bumpily amidst the backdrop of big sky country.  You look out and can see cloud cover leaving shadows on mountains over 75 miles away, and you start to wonder if that same cloud will ever reach you or if it will just move along somewhere else.  That’s the funny thing, you can be sitting in sunshine watching a rainstorm in the distance.  The mountains closest to us look green, but in the intense sunlight and 4,820 ft altitude the mountains farthest away look blue as they fade into the horizon.  After arriving, I went to pick up my rental car, which, consequently, has Hawaiian license plates.  My efforts to keep a low profile were somewhat thwarted when I realized I would be driving around in a vehicle with rainbows on the plates.  Regardless, it has already served me well on my travels from Livingston to Bozeman to Butte to Missoula, where I am currently spending the week attending and presenting at the North American Congress for Conservation Biology 2014 Meeting

              Before heading up to the conference, I had a chance to spend the night in Livingston, a town I had not really gotten to see much of last summer.  It's a smaller town than Bozeman, and a friend of mine whose family lives there offered for me to stay with them.  I tagged along with my friend and her three dogs while she went to go take care of some goats on a nearby ranch property in Paradise Valley, which is on the way toward Yellowstone.  The goats and their owners have had a slew of bad luck in the past couple of years.  Speaking of human-wildlife conflict, the owners of this ranch lost all but one of their goats to a couple of young cougars who killed them overnight.  What happened was these young cougars had lost their mother- she was found hit by a car on the nearby highway.  They were yearlings who were not able to hunt for themselves quite yet, so they found the goats instead.  Last year, the family nearly lost their goats AND the ranch to a bad wildfire that went all the way up to the property line before being stopped.  Hopefully, this year is better, but it's another example of wildlife and wild processes coming into contact with our daily patterns.

Receiving a skeptical glance before I assured her I wouldn't take her dinner in the barn.

          I left Livingston Saturday morning and drove myself up to Missoula, with stops in Bozeman and Butte to say hi to a few people and pick up some snacks for my travels.  I'm still getting used to the fact that when you're driving along 90, the speed limit (as in MINIMUM) is 75mph.  I drive like a turtle compared to the truckers and seasoned travelers along these country roads.  Part of my poking along was also due to the fact that the entire interstate is nestled in peaks and valleys of some of the most beautiful scenery.  I couldn't help stopping in Butte to get out and take some photos of the historical sites and also to stretch my legs.  I made it up to Missoula in the late afternoon.  Before checking into my hotel, I wandered around the downtown a bit.  The marathon was the same weekend, so I was actually one of many out-of-towners exploring the University town's art galleries, niche coffee shops, and hiking trails.  At some point this week, I'm hoping to raft along the Clark Fork River or hike the M, which is the mountain (as you may guess) with the big M on it here.  However, I am here for the conference, so I'll need to focus on that as well...

Highway distractions.

        I've not yet been to an SCB conference, and I'm already thrilled to meet so many people doing fascinating work in my field.  Plus, I've also run into many people I've not seen in years.  I saw an old colleague from my study abroad days in Australia conducting research on bats, and I also got to connect with my friend from NYC, Leo Douglas, who is here giving a plenary for his research on parrots in Jamaica about the 'Flipside of Flagship.'  It's always great seeing familiar faces so far from home.  I present my research on Tuesday in the session 'Assessments for Monitoring and Management,' and I'll be introducing some of my ideas that I'm planning to write about in the upcoming chapters of my dissertation.  Later in the week I'll be traveling with some other conference attendees to Ted Turner's Flying D Ranch to meet with Mike Philips and Michael Soule to talk about the future of conservation in science and policy.  There's nothing like roasting marshmallows with the "Father of Conservation Biology" to round out an exciting week of events.  After that, I head back to Bozeman and start on more of my interviews and field observations.

Lapping up the luxury of my temporary accommodations and enjoying the free wifi.

          

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